Natalie Miller drops ‘wisdom bombs’ about traveling, spontaneity and the beauty of making mistakes
Every teacher I’ve ever had can attest that I have always been a good student, perhaps even a nerd. In first grade, I mastered the hyperbole and location of all seven continents, which inspired my fascination with travel. In middle school, I consumed books and studied to distract myself from the frustration of moving to a new state, learning about other countries I could one day visit. In high school, I won the English award for my graduating class. Some received awards for their proficiency in foreign languages or calculus. I received one for understanding my native tongue.
Twenty years of public education, direction from my parents and personal blunders had taught me a few things. I could do simple addition. I knew how to drive, albeit shakily and with a few scrapes. If asked what year the Declaration of Independence was signed, I could confidently answer “1776” and expect a gold star.
I never claimed to know much about the world, more specifically the “real world” of problems and jobs and decisions. I knew it existed, but couldn’t point out on a map where the province of innocent ignorance becomes adulthood. I still don’t know where this magical land of maturity is, but I came closer to discovering its borders this summer.
On May 12, I set out with my friend Megan to visit my sister in Stuttgart, Germany. We stayed with my sister’s family for six weeks and also ventured out on our own to explore other parts of Europe. During this time, I met so many people whom I’ve come to love and saw cities and landscapes that were so perfect my eyes leaked a bit. I also committed some acts that I am either very proud or very ashamed of. Regardless, I will have many ridiculous memories to keep my soul relatively sound when it begins to feel restless.
Each adventure, every second of my trip became a learning experience. I kind of wish I had taken notes. I have, however, compiled a short cheat sheet of the rather clichéd lessons I brought back to America in my suitcase of life wisdom.
The first piece of knowledge I’d like to unpack I found to be quite freeing. While in Europe, I discovered that being thrifty and attempting to keep a bikini bod are just not fun habits. I have always shopped on sales racks and chosen the cheapest options in restaurants. Somewhere between the adorable jewelry shops and Turkish kebap stands, I learned that life is just so much better when you indulge.
The hard truth is that many of the most enjoyable experiences in life cost a month’s paycheck and/or are covered in chocolate. Sometimes you just need to buy tickets to a sex show in Amsterdam or eat a big bowl of ice cream by the river. You really owe it to yourself to feel like a terrible person now and again.
My second wisdom bomb: If you plan anything, anything at all, it will blow up in your face. Seriously. You will have at least second-degree burns for three weeks if you attempt to make any situation work the way you envisioned it. This is especially true if you are traveling.
Megan and I missed our 5 a.m. train to Luxemburg because we had a little too much fun hanging out with our German fraternity friends the previous night. We also managed to almost not return to Germany from Luxemburg on time due to their National Day, which we now know causes much of the country’s transportation to be closed. Thank you, Luxemburg.
Apparently we still hadn’t learned our lesson, as we later ended up spending the night in a train station because we missed the last train. I must say, pigeons and druggies are even less pleasant at 4:30 in the morning while you’re curled up on the ground avoiding the sweepers and using your purse as a pillow.
All that you can do to attempt maintaining sanity is to try to show up on time, and maybe have a back-up plan. And a back-up back-up plan. Your future stranded, vulnerable self will thank you.
Life lesson No. 3 is one of my personal favorites. Sometimes, your judgment is wrong and a bad idea is actually the best idea. Going to church with a German family after coming home at 2 a.m. may sound like a bad idea, but it could result in a motorcycle ride through the Black Forest with a man named Uly. Accepting Jager bombs in a bar from a creepy older guy named Dennis with neck tats may sound creepy, and you are right. But it can also become a lively discussion about his four pet pythons and ecstasy problem. You’ve gotta love locals.
While I don’t think it’s wise to seek dangerous situations, if you are level-headed and don’t sense any real threats, you should totally do whatever it is you are contemplating. Maybe not a spur-of-the-moment tattoo or hardcore drugs. However, climbing up a balcony or fencing with a fraternity president are acceptable. They are also incredibly fun.
Lesson four: Speak to and meet as many people as you possibly can. It doesn’t matter if this person is funny, unpleasant, intimidating or seemingly lame. My favorite part of the entire trip was all of the friends and enemies we made along the way.
We learned some fun facts about polar bears and Drake from a couple of Canadians we spent time with in Barcelona. We received free eggs from an undercover politician at a farmers market and became very close with an Italian-German street performer. He even gave us free copies of his CD on our last visit together. It’s pretty cool to sit in the palace gardens of Karlsruhe, singing Guns N’ Roses with Germans playing guitars and the accordion.
The final and perhaps most important lesson I learned is that traveling is the absolute greatest thing you can do. It doesn’t matter where you go or how long you stay, you must leave your home and surround yourself with weird and scary things. Take a train to New York. Fly to China. Work three jobs, sell some organs, become a participant on Jeopardy.
Do whatever it takes to buy yourself a ticket to the insane unknown.
You will be giddy, afraid and lost, and you may even cry a little bit in your hostel bunk while your Korean roommate attempts to read a book in peace. But you will never regret the lessons you’ll undoubtedly learn. You may despise the lesson with every micro-molecule in your being. You may become publicly humiliated, stranded in Belgium or get your heart ripped out in Spain. You may believe that the entire planet has conspired against you to make you feel more anguish than you ever thought a human could possibly bear.
And then, you keep going. The sky remains fixed above your head. The ground doesn’t split open and swallow you whole. You make stupid mistakes, dangerous mistakes, and even hilariously embarrassing mistakes. But then you get back up and grab your bag because you have a plane to catch — a plane that may be delayed 45 minutes, which you will accept with grace because that just gives you more time to eat airport pastries and people-watch.
Travel is a beautifully freeing act which allows you to both empty your head and fill it with new thoughts. You can disappear — be a stranger in another country. You can also feel like a movie star by being foreign and new to the people who do inhabit said place. People may ask you questions, or they can give you answers. You just have to go out into the world and explore what it has to offer, while sharing all that you have as well.
My trip taught me to learn from every experience, as I am far from being the person I will someday become. As a proverbial student of life, I’d say our world is a more than worthy teacher. My report card may be covered with D’s, perhaps a few B’s, but I keep showing up to class, and I’m having one hell of a good time learning.