bodunas

By God’s grace, our CSer’s brilliance, or sheer luck, all of us made it to Warsaw in one day. Agnieszka (our host, whom we chose out of maybe ten people who had offered us a place) magically found me on the street. We went back to her place, where she prepared tea and sandwiches. I like Agnieszka very much. She has a calmly talkative manner, and an unspectacularly exciting life. A thread of combinations I haven’t really seen before. We went for a walk at dusk before fetching Christy and Valerie, who caught a train for the last leg of their journey. Agnieszka prepared a very typical Polish meal for us – potatoes with soured milk. It was really good!

I claimed the following morning as a recovery period from the previous day’s traveling fatigue. This is becoming a trend. The day ensuing a hitching day includes sleeping in, a shower, and mental reordering. The birthrighters chose to go to the Warsaw Uprising museum. It was a long walk (in the rain), but a very good decision. I can say without hesitation that it is the coolest museum I have ever seen. It resembled a waiting area in a theme park, and had a lot of cool features. My favorite was a mock sewer tunnel that you could walk/crawl through to get a feel of what many people had to go through. It was completely dark, and if I’m not mistaken, a bit damp. Despite the presence of others, and the knowledge that I was safely in present day Warsaw, it was vaguely terrifying. I had no idea how far it went, there were numerous twists and turns. It was cool. We spent several hours at the museum. I managed to ‘see’ everything, but I think I could’ve easily spent the entire day there. That was the only thing we did with our day. The four of us prepared a meal together in the evening.

From Agnieszka’s really cool guidebook as well as her advice, I had a few other things I wanted to do: eat at a bar mleczny (literally ‘milk bar’, a place frequented by students and the elderly for its cheap food), and see the view from the gardens on the roof of the university. Valerie wanted a personal relaxation day, so Christy and I left her sleeping. We found the bar mleczny Agnieszka had recommended and stopped at the window. There was a short menu with prices. Sadly we don’t know Polish. So we found wi-fi and translated the menu. After deciding upon our meal choices, we braved the supposedly unwelcoming atmosphere. Upon entry we found a much larger menu. So much for our choices. When we asked if the woman taking our order spoke English, she slid a menu in our direction – an English menu! My last hitchhiking lift had recommended several really typical dishes to me, so I ordered based on his advice. I got pierogi and since Christy got beetroot soup, I decided to try the sorrel soup (which, after trying, I realized Agnieszka had recommended!) Our entire meal – four dishes in all – cost about four USD. We spent the meal repeating ‘I can’t believe how cheap this is!’ and making plans to move to Poland for their delicious and cheap food. It was all so good, and so filling, and did I mention unbelievably inexpensive? Though admittedly, the filling part of that didn’t stop us from grabbing a chocolate, toffee, and cream cake from a cafe to take with us to the university gardens.

The university was stunning. It may well be my favorite building on the planet. It was all fascinating shapes and shades of verdigris. The gardens were lovely and the view was nice as well. My rebel dropout self was half ready to enroll in classes just to spend ample time there. On our way loosely from the university to home we came across buskers. Definitely the liveliest buskers I’ve encountered. We sat for a long while until they began packing up. Christy wanted a photo with them and we discovered they were Finnish travelers. This day in Warsaw was definitely one of my favorites from the trip until this point.

The next day we departed Warsaw for Krakow. Hitching took most of the day, but we didn’t have a host lined up, so I wasn’t terribly pressed to arrive quickly. The hitching included a stop at the always faithful Ikea for cheap food. We had zapiekanki, which is a Polish sort of pizza. I also had ice cream. They have a self-service machine, which essentially means that I had two servings of ice cream. Hitching also included an impromptu dance session across the highway to the tune of ‘Mahna Mahna’. Sometimes you just have to break the cycle of standing and hoping. It proved a good release, and I’m also sixty percent sure that it acquired us our final ride.

Sometime during the day we received a text from a couchsurfer who was willing to host us. Blaz (pronounced something like ‘bwah-jheay’) is a radio journalist bartender. He turned out to be a wonderful host. He made us several meals, including a typical Polish soup. He also took us to his bar (where we stayed out until the east of the dark sky was smudged with the murky paintbrush-water colors of almost-dawn), and to Zakrzowek (pronounced ‘zack-shoe-vack’). Zakrzowek was recommended to us by our last ride. He described it as a lake surrounded by mountains, in the middle of Krakow. Blaz couldn’t describe it much differently. They both finished with ‘you just have to see it’. And we did. It was gorgeous. The birthrighters went for a summer swim, and Christy and I jumped off of a not-too-high surface. A lovely late afternoon!

Valerie and I spent our second day in Krakow not in Krakow. Instead we took a bus to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The sky loomed black and ugly above us, which we agreed seemed appropriate. It was weird being in a place I have learned so much about. I found the whole experience a bit surreal, but it also lent some gravity to my perspective of that particular portion of history.

In the evening we had our obligatory pizza and met up with a new host. Blaz wasn’t able to host us our final night, so Robert stepped in. We decided to be boring and stay in, and he accepted that very graciously. It was a pleasant and thankfully relaxed evening before our hitch to Prague the next morning.

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the pursuit of enduring

After our reunion, we trekked to the home of Sebastian. His flat lay on a quiet, but lively street across from a park. The room we occupied consisted of tall ceilings and large windows. We sank with exhaustion into the mattresses. But alas, as it goes, he invited us to go see the German football match for Euro 2012. We followed him to a courtyard filled with people, beer and sausages, and a very large screen showing the game. We met some of his friends, cheered the German victory, and retired to a very deep sleep.

Every morning of our stay, Sebastian went out and bought us coffee and pastries. God bless people who provide chocolate and pastries! It’s difficult to please me more. Maybe not really, but I do have a special appreciation for the act of giving either. The first day in Berlin featured, of course, the free walking tour. We weren’t terribly impressed with our moody tour guide, but it was an enjoyable, if exceptionally hot, tour nonetheless. For dinner we paid €3 for ingredients and made soup with bread.

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We returned the following day to The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. This is probably the most interesting memorial I’ve seen. Especially considering the fact that it is composed solely of blocks of concrete. Our tour guide had emphasized that the designer was elusive about any details regarding the meaning. It was made to inspire contemplation, and I found it thoroughly successful in this. Beneath the memorial was our real destination, though: the museum. As holocaust museums go, it was a bit hard to handle. The weight of all those words and colorless photographs felt as heavy as the concrete slabs above. It was definitely worth seeing, but I’m not one to wander into solemness and then bounce right back into cheery life-as-usual.

The birthrighters parted ways to explore the city individually. Christy went to a museum, Valerie succeeded in re-finding a cafe with cool swinging chairs that we had seen upon our entry into the city, and I, I just walked. Really far. Right where we where meant to be headed after we regrouped. Accidentally. Oh well. It was a nice explorative walk, but not as nice upon the second return when we were heading home. My feet hurt for really the first time this trip.

Anyways, upon recommendation from our Australian friend Scott, we spent part of the afternoon in Gorlitzer park. It was a very different part of Berlin than we had seen the rest of the trip. The neighborhood surrounding seemed really cool, but we didn’t stay long, and I wistfully passed up the delicious looking pizzas in cafe windows. I had already had pizza that day…a large, art-ified section of the Berlin wall was also in this area. It stretched far, and boasted the paint and imagination of dozens or hundreds of artists. It was definitely worth seeing. In the evening, we met up with Sebastian and his friend and we had a chill evening in part at a little table outside, and then, when the rain fell persistently, in a cinema/smoking room of a small bar.

Wednesday forecasted a long hitching day. We took a metro and a bus out of Berlin and walked to a service station recommended on hitchwiki. It did work out for us. It took awhile, and we made the decision to split up once again. I climbed into a truck, leaving Christy and Valerie behind to acquire their own ride. My lift took me almost halfway, to Poznan in Poland. He dropped me at a service station, where the realization that I was by myself in a country where supposedly only 24% of the population speaks English, trying to get a ride to Warsaw hit me hard. I asked a few drivers, and two of the four spoke English, though none were heading towards Warsaw. Still, the ability to communicate brought hope. I looked at the line of truck drivers and thought to give in and ask for a ride, though I considered it inoptimal. There was a car about to pass between the truckers and me, so I stuck out my thumb just because. The car slowed and rolled down the window. ‘Warsaw?’ I said. ‘Warsaw.’ he replied. He was dressed well, and as my brother would say, he had a ‘nice person face’. And he spoke English. Quite well, at that. He was very kind, and I learned a lot about Poland. He drove me directly to the cafe where we were meant to meet up with our next host, and let me use his phone to call the other birthrighters. They were in Poland, but still quite far. Not having any zlotys, the Polish currency, and failing to get money from three separate ATMs, I settled onto a park bench and waited.

one month in

It is strange to realize that I am actually backpacking across Europe. Me. This is something I always thought sounded nice, something I wanted to do. It is (was) on my thirty-four things to do before I die. It feels surreal to be in the midst of realization.

It is 2:49am at a Burger King in Germany. I am blockaded into a corner booth by three sizable packs, and my friends are sleeping (poorly) in the booths nearby. This is the reality of that dream – my reality. Others include the fact that none of my clothes really fit anymore. This due to eating two (healthful) meals a day and walking kilometers with a backpack weighing equivalent to a jungle cat. My trousers stay on by the grace of extra shoestrings. Another is my ultra-yellow urine. My urine resembles a science experiment. Since I’m budget-living, I figured I would not be acquiring a decent amount of nutritious food. So, vitamins. What I didn’t realize is that for the duration of this trip, my urine will look disgustingly synthetic. I still haven’t gotten used to it.

My Docs are still making me proud. They handle floods and countless hours of countless kilometers. I discovered recently that they are also acid proof. Seriously. Besides Converse, why do other brands exist?

It amazes me the effect of the most simple things on one’s attitude. A shower, for instance. One day I claimed I felt as though I was made of swamp. Ruthie’s shower made me feel like a functioning, normal human being. Commonplace becomes a luxury for a fast-paced, long-term, budget traveler. Spending an evening watching a film is the greatest proposition ever. Being able to take my shoes off feels like being allowed to stay up past nine as a child. Sleeping on a couch, or even a bed, is the equivalent of winning a lifetime supply of kittens and peanut butter milkshakes. I am consciously grateful for every night spent in a warm, dry place.

I feel like we are all getting better at hitchhiking. We can spot good spots, we know decent routes, and we can communicate properly about where we would like to be dropped off. We take turns riding in the front. In other words, shouldering the conversation. It’s interesting comparing the topic and flow of conversation based on who is up front. Also the differences of hitchhiking culture in each country.

The things I find myself craving are surprising. More than alone time, I sometimes just really want to listen to my music. An entire album or playlist. I’ve developed an increased affinity for ice cream. I want days in North Carolina with my family, or food combinations I’ve never had. Unfortunately my brain feels so scrambled that journaling becomes a chore rather than a pleasure.

I have further confidence. When faced with the prospect of having no place to sleep, it doesn’t cross my mind to be stressed. I’ve peed in the great outdoors, and partially changed on the roadside. My communication skills have been stretched and strained. For my part, I’ve chosen not to be stressed. I say what I need, and the rest is out of my hands.

the most accessible city

So, Gent. Land of Sarah Frecklesoup. I had heard tell of this Sarah Frecklesoup by a couchsurfer I had met up with in Orlando. The birthrighters decided we absolutely wanted to stay with her. She gracefully accepted my probably overeager couchrequest, and on Tuesday we found ourselves at her flat. Though to get there, we had to cram ourselves into an elevator that was definitely not made for three people and three backpacks at once.

We had a long, rainy day tea with Sarah Frecklesoup and another local couchsurfer. Staying with her was just as lovely as expected. She was our first official female CS host. We slept in the next morning and then set out to explore Gent. I can’t really say what I like about it, but I do, I like Gent. We had Turkish pizza, which was…an interesting experience. First, we were charged for water, which I realized would happen just as I had ordered. The woman didn’t speak English, so I didn’t rescind it, but I wish I had. Psh, €1.60 for water. Anyways, the pizza was definitely different from any I’ve had before. There were strange flavors, and my pizza was shaped like a boat, but it was good. For dinner Sarah Frecklesoup took us for Belgian fries. Belgian fries. So good. We had ours with mayonnaise and stoofkarbonaden – a beer and beef stew-type sauce. Definitely, definitely get Belgian waffles and Belgian fries (with mayo and stoofkarbonaden) when in Belgium. We ate our fries beside the river, until the sky went dark and the city lights came on.

Getting from Gent to Luxembourg took like six rides. I think the most so far, despite the relatively short distance. Our host here was a girl as well, but American. Like with Sarah Frecklesoup, I knew that staying with Ashley would be really comfortable as well as really enjoyable. She is excited about food. You can’t go wrong with people who like food. She made three meals for us over the course of two days – three absolutely delectable meals. And a cake. A carrot cake with green icing. And it was marvelous too. The latter was paired with watching The Big Lebowski, and stressing over Valerie being charged one thousand dollars for our Oslo-London tickets, rather than two hundred and change.

We had just one day to explore Luxembourg. Which, I think we all agreed was enough for us. Under the circumstances of this trip anyways. If I had loads of time there I am certain I could make good use of it, but comparatively to how long we are traveling, one day was sufficient. I really like the shape and levels of the city. There is a higher part and a lower part, lots of greenery, and lots of tall walls. One street in the lower city was filled with the scent of flowers. We followed a nature trail, saw the golden woman statue, we did not see something called ‘Bock’. I’m curious as to what that was, but it quite simply didn’t happen. Just like pizza in Luxembourg. Yes, sadly we failed the pizza challenge. Due to getting lost, countless construction obstructions, prices, and general group dynamics. I did get ice cream though, and I’m considering that an adequate substitution. Oh, and it wasn’t just any ice cream; one scoop was nutella, and the other ferrero rocher. Pretty good decision. Later we met up with Ashley and she bought us gromperekichelcher, aka Luxembourgish potato cakes. They were so good. Even to an anti-fried food preferrer.

On Saturday we should have gotten up and left early since we had an eight hour drive to Berlin. That’s what we should have done. But we had the promise of biscuits and gravy, a warm couch with loads of pillows and blankets, and a grey day outside. We didn’t leave until two. I have no regrets – the biscuits and gravy were worth every non-hitching second. Also, our relaxed morning with Ashley was really pleasant. Hitching days tend to be a bit much, but not so with this one. We made it as far as Cologne (we’ll round that up to one-third of the distance between Luxembourg and Berlin), but there we got stuck. ‘Oh, you can get to anywhere in Germany’, said our last ride. Mm, wrong. We waited until 9pm before Valerie and Christy made the decision to call it. Whereby we retreated to the twenty-four hour Burger King. But before that, sometime in our long wait, we were approached by a youngish guy debarking from a van. A fellow hitchhiker! His name was Martin, and he was from Slovakia. He had hitchhiked to France, then England, then back to France to spend time with his girlfriend. How adorable is that? Anyways, Martin was very friendly. He shared some of his experiences with us, and even tried helping us get a ride.

But back to BK. We totally slept there. The manager, I think, wasn’t especially enthralled with this fact, but he didn’t say as much. To be honest, I only slept between the hours of 4:30am and 6. The rest of the time was spent…reading, listening to music, talking, just staring into space…to be honest, I’m not really sure how all of those hours passed. But come morning we got back out and started fresh. Perhaps not quite fresh, but whatever. Close enough. We decided to accept a ride to Frankfurt, though this was backtracking for us. We just wanted as far away from that bloody traffic circle in bloody Cologne as possible. I think all of us slept a bit during that first ride. The second was with a forty-two year old Turkish man with very limited English and Valerie’s taste in music. He told us about fifty thousand bears near the black sea in Turkey while we listened to Lady Gaga, Stromae, and the like. Oh, and I forgot to mention that he was a truck driver, and therefore only had two extra normal seats. Christy and I took turns riding in the sort of loft above the cab. At the end of our lift, Mustafa presented Valerie with the CD that was our soundtrack. That was a good time.

We waited two hours for the next lift. Finally we gave up thumbing and started asking at the service station. Germany is definitely the loser for hitchhiking. We weren’t having much luck, and since it was getting late-ish on our second Berlin-bound day, we were feeling a bit defeated. I found a car that was willing to take two passengers, but couldn’t fit three. Immediately after I found an older couple that was willing to take one. A very rushed decision found our group dividing. Christy with the couple, and Valerie and I with the two younger girls. Then came the issue of where to meet up again. Christy said ‘Alexanderplatz’, and we hurried into our separate cars. Natalie and Linda were mine and Valerie’s chauffeurs. We had a nice ride – we talked with them some, talked amongst ourselves, slept. At one point they turned on an audiobook in German. It sounded to me just like an English book playing in reverse. It was during this ride that I realized, after two days of driving across Germany, that ‘Ausfahrt’ is a word, and not a city. I kept thinking as we drove past ‘man, you can get to Ausfahrt from any exit in Germany!’ Yeah…

Anyways, Natalie and Linda waited until we found a lift at the next service station. It was very kind of them, especially considering it took forever for the women to return to their car after agreeing to take us. These women drove us through Berlin, all the way to Alexanderplatz. It was well out of their way, but they insisted. It’s funny, I was thinking earlier in the day how hitching in Germany is entirely inoptimal, but after reuniting with Christy Lu and hearing her story (the couple paid for her lunch, for coffee and ice cream, for her toilet fee, and for her train ticket to Alexanderplatz!), and thinking back on the rest of our rides that day, I had to disagree with myself. It’s more difficult, it takes a different method than I prefer, but ultimately all of the people who gave us rides were very kind in various ways. It’s as though they don’t take the initiative to pick up hitchhikers, but once you are in their car, they take care to ensure you have what you need, and you get where you need to go. So, while hitchhiking in Germany remains my least favorite, I do still appreciate the people and the experiences.

valchren

Through Simon the Second we learned that hitchhiking in the Netherlands is illegal. There are apparently places where the police won’t bother you, and probably they would only tell you to move on rather than arresting you. But because of this we decided to buy the six and change train ticket to Utrecht to visit Christy’s friend Ruthie. Go us, for making the non-illegal decision. Though honestly, I was beginning to wonder whether we would ever actually hitch in mainland Europe.

Our stay with Ruthie was just lovely. From her teal and purple flat, to a phenomenal dinner, to the introduction to stroopwafels. She took us biking through town to a cafe. I was especially excited about this, because above everything else (yes, even more than windmills – of which I did see several within half an hour of arriving in Holland) the cycling culture here stands out to me. Walking through Amsterdam and seeing the vast span of bicycles whether parked in their very own bicycle parking garage, or biking down their very own bike lanes, or stopping at their very own traffic signals completely astounded me. We rode two to a bike – Ruthie and I pedaling, and Christy and Valerie sidesaddle on the back. Perhaps it was the company and the experience, but I definitely preferred Utrecht to Amsterdam.

We did get up and set out to hitchhike the following day. Despite illegalities. What can I say? I’ve acquired a taste for breaking the law. Not. But apparently it’s becoming a pretty common part of my life. Anyways, despite some flicking off, and general rudeness (the Irish still win for best hitchhiking culture) we did get a ride – and not by the police. The rest of the journey to Brussels we used the more direct route of asking for rides at petrol stations, rather than just thumbing. This worked quite well for us. I’m personally not as much a fan of that particular method, but it got us where we needed, so I won’t complain. Our last ride made a stop at a beer shop. It was pretty impressive. There were so many different types. If I liked beer it would have been like a candy shop. Actually, since I like neither beer nor candy, it was exactly like a candy shop. Ah, well, I was glad to have seen it.

Our host, Gregory (hailing from France), met us in the city centre. We were joined by two other resident (also French) couchsurfers. We visited a few bars before retiring to Gregory’s studio apartment. Between the three of us and our backpacks, all of the floor space was taken.

Waffles were on the agenda for our first day in Belgium. That and Manneken-Pis, aka ‘Little Man Pee’. This is the sort of national symbol of Belgium. A tiny statue of a peeing boy, which is routinely and ceremoniously dressed in elaborate costumes, occasionally pees beer instead of water, and has been stolen seven times. I was a little bit excited about seeing it, but then, it was a bit disappointing. Perhaps if he had been wearing a costume…Well anyways, the waffles were superb. I had some sort of chocolatey ice cream on mine. Besides that, we mainly just meandered about. For dinner we made pasta in a creamy smoked salmon sauce. It cost us under €3 each. Who said you can’t eat deliciously and cheaply while traveling?

After dinner we spent the evening at the home of Sophie, one of the other CSers we had met the previous evening. It was a nice, calm socialization in the midst of all of our travels. Sometimes It seems strange to be spending so much of my time in Europe in people’s flats or houses, but I am personally for it. I am of the opinion that traveling is about more than seeing landmarks or changing one’s geographical location. It is really refreshing to escape tourist cluttered areas in favor of a real home and people living their everyday lives.

We left on Sunday for Bruges. A city which I was particularly excited to visit. Dark comedies, anyone? In Bruges is probably in my top ten…fifteen, or twenty (well, as my dear Cassiopeia would say, it’s top ten worthy) films. We arrived fairly early, but had no place to stay. Following much waiting and discussion, we decided to camp. Illegally. Of course. Fortunately for us, Bruges boasts a lot of greenery. We walked towards the green blob on the map and found ourselves in a park of sorts. Following a sidewalk, every now and again upon seeing a particularly thick cluster of trees we would nonchalantly make our way in to deduce whether or not we could remain decently hidden. We made note of two places, and settled upon the second. To the right was a fair place, but to the left was a large enough spot that remained completely invisible from the path which lay mere feet in front of it. The con: in the center was a large glob of dog poop. And panties. But, better to deal with the above, than set up somewhere we would potentially be seen and bothered. Right? Eh. We set up in a smaller space just beside the aforementioned grossnesses. Come to find that it was actually human excrement. And the panties actually a handkerchief turned toilet paper. Sadly not an improvement. Anyways, we were very impressed with ourselves. Look at us roughing it illegally. Not to mention we finally put the semi-cumbersome tent to good use. I carved a mashup of our names, celebrity couple style, into a nearby tree to forever mark our presence.

We snuggled into our tent, had a group journaling session, played cards, then distinguished the lights. Relative solitude never felt so good. And sleep would be great! Until the rain came. Again. Really, first Amsterdam, now Bruges?! Rain is the bane of outside sleeping. I actually slept really well, but in the morning we found the floor of our tent to be mostly soaked. Well, at least where Valerie was sleeping. Throughout the day it became steadily more and more wet. Our solution was to buy trash bags and cover the floor. Which, may have been effective, but God decided not to curse us with another wet night. I think I’ve never thanked God so much in my life, as I have on this trip.

So we took Bruges in shifts. Christy and I went up the tower to see the view of Bruges. It was lovely, and well worth our €4. Also, the bells play a tune every quarter of an hour. We were at the mechanical level when it began, but we climbed to the actual bells before it finished, and it was just lovely. Bruges is my favorite city that we’ve visited so far. Partially because of the gorgeous medieval architecture, and partially something about the atmosphere. I just find it thoroughly charming. I am surprisingly fond of Belgium in general. That was quite unexpected. Though I definitely recommend skipping Brussels and going to Bruges and Gent instead. Gent being our next destination.

three Xs descending

The night before leaving London, and therefore England, we decided to reschedule the next few days (in other words, countries) of our trip. All because of Sarah Frecklesoup. So we looked into tickets from London to Amsterdam, and found coach tickets for £49. Since there was a possibility of having to pay nearly as much for the ferry anyways, we chose the surety of arriving in a timely manner. Hitchhiking across water and four countries in a day seemed pretty unlikely.

Before we left though, there was our evening at the Half Moon. This was (other than people) what I was most looking forward to in our return to London. It was a phenomenal last night – Crabbie’s, really talented musicians, and a chill atmosphere. Neil joined us, and afterwards we had a late supper. We parted ways with Neil the next morning on the underground, and got ourselves (just in time) to the coach station.

It was a long journey, and we were frequently semi-harassed by a few overly confident men. Figures that the one time we choose not to hitchhike is the time we are stuck with creepers. Anyways, otherwise it was an uneventful trip. I listened to nearly half of Let the Right One In and slept for the rest of the journey. We arrived nearing the end of 9pm. It was still light, but we didn’t really have anywhere to sleep. I had posted an emergency couchsurfing request, but that was our only hope. No luck with that. Camping is illegal in the Netherlands, so that was out of the question. We looked into hostels. The one that was recommended to us had no vacancies, and the one we did walk to, none of us were excited about. I had a surprise burst of energy and confidence, and I suggested the option of just finding a quiet place to sleep. It took some walking and some questioning, but we did eventually find a place where all of us felt comfortable sleeping. It was a secluded bit of concrete near a river, with a couple of benches and a short wall. There were people near enough, as well as generous, but not obnoxious light. Well done us. We talked well into the night, untired due to ample sleep on the bus. But finally I chose to curl up and sleep.

Two hours later the sound of soft patters on my sleeping bag triggered my instincts. I woke Christy and Valerie and we went off in search of shelter. We began to find that Amsterdam is composed of very straight, non-sheltering structures. At 3:30am on the streets of drizzling Amsterdam, Christy was not a well functioning, nor a happy individual. Majority rule outvoted me and we returned to our homeless corner. We arranged ourselves once again on the ground and stretched the tarp for our tent over us. I held it tightly above my head and behind my back. My hands were cold and wet, and my eyes closed with the pretense of having a hope of sleeping again. Another two hours and I chose to abandon the situation and the group. I found a sheltering building nearby and waited for the other two to join me.

I’m really glad we had that night. It wasn’t the most optimal of situations, but I rather enjoyed it, and it seems an essential backpacking story. That day I contacted our CS host Simon, back in little Clara, Ireland, and he gave me the name of a friend in Amsterdam that we might be able to stay with. I called up his friend (also Simon) and that night we found ourselves staying in an illegal squat. In a building that had been used by the police to practice squat raids. I felt safe enough though; the tenants were going to court over the matter, so we weren’t likely to be rounded up and thrown in jail during our stay. It was a gorgeous building. Originally it had been a paint factory. Now our room proclaimed walls filled with paintings by various guests and residents, as well as furniture rescued from the roadside. Simon was a fascinating individual, whom I feel we didn’t have nearly enough time with. We went briefly back into the city to acquire our Dutch pizza, then spent the night listening to the rain on the roof while snuggled in our warm, dry beds.

how to not go to Wales

York was lovely. Perhaps a bit more trouble than it was worth for us, though. We quickly got a ride straight there. The first order of business was finding a place to stow our bags for a short time (in other words: a pub or cafe). I chose a tiny little place called The Cremerie. There was not enough room in the cafe, but the woman offered the enclosed storage space in the back. We gratefully accepted and set off to see York. We saw the major sights – the cathedral and the tower, but all of the attractions required fees, which we weren’t too inclined to pay. So after a few hours we headed back to The Cremerie and collected our belongings. I purchased homemade ice cream – one scoop peanut butter toffee, one scoop chocolate. Best decision ever, and more of a celestial experience in my mouth than a ‘thank you for your generosity’.

Hitching out was a problem. None of us felt like walking several miles out of the city. After much debate we ended up buying bus tickets to a city on the ring road around York. We thumbed for ages before a flame-stenciled van blaring strong rock stopped for us. He took us to Harrogate, the location of which I was only vaguely certain, and left us off just before the roundabout for our intended motorway. I am not entirely sure how the next events transpired. As far as I’m concerned, a van was pulled off waiting for us before we even stuck our thumbs out (okay, not quite, but it was pretty immediately). He was heading to London. He was heading to London? London…? Valerie and Christy looked at me in anticipation. Ah, well, let’s go to London. In a cloud of confused decisiveness we loaded our bags and settled into the van of Ben. I could tell almost straightaway (the almost inaudible music was a giveaway), but it took maybe fifteen minutes to confirm that Ben was a Christian, but not only that, a pastor. We had a really comfortable several hours drive with him to just outside of London. We talked about politics, travel, church, his life and our plans, and loads of other things. We took a train from his town, Addlestone, to East Putney, where we were welcomed once again into the home of Jean-Marc.

Dinner and jubilee decorating was on the schedule for the evening. As ever when Jean-Marc is involved, the evening was phenomenal. There were two other American girls (whom we only met later) couchsurfing with him that evening, and a relatively new Londoner, Lucia from Spain, joined us as well. We stayed up well into the night, and Jean-Marc left for some foreign soil early in the morning. We birthrighters donned our packs and set off across London to the new residence of Neil.

Shall I tell you about the best decision ever? I wasn’t lying about the ice cream in York, but this was truly genius. Last time in London, Christy and I spent hundreds of dollars (hyperbole? I think not.) on the damn London underground. This time we invested in a week long pass. I cannot tell you how many times traveling around here I have silently cheered this decision. I have gone places I wouldn’t have otherwise because I don’t have to worry about how much it costs. Basically, I am happy about this.

Pretty immediately upon arriving at Neil’s, Valerie and I set off to ‘see London’. We took the tube to Westminster station, where the view coming up the stairs is pretty epic. We walked about and saw major sights, we saw a prevented bomb threat as well as a dead man. All in all, pretty eventful. While we were out we stopped and got a Chinese, then watched tv (Anyone? Anyone?). Other London adventures include the Victoria and Albert museum (probably my favorite museum ever anywhere), the Sandeman’s free walking tour (it was pretty darn close to as good as the first time. Apparently London knows how to choose their tour guides), and a visit to the Tate Modern, but only for the view.

Neil had a party on our second evening. It was pretty small, but (therefore?) definitely a lovely evening. We were meant to have a barbecue, but the barbecue was loathe to actually cook our food. No matter, we curled up under blankets on couches in the backyard due to the fact that the air was wet, aka it was raining.

One day Valerie wanted to peruse the world war II museum unhindered, so I decided to take a trip to Brixton. Despite being warned that there was nothing to see, I felt it was necessary. I walked about the market and through the area. It’s true that there isn’t a whole lot to do. I did listen to Guns of Brixton. By both The Clash and Arcade Fire, thank you very much. Afterwards I took the tube to Victoria station and walked in a random direction. I passed by a homeless woman and my mind started up. I dropped in a grocery store, picked up a bit of food, and headed back. Sasha kindly allowed me to share her newspaper lined alcove and we spent the next hour in deep conversation, seen only by the hidden glances of passersby. We discussed politics, her plans, shoes, the upcoming jubilee, and all sorts of other things. She is a lovely woman. Intelligent and passionate. I’ve rarely hoped for anything as much as for her to get back on her feet. I think probably my time with Sasha was one of the best parts of my time in London.

So, clearly we had to achieve pizza eating wonder in England. Christy had the brilliant idea to try in Camden. We stood in outside the tube station in the rain with no idea where to go. Christy wanted to settle for pizza from ‘King of Falafel’, but I have higher standards than that. I asked a bartender in one pub who was completely unhelpful. I asked some girls at a random table who could only advise ‘just don’t go to a kebab place!’ Finally I asked another bartender, and her face lit up. ‘You want pizza?’ She pointed me in the direction I should go and said ‘I’m Italian. The first time I tasted this pizza, I cried and hugged the pizza maker.’ Needless to say, I was pretty excited. A short walk took us to Al Parco pizzeria. Inside the atmosphere was filled with warmth and the scent of garlic. There was a debate over ‘meat!’ and ‘no meat!’, I ended this by suggesting two pizzas. Sometimes I am pretty brilliant. Though none of us cried, they were delicious. Sadly since we were going to continue walking we just had to finish both pizzas, which resulted in us eating five slices each. I have no regrets. Live, love, eat as much pizza as you can muster.