Exiting the main train station at Hamburg at 9pm a few days ago, the traveler was looking through the maps under the dim street lights to find his lodging for the night. Suddenly, an obviously intoxicated German girl approached me from across the street, asking first in German, and finding my incomprehension, then in English whether I had any alcohol with me. Even though I politely told her that I do not have any, the girl, finding out that I am from California, quickly forgot about the alcohol and began a twenty-minute tirade on how Germany sucks and she wants to move to California.
In particular, she just kept on ranting about how much the weather is horrible in Germany, and even though she lived all her life in Hamburg, cannot tolerate the cold winters. But at that moment, the weather was still in the lower teens. Yes, the wind chill did make things a little uncomfortable, especially for the exposed hands, but otherwise, winter in Europe, so far, felt pretty bearable, and definitely did not deserve the amount of hatred the drunken German girl expressed.
Well, couple of days later when I found myself in the streets of Oslo, I knew exactly where her hatred came from. Walking through the Norwegian capital, even now in the warmer part of December, is like walking through a minefield. Every step one takes requires confirmation that the foot is not on a big slab of ice frozen over the pavement. Every minute one sees someone, including the residents of the city walking through these streets everyday, slipping and almost falling.
The municipal government attempts to remediate the situation by poring little black rocks on the pavements to increase traction, but unbelievably, often the ice is so thick that the little black stones end up at the bottom side of the ice slabs. As people slide across the streets, they can do little by crack embarrassed smiles and jokingly complain about the terrible road conditions. Combined with chilling winds that hit the skin like razor-sharp knife cuts, a stroll even in the southernmost portion of the Nordic country is not a fun one.
But, of course, everything has its bright side, even in the dark and cold of winter in the Far North. Some of them are quite straightforward. Being outside the obvious tourist season, the major sights, lodging, and transportation facilities are all literally devoid of crowds. That, by all means, translates to better rooms and tickets for far cheaper prices and enjoying great sights without having to deal with too many people blocking the way. Traveling is indeed easier, if not for the weather.
Yet, the biggest benefit of winter travel does not even really have to do with travel itself. It is, after all, trudging through freezing temperatures for days and weeks at a time, quite often a big test on the physical endurance of the travelers and more importantly, their will to continue with and ultimately complete their ambitiously established travel plans. At some point during some parts of the trip, the mentality of the travelers simply goes from “I want to travel because I like what I am seeing” to “I have to travel because I told myself I am going to.”
And to balance the two is a major task, and if successful, a major accomplishment in any extended winter travel plan. Chilling, literally, in the below freezing temperatures, one is bound to ask oneself, sooner or later, and in multiple occasions on the trip, “why the heck I am burning cash to do this?!” And often times, one would not be able to come up with legitimate rationale simply based on the sights and the destinations. No beautiful church or ancient ruins can beat a warm cup of tea in front of the TV at home in the freezing winters.
But the legitimate rationale is greater self-control, in the form of finishing what one had started. It is that determination to continue the trip against all odds, whether the weather or the sense of self-doubt, that really add the greatest meaning to the trip. The trip, while pushing the boundaries of where I had been geographically, also pushes the limits of where I can go mentally. And that active increasing of one’s tolerance for adversity amid discovering the hidden sights in some remote corner of the world, maybe, is the first step we all should and need to go through in order to discover the hidden sights in the remote corner of our own psyche.