This And That
This and That is a collection of stories and essays on society and travel from the individual's perspective. For the curious human.
Where my story begins is near the end. I say that not because there is some dramatic ending, but because for most of my life I’ve felt like I’m at the end of something. That’s not a sad or cynical statement. It just means that whenever I’ve felt like I’m at the beginning of something -- anything -- a period, journey, new stage in life, anything that I am beginning to create, I feel exhilarated. Excited. Now, I don’t. I have the urge to begin something once more. I have the urge to recollect, recount, and storytell -- the urge to write what has happened and will happen rather than documenting anything that is happening at the present moment. The journalism has been done and now the reporting begins.
That present moment that I speak of is a funny one to find myself in a state of ennui, one that I recurrently have to dig myself out of. One that creeps in and is the source of so many decisions in my life, a source that I have become rather adept at identifying. One that means I have to make a physical change -- normally concerning my environment. And that, the need to change environments over and over again, is why I am telling this story. It is at the core of who I am. So, at the present moment, I sit at the dining table of the Pavlivec House in Bar, Montenegro, a hostel-type living arrangement tucked between Skadar Lake and the Adriatic Sea. Out my window are stucco red and white houses, almost all perched on a steep slope, with the rock peaks of mountains looming over the rooftops. I almost feel so indescribably strange due to myself being the only person staying here in this house and the combination of this setting that I feel numb.
I will be here until 21 February. That is in three days. Ask me where I am going next. I only have a faint idea. I am working my way through the Balkans and eventually up to Belarus, and then probably home to Indiana. So that’s a good leg of traveling to go to feel this way.
I’m beginning this story now because it needs to be told. For me, I suppose. I need to feel that I’m telling it now, not to myself or my notebook, but to people. Whether anyone reads it is beside the point. I need to stop gathering stories and hoarding them, and begin telling them. Sharing them. There’s the word “begin” again. I need to begin.
I have many stories to tell and poetry to share but those will come. Soon, I can share how all that began. Now, I will share how all of this began:
Who Writes Why Write
Who writes and how is it determined to be good? I write because of a number of hereditary and environmental factors, namely the brain I was born with, the one that has conversations with itself in a voice I couldn’t ever begin to describe the characteristics of. That is the voice of my writing, nothing like my own voice.
Then there was the moment when I was nine when I chose Harry Potter Goblet of Fire at the school library despite knowing that I would be considered a Big Nerd for doing so and read the entire Harry Potter series in six months. There was also the time in second grade when I received my first creative writing assignment and told a story of a giant toenail that tormented a small town until a boy and his dad clipped thousands of volunteers toenails and developed a toenail-shooting gun that could only kill the toenail monster.
But there were also the teenage years when I could write nothing but my pure, unadulterated frustrations with everything in the world, and rather than punch a hole in the I wall I would write things like “What is God trying to tell me?” and “Why does (blank name of a girl) seem to hate me when I obviously love her?” and then also “Am I even liked at all?” Then I would try to answer those questions, expressing myself in the only way I knew how: writing.
Then I left for college and an entirely new world opened up itself to me – a world with real pain, existential and relationally, but a world I could explore for myself. And I began to unknowingly write poetry to describe the way Ugandans stood on the side of the road shouting, “White people!” to their friends in amazement as our bus full of ignorant, open-minded, good-intentioned white kids drove by.
The desire to carry a brown leather notebook with me everywhere in Austria to document experiences that I considered so massive that they would need to be recorded more than any other experiences was a subconscious one. Which is also a metaphor for my life and poetry in itself. Packed within that journal were whole-hearted and embarrassingly raw attempts at expressing unbridled, unrestrained, impossible love and thee most, the only rather, purely romantic moments in my life to that point. The only way I could think to express my perspective in those moments was to write them down. Open the book, write it down.
And finally, I grew close enough to certain friends that I could feel comfortable confiding my to-that-point-in-time secret creative passion, so there were days in Hanly Dorm when I would read poems to Soo Sung and Kairon and they would listen and smile, or just listen, or maybe not at all, but they were still there, and I just needed to be heard by someone.
And now I wonder who else began to write. I write, all I do is live and write, and who knows if I do either well, but I’m doing them the best I can. But sometimes I ask myself in that internal voice: how can I determine any of this to be any good?
What is the best part of traveling, you ask? Is it the snow-capped mountains, cities with old, winding streets, the ring of foreign, seemingly nonsensical but assuredly elegant languages, the taste of the local foods and wines, sounds of buzzing cafes tucked in alleyways, the countryside dotted with rustic family homes perched alongside hills and within valleys, the feelings of excitement one gets when entering a new place or crossing a border and receiving a stamp on a passport, the discomfort that brings forth aspects of your personality you had never known or attempted to discover, the giddy stumble home after a drunken night in a local pub?
The answer is no.
The answer, of course, is the people you meet –the people you talk to and share connections with that would be highly unlikely to be formed in any other place or mindset than a foreign, unfamiliar, and subconsciously uncomfortable one. It is the brotherhood and sisterhood of the traveling person that is not only the best “part,” but the pillar of travel.
One moving cog in this pillar is an institution that has been around for many years. It is a storied, energetic, churning, tumultuous, and fabled institution that produces butterflies in the stomachs of many like-minded individuals I know and have spent time with. This institution is the hostel.
Now, like I have said, the hostel is merely a moving cog in the pillar. It is a smaller example of the pillar, the most inspiring part of travel. But, nevertheless, it is a flawless, thoroughly good, and diverse cog. A case study in the brotherhood and sisterhood of the traveling person, if you will.
When I say flawless, I do not count menial things as flaws. You may say, as someone who does not know much about the hostel or has had “bad” experiences at one, that it does indeed have flaws. Name these flaws. Did you get bed bugs? I have. They are not fun. I have spent weeks scratching at nearly every inch of my body because of a bed bug infestation in a hostel room. Oh, but the room that you share with maybe fifteen other people, stacked in bunks. That is a negative! No, it is not. That is a perceived inconvenience. Try again! Take the snoring man that always seems to get placed in the bed next to you. No, that is an annoyance, another type of perceived inconvenience. None of these are flaws in the grand scheme of things.
By flawless, I mean in the human sense. The societal and cultural sense. The existential sense. The sense of connection. What makes all of us human? Our desire to gain a better understanding of who we are as people. A better understanding of why we are here. What our purpose is. Our desire to form bonds and connections with other humans. To share our love, passions, and curiosities. To open ourselves up to the world, to discover every nook and cranny on Earth, to grow, learn, seek, move, laugh, and share.
In that sense, the institution and existence of the hostel is quite flawless.
Let me break the existence of the hostel down to its core. Pay close attention.
Rather objectively, the best way to learn more about yourself and the world is to travel. It is to live in places and meet people that you are not used to being in or around. Why? Because it makes you act and think differently. It does so by simply placing you in a different place. I am from a small town in West Central Indiana. I grew up there, graduated high school there, and went to college in southern Indiana. That is what I know best and, as much as I do not want to say it, where I am most comfortable. Now, I would not say that –I am most comfortable where I am uncomfortable. That may seem like a paradox, but it is not. I crave being uncomfortable because I can feel myself becoming better. Being comfortable does not produce anything that is worth a dime in this world. It does not inspire you to create anything of value, it does not allow you to form meaningful connections with people, it does not force you to learn, it does not make you change for the better. When I am uncomfortable I can feel myself doing these things. I can feel these changes taking place. That is why I crave discomfort. So, in essence, traveling –not going to the beach in South Florida or the resort in Cancun –really, truly traveling, to places that force you to find your way, speak to people you have never met, figure out how to exist, budget, be uncomfortable in ways you wouldn’t in your hometown or air-conditioned bedroom –is the simplest way to seek discomfort and uncover its essential positive qualities.
And there lies the hostel. A place where discomfort seekers congregate, poor as can be, exploring the world, like-minded individuals with only a few clearly-defined goals –to see the world, connect with others, grow in their own lives, and be good humans. Some would walk into the lobby of a hostel on a Thursday night and see twenty-somethings drinking wine out of a bottle, loud and slapping each other on the back, playing chess in the corner, untied boots and backpacks strewn among the floor, and say that these people are aimless and searching. And they would mean this negatively. To that, I would say: searching, yes! Aimless, no. Never aimless. You just have yet to reveal their aims.
There are no constraints on travel even when you are poor. If you focus all you have on the idea that you will go, then you will go. I put all of my energy towards two things: writing and traveling. Within six months, I was making barely enough money to go. That is synonymous with going places and existing. To travel you need not live outside your means. You need not spend more money than you would renting a studio on the northside of Indianapolis. In fact, living within your means is directly related to experiencing more.
There are no constraints on the people you will meet. I have met the eighty-year old Austrian-American in Dublin, staying at the Gardiner House, a former employee of the United Nations in its early years. I have met the nineteen-year old chef from Portland, reluctant to admit she is American, on a four-day stopover in Edinburgh, Scotland before flying to Bangkok, Thailand, a young alcoholic throwing all her might toward halting her binge so that her immune system can be at full strength when she heads to Asia and begins to take in a new continent. I have met a Canadian who was nearly a mirror image of me in every aspect, aside from being ten years older: a writer who liked the same music, had traveled to the same places, had the same philosophy on life, wanted the same things out of life. A Chinese man who had been traveling for months, but had experienced intense discrimination in Europe because of the spread of the Corona virus. Two Indian friends who had fallen in love with the U.K. The list could go on and on. The only thing that I can give myself credit for is this:
I have sought and relished discomfort at every turn. I will continue to do this for as long as I am breathing.
In the past fifty days, I have been all over. From Serbia to Montenegro to Kosovo to North Macedonia to Bulgaria to London to Orlando to home, in Indiana. The timing of my return home was decent, considering the entire world is on lockdown now. I traveled to eleven countries, for a total of thirty-four in my twenty-three years (I can’t help but count) over the span of five months. It was a life-altering experience that I have always seen as a stepping stone to more – more moving, more doing. There is always more. Now it all seems more distant, far away, as the world around us changes and everything that was romantic is now overshadowed by something that feels surreal, grimy, dark.
I will write about the timing of everything that has taken place – everything that has made me gasp in amazement after its realization, and want more as I sit in rural Indiana at quite the quarantine spot.
On my first night in Barcelona, when I hadn’t a single clue where I would go two weeks from then, I sat in a café with no one else around except a worker making coffee and tapas. I needed to finish a book I was ghostwriting about universal laws – a.k.a signs from God, or the universe, or whatever, depending on your belief system. The chapter I was writing was specifically about seeing signs in other people. I was, frankly, lonely and very unsure of what I was doing. It was completely new and foreign, although I had been out of the country before. Now, I was completely alone for an indefinite amount of time, and had to work while all this was happening. So, as I sat in a café alone and working on my first night in Barcelona, all of those feelings came to the surface.
Then, the worker approached me.
“What are you writing?” she said.
I looked down.
Signs come in many forms, but the most common is through other people.
That is what I was writing.
The encounter continued for a few hours. And for some reason, it struck me harder than anything had struck me in a long, long time. It was a sign of things to come, a sign of more signs to come, a sign that everything was in its place. Whatever place I would be in was my place, and there was no more debating that.
In the following months, I’d find more signs: befriending three musically-inclined Hungarians in the streets of Madrid when I hadn’t the slightest clue where I’d go next. They answered that question for me – Budapest. I was constantly pointed in new directions by people and things around me. I was pointed to Italy a week before the first case of Coronavirus was documented. I was pointed out of Europe on the last day before my visa expired (which I wasn’t aware of). I was pointed to a Canadian who had so many similarities with me that it was mind-boggling. He edited my book right when I needed someone, anyone, to give me feedback. I met him in a hostel lobby in Skopje, North Macedonia. I was pointed home a week before all travel stopped. I was pointed to people and their stories and my stories were often revealed to me.
When you are open to signs – when you truly pay attention – they will point you in the right direction. It may take a leap of faith, or just an ounce of faith to begin with, but they will show themselves.
Finding My Ancestors, Part I
Perhaps modern time is more romantic than we perceive it. If, reluctantly, we acknowledge that we often excessively romanticize the past (the 20th century was obviously one of the most bloody, war-torn times in the past few thousand years) then we might as well come to the conclusion that the massive social change, bloodshed, turmoil and revolution of the 19th and 20th century is part of that, and led to modern time, in much of the world the most peaceful and idyllic time to be alive, ever.
In America, at least, the question of where we come from is a fascinatingly curious one. We all have different ancestral stories, all equally interesting, stories of dreamers and adventurers who set out to change not only their lives but the lives of their descendants. Unfortunately, many Americans are unable to trace that ancestry – African-Americans, many Latin American immigrants, and Native Americans, for example. Some modern Americans are the product of bravery, some opportunism. Our differing but generally similar background stories should bring us together. But that requires acknowledging that they share similarities, while also taking interest in what makes each individual story different.
The extraordinary fact that the “most powerful country in the history of the world” is entirely composed of not one ethnic or demographic group or ancestral heritage, but many unique, individual backgrounds and human flavors, woven together into not a “melting pot” as many call it, but a beautifully horrendous quilt patched together with exactly “4 x “4 squares decorated with different designs, baffles me. It is flawed and that contributes to the beauty of it, a beauty that I think is largely not ignored, but most definitely not fully understood. Perhaps more should learn and explore their own backgrounds. Perhaps that would give them a different perspective.
My grandfather has always been enthusiastic about his German heritage. So, when I began studying German in college and then decided to go study in Austria and Germany, my grandfather was set on my discovering the roots of his own grandfather and my great-great-grandfather. That man was Conrad Römbke, who had emigrated to America from the German state of Nordrhein-Wesftfalen, Westphalia North of the Rhine, in 1903. When I first travelled to Germany with a college short-term study group after the summer of his first year of college, my grandfather, with a big and white bald head, dark brown eyes, and a round, curved nose, approached me with boyish enthusiasm and a heaping pile of ancestral info, hoping that I would go on the quest in the land of our forefathers that he was never able to embark on himself.
I had hoped to explore the roots of his lineage, yes. But how could I be expected to search a small village in northwest Germany for distant relatives, one that was ten miles from the nearest train station, when I had never even travelled alone out of my podunk town in rural Indiana before? It seemed a bit presumptuous.
But when I first saw the rolling hills and flat, wooded fields of Niedersachsen, Lower Saxony, I felt a flutter of hope. I saw why my ancestors had moved to Indiana. Their landscape looked identical, like a long lost twin.
When I first laid eyes on the German landscape there was a connection in my mind, a realization sparked, and when I talked to the people, I knew intuitively that they shared with me something genetic.
I was in rural northwest Germany, sitting in the window seat of a Deutsche Bahn train car on a three hour journey from Amsterdam to the student city of Osnabrück, Germany, which is Evansville, Indiana’s sister city, Osnabrück being where the treaty was signed to end the vicious Thirty Years’ War that killed a third of Europe. Osnabrück is still called the City of Peace. The Treaty of Westphalia was signed four-hundred years prior. What was one-hundred years? Just over one century separated this time in my life from my great-great-grandfather’s.
I consider myself curious, and often ponder the timing of the exodus of my great-great-grandfather, Conrad Römbke (changed to Roembke on arrival at Ellis Island). 1903. What a choice. He simply left the Rheinland before the chaos of Kaiser Wilhelm’s napoleonic attempt to take over Europe in the First World War, before the hyperinflation of the late 1920s and 1930s, when the Deutsche Mark inflated by over one billion percent and Berliners heated their homes by shoveling paper Marks into their ovens because it was cheaper than buying wood. He had left before the rise of the Third Reich and the fascist frenzy that had engulfed Germany and very nearly all of Europe.
I grinned when realizing this, for it meant that maybe my great-great-grandfather had the gift of insight and premonition and had passed it onto me. If not, then I could still think that. However, I did not grin when I thought about my German-American great-great-grandfather watching from across the Atlantic as his homeland was engulfed in treachery and catastrophe and sorrow and deceit.
So, it was a somewhat spiritual connection to Germany as I first looked out the train car – a respect for the adventurous and insightful spirit of Conrad, and even my study of the German language that probably thrust me toward discovering the story of my family. I knew that an attempt to find my long lost cousins on that trip would be a lackluster one. I was just becoming familiar with the German culture and way of life. I was busy with classes, and trips to Berlin, Paris, and Amsterdam that mesmerized me so much that I couldn’t really think about much else; plus, my German was not good. I would come back, next time for much longer, and return with better German skills, more confidence and a better lay of the land, from the railroads to the people, to the customs and culture.
So I did. Two years later, during my junior year at university, I decided to spend an exchange semester in Graz at Karl-Franzens Universität. It was no easy task or a decision made on a whim. I worked long hours in the summer at the local coffeehouse, and down in Evansville waiting tables and doing menial student worker jobs. It was all done with a goal in mind. My German was now somewhere closer to fluent, conversational may have been the best word to describe it, and a semester immersed in everyday life in Austria, I hoped, would give me full fluency and self-assurance in a culture that still wasn’t my own.
I was a different person the second time. I made jokes over dinner or beers nightly with my extraordinarily Austrian roommates (lederhosen, hometowns in the mountains, odd idiosyncratic quirks), went to class and hopelessly tried to understand my professors when they talked about history and economics and European demographics, and read books and talked to my international student friends in English in the meantime. I rode my bike around Graz often, many times without a destination, only to take in the city. These were the times when I felt like an Austrian and scoffed at tourists as if I was not one, which I wasn’t – I was a student in the biggest student city in Austria. This gave me confidence I had never experienced. Here was a kid from Nowhere, Indiana, someone who was never supposed to break free from that shell, riding from village to city, grinning from ear to ear, taking in what to me was complete and utter freedom.
My last name had never held overt significance to me. I believe I have always had an eccentric spirit, the type that wanted to be and do things different. In that way, I loved my last name. I had never met anyone and likely never will who had the same last name as I, who was not in any way related to me. The most trouble it had ever brought upon me was the fact that no one could pronounce it, which was understandable. In German, it was simple: Römbke was actually pronounced Rooom-kuh, but that had the ö, that beautiful o with an umlaut. Roembke had just barely been americanized to delete the dots and add an -e. Of course, that made sense. At least it wasn’t Schmidt changed to Smith.
Which made no sense, of course, especially since Schmidt in German was not translated to English as Smith. Even if it was, why did the immigration agencies of the 19th and 20th century feel the need to change a perfectly easy family name to Smith? Some sort of assimilation aid. Truly, that is why Smith is the most common last name in America; there are German Smiths and English Smiths.
But back to the name pronunciation. My high school basketball coach called me Rim-key, in that gruff Indiana twang, yelling Rim-key! everytime I made a mistake on the court, which was often. My teachers were always interesting to watch on the first day of class. The agony on their face was apparent. I watched many high school English teachers squirm before they blurted out, “Keegan Rom-key? Rump-key? Rimp-key? Rom-bek?” That last one was baffling. The –e comes after the the b AND the k, for Christ’s sake.
The right American pronunciation is Rum-key. But now, after my study of German, I love to tell people the correct pronunciation is Room-kuh. No family in Indiana has so many various possible pronunciations of their last name as the Roembkes. No one.
I wanted now to find someone who pronounced their name that way. I wanted to find a German cousin, a Römbke, someone who I knew was my relation who had grown up speaking an entirely different language, all because Conrad’s brother hadn’t come to the U.S. like him.
On August 2nd, 2018, I strolled up to Seelenfeld Fünf, Seelenfeld 5, the supposed former address of Conrad Römbke, my great-great-grandfather, before he left for the new world. Nothing was there. The windows were boarded up, the door was locked, and it looked as abandoned as a Ford factory in post-industrial Detroit. I walked around the village for a few minutes. Nothing was there except a bar that was closed (it must have been Sunday), a Lutheran church, and an old well sitting in a field between the two.
I wondered what would happen when I found a cousin. Would they shake my hand and hug me like a family that had been separated for a century by the free-spirited Conrad, who had embarked on a voyage to New York from the Port of Hamburg, so that he could add an –e to his name and start a new life in Indianapolis? No, most certainly not. That would be strange and entirely un-German. That was why I thought that I was probably the right Roembke for this job. I was going for the adventure, out of curiosity. I wasn’t the American looking for his long lost ancestors out of a sole selfish quest for ancestral heritage or identity, and I wasn’t some American tourist who thought it’d be fun to travel back to the land of their forefathers, knock on a door, and scream American English at someone with the same last name until they reluctantly admitted that “yes, we might be related!” as long as you “get the hell of my front porch, now.” If I somehow found relatives in Seelenfeld, I thought, I’d be humble, ask them about their daily lives, perhaps ask them for coffee, and leave before they asked me to leave.
Before I’d arrived in Seelenfeld, before what happened that day, I sat in the wee hours of a gray morning at Osnabrück Hauptbahnhof, the central train station, my final exams in Graz having ended less than a month earlier. I was rifling through old family documents my Grandpa had given me. They were family trees and could not tell me where to find any family that would possibly be living there now. I would travel first to Seelenfeld 5 and then to any of five addresses I had found for families with the last name Römbke in Seelenfeld. My train to Münster would leave in fifteen minutes, and it would take approximately three hours and twenty-four minutes to arrive.