Leon de Leeuw
How I came to love Eastern Europe and traveling through it alone
I was born a traveler. As a small boy, I read through guidebooks in stores and wondered about places far from home. On the weekends, I would wake up at 8, tune in to the radio, while slowly turning pages of our big atlas. I remembered statistics about each country and where the cities were located. It was a mere form of entertainment for me. I remember having come along to my brother’s birthday party somewhere and after we got back home to continue the party – having all the other kids over – I directly went inside to read some guidebooks. When my dad came in I directly asked “Dad, can we please go to South Korea?” He had preferred me to stay with the other kids instead, which I thought was unnecessary as I had done so through the afternoon. Eventually I came outside and joined the party, however this curious side of me never quieted. And I’m happy it didn’t.
Part of it arose because as a family, we traveled to many places. All were close, we loved to stay in Europe. Switzerland, Germany and even our neighbouring country Belgium all have good memories for me. We spent such lovely vacations. I never felt the need to go farther but as I kept having my head stuck in guidebooks, I found I was interested by Eastern Europe. I have never been able to describe why – I liked the city’s names, seeing the mountain chains I had never heard of on maps. I imagined what it was like to go there with the family. I was still a small boy so I tried to convince them to come. Kids can be convincing if they nag long enough and so we visited the Czech Republic in 2004. It was my idea and so we had worked out an itinerary. As we arrived, with some prejudice, none of this seemed to be true. Just some ran-down barracks at the border seemed to suggest we were east of Germany. After the first village, the main road was brand new. We arrived in Karlovy Vary, one of the most memorable and beautiful cities I have set foot in.
It’s a spa town with the overwhelmingly stunning architecture that belongs to it. My dad, who had lived in Switzerland for years, said something that made me very happy: “This looks like Switzerland.” It confirmed that we had made a good choice coming here, as my dad loves that country. He even accidentally said francs instead of Czech crowns when we were presented a bill for coffee. We all liked the city and drove through the Czech Republic having one of our best vacations. The hotels were all of a good standard and the Czechs know their food and drinks. When we were in restaurants, my brother and I were permitted a beer without alcohol. These were glasses of half a litre and looked like any other beer. Some other German kids on the next table commented to their parents as to why they were not allowed to drink beer. I remember saying “This is the best country ever, what a cool vacation!” We were all extremely satisfied, by the country’s diverse nature and many interesting sights such as castles, outdoor pools and of course the capital city Prague. We even crossed to Poland for a day which was fantastic for me. After returning home, I already started planning our next vacation.
The next place would be Slovakia, although my parents would have none of it, my mum still doing the laundry right after arrival back home. However, as time passed, the period before summer we started planning again. This time I had been even more prepared, I had the guidebook with me all day making silly references about Slovakia to anything my parents said. I bored them with random statistics such as asking “What country has the highest number of castles per capita?” “That must be Slovakia then, dad said.” It was annoying I guess but I was a kid, after all. Slovakia seemed to get my parents’ interest and in 2005, we went by car. It was the happiest moment I experienced so far. We stayed in Germany, had coffee in Vienna and crossed the border. Slovakia proved to be a stunning country as well, with even taller mountains and very cute little towns. Bratislava is a great city we would years later even return to. Slovakia has it all, including very friendly people and a sense of adventure. We ventured all through this green paradise (there’s actually a national park called Slovak Paradise) and so we had another lovely vacation. On a terrace in Eastern Slovakia, I asked “Can we go to Ukraine next year?” This was a bit too much for them, as time taught in 2006 we would visit Barcelona. Equally impressive and a wonderful city.
Having visited many more places in Eastern Europe with our family, Ukraine was never one of them. And although I was extremely satisfied with any quality time spent with our family, I’ve always had this burning fire inside of me to explore more. I had to go to Ukraine. And so, many years later, I went. Alone this time. Eastern Europe had never lost my interest. When you get attached to something as a kid, it tends to stay. And so, in 2013, I flew to Poland as I wanted to see more of this intriguing country. I loved it very much and spent about a month. Then, I crossed into Ukraine. It was my second time traveling alone, the first one exploring the Western Balkans. Since that point, even though I love traveling with my family, I have often gone at it alone. At first I was scared of what could happen but now I feel I am a seasoned single traveler. And even though traveling with the family comes at the first place, traveling alone is a close second.
I can recommend anyone to do it. Although I can imagine it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. It scared me in a way that suddenly, I had all these months of freedom (after graduating) to figure out what to do. I was on the road and from Poland, I had not made any plans except for that I wanted to end up in Ukraine. I was sat in my hostel room in Polish Gdansk the first morning and I was literally scared. I could only call my parents to say I missed them “Better enjoy this now, just go out and see. Make it fantastic.” is what my parents said. And so I did, even though still unable to handle the freedom I suddenly had. It had a paralyzing effect, as I had always been in school and not had months on my own before. It was still early afternoon and I decided, to celebrate my freedom, to have a big Polish beer on a nice terrace. I had lunch with a beer and remember letting it all go, thinking “I will make this fantastic. This might just be a one-time experience.” I felt the fear slide off me and it was one of the happiest moments of my life. After the beer, I was dizzy all afternoon but whatever. The Poles make good beer, a bit strong though.
The next couple of months, I would do whatever I felt like. This is what I seldom had done before, I had spared the money so I could afford to go places and I also had the time. When you have these resources, nothing can stop you. Combined with being alone, this will, when you let go of fear, become extremely liberating. Think of it; there are no boundaries to what you can do. Nobody to reconsider your plans with, should you even have any. Nobody to tell you something is lame. If you want to have coffee and stare at a square for hours, you could. If you want to stay in and write a journal, no issue. I was almost dancing the streets and felt like that little kid again, as if I was a dwarf wandering over the atlas pages from city to city. I woke up at 5 to take pictures of empty streets and had coffee at the crack of dawn. The waitresses must have thought I was some lunatic, at 7:00 in the morning with my wide smile.
The story about the trip itself is much longer but I don’t want to digress, this is about having found happiness in traveling – and simply being – alone. All alone. I heard of people traveling to find themselves but I feel there’s no need. You will face yourself head-on, no need to search for yourself. You will be the one waiting at train stations for hours or not finding a place to sleep, coming off the night train at 5:00 and waiting for cities to come alive again. There is no way you cannot face yourself in such moments. It’s just you and your thoughts. And, there’s the saying “Wherever you travel, you take yourself”, or something similar. And this is absolutely true. I had some built-up stress and resistance from my graduation period that I found hard to let go. Eventually, I allowed all my thoughts to sit with me instead of pushing them away – thus not resisting anymore. There was uncertainty about my future and what I wanted, uncertainty about who I was. As I let this go, during long train rides, I just let thoughts stay as long as they wanted. I found this to be the method to find peace within myself. I am not sure but I have the feeling some people rather don’t want to be alone with their own thoughts. I had to learn how to do it and it took the whole trip to make this method my own. People could be afraid repressed thoughts or memories “could take them over” once they let go. This is unlikely, if thoughts are not repressed, they are just that, thoughts.
I allowed the uncertainty to take a hold of me, see how strong it was. To see if I would lose my mind, which I didn’t. I felt that the more I let go, the more I let the thoughts of stress after graduation let pass like clouds, the better I’d feel. Thoughts simply do not have power over you if you don’t attach to them, thus resist them. Don’t talk them down, don’t find counter arguments, just leave them as they are. And it might pass, or it might not. If you want them to pass, you are again creating resistance in your body which you can literally feel. Even though this is not entirely related to travel, it does relate to being alone. As you travel alone, you will face yourself and you will have moments of solitary uncertainty. You will feel lonely at some point and if you resist this, including other sensations coming up, it can ruin your trip. I found my letting go and sense of detachment a huge liberator that helped me enjoy my trip so much. I think this subject – of meeting yourself and your thoughts and sensations – is not written about enough. I didn’t want to travel alone and fill up these holes or numb myself so not to feel them. I chose to dive into it and it gave me freedom. I let go of the uncertainty, fear of my future and personal life, and eventually – it gave me certainty. I became myself fully during these months and it changed my life for good. It might not work for everyone but expect to face yourself – it could change you. And don’t let it ruin your trip, because traveling alone is one of the most beautiful lifetime experiences there are. So is traveling with family, of course.
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