”To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” - Oscar Wilde
Traveling, in its true definition, is visiting other countries or cities; it is the act of making a journey somewhere. To me, traveling has always been more than a journey. It is a continuous discovery of one’s self through city walls, bridges, streets, panoramic views, and wonderful people. Traveling is in fact a state of mind, in which one is hungry for life, for adventure.
When I was a teenager I lived in a small city where nothing ever happens. I haven’t done much traveling, except for a few summer holidays with my family, in the north of Morocco, trips that I don’t even remember. I had been a fan of Oscar Wilde, and I remember my world being twisted when I read on the cover of one of his books, ”To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” This quote was the beginning of an existential crisis for me, one that I am most grateful for.
I was sixteen, and Oscar Wilde’s phrase was the first thing that I thought of every morning, when I went out to buy bread for breakfast, on my way to school, and at night while writing my diaries. I used to ask myself: ”Am I really living?” Me who has never seen anything of this big world, me whose biggest achievement is winning a poetry contest when I was eight. I couldn’t possibly be living, not here, not like this. These ideas kept haunting me even when I got into college. I was depressed, my life had no meaning, no purpose, I was angry, and sad.
A part of me thought of how disappointing I would be to my favorite writer. Me who belongs to the majority of people who “just exist”. A huge part of me was angry at my parents, at society, at my country, but mostly at myself. In the midst of an inner void, a feeling of emptiness that was torturing me, where nothing mattered anymore, nothing made sense; I went to seek healing in going away. I had decided to attend two months of summer school in Istanbul. It was the first time I would travel outside of Morocco.
Istanbul: Profile of a city
Istanbul is one of the most charming cities I have ever been to. It is a city that resembled me in so many ways. Istanbul has two parts: the European part, and the Asian one. I myself have always felt European and African, because of Morocco’s closeness to Europe, I think all Moroccans would feel that way, in fact we sometimes feel more European than African.
Istanbul was also left with all this great Islamic heritage from the times of the Ottoman Empire, great architecture, but still a huge part of it was modern, contemporary and secular. I am full of diverse heritage too. Born to a Muslim family, Muslim traditions shaped the way I was raised and everything I was taught, but I am my own self now - a young independent girl from the twenty first century, living according to the privileges and disadvantages of the modern times.
Istanbul was also partially oriental. There was something about it that felt so familiar, and I would always be reminded of the oriental blood I have in me, in the way I express myself, how I love, and how my body inherited the ability to dance. Istanbul and I were very alike, and that is a very comforting feeling that makes me always want to go back - I loved being in Istanbul.
I remember taking buses without knowing the destination. It is a habit that I’ve stuck with during my travels. I would stop anywhere. I would walk around and stop at some small café by the beach, and just gaze at the ocean. I fell in love with Turkish coffee, it tasted like grandmother’s tales and warm summer nights. An old man would often approach me in one of the cafés I would often go to. He would offer me some oranges or some grapes, and he would talk to me in Turkish. His face was always very joyful. I didn’t understand what he used to say, I didn’t need to. In Istanbul, there was always the barrier of language - most people didn’t speak English, which made me rely more on the body language and gestures. Sometimes I just had to trust the other person wasn’t calling me names in Turkish, I had to believe in the kindness of strangers, I had to believe that words don’t matter much sometimes, because sometimes, just sometimes, people touch us so deeply, and teach us the greatest lessons of all, without having to say a word. It is very rare, but very beautiful, because you would always remember those people through a feeling, not a name, a phrase or even a picture. It is what made me realize, that I should start collecting moments, and feelings, rather than post cards, or souvenirs from the places I go to. Now I have a whole album full of moments, I go back to it each time I feel down, and it makes me stronger.
I will never forget that summer in Istanbul, I will never forget the flavours of Istanbul, not only the flavors of all the Turkish dishes I tried, but the flavours of such a vibrant city, the flavour of the Bosphorus, the tasty and familiar flavour of all the streets and houses, and the sugary smell of boats and fairies in which I danced under the rain with children and never felt happier.
The two months I spent in Istanbul made me a little bit different, I still had a long way to go to overcome my depression, but now I had hope. I knew that things could be different, I knew that the world is big enough and that there is a place for each and every one of us, that we are all meant to fit in.
I have always struggled to fit in myself - all my life I just wanted to belong somewhere. I never felt like I belonged in my small city, it was too small for my ambitions. I never felt like I belonged in the Moroccan society, it was pretty reserved and my dreams were too dangerous, but I knew that if I traveled more, just a little bit more, I might find somewhere that would feel like home. So this time, I decided to go to Slovenia, a country that I didn’t know much about, the European country I was least expected to visit, especially being a Moroccan, but I still wanted to go. It fit my budget, and my needs of going somewhere new, so I just went.
Slovenia, Austria and Italy: A European Summer
When I first made it to the capital city of Ljubljana with my two best friends, it felt like nothing. The streets were empty, the houses were too small. I was afraid - the kind of fear that hides something bigger. I was afraid of the emptiness that haunted me for years, and I didn’t want it to come back, not there, not at that time.
My friends and I decided to start our adventure with a road trip. We travelled through all cities of Slovenia: the beautiful Bled, Piran, Portoroz and many more, stopping only at night to sleep, at random camps or hostels in which we found free beds.
Slovenia is such a beautiful small country. All the cities are small and cozy, especially cities by the beach, and the people are extremely kind. Traveling through this country was like reliving a childhood dream. With all the street musicians, the beautiful scenery, all the bikes in the streets moving in such a pleasing harmony, there was no place for fear. In fact it was the first time in my life that I felt no fear. For the first time in my life I didn’t feel the need to change anything in me to meet other people. I felt like I had all the freedom to be who I am, and what a great feeling it was.
Every day was like sunshine. I was happy in the city of Ljubljana, on the road by the river, leading to the Pink Church in the city center, I would walk around for hours, only to capture it in my mind. Since I don’t like photographs that much, I would rather capture it with my eyes and with my heart, because on that road, I found a very strange joy and ecstasy of meaning, and I knew I had to keep it.
While in Slovenia, we also made a couple of trips to the Northeast of Italy, passing by the beautiful city of Trieste and some small villages by the sea. Italy, always as graceful and charming as it is, granted us all the warmth we needed with its great cuisine and fine wine, and all the history, all the stories of every single street, and the art of living that people seem to have there. Italy, was like a living painting. A masterpiece, created by all its great artists, emperors and lovers, in which I would often hear music, and feel as light as a ballerina with every single breath I take.
We also travelled to Vienna, Austria’s capital and the home of legendary artists and intellectuals, such as Beethoven, and Freud. It was an ideal representation of a classical European ideology: clean, safe, charming architecture, and classical music heaven. The experience of walking through Vienna was in itself a symphony; sophistication was the signature of all its cafés and parks. In fact there was an area in Vienna called the Bermuda Triangle, (because the area was shaped like a triangle) with its crossed streets full of bars, clubs, and music venues, where people would drink joyfully until they would finally get lost.
Our stay in Vienna was quite brief, but full of collected moments and views, in which I felt as vibrant and calm as its inhabitants. I savoured a culture that always seemed distant, yet close to me. No matter where life takes me, I will always want to be twenty again, feeling the intense summer heat of Europe, wandering around food markets, drawing churches and carelessly dancing on terraces through the nights I wished would never end.
What I like the most about traveling is that you often end up in places you never expected and are granted opportunities you never considered. Traveling is like a gate that only closes to open up a new one. When I was in Slovenia, I learned about a study abroad program in a couple of universities in Prague, Czech Republic, which wasn’t far from Slovenia. Once I was back at my university in Morocco, I applied for a semester abroad in Prague and was accepted.
Prague, Berlin: Self Renaissance
Oh Praha, Praha…
I lived in Prague for 5 months with my best friend, whom I knew for fifteen years, in a very beautiful apartment in a historic building dating back to the 18th century. The apartment had a view on Vyšehrad, which is a historic fort built in the 10th century, on a hill over the Vltava River. That same apartment was home to the deepest conversations I’ve had, the peak of my artistic inspiration, the most delicious homemade meals, and a lot of love.
In Prague, I studied Journalism and worked as a part-time broker at the stock market, which is indeed a weird combination. I studied Journalism because I liked it and I worked at the stock market because I needed the money. It was my first ever job.
During my first day at the university in my psychoanalysis of film class, we were leading a discussion about foreign cinema. I remember talking about “La double vie de Veronique”, a French Polish movie and one of my favorites. My French accent was of great a curiosity to my classmate Clara, who was half French herself, and would recognize a French accent anywhere in the world. She approached me, saying that she found my taste in cinema very interesting and asked if I was French. She wasn’t disappointed at all when she learned that I was Moroccan. She invited me for lunch, a tour around Prague and then to her house, “The house of love”, as we used to call it, and later to her life, an invitation I will forever be grateful for.
Clara became one of my closest friends. I met her friends and she met mine, we were a group of foreigners living in Prague. None of us resembled the stereotype of our country. None of us belonged to our country, none of us knew where to belong. All we knew was that, at that time, we were all one culture, one country of lost souls that found themselves in jazz clubs, poetry nights, museums and sunday promenades at the beer gardens. Prague, was never a destination. I have always felt like I have lived there forever. The red tramways would take me anywhere, the Gothic buildings would always guide me through the city, and the Vltava river would always comfort me if I ever felt sad. It would always remind me of my true self. That’s why I never got lost in Prague, how can I get lost in the city where I found myself?
I lived in Prague during two seasons, winter and spring. Both of them dressed the city so beautifully; the snow embellished the orange rooftops, and the pink flowers of spring accessorized the trees. The greatest thing about Prague is that you get both the advantages of the big cities, and the greenery of the countryside, as there are many huge parks everywhere in Prague.
In Praha, I’ve celebrated my twenty first birthday, but also my renaissance. In Praha, I lived. In Praha, I was born again, free of all chains that I collected during my depression, free of all the limitations I created for myself. In Praha I wasn’t this small town girl anymore. I was me, emancipated and free of labels.
While living in Prague, I was also able to travel to Berlin, Germany, during my spring break. It was a city that had a unique energy. You could only be young and free in Berlin. It was a city born out of the ruins of one of the greatest human tragedies. The Berlin Wall, or what was left of it, was standing there as an apology for all the people who died trying to cross it. It has a certain melancholy to it that makes it so powerful and vulnerable at the same time. Berlin was like an old photo album. On Museum Island you would find all kinds of museums, especially of art and history. They were the kind of albums that have a moral story to it. Berlin was born again only to refute its past and offer freedom to everyone who really knows the value of it. It is a vivid city, so young and so old, so surreal.
By the end of my journey in Prague, not so long after coming back from Germany, I decided to get a haircut. My hair that was very long became a short bob. I had changed, only to become who I am.
Today, I wake up every morning with Oscar Wilde’s quote: “To live is the rarest thing in the world. Most people exist, that is all.” I smile, realizing that I have lived, and still do. Not because I traveled, but thanks to traveling. I’ve realized that I have always been living, even when I was sixteen, going out to get bread for breakfast. I was living, because on my way, I would look at the trees near our house, I would greet our neighbors and feel everything around me so intensely, and that is living.
In fact, at almost twenty two years of age, I can say that we human beings live for no other reason but to justify our existence. It’s just that we all take different roads but it doesn’t matter, as long we stop sometimes to gaze at the views we pass by.
Today, I have also traveled around my own country Morocco, through its deserts, mountains and great beaches. I am no longer angry. I realize now that it is such a beautiful thing to be born out of contradictions; I am Moroccan, African, Arab and European. I am a citizen of the world. Everything I am, and everything I will ever be, I owe to all the city streets I walked through, and the oceans in which I swam, or just stopped by to breathe in their salty odor, to all the faces that smiled at me, all the hands that touched me, and all the love I was granted along the way.
Author - Oumayma Boumhali
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