To the Heart of Europe — Prologue

“I am a camera with its shutter open, quite passive, recording, not thinking.”
— Christopher Isherwood, “Goodbye to Berlin”

I read a post on CUHK Secrets recently. Usually I ignore any posts made on a group because I really hate gossip and unverified trivialities, but this one made me stop and think.

“Grad trips,” said the disoriented author, “are the best crucible for friendships. Your exploits during your trip together will reveal their darkest, ugliest side”.

Two things are immediately obvious from this statement. The first is that my translation skills are rubbish. The other, more important thing is that it’s a prime example of a view that’s been emphasized time and time again to me: that group travel is not just being about seeing sights, but also about relationships. The former helps us explore the bonds that hold us together: the things you see as a group are basically just a backdrop. They are an assurance that even when things get ugly in your journey to maturity, the background is still going to look spectacular.

While I can’t find anything fundamentally wrong with this sentiment, that’s still got me thinking whether this is a bit unfair on sights. Sights are the reason most of us set out, really: very few of us go to Paris because we are interested in talking with the Parisians, or because we want to experience and discuss poverty together in the less affluent suburbs. We go there because the Eiffel Tower is a hell of a beautiful thing and because we want to strut down the Champs-Elysees (and then go home and tell less fortunate people while enjoying the looks of jealousy on their faces). I don’t deny, of course, that travel (and even tourism!) is much more than just going from point A to point F without stopping to think about the things you’ve seen. But what I’d like to know is: is there a way of presenting them so that both sights and relationships can be exhibited so that they’re on equal footing?

Before I started my summer job, I had a bit of spare time. Sitting bored at home and longing to be out and about again, I started rereading the works of Michael Palin, an actor/comedian turned TV presenter. For those of you unfamiliar with his work — you’re missing out on something good. On the surface, it’s a travel narrative that translates onto paper a few documentaries Michael made for the BBC in the nineties and noughties. Genteel but nothing out of the ordinary, right? But I’ve loved his travel work for a decade now cause it’s more than that: Michael’s work is not only an expert blend of seriously funny comedy and travel observations, but also a glimpse behind the scenes of a travel documentary and the problems they encountered while trying to make one. Put quite simply, they are tales of travel, warts and all.

And having read those, I decided to produce one for myself. As some of you might know, I visited Germany and Czechia earlier in the summer with a couple of friends for my grad trip. We didn’t really know what we were doing those ten days (or at least, I didn’t), but I thought I might get it down on paper, as a salute to all the memories. Some of them are happy, some of them aren’t, but either way, they’re really worth sharing with you all. What follows, therefore, is a slightly embellished (and sometimes incoherent) account of what happened during those ten days.

I should stress that you are not going to get deep, meditative reflections within these posts. Having the emotional capacity of a peanut, I didn’t really reflect on things on this trip much. I never stood, for example, on the banks of the Alpsee and ponder the complexities of mortality and madness while gazing at Neuschwanstein Castle — sad to say, I am a person who only looks for exciting things and thinking is not an exciting activity. I will include a couple of meditations, but that’s more just for show than because I had anything good to think about. This is more a collection of observations and ephemeral feelings that bubbled within me as I strode my way through the streets of Bavaria, Bohemia and Berlin.

Nor will I claim in these pages to have a full-on, all-rounded perspective on Central Europe. For one thing, I was really there just to have fun. There are doubtlessly people who can combine having fun with insightful, nuanced views of the world, but I am not one of them. So it’s at this point that I should put out the rather cowardly disclaimer that what I’ve written here will sometimes feel not only ignorant, but maybe even simplistic or — heaven forbid — prejudiced. (People who spend their time combing travel narratives for imperialistic undertones will have a field day with what’s about to come.) Perhaps they’re reflective of who I am as a traveller/tourist, but either way… this is just my view of a world that’s frighteningly big, one which nonetheless feels like a playground for all, with endless amusing things to see and do. If you have fun reading this, then I’ll die a happy man.

One final, more important thing: I cannot promise that everything will be accurate. It’s not that I have problems remembering what sights I saw and what route we took: if nothing else, I am frightfully good at memorizing that kind of thing. No, what I’m concerned about is how well I represent our responses to these sights. I could of course boil down Dennis’ reaction to anything vaguely pleasing as “insane” and to every girl he saw as “hot”, but that’s a vulgar generalization that doesn’t even tell half the story. (Plus Dennis’ taste in girls is, on retrospect, actually very sophisticated.) I want to describe as accurately as possible the thrill of seeing sights old and new, so that we might come closer to understanding why travel delights and amazes us, even when we’ve seen everything on guidebooks and travel programmes. I want to find out why travel brings us happiness (or otherwise) and enables us to forget, at least for a while, the troubles that await us back home. And that’s hard when you’re relying on feelings you’re half a year removed from to do that. So much has taken place in the past six months, and what remains of those memories have been dulled by eight weeks of repetitive visa-sending. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to recount the more significant things that happened and our visceral responses — while still making it funny for you all.

It only remains for me to get back to my typing — I’ve got lots to tell, and what comes next is really just a flavour of all the wonderful things I’ve seen. I hope you like what you read, and see you all for the first post next week. 🙂

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