1903

I had researched hostels in Riga before leaving London. But upon arriving via my budget airline at one in the morning, I promptly decided not to deal with checking into a hostel tonight. I would sleep at the airport until the buses started running and deal with it then. Upon finding a long bench in a dark corner, I somehow further decided not to sleep at all. My sleep schedule has been nonexistent for weeks anyways. So what is one extra night of no sleep?

Riga greeted me with a cool 10°c. Crisp enough to see my breath! My 7am bus journey boasted a fiery pink sky morning. Riga is an attractive city. I had been told this a few times in the past few days, by probably the only people in my life I’ve ever met who have been to Latvia (as well as some of the few who didn’t immediately query me ‘where’s Latvia?’) Still, I was surprised by it. I was first caught by the elegantly sculpted, softly colored buildings in long clean rows. These stretching down wide streets and wide sidewalks (a novelty compared to the cramped sidewalk space I had begrudgingly grown accustomed to in Asia). In general everything seemed tidy and well kept. Perhaps it was the early hour, but even the people about Riga seemed to go orderly about their business. It feels different here than other places in Europe. Maybe this is the Myanmar of the EU?

The hostel I had bookmarked wasn’t stirring yet at this hour of the morning. I sat on some benches across the street and people watched. Kids going to school; teenage boys on bikes, all of whom refrained from ever touching their handlebars; clusters of silent people waiting for buses; and older women smoking at the street corners. Finally I sought out tea. I’m always a little nervous in new countries about just spewing English at people. I don’t want to be presumptuous about other people knowing my language. But then Latvian wasn’t really a language option in school. My perusings on couchsurfing more than hinted that the residents here had a more than firm grasp of English. Anyways. The quintessential young, attractive barista greeted me in Latvian and following my timid request for tea switched fluidly to a beautifully accented English. Why can’t America be more concerned about learning other languages?

Just past eleven I finally checked into the hostel. I was informed that I had thirty-eight minutes to make it to the old city for a free walking tour. So off I went. A small, quiet voiced local was our guide. You could tell she was proud of her city. She took us, among other places, to the central market, the Daugava River, and the building known as Stalin’s birthday cake. It was a decent tour, and I was glad to have caught it the first day. However, afterwards I returned to the hostel. After over twenty-four hours of no sleep, I needed rest.

For dinner I found something called ‘cold soup’, which tastes like borscht with tzatziki mixed into it. In other words, incredible. I ate this in a nearby park as the sun set. Afterwards I strolled through the darkening city as slowly the windows and streetlights lit the city. Despite my nap earlier in the day, I retired early. My hostel room has a big window with a wide ledge. I made myself a cup of tea, pulled out the stroopwafels I had found in Rimi, and perched six stories over the city.  

shotfuls of shared time

Flying to London with less than three weeks notice is definitely unusual for me. Spectacularly spontaneous, as it has been put. I’m quite solidly the ‘purchase-your-ticket-six-months-in-advance’ type. But, honestly, I didn’t really even need to think about it. There was no mulling, no careful consideration of costs, no hesitation about taking the time off work. I was going, I was absolutely going, and that’s just how it was going to be.

You see, while yes, I am in theory flying to London for a party. It’s definitely more than that for me. My good friend Jean-Marc is taking leave of his flat which I’ve come to think of as another home. Which…may be weird. That a place I’ve been to only a handful of times could feel so hugely like home to me. But it does. It feels at least as much like home as any of my previous residences. When I have visited my old roommates in my old apartments, I still always felt like I was coming back home. I still knew where everything was, and I still felt like I was a part of life there, albeit an infrequent part. And that’s how I feel about Jean-Marc’s dear old flat. I know how to get there from anywhere in London (blindfolded…or not), I can just about guess the exact contents of the refrigerator and freezer, I know what the light coming in through the bathroom window looks like at any point during the day, I could trace from memory the decals on the wall. And then there’s Jean-Marc himself: I can’t name too many people that I’ve spent so little time with and have such a huge affinity for. Indeed, our so-called ‘quirky bond’ is the stuff that legendary indie films are made of. It’s just…from the most epic and entertaining stories you will ever hear, to the ceaselessly brimming enthusiasm about…life?, to the entirely random chunks of the encyclopedia that must be lodged in his head, to his passion for visiting every part of this extraordinary planet, to the infuriating command of an enviable amount of languages he casually throws around, to the mastery of interacting with practically anyone on any occasion in a matter of seconds, to the umm…skilled (and by skilled I mean magnificently amusing) dance moves…I dunno. Everything. Everything about that man makes me glad for his existence. And grateful for having the pleasure of knowing him.

While Jean-Marc wasn’t my first couchsurfing host, he was the first good one. He was a superb one. After our real first couchsurfing experience, Christy and I both felt sort of meh. Couchsurfing seemed a cool concept, but turned out to be less awesome than it sounds. We had this conversation while lugging my entirely-way-too-overly-filled backpack and her two baby-elephant-sized suitcases across the very stair-filled underground stations of London. On our way to the flat of the guy who had responded to our emergency couch request. We more or less decided that we probably wouldn’t do any more couchsurfing after the conclusion of this two week trip to London. And then, and then we heard a contagiously friendly voice greet us before we even reached the open door of Jean-Marc. Jean-Marc, one of the most exceptional human beings I’ve encountered. Jean-Marc, who’s seen me at either the beginning or end (or both) of just about every trip I’ve taken to date. If we were unenthused about couchsurfing before our whirlwind few days with Jean-Marc, we were enchanted completely by the time we left. My parents are known for their exceptional hospitality (it is, in fact, so ingrained in me that I went to school for the damn concept). Likewise, my childhood best friend’s family was ever social and seemed always to have company casually lingering around as though their house was the local favorite coffee shop. I’ve known hospitality and sociability. But I had never experienced it at this level, had never known it from strangers. I became intoxicated by this new potential, this unexpected aspect of life I had stumbled upon.

So I’m in London with my best friend and we’re trying this newfangled couchsurfing thing. And I find myself falling in love with these people whom I had never even heard of a few days prior. Like, head over heels in love. I don’t want our time together to end; I want to hold on to these new relationships like I desire to hold on to all of the goods things in life. But instead I’m just enjoying the ephemeral time we have. It’s all I can do. Jump in and swim before the water dries up around me. It is temporary, but it is good. It is enough. Don’t get me wrong – I love the people who are constant in my life. I need them. But there is something so inexplicably magical about choosing to invest, too, in people who won’t always be there. Being real with people who are present in the here and now. There is a whole universe of potential out there when you open your circle beyond just the people you’ve known.

I guess my point in all of this is: Jean-Marc was the beginning of this. Jean-Marc set the standard for this sharing-a-snippet-of-life-with-strangers phenomenon. For embracing the unknown as much as the familiar. And so, I attribute the life changes that have come from all of this greatly to him. And there have been many. My entire outlook on life has shifted, the whole way I interact with the people and the world around me has been transformed. I’ve shed all of my childhood fears of strangers in favor of hopeful potential, and it has brought about a terrific satisfaction to my existence. To not allow whether or not I know someone discourage my ability to have an authentic interaction with them. It has changed everything for me.

So, that is why I’m not just flying to London last minute for some alcohol-infused party. I’m flying to London to celebrate the end of a dynamic that has unequivocally rewritten my life. The dynamic of a man I didn’t know, his ordinary flat, and his peculiar passion for captivating strangers. I have no idea what my life would have been like if Christy and I had decided to call it quits after that first couchsurfing experience. If I had never met Jean-Marc and, consequently, all of the incredible CS hosts (humans) that followed. Not to mention all of the other strangers with whom I have shared various experiences. But I can’t believe it would have been nearly as exciting or fulfilling. I’m glad my life has gone in the direction it has. I’m glad I am open to interacting with whomever I might encounter. I’m glad I’ve seen the world from the inside of dozens of residences across the globe; felt life by sharing it, briefly, with people in vastly different situations than my own. I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to share my home and my little life with people I’ve never before met. And a huge portion of my gratitude goes to Jean-Marc Knoll for showing up to change my life. So thanks, JMK, and let’s give a freaking phenomenal sendoff to that spectacular old flat.

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