I did not have the opportunity to go backpacking in Europe during my undergraduate years when it was a fashionable rite of passage among North Americans, and a safe one, for if you ran out of money you could always wire home for more. Although I did go to Europe once in my early twenties, without much money, because my home country had banned the export of foreign exchange, and I lived off the largesse of whomever I bumped into in those historic cities. I returned home quite emaciated on that occasion – but that’s another story.
This time however, I had the money, the patience and the time to explore a corner of Europe with my trusty backpack. I walked a lot, and the result was soul•enriching. I went primarily to get a feel for the major cities in the Alsace•Lorraine region where I have set my next novel, a historical piece taking place in the late eighteenth century. It was wise not to rely too much on Google and Wikipedia for my research; visiting a locale gives depth and texture to the research done on paper or on the Internet.
It was good to get up in the morning and see the Vosges mountains, just as my hero would have done two hundred years ago, to view their changing colour on the skyline at different times of the day. To walk older parts of the cities of Metz, Nancy, Strasbourg and Luxembourg and distinguish which buildings had been around in the eighteenth century vs. those that had been erected later but modeled in eighteenth century (or earlier) style. To imagine what it would have felt like wearing tunics and boots and riding down cobblestoned streets in horse drawn carriages at a time when the slightest shift in political wind could see one thrown into a dungeon or guillotined (execution still happens in some parts of the world even though the guillotine has gone out of fashion). It was refreshing to get wet in the early fall drizzle that came down every day and warm up with a generous goblet of wine later and know that one would not easily succumb to the consumption, thanks to the advent of antibiotics.
It was alarming to be reminded that “might is still right” however much we cloak the message in respectability and “position” it with modern media; the only redeeming feature is that modern megalomaniacs do not build such disproportionate edifices of self•aggrandizement like the cathedrals and palaces of Medieval Europe (except perhaps in some despotic dictatorships), many of which have become tourist attractions and museum pieces today. But it was good to be reminded of how far we have come in liberalism, how removed we have become from religion’s stifling cloak since the days of Inquisitions, and how far our politics has moved from Reigns of Terror (although these still happen in some parts of the world). It was also good to be reminded of how much leisure and the pursuit of art and culture is still appreciated on the other side of the Atlantic despite a globalizing society caught up in the instantaneous culture of the handheld PDA.
And what was most enlightening to me was the evidence of continual human migration. To set up camp in a different location periodically must lead to growth. The hero in my novel left this part of Europe to seek his fortune, and after travelling halfway around the world, landed in an island in the Indian Ocean. His progeny dispersed all over the world to seek theirs several generations later, some ending up in North America. And here was I, completing that circle and going back to the place where it had all begun, walking those same streets and asking the eternal question of the immigrant, the question asked in many of my novels and stories: “why?”