Essay #17: Towns
During my five weeks of traveling alone through Europe, I visited ten cities.
Paris, Prague, Vienna, Venice, Rome, Vatican City, Florence, Milan, Barcelona, Lisbon.
Each was a place I was visiting for the first time. After setting off without so much as a guidebook and without looking up anything in advance, I took in each town from a fresh, untouched perspective as I walked its streets.
When I moved from one town to another, the language changed, aromas changed, and the climate, music, and people’s dress changed. At every turn I was met with new surprises that left me amazed by how Europe, despite being contiguous, can have such different cultures.
In particular, since I often took the train, I could perceive clearly the distance I traveled. By plane, you go from point to point as though through an “Anywhere Door”, and after stepping off you suddenly find yourself in a different city, but by rail you can see the gradation between points. I never tired of doing nothing more than gazing out the window. From metropolis to suburb, past fields, forests, and streams, and again into a metropolis. I passed numerous towns of all sizes. And though it was for but a moment, when I saw someone riding a bicycle, or working in a field, or pushing a stroller, for some reason the sight left me strangely happy and lonesome, and my heart welled up with intense emotion. As I traveled I was somehow more easily moved to tears than usual, and time and again the smallest of things would overwhelm me to the point of crying. It struck me that at every station where I didn’t stop, there were people living there, with families and schools, going on walks and falling in love and celebrating birthdays in restaurants. They and I merely passed each other for an instant, and we will certainly never cross paths again. But while we live in places unknown to the other, with our different languages and different customs, we will quietly lead our similar lives. Such a realization somehow felt very comforting.
Naturally in the towns where I stayed an even stronger sense of attachment bloomed in me. This was not a trip just for sightseeing, and so there were many days when, rather than moving around, I simply relaxed and let time slip by idly for the entire day. Thus, even though my journey took me nearby, I missed out on seeing both the Picasso museum in Barcelona and “The Last Supper” in Milan. But even so, just watching the setting sun from atop a hill like any other that was neither famous nor a historical site, or just reading a book while soaking in the sunshine in an open space filled with greenery and birdsong left me feeling unspeakably happy.
Still, the fact that in every town of every country, this Asian girl (who likely seemed very much a child in Western eyes) walking around in shabby clothes, all alone in an unfamiliar land, was treated with such extreme and surprising kindness and friendliness made me very happy.
The madam in Paris who patiently showed me, who speaks not a word of French, how to mail a package at the post office. The teenage girl in the Czech Republic supermarket, perhaps working there part time, who, despite explaining only in Czech how to purchase things by weight, did so with the brightest of smiles. The lady in the miniskirt in Barcelona who came to my aid when I got caught in the automatic turnstile in the subway. The policeman in Florence who helped me carry my heavy luggage. The Italian and Japanese couple who own a bed and breakfast in the mountains outside Rome and welcomed me as family. The young Japanese I met everywhere who, like me, were traveling alone.
Were I to write of everyone whose face I can recall here, I would run out of room.
Come to think of it, in every day I spent since leaving Japan, I always received help from someone. There was not a single day when I didn’t converse with anyone. Perhaps because of this, I felt not the slightest bit lonely.
Though one must admit that there are few in Japan who are confident in their English, it seems to me that Japanese rarely take the initiative and ask of foreign tourists, “Can I help you?” It certainly takes courage. But if you knew how well I can speak English, I imagine you too would find that courage (laugh). I have a feeling I can get by on instinct to a certain level when it comes to listening, but in any case my grammar is a mess and my vocabulary deficient. I think I speak rather embarrassing English. When I say that I went on an overseas trip alone, people tend to think I am quite proficient, but the truth is that my English is a clumsy, frightful thing. Of course I do feel that I want to continue to study more and improve beyond where I am now, but I believe the formula of “I’m not good at English; therefore I can’t communicate with foreigners” does not always hold true. On this trip I did not go to even one country which calls English its mother tongue, and everyone spoke with a heavy accent. Or I would be surrounded by people who could not speak any English. Yet if I had a problem they would smile warmly, and if I asked for directions they would, through gestures and hand motions and their native language, try their very best to show me the way. It is this very sentiment that does not come easy to shy Japanese. But it occurred to me how nice it would be if I could express my thanks for being helped by so many on this trip by doing even just a little for those from foreign countries who will visit Japan. I’m certain their memories of being treated with kindness in a town will be what they recall when they think back on it.
Already two months have passed since my return.
I simply have to go back someday to that neighborhood in Paris that I enjoyed so much, and when I do I’ll stay for a long time, and rent an apartment…. Or I could try living in Paris for six months out of the year…. And so on.
In the future, when I’m older, maybe I’ll open and run a bed and breakfast for foreign tourists in a remodeled Japanese mansion! I’ll serve up tasty miso soup, decorate with the season’s flowers, brush up on the tea ceremony which I dabbled in a long time ago, and if I could introduce everyone to all the best things about Japan…. And so on.
My dreams expand.
I love my hometown and the neighborhoods of Tōkyō. I love Japan. I truly love every town in every country I have visited so far. This fills me with gladness. The more I discover, the more I love this world.
Translation note: The “Anywhere Door”, a magical contraption that allows the user to go anywhere he pleases in the blink of an eye, is one of the most famous of the many such magic-imbued creations from the popular “Doraemon” comic book series.