Paperback available on September 16, 2023
Ebook available September 16, 2023
Wow! I was reading over my early June blog and the destruction of my previous YouTube channel. Fast forward less than two months later and the new channel has the same amount of subscribers and viewing hours. I don't know how I did it exactly, but we are right where we left off in early June. Some might think I was nuts for deleting my earlier content. I'll be the first to say I miss some of my travel vlogs and those experiences I shared. And yet, I'm okay with this because I feel like the last two months have been a completely fresh start.
Sure we have shown almost twenty travel vlogs, but the rest of the content has been more balanced with responses to news, writing related content, and lighthearted shorts. I like the mix and it has kept me happier, which was the goal. I think when the new school year starts for me, I will feel less pressed to travel, knowing I have other aspects of my channel to share.
Even though I won't be teaching in Poland this school year, the majority of my new subscribers are from Poland. I had hoped to diversify my subscribers more, but for now that is not the case. Don't get me wrong - no complaints from me. If anything, let's get more.
With this month fast coming to an end, I can only imagine what the next two months will bring. Will I reach my 1000 subscriber goal by summer's end? Stay tuned to find out.
Today marks the end of my time in Europe. Over the past year I have taught in Poland and for the most part had a wonderful experience. There have been numerous weekend trips, twenty-six at last count and multiple countries checked off my bucket list.
To that end, the majority of my time has been spent in Poland. I can say living here is certainly different than visiting for a week. While I will be the first to say I have felt welcomed living in this country, I can only imagine what my experience would have been had the color of my skin or my genetic makeup been vastly different. There is a reason why Ukrainians were welcome with open arms and yet war refugees from northern Africa and the Middle East are not. For that matter ask the Chinese man who got hassled on the train yesterday by the conductors as we were traveling from Warsaw to Krakow
While I don’t mean to criticize my temporary home, I can’t help but do so because it feels similar to the United States from thirty years ago. And yet, it is different too. There is a culture that doesn’t allow for much criticism or at least those beating the drum are significantly louder making it appear as such.
Some will say I don’t know what I’m talking about, but I assure you that I do. Should any foreigner speak out or share their perspective, even about the nuances of daily life, it is immediately disregarded and the locals online (those more militant in their demeanor or nationalistic could be a better term) go on the attack. Look at some Reddit threads or even some YouTube videos to see those who feel inclined to comment.
I have seen this first hand. With my attempts at a YouTube travel channel on two different occasions I made vlogs talking about my life in Poland. Let’s focus on the word “my” which seems to mean it’s not valid unless it’s from a Polish man or woman that has been in the country their whole life. It’s one thing to create a travel vlog showing myself roaming the streets or countryside of Polish cities or towns, but it’s another to point out the transition to living here. That’s where this experience has become a mixed bag.
There have been challenges between learning the language, adapting to shopping culture, the lack of personal space and total disregard of it, as well as apartment living, and of course the post office, to name just a few. Some are trivial and others are asinine from this American’s viewpoint. Regardless of what I share, there will always be someone or multiple people who feel that they are the end all of what is right or wrong in Polish life.
Let me stress, I’m focusing on those individuals posting online, not on my colleagues or the friends I have made, who have been wonderful across the board.
I imagined YouTube to be more of an open forum for appropriate discourse, but unless it spins everything in a positive light, this is far from the truth. I know from over 180 videos on my first channel, that only the ones where I was upbeat and mesmerized by the wonder of Poland were my views high and comments constructive. Now shift to a video pointing out how it makes no sense that packages can’t be left in your apartment building door and yet everyone claims the streets are safe to walk at all hours of the night, you are considered too radical. Don’t dare mention your apartment being 12 degrees in the winter or all hell breaks loose.
I don’t get it, but then again I don’t understand why we have a universal online culture where people feel it is their right to destroy others. I know this isn’t just a Polish thing, it’s across the world. Many of these people wouldn’t be able to destroy others in a public forum, but the anonymity of the Internet gives many the power to spew hate without repercussions. I understand this is a larger topic for another day, but it makes me question how many private voices truly feel the same way or if their voices are simply minimized by those who lurk in the online forums, waiting to pounce - to justify their existence.
I wonder about such things and whether when I return to the United States I will face more of the same. And yet, I didn’t expect it from Poland. Maybe that is where I made a mistake. Hate is everywhere and for that I’m truly sorry. Nevertheless, I would hope in the days that come that the culture will shift and even in Poland, foreigners will feel comfortable to share their perspectives and their lives without being looked down upon and shown the door. While I have the luxury to return home, others don’t necessarily have the same freedom.
Certainly some food for thought. Till next time.
Those that have been following my vlogs know I have been quite busy since the middle of October. While the channel was growing well enough, I did something completely in my character but out of character compared to others - I blew the entire thing up and erased the channel.
That’s right. Last Sunday, I went to settings and deleted everything. So all 115 vlogs, 80 plus shorts, were erased from memory. One might wonder why I would do such a crazy thing. I was fast approaching 700 subscribers and probably in a month or two would have crossed the 1000 threshold. Things were certainly picking up and I had over 7000 viewing hours in the books.
And yet, I knew it was a necessary action. I’m going home in a few weeks. I’m leaving behind Poland and Europe for the familiarity of home. While I certainly have appreciated my time in Poland and all of the travels, the fact I had become “that guy” the American who moved to Poland was not working for me. My viewership was something like 75% from Poland or at least the subscriber part. To grow a channel when I’m going to be based in the States, with only Polish viewership would prove more than an uphill battle.
Sure I could have shifted gears on the channel, but like I have done over the years with this website and even with my books, I felt it easier to start from scratch. That’s the irrational, yet rational, artistic side taking over.
Even though I already miss not being able to look back on my Italian travels or Ireland or for that matter Estonia, there is something liberating about having those moments back inside my brain and not shared with the masses. I feel like it was a necessary step back to move forward.
You might be wondering what’s the plan now? Does this mean you are jumping right back into writing? There will certainly be more writing on the horizon, that I know simply because I’m going back to a place I will feel more grounded and able to tap into that creative part of me. As for vlogging, I started a new channel.
Yes, it took all of two days until I started fresh. I had every intention to leave vlogs behind, but I know for some that my humor, my travels, my stories resonate. It would be a disservice to disappear completely. Not to mention, it will be hard to promote any future books if I leave all forms of online media behind.
To that end, the new channel, Travel with Mr. Jon, is up. Unlike before there will be more than just incessant travel vlogs. Don’t get me wrong we will have a good portion, but there will be more shorts. Some shorts will be humor centered and others will be from nature or random things I see. We also will get into actual writing. I might have a few tips and recommendations having been at this in one way or another for twenty-five years.
Finally, I also intend to have a live weekly podcast/broadcast on my YouTube channel. The first episode will be when I am settled in Maine in early July. Topics will vary and in time I hope it will be viewer driven with questions from those who have found their way to my channel or books. I imagine it will cover all aspects of life as I look to diversify the content. Who knows what will come of this new venture. I already bought the microphone and headset and the webcam will be ordered shortly.
The important thing is that I am following the same advice I have always followed. When one door closes, another one opens. Join me and come along for the ride if you’d like.
The middle of spring in Poland clearly means one thing and one thing only. Those who hid in their apartments during the cloudy, winter months have now reared their heads to get a look at the sun and to swarm the city sidewalks especially on the weekends.
I can’t recall it being this crowded in late August, but then again perhaps I was simply getting adjusted and had no comparison. Krakow, the number one tourist attraction in Poland, is clearly that and then some from my recent observations. It’s possible I blocked out the number of young families with baby carriages and dogs that insist on using the entire sidewalk or the number of cyclists who disregard the bike paths and want to use the same sidewalk route that I take. I’m not sure what it is, but to be frank, this time of year is a bit annoying for those of the introverted persuasion.
Now I must pick my times again as to when I wish to enjoy the river. Although granted, it seems like every weekend for the last month a road race or march has been scheduled on either one side or both, making those jaunts less appealing.
To the casual reader this might seem like a big “boo hoo” session and in a way it is, but this is more so just an observation from a new resident getting used to the seasonal change here in a foreign city. I think I’m more lamenting the fact I did next to no writing during the colder seasons of the year and now I’m trying to figure out how to remedy this, as well as continue my slew of travel vlogs with the weather now more user friendly.
Truth be told, even with the warmer temperatures and the sun being more active, the travel vlogs will be taking a back seat for the next month or two. In my last blog we were celebrating the fact I reached 100 releases. Fast forward to mid May, six weeks later and the number is now at 147. By the end of next week, 156 videos will have been released. That’s how crazy this has become and to what end, I’m not really sure.
Seven months in, I’m feeling a bit numb. Simply walking down a street, my left arm automatically now shifts to a ninety degree angle and my hand pretends to grip the camera that isn’t even there. I’m a bit tired from the process, from this grind, one that has consumed my creative energy more than I would care to admit.
I am well aware that in my last vlog I shared a similar line of thought. That’s how consuming this has become. Even get away trips that should be a time for recharging, have turned into a working mentality. Part of that is simply due to the fact there is an editing process, thumbnails, initial research, and even when on location, it’s more of a focused trip without necessarily all the relaxation elements one would typically get.
I film upon arrival and explore for several hours before taking a break and editing almost immediately. Then it’s back out for another round of shooting with more editing prior to bed. More often than not, I end up shooting three videos over a weekend and once I get home it takes three more nights of work to get each video ready for release.
This doesn’t leave much for writing time, if any.
I’m stating this because it has become clear that this can’t be sustained. This morning was my last straw. I took a walk through Krakow and I kept my camera in my pocket the entire time. Part of me wanted to film, but similar to writer’s block, I didn’t have anything to say or share. There was one moment, I almost filmed. I watched a woman, with a black fanny pack wrapped around her hips that looked more like a pair of bloomers on the outside of her pants, pose in front of St. Joseph’s. Her photographer, who was likely her boyfriend, didn’t have the heart to tell her she looked ridiculous in her ensemble as she shifted her body towards the church without any inclination to actually step inside the doors and see the real beauty inside.
I’m not sure what bothered me more, the absurd posing with the extended camera lenses or the fact she didn’t even cross the square to walk into those hallowed halls. The same can be true of the tourist group being taken around by the extended golf cart. The group of five simply stared from their seats, snapped a series of pictures, and then the cart disappeared onto the next location. There was no intention to truly experience the church or even walk around this famous square.
That’s when it hit me. Have I become these people? Are my vlogs even providing any value or is it just me aimlessly wandering around, chiming in my thoughts, without any real intentions to make content that matters.
To that end, I’m taking a break from traveling until the middle of June. I made that decision this morning and canceled next week’s trip as well as my planned day trip for this weekend. Hopefully, the next three weekends at home will help me recharge enough and come mid June, I’ll be renewed and reinvigorated to want to share my trip to Nysa and then later on my planned trip to the Wolf’s Lair. I’m hopeful the rest will do the trick. For some reason if it doesn’t, at least we know I’m striving for more, and whether that’s in video form or written, it won’t be long until I have something new to share that is substantial.
Till our next meeting. Cheers.
2023 has come and with it much anticipation and expectation as to what that means in the months ahead.
Writing has taken a back seat of late, from a lack of motivation and the shiny new ball that is vlogging. Still, the storyteller in me knows there must be a novel or two ready to be told.
The challenge is maintaining a balance and expending enough energy to do both successfully. That’s the caveat in my non-writing fun of late.
Vlogging is more than just pointing a camera and talking. There is an interactive component that when ignored makes for a mindless walk through city streets. And yes there is a delicate thread of talking too much or not at all. Every location tells a different story and every viewer is looking for something specific.
In a way, this is similar to writing a good story. The characters, the setting, and the conflict must all work or the story is trash. Even if all those pieces are in sync, it doesn’t mean in a world of millions of books that the right set of eyes will find and resonate with your tale. The same can be said with any vlog. The thumbnail, SEO, description, what others have watched previously all come into play.
This is why my favorite vlog about a hike along the Irish Sea limps along with a hundred plus views, but a Gdansk old town tour and Christmas market vlog has 17 times the views. Part of this is luck, proximity, and well algorithms.
After years of independent publishing, I know this well. Rejection is part of the game as are dealing with readers who are not as enthused with the final product as the creator. While I have learned to accept this in a literary sense, the lesson is repeating itself in the vlogging world.
With that written, I’m putting all of my creative endeavors in perspective. That’s what my 2023 focus will be. Don’t let the numbers dictate what I write or film. Genres, topics, whatever I need to find passion in is what I must do to fully enjoy the creative process. That is far more important than anything else. It’s also why I will write a sequel to Rusty Star this year. The Marcus Files should also have another addition, time willing as well.
I have a few others writing goals that could be in play, but another lesson for 2023 is to focus on one goal at a time. Like a marathon runner, let’s put in the mileage first and see what develops and how the body responds. Here’s to a new month and a new year.
May your writing, vlogging, whatever your creative goals, be successful for you in the year ahead.
In a few days I will be returning to Italy for the first time in over four and a half years. During the pandemic I dictated an entire book about my stay in Puglia, but the file was corrupted. After several attempts at rewriting the text, I put the manuscript aside and decided those words were not meant to be shared.
And yet with my new assignment in Europe, I have the chance to return, to stay for three weeks and to embrace those parts of me I left behind. In the spirit of this return, I wanted to share this introduction, the same one I intended to publish in Brindisi and Me. As the book will likely never be released, this should be a good starting part for our adventures in the weeks ahead.
One might be hard pressed to find an American that is not eager or willing to travel to Italy or live-in country. Whether it is our obsession with the cuisine, the culture, or the fact half of us appear to have Italian blood or have a friend that does, makes it that much more appealing. Granted, our perspective is skewed on what real Italian life is, constrained to Hollywood movies, Olive Garden, and to our relatives that went on that two-week-long trip to Tuscany or to Roma.
There is this love affair, one that I will admit I did not feel prior to being offered a teaching position on the heel of the boot. I remember asking my future employer whether they felt it would be a good fit. I was pushing for a former Soviet Union republic and instead I’m going Under the Tuscan Sun, well significantly farther south, but still the same sun. To say I was surprised that I would be undertaking a two-year teaching assignment in southern Italy would be an understatement.
I will be the first to share that I wasn’t some timid traveler either having studied overseas on two previous occasions and traveled to multiple countries outside the United States. Knowing that I had lived up and down the east coast and in the central USA made me feel confident that anything Italy would throw my way would be easy to manage. In some ways that couldn’t have been any farther from the truth.
Even though after World War 2 the United States would be central to helping Italy rebuild, something got lost in translation. Between American soldiers “rescuing,” I mean falling in love with Sicilian and Italian women who they would quickly bring back stateside to create a nuclear family with, any and all money that was sent back to help rebuild, didn’t find a direct path to the impoverished southern part of the country.
I’m confident you could look up Garibaldi’s unification of Italy, but the short version is that on paper the long one-legged land mass with a few islands to spare is one country, but in truth you have Rome and all that it represents as well as Milan, Florence, and the rest of the north to Venice, as one “cultured” state. That’s where the financial districts are located, where most Italians that remained after World War 2 work and are able to make a life for themselves.
Travel south of Rome and things start to get shady — shifty might be a better word. Yes, we can whisper such things like the mafia if you really want to, but it might not be necessary. It’s not so much that, but more like how the southern United States was treated after the Civil War. Industry versus agriculture is the bottom line. I’m sure some money has been sent to the southern part of the country, but my goodness if you talk to any northern Italians, they are quick to point out the money disappeared or was wasted because of those “barbarians, pirates, anarchists, and thieves,” concerning their beloved kin to the south.
Knowing there is an undertone within the country and in some circles outspoken critics ready to cut off Puglia, Calabria and the other southern regions, I find the irony in where the northerners flock when summer comes. Even in this time of COVID, where were northerners driving and flying, but to the southern part they criticized so much, hoping to get a reprieve from the virus.
The country is mind boggling. The average American wouldn’t know this since so many hit only Rome, Naples, and Florence. Very few head to the heel, to where you can look out at the bluish green water and know that across the narrow sea is Albania and Greece — only a reasonable ferry ride away.
I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. I should have had an idea when a colleague sent me a book by Chris Harrison titled Head over Heel: Seduced by Southern Italy. He said I needed to read the book prior to my flight so I could prepare myself. Southern Italy is not a Diane Lane movie or George Clooney’s villa life. I wasn’t going on some Roman holiday but to physically live there.
I think that’s vital to understand. Before we get into the grit of this memoir, let’s be clear that being a tourist and being a resident of a country are different things. Tourists are treated as a cash cow where a resident is expected to fall in line with the locals and embrace the mores and the accepted values of those around them.
In most of Italy the tourists are at least entertained and tolerated knowing how vital they are to local businesses — but not Brindisi. There’s a reason why my Italian home only allowed the cruise ships in port one day a week. The locals agreed the tourists could help the economy but by the same token, their shops remained closed in the afternoon because of the long honored tradition of siesta. Those rich fat Americans on vacation, my kin folk, had nowhere to spend their money.
Instead, let’s take this duck tour ride around the city, look at the old ruins of the air force base, the palm trees, the locals going about their busy days, and boom everything is closed, back to the ship.
Change is not in the regional dialect. At least I don’t think it is. That’s where this book focuses. You either embrace the Puglia lifestyle or leave. There is no halfway. For Americans, especially if you are there for a short trip you don’t see these nuances. You see the passion and the zest for life that these people have, and you fall deeper in love for the food and the energy around you. What you miss is a community focused on finding ways to live life by working less and resting more.
I know that sounds ideal. Get a little closer to how that happens, and you see a hodgepodge, a harmonious dysfunction for those that reside here. That’s what I want to talk about and share. By the time we’re done, you’ll find that even in this chaos, the pull is too great to truly leave. Even now almost five years since my departure, I can say that part of me remains in Puglia, along the rocky shores of Brindisi and at the masseria.
I see the stray dog gangs lurking along the roadside, the piles of trash waiting to be picked up for the two months of summer tourism, and the speeding cars passing one another on single lane roads. I feel the warmth of the sun and the soft breeze blowing sands from Africa along my path. I hear the laughter of two old men catching up, taking a cigarette break, as they wait to drive a school bus full of kids, while a shopkeeper blares his television set to hear the football results he already knows by heart.
In the early morning hours, before the sun begins to rise, and only after most of the residents have truly gone to bed - in this silence with the melody of the crashing water, I find a piece of me I had never known. Then it goes away just as quickly from the sound of a bottle crashing on the floor in the apartment above, followed by a fury of yells and then a creaking bed to serenade those desiring sleep. How I miss you dear Italy, how I miss you.
I’ll be straight with you as much as I might say I’m a hiker, I’m not. I love walking, especially on paved trails, but the idea of hiking upwards is not exactly a tempting activity. Part of this might be due to my love of running. I know there are more potential hiccups when scaling mountains or rocky surfaces. With one roll of an ankle, I’m out of commission for a few weeks or a month. At this point in my life, I’d rather be able to run.
That being said, I have hiked on shorter trails and along lakes and rivers in New Hampshire. If you ask me if I have done any of the 48, you’ll get a strange look on my face. I feel like I have by watching Northwoods Law and all the rescues they have done, but I know enough to not even joke about climbing Mount Major.
I’m kidding of course, I know Mount Major isn’t anywhere close. The serious hikers are just that serious about their hiking. As much as I like being out in the elements, two to three hours running, the idea of a six to seven hour hike seems daunting even to me. That being shared, I hoped when I was in Ireland to do a cliff walk. That was penciled in from the beginning.
If I couldn’t figure out a way to go to Cornwall, then Dublin would be my compromise and I would find a way to walk along cliffs that looked out onto the Irish Sea. Originally, the plan was to do Howth. Several work colleagues mentioned the beauty of the hike and the fact it was a couple hours at most with restaurants on both ends.
Truly if the hostess at my AirBnB hadn’t said anything I was all primed to hit the Howth trail that Saturday morning. After a good conversation and some prodding, I decided it would be more of an adventure to take the train across Dublin to the other side of the bay where Bono and Enya reside in their palatial homes. To get a different perspective of the city and the coastline, was too good for me to pass on.
Unlike Howth which I could see clearly from Bull Island, I had no preconceived notions on Bray and what to expect. I didn’t even know it was the first summer resort town in Ireland until I read the sign post explaining as much. The only information I had was to take the train to Bray and follow the water to the trail. There wasn’t anything else for me to go on. Greystones was the final destination, that is if I could find my way.
Downtown Bray reminded me of many seaside communities and brought a smile to face with their restaurants, colored houses, and Victorian brick homes. In the distance I couldn’t miss the cross that looked down from afar. Even in the video I made, you hear me make a comment about how I would be perfectly content just hiking up there for a look and calling it a day.
Little did I know my words would be fortelling as my fortunes to hike to Greystones were diminished before I even got going. A rickety and easily passable fence closed off the trail I intended to take. Not following the rules, I cut around and figured I could hike part of the way at least. Those bright Irishmen knew of my intentions. Not more than a three minute walk and a few bends in, they put up a heavy duty metal gate to keep walkers like me away from the landslide. Unless I was willing to scale a rock face and take my chances sliding across to the other side, it would be for naught.
I wish I could say I was upset, but being by the Irish Sea and getting a glimpse of a smaller town in Ireland was already a win in my book. Prepared to head back to the beach and people watch, I might have done just that until an older gentleman stopped at the gate. We chatted for a bit as he was about to set out for his daily two hour walk. This was his post heart attack routine to stave off any recurrence.
The trail to Greystones was closed indefinitely with over three tons of fallen rock to contend with. Only from his recommendation did I find out that hiking to the cross would take me to Greystones. He mentioned a trail, a gate to a farm, another gate, and then down to Greystones. While it would be more difficult and longer, the views would be far superior to anything I would have seen on the original cliff walk.
With two bottles of water and snacks, I set out for this hike. I had no clue how long it would take or how complicated it would be. The initial steps seemed easy enough until I saw the muddied trail of slick rocks and roots. Never one to go on the beaten path I looked for a side trail knowing it was a matter of when I took a spill, especially with a camera in one hand.
Thankfully, I saw a deer trail, a side route littered with leaves that branched out away from the main route. I figured it couldn’t be any worse and aside from the log I had to climb under, I was right. My quads and hammies would tell you otherwise as the trail got steeper and rockier, but it was manageable. Dare I say it was actually fun?
I forgot about the amazing views. I was able to see the mountains, the valley, Bray, and of course the ocean. By the time I made it to the base of the cross, I lost all ambition to touch the structure, let alone take a picture. No, I was focused on the trail, the road ahead, and the gate to the farmer’s pasture.
This was when I saw the real Ireland. I’m not just talking about the huge cow patties or the sea breeze slapping me in the face. I saw the rolling hills, the reds and yellows of the bushes, and well worn paths. I felt like I was in a movie trekking along on this dirt path over the ridge line to wherever my feet would lead me.
Bull Island was a treat, but this was idyllic.I didn’t even make it to Greystones. I hiked far enough to see the cove and the water line, but the desire to trail blaze and cut back across the way I came was too great. Now granted, the briar patches that cut my legs up might tell a different story or the troop of senior women parading along the one way trail, but all and all it was a great hike.
If I knew hiking was something like this, I might have taken up this hobby earlier. Here’s to finding the next Bray to Greystones route and to seeing what beauty other countries have lurking outside their city centers.
There was a point in the walk to Bull Island where I intended to share a short story but between the wind and the run in with the Easter Island statue, I dropped the ball entirely. You’ll notice as much when you watch the video. My apologies. With this being the holiday season, especially with Thanksgiving underway, I can’t help but think how important giving is in all our lives.
Many struggle this time of year, far more than other times. Some are lacking in basic necessities, others are without emotional or physical support. I don’t need to jump into war torn areas, where we know the need is great, but as I look outside the door and those I pass on a daily occurrence, I have no other recourse.
As a teacher in New Hampshire, I saw first hand how school districts support those who don’t have enough food, clothing, or even shelter. Here in Poland it’s a bit different. I know there is a need but I don’t know what channels they have to provide. The number of Ukrainian refugees living here clearly shows that Poland is a country that embraces a giving mentality. Many Polish families welcomed Ukrainians into their homes with open arms. They allowed them a place to stay until a suitable arrangement could be made during this trying period. Even now the country continues to support Ukraine in whatever way it reasonably can.
Back in the States, many live in a bubble. I know I did until sixteen years ago when I transitioned out of the Navy and went back into education. I remember gathering what belongings I did have in Maryland and finding to my surprise that my favorite fleece blanket was gone. I looked around the house, in every drawer, closest, and box. The unicorn blanket had been a keepsake since middle school and a favorite of mine.
I didn’t take it to South Carolina or Florida for fear of it being taken or lost, let alone knowing the blanket couldn’t be brought to boot camp or training command without an ample amount of ribbing. To say I was bummed, was a bit of an understatement. When it came up in conversation at the dinner table, I found out why the blanket was gone and how.
Stephen in his overly generous nature had given it to a homeless man in Washington DC. My first thought was you gotta be kidding me. Why did he take my favorite blanket? He didn’t donate his Grizzly Bear fleece but I guess anything that wasn’t my twin’s was fair picking. That’s exactly what happened. All said, some clothes, a second blanket I overlooked, and the unicorn fleece were all thrown into Stephen’s truck and delivered to a homeless person he saw near the Days Inn in downtown Washington.
I couldn’t be mad since it was for a good cause, but I found it fitting that my twin had only given up my belongings. I can hear his voice, “You weren’t using them.”
From what I gathered he did this multiple times. It was sort of a funny joke in the end because Stephen had passed eight months earlier and I could hear him rationalizing his giving even without having a formal conversation. This was the same guy who after the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004 said he was changing his life because if the Sox could come back from down 3-0, then he could do anything he set his mind to. Sadly, his own personal quest ended far too soon, but his legacy and the lessons he provided continue to this day. At the very least, I know my blanket found a good home.
In Dublin this specific memory popped in my head after I passed an old woman.
Let me back track, this memory didn’t show up until a few hours later on the return walk to my Airbnb.
The first time we crossed paths, she was up against a derelict building door. She mumbled something probably in Gaelic and held up a paper cup. I waved slightly and carried on more focused on finding Bram Stoker’s Park and his childhood home.
A typical American, I blew by her but not fast enough to lose sight of her condition and to see the whites of her eyes. She was barely sitting up and if not for the wall, I’m not sure if she wouldn’t be on her side. How she got to that spot, I couldn’t fathom, but at that moment I also put her out of my mind.
In Riga and now here in Dublin, seeing people in hardship pulled at my heartstrings, but I knew I couldn’t give to everyone I saw. There was no way to tell who was truly in need and who was putting on a show. Maybe that’s jaded, but it’s also the truth.
Three hours passed and I was cutting back after my tour of central Dublin. There was the old woman with the squinting eyes still against the wall. A light blue fleece blanket was wrapped around her legs.
I’m confident there wasn’t one the first time we crossed paths.
Again she spoke and I gently shrugged and smiled. Several seconds passed and I kept walking. I felt for my wallet and wondered how much cash I had. I knew I didn’t have change and anything less than a significant bill. About that time, when I was rationalizing why I shouldn’t stop, Stephen and his unicorn snatching deeds came to mind.
Possessed by Stephen’s memory and what was the right thing to do, I turned around. She didn’t see me coming as her back was turned. I tapped her on the shoulder. She lifted the cup and I shook it off.
Slowly I knelt down and handed her the bill. Tears filled in her eyes and she spoke in Gaelic. I’m pretty sure I know what she said, but we’ll save that for another story. We didn’t have to exchange another word. I saw the angel looking back at me, a woman who hadn’t always been this way, who had a long life up till now, but had fallen on a rough time.
I felt what she felt and knew this small gesture would help her more than it would me in finding another place to stuff my mouth and fill my stomach. I walked home hopeful for the old woman. More importantly, I was thankful for Stephen, his memory, and the lesson he taught me years earlier.
In this season of Thanksgiving it doesn’t matter how much you give, but that you put yourself in the right place to help those in need, in a way that truly serves. If you happen to see a unicorn fleece blanket, do let me know.
The uneasiness I felt in Riga dissipated the moment I got on the bus for Estonia. Within minutes of leaving the city center and getting out into the countryside, I wondered if I was making a mistake leaving early. Truly, I knew it was the right call. These lakes and wooded vistas of Latvia were nothing more than a tease of what I thought I was getting myself into. Instead, I was plagued by city life and all that comes with.
Not even forty minutes onto the ride, the farther we drove away, what stress I had felt was all bought gone. Instead, I settled into some journaling and reflected on what had gone wrong for the first part of my trip and with everything else in life. I know that’s a heavy statement and overly dramatic to put out there, but truly I believe when we are faced with adversity other moments of similar angst rise to the forefront.
When all one can do is sit in their comfy bus seat, play Angry Birds, and ignore the stench of body odor and a clear beer detox episode from my fellow passenger and seat mate, these thoughts force themselves to be processed. I had two hours to kill, to see what I could better understand to make the rest of the trip a more productive one.
Pärnu is a beautiful beach town. While this might be the fourth largest city in Estonia and it’s former capital, to me it’s just a large town of forty thousand souls. For that I was grateful because it was easy to navigate and designed perfectly for walkers, runners, and bikers. Even if I tried, which I did, I couldn’t get lost within the city limits.
Where with Riga I felt like another body; in this hamlet, I felt more at ease with nature and the beach that beckoned. Still even with this more relaxed atmosphere lingering thoughts came into my head on why this trip had this up/down feeling. Then it struck me over dinner, that I had no one to share this trip with. Aside from my video camera and friends and family I texted, there was no other physical presence to experience this reality. To be frank, that was a challenge.
This was the first trip I can remember feeling out of sorts with my traveler of one status. I share it freely now, because many people travel alone. We all don’t have the luxury of travel friends or a romantic partner that we can tolerate enough to venture out to other parts of the world. To that end, when any unsettling experiences arise, all one can do is rely on themselves. It’s easier said than done.
While I loved walking the quiet streets and commenting on the varied buildings and architecture, I would have preferred to have spoken more on the history of the region. Obsessed with all things Estonia since the early 1990s, I was game to share my knowledge of what the transition had been like after the fall of the Soviet Union. Moreover, talking about what life was like as an independent country prior to communism would have been a worthwhile conversation.
Despite these best intentions, I remained stuck in my head. Having suffered in a way with the city life of Riga, I became that little boy from Brentwood who simply wanted to feel like he was back home riding his bike in the woods. The remainder of the trip was focused on rebooting the system and grounding myself.
Part of this reboot was a continued connection to the water. It didn’t matter the time of day, the weather, or the temperature; I kept walking the same section of beach waiting for that cosmic wink that things would be okay.
Some might tell you being alone is a state of mind. Some might even be envious of a trip without any friends or family to consider. And yet standing out on the shoreline looking out at the vastness of the Baltic Sea, I was reminded of how dreams change and in the future it’s better to not force things.
The fact during my previous teaching stint overseas (five years earlier) led to three canceled trips to this region should have told me something. It’s not necessarily timing, but perhaps divine intervention saying there are other places to be that will resonate more. I laughed thinking back at the previous trip I canceled and how instead of traveling I hunkered down in my Brindisi apartment and wrote most of the first draft to Valo in a one week period.
On this trip, I had intentions to write, to dive into National Novel Writing Month and instead I can report that the journal I wrote in daily, basically to process my thoughts of loneliness and questionable dating past, was left behind on the Lux Express bus I traveled on from Estonia back to Riga.
Talk about a wink that this wasn’t the area for any writing, let alone for any meaningful writing to remain in my possession. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed this portion of my trip. There was peace in the air and even though I didn’t see the sun the entire time, feeling a closeness to the water was all I really needed.
Returning a few days later, I felt relief that I could finally move forward and check off these Baltic boxes. Neither trip was what I had expected or planned. Then again, I needed downtime to process some deeper thoughts, to move on from loss, and to realize that sometimes the best vacation is either one spent at home or among familiar things.
Traveling is said for many to be a way to see new locations, try new foods, and experience different cultures. For me, while that might be true at some point, right now it’s about finding that sense of home and familiarity in a toxic world that is continually a challenge to navigate. Here’s to the next trip being a better match for my current state of mind.
Eighteen plus years as a published author, Jonathan has been independent the last eleven. With readers across forty-seven countries and six continents, he has readers around the world. Writing across genres, he loves good dialogue and flawed characters.