When you get there, there isn’t any there there.
When I was 19, I moved to the French Riviera. A screenwriting major, I chose to study in Cannes—over Florence and London—so I could intern at the Cannes Film Festival and taste the industry, all glammed up. And I dreamed of becoming fluent in French, which I’d studied for eight years.
Soon, I’d be bilingual. And meet a director. Or a producer. Or an up-and-coming screenwriter who wanted to collaborate. It was my chance.
And so, I went to France. I had French classes for three hours each morning, and my friends and I laid on the beach during our breaks. I interned at the festival in May: I met Renee Zellweger, served coffee to Greg Kinnear, exchanged a smirk with Chris Rock outside of the Hotel Majestic, partied at shindigs with our French E! crew, and watched Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark in the Palais. A healthy dose of Hollywood, it was.
But ultimately, nothing materialized from the experience—or nothing tangible I could show for. And when the semester ended, I went home. A year later, I graduated with a film degree, only to say goodbye to Los Angeles and move back to San Francisco. I shoved my scripts in a drawer. End scene.
* * *
In 2002, the year after my first major breakup, I decided to move to Montreal for a summer. At the time, I did not link my move to this breakup, but looking back, I did escape to a new city to reset. I also eyed higher degrees like medals to collect and needed to progress academically, so I enrolled in French classes at a school in Old Montreal, and an intensive public relations certificate program at Concordia University. Adamant about “broadening my skills,” I thought my plan was perfect. Something would happen with my life from all this schooling.
And so, I went to Montreal. I dived back into French, I excelled in my PR courses, and I even met a nice French guy named Eric. I fell madly in love with Montreal: the bustle of Boulevard St. Laurent, the urban parks, the nonstop partying that spilled onto sidewalks. I knew I would come back to live there again. And at the end of August, I went home.
In the years following this trip, I never found a job in PR. And I still could not speak French.
Uh, at least I could list “PR” and “French” on my resume, oui?
* * *
Teaching abroad. This seed, and a seemingly necessary step of long-term travel, was planted during my semester in France. After another relationship fizzled, and I realized in its aftermath the dependence on another person was not going to make me happy, I signed up to teach in Thailand.
And so, I went to Bangkok in April 2004, on a six-month adventure to Southeast Asia. I was paid a regular Thai salary (10,000 Baht/month); lived in a small house in the village of Angsila with two other teachers, one from China and one from Japan; taught 700 students over the course of each week; and explored all of Thailand, and parts of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.
As always, my head was in the clouds: I could introduce my language and culture to Thai children. Help them learn. Be part of something meaningful. Make a difference.
And I could finally figure out what my path was. Find myself. Plan my future. And, in fact, that’s what I did on many nights. I sat on my bed, writing in my candlelit room, listing the pros and cons of one graduate writing program over another. Deciding what was to come next. There I was, in my little creaky house in Eastern Thailand, plotting my next venture on my laptop. Meanwhile, outside, little kids biked around selling snacks in baskets, and a whole town awaited my exploration.
I did a lot in those six months in Thailand. I had never been so happy, but also so frustrated. I learned what I was capable of, but also discovered my limits. But I could have done so much more, and when my teaching term was over, I went home. When I left, I felt like I had failed as an English teacher—most of the time, the classroom was more like a day care, and I threw many of my lessons out of the window. So much for changing the world.
* * *
I knew I would return to Montreal. In 2006, I decided to spend another summer in Quebec. I left my editorial position at a magazine at Skywalker Ranch, rented a studio in the Plateau, and planned to work on my MFA manuscript. The goal? To write an entire first draft.
Of course, the universe decided this would not be the case; instead, I spent much of my time Skyping my friends from cafes scattered in the Plateau and Mont Royal, telling them I missed them and that I was a failure as a writer. I also blamed Montreal for letting me down: I loved it. I had missed it. I came back. I expected so much from it. And that time around, it wasn’t the city I remembered it to be.
And so, I left Montreal, with my manuscript in fragments and my literary flame extinguished.
* * *
I had been single for most of that year, 2006, teetering emotionally from a pseudo-relationship with a guy I genuinely cared for—but he was never consistently there. Perhaps there’s a pattern here: rift in my relationship life, cue to flee the country.
I had racked up enough frequent flyer miles by that time and planned a spur-of-the-moment trip to Japan for two weeks. I booked rooms in posh hotels in Shinjuku and Ginza, and a wonderful ryokan in Kyoto. The quintessential me journey, my trip to Tokyo was all about exploring, getting inspired, and pondering my manuscript’s thematic threads. In my Moleskine—which I have here in Berlin—I scribbled:
- Struggle: technology/machine vs. man
- 21st-century language/womb/alt. existence
- Gen Y/Twixter/”art of transience”/fickle life/nothing tangible
- Rise and fall
- Adaptation/throwaway of trends
And of course, in the spirit of collecting degrees, I continued to devise ways to further my education. What was next? A PhD? I found myself shaping my future thesis:
Dichotomy and duality in individual thought.
Dichotomy and duality of the individual in contemporary literature and art as shaped by paradoxical culture.
And so, I went to Japan. Fueled by the juxtaposition of Tokyo: The meditative settings of Shinto shrines. The fast-paced landscape of Shibuya. East. West. Serenity. Electricity. I felt it. I got it. I was going to write about it.
And I went home.
But life in the Bay unfolded as normal, and literary inspiration came, but in desperate spurts.
* * *
Why do I travel? Looking back at some of my trips—experiences I have singled out as significant—I am honestly not sure. It’s as if these trips had failed, given my intentions. But, thinking about what Stein once said, each journey may not have a purpose in the traditional sense, but rather something else that allows me to continue to try. For years, I had thought travel was a way to find an answer—about myself, about my place in the world, about my relationships, about my writing.
That just isn’t so. Because I’m now in Berlin, and many of these same ideas swirl in my head. And I have no answers.
Other Posts Written in Berlin:
- Art in Ruins: Inside Berlin’s Kunsthaus Tacheles
- Kunsthaus Tacheles: The Ultimate Junkyard
- Notes on Travel & Childhood
- Berlin’s Prenzlauer Berg: Flohmarkt am Arkonaplatz
- Tonight in the Alexanderplatz: Guten Abend from Berlin
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Blogger at Writing Through the Fog. Story Wrangler at Automattic.