When I learnt this word in my German class, I remember being instantly enamoured, repeating it several times in class, on the tram, in shower, enunciating it, rolling it around in my mouth to acquaint myself with its nuances, volleying it with my tongue, exploring its soft corners and rough edges and then carefully putting it back in my vocab chest, like a vintage fountain pen with gold nib and sterling silver filigree overlay, something valuable that you take out only on special occasions.
And when you do, you put on a show. You bask in the smug glory of the wonder ricocheted off others’ faces. Then you put it back in your armour again. Such is the word ‘zufrieden‘, which may mean satisfaction in English, but doesn’t feel or sound as hackneyed.
Sometimes a foreign tongue can elevate the meaning of a word you’ve heard all your life and transform its ethos into something grand just because it sounds luxurious in your mouth and tantalizing to your ears and also because you didn’t have enough time and occasion to wear it out. What I mean is, I may use ‘satisfied’ to indicate my experience in using the newly opened restroom at the airport, but use ‘zufrieden‘ while reminiscing about a sketching trip to George Town in Penang, that I returned from. To explain why, I have to reiterate that it was my first overseas trip where sketching was the actor in leading role and travelling was the supporting sidekick, not the other way round, like always. The priorities were flipped and the result was glorious.
This epiphany doesn’t mean travelling takes a backseat. I am the parent that’s trying to advocate equal love for each child.
For me, travelling isn’t just fun, it is also an yearning. The fact that I feel more happy, and alive on the move is established and I don’t second guess it.
What is travel’s worth in one’s life can be gauged from the motivation to travel. Is it to break away from the mundane seeking ‘change of scenery’, or to relax and recoup before you go back on the hamster wheel, is it to check off places from Lonely Planet’s 1000 places to visit before you die , is it to reclaim your twenties because you’re about to step into your 30s? Or is it that unsettling lifelong ‘need’, not a want but a need, right out of Maslow’s heirarchy, that thrusts you into the unknown from time to time?
My motivation to travel, my ‘need’ to travel, comes from my insatiable inquisitiveness to see, explore, thus discover and know. I believe, we are all inquisitive, differing in the intensity, perhaps. I mean, don’t we all like to take a peek, a swift glance into other’s living rooms through their open windows at night or others’ plates in a restaurant or try to read the label on a bag hanging from a stranger’s shoulder, try to peel off the discounted price sticker on a garment to reveal the actual price or take a peek at the answers behind the Math book?
The apogee of my German learning classes in Munich, was the day I could understand overheard conversations on the tram. It was as if a stubborn blocked nose had cleared and I could smell the roses again. Untill then it was unfathomable background noise instead of funny jokes, twee endearments, silly fights or crass comments. If you are inquisitive to such a degree, then travelling is one pursuit that requires each of your five senses to be in a constant state of high-alert. You are a walking sponge, absorbing an overwhelming amount of information sent by your five, foot soldiers who are working in a frenzy.
Now let me add another dimention to this self-absorbing pursuit called travel. Suppose you’ve been quietly nurturing the habit of documenting your life, the sights and sounds around you on a regular basis in a sketchbook and have been taking immense pleasure out of it. Yes, it’s been two years. Darn, you’ve even gotten good at it. It has brought you joy, won you friends across the world and admirers who say how much they love your ‘style’ (to which, you have chuckled more than once muttering smugly and questioning at the same time – “I have a style? I have a style!”).
You’ve showed your work at exhibitions, and sold. Yes, somebody actually paid money to hang your creation on their living room wall. You’ve counted the money gleefully, but you’ve also felt the pang of loss. It’s complicated.
Nevertheless the burning question is what do you do with this situation of yours, when you travel? Do you accomodate it because it’s becoming second nature or do you abandon it lest it comes in the way?
If you are inquisitive, you probably have been badgered by the ‘let’s see what happens’ shtick. That’s what I caved in to. I carried my sketchbook everywhere I travelled to see how it felt. And surprise surprise! Sketching did come in the way I travelled, the way we – I and my husband were used to traveling all this time. Aching shoulders from lugging around A4 size sketchbooks and watercolours, making more and longer stops at sights than usual, leaving my partner to fend for himself while I doodled, battling the desire to sketch but moving on instead because, well..tick tock..tick tock, fighting the guilt of cutting on the ‘us’ time – looking into each others eyes, holding hands et al and feeding the ‘me’ time was what happened.
The Decision Making
But if something feels remotely right you hang in there, right? You see it through. Let the unsure wobbly wheels roll, in the hope of finding balance. Truth be told, I haven’t found balance yet, I still falter and fumble trying this third wheel to roll with us in tandem, on our travels, in our lives but guess what, it is getting easier by the day, week, month and year. And what more! I am reaping the benefits. Already.
If you are a mercenary, do not read further. Disenchantment follows. Because the benefits which I am reaping, which many others before me have reaped and those who are yet to follow this path will reap in future is hopelessly Zen. When I am sketching, specially on my travels, I connect with my subject and my environment much more deeply than I would have if I was merely visiting or passing by, because sketching involves intense observation.
It invokes mindfulness, devoid of distraction, to such a degree that you participate in the scenery you are capturing on paper. Your fingers trace the eaves of the ancient temple roof, you knock on the louvered windows, ride the creaking bicycle, you flutter the laundry, skip the puddle on the fractured road and is caught up hopelessly in the nasty bunch of gnarly wires crisscrossing the facade of a shophouse. You become the pigeon sitting on the pole.
“The courage- to-be, right here and now and nowhere else, is precisicely what Zen, at least, demands : Eat when you eat, sleep when you sleep!'” says Peter Mattheissen, in his book ‘Snow Leopard. Sketching lets you practice exactly that without even making an effort.
When you travel through a destination, sketching slows you down, so you don’t just eat, but taste, not just look but see, not just hear but listen. And do you know what comes out of this beautiful partnership ? You are zufrieden, truly.
The Happily Ever After
I have come back with 20 sketches from a 3 day trip to the UNESCO world heritage site of George Town in Penang, Malaysia. And since I slowed down on these 20 ocassions ( and almost all of these were off the tourist map) , I have 20 deep and distinct impressions of the city (see below each sketch) relating to it’s architecture, history, food, people, culture, ambience, temperament that someway or the other has characterized and demystified the place for me. I had first hand experiences which are real and personal.
And I am sure, the 170 odd skechers from the entire South East Asia plus UK and New Zealend, who assembled here to participate in the USk SGT II (Urban Sketchers Sketching Georgetown II) event, experienced the same.