It is August 15, 2016. A national holiday here in Belgium. Today is the day celebrating the Assumption of Mary, a Catholic holiday meaning that if you weren’t part of a Latin empire at one time, you’re probably going to work today. Belgium was under Spanish rule for about 136 years, and for better or for worse, here I sit on a beautiful Monday not in the office because of it. From my rear terrace, I can hear the carillon of Antwerpen’s jewel, The Cathedral of Our Lady, celebrating joyfully. When I came out to my terrace to start writing, the idea was to write about the beer culture of Bruges, but before I got started, I chose to sit a few minutes just listening to those bells. The distant sound of cathedral bells is, in my opinion, an experience I totally associate with Europe. Hearing them reminds me of where I am and the significance of that. The tune was indistinguishable to me, but the effect it had on me was not. This effect became even more tangible when after a few short minutes the ringing stopped. I sat there briefly hoping the bells would return. All I could hear were car tires rumbling over cobblestone, the distant metallic whirr of a tram passing by, the hum of a vespa, and the warble of some pigeons on the neighbor’s roof. But the bells had stopped for now. The positive effect of the bells, however, did not. And in the time it took for that Unesco-protected carillon to spin out a verse and chorus, my mind was changed about what to write about today. If you think about it, what is being celebrated today? Mary traveling from one place to another (in a manner of speaking). So rather than a beer blog, I will write about something else… something that I feel very strongly about… something I feel when I travel… and something I feel about my circumstances living abroad. Appreciation.
Like the ringing of the cathedral bells, the moments we get to really soak in our environment when we travel are fleeting. Most of them are mere seconds or at most a few minutes. Enjoying a scenic vista, observing activity on a beautiful square while sitting at a cafe, looking at a masterpiece painting, taking a photograph of a famous landmark, and well, just about everything we do when we travel. For the most part, traveling is a series of very short sound bytes and video clips which our minds will rate and rank. Some will be captured like masterpiece paintings and hung prominently in the museum halls of our minds while others will end up in the dusty archives, forming the foundation of our experiences but never directly recalled. But within our minds, do we take care about the frames, walls and museum themselves? In other words, do we hang the painting in a plain room unframed inside a nondescript building? This to me is the price of the smartphone age. We are so busy snapping pictures that we easily forget about the presentation of those images, i.e. memories, in both our hearts and minds. There are many ways to enhance our traveling experience, such as packing lighter, buying museum tickets online in advance, reading about the history, getting advice from others, etc. All of these are things that we can do, but in my opinion, it is the intangible action of appreciation that is at the heart and soul of traveling. You cannot tell someone how to appreciate, just as you cannot tell someone how to like something. But I can tell you that traveling without appreciation can only be an antiseptic bland experience creating frameless images stored in blank rooms of a grey cinder block building in our mind.
I have noticed that the bells are chiming again, just ringing, no tune. The crescendo is picking up, I assume to signal the end of a service. I can give an example of appreciation in this way: those ringing bells are not just ringing bells. They sweep my imagination up into a colorful array of medieval and gothic splendor – tapestries, cobblestone, ornate gables, spires, and narrow winding streets. I feel the ghosts of the past, artists and architects with velvet hats rushing off to their studios or building sites. I envision the celebrations of victorious battles and devastation of lost ones. I see timeless street scenes with bridges, waterwheels, windmills, canals, Baroque and Renaissance façades, flowers, and swans. But I think most important is that the bells remind me that I am somewhere other than where I came from, and they encourage me to contemplate how I got to this point. To be able to travel in the world we live is a great privilege. To be able to move away from one’s home and live abroad is an even greater one. I am just a guy from small town, USA who happened to admire a poster of Neuschwanstein Castle as an early teenager and later watch an episode about it on a Rick Steves program. Since then I’ve always dreamed of visiting Europe. But visiting is one thing. Living here takes the level of appreciation even higher. Human beings tend to ignore the things in their our backyard. Belgians don’t understand why I choose to live here over the USA. If I mention the beer, that will usually achieve a modest spark of understanding, so I leave it at that. Living here now for just over five years, my human nature does try to make Antwerp, and Europe in general, into a ‘backyard’. When I feel in that rut, the peeling of those bells or a stroll thru the old town drops me smack in the 17th century and back into the appreciative mood.
Appreciation and creating the Louvre of your mind is about two things, my friends. Contemplation and Composition.
Everywhere you go, you have seconds and maybe minutes to appreciate what you are experiencing. What is the inspiration that you have in that moment? This is where Contemplation comes in. What are some examples of Contemplation? Maybe…
…it’s the hard work you put in back home to save up for this trip and how you’ve finally made it!
…you are thinking about the joy that a loved one or companion is having right next to you
…it is the joy of finally seeing something that you remember from images as a kid
…it is being somewhere where soldiers of your country perished in battle and thinking about the cost of those lives
…it is simply the joy of being alive
…it is healing yourself from a recent loss or recent bad news
…it is piecing together the history more clearly in your mind
Whatever it is, it takes an open heart, an open mind, and putting your smartphone in your pocket for a couple minutes after you’ve snapped the pictures you want. Contemplation is linked to our personal histories and experiences in life. We’ll each appreciate our travel experiences differently because of all of the events of our lives leading up to that moment. My Contemplations are to me the frames that I put around the images. They will be the significance those memories and those photos will have when I look back on them months or years from now.
Composition is the way we consciously make an effort during or after the experience to bring the mind and soul together into something expressive. These are the conversations we have with strangers, friends, and loved ones about our experiences. These are the journals we keep or the research we do to find out more about what we are seeing or have seen. For me, this started as writing short snippets on Facebook whenever I would post some photos, and now it has turned into writing this blog. Composing something, even a conversation requires one to make a timeline, recall information, describe something, and express emotion all at the same time. It is hard to keep inside something you appreciate. Some people are happy simply to share some photos with family and friends. Others jump at the opportunity to give advice to strangers on a train based on their recent experiences. Some will keep a handwritten journal and others like myself enjoy writing a blog. But regardless, the process of composing creates the halls and museums of our memories. When we recall these memories in the future to ourselves or to someone else, the precision and passion of that memory will reflect the fact that you have housed it in a beautiful place. It is the fulfillment of the Appreciation process.
Each of us has a different background which shapes how we individually appreciate a travel experience. There is no right or wrong way. It is only failing to appreciate that will leave one with hollow memories, stale photographs, and forgotten experiences. And just in case I forget that myself, there is a tower 123 meters tall which will remind me a few times each day.