On Keeping a Travel Notebook
On a Tuesday in March of 2013, hidden in the back room of the elementary school library where I worked, surrounded by hundreds of books that needed processing, I felt myself giving up on my choice of career and on myself. I was living in a city that offered no sense of home other than that which breathed in my chest, working a job that left me exhausted and anxious at the beginning and end of every day.
My first grade students were learning about maps and my library housed twenty globes for their reference. They were situated like orbs on top of the bookshelves I had been painstakingly sorting and organizing for a year and a half. The world seems much smaller and manageable, even conquerable, when you look at a globe. This causes confusion for a first-grader.
Why can’t I go from DC to California if it is only the length of my palm?
Because the world is not quite as tiny as a globe makes it seem.
One this particular Tuesday, after my first-graders had left for the day, I put a globe on my lap, closed my eyes and gave it a spin. When I opened them again my finger was somewhere in the middle of Africa. I felt an impulsive rush in my stomach to do something. I did not end up traveling to Cameroon or Juba or Bangui. Instead, I booked a one-way ticket to London. I also submitted my “Declaration of Intent Not to Return” for the following year.
From March to the end of June, I secluded myself in my back room whenever time allowed to book different legs of the trip. I signed up for a help exchange website and started to hunt for opportunities: a medicinal garden, a farm, helping with house cleaning. I purchased travel insurance, booked hostels and Air BNBs, and chose cities and countries on my library globe. By the time it was April and I was helping to administer standardized tests, I had a 10-country, two-month itinerary scrawled on Post-it notes stuck to the table where I fixed the spines and pages of broken books. My travel was planned, whether consciously or unconsciously or a little bit of both, with hopes and intentions of repairing my own spine.
My travel was planned, whether consciously or unconsciously or a little bit of both, with hopes and intentions of repairing my own spine.
The day that I left, June 27th, is captured in the first page of a new notebook:
I’m here. It’s starting. My arm is rubbed raw from my backpack straps—I’m a pack mule now! When I was little I would write in my old diaries with the idea of my daughter someday reading them. I think I thought I would have her by now–instead I have this trip (and many other insteads, too!) Maybe someday she will read this, if there is a she to read.
Nowhere in the brief entry does it reveal that I had something of a panic attack in the Washington Dulles airport. The only betraying sign is that the second paragraph has some smeared words from water spots. It is more enjoyable to believe that these marks are from the weeks ahead, from Amsterdam canal waters or drops out of the Danube, but they are from my doubtful tears.
I do not think I will ever share my travel notebook with my daughter, should I have one. When I wrote that first entry I did not know what my notebook would become.
During my three years as a librarian, I fit writing into the hours after I got home from work. When the sun had set, but my fingers still had something to say. Writing took place in the tiny spaces of time I made for myself when my body felt exhausted, but the center of my chest was wide awake. I knew when I booked my trip that I would use this time, this endless free time, to write. I knew whatever notebook I brought with me would be one I would cherish for the rest of my life. I knew these things until I actually left and tried to write in one.
The first country I traveled to was Iceland. I only had one full day in the country and planned to visit the Blue Lagoon. The second page of my notebook reads: “The blue lagoon was beautiful, of course.” This was, apparently, the best I could do. Now, when I look back in pictures, I wish I had described the milky blue water and how it reminded me of sinking into a liquid Easter egg. That the water matched the color of patent-leather Mary Jane shoes I wore when I was three or four. I wonder why I did not describe its warmth and the way I positioned myself by one vat of the lagoon’s minerals to listen happily as couples and children approached, giggling as they rubbed the contents onto one another’s faces and shoulders.
The pages from my brief visit to Iceland are filled with worries and wanting to move forward. I briefly mention hearing a man playing trombone in a hidden room and I wish I had lingered there instead of worrying about how I appeared (Did a girl scribbling in her notebook look…crazy? Lonely?). The airport was under construction and many areas were closed off. Sitting in a small circle of café tables surrounded by caution tape, I swore I heard a muffled trombone being played behind a closed door; a sound I was used to hearing from my middle and high school band days. The auditory version of riding a bike—no matter how long you go without hearing it, you always remember. I boarded the plane to London without every seeing anyone exit a room with a trombone.
London is no better described in my notebook. I briefly mention meeting the woman sitting next to me named Kari and immediately move to complaining about how I always end up next to children on airplanes. I write “Hopefully Nice will be nice.” Where is the space for the two-hour long conversation I have with Kari? Where is the description of the way London smelled when I got off of the plane or how my seatmate and I snuck into Westminster Abbey?
Nice was indeed nice. Nowhere in my notebook will it tell you that I saw the Tour de France, or that I hitchhiked for the first time and ended up in a car with a French man who spoke about his dislike of Americans the entire drive, or anything about how my feet got cut open from running barefoot to catch the last of a fireworks display with an Irish man I had met earlier in the day though.
When I think of anyone traveling for more than a few weeks, I assume they bring a notebook. Even those who never write must have a desire to take some sort of notes about their experiences. The pressure I put on my own notebook, the notebook of a writer I kept reminding myself, was immense. In each entry, I try a new way of recording all that was happening, of perfecting my understanding of and participation in all of these new places.
During my seven-day work exchange at a medicinal garden in Balauger, Spain I messily write: “JORDI’S 7/8/13 WORK: Melsa tea, sorting grains, lavender tea, malva tea. Early breakfast (7:30) said goodbye to Eli, then work. Sorting grains, making tea.” Cold, hard facts. Nothing to elaborate on the five people I was working with. Nothing to tell about Jordi, the mighty man behind a slow-food movement who studies plants and grows Stevia, that is letting us all stay in his apartment with him. Each day we sort grains and make tea at a folding table, listening to the Catalan band Manel on Adrià from Barcelona’s phone, surrounded by Jordi’s massive marijuana plants on his back patio. At dinner we eat one arsenic-soaked almond as a type of vitamin and for dessert chew on the carob we soak in our water glasses during the meal to aid in our digestion. Some of our food is cooked by solar-power and all of it is vegan. I am surprised there is no mention even of the awful way my body adjusts to such a hardy and organic diet on the third day. Just a note that I feel like I am gaining weight and it bothers me.
By early July, two weeks into my travels, my notebook almost entirely becomes to-do lists, website links, jotted notes, walking and public transport directions, and reference numbers for flights. The handwriting does not look like my own. It ignores the straight lines the notebook has provided and it is large and chaotic.
There is nothing written about the nine days I spent wandering bridges and streets in Budapest. That I stayed near the House of Terror, a museum with exhibits related to the fascist and communist regimes in 20th-century Hungary, and watched an elderly woman collapse in the basement there, surrounded by torture cells. Some of them had small windows where you could see the shadows of passing feet on the streets and visitors were able to enter and stand in each one. I stepped into each one. I went to an organ concert at St. Stephen’s Basilica the day after I visited the museum—the music, the organ built in 1905, shook the ground beneath my feet and I cried then, silently and alone in the front row.
Missing, too, is the story of the very naked, very angry Hungarian man who yelled at me for sunbathing and taking photographs on a rooftop at Széchenyi thermal bath. I had no idea I had ventured onto the naturalist rooftop and that my bathing suit and photography were extremely offensive. His broken English and my complete lack of Hungarian meant the conversation carried on for quite a while before I skittered away from him and noticed a small sign near the entrance that read “Naturalist Rooftop Terrace.” At Király Baths I yelped when the masseuse whipped my bathing suit bottom off during the fifteen-minute massage included with the entry fee and began my kneading my butt. My notebook leaves out these little embarrassments
The arrangements for my spontaneous visit to Vienna are not recorded either. I stayed ten days outside of Vienna in the small town of Klosterneuburg with a woman named Sigrid who had recently lost her father. In exchange for helping her clear all of the dead plants off of her patio and refinishing her outdoor furniture, she provided me with a private bedroom and all of my meals. Sigrid’s parents had given her a backpack when she was fourteen and sent her on an independent trip to London that began her love of travel and hosting others. She introduced me to Café Culture and the Viennese phrase “I do not allow myself to be pushed.” In Germany, this is a literal sentence. In Vienna, it speaks to strength and independence. Over drinks at the Museumsquartier, a place I visited four additional times for the many galleries filled with artwork by the likes of Klimt and Schiele, she wrote the words in my notebook for me.
At Cafe Leopold I wrote the name of each place I visited and jotted notes next to each. I recognize this as my attempt to have some reflection on the more memorable experiences in these places, afraid, perhaps, that I would forget.
Barcelona, Bratislava, Berlin, Antwerp, and Helmond are all missing entries.
There is finally a page I recognize as written in my own familiar handwriting on August 2nd.
The next day, some more truths:
I can’t write the same in a notebook. Is a keyboard a method like oil on canvas or pencil on paper? Has my way of creating changed? TO DO: Draw a duck.
There is no drawing of a duck because I can barely draw a circle. I had been spending several afternoon sitting on a park bench with a canal view, watching locals float by on rafts and small boats. A woman came several of the same days, sitting at the bench next to me came to paint or draw. I watched the way she started with a white canvas each day and filled it before the afternoon was over with exactly what was in front of her. I wanted to be able to do that in my notebook. To write the world in front of me.
I felt like a failure. That my notebook was a waste of my time and talents. I was not a writer. How could I come to all of these places that artists and writers had been inspired by for centuries and not write more than a list of affirmations for myself?
I remember the duck I instructed myself to draw. At least you can draw one of these ducks that swims by you every day. But, of course, I could not.
When I open its pages now, I understand. The spine I was hoping to stuff with experiences and descriptions instead got filled with my worries. I now look back and see how that writing healed me. Every apprehension, every failed attempt at giving a panoramic view through my words, was a piece of me that needed to be let out.
My two months in Europe were experienced outside of my notebook. My anxieties, the worries built up over two years, were exposed alongside my to-do lists and sloppily jotted notes that only I can fully understand.
The same can be said of any person’s personal notebook. A stranger, a daughter, a friend cannot pick it up and understand the contents. A notebook is like a palm on a globe. A small measure of something much larger, deceptive in its size.
My notebook does not clearly tell or give any stories—it relies on me. My memories. That a key word, a bus number, the name of a drink or a bridge, will transport me back. And it does. In a way that lets me reach for moments and flavors and scents and names, experiencing them all over again. When I open it, I am able to think of more moments than could have ever fit in its pages.
We keep a travel notebook to remember that we existed and felt and breathed and grew elsewhere.
The final page of my tattered black moleskin with its beautifully stitched spine end with these lines:
I’ve learned my head still spins everywhere, but it is beautiful. Capable, lovable. Crazy, intolerant. So many things, but still me.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Oliver is a writer and traveler. She recently left a career as a librarian to pursue writing full time. Travel continues to challenge her strengths and weaknesses in both writing and life and she would not have it any other way. You can see more writing and adventures on her website and Tumblr and by following her on Instagram and Twitter.