How I Crowdsourced My Travel Notebook - Leslie Finlay
|Photo: Hero Images/Getty Images|
The air had a rhythm to it at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris. Gently buoyed by the earth beneath, I watched trails of smoke dance through the air above. They stirred sensually and lazily from the ends of idle cigarettes, writhing ever skyward, some joining another tributary with a kiss, or else dispersing altogether with the wave of a hand.
With my index finger, I reached up and stirred the nearest smoke stream, watching it whirlpool outward before fading into nothingness. I scanned for the source: a boy nearby, slim and fair, with fiery red curls. He was lying on his stomach in the grass with a cigarette clinging to the corner of his mouth, like it was something he was once fond of and now just couldn’t let go.
He’d caught my interloping and stared at my hands as if they had scarred something sacred. Propped up on his elbows, he began to write in a notebook, itself reclined in the Jardin with blades of grass hugging its sides. He looked at me again, and wrote more. And then again.
Unsure of what to make of this attention, I readied for a beeline to the nearest bakery when he approached me. Language-barrier anxiety gripped my chest, but he disregarded my stiltedness, handing me the open notebook.
“Can you write me your favorite quote?”
I was oddly terrified by this proposal. I had nothing at the ready, but panicked at the pressure to deliver something exceptional, a brilliant contribution to his collection.
“Can it be — ?”
He cut me off. “Anything.”
I looked down at the book in my hands, En El Camino, the Spanish translation of Kerouac’s namesake novel. (Even now, years later, I cringe at the textbook solo female traveler stereotype I once was, and probably still am.) His eyes trained on me as I scanned the copy in a well-masked panic, lingering where I’d marked passages. His patience and sincerity were oddly calming, so I leafed on and on before finding something suitable and, in retrospect, fitting for that moment in time: “No sabía a donde ir excepto a todas partes.”
“There was nowhere to go but everywhere.”
It felt wholly uninspired, but he seemed thrilled.
Later, still smelling like earth, I wandered the Latin Quarter and fell into a sleepy little bookstore. Immediately inside was a display of Moleskines. Though surviving on a shoestring diet of baguette, olive oil, and oranges, I forked over the euros.
I carried that book for years through Europe, Central America, and Eastern and Southeastern Asia, collecting everything from stamps and stickers to recipes and music suggestions from those whose paths I crossed. It’s seen the dilapidated lounges of countless budget hostels, absorbed ocean spray from seas and the stifling humidity of monsoon seasons, and endured the toll of dengue fever and heartbreak.
Like the boy in Paris, I, too, have asked people to contribute a favorite quote to this book. Anything at all, whatever resonated with them. Like me, some panicked. Others knew right away what to scrawl. Some would pull out their own notebooks to handpick an addition. Still, others messaged me months later when inspiration struck. I have hundreds of these quotes, in no way a timeline of this past decade, but a living amalgamation of the chaos and character that flourished with it.
An Australian in Slovenia
His name was Max, and we were curled up in a hostel common room somewhere in Slovenia. I should have been on my way more than a week ago, but we were stuck in this sleepy village for the time being after a historic snowfall — and subsequent avalanche — had rendered roads and railways inaccessible.
It was all a magical detour from my itinerary. Graced with a well-curated assortment of hostel mates, I was happily trapped within a snow-globe fairy-tale setting. Days on the slopes blended straight into a blur of backpacker-style après-ski: bottles of “Wodka” poured into something called “Diet Lemon.” Our ski bum budgets didn’t sustain much, so we’d take free entertainment wherever we could get it. For me, that was Max.
When the train tracks were finally clear, I expected a free-for-all to get out. But the station was empty. Like no one had any desire to move on. The night before had dumped another heavy snowfall, and Max trudged with me through the fresh powder to the one-rail station. That has always been one of my favorite sounds — the squeaky crunch beneath snow boots — and I was engrossed in a heavy reluctance to leave.
Waiting for the train, I hit him with my got-a-quote-for-the-book routine and he grinned, letting a gentle laugh escape as he put out his cigarette in the snow. “If you want a love letter, just man up and ask for one.” Embarrassment hit so abruptly that I snorted my coffee through a nervous laugh — a bit painfully — as he grabbed my face tight and kissed me, laughing continuing through locked lips. “All right then, let’s see this book.”
All God does is watch us and kill us when we get boring. We must never, ever be boring. — Chuck Palahniuk
A few years ago, I fancied some light Facebook stalking and learned Max is now a pretty successful artist back in Australia. Still got it, Max. Never be boring.
A South African in Indonesia
There was something restorative about this time of year in the tropics, right after monsoon season had cleansed the island anew and before the tourists returned en masse. It always felt like our troubles had been washed away, too.
Over wine and just a dash of psilocybin, we’d share our morbid fascination with the discontent that seemed to connect the expats here on this island.
During those precious weeks, Annika and I would bargain our way into luxury villas that owners were only too happy to fill during low season. Over wine and just a dash of psilocybin, we’d share our morbid fascination with the discontent that seemed to connect the expats here on this island, constantly buzzing underneath the shiny, tropical exterior posted to Instagram accounts. It was in these moments that I saw a subtle angst expose itself from deep within my beach bum yogi friend.
“You can’t keep looking for contentment in the same place you lost it,” she said one afternoon spent poolside. We’d been waxing on about vague concepts like happiness for hours from within the obvious irony of our palm tree-studded villa. “We moved away to experience the world, and everyone is still only talking about living.”
I risked the water damage capacity of my crappy Samsung knockoff to jot that down for later. Annika would eventually have her own page of musings in my book. She was right. People have a way of hoping things right out of existence. We chase a cure-all for generic life problems, after some way to escape what will always catch up with us anyway.
Travelers have this down to an art form. Our existence back then was built on stilts, balancing movement, casual romances, and unsteady jobs. This was supposed to mean our lives were open and ready and free. Outsiders called us “courageous” and “adventurous” and “brave.” But the edges of loneliness and fear were never far from our stride, which made us no different, and definitely no braver, than anyone else.
We’ve both long since moved on from that magical little place, but Annika’s perspective has stayed with me. It’s kept me going, at some points. Her legacy is a reminder that by chasing a life free of loss, hardship, doubt, and loneliness you get exactly that: a life absent of those exact qualities that render anything remotely meaningful.
An Iranian in Copenhagen
I’ve always been a terrible sleeper, but during my month at a commune in Copenhagen, I had the kind of deep sleep only those with a true talent for happiness ever achieve. This expansive canal-facing loft was home to Danish artists, but the group took in strays of all kinds. A jazz musician, a slam poetry champ, an acrobat in town auditioning for the circus — there were dozens of transplants crashing on every square inch. Some stayed for hours, others for months. The group’s only rule was respect. Respect toward one another, the property, the environment — everything.
One lazy morning, a quiet musician named Nima — a specialist in traditional Persian instruments — burst into Mads’ oil painting studio, triumphantly wielding a three-legged chair she’d found on the curb. Finds like this always brought out a light in Mads, a stoic, gruff Dane. Nearly everything the group owned was upcycled in some way; they had the zero-waste lifestyle down to an art form long before it was on trend. The three of us fixed up, painted, and varnished this new addition to the household, which we then paraded home like a palanquin. En route, Mads stopped by his go-to grocers, each ready with a bag of yesterday’s produce. We could barely carry everything home. We’d already decided we were going to have a celebration.
That was the thing about such a diverse collection of open hearts under one roof. There was never a distinct reason to celebrate. Or there were endless reasons, depending on how you looked at it. Tonight, we were just pumped about this awesome new chair. As we cooked up enough vegetable fried rice to feed a village, tired bodies ambled into the loft and lit up. The nightly feast had begun; the instruments, acrobatics, and dance moves emerged. At times like this, it’s like happiness takes over the mind’s ability for memory — it’s too busy living in the moment to record anything for later.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t even notice Nima had quietly added her entry in my notebook until I was already on the train out of Copenhagen: Celebrate each new day in the spirit of l’arte d’arrangiarsi — the art of making something out of nothing; the art of turning a few simple ingredients into a feast, a few gathered friends into a festival.
An American in Korea
I sat on the beach in a giddy Soju daze, covered in mud. The Boryeong Mud Festival was predicated on some Korean healing tradition, but like most things here, had the soul of a party. Taylor plopped down next to me with paper cups of piping hot tteokbokki, spicy rice cakes that went weirdly well with late-night booze.
“The lady kept insisting I get donuts instead because ‘I wouldn’t like the spice,’” Taylor explained. “When I wouldn’t, she tried to give me the donuts for free, so I bought those too. Not sure what flavor balance the cheese topping is going for…”
Koreans always went overboard accommodating waygooks. It was like they were fascinated that we foreigners were in turn fascinated with this rich culture, the electricity of this entire peninsula. The friendliness was almost overwhelming at times.
It was easy to be dismissive of the constant attention and intrigue, but in truth I could barely figure out my monthly bills if my elderly ajumma neighbor didn’t stop by unannounced — always with way too much food — randomly throughout the week. I’ve been lucky enough to see kindness all across the world, but it was different in Korea. More intense and authentic.
I finally embraced what was around me all along, the infinite potential for building a family no matter where you happen to be.
Maybe it was the culture shock I’d never quite shed — I’d even dyed my blond hair black in some attempt to numb it — or the uncertainty of life finally catching up with me. My soul felt exhausted, like I’d long exceeded my balance after years of poor budgeting. By needing kindness and community more than ever, I cautiously opened myself to vulnerability. I finally embraced what was around me all along, the infinite potential for building a family no matter where you happen to be.
Fireworks went off from a barge out at sea as hundreds of festivalgoers sloshed around in the waves, and Taylor and I were joined by scattered members of our transplant family. These people had become the constants to a life that had lost all direction. Every moment with them had an electricity and wistfulness to it, embedding deep within me a nostalgia for a time that hadn’t even ended.
Taylor grabbed my phone. “The fireworks gave me an idea for your book thing.” And, with fingers sticky from street food, she typed: You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning… Hunter S. Thompson
A Peruvian in New York
Seb was an early contributor to this project, an old soul with a love for literature, filled with a soft passion bruised only marginally by a melancholy I didn’t understand at the time. I clung to it, though, convinced I could understand after just another whiskey, just one more coffee. Turns out, all it took was time.
He left several additions in my book that winter. He had this way of quelling his own poetic pensiveness with a duty to the happiness of those he cared for, serving as a constant among the city’s chaos, fiercely protective. At the time I didn’t appreciate this, that his was the kind of spirit you only cross a few times in life. His entries were so on the nose, so reflective to my soul, I more often dismissed them as musings from just another man trying to teach me something: When you are twenty-two or twenty-three, you figure that later you will have a high emotional balance, and be able to pay whatever it costs. — Joan Didion
Damn, did I ever.
The way Seb saw the world was direct and unfiltered — he appreciated the beauty and grace in everything, but knew it to be balanced by loss and malevolence. He didn’t take sides, in spite of the hardships he’d endured. He let me believe the world was truly as free and bright as I wanted it to be, encouraged my open heart and mind, more desperate for its protection against self-destruction than I ever was.
It was late winter, the city heavy under the unseasonable snowfall and cold exhaustion of its inhabitants. Street-side glass fogged by the soul within, I slid into the dim light of a New York City dive bar, one of those places you’d never notice from the street, sloshed whiskey and PBR soaked into its very foundation. It would never be refurbished. It would never get Wi-Fi. People went outside to use their cellphones. My NYC-born friends had come here since high school — the bartender had a soft spot for them. In a way, they grew up here. And in a way, I did too.
Regulars were each appointed to their thrones, and yet there was always that person lounging around whom you’d been meaning to catch up with, here in the flesh. No need for text chains promising plans that would never unfold — just reciprocally captive attention in the here and now. We’d joke this is how humans convened in the “before times.”
By the time I’d stashed my coat, Seb had a pair of whiskeys at the ready. In spite of his romanticism, Seb was not one for reminiscing. He was constantly pulling me back from the past or the future with his cautious optimism for the present. Whatever we talked about or what other chance encounters came with the evening are just footnotes to the memory — it’s the feeling that I can recreate to this day. This rich sense of security and fulfillment in a city layered with anonymity and inconsequence.
Seb slipped this note into my coat pocket, which I found only hours before my flight. A farewell letter styled for my project’s prompt, built of paraphrased lessons from writers we loved, selections of novels and essays discussed endlessly over bottom-shelf scotch late into gloomy NYC nights:
Be careful, Finlay.
To burn with desire and keep quiet about it is the greatest punishment we can bring on ourselves (García Lorca). You’re not here anymore. You’ve got to leave in order to return to the present (Coelho). Remember that if one’s dream having to come true was the only referendum on whether they were beautiful, or worth dreaming, well, then no one would wish for anything. And that would be so much sadder (Rakoff).
Pick the places you don’t walk away from (Didion), and if you live to the point of tears (Camus), you’re probably doing it right.
In many ways, Seb’s words tied an ethos for the years ahead together with my understanding of life as I’d learned it to that space in time. NYC endured as my refuge, a site to snap back to consciousness when I needed it the most. The city was open to pilgrimage year-round. It wasn’t the first place I’d considered home, nor would it be the last. But it was where my infatuation for the world was nourished, matured, “and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell.”
Kerouac had it right all along. There is nowhere to go but everywhere; your perspective evolves to the tune of the people and places around you — at least as much as you allow for, with as much faith as you can afford the risk. Travel is not a requirement to the equation; it was just my added variable. The potential for warmth from the world is ever-present, unmoved, always with you if you let it in.