Last Wednesday, I came back to Montreal after a five-week trip to Spain (ES), France (FR), and Switzerland (CH). Got plenty of things to say about this trip, but I thought I’d get started with a few general comments.
Typically, my blogposts in English tend not to be about personal stuff. In this case, though my trip was a personal endeavour, it does have some impacts on things I do professionally or otherwise. In fact, there’s a level at which these things add up as an overall personal/professional development, especially since it’s been something of an important point in a fairly long transition period for me. Writing about this trip serves a dual purpose, for me, as it helps me to make sense of what this trip means in the longterm while getting me back into writing, which I haven’t done much during said trip.
Again, there are many things I’d like to say about my trip. For instance, I have a whole post planned out about my use of WiFi during this trip and I’d also like to say some things about my taking pictures in all sorts of places for all sorts of reasons. But this is more of an overview. As a teaser for these two potential posts: WiFi was both important and tricky for me; I may not be visual but I did take more than 2500 pictures in 35 days.
I’ve been drawing two main conclusions from my trip. Both are quite positive, but they come from something of a surprise flirting with disappointment. In other words, I got a lot from my stay in Europe and I’m really glad I went. But the outcome, while quite positive, didn’t match my expectations. Which has a lot to do with the role of expectations during this transition period in my life.
So, a tiny bit of context. As a kid and teenager, I used to go to Europe on a fairly regular basis. Fairly short trips, mostly to two very specific locations in Switzerland: my grandmother’s place in Montreux, VD (Territet, actually), and a house my father owned in Chalais, VS. We’d spend time in all sorts of other places, including Paris and Milan. But we mostly focused on Montreux and Chalais. These places felt like home, to me.
As most of these trips to Chalais and Montreux were separated by a few years, I grew accustomed to missing Europe. Nostalgia for all sorts of things European has been a fairly strong drive in my life, at the time. I’ve also been nostalgic of just about any place where I’ve lived in North America and Africa. But my nostalgia for Switzerland and other parts of Europe had a special place in my life.
The peak in this longing for Europe came after my only extended stay on the continent. In 1994–1995, I spent 15 months in Lausanne, working as a graduate assistant in Speech Research (doing analysis for a speech synthesis system created at a lab at Université de Lausanne). This Lausanne stint was a high point in my life and there was a clear “before/after” effect. It marked a high plateau in about nine years of happiness. It also marked the end of an era. What I felt, fairly quickly after coming back from Lausanne, wasn’t unhappiness. But it was as if I had forgotten how to be happy. That period lasted for about twelve years.
What started it was a combination of things. One was a kind of “Paradise Lost” notion, as I had a tendency to negatively compare my post-Lausanne life to what I had left behind. Silly, perhaps. But it was then difficult for me to take life for what it is.
Another factor was something I’ve associated with a “midlife crisis”, even though the timing was off by quite a few years. I was only 24, then, but I felt a number of things which are normally associated with “midlife”. Not a desire for sports cars (I don’t drive) or younger women (!). But something about a sense of accomplishment, a kind of disappointment about the “point” at which I was, in my life. Again, it sounds silly in retrospect. It hit me before I turned 25: I might have been what I wanted to be, but I hadn’t done what I felt I should do. Again, my Lausanne life was serving as a point of comparison, as I was taking something of a “demotion” in several ways.
Another dimension which might have prepared me for this weird phase was the social and economical “climate” in Montreal, at the time. When I came back from Switzerland, the sense was that Québec had been affected by all sorts of financial and social issues for a number of years. It’s not even that the situation was worse than it had ever been. It was mostly a «marasme», a sense of longterm but relatively low-level moroseness. People I knew frequently discussed financial issues, something which seemed to be avoided by most people I had met in Switzerland. To this day, I’d say that money tends to be a taboo topic in Switzerland, which has both disadvantages and benefits. For several reasons, avoiding money-related discussions had been mostly beneficial to me personally. Coming back to Québec where money sounded like the main topic on people’s minds was difficult. Yet again, comparison between my European experience and my life in Montreal was skewed.
More on this later, as “tables have turned”, so to speak.
So, in the late 1990s, I was longing for Europe. Well, less Europe itself as the life I had there. Many things have happened since, including a short trip to Europe in 2000, but this lingering feeling remained with me until this most recent trip.
In the meantime, I was moving around quite a bit. And I do mean “moving”, as in going to live in different places, losing most any sense of geographic stability. Apart for an extended stay in Mali (a few years after a shorter trip there), all of these moves were in North America: IN, NB, MA, TX, and Qc. Some of these stays were quite short (at one point, I moved twice in the same week) and I regularly came back to Montreal. The overall notion was one of “living in boxes”, never really settling down.
Since April 2008, however, I’ve been living in Montreal. Continuously! Quite a change of pace. One way to put it is that it helped me grow back some roots. The impact this has had on my personal and professional development can hardly be overstated.
Which leads me to this transition period which provides the context for my EuroTrip. If I had something of a “midlife crisis” at age 24, I feel like I’m having the opposite at age 40. All sorts of things are either going quite well or improving significantly, in my life. And I’ve been feeling like this was a turning point in my life, one which gives quite a bit of room for decisions I’ve been making. And, really, I feel like I’m making the right decisions in my life.
These decisions were helped by personal life but also a bunch of things happening in what I consider my professional life. In terms of professional development, I feel like 2012 has already been a pivotal year, for me. There are personal dimensions to all this but the main transition has occurred through professional coaching, a learning circle, work projects, and a training workshop.
So, in most ways, my trip to Europe (my first in twelve years) was supposed to be a turning point.
And it was. Just not in the way I expected.
This is where the “FrEsCH” pun comes in. I went to Europe to “recharge my batteries”, to get a fresh perspective on things. It didn’t really happen there, though the process did start there. And it’s still going on. But I’m drawing some lessons from the experience.
The two main conclusions from my trip are part of it.
The best times I’ve had in Europe were with friends and/or family.
I spent most of my trip staying with family or friends. It’s one of my favourite ways to travel but, contrary to what some people seem to think, my main incentive isn’t financial. Sure, I would have a very different trip if I had spent money for lodging throughout. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have stayed nearly as long in Europe.
It’s not like the difference between camping and staying in hotels. It’s the difference between visiting people and visiting places. I did visit Barcelona, for instance, staying at a guest house. But that part of my trip was the least pleasurable. The lack of true human contact was a big part of this. The other legs of my trip were spent with people. These made my trip worthwhile.
Talking occupied much of that time with friends and family. All sorts of discussions about all sorts of topics. Many of these were relatively deep without getting heavy. Some of those discussions were actually quite long but short interactions were also quite interesting and pleasurable. Some of these discussions had to do with my plans or my life, but I also heard all sorts of things about all sorts of lives. I wasn’t doing any kind of fieldwork so it’s not really as an ethnographer that I enjoyed those. Part of what brought me to ethnography is an interest for these kinds of discussions and it still titillated my anthropological sense.
What’s funny is that I didn’t really expected this outcome. I thought that I’d mostly enjoy smells, sounds, sceneries, and tastes that I could only experience in Europe. Ended up enjoying contacts I could conceivably have anywhere. But context is key, as Sarine knows so well. Some of the people I saw in Europe I had also seen in North America. But it’s in Europe that I was able to really spend time with them.
A lot of this has to do with the “rhythm of life” in Europe. But that’ll be a topic for another post. For now, I want to introduce the other conclusion of my trip…
I don’t need to be in Europe to be happy.
Yep. Obvious, simple, even silly. But it seems like it took me all this time to realize this. I’m not even done, exploring the implications of this naïve realization.
At a certain level, this realization came as a sort of disappointment. A kind of “that’s it?” moment. Even more negative, what I had enjoyed so much during past trips to Europe (tastes, sights, sounds, smells…) had become much less special. I was almost blasé during important sections of my trip. I wasn’t getting the moments of intense joy for which I was anxiously waiting, over the years. But I got something else. The sense that my life in North America was fitting in a deeper way than I had assumed.
Part of this was facilitated by a sense of «marasme» I frequently noticed during my trip. Several of the people with whom I was talking, over there, gave me a similar impression to what I had in Québec in the late 1990s. A kind of slow-burning dread. Things aren’t tragic for those people I met. But there are enough people affected by social and financial issues that it sounds like it’s hard for people to be really enthusiastic. It’s not even about the future, about which some people are legitimately concerned. It’s about a stagnant pond of a present. Even with Swiss friends and relatives whom I knew to be reluctant in discussing money issues, money was addressed explicitly on several occasions and sounded like a background noise in other conversations.
Meanwhile, I get the sense here in Montreal that things are going on. Sure, there are multiple reasons to be preoccupied here as well as elsewhere. I wouldn’t even say that people here are particularly hopeful. It’s just that the tone of most conversations is more “neutral” than morose. Given my almost-pathological sense of empathy, a morose ambiance tends to affect me deeply. I don’t need euphoria, but I do need to refresh my own enthusiasm for life.