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.

raclette-dinner-ii

veidt

sleeping IIIKastrup airport is a quiet place at night. The silence is so thick in fact, that I felt the need to check whether it was open all night. It was. So, reassured, I found a group of benches already pushed together and claimed it as my bed for the night. It stayed quiet well into the morning. Kastrup smells infuriatingly of cinnamon rolls in the morning. Delicious (I suppose) and unjustifiably expensive from an American’s standpoint. I did buy a [delicious] sandwich (Copenhagen wins best airport food) for my breakfast.

The contrast of Copenhagen to my previous environment was apparent in more ways than one. For starters the brown bag sandwich that cost six meals worth of southeast Asia fare. Another was how…clean everybody was. I felt horribly under dressed and unkempt compared to the slim clothing lines and tidy haircuts of my fellow airport humans. I also realized I was the only one in the entire airport occupying the floor. No more Thais sleeping on bamboo mats on floors of trains, no more Vietnamese squatting on their stoops. Nope, everything clean and orderly and first class. I was out of place. I hadn’t been, at this same airport, at the beginning of this trip. But time and experiences change you. In ways you don’t understand while you are experiencing them. I really do believe it takes going back, to realize the ways in which you have shifted.

Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends.”

I believe the veracity of that. It holds as true for traveling as for anything else. You spend all this time having these great adventures and meeting interesting people and seeing these incredible sights and trying new foods. Inevitably the end of your trip arrives and you return to whatever your normalcy is. But…the journey you’ve completed hasn’t actually ended. You collect all of these experiences in your being. And you are transformed. The things you have witnessed, the people with whom you have shared time and exchanged ideas, and even the foods that have passed through your body are not trapped in some past moment. They are a permanent part of your self.

Sometimes these endless manifestations take tangible form. Like adapting your cooking and eating habits; such as beans on toast becoming a comfort food, having noodle soups for breakfast, or developing an addiction for Crabbie’s. Or maybe you’ve been captured by the market or the motorbike culture, and you incorporate that into your life back home.

a + b = c

Sometimes though, in forms less tangible. In ways which entwine themselves irrevocably into your thinking, and in manners that will ever dictate your actions. There are scars of permanence that cannot be traced, they merely exist.

? + ? = c

Nothing ever ends.sunsetThe whole process of flying back continent by country by city was mind numbing and tiresome. Blessedly uneventful, though. I arrived back safely in my home state of Washington to a near perfect Pacific Northwest sunset and the beautiful sight of these two faces.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

sometimes we sleep in airports

Sunita and I took a bus to Luton airport at 9pm on the 13th. Our flight was to leave at 7:30am the following morning. The comfy Starbucks benches were already taken, so we settled for the hard, but long Upper Crust benches. We had brought an assortment of unrelated foods: empanadas, arepas, yaki soba, carrot coriander soup, bread, and cheese. After our ethnically diverse meal, we stretched out and tried to sleep. It wasn’t the worst night of sleep I’ve had, but it certainly wasn’t great. We awoke at 4:30, ate leftovers, and flew to Copenhagen. Sunita’s flight home was canceled, but she still managed to get an alternate flight arriving back in Seattle the same day. As a bonus, she received a meal voucher and was able to get a really delicious sandwich and salad. We spent a lot of hours there before we parted ways. 

Sunita made a playlist for me, as has kind of become tradition. Unfortunately my iPod was completely wiped in the process. I didn’t realize this until a few hours later. My layover in Copenhagen was about nine hours. Finally, about an hour before boarding I decided to listen to one of my audiobooks. And my iTunes ever so casually said ‘there is no content’. I understood immediately. Everything in me sank. I composed myself just enough to get through border control and then I sat down in a corner and started crying. Now, I’m not really much for crying. I know loads of girls who find it cathartic, and some who basically have a schedule for crying. Not me, I hate the business. I cry maybe one to three times a year. But sometimes it just happens. Though usually not in places so public as an airport. I think it wasn’t just the iPod (although there was my looming twenty-one-hour-layover in Istanbul with no music or audiobooks on the horizon), there was also the fact that I had just parted ways with my best friend for the next two and a half months, and that I was about to enter into who-knows-what all by myself. I love the idea of this being a chill, non-rigidly-scheduled trip, I do. But it’s also a bit nervous-making, because for all of my previous trips I’ve had full on plans with a list of wwoof or couchsurfing hosts for all of my cities and all of the in-betweens for everything all roughed out. I don’t prefer that method, however, it is admittedly easier than just showing up and figuring things out. But I don’t want a life that is easy. I haven’t chosen a life that is easy. Somehow, inexplicably, I have always found life most satisfying outside of my comfort zone. And so, regardless of ease, that is where I shall live.

But anyways, so digressing, so I show up at my gate and have to keep wiping away escapee tears every so often. After awhile I calm down and realize, as always, I’m not in control and life most certainly always moves on. To quote Dr. Horrible’s Sing-A-Long Blog: Everything happens. Even though I’m not crying anymore, this older gentlemen who had (bravely) sat across from me pulls a tin from his pocket and proceeds to eat a mint or something. We hadn’t made eye contact or anything, but he hesitates before closing it and offers one to me. I know the whole ‘don’t take candy from strangers’ thing, but in that moment I wouldn’t have dared refuse his kind gesture that signified all the kindness the world can muster. I gave him an all-to-feeble ‘thank you’, and couldn’t respond with anything more, because I definitely would have started crying again. It was a sour apple candy.
So the flight to Istanbul was fine. I mostly slept. My twenty-one hour layover in Istanbul was not so dreadful as I had expected. I slept for ten hours, and thought and wandered for the rest. The flight to Bangkok involved three films: About Time (really, Rachel McAdams? Another time traveling husband film? However his family was superb), The Maze Runner, and Son of Rambow. I arrived on the 16th at 10:30am. I’m not sure how long I spent in total in airports and on airplanes, but golly I was glad to be done with them! Welcome to Bangkok.

earth…definitely earth

I arrived in Copenhagen a few hours before Sunita. In Toronto I had received a message from her saying “sooo….my couchsurfing host pretty much only ate fish…and now I might smell like it.” I chuckled and forgot about it. When we finally met up at the airport in Copenhagen however, it was no longer forgotten. That girl reeked of fish. Not if you stood at a distance, but if you stood close or smelled any of her clothes or hair, or if she moved too much it was totally gross. And I thought she was kidding. We ended up stowing our backpacks in a locker at the airport, since we wouldn’t be meeting up with our host until later in the evening, and also we had to be out early the next morning. We mostly did the tourist route: The Little Mermaid, the kastellet, we tried to see the free city of Christiania, but somehow failed. We did go to a market though, where Sunita choose one of an assortment of the prettiest sandwiches I’ve ever seen, as well as bahn mi. Or maybe that was the next day? Yeah, I think it was. We got bread, cheese, and tomatoes that day.

It was the name day of our Greek couchsurfing host, Thalia. This is apparently a big celebration in Greece. We didn’t have a party or anything, but she made us (delicious) spanakopita that was meant for the name day/completion of masters/some other sort of celebration she had held over the weekend. We had a really nice dinner and chat. She told us about living in Greece and living in Copenhagen, talked about her past and upcoming travels, and showed us the acoustic version of that Gangnam Style song. I asked if she found Danish men attractive, and she said no, because they don’t know how to flirt. I really enjoyed hanging out with her.

 

To start off the next day we took a chilly walk around the botanical gardens. It was filled with greenhouses filled with all manner of plants, long walks labeling all of the different flora, and in the center a really large, really pretty building. Then hot chocolate to warm up. We were really biding our time waiting for the National Gallery to open. It was really cool. We saw some really interesting pieces. After that we had decided to go on the free walking tour of Christianhavn, which had a focus on Christiania. Seeing as we had missed it the previous day, we opted for that tour rather than the traditional tour of Copenhagen. Which, I think, was a good choice. Our tour guide was Canadian, which I heard in his ‘abouts’ and he later confirmed. He led a good tour, and it was a fascinating part of Copenhagen. Christiania is basically its own little…country? within Copenhagen. I mean, not exactly, but it does kind of have its own culture and rules that don’t apply outside of its limits. The most obvious being that you can go and buy soft drugs there and the government is completely aware of it and allows it to go on. Aesthetically it’s a really cool place. Interesting graffiti, interesting colors, interesting setup. Unfortunately you’re not allowed to take pictures because of the whole drug thing, but it was really cool to see and to hear the story behind it. The only downside of the walking tour was that it was freezing. Quite literally, in fact; it started snowing on us. Now, I’m heading to southeast Asia for several months, so I didn’t really pack appropriate clothing for snow, except for one jacket which I’m sending home with Sunita. So every one of my toes went numb, as well as my fingers which turned worrying shades of white and purplish. Regardless, I was a tad giddy about the snow.

After that we headed back to the airport and on to Londres! The great and wonderful JMK let us stay at his place even though surprise surprise he was in some foreign country doing interesting things. We were both hungry by the time we got in so we went out in search of food. Unfortunately, since Luton freaking airport is so far away from London that by the time we arrived pretty much everything was closed. Except for GBK, that is. Vegetarian burgers for everyone! We devoured our burgers and stayed up for all of Ratatouille, despite being exhausted.

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

 

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.”