Best Foot Forward: Walking the Balkans and the Pursuit of Meaning

January 11, 2015 • Chuck Travellers, Europe, Featured • Views: 1565

Words & Pictures: Rob Morrice


Momentum really began to build when I signed my name to a one-year lease in some downtown Toronto apartment that seemed to perpetually smell like old newspapers and a cocktail of ethnic foods. The countdown had begun, at the end of which I would finally make my escape into parts unknown. I was one step closer to a now-tangible dream that kept me awake at night with excitement.

One more year of paying rent and waiting in line at gas pumps. Sitting in the pub after work to be surrounded by the usual white noise of laughter, complaining, unsolicited opinions and their resulting arguments. Short sleeps and long showers.

For that year and several before I earned my money working as a cook. It’s an underpaid, offbeat industry, but it has appeal to the desk-job-averse, and it always kept my interest better than anything had before.

Beyond the daily joys of dick jokes, the constant threat of cuts and burns and the pressure-cooker environment filled with loose cannons, it provided a nice routine, and on my days off I would savor my freedom and maintain my precious relationships:

Over afternoons of White Russians we would test the neighbors’ tolerance for Wu-Tang as we battled for Gran Turismo supremacy; I’d phone my parents to talk about why it’s been so long since my last phone call; and of course watch as my beloved hockey team squandered yet another convincing lead. I managed to have a pretty satisfying existence and I was fairly happy both on and off the dreaded clock.

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Yet no matter how efficiently I was able to convert my waking hours into pleasure and satisfaction, it never felt like enough. You always want one more bedtime story, or one more skate before the floodlights shut off.

I wanted more time to myself, I wanted more time with the people I cared about, and I wanted some kind of pure experience. Something new. Uncertainty.

Most of all, I wanted to put physical distance between me and the small world I grew up in, one that would underscore the invisible distance I’d always felt like a ringing in my ear. I deeply needed to relate on a bigger scale. I needed to recontextualize my tired, hand-me-down perspectives on geography and humanity.

I didn’t feel like anyone around me was making any real sense.

You mean I can spend four years studying something I have little interest in, and be in debt for ten years afterward? Where do I sign up?

The barstool politics of the working stiff, and the chokehold of the daily white-collar commute, didn’t help to validate most of the opinions that were being tossed around. The palpable sense of a great societal shrug was the royal icing on the sheet-cake of apathy.

Of course now and then there were waves of momentary clarity, ideas that seemed to cut through the din, but they would quickly wash back into the thoughtless sea of cheap beer and boxed wine. In those lightning strikes of sanity I would sit silently as we skipped over, wondering if I could ever catch up with it again.

I wanted to frame it and put it up on my wall. But I couldn’t really tell you what it was.

And I wouldn’t make any progress until about fifteen months later, walking along a coastal Croatian highway and yelling at a threatening sky, the grim colour of anguish, as it met my repeated taunts of “Is that all you fucking got?” with more rain.

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By this point I’d lost enough weight that my walking stick looked like it was getting more calories than me, and the only sign of my existence was the trail of banana peels I left in my wake like some Eastern European Mario Kart nightmare. But at least my burden was lightened thanks to the holes in my shoes.

On my way out to Europe, as I settled into the miraculous tin can that would deliver me across the Atlantic, I was buzzing with the sensation of not knowing where I’d be sleeping that night. Before my flight across the pond had touched ground in Frankfurt, I’d jumped on an offer to accompany Alaskan Doug in 17E, who a few hours ago was a stranger, to some wine festival in rural Germany.

Here I could sleep in a vineyard and keep myself occupied with exploring until I joined some friends from back home on their vacation in Croatia.

Inevitably, those friends decided to leave eastern Europe after a while, but all I wanted was to feel the excitement of uncertainty that had struck me on the plane a few weeks before. My bulletproof reasoning told me that the only option was to have them drop me at our favorite spot on the beach, where I would camp and make a plan.

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That night the lullaby of lapping waves eased me into sleep and I awoke to the sunrise with that joyous sense of not having the faintest clue what I was doing or where I was going.

Opening my tent to be greeted by the shimmering Adriatic, not to mention some disapproving grimaces from a handful of elderly beachgoers, I felt so alive and overwhelmed with excitement it’s a wonder I didn’t explode into a seizure, roll into the ocean and drown.

By the time I packed up and got myself together, I realized I would need some food pretty soon, of which I had none. Simple enough, I thought. It’s not that far to the next town, surely they have food there. I need to walk off all this energy anyway.

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It was at some point on that spontaneous late-September morning stroll that I felt within me the filling of some existential void. With the sea at my side and the sun shining unabated over my head, I was struck by the simplicity of my life at this very moment. All I really needed was food and water: my house and bed were on my back, my legs would take me wherever I needed to go and my senses could continually tell me how awesome it was to be alive. All at a pace that afforded me plenty of time to reflect. And I was never happier than when I was living that simplicity.

It’s in this time-lapse limbo of existence that I seemed to reach my utmost clarity. And not in some abstract sense of “finding myself”. I wasn’t stopping to smell the figurative roses.

I was peeling away the layers of nonsense in my head that seemed to veil what really is important behind a curtain of self-doubt, indecision and fear. I wasn’t finding truth or trying to grasp it in fleeting moments, I was making my own.

I demanded to have a sense of control over my life. There’s a feeling of empowerment in being a part of this conscious generation. The impact of our choices is much more than clicking a thumbs-up button or choosing between the Red party and the Blue party. Progress can’t be ordered with a combo meal in a drive-thru. Nothing you can buy will make you a better person. I’d exiled myself from the culture of finding self-validation in Facebook Likes, where we allow ourselves to be corralled into a kind of deadly monotony by mortgaging our freedom and filling in the gaps with narcissism and vanity.

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Every day became an adventure both into and out of myself. I would spend hours walking in meditative bliss, stopping to eat and piss and appraise the art that spread out to the horizon in every direction, the details in the grooves on the road or the veins of the leaves, the emptiness of my surroundings, the life of the occasional motorist passing by. Thunder would explode in the sky over my head like cannonballs as I lay down to sleep on the hard ground with a satisfied smile on my face. The days would flow into each other, the small chores of packing gear and buying food becoming holy rituals. I would enjoy each moment without rushing. There were no goals and no destinations. Just living. And the odd leak in the tent.

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So I came to find myself huddled naked in the violent rain, struggling alone in the bushes to set up my little shelter and wondering if there was a damn thing I owned that wasn’t soaked right through. People I met along the way told me I was stupid. Others thought I was brave. Maybe I was just insane.

It’s that beautiful dichotomy that appeals me: to some I was a massive success and to others an utter failure. But in the simplicity of my travels I found something that ignites and inspires me, and I chased it with the mad enthusiasm of a dog on the heels of a car. I managed to create and refine some kind of meaning for myself. And if that was all I brought back with me, I’m all the better for it.

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