Five years ago when I was 21, I got my first passport and flew off to Europe for a month. My first time on my own outside of the country, I wanted to snap a photo of every statue, every bakery with a bicycle parked in front of the window, every country house outside a train window, every scene that I had only seen in French films and travel shows but never saw on a daily basis at home in Smalltimore, Maryland.
So, on the train from Casablanca to Marrakesh, a group of early 20-somethings pingponged in and out of our cabin, pointing their lenses back and forth toward the cabin window and the hallway window, clicking their point-and-shoot cameras at the view from each side of the train, giddy and excited like it was the most thrilling thing on earth. Talking to the group, they told me it was their first time on a train.
Now sitting in the cabin on what’s definitely not my first train ride, I sit enjoying the view, but seeing nothing particularly photo-worthy for me to take a picture of.
Maybe it’s a sign of having a better eye for a decent picture, maybe it’s a sign of having experienced more of the world; maybe it’s a sign of a hardening heart, of an aging youth no longer excited by the things that used to be exciting; maybe it’s a sign of greed. It’s like a child who begs his mom to buy him the newest, coolest toy and if she does he won’t ask for anything else again. Then he gets said newest, coolest toy, plays with it, then soon gets bored of it and begs his mom to buy him the new-newest, coolest toy and if she does he won’t ask for anything else again.
I have never been bored of travel. I admire the group. If I knew how to take a good picture of their excitement, I would have. There’s a difference in looking at a group of 20-somethings who are in awe of a moving train and a group of 50-somethings wearing fanny packs and camera straps around their necks taking pictures of every person whose skin and clothes are different from their own.
Maybe it’s really a sign that although I’m a lot closer to 21 than I am to 50, each day I only travel closer toward 50 and further from 21, and by 26, I’ve either already taken those pictures or I should have taken those pictures already; and there are plenty of pictures I wish I’d taken, but didn’t. Plenty of things I wish I’d seen and learned by now, but haven’t.
There’s a common decline after college: learning and exploration are for the young, and the window has closed for the old; university is the pinnacle of learning, and afterward, you settle down and spend the rest of your life in rut and routine in an office, and any learning equates to letterhead writing training or workplace cultural sensitivity training; learning about the world is reduced to watching the same CNN headlines about Iraq on a loop. Imagination, erudition, metabolism and lung capacity quickly rot away.
Europe, where I rode my first train, and other countries offer discounted youth rail passes to travelers 25 and under. At 26, that window has closed. This first-time group looking out the train window makes me nostalgic remembering the same pictures I took of my first train travels, taken with a 3 megapixel point and shoot.
Like Wordsworth, there’s already a mixture of nostalgia for something that just at 21 was “once so fugitive,” and fear of someday being eerily similar to a 50-something tourist who travels to Paris after studying French for 20 years and still fails to struggle through 2 sentences of broken French before the locals reply to her in English. Now my eyes start to pingpong back and forth, looking at the 21-year olds now looking out and admiring a man, possibly in his 50s, playing and walking with his family to the mosque. I pray that if God grants me more safe travels, that he also grants an appreciation for them, and that he grants me knowledge that benefits rather than knowledge that doesn’t benefit.