May 13, 2019
When I walked into my hostel in Vienna, I felt at home for the first time on my trip. There were musical instruments on the walls (which the hostel encourages guests to play) and two patio gardens out back. Thick clouds threatened rain, but that made Hostel Ruthensteiner feel that much cozier. Just as I set my stuff down in my room, someone began to play a beautiful song on the piano.
I have tried my hardest not to compare past travel experiences to this trip, but one thing I can’t shake is how much easier it was to make friends on previous trips. Perhaps it was my age, and the age of those around me (I was often the youngest person everywhere I traveled in South America and Africa). Perhaps it was easier to communicate in South America and Africa, as nearly everyone I met spoke English and/or Spanish. Perhaps the type of person backpacking South America or Sub-Saharan Africa for several months has inherently different expectations and intentions than the type of person backpacking Europe for a few weeks.
Or, perhaps, I’ve changed. Certainly, I have changed. And maybe there is truth to some of the other possible explanations.
Whatever the reason, I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it’s actually kind of interesting to recognize that on my Bonderman Fellowship I almost always wanted to be surrounded by other people, but on this trip I often crave my space. I especially appreciate solitude when exploring a city, and living my day at my own pace.
So, in accordance with living at my own pace, I laced up my running shoes and trotted off for the Schonbrunn palace gardens. It was still early, so the grounds were virtually empty. I savored the tranquil atmosphere as the gravel crunched beneath the rubber soles of my Adidas.
When I returned later that day, the place was packed with tourists. I wandered around for a bit with some people from my hostel, and then decided to go check out the inside of the palace.
The palace is massive, but I was underwhelmed by the audio guide tour. At one point, I was standing in a room of palatial elegance, and the voice speaking into ear started talking about how one particular ruler lived in frugality, evidenced by the kind of wood used to make his bed. Bits and pieces of my high school AP Euro class danced around my mind, swaying along to the absurdity of that statement.
I understand the impact families like the ones who lived in this palace had on history, and I don’t necessarily think all of the (mostly white) people memorialized in oil paintings in palaces and castles around the globe were inherently bad people. But it’s important to recognize that these are the same people who literally wrote history, so of course they were to be glorified and celebrated.
I spent the rest of the day walking around District I, admiring the city and basking in the warm sunshine. Everywhere I turned, I seemed to run into yet another stunning work of architecture. I stumbled upon a small park outside parliament called Volksgarten ("people's garden"), so I sat down to journal a bit.
Beautiful live music started to play from another square across the street. It sounded like a harp (or what I think a harp sounds like—yeah, let’s say it was harp, that adds to the surreality of the moment). My head was filled with thoughts as I wrote, “Who am I? And what is this life I am living right now?” I thought, as a smile snuck across my face.
The following day I took some time for myself and came back to that same little green space next to parliament. I found a cozy spot at the base of a tree, and leaned up against it.
When was the last time you leaned up against a tree and felt it sway in the wind? Trees look so sturdy, but when you’re up close, when you’re touching them, you realize how much they move, and bend, and dance in the wind. You can feel the power of wind, and the weight of the tree and all its limbs. Even as it sways to and fro, I wasn’t worried about it falling over. I know trees break from time to time. In the most violent winds, they might lose their leaves, maybe a limb here and there, but typically the trunk stays rooted firmly in the ground. So why, do we as humans, fear that we’re going to break, or fall over, when life gets windy? We’ve all weathered storms. Yet, each time it rains, so to speak, we revert to fear. It’s interesting that fear is intended to mitigate unknown risk, to prevent us from doing something that might cause us harm. However, it seems as though action is often preferable to inaction, in that agonizing over a decision only amplifies the weight of the situation and the intensity of the outcome.
I opened my kindle to start “The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan, and didn’t put it down until dusk began to settle in and the thought of my cozy hostel beckoned me home.
I stood up, shook the grass off my towel, and bid that little slice of Vienna—that patch of grass that had welcomed me to read, dream, relax, and be still—farewell. As I walked out of the park, two teenagers were walking in. One was holding a bluetooth speaker, like a mini modern boombox, that was blaring “Shook Ones, pt. II” by Mobb Deep.
Perhaps Mobb Deep had a point, “There ain’t no such thing as halfway crooks,” especially when they are armed with the pen of history. Next stop: Budapest.