I’m 20 years old and I’m in the Vienna Hauptbahnhof waiting for my overnight train to Munich.
I am so aware of my foreignness as I stand there with my huge backpack full of clothes in a country where I don’t speak the language. The overnight train is the best option because it combines transportation with a night’s lodging and I am on a strict budget, trying to make a limited amount of money last through 34 days of travel. The unfavorable exchange rate makes me extremely frugal. I gorge on free hostel breakfasts, sometimes sneaking extra toast into my bag before leaving. I fill up up my water bottle every time I can.
This particular night, for whatever reason, my water bottle is empty.
Clipped to the side of my bag it just hangs, empty. The hollow “thunk” of the bottle against my bag is a reminder of my oversight as I walk into the train station cafe. A quiet smattering of older Austrians, American Backpackers, and vagrants barely register my entrance. The overnight train population isn’t a rowdy bunch.
I look up at the menu on the wall and search for the price of a water. The only employee behind the counter is a tall, happy looking teen, barely younger than I. It must be clear to him I don’t speak Austrian German because he asks me in perfect English what he can get me.
I tell him a bottle of water. He starts to turn around but pauses halfway. “Ya know, I can just fill up your water bottle for you from the tap if you’d like?”
An immediate rush of relief. I had been too embarrassed to ask. I am so happy I can hold onto the two euro coin I am palming like a talisman. I take off my bag, unclip the water bottle and hand it to him, thanking him profusely. He says “Yea man, free to own.”
I have no idea what that means. I don’t ask.
Since I am solo and always looking for connection, and he speaks perfect English, we start chatting. He is friendly, well spoken, knowledgeable, and generous. He seems extremely out of place working the late shift at a train station coffee shop. He tells me about his mother, a woman who is very cosmopolitan, another word I just barely know the meaning of. And then he says this:
“Yea man, my mother always taught me, the spirit is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.”
Inside my brain, something explodes.
The gravity and the potency of his words are unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a stranger. It is so resonant I barely make the connection that just 5 days prior I had skydived for the first time, successfully landing because of my own open parachute.
His life comes into extreme focus, the architecture of his character outlined in a fine ink.
Eventually, it is time to board my train. I thank him again, clip my water bottle to my bag, and walk to my platform where I will meet a group of Americans, three guys, and a girl. Her name is Lucy. I will flirt with her despite her and her friends’ general lack of interest in my existence.
The mind-blowing momentary learnings about my spirit are quickly pushed to the side for more pressing pursuits.
After Munich, I visit Berlin. I fall in love with the city. I stick to my budget. For Dinner, I eat a one Euro bratwurst from a street vendor four nights in a row. I do a four-hour walking tour of the city. On it, I meet an American guy slightly older than myself, traveling solo, who has just arrived from Russia. He has incredible stories of corruption, bribery and scary situations I have yet to imagine. He is extremely interesting.
After our tour ends, he asks me if I want to grab some beers. I politely decline, telling him I’m on a tight budget and can’t really afford to. He insists, tells me it’s his treat. I thank him again, decline, and we part ways.
And I have always regretted it.
The journey I was on back then was a very personal one. I sought noticeable growth and change within myself. That meant managing the opposing desires for solitude and connection. I embraced my alone time. I reveled in it. I wrote in my bible sized journal every day. I read Atlas Shrugged. I contemplated beautiful vistas, wondering how I would be different when I returned home.
I was so in love with this personal process that I was unable to appreciate the opportunities for greater connection that would have been so meaningful to me, soul-filling moments of cosmic entanglement that I could reference for decades.
Ultimately, and perhaps responsibly, I was most allegiant to my budget. I stuck to the activities in my guidebook that had only a single dollar sign. After arriving in Berlin I called my parents from the train station to ask if I could use their credit card to pay for the rest of my train tickets as I wasn’t confident my budget would cover the rest of my travel.
I certainly didn’t want to be a burden on my parents but a plane ticket home from London, and three weeks to get there. Having drinks while my parents footed the bill for my train tickets was more guilt than I could deal with.
My spirit chat with the Austrian barista had been so enlightening it was beyond my immediate capacity for true understanding. And so his words planted themselves deep in my brain to grow their roots ever so slowly over the coming years.
I wish I had thought about my spirit when I turned down those drinks in Berlin.
But I hadn’t thought about my spirit much up to that point in my life. I don’t imagine many people do. It’s one of those words we attach to an energy that is otherwise hard to name. Even today, I struggle to understand or explain my own spirit.
I can feel it though. I have become more aware of its existence; when it, when I, feel open. It manifests itself in my emotions and in the way I carry myself. For most of my life, my spirit has vacillated between a desire for openness and a need for responsibility.
Today, I am often so aware of possible negative consequences that I feel that spirit within me retract. And there are other times when my desire so greatly surpasses my fear that my own spirit feels free, just short of untethered. A very minimal wisdom has developed within, allowing me to at least recognize those scenarios, if not necessarily intentionally move between them.
In my life, I have learned many lessons I did not understand in the moment. I feel like my “aha” moments come roughly a decade after they were supposed to.
I tell that parachute story often, hoping it will enlighten others as much as it enlightened me. But ultimately just reminding myself is enough. And while I wasn’t able to take advantage of an opportunity in Berlin to connect with another human being the way I could have, I feel that moment, just days after the one in Vienna, is just as important.
The spirit is like a parachute, it only works when it’s open.
Just as valuable is knowing how it feels when it’s not.
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