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

 

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.

account of a solitude

when ends the constant motion
and forgets persistent forms
at desperation lingers hope
where leave brings grateful storms
on mountains etched in black ink
through teacups of time passed
from memories paved in magic
so caught in rainbowed glass
as worlds drift past each keyhole
for those wonders of the still
if steps form on a pathway
or nature claims its fill
by weightless contemplations
with sleep a heavy stack
a tangle of frayed endings
all come winding back
of creatures formed by shadow
to exist because the sun
in tings and notes of solitude
the chaos falls undone

the chaos falls undone

Our host in Überlingen was an American. Fancy that. On Saturday Jeremy took us to the market, where we were treated to the most delicious antipasto sandwiches. Seriously. Per usual, it was excessively sunny, so we spent most of the day at the magnificent lake. In the evening we had a curry dinner with a bunch of Jeremy’s colleagues. It was a good day. On Sunday we decided to hitch for the day to Constance. A co-worker of Jeremy’s, also a fellow American, named Jess joined us. Yes, four girls hitching. We made it there pretty easily, but we had started late, do we didn’t actually get much time in Constance. We had dinner, and then thought to try hitching a boat back. Well, 7pm is a pretty lame time for trying to hitch a boat, so needless to say we were unsuccessful. We did manage a car ride all the way to Überlingen though, so that was nice. We headed out on Monday, and Jeremy made egg rolls for our journey!

It is honestly a miracle that we made it to Kandern. We were dropped by one man on the side of the almost-highway. A car stopped for us, but only to threaten us with calling the police. We brushed him off – the police had already passed and given us no problem. Well, fifteen minutes later a shiny, flashing lights patrol car stopped just ahead of us. Not that I’m anti-police, as my father was among the enforcers of law, but these guys were jerks. The man asked if I spoke German, and when I replied ‘no’, he angrily asked ‘Why?’. Perhaps because if one was required to master the language of a country before visiting, they’d spend their lives learning languages and going nowhere. Anyways, I am grateful that they didn’t fine us (technically I think our hitching spot wasn’t illegal, as we weren’t on the autobahn). They took us to a ‘better location’. Despite the inconvenience of being scolded by the authorities, I feel a little bit cool for acquiring a ride in a foreign cop car.

Later we were dropped in a city center by a well-meaning, but not hitching-savvy lift. City centers are the black holes of hitchhiking. You get sucked in with no way out. So we reserved ourselves to our unfortunate fate of being trapped until the following day. But solitary freedom was so close! We didn’t give up, and the pedestrians of Freiberg proved really friendly and full of hitchhiking advice. Sadly for us, each new person contradicted the last. We moved round and round a triangle section of street, all to no avail. Finally we ended up at a traffic light looking hopefully at each car with our sign. About three green lights in, a long haired man with rock music wafting from his car stopped and asked if we were going to Basel. That was exactly where we were going. As we jumped in quickly (we’re getting really good at that – bags and all), I informed him he was my favorite person ever. That’s a slight hyperbole, but he was my favorite person I’d seen that day.

Until I met our next lift. We weren’t exactly going to Basel. That too was a hyperbole. We were actually going to a tiny town in Germany that was on the way. We were dropped at the autobahn exit, precisely fourteen kilometers away from our destination. Fourteen kilometers, we figured, was walkable. But a bit miserably so. We decided to try a walk-and-hitch. But before we started walking a car stopped for us. ‘Kandern‘? He asked. It’s way out in the country and we’d never make it, he insisted. So he drove us, I suspect fourteen kilometers out of his way, all the way to our destination.

Then commenced a wonderful few days of birthrighter solitude. Courtesy of our friends Scott and Cammy, who happened to be back in the States at the time. I’m not entirely sure how the other two spent their time. I did a lot of reading to the calm sounds of Brian Eno, sitting outside just absorbing the silence, stretching, and being blissfully unproductive and unsociable. It was great. Oh, though Christy and I did go on a tour of Black Forest Academy, the reason for Scott and Cammy’s presence in Kandern. That was really cool – I was impressed with it. Our last night we had waffles. Oatmeal and chocolate chip waffles. Aka my favorite food. Good times. We were all sad to leave, but the next stop was Lucerne, Switzerland – Valerie’s favorite city, and home of my friend Viv, whom I met while Wwoofing in Ireland, and incidentally who introduced me to hitchhiking.

That day of hitching proved epic. We walked across the German/Swiss border and we hitched a caravan! A caravan! Score, score, score! And so Switzerland became the land of magic.

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.

20120624-141838.jpg

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.

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.