I was sitting on the train the other day listening to Bill Byson's A Walk In The Woods. As I listened (and laughed, inevitably), I looked out the window at the once-foreign city I currently call home and was reminded of another trip I'd made.
If you've ever travelled alone, then you may have experienced that moment: the moment when you realize that you are disconnected from everything you know and love. No one knows you where you are (I didn't have a phone, so this felt especially true at the time). You could fall into a ditch and expire loudly and dramatically, and no one would know to start looking for you. That moment when you realize that you are completely out of your element. The knowledge slams into you so hard that you are rendered terrified, temporarily helpless.
So it was for me in Vienna. It was the third stop on my first trip abroad, but it was the first time I truly felt panicked by what I was doing. I was in a country where I didn't know the language, where the transit system was so overwhelming that I couldn't even think about trying to use it. I didn't meet anyone at the hostel where I was staying (unless you count the five permanently half-naked Germans with whom I shared a bunk room). In the two stops before, I had made friends or met up with one, so I was never really alone. For the first time, I was forced to fend completely for myself. I felt like the world was going to swallow me up. I spent two days wandering around on foot, not really enjoying myself, fending off tears and my frustration at being such a baby.
These are the moments when you grasp for the familiar. So when I saw an English language bookshop, I stopped and picked up Bill Bryson's Neither Here Nor There. I marched over to a Starbucks I'd passed earlier, got myself a pumpkin spice latte, and read away the afternoon. That sounds like a horrifically touristy thing to do, and I suppose it was (later, when I was up to it, I did go to some of Vienna's famed coffee houses. They were amazing). I dove into my first Bill Bryson experience with the concentration of a drowning person clinging to a raft. I was hoping that Bill's travels through Europe would help to ease my mind. It did that, and a whole lot more.
Bill Bryson made me laugh out loud, something I hadn't done in days (I'd barely spoken, let alone laughed). His cultural blunders made me realize that my foreigners' awkwardness was normal, even expected. It was OK that I hadn't had a real conversation in over 24 hours! It was normal to eat alone while eavesdropping on strangers! He let me know that these things were just a part of the process. His insights lightened my heart, made me realize that traveling alone wasn't always supposed to be pretty, and that it was as much about discovering your own limitations and strengths as the place in which you're traveling.
That afternoon, Bill Bryson saved me. He allowed me to take a deep breath and think, "OK, then. I'm not really alone." After that, I had a great 'ole time. I threw away my map and let myself get lost. Getting lost in Vienna was how I fell in love with Vienna, and how I captured these:
It wasn't until now, years later, that I realized how much that book saved me. I'll always be grateful to Mr. Bryson, even though he'll never know it. That's the kind of book I'd love to write: the kind in which people see themselves and feel just a little bit less alone.
Has a book ever come to your rescue in a time of need?