Every morning I wake up in a different European city, depending on which direction I’m facing and how tangled I am in my sheets. If I’ve had a bad dream or I’m particularly restless, I’ll wake up at the foot of my bed between the breathtaking Geneva postcard sent to me years ago by a friend abroad and the bright, oversized pictures of Parisian architecture decorating my walls.  Otherwise, chicken scratch letters from England, artistic business cards from Stuttgart and an old article on the post-Soviet literary zeitgeist greet me every morning. My bedroom walls, collaged images of foreign metropolises, polaroids, magazine clippings and travel columns, is my life-sized inspiration board; it’s how I chart where I’ve been, where I want to go and how I constantly remind myself that creativity and self-expression matter.

Exactly two weeks ago, I woke up not to one of my many postcards or pictures, but to the real thing. In the tiny village of Grundlsee, Austria, at the foot of crystalline Lake Grundlsee surrounded by the lush, wild Alps, it was hard to believe I wasn’t in a pastoral painting at the National Gallery of Art. As I wove my way from my bare bedroom through rooms of past splendor and wooden Alpine decadence in our friends’ Victorian chalet, I realized that although this wasn’t a painting, I was living in the likes of one of the postcards on my wall at home. No photo — though we really did try — could aptly capture the view from the balcony; the way the sun hit the farthest mountain while we ate fresh bread, jam and tea for breakfast; how the breeze rippled the lake creating imitation hills and valleys in the water; how, later, the smoke from all the cigarettes mingled with the midnight air and cast a haze over the moon.

In neighboring Bad Aussee, women wore traditional dirndls like the ones hanging in my closet at home and men (even little boys) paroled the streets in lederhosen. None of this was kitschy, for show or for tourists; this was simply the way it was. Wandering the streets in my Urban Outfitters uniform, I was immediately struck by the juxtaposition of these classic German garments and the modern lives of their wearers — people scooped ice cream, caught fish, drove peppy Fiats and lived their lives in these clothes. Instead of harping on the latest trends, it was through bright colors — brilliant shades of cobalt and scarlet, daffodil and olive — that people expressed themselves, decorated their homes and revealed their personalities. It didn’t seem to matter that they were wearing dirndls instead of crop tops and jeans — these clothes were a conscious choice to embrace Austria’s rich past while pushing toward the future.

The people of Bad Aussee and the countless other Alpine towns we drove through revealed their distinctly rustic point of view and celebrated the days of old with clothes, traditional crafts and cuisine. After hiking to an Alm, or high Alpine pasture, we sat in a wood hut and gorged ourselves on the venison and homemade marmalade given to us by the residents. Our friend told us that this particular trail had existed for centuries and the residents of these huts lived the way they always had, raising cows under granite mountain peaks and graciously accommodating hikers who stumble upon their slice of paradise with homegrown Austrian meals.

As with each Viennese district and London neighborhood we saw in the coming weeks, I was struck by the power of self-expression flourishing in the Alps. People paid their respects to the region’s vast folk tradition and history while seamlessly and simultaneously conveying singular points of view. I realized that my Maryland bedroom is plastered with images and artwork as more than just a representation of creativity; it’s a reminder and shrine to individualism at its best. Worlds away in Austria, I found this same reminder staying in a white-walled room.

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