Sunday, July 14, 2013

Trying to Recapture The Flame

It’s been exactly one year since my then-girlfriend Alya and I set out on a 5-week journey across Europe to the Olympics in London. I’d originally intended to blog extensively about the trip as soon as I got back to Beijing (I even posted a short “preview” piece that you can see here), but life kind of got in the way.

If you’re even a semi-regular reader of this blog you know that I can be long-winded, especially when I have something to say. And of this trip I have many thoughts and observations that I wanted to get down. Combine that with 1,000+ photos to curate and arrange into albums and the task turned into one of near-epic proportions. I’ve been chipping away at it little by little over the past 10 months and I’ve completed the task at a serendipitous moment. As I look back exactly 12 months at what was an incredible experience of exploration and self-discovery I’m finally ready to start publishing these posts.

The seeds for this adventure were planted in a moment of euphoria. In the afterglow of the 2008 Olympics, somewhere around day 4 of my post-Games recovery period, I made the decision: I’m doing every Olympics from now on.

Beijing in 2008 was a magical place. The city had gone through an urban renewal and expansion project on a scale that had been unseen since Rome’s rebuilding after Nero’s little concert on a hill. It was a city buzzing with excitement, drunk with giddiness and proud as hell to be “coming out” to the world. I was a first-time expat when I arrived on the day of the Opening Ceremony and I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by it all.

I was guy who had never lived more than a mile from my childhood home and all of a sudden I was standing in the middle of the world’s biggest stage, in a city basking in the limelight of a million visitors and two billion television viewers. Saying that I’d gone from Maybury to Manhattan only begins to describe the kind of cultural whiplash that I was feeling. After all, I’d grown up on the streets of a big city and had made at least a hundred trips to New York, a dozen to Montreal, several to Chicago and Atlanta and even a couple of swings through Hong Kong. I knew big cities, but this was “urban” on a different scale than anything I’d experienced before.

I remember that the foreign-ness of the place was almost overwhelming. I’d traveled through China before, but I’d never intended to live there. How would I buy things? WHERE would I buy things? What would I do if I got lost? I didn’t speak the language at all. How would I learn?

When I landed on 8/8/08 I had just about all of my worldly possessions in a couple of bags. I’d quit my job, said goodbye to my friends and walked away from the love of my life. I was a blank slate, excited and open to anything… but I was also scared shitless.

The Olympics were the best time for somebody in my state to land in Beijing. The openness of the locals, the helpfulness of the volunteers and the accessibility of everything allowed me to get swept up in the Olympic Spirit and enjoy a “soft landing” into my new city.

I admit it; I was susceptible to the allure of all of the hokey, cheesy, tree-hugging Olympic stuff. Within a few days and after attending a few events I was totally buying into Beijing’s slogan, “One World, One Dream”. I was grasping at straws. I knew that I was going along to get along, but it didn’t matter. I got a glow in my gut and a smile that wouldn’t stop until after the flame was extinguished. (I still feel echoes of it whenever I watch a replay of the Opening or Closing ceremonies from that year.) Within days of them ending I had vowed to travel to every Summer Games from then on.

I was hopelessly hooked.

Fast forward 4 years and I found myself at the Beijing airport once again, this time with my girlfriend Alya waiting for our flight to take us to Europe, giddy with excitement at the thought of trekking across the continent and ending up in London in time for the Olympics.

Our journey would take us through Russia, Poland, Germany, Denmark, Holland and Belgium before arriving in London. Then, before going back to Beijing, we’d treat ourselves to a weekend in Paris. You know, for the heck of it.

I blogged the hell out of the Games back in 2008 and my plan was to do the same this time around. This trip turned out to be about a lot more than chasing past feelings of excitement and acceptance; this time I was on a long journey of discovery, visiting countries that I’d only ever read about, meeting old friends and strangers alike, and exploring what it means to share the road with somebody.

Boy did I ever learn a lot. After it was over I had a lot of writing to do.