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I came home a week and two days ago. It’s more welcome than I expected it to be. I still love traveling, and I could have gone on for longer, but I now know exactly how I start feeling about two weeks and change into an extended trip. And that isn’t so fun. I’m an adventurer up until that point, and then I become a homebody. I suppose the moral of the story is that balance is important. And usually, travel self-balances; running around trying to drink up an entire city in a day is often followed by a chill five-hour train ride to point B reading The Economist or whatever new book you have on Kindle. Some time to decelerate. But for me, at least, the former compounds, so that by the beginning of Week 4 of a month’s journey, I felt more like sitting around and reading and just being rather than exploring my surroundings, or at the end of two weeks, I decided to spend a half day just ranging around and returning to the same bar every hour and a half to try a different delicious two-euro Belgian beer.
I was loath to even think about some wide overarching theme for this entire gap period. I just wanted it to be what it was; some time to just chill and indulge my love of planning trips and discovering locations. The point was not to think. But one popped into my head anyway. When I left, I felt the irresistible urge to find something. The titular character in Herman Hesse’s Siddartha, which I first read at the end of last summer, draws a distinction between searching and finding. The searcher is so fixated on his or her goal that he often doesn’t see any of the other important things that might be along the way. The finder doesn’t have an objective, and so comes across lots of things that might be helpful. I can remember the exact moment I reread that passage: this spring, on an Auckland city bus to my family’s suburb. And I thought it was a pretty good idea.
The need I felt was for home. I’d outgrown the one I already had and needed something to hold me when I needed it. I realized this once I began to miss people, and after I figured out I only looked forward to the travel that delivered me to somebody I cared about and would care about me. So in a way, this whole trip was about finding home. I thought I could find it in myself, and set myself flying across the world to see if I could locate a revision to that theory. What I sought was so big and so elusive that I naturally needed to cover as much territory as possible, and necessitated a tactical shift to finding in order to tease out the pieces. This story is not as clear cut as “you never know what you got until it’s gone”…but a small and significant part of it definitely is.
Forgive this brief pontification about the extraordinary events of the last eight months. It’s the last thing I’ve wanted to make out of this, but all of it just kind of came to me and I thought it would be a good thing to add. This is the last travelogue I will write for quite some time. This is still my personal blog, so I’ll be updating for a while yet, but the travels are over, at least for the time being, and I return to school in three weeks.
Traveling distances, or more specifically the sort of self-awareness of your own spatial register, blows my mind sometimes. Like the fact that my belly is full right now thanks to a cheap Chinese restaurant in Brussels or that, dragging my bag up the road to my aunt’s door, before that having walked five minutes from the bus station, before that having ridden an hour long bus from King’s Cross, I imagined a stranger asking me, “Oh hello, where are you coming from?” and that I could reply truthfully, “Belgium.”
Most of this post was supposed to go up last night, but the hostel wifi wasn’t working, so it had to wait. My last day in Amsterdam was spent sampling its oldest poison. I speak, of course, about jenever. Jenever is one of the world’s older spirits, made with a large amount of malt wine and usually flavored with botanicals. If that sounds suspiciously like gin to you, your suspicions are correct; the latter was a drier British alternative created to slake a growing English thirst for the spirit with a domestic product. Nowadays, the British version is much more popular and jenever is rare outside of Europe (and I didn’t see it many places besides Amsterdam and Belgium.) Certainly, you can’t get it in America unless you want a case shipped to you, and that is something I have neither the funds nor the birthday for. So of course, I was very excited to try some, and try some I did. I was recommended two very good Amsterdam bars that specialize in jenever and tasted several drams from each to wrap my head around this unknown family of spirit. A crash course, if you will.
I had slightly over 24 hours in Brussels; half of yesterday and most of today. An organization in the city puts out this really neat map with lots of restaurants, stores, and bars recommended by locals, so it was a nice way to focus my energies right off the bat especially since I had so little time. A particularly nice bar sold a wide variety of Belgian beers for 2 euros until midnight, which meshed well with the fatigue I was feeling at the time. Most of yesterday consisted of drinking a beer, then walking around a part of the city for an hour, then returning to sample another beer, and so on. I’d been expecting a quiet night, but most of my dormitory got pulled into a pub crawl last night and so I decided to join them. Last night on the continent, go out with a bang, eh? Our group mainly consisted of North Americans.
Today, on my way back from the EU parts of Brussels, I helped a lost Italian couple find their way. It’s amazing what a good map will do for you; I felt really odd leading people around after only a day in the city. We spent most of the half hour walk in affable silence after realizing we couldn’t understand each other. There’s a strange sense of security from the trust inherent in such a situation, which actually makes it one of my favorite to be in. Even though you can’t talk to one another, you assume that each party has good intentions.
Tomorrow, I’m braving the London transit system to get to the Olympics. My event, men’s team sabre, was shortened by an hour, which is frustrating but whatever. It means I get to sleep in for a bit, but I would rather have the extra fencing. And I’m still slated to wake up faaaaaar too early, IMHO. :) On balance, I’m super excited. I’m sorry if half this post made no sense; I am exhausted right now, but I’ve had most of this in me since yesterday and wanted to get it out before the update became obsolete.
After several minutes of rattling the door to my train compartment, a shirtless youth opened it and then swung back up to his second tier bunk. As I walked in, I heaved a sigh. I hadn’t thought it entirely possible that a train compartment could fit six bunks, but there they were, two neat towers of three beds each, with the mere foot and a half of space in between already covered in five pairs of shoes. And I had the top bunk. Did I mention how ungainly I am on ladders?
Despite the ventilation, the compartment was rather hot courtesy of the freak 90 degree weather in Bern and the five sleeping bodies inside. I didn’t feel like rooting around for my pajamas (just as well, the sweat would have ruined them) so I swung my bags up to the bed, and the convenient alcove built into the ceiling, and slept the old fashioned way, in boxers.
Lying in a small dark room clad in nothing but underwear on a moving train with five strangers is a particularly fertile stratum for anxiety. The whole ‘getting your valuables stolen on your first night train ever’ episode only contributed to whatever rich angst my mind could cook up. I also wanted to make sure that I was up and dressed several minutes before we actually got to Amsterdam, since, you know, I was about as far from ready to disembark as it was possible to be. In a word, I slept fitfully.
Jonathan and I met a fabulous girl in Israel who lives in the Netherlands, and I told her I’d look her up if I came to her country. I met up with Kiki in Alkmaar, a small town 45 minutes north of Amsterdam, and she showed me a rural, non touristy side of the Netherlands. It was very nice, and seeing a familiar person more than made up for the train ride.
I began this post in Delft earlier today, a town adjacent to the Hague with one of the only reasonably priced hostels I could find in the area. Right after I reached the city, I wanted to spend more time there, and though I think I made a better show of it than ‘random town I just passed through,’ as originally planned, I still want to go back. Sadly, my Dutch itinerary suffers from a lack of time throughout, but I had enough time, between last night and all of today, to see enough of both Delft and The Hague. I finish this post in Amsterdam, in one of those hostels that is more like a hotel. Always love when that happens! I plan to spend two days here. I didn’t do much tonight besides watch the Olympics with some convivial German roommates, but I did finally get to try a regular Amstel. I’ve only ever seen the light version in the States. I will miss that about traveling; better quality beer for the prices I can afford!
Traveling to Switzerland for a classicist is like traveling to the Ganges for devout Hindus or San Francisco or Portland, Oregon for hipsters. This is because the first actual Latin text a classics student will read is Julius Caesar’s Gallic Wars. And the first tribe of barbarians that Caesar subdues? The Helvetians, today known as the Swiss.
I’m very impressed by this country so far. Everything runs very efficiently and the chocolate is delicious. According to my friend Margot, who I am staying with, the Swiss are very protective of their natural resources and resistant to the kinds of business interests that elsewhere like to see those areas developed. She and I rode by train today across kilometers of gorgeous postcard scenery and took a hike along the edge of a valley. I still cannot believe she actually lives here. When I want to take a day trip, I go to Nashua or something. When she wants to, she goes to various tiny towns nestled in the Alps, nbd. Then she showed me Bern by night.
Bern is built on a semi-peninsula where the river Aare does a kind of U-bend: the city stands on the finger of land created by that U-bend and had walls across the side of the city that wasn’t bordered by river that were built outward in series as the city expanded. One cool thing about the city is that the buildings lining the main streets of the old part each have a differently designed archway in their ground level frontage; this is because the owners of each building was responsible for building the archways themselves, and most of them were shopowners. The archways themselves are not particularly ostentatious, but the effect down a long straight road is rather cool. Also, lots of fountains, each with drinkable water and capped with statues that depict various victories. Most of them involve bears fighting other animals, since the bear is the symbol of the Canton of Bern. My favorite had an ogre eating babies while a contingent of bear knights surrounded the base of the column.
Unfortunately, I woke up rather late today because I’d set my alarm for 10:00 but neglected to notice that it was set to PM rather than AM. So we didn’t get in as much as we would have liked. But tomorrow, she is taking me to a frog museum and other fun stuff, and then we are seeing The Dark Knight Rises. One drawback about Switzerland; it is very expensive. The Swiss Franc is roughly on par with the US dollar, but a movie ticket is 15 francs. >_< I have already decided to forego my usual foreign McDonalds venture (all for the sake of science, I promise!) because earlier this evening, I saw that a meal of 9 McNuggets costs about 13 francs. Which is cray. And based on my extensive research, I think it’s safe to say that with the exception of Serbia, all McDonalds tastes the same.
I’ve realized two things in the last several months: first that I understand remarkably little about the way people’s minds work, and second that novel writing is an attempt for me to tease out part of that knowledge, since experience lacks somewhat. My writing has become increasingly florid in the last few months because I’m trying to fit too much into a sentence, and time will tell whether I can shift back.
I have had a very good stay with my friend Elidia’s parents in Germany these last few days. Tonight, I’m taking a train to Trier, my third and last Roman capital of this trip. The city seems reasonably compact and the train station has lockers to stow my luggage, so it should be good for a day trip. I wasn’t able to find a satisfactory hostel in the city, so I’m leaving the city again in the evening for Freiburg, where I’ll spend the night. Then I see Adam the following day, and Margot that same night (only an hour or two from Freiburg to Bern!) The kind of travel I like best from home, but on a macro scale.
So yes, I have not updated with a proper blog post in like three weeks. These inclinations come and go. At any rate, I am alive. I think the last time I posted a travelogue was when I was in Turkey, and I had half a post about Belgrade on my computer before it was stolen on the night train to Budapest. Anyhow, if the gap of time bothered you, I apologize.
Here are some highlights from the travels I haven’t written about.
Belgrade: largely a base from which to visit Sirmium (which was not amazing in the awe-inspiring sense, but a sense of pilgrimage well completed) but we found a nice fancy restaurant that emphasized to us just how cheap Serbia is (risotto ala milanese for seven bucks. Good risotto too.) Also they sell beer in McDonalds.
Budapest: unfortunately overshadowed by losing my tablet and all my chargers on the night train, but an amazing city nonetheless. We saw some history, but most of we did for three days was eat good food and drink good drank and watch the Euro cup matches when I could persuade my companions.
Krakow: only got one day here instead of two because of a mix up with our transport, which was largely consumed with seeing Auschwitz and Birkenau. But the city has a nice jazz bar scene, so we partook of that and I got very drunk. A nice end to the trip.
London: where I am now. The city is crowded and it takes forever to get anywhere and public transport is expensive, but it’s pretty great all the same. I’ve covered most of what I want to see in the city, and have taken a couple day trips out with the aunt I am staying with; we just came back from Stratford-upon-Avon and a nice performance of Richard III, and visited Cambridge earlier in the week. I have taken lots of walks and met lots of family, who are all very nice people. I also netted tickets to an Olympic fencing match in two weeks; men’s team sabre! I’ll be visiting some places in Europe before that; I leave on Thursday for Germany.
I’ll try and be better about keeping this updated. Details from the last three or four weeks will invariably worm their way into future posts, so any interested reader won’t be confined to the bare synopsis above. But that’s it. I’m feeling okay.