The ancient Greeks said “Know thyself.” By the time you’re in your mid-twenties, you likely have a general idea of who you are as a person. You’ve identified what makes you happy (and more often, what doesn’t) and can more or less describe yourself in a few adjectives: funny, charming, curious, punctual. Thus, I have followed the ancient Greeks’ maxim and, while growing up, have learned a few things about myself.
Spontaneous, I am not.
Many of us want to think of ourselves as being somewhat spontaneous because this value, a free and easy attitude with time or perceived randomness in action and emotion, is seen as the ultimate in cool. A culture of carpe diem has taken root, but in my quest for self-knowledge I have found myself more aligned with a tendency towards carpe neurosis. I do well with structure, with agendas, with schedules; I still lay my clothes out before I go to sleep each night. So no one was more puzzled than I when, after a chance run-in with an old high school friend, I found myself booking a weeklong trip to Germany.
“A culture of carpe diem has taken root, but in my quest for self-knowledge I have found myself more aligned with a tendency towards carpe neurosis…”
Strangely, when my friend mentioned his upcoming trip to Europe, I didn’t dismissively approve the trip with an “Oh, that’s cool.” Instead, I uncharacteristically blurted out, “Can I come?” I have no idea what came over me. I simply, and with no advance planning, booked a weeklong trip to Europe. My aforementioned friend, who is perhaps the most spontaneous person I know, booked some trains and hotels, but we left everything else up to the Gods. A few weeks before our departure, he asked if I had ever heard of a little Austrian mountain town called Hallstatt. With my knowledge of Austria limited to teaching history and repeatedly watching The Sound of Music, I had not.
“How does one get to Hallstatt?” I remember asking my friend. He shrugged. In that moment, all I wanted to do was Google “How does one get to a remote salt mining village three hours outside of Salzburg without speaking German while travelling with a compulsively spontaneous friend.” I wanted to speak up, to tell my friend, “This is where I draw the line, buddy. We’re hiring a guide.” But I didn’t. Something inside of me was saying that the random nature of this trip was going to be a pervasive theme throughout our travels; that I just had to, as they say, “go with the flow.” So instead, I bared a grin: Carpe diem!
The trip to Hallstatt proved to be nothing less than a Columbian expedition. We navigated three different trains, a bus, and a ferry, all the while attempting in our nonexistent German to determine whether we’d even landed in the right place. Yet as the ferry left port, I looked up – and found myself in the most magnificent place I had ever seen. On the edge of a small island, sandwiched between a banner of blue sky and the rippling waters were small Bavarian villas cut into the ancient mountainside. Cottages of cotton candy pinks, blues and yellows were the homes of Hallstatt residents, bright eyed and eager to meet the newest visitors to their fair shores. After abandoning our luggage at a charming bed and breakfast at the far end of the island, my friend and I bundled up against the blustery Austrian winds and let our feet be our guides. We walked through the little village center, stopping for bittery-sweet local beers and rich Sachertorte. Hearing the majestic sound of rushing waters throughout the island, we followed our ears through serene, leafy trails until we stumbled upon a crashing waterfall, which climbed impossibly high into the sky. Upon nightfall, we ate freshly caught fish from the lake and danced to traditional Austrian music, accordion and all. It was then that I couldn’t help but wonder: maybe it’s kind of great not just to know yourself, but to be able to discover new parts of yourself as well.
I had always associated spontaneity with being irresponsible; I had thought that in throwing your cares to the wind you were likely to lose your wallet or your dignity as well. But in Halstatt, I found that letting go a little means that you can roam around a 7,000-year-old salt mining village cut into Austrian mountains, climb 2,000 feet to an active salt mine, slither and slide through ancient tunnels and eat more spatzle than should ever be considered appropriate. Free of worry and fear, the sheer majesty of place—of nature, light, quiet—made me feel both insignificant but also amazingly alive.
In Hallstatt, I had no schedule or agenda, just the shoes on my feet and the camera around my neck. I don’t think it was something specific—something we saw or did—but rather the notion of being present that brought forth such enlightenment. So much of who I am and what I do depends on the before and sometimes the after; I’m often so concerned about the details, about getting where and seeing what, but perhaps not as much with the ‘how will I feel’? Maybe it was over a contemplative cup of coffee at our bed-and-breakfast balcony, gazing into the remarkable snow-dusted mountains, or maybe even as the cable car creakily catapulted us thousands of feet into a salt mining abyss; or maybe it was simply looking at my ever-spontaneous friend and finally acknowledging that this openness to everything, the planned and the unplanned, is what makes our short time on earth worth living. Maybe the Greeks had it wrong: it’s not about knowing thyself as such, but rather about growing into thyself. A year after my experience in Hallstatt, I’ve continued to grow and learn about myself in Austria, Italy, Greece, Germany, the Czech Republic, Spain and Portugal. And, though all trips were spontaneous and less-than-fully planned, not once did I lose my wallet – or my dignity.