Things learnt from my travels usually occur when I’m thrown out of my comfort zone. Clichéd self-discovery takes place, followed by some needed clichéd self-reflection, and I find myself learning a lot about the relationships I have with those close to me. It is these discoveries that I would like to focus on in this piece.
During the summer of 2008 I spent 3 weeks travelling Europe. I was 16, fresh faced, self-conscious and wrought with stereotypical teenage feelings, yet ready to take over the world. The first two weeks of this trip were spent frolicking around Europe with 150 of my high school classmates. Years of suffering through weekly chorale and band sessions were finally consummating into one explosion of happiness; a music tour through Europe. Looking back, it was a time similar to a clichéd and overly done coming-of-age film, and of course, one that I’ll ever forget. If I had to pinpoint a moment of utter clarity and growth, however, it would be during the time I spent with my mother in Switzerland the week after.
We had just arrived in Switzerland via France, and were in the process of boarding a connection train from our current destination, Zurich, to our accommodation. With us were two large suitcases, a sleeping bag, and a ridiculously annoying ‘carry on’ luggage bag. I use the words ‘carry on’ here cautiously, as though it looked small and light, that mighty beast could have outweighed the two large suitcases singlehandedly. In case that wasn’t enough, its wheels were also somewhat out of order, which simply left one frustrated by its surprising weight and perplexed by its unwavering determination to stay stationary.
To convey the full impact of the experience I am about to describe, it is necessary to first describe my mother, and the relationship we have. My mother is one of those people that always have good intentions. Her heart is always in the right place, but somewhere along the way, something happens, and she just gets distracted, or something just goes wrong. In short, I would not call my mother reliable. Discovering this at a young age, our relationship became somewhat of a role reversal. I was the one giving her reminders, booking myself appointments at the dentist, and ushering her out the door in the early mornings. I’m not really sure how the process happened, but somehow, we became in sync due to our completely opposite organisational skills. It gave me a sense of independence, and my mother the comfort in knowing I was capable of said independence.
It wasn’t until Switzerland that I realized this sense of independence was perhaps a little reliant on being ‘in sync’ with my mother; my so-called independence was – in one way or another – built on the foundation of her lack of organisational skills; indeed, her mere presence. And as I sat on a train going god knows where in Switzerland, alone bar two large suitcases and a mighty beast of a carry on luggage bag, the realisation really sunk in.
My mother had gone to double check the train in which we currently sat was in fact the train we needed to be on. She’d reassured me it wasn’t scheduled to leave for another 20 minutes, pointing to the electronic board for reference. It was fine; she wouldn’t be long, stay here with all of the luggage. I think I knew it was coming right after she stepped off the train. There was something so typically ‘mum’ about the situation; years of having her disappoint – with good intentions, of course – had taught me well, and there was just something in the air that told me this was going to be another one of those situations. And it was.
I sat alone with our luggage a mere two minutes before the doors closed with a loud thud, and the train made the sound that all trains do when they begin moving. I considered leaping off, running to tell the driver – anyone – that I had just realised my sense of independence was a sham and that I actually did need my mother, but these considerations were thwarted; I was just never one to draw attention to myself, or even ask for help. I pictured the gasps and reactions people would take when I leapt off the train. “Look at that girl,” they’d point and exclaim, as I leapt off the moving carriage. But no, it just wasn’t me. Sitting silently, crying profusely, was now me.
As I sat there, surrounded by luggage I knew I was going to have to heave off the train eventually, I experienced a series of emotions I can only really describe as being similar to those of a small child, lost and separated from their parent in a very, very large shopping complex. I had no idea where I was going, no way of contacting my mother, no knowledge of the local language, and no money. Add to this the fact that I was a shy self-conscious teenager, and the situation was certainly not ideal.
I think I always knew my sense of independence was not so much independence, but more a product of the relationship I had with my mother. The experience in Switzerland just brought that knowledge to the surface. A big part of that was the unfamiliar environment I had found myself in. Those around me seemed to be quite confused as to what to do when witnessing a 16 year old have a minor breakdown. Not one person attempted to console or approach me during this time, and I feel a lot of that has to do with the culture in Switzerland; perhaps less likely to approach strangers, less open. I found this varied a lot around Europe. In London, passers by offered to help carry luggage up several flights of stairs. I was so bewildered and surprised I awkwardly declined. In Italy, shop owners patiently waited as I attempted to decipher which gelato flavour was which, smiling the entire time and sheepishly adding an extra scoop. In France, I was frowned at for asking if the waiter spoke English. These lessons of cultural difference were new to me, but none affected me more so than during that minor breakdown in Switzerland.
I did not expect anyone to help me as I heaved and tossed our large suitcases out the train door; I had lost that expectation after no one had approached me as I sat crying on the train. I didn’t resent them at all; by that time I understood certain behaviours were custom in certain countries. A large part of me was thankful no one did approach me; it would have meant trying to explain my unusual predicament. Once I’d maneuvered the large array of luggage into a giant pile able to be wheeled, questions then started rapidly firing in my brain: should I wait at this exact platform for the next train that my hopeless mother would perhaps be on? Should I wait by the information desk, in the hope that that would be where my mother would first come?
I started with the idea that staying put would be a good thing. I sat at the train platform, still crying, but now with a more determined focus on finding my mother. She wasn’t entirely hopeless, she knew she’d have to come to where I was, there was still hope for her yet. After several minutes of waiting at the platform listening to the station announcements in a language I did not understand, it dawned on me that the next train probably wouldn’t come to the same platform. I began dragging the pile of luggage towards the main section of the station. As I did, I remember picturing myself from above. This often occurred when I was in noteworthy situations during my youth; so concerned was I about how I was viewed and perceived by others, I’d often picture myself as being viewed from someone else, or on rare occasions, from above. For a reason I can’t put into words, it gave me a certain amount of comfort. On this occasion, however, it perhaps exemplified the unfamiliar environment I had found myself in, and the current emotional state this had led to. It also left me further frustrated with the amount of luggage I dragged behind me; picturing how bizarre I must have looked due to its improvised stacking was not comforting.
I stopped right in the middle of the main section of the station. By this time my emotional state had gone into overdrive; hundreds of people walked past me, but none of them my mother. I thought about somehow maneuvering the pile of luggage to help me climb a nearby pole and obtain a better vantage point for my search, but the thought sent alarm bells in my head as I pictured the scenario: I climb the luggage, climb further up the pole, become unsuccessful in searching for my mother, and soon begin attracting attention, followed by being yelled at in German by the station staff. This imagined scenario did not go well with my self-conscious teen self, and was hence no longer up for consideration. Instead I stood there helpless, now picturing myself in one of those classic time-lapse scenes in various movies, where the subject is still, and a crowd of people around them is sped up, as if to highlight the subject’s isolation.
A lot of thoughts went through my head at this point. I thought about the two weeks I had just spent travelling Europe with 150 classmates. I had not seen my mother during those two weeks and had been completely stable; why was this so different? For so many others, this would not have been a big deal, but the combination of the unfamiliar environment and language, and the self-realisation that I needed my mother more than I had come to believe seemed to unlock years of emotional denial. I was experiencing what I needed to experience in order to know myself better.
I waited what seemed like several hours for a sighting of my mother. Eventually I spotted her curly hair bouncing away on the other side of the crowded terminal. Words cannot describe the complete relief and happiness I felt at the sight of her. All thoughts bar getting to her left my mind – I was no longer conscious of making a scene, no longer picturing myself from the outside. I ran, I yelled, I cried, even the luggage got abandoned. My mother and I have never really had a relationship where much emotional hugging takes place, but that moment certainly needed it, for me at least. She looked shocked and confused at the sight of my emotional appearance, seeming to be in a state that was completely juxtaposed to mine – calm, relaxed, just a normal day for her. Her relaxed state finally put my mind at ease.
I grew several years wiser that day, and look back on it thankful that it was the wake up call I needed. My European adventure turned out to be a clichéd journey of self-discovery, and one that was intensified by the environment I was thrown into. Europe, Switzerland, and my awkward self-conscious teen years were needed to learn those lessons no one can tell you; you just have to experience them for yourself.