birthright backpacking breakdown

I find statistics fascinating. Therefore:

DISTANCE
17,490 kilometers
-or-
10,868 miles

DESTINATIONS

16 countries

Ireland
Northern Ireland
Scotland
England
The Netherlands
Belgium
Luxembourg
Germany
Poland
Czech Republic
Austria
Switzerland
France
Denmark
Sweden
Norway

32 cities
Clara, Ireland
Loughrea, Ireland
Dungloe, Ireland
Gortin, Northern Ireland
Glasgow, Scotland
Edinburgh, Scotland
Felixkirk, England
London, England
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Utrecht, Netherlands
Brussels, Belgium
Bruges, Belgium
Gent, Belgium
Luxembourg, Luxembourg
Berlin, Germany
Warsaw, Poland
Krakow, Poland
Prague, Czech Republic
Vienna, Austria
Salzburg, Austria
Überlingen, Germany
Kandern, Germany
Lucerne, Switzerland
Bern, Switzerland
Pontcharra, France
Paris, France
Hamburg, Germany
Copenhagen, Denmark
Charlottenberg, Sweden
Ås, Norway
Bergen, Norway
Dublin, Ireland

DURATION
May 16, 2012 – September 5, 2012
16 weeks -or- 112 days

EXPENSES
total: $1,650

TRANSPORTATION

hitchhiking lifts
125 total
91 men
23 women
5 couples
2 police (ha!)
2 forgotten

planes
Orlando – Dublin
Bergen – London
Dublin – Orlando

trains
Amsterdam – Utrecht
Brno – Prague
Arna – Bergen
London – Dublin

ferries
Northern Ireland – Scotland
Germany – Denmark
somewhere in Norway – somewhere else in Norway
England – Ireland

buses
London – Amsterdam
Gortin – Omagh

rideshare
Paris – Utrecht


ACCOMMODATION

couchsurfing hosts
23 total
18 male
4 female
1 couple

helpx host
Charlottenberg, Sweden

friends
Glasgow, Scotland
London, England
Utrecht, Netherlands
Kandern, Germany
Lucerne, Switzerland
Pontcharra, France
Ås, Norway

hitchhiking lift
Felixkirk, England

ferry port
Larne, Northern Ireland

Burger King
Cologne, Germany

camping
Amsterdam, Netherlands
Bruges, Belgium
Udevalla(ish), Sweden

 

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tusen takk

Here concludes three and a half months, sixteen weeks, or one hundred and twelve days of backpacking through sixteen countries, or thirty four cities in Europe. The birthrighters were driven across the continent by one hundred and twenty five wonderful lifts. We stayed with twenty three couchsurfing hosts, one HelpX host, eight friends, and one hitchhiking lift.

I am so grateful to all of the amazingly generous and phenomenal people who made our trip possible. To every person who stopped to offer us a ride, everyone who drove us any distance, even anyone who smiled or waved at us as they passed, and especially to the many who drove us out of their way. To all of the people who opened their doors to us and made us feel at home, those who fed us wonderful and nutritious (…or otherwise) food (and loads of tea!), and to everyone who filled their cities with life and spectacular experiences. I am so grateful for every thing that was shared with, given to, and taught to me by the extraordinary individuals populating this incredible planet.

Sadly I can never pay it back. But I am convinced my impression of the vast kindness of people will affect me for the rest of my life. I aspire to live as generously as I have been treated in these past months. I hope that my simple interactions, even with people I’ll never meet again, will be of a significance that inspires others to live with vivacity. I have been absolutely filled with wonder at this strange and beautiful life.

And to my amazing co-travelers – it’s been birthrighteous*. Our journey has been pretty damn epic. Crossing borders by foot; hitchhiking for months without being raped, killed, molested, or sex-trafficked (take that, Bembridge scholars!); dancing on Polish highways; climbing (every) mountain; stealth camping in Bruges; and loads of other legendary situations. Way to be awesome. Really. I cherish all of our adventures together, and I love you two immensely. Thanks for the memories.

I’d also like to thank the continent of Europe for providing our itinerary; the UK and Ireland for not being part of the Schengen agreement; the campers, taxi, coach, bus, 1930s-1950s cars, semi trucks, most-of-the-rainbow-excluding-purple cars, and Tim: provider of puppies, specifically, for giving us lifts; Ikea for providing cheap food, free wi-fi, and free bathrooms; Lidl for being our go-to grocery store; Vinze for being completely awesome, British Airways for being the best airline ever; God for creating a beautiful world and incredible people, Eddie Rabbitt for ‘I Love a Rainy Night’; Doc Martens for designing exceptional boots for all occasions; couchsurfing and hitchhiking for making this trip financially possible and experientially awesome; and Tidna for inspiring us. And finally to our ancestors, without whom we wouldn’t have had this adventure.

*’birthrighteous’ ™ JMK 2012

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is so familiar it is taken for granted.”

orange lava

The journey back to London was exceptionally good. I got *two* coronation chicken sandwiches, we landed early, and not only was there no line at customs, but the customs officer was SO friendly. One by one the birthrighters parted ways on the Piccadilly line tube. Christy to Neil’s, Valerie to Dublin, and me to Jean-Marc’s.

I followed Jean-Marc’s mysterious instructions and met him at Holborne station. I was then whisked away to a Polish vodka bar, where three other ladies were awaiting us. It was kind of a momentous evening, as I was in the process of acquiring the title of JMK’s First Fourth Time Couchsurfer. An honour which I now hold with pride.

JMK was appalled that I had never seen Team America, so immediately upon our return to his flat (that wonderful place), into the DVD player it went.

Patricia, a fellow CSer (hailing from Canada), and I were on our own the next day. As usual, JMK was off to some other land. My friend Tom (whom I met while Wwoofing last year) cycled to London to visit. We set off for a walk, and found ourselves several hours later far from East Putney. Soon thereafter we met up with a friend of his and hung out in a park, enjoying ‘the very last bit of summer’, as I was informed. Eh. My two week return to Florida will be concentrated enough summer to last all year. Anyways…Patricia, Tom, and I made dinner and chilled at home.

Both of them left the following morning, so I had all of London to myself. I contemplated visiting Wapping again, but felt too content in Putney to leave. Instead I bought a case of Crabbie’s and a box of Putney Squares (formerly known as caramel shortbread). And then I watched Up. Life was lovely.

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nonchalant bomb discoveries

Our return to Utrecht served as reordering period. It was a chance to take a few deep breaths, stock up on supplies while still in the Eurozone (we did the same before departing Czech Republic, because then we considered the euro really expensive. Ah, relativity!), and in general to just chill.

Christy and I worked some in Ruthie’s garden, then we (minus Valerie) went to the canal for a swim. We shared our swimming spot with large boat traffic, which made for fun waves. There were several cycles of swimming in the cold water, then drying in the warm sun before we returned to make dinner – a barbecue! We had grilled zucchini and goat cheese wraps, of course Swiss mushrooms, and Swiss grilled chocolate bananas, but this time with peanut butter. Because Holland believes in peanut butter. Cheap and natural peanut butter. You go, Holland! There were some difficulties actually starting the grill, but in the end Ruthie prevailed.

We also successfully dumpster dived. We brought in an impressive haul of quality, non-spoiled fruit and veg. Which the Ruthie and Christy then turned into a delicious meal. You may consider this gross, but I say what is free, delicious, and unspoiled is a-okay.

Christy decided to stay an extra day and meet up with Valerie and me in Hamburg. So Valerie and I set off alone. We went to an official hitchhiking location (to our delight), marked with a sign and everything. Again, you go Holland! We got a lift within minutes. At one point in the day another hitchhiker showed up at our low-traffic location. He acquired a ride before us, but his driver offered to let us join, since we were heading the same direction. We were dropped by this lift at a petrol station in heavyish rain. Upon arrival a group of three other hitchers sought cover. Our competition wasn’t a problem. We got a ride with a bright yellow and bright green car, both pulling caravans (one with an orange stripe – we still can’t decide if this counts as hitching an orange vehicle). Our drivers were Polish, and despite being in different cars, we really enjoyed the lift. Before the Polish guys departed we acquired a ride all the way to Hamburg. The barefoot and turquoise clad woman had to think about it when we asked, which I really respected. Usually people either say ‘no’ without consideration, or feel obligated to say ‘yes’. She said we could ride with her. But she warned us that she had a cold, as well as back issues which forced her to dance while she drove, and did we mind this? We didn’t.

So we arrived in Hamburg at a reasonable hour. Our hosts, Sarah and Sebastian, were in the midst of moving. I don’t know about their previous flat, but the one they were settling into was on the top (fifth) floor. Not a fun move. After hefting our own packs up the very long and winding stairs, Valerie and I helped them carry the last remains of their belongings. After which we all stayed up and talked far longer than anyone who had a day as long and tiring as any of ours had been should stay up and talk. But it was good conversation in good company.

The next morning commenced early with construction noises. They had never been there on a weekday morning, and this came as a surprise.  Since they both had work, Valerie and I showed ourselves around the town. We saw the harbor, walked through a tunnel beneath the river, attempted to find the pepper storehouses (but only succeeded in getting rained on),  located an infamous Starbucks and utilized their wi-fi, and made a final stop at old faithful: Lidl. I was craving creamy salmon pasta, so that’s what we made.

All this time Christy was meant to be making her way to join us, but she was unsuccessful in her venture, and returned instead to Utrecht.

un jour, une semaine, ______, un an

Leaving for Paris was daunting. Would we make it? We weren’t entirely confident that we would (at least not in one day), but sure enough we acquired ride after ride that brought us there. The last was for a several hour stretch directly to Paris. Christy wasn’t feeling so hot that day, so she pretended she didn’t speak French. Which turned out quite fine. The man was driving a work van, so only two of us fit up front, and the third was sentenced to isolation in the back amidst all sorts of tools and things. I took my turn first. It was quite pleasant – I spent my time reading and eating chocolate. Oh, and I had my own private dance party. That was definitely a first for me. But soon enough we made a stop, and Christy switched places with me.

This was an important thing, I think, as it prompted my first ever French conversation. Our driver did not speak English, and at first we didn’t really communicate at all. I think it was Valerie’s typical slow and gesture-riddled questions that started my attempt at interaction with him. I knew enough to sort of translate, so it worked out okay. But then he started asking questions too, and so I was forced to actually speak. I’ve decided that hitchhiking for long distances is one of the best way to learn a language. It’s not like either of us had anything better to do, so he was very patient and would wait sometimes as long as two minutes for me to think of a way to say what I wanted to. He was a good sport, and I can actually hold a conversation better than I would have expected. It was really fun! And it lifted my several-year-long feeling that I would never actually be able to learn a language. Score! And I managed to deduce that his flat was only ten minutes from our ultimate destination, so he dropped us right at our doorstep.

Edward, our host, was not present when we arrived. But, to Valerie’s dismay, his six snakes were very present. In my defense: when I initially started arranging CS hosts, I forwarded every invitation to the other two birthrighters, and Valerie said ‘it doesn’t matter to me – I’m fine with staying with whomever.’ Essentially. She never expressed an issue with staying in a place with snakes. But anyways, it was a bit of an issue. Which she sucked up and got through admirably.

Edward (actually not French, but British) is a crossfitter, and reminded me constantly of my dad. They would get along so well by sharing time being miserable and then consuming large quantities of protein. Anyways, he was full of different and interesting opinions on life, and I enjoyed hearing about them. Another couchsurfer was there as well, Aiste from Lithuania. We didn’t spend very much time with either of them, but I enjoyed their company during the time we were together.

Of course, day one featured the free walking tour. It was enjoyable, but nothing spectacular. I was more excited about my book purchase from Shakespeare and Company – a splendid secondhand English book shop. Other moments in Paris included sandwiches beneath the Eiffel Tower, a day exploring Montmartre, a quiet evening alongside the Seine, and my personal favorite: The Dark Knight Rises and truffle cream pizza. Paris far and away took the prize for best pizza in my book.

We were kind of nervous about hitchhiking out, as Paris is known for being tricky to escape via thumb, and Christy has had issues with such previously. So I posted on the CS Paris group, and actually received a reply. Within a matter of hours we arranged to go straight from Paris to Utrecht with a couple. We each had to contribute €22 for tolls and gas, but I was okay with this, as we had been planning on alternatively taking a train to Lille for €20, and not even getting to our destination.

Just before leaving we were informed by a kind fellow CSer that our ride was rather a sketchy fellow. Upon checking his CS profile we determined that yes, he was indeed sketchy. So we debated about whether or not to go, with input from Edward and Aiste. None of us were thrilled with the prospect, but overall we felt that it would all turn out okay. There were three of us, we knew what we were getting into, and we could always say no if we felt uncomfortable upon meeting our ride. So we set off.

Upon meeting we did decide to go through with it, and it ended up a fair decision. It was a mostly quiet and not uncomfortable ride, albeit with two suspicious stops. We decided not to ask questions, and that too, I think was a decision well made. If I were to go back in time (without the benefit of hindsight) I might not have decided to go – but that said, I’m glad we did.

Utrecht greeted us sleepily at 3am. Sweet Ruthie was waiting for us, and we gratefully piled into her new home.

in miniature at such great heights

The birthrighters made it to France with the help of a Swiss, Italian, Croatian, a few French, and the Swiss police.

Oh yes, we had another encounter with the authorities.

Fortunately for us, the Swiss police are much kinder than the German police. They spoke kindly, and even drove us many kilometers to a better hitching location. Unfortunately they didn’t share with us their abundance of sandwiches that I spotted tucked away in the front seat.

But we made it to Paul and Karan’s! Right to their doorstep, and it felt like home. For those of you who are unaware, Christy and I stayed with Paul and Karan on our first venture out of the States, we consider them to be our bonus family.

Since we arrived with daylight to spare (how novel!), Karan took us for a walk down at the lake in Pontcharra. Then, then it was time for pizza movie night. A wonderful, great, splendid tradition. One which I was glad to re-experience. So much so, that we had two pizza movie nights during our stay.

We went mountain climbing the following day. That’s right. We took a lift up the mountain, and then, well, not so much climbing as hiking. (We don’t have mountains in Florida, so you’ll have to forgive my flawed/nonexistent knowledge of mountain-related things.) Initially it was pretty easy, but once we chose to take the second path, then it got difficult. After some slipping and climbing and hiking, we felt pretty accomplished, but we weren’t at the top. Christy and Valerie decided they were satisfied with their achievement and decided to wait for us there (due mostly to inappropriate footwear, I think). This is the part where I point out that Paul and Karan are grandparents, and Karan has had multiple knee surgeries. So, needless to say, I was pretty impressed. We pressed on, and the terrain became more and more difficult, but finally, finally we were almost to the top!

But no.

It just appeared to be the top.

Actually, it was just hiding the next stretch of mountain. “Well, we made it this far”, Paul said. So we continued. It looked tough, but in fact was slightly easier. It wasn’t too long until we made it to the top.

But oh no, no.

Again, the mountain was merely hiding a whole other level of mountain. “I really wanted to make it to the top!”, said Karan. So we pressed on. It was even a bit easier now. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” I asked, “if it happened again?”

It was only a little bit funny.

But this time we were certain that it would be the last rise. And if not, we would just pretend. This climb was really easy. And indeed, it led to the very top. Our climb produced a really breathtaking (for beautiful and terrifying reasons) view. It was well worth the work. At the top we sat down and had lollipops for our reward. Well, I suppose the real reward was spending a long while admiring the spectacular forms, colors, and depths surrounding us. But the lollipops were cool too…

Getting back down was a different challenge. Karan managed mostly by sliding. I made my way in slow and careful steps. But we made it.

Before returning home we stopped to see their son Stephen and his wife Elodie. The last time I saw him, we were both about to start university. Between then and now, I attended university, moved three times, dropped out of university, spent several months in Spain and Ireland, and a slew of other things I consider important in my life. And he had graduated from university and gotten married. It definitely provoked a lot of thought. Time is eerie. Anyways, we all got ice cream, which is always a great decision.

The next day was sore and lazy, but still happily pleasant. We weren’t exactly thrilled to leave Paul and Karan’s. But fortunately for the rest of our trip, they too, were leaving.

of decisions made in color

It was wonderful hanging out with Vivien again. Her and her flatmate Stephy are so cute, and their flat is a magical symphony of plants and pictures and objects. It was Stephy’s birthday, so we went to her father’s place for a barbecue – the first of many in Switzerland. Stephy’s father was adorable too. He reminded me of a grown up version of the kid in Love Actually, and was very kind, and very concerned about the three of us birthrighters eating enough food.

Our first day we meandered about Lucerne, which is as gorgeous as Valerie had claimed. Elegant, stone building-lined streets amid oceans of sparkling lakes, all tucked into a mountain landscape. I really liked it. Later we met up with Viv and set off for Swiss pizza. Upon arrival at the restaurant recommended by Stephy, we were informed by the waiter that they didn’t have enough pizzas for us. I’m not really sure how that works out, but we found a different place and checked Switzerland off of our pizza/country list.

The next day was pretty lazy. We sat and talked in procrastination of actual productivity. Then we walked to a park, laid in the grass and talked some more. Our second Swiss barbecue took place that evening. We were introduced to garlic and herb cheese-stuffed mushrooms as well as grilled bananas – two foods that will forever remind me of Switzerland.

We left then, for Bern. But it wasn’t so sad, because we convinced Viv to join us! She and I formed a hitchhiking team (just like old times), and Christy and Valerie formed a team. Within five minutes Viv and I were on our way with a ride straight to Bern. Upon arrival we set off in no particular direction. While waiting to hear from the other two we saw the entire city, had iced chai tea lattes and a pastry, visited an earthy-mystical-hippie shop, had panache overlooking a river…and then they texted. Apparently they had been berated by an old woman, had rocks thrown at them by lewd boys, and been invaded by other hitchhikers. Their day was not going so well as ours. Basically they never arrived.

I miraculously met up with our CS host, Emmanuele. Like Agnieszka in Warsaw, he managed to recognize me despite my lack of two heavily backpacked co-travelers. Viv said goodbye and headed back home to Lucerne. It wasn’t till after we had purchased dinner materials and arrived at his place that I knew for sure that the other two wouldn’t be coming. It felt really weird. This, my first night away from them since mid-May. The room I would be occupying suddenly felt huge and strangely empty. I think being around them had subconsciously become habit. Weird.

But anyways, I had a really nice evening. Emanuele was from Italy, and I learned a lot about Italian culture during my few days in the capitol of Switzerland. A friend of Emanuele’s (also Italian) and his not-especially-English-speaking sister joined us for dinner. Another barbecue. More garlic and herb cheese stuffed mushrooms and more grilled chocolate bananas. It was a fun night, and it made me really want to visit Italy. So much for being ready to settle down for a bit when I return to the States. And for my next trip being to Asia.

Without getting verbose, Christy and Valerie got a ride with the same guy who took Viv and I the day before. It worked out well. While they explored the city, I spent my afternoon in a park with my bread/cheese/tomato specialty and Swiss chocolate. Despite having several invitations that evening from friends of Emanuele, we birthrighters decided to have a quiet evening to ourselves. We decided too, to stay an extra day. Christy and I planned to visit a nearby chocolate factory where, at the end of the tour, you can sample as much chocolate as you like. Seriously.

Again, sans unnecessary detail (and misery), we tried hitching to the chocolate factory and failed. Oh, and I ate cereal with worms in it that morning. So it wasn’t too awful to miss all-you-can-eat-chocolate, seeing as my stomach pretty certainly would have daintily deposited it into the nearest toilet/trash can. Anyways, it wasn’t my favorite day ever. But we did end the day with another barbecue. Swiss barbecue number four. With my two favorite grilled items, you should know them by now. Also Emanuele made pasta carbonara for us, which is pasta with raw egg and [cooked] bacon sauce. It was delicious. Everything made by Emanuele was really good. I really enjoyed staying with him. Not just for the food, but mainly for his company. It’s funny, you expect to stay with locals while traveling, but instead we tend to find fellow foreigners welcoming us into their homes.