I’m not quite sure what time it was when the train started to move (ten, fifteen, maybe 20 minutes after it was due to leave the station? Czech trains sadly lack the timeliness and efficiency of its German and Austrian neighbours), but its departure was signalled by a familiar musical refrain – a buildup of shrill notes, tone by tone, until it reached the high-pitched screech of wheels grating against steel. It woke me from my drifting sleep – a good thing, because I’m painfully wary of falling asleep on trains. A small, initially harmless nap on the train from Frankfurt to Nuremberg last week landed me in Munich, 170km away from my intended destination, and I had no intention of repeating that frantic episode in the middle of the Czech countryside, especially since English speakers were few and far between.
It bothered me a little that I didn’t know what the time was, and that I couldn’t be bothered to check. Time means so little here, in a place where I have no engagements to keep, no people to accommodate, and no obligations to fulfill. My only concern lies in finding my lodging before sundown, but that’s hardly a pressing concern given that the sun sets close to midnight. And so I was free to wander. Having deposited my hefty luggage in a locker in České Budêjovice, all I had was me, myself, and my backpack.
I’d been brought up in a tradition of meticulous planning – of holidays mapped out on the grey-bordered cells of Excel sheets, of Plan Bs and Plan Cs, and of credit cards and insurance. And despite my attempts at spontaneity within this small freedom of time, I have not been liberated from that mindset. I was headed for Česky Krumlov, a beautiful Renaissance town (and a UNESCO World Heritage site, a.k.a burgeoning tourist trap), but my rickety regional train stopped at numerous small towns and farms. I was tempted to alight at one of the towns, but I didn’t. It pained me to diverge from my plan, almost as if something would go wrong if I didn’t stick to it. It struck me then, as I was hurtling through small Czech villages and fields upon fields of straw-barrels and cows, how ridiculously secure I was. I had cash on me – Czech Koruna in my wallet, and if I lost that, I had US dollars and Euros in a hidden sleeve at the side of my backpack. I had three credit/debit cards, including a Visa and a Mastercard. I had three insurance cards – one for health insurance (which is, to be entirely fair, mandatory for college), one for my trip, and one from my Dad (because my parents wouldn’t be my parents if they didn’t buy insurance!) I had a phone, and if that ran out of battery, I had a battery pack – otherwise, I had an iPad – and if that failed too, well, my laptop would be able to connect to Wifi. I had my Eurail pass that would allow me to take any form of transport, anywhere within the country. All these considerations floated at the back of my mind as I went about my day, and I felt strangely cautious rather than at ease.
And that is precisely the sort of invisible luggage that we carry with us daily. I’d embarked on this solo trip through Europe (*actually, only partially solo because I’m meeting up with lots of old & new friends!) because I needed time away, both from the fast-paced whirlwind of an experience called college, as well as my (sometimes oppressively) comfortable home. I was far from being alone and self-sufficient; rather, I was made even more acutely aware of my dependence on our complex construct of safety nets. I was never really apart from my family and friends. I was never disconnected from the world I left behind, even in this brave little cocoon of cows and tractors – I was constantly updating my whereabouts and posting photos on social media, checking in with my parents over Whatsapp, shooting my friends messages over Facebook.
Perhaps this is my answer to the question: “How was your first year of university?” Our college experience is supposedly one of self-discovery, a blank slate on which to chalk out our lives and futures – and I say yes, that’s what my first year at college has allowed me start to do. But oftentimes it’s paradoxically the least conducive place for self-exploration and reflection – in a world where CS (computer science) assignments are due, where internship and myriad applications abound, where 20-page essays proliferate, where the organisational demands of student groups never end, and where social activities are plentiful, there is hardly any time for the individual. In the microhabitat of the Stanford bubble, we can only define ourselves in relation to the people around us as we chalk up successes and scratch out missteps on our no-longer blank slate. Every inch of time is precious – in trying to find oneself, we find ourselves waist-deep in self-imposed commitments. There is an intense urge to put every second to productive use (the cost of going to Stanford is equivalent to driving a new BMW off the cliff every year!), and an acute need to remain plugged in (perhaps more a feature of attending university in close proximity to Silicon Valley). Our fundamental project is to accumulate as many experiences as possible; yet in doing so we neglect the primary purpose of our undergraduate education – to reflect on those experiences and figure out who we are, what we stand for, and where we are heading.
The college journey is much like this rumbling Czech train – smooth sailing for brief stretches of road, stomach-wrenchingly rocky for others, meandering for some – but always careering onwards in a general direction. The world looks more fondly on those who are going somewhere, or those who at least appear to know where they’re coming from and where they’re headed. The truth about college students, though, is that we don’t really know where we’re going. We bumble along the tracks, influenced by our environment and driven by passions that fluctuate daily (Where do our passions come from? Do they derive from a fundamental project? Are they arbitrary, and as such, not chosen by the conscious volition of our free will – destined to never really be our own?). We hurtle on, not entirely sure of who we are or where we are as an independent entity existing in space and time.
The train comes to a screeching halt and I look up. The dark, sans-serif Slavic characters etched into the cream-pastel walls of the train station indicate that I have arrived at my destination. I alight from the train and take in the crisp air; unmoving, at a standstill. Stationary. At least for a little while. At least for now.