An Exercise in Stillness

In all the time I’ve spent in transit, I’ve noticed there are many different ways to approach travel, but most people tend to fall at either end of an extreme spectrum. You can be constantly in a rush to check everything off your meticulously planned to do list, because there is so little time and so much to see and you must do everything. Or, you can just show up, go with the flow and see where your days take you. Both have merit, but my worry with the former is how stressed we can become. This is a problem, because you go on vacation to get away from stress, right? Right. Just checking to make sure you knew that, because I know I sometimes forget.

My first time on a plane was as a tiny baby only nine months old – I caught the travel bug very early on in life, and I don’t think it ever really went away.

My family was heading to Sweden with a team for the 11th World Gymnaestrada. I received a lot of love from the girls who just thought I was the cutest thing in my custom-made Canadian tracksuit. Apparently, I was a fussy eater back then: I refused to eat anything but mashed potatoes (good thing Göttenburg had a lot of those) and maybe a little applesauce, if you were lucky. But I did have the best seat in the house, cuddled up to my parents wherever we went. That’s one of the benefits of traveling as an infant, I suppose.

Almost nineteen years later, I am back in Northern Europe for a trip of an entirely different nature. I’m a young woman traveling on her own for the first time. I’m in Iceland in the midst of a chilly spring, and I’m a slightly less picky eater than I was back then. But it’s an eye-opening adventure, all the same.

After so many years on the road, I like to think of myself as a fairly calm traveler, that I fall somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. There are times, however, when I am admittedly quite the opposite. I can be stressed and hurried and obsess over tiny details until my brain hurts. Let me tell you, it isn’t enjoyable for anyone if you’re uptight all the time – yourself included.

I know this so well, yet still sometimes I forget. Yesterday, my plane landed at 5:00 AM; despite the lack of sleep, I was filled with such a sense of joy and possibility, I walked around with my head in the clouds for the next couple of hours. Things just worked. It was magical. I stepped off the bus into a whole new world. I walked through quaint streets to find a place I’d read about for breakfast and admired the character in the colourful houses lining the street. I arrived at my destination a few minutes later, starving and ready for food.

By 8:29 AM, reality began to set in.

I quickly realized this cafe was not the place for me. Two minutes later, as I rushed out the door, I embarrassed myself further my tripping on the ledge, nearly landing flat on my face with my heavy backpack on top of me. Out on the street again, I brushed off my hands and it dawned on me that I was missing something. I’d stupidly decided I would carry two books with me in my hands, and I’d left them on the bus. They were gone, and I wasn’t getting them back. I continued to walk, taking out my frustration on my poor rubber boots. A short while later, I found a cute cafe (Bergsson Mathús) and began to plan my day.

I spent a majority of the rest of my day in a flurry of activity and indecision, overwhelmed by everything I felt I had to do in a week. It takes time to figure things out when you’re in a new country for the first time and I was acutely aware of every minute I spent getting acquainted with this different way of life. On top of that, everything is so much more expensive than I’m used to. How was I ever going to do everything on my to-do list? How was I ever going to pay for it all?

It wasn’t until I was sitting in one of the city’s infamous “hot pots” that I began to relax. All over Iceland, there are geothermal hot springs. The power of these hot springs is harnessed through public pools and spas, among other things. Each one has basins of varying depths and degrees of temperate. There are some warm regular sized pools, one or two cold pools, and a few hot tubs. Instead of going to regular pools to swim, the people of Iceland come here, where the water has endless healing health benefits.

Iceland is one of the happiest nations in the world.

It is an interesting place for me to visit, because some parts of their culture feel like home, while others are foreign and strange. The weather is damp, cold and moody (albeit much more so than I’ve experienced before – and I thought Montreal was bad.) For a foreigner, their language is impossible to understand. But the people are incredibly open, helpful and kind. As I was walking down the street yesterday morning, a gentleman driving past noticed my backpack had come undone. He stopped, rolled down his window to let me know, and continued in his way. Where I’m from, that does not just happen, people! Everyone is too caught up in their own worlds to notice such details, let alone tell you about it.

Maybe in such a harsh climate, people learn to accept and take care of the people around them, whether they know them or not. The host of my Airbnb is incredibly thoughtful and gracious, going the extra mile to make sure I enjoy my stay. Iceland was one of the first countries to implement democracy, to elect a female president and legalize same-sex marriage. They have a vibrant night life, and their art scene is bursting with talent and innovative ideas.

Most of all, Icelanders know how to work hard, but they also know how to relax. They take the time to look others in the eye when they talk to them, or make sure a neighbour gets the groceries he forgot. And they have this tradition of going out to sit in nature’s hot tubs at the end of of the day, to unwind and be with people they care about, or just to sit with themselves. They know how to plug into nature, to take a moment and recharge.

Maybe this ability to go with the flow comes from living in a climate that is so unpredictable. Whatever it is, it’s starting to rub off on me.

As I say there in that hot pot amidst the chaos of chatting adults and squealing kids, I closed my eyes and let the noise wash over me. All I saw were opposites: the contrast of cold rain drops and the warmth of the water, cloudy skies and laughter echoing through the steam. Chaos and calm. For the first time in a long time, I allowed myself to lose track of time. In that moment, I began to truly enjoy myself, and I gave myself permission to let this trip be whatever it needs to be.

When we travel, it is so easy to plan our days, to make endless to-do lists and schedules in an attempt to make this memory a perfect one, that we may treasure it forever. We want everything to be just right. We feel like if we’re not doing something all the time, we’re wasting valuable time, and we’ll regret it later. We come home feeling like we need a vacation from our vacation when in reality, it doesn’t need to be this way at all.

Be a little more gentle with yourself and give yourself some space to breathe. Perfection is a myth, so stop trying so hard to achieve it.

I am very good at giving others these words of wisdom, but I am not very good at taking them myself. Often (or always) I write these posts because I have something to share, but also because it is what I need.

I need to be reminded that I am not some machine who is expected to produce and create and do things all the time. I need to be reminded that sometimes doing nothing is not a waste of time, sometimes doing nothing is what I really need. I need to be reminded to let go, to go with the flow and let things happen, because Serendipity is quite good at her job, if you haven’t noticed, but you need to give her space to do her work.

Repeatedly in my life, I find when I enter a situation with no expectations, that is when the best things occur. My favourite memories are things that happened by accident, or periods of time when I wasn’t doing much at all: I was sitting on my favourite beach in Hawaii watching the sunset while my father sat beside me, or lying in bed reading next to my mom. When I step out of the shadows of judgement and expectation, that is when I truly begin to live.

I am in the process of learning to let go and spend more time in the spaces that let my heart be light. It’s a much more interesting way to go about life. We’ll see where Serendipity takes me next.

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