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.

the map room

my equilibrium feels jostled. my lungs expand and contract heavily. my cheeks betray tears through a wet smear that won’t sink in. the world is feeling too large to comprehend. I combat – or retreat. beneath a table, in a room soaked in warm light. my belly and my spine gently cradled between solid objects. an attempt to make smaller my perception of the world, until it becomes a more manageable size. leaking and pooling and seeping into the blue, blue beneath my tender face – my tears expel the disconcertedness of my being. echoes in hollowed form. and then, and then my spirit can rise again – can fill again the halls of my newly uncluttered mind, body, self.

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.

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.