Reflecting on the past two months of traveling in Europe, I want to share some lessons I’ve learned.
First, look for the generous people. They are often in the places you least expect it.
I was in Tortosa, a beautiful medieval Catalan town. It was pouring rain outside- I walked with a piece of cardboard over my head until I could buy a Mickey Mouse umbrella. It was a funny moment, least until I was soaked from head to toe.
I headed to a market to buy some food- if I didn’t get some then to eat in my hotel, I could be stuck for the night. There were flash flood warnings.
I ran inside, new Mickey Mouse umbrella in hand.
I went to one stall to buy cheese. I asked if they sold bread- they were all out. After paying four euros for cheese, the shop owner handed me a small piece of bread, no bigger than a roll. I thought wow- how generous. And then charged me 30 cents. I walked away a bit discouraged. I missed the spontaneous generosity of Israelis. In this town, where I found myself in the rain, people were also quite willing to give me directions in the downpour. As they hopped in their cars. I felt alone.
I headed to another stall in the market. A young woman, 23 years old, helped me find some delicious pre-cooked cod pasta (yes that’s a food- and it’s delicious!). I told her I was looking for bread and she said she’d heat up my food real good while directing me to a bakery across the street.
I walked through the rain again, only to find the bakery was out!
I came back and the woman was bummed- she heated up my food again to make sure it was extra hot. Then she did the kindest thing. First of all, she grabs a hand full of croutons and puts them in a bag for me.
“They’re not bread, but maybe they’ll help.”
I smiled. I don’t think I ate a single one, but I felt loved. Cared about- which is worth more than all the bread in the world.
As I headed out, she packed my bag. She gave me two forks- I asked why. And she said “just in case.” I’ve kept the second one in my bag since. It’s in my cover photo. A reminder of her kindness. Of good people.
She was so excited for my trip. Rather than some people who get caught in jealousy or assumptions about my wealth (I have about $200 in my bank account now), she was just pumped. I loved it.
I told her to travel one day. And most of all, thanked her for caring about me. I said something I truly meant:
“Necessitem més gent com tu al món”.
We need more people like you in the world.
You could feel her smile from meters away. (Yes, I think in meters now- and I even kind of understand Celsius…and write my dates with the day first! I even messed up an American form once by putting it the international way!)
I headed out feeling great. It wasn’t what she gave- it was that she did.
On my way home, I found another bakery open. What a relief!
I got some whole grain bread and a yummy donut.
The woman behind the counter didn’t quite have a Catalan accent when I spoke to her in Spanish. I love accents- I have an ear for detecting them. So do Andalusians- some of them thought I was Catalan when I spoke Spanish because I pronounce my “s’s”. Although I’ve gotten pretty good at breezing by them after some time in Almería. 😉
Turns out she moved to Spain when she was 12. From Romania! She’s from Oradea- a city I actually visited!
It was surreal. What are the odds? I don’t think I’ve met another Israeli or American who has been to Oradea. (Correction- I met my friend Aryeh there. Props, Aryeh) It is not a major tourist destination by any stretch of the imagination.
We spoke about Romania- how she wants to travel there. It doesn’t sound like she has been back much since she was a kid.
In fact, she asked me what it was like.
It’s at moments like these where I feel privileged. I shared with her my travels, the beautiful views.
She loved it. You could feel how excited she was to travel there.
And what’s so astonishing is there wasn’t one bit of jealousy, nor shaming, nor anger. She was so excited I was on a journey- and I encouraged her to find even a week to do the same.
She agreed. She wanted to see her homeland. And I hope one day she does.
It kind of brought things full circle.
I started my journey, at least this one, in Romania. I suppose we’re always on a journey, but this leg started there- in one of my ancestral homelands. The land my great-grandmother was born in, whose language she spoke, where she escaped from in the midst of intense anti-Semitism 130 years ago.
Thanks to her intuition and bravery, I am an American. I’m an Israeli. And I’m alive, unlike the hundreds of thousands of Romanian Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
Just 80 years ago, there were 750,000 Romanian Jews. Today, 3,271.
It reminds me of a lesson I learned in Romania.
I was in a rural village outside Cluj Napoca. The only tourist for miles around.
And like in many parts of Romania, I encountered aggressive, wild dogs.
The first man I met while encountering these dogs laughed at me and told me not to be scared. As the dogs followed me. Only after I protested did he help me shoo them away.
Later that day, I encountered more dogs. Quite scary- Romania has a serious wild dog problem dating back to Communism. And there are also quite a number of aggressive guard dogs. Frankly it has made me concerned at times to see how people treat animals. I’ve seen people beating dogs in several countries. It’s horrifying. I’m not exactly a PETA activist, but after seeing cute cows and how people treated dogs, I’m not eating much red meat anymore. It’s different when you get to know the animals we share this planet with. Who deserve as much kindness as any other living being. We are animals, something we often forget. And some people mistreat each other as much as they do their dogs.
The second time I encountered the dogs, a nice man came out and taught me how to handle them. After having gotten lost in a forest earlier that day, I was pretty tired and scared. And grateful for a little help.
He taught me to never turn my back, or I’d look like a victim. And become one.
Stare the dogs straight in the face. Turn your body if necessary. But never turn around.
This is how I live life.
I’m a survivor. I have overcome incredible obstacles. Escaping a family that abused me for 30 years day and night. Healing from PTSD. Immigrating to Israel and starting a completely new life. In Hebrew and Arabic and Yiddish. Learning there that I loved to explore and travel. Starting a new blog. With tens of thousands of readers now- from Saudi Arabia to Salt Lake City. Which I’m trying to turn into a career- and it’s hard. Please consider contributing here to give me the same energy the woman gave me with her croutons. The amount is not nearly as important as whether you give. Like the airy croutons that barely filled my stomach, it was the thought that counts. Show me you care.
The past two months, I’ve traveled completely on my own. In Romania, Hungary, Slovenia, Belgium, Luxembourg, Andalucía, Valencia, and Catalonia. I planned everything myself, I paid for it myself, I escaped a wolf, a viper, and a crazy woman in Belgium who put me on the streets of a village at 9pm.
I made it. As I sit at my computer, I can’t say I’m surprised, although I am filled with a certain amazement.
I have carried nothing but a small backpack- and occasionally a plastic grocery bag.
I realized I don’t need much. I kind of miss my books, but I actually find having three t-shirts kind of refreshing. It helps me focus my energy on the choices that really matter.
I’ve been without the capacity to make phone calls for about four weeks. I have some data from a Belgian SIM card. While it can be beneficial to be able to call sometimes, it’s also kind of a relief. I’ve discovered I like turning my phone off entirely occasionally.
This, in addition to the fact that I’ve barely used Facebook in two months, has helped me connect to what’s around me. When I’m having a great time, it encourages me to talk to people I’m standing next, to gaze a bit longer at the sunset. To ask for directions instead of staring at a screen. Sometimes resulting in really nice conversations that made me feel less alone. How else would I have met an Albanian grocer in Slovenia?
When I found myself in bad situations, being present helped me realize I didn’t really want to be where I was. I cut my Romania leg short because I realized try as I might, I wasn’t going to make Romania more fun for me. Instead of escaping to the temporarily comforting world of social media, I hopped on a bus to Hungary which I booked at 3am. And got on at 1pm the same day.
Which took me to Budapest, where I connected with Hungarian Jews who taught me about my own heritage.
The only reason this happened when it did (I had no plans to visit Budapest at all) is because I wasn’t using technology.
Sometimes when I missed my friends, I found it useful to use WhatsApp or Facebook messenger. I’m not orthodox about my technology- it can be useful sometimes. But even when I used it, I was able to build deeper relationships with people by contacting them directly. Instead of passively posting things on a mysterious wall, not knowing who might see it. And assuming everyone had.
Even people I felt geographically far from, I managed to build closer relationships with. If you ever doubt it, turn off your social media and see how you feel. It’ll change your life and reorganize your priorities. I feel different today because of it- and I don’t miss it often.
Occasionally, though, it really lights me up. The other day, I was interviewed on Catalan radio by a producer who found me in a Facebook group. By coincidence, I happened to be in Catalonia. Felip wanted to talk about Israel- and I gave him 30 minutes of nuanced, pro-Israel information in Catalan. You can test your comprehension here 😉 Episode from October 23rd, about 11:20 in.
Felip told me Catalans have a thirst for learning about Israel. So I then made a 30 second video about Israel’s diversity on Twitter. Catalans, like a lot of minorities who can’t get fair visibility off screen, love Twitter. Within 2 days, it has gotten 10,894 impressions. The video- 2,732 views. And countless beautiful thank you’s from Catalans- including in Hebrew! Catalonia- you can count on me to be in touch. I’m moved by your interest in my people. And you already know how I feel about yours 😉
This is how I live. When I see the anti-Semites on the far left and far right coming for my people, I stare them in the eyes. Like the wild dogs of Romania. And like the nice man did for me, I empower others with knowledge. To protect themselves and fight for truth and kindness.
And when you can’t stare them in the eyes, and you need to survive, give them an arm, give them a leg. But never give them your life.
I’ve found a real deep connection and appreciation for people like the Catalan woman who gave me two forks and some croutons. When she really didn’t have anything to give me, she gave me her heart.
You don’t need money to be nice. It doesn’t cost a cent.
As I reach the next stage of my journey, I find myself at a fork.
And I think of and thank the people who’ve helped me along the way. Giving me directions, hitch hikes, a couch to crash on, food. And most of all, love.
I can’t say my journey has always been easy or fun, although I have gotten some really relaxing moments in between the figuring out what I wanted in life, reconnecting to Judaism, trip planning, dealing with Bank of America stealing my money, and healing from trauma.
The best thing I got from this trip is a better understanding of myself. A feeling of increasing integration within, of healing, and of growth. Of knowing who I truly am when no one is around me to force me to do as they please.
Whether you have two months or two hours, make time for that. No matter how hard people push against you or tell you what the right path is.
Because the only person who can choose the right fork is you.
Or a nice woman in Tortosa packing your warm spaghetti with an even warmer heart.
P.S.- as I write this blog, I’m jamming to my favorite music, Manele. To bring things truly full circle, it’s the fourth topic I’ve ever blogged about. Four years ago. I brought my passion for Romania to life, by visiting! Pursue your dreams relentlessly 🙂 I hope your next “I wish” sounds less like a sigh, and more like a desire.