travel and the art of mental maintenance: VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

I can’t remember how it was I found out that the bus had broken down. What I definitely remember is that it was extremely cold.

The bus breaking down did come several hours into a long bus trip from London. From there, we went across on a ferry from Dover to France and into Belgium. From here, the intent was to pass into Germany and then head all the way down to Munich.

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Tess and the Bullshit Bus

And those several hours came after a morning of scrambling to check out of hostel in London, have my wallet stolen, cancel my credit cards, call home to have them get a new debit card from my bank and have it forwarded to a future hotel, and then get to Victoria Station to meet our bus.

If I recall, we barely made it.

Once on the bus, we got our rundown on the Oktoberfest tour from the over-enthusiastic tour guide. All of it can be summarized by the cheekily declared: “There’s a fifty quid penalty for anyone who chunders on the bus.”

It was in the first hour that we met our (as the kids call it these days) squad for the week, Sally and Tess from Australia. They too were up for binge-drinking and risque behaviour but also appreciated the value of quiet-time and slumber.

Many others on the bus did not. Many brought milk crates of beer on board.

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Here I am, reluctantly enjoying said beer.

 

Look how horribly tired I am.

The day presumably passed on with strained social behaviour and blurred views of cows in fields.

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Blurred Cows. New band name. I call it.

And I must have fallen asleep. And that must have been when the bus broke down somewhere in the middle of Belgium.

We were in the middle of a truck stop and the bus was so utterly fucked that the heating didn’t even work. We dug out our sleeping bags and huddled up inside of them for warmth. It was all very tragic and miserable. In our privileged naivete, we probably thought this was what it was like during the war.

This was the entirety of our Belgian impressions. Aside from the cows, of course.

After a while, dawn broke and the diner above the service station opened.

We ambled into there to try to get some sleep.

I recall a stiff neck from diner booths maladapted to sleeping. As the day outside warmed up, we moved outside, legs stiff and wobbly. The other displaced bus partiers were lingering around, splayed across the narrow patch of grass between bus stalls.

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It was like someone had pulled the fire alarm at a rave. Only in the day.

Eventually a new bus arrived. Whether it came all the way from England, I have no idea. But that might account for the Greek epic-style wait.

All I remember is it was night by the time we got to the camp site and all Bri and I did was climb into a flimsy little tent with all the clothes we had layered up over top of each other like Michelin Men, and shivered.

As it turns out, camping in Munich in late September can be a blissfully chilly experience….

travel and the art of mental maintenance: II. Madrid, the arrival

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the arrival

I was supposed to take the train from Paris to Madrid. It was one of those things that I had planned out well in advance like the responsible adult I had thought I was. I bought my Eurail pass and everything.

If I remember correctly, it was an overnight train. In the planning stages, this was a good thing because it meant a night I didn’t have to pay for a hostel.

But then, as Paris wound to a close, all the ephemeral friends I had made in my hostel there were starting to drift away… some back to their everyday lives, some onto their next adventure. The loneliness was creeping back in. The tide was coming in again.

Suddenly, an overnight train journey was starting to feel a bit too much like claustrophobia. As if the train would trap me with myself and the bleak possibility of unwanted social interaction. Loneliness is strange sometimes in that you know social interaction should be good for you, but you fear it ever-the-more intensely.

This was the beginning of a pattern that would repeat over and over while I travelled, in one of those unearthly hybrids of art and mathematics.

So I looked up Ryanair. It was something absolutely absurd (like only 20 Euros) to fly from Paris to Madrid. So I booked it. I get irresponsible with money when faced with potentially anxiety-ridden situations. Anything to avoid it. Take my money. I booked a flight leaving that night. It would get into Madrid at about midnight.

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I took the Metro to the dying embers of central Paris where I had to catch a coach to this tiny little airport, the name of which eludes me. It was one big room lined with vending machines on one side, and windows on the other. You could watch the rickety planes come in and airport staff push the staircases up to them. For someone who grew up in a city with a major airport, this felt like time travel. As it I would see The Beatles descend at any moment. A pretentious, privileged thought, but one I had all the same.

Ryanair doesn’t book seats. It’s a free-for-all. I would come to learn the best entrance strategy (always go for the back set of stairs; most people rush the first), but at this point, I just went with the crowd.

I had my Lonely Planet travel guide and I spent the flight plotting my route from the airport to the hostel in Madrid. Easy peasy, it looked. Just one metro line, with one change. Doneskis.

But by about one in the morning, I discovered that part of the Madrid Metro was down for maintenance. I had to find the surface and find a shuttle bus. I got on the wrong one.

When I realized something was wrong (which took an embarrassingly long time), I got off the bus, and hailed a cab. I handed the address to a hostel over to the driver and he took one look at it and gave me a long, tired look. Without a word, he started driving.

Madrid in the middle of the night is an odd place. It is funny to compare it to other cities, especially my own, Vancouver, which shuts down at about one-thirty am, just after the last Skytrain pulls out of downtown.

Madrid is one of those cities that goes all night. Sure, it’s quieter than during the day. But there’s still stuff going on. It feels like an underground of sorts. Like you’re somehow complicit in this secret world.

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By two-thirty am, the cab pulled up at the end of a long alley. It was wide enough to know that it was a viable walkway, but narrow enough that the cab driver silently said no fucking way.

I gave the cab driver a look as if to ask where the hell am I supposed to go?

He pointed down this Spanish Knockturn Alley and said, “Down. Just little. On left.”

“Thanks.”

He looked solemn. By now, I had assumed this was his natural state of being, solemnity, but as I opened the cab door, he said, “Careful. Bad town. Very bad.”

I had sincerely wished he’d not said that. How could this have helped? Like now I could watched out for maniacs but before I would have embraced them with open arms? Did he think I was expecting the residents of Spanish Knockturn Alley to break out into a rendition of the Lollipop Guild at my arrival?

I side-stepped a few leering types, but I made it to the hostel unscathed. I managed to get a room and snuck up to it quietly, tiptoeing amongst the already asleep. So as not to cause unnecessary noise, I slipped off my shoes and slid into the bed fully clothed.

As tired as I was after such a long day, I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t even close my eyes. I pulled the blanket up to my chin and stared at the underside of the bunk above me. My heart was pounding. I could feel my pulse in my ears.

Holy shit! How had I taken the events of the evening in such stride? I had been stranded in the middle of the night in a foreign city I had not even seen in the daylight. And I had been alone. Completely alone. No one had known I was even in the country.

How stupid could I have been?

Once I replayed everything over in my mind, it was impossible to calm myself down. I had to repeat over and over: You’re safe now. Calm the hell down. It’s over.

It was a strange day, but an important one. I realized I could handle it. Things would be thrown at me and I only had myself to rely on. But I could handle it.

And maybe I needed to be a little bit more responsible with myself… and my money. But I wouldn’t learn that lesson until years later.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: I. Paris, the five types of travellers

This is part of a series I have been working on. The Introduction is here.

the five types of travellers

paris

My first week in Paris was a crash course in backpacking. The first day, wandering from my hostel along Rue Moufftard down to Place St. Michel, took me onto the Ile de la Cite, towards Notre Dame.

I’d been expecting a cathedral, damn it.

And that’s what I got.

Only the intervening centuries did their best to make themselves known. Across the river was a Subway sandwich shop. A long queue fed into the building from the square outside. Perhaps I was expecting a sign, like in Disneyland: 30 minutes from this point. But Notre Dame is a working church. Inside, people were praying. They were praying as if five hundred years had not passed by since I thought this place was relevant.

I realized with a start that the problem is me.

I grew up on the edge of the world. In a sense. Vancouver, Canada: the last frontier. Even the islands west of the Georgia Straight were colonized first. Incorrectly, our culture says that history started when the white people got here. The earliest thing we have that gets championed is from the late 1800s: the gaslight era. Something we seem really proud of, a friend of mine from England once pointed out, but is a barely remembered blip back in the Old World.

Thus: Notre Dame made me realize what a disconnect I felt between anything “old” and anything “relevant.”

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When I said I was staying for a week, it seemed like a universal consensus amongst the other hostel mates that a week was too long. “Three days tops,” suggested Matthieu from Montreal. He should know, I thought.

As it seemed that this was what most people thought, I was able to bear witness to the whole gamut of travellers coming in and out of that hostel room. They set a template that was only reinforced the more time I drifted from hostel to hostel. There are certain types of travellers.

The college kids doing their backpacking thing (or, if they were British, the gap year traveller). I liked to assume many of them were trust-fund babies, but I don’t want to judge. I will just say that I ran into quite a few of them that seemed to not really know the value of a dollar. Hostels were not a necessity; they were cool. It was like Coachella applied to travel. A couple of the kids in my hostel were fresh off to Stanford when they got back to the States in September.

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The budget honeymooners. In the Paris hostel, there was a young couple who had just married after eight years together. They had a six-month-old baby girl and money was tight. They had a small, cheap wedding and didn’t think they were going to get a honeymoon until their family surprised them with this. I never got much chance to get to know them, as – naturally – they spent most of their time alone together, outside the hostel. But they seemed like the sweetest, most genuine couple I had met. I respected the hell out of them.

The Australians. I met many, many, many Australians. They were often living and working in London for two years on a visa, and travelling as much as they can while doing it. There was little else to define them as a group other than their nationality and something of a happy thousand-yard-stare. They could party, to be sure, but something about their experience so far had rendered them wide-eyed but a little world-weary. It was an odd combination. It was like they’d seen some shit but couldn’t wait to see some more.

The partiers. These were the worst. The absolute worst. I’m sure they’re nice in other contexts, in much the same way the guy who is really letting loose at the bar one night is usually nice in his daily life. I found they were often rich kids from around Europe or Britain, taking advantage of budget flights to spend the weekend somewhere else getting drunk and/or laid. They didn’t care that you weren’t. They treated the hostel as an extension of the party. Even when it was four in the morning. Those fuckers.

And then, most impressively, there are the life-travellers, those for whom the nomadic nature of travel is a way of life. These are the people we all secretly wish we could be. So much romance is tied into their way of life; doesn’t it just sound so grand?! Travelling all. the. time. All you own is strapped to your back and off you go, picking grapes in Italy in the summer, wintering on a beach in Thailand. These people float around, volunteering in exchange for meal, surfing couches, making friends (upon whose couch they might one day surf), and filling out ice-breaker bingo cards like nobody’s business. There is a whole sub-culture that exists for life-travellers. I love these people. They’ve got the best stories. I’m also incredibly jealous because they have a stamina that I just can’t live up to.

Because travel is exhausting.

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Travel is life magnified.

Especially when you are travelling alone. Travel is an endless series of intense days where you are always required to be mentally present. This is equally exhilarating and exhausting. Where life is shades of grey, travel is black and white. Life normally passes with an emotional range that wavers slightly day-to-day just above and just below “normal.” Travel is all kinds of extremes. Moments of joy are thrilling in a way that life rarely is. Everything feels magic and unique and special. It’s like falling in love. When you’re alone, you’re truly allowed to be yourself or even just some imagined version of yourself. Because no one knows you, no one has any expectations from you. No one is going to say “that’s a weird thing for you to say,” they will just think “wow, that chick’s weird.” And—you know what?—who cares if they do? You’re onto a whole new city tomorrow, so fuck those haters.

But on the flip side, moments of sadness are ever-the-more excruciating. At some point during my first few days in Paris, I cried at night. You’re never truly alone, but you feel it. All the anxieties of everyday life are rendered all the more desperate and extreme. If you lose your keys, there’s no one to call. Hell, you might not even find someone who speaks your language. You’re all on your own, baby.

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I wondered if this was all some horrible mistake. Had the Great Adventure all of life culture had promised really been some big, fat lie? That romance of running of into the sunset was total bullshit. Travel is hard.

But the next morning you wake up. And it is… in every possible way… a new day.

You’re kinda over the jet lag at long last.

There’s a new group of people in the hostel and they’re all kinda friendly. One of them asks you if you want to go check out the Catacombs, and since she’s a radiologist and you took one university course on osteology, this is going to be really fucking good.

travel and the art of mental maintenance: introduction

This is the introduction of what I hope will become a series / retrospective project / diary-after-the-fact / examination of memory-and-place-and-all-that-jazz. All the links to other posts about specific adventures and places are/will be below.

Whenever you get back from a long bout of travelling, the world always feels different (at least for a little while, until reality sets in again). For me, however, the world really was different. I was gone from August to November 2008. I have always meant to write more meaningfully about this trip. I’ve touched on bits and pieces here and there, but alas… I’ve never put together something huge.

I imagined that one day it would all be complete, as if I was filling in the pieces on a puzzle that would one day reveal the big picture. It seemed so easy, when I thought of it. That I would be able to simply sit and write. I would start at day one and then it would unfurl from there like a pulling the thread on a sweater.

But memory works in funny ways. Events are not always best discussed in sequence. Not when they are connected to ideas. Below is my itinerary, not as it was planned, but how it turned out when all was said and done. I will fill in links when I get around to writing them. And probably not in order. Although, that’s probably how it will start.

My parents bid me farewell...

My parents bid me farewell…

Less than an hour after touching down in Paris, I was sitting in a street café, eating a kebab with a guy from Newport Beach whose name I forgot as soon as I heard it.

It was August 10, 2008, and I would spend the next four months rolling through the epicenters of several western European cultures. At some point, my sister joined me and things got messier. The impact of those four months on the world were enormous and the whole time I was in a bubble lit by my own navel.

One Forrest Gump moment stood out: I happened up the financial district of London on the day of the Lehman Brothers collapse. I recall men in suits carrying boxes of office supplies and dazed looks. In retrospect, it made everything seem so much more important than it did at the time.

In fall 2001, I began university. Everything that followed was easily characterized by the phrase Post-9/11 and a campus perpetually peopled by anti-war protestors. It was here I met the boyfriend I would later break up with and have to run away to Europe to start over.

This was something of a theme for me, I realize now. I went to Europe for the same reasons a lot of people do in movies, if not in reality: I was freshly freed from seven years in university, five years of which were in a just-ended relationship, and I desperately needed to see something beyond my own milieu. It was simple: I needed to escape.

In summer 2002, I’d done something similar. I went to stay with family in England in lieu of summer classes to get over my high school boyfriend and my fear of the real world. The change of scenery provides a perspective easily lost when you’re stuck in the day to day.

Five years later, my husband and I would do the same.

But in 2008, armed with meagre savings, a line-of-credit, and poor financial decisions, I went backpacking. The entire thing reeks of middle-class white privilege.

Which brings me back to that kebab in Paris with a guy from Newport Beach…

I. Paris

the five types of travellers

Versailles

II. Madrid

the arrival

III. La Alberca

IV. Casablanca

V. Marrakech

VI. Some where in the the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

VII. London

VIII. Broken Down Somewhere in Belgium

IX. Oktoberfest

X. Dachau

XI. Kitzbuhl

XII. Munich proper

XIII. Amsterdam

XIV. Maastricht

XV. Paris Again

XVI. Disneyland Paris

XVII. Madrid Again

XVIII. La Alberca Again

XIX. Helsinki

XX. Hameenlina

XXI. Seinajoki

XXII. Huitinen

XXIII. Pori

XXIV. London Again

XXV. Lewes

XXVI. Doncaster, Thurnscoe

scottish wanderings

This gallery contains 5 photos.

all hail the new backpacking generation

Aviary Photo_130301705171357253Another difference between backpacking now and backpacking five years ago: the millenials have become the dominant backpacker demographic. Five years ago, I was one of the only people with a laptop—and this was pre-smartphone, pre-iPad.

I only had my laptop because I held illusions of sitting in French cafes typing out a masterpiece. But most days would pass with my computer abandoned in the canvas depths of my bag. I would only dig it out to watch a DVD in the rare event that I was alone and bored. All actual writing was done full-Hemingway in a Moleskine notebook.

Most times, I socialized with my fellow travelling inmates. But now: now everyone it seems has a smartphone, iPad, or laptop. The evenings are not taken up by idle chatter in a hostel lounge, but by machinery: laptops out, earbuds in; internet, Facetime, Facebook; scrambling for a spot by an electrical socket.

All hail the internet age. All hail the shifting demographics. All hail the millenials.

EDIT:

I wrote the above in the morning as I was waiting for an empty shower and drinking instant coffee. Upon further reflection, I stand by it. However, I wanted to elaborate upon and articulate that I do, in fact, understand completely the desire, whilst far from home, to withdraw into the familiar.

I suffer from social anxiety; I am just well-practiced at appearing otherwise. Large gatherings (whether full of strangers, friends, or family) fill me with dread. Strangers (one of them, a small group of them, or a large group of them) fill me with dread. This is something I am well aware I have had since childhood. In years past it took on the description “A little bit shy” or just “introverted.” Both are accurate.

As I aged, I dealt with it by confronting it. In most cases. If, in a well-enough mental space or if I simply have to, I can take a deep breath and just put on a social face. Most of the time I do this, everything works out fine. In fact, I’ve had some of the best, most fun, most rewarding times of my life by jumping into the social abyss. But those good times, even if they out-number the bad, are still over-shadowed by those bad. You know the bad: the times when I went to a party I’ve been dreading, got too drunk, embarrassed myself, and puked in my own car while a well-intentioned friend drove me home.

You see, it’s not like confronting a fear. It’s not the Disney narrative we’ve been dealt. It does not take one instance of facing the fear head-on, realising that it is not that scary after all and then ceasing to fear it ever after. Every single social encounter raises the same anxiety. It never ceases.

I only learn how to deal with it. Sometimes I can suck it up, so to speak, and happily engage in conversation with a stranger. Sometimes I just really can’t deal with it, make up an excuse to get out having to leave the house, put on my pyjamas and settle in for the night, content to live within my own head.

This is not a digression from the original post, but rather a way of saying that I understand the aforementioned millenial backpackers. Socialisation is difficult enough in a familiar world, but when you factor into it culture shock (which honestly occurs anywhere outside your usual world, not just in places where you are a visible minority/tourist), the comfort and relief of spending an hour on Skype with your best friend, or browsing Facebook pictures of babies and weddings, or even just scrolling through Buzzfeed all night, is such a welcome relief.

Social anxiety can make life a roller coaster. Travelling is a rollercoaster. The two combined can be potent. It is all about pushing yourself to the limit. The comfort provided by our internet devices does make the world smaller. But is that always a good thing? I fear it is not my place to say either way.

stephen fry – a fortuitous symbol?

It seems quite ironic (or perhaps not ironic at all) that after discovering at long last the unencumbered joy of QI and the limitless glee of Stephen Fry’s memoirs that we should spot him strolling along Piccadilly as we sip our organic coffee.

I do not believe in signs or fate or anything of the sort. They are a trick of psychology: a confirmation bias wherein we see what we want in order to justify our desires or decisions. Thus, seeing Stephen Fry in London is not a sign that we have made the right decision in moving here, or that everything will turn out fine. Yet it seems so obvious a sign. Prior to the sighting, did I not just post not-one-but-two Stephen Fry quotes (as some allegedly nuanced depiction of my inner self)?

Aviary Photo_130301708977252343Yes. But it means nothing. If this were a fictionalised account, one would call shenanigans at the utter lack of imagination in the cliché of Stephen Fry waltzing through our brave new world. It reminds me of a scene in Douglas Coupland’s The Gum Thief where the main character spots Johnny Depp leaving a shop in Paris. I remember thinking it such a deus ex machina for character growth. I remember it being the moment I realized I outgrew Douglas Coupland.

Would it not be a better sign the fact that I got a job at a bookshop?

Yes. But that still means nothing.

I am very eager to work at this bookshop, but I know that there is still so much against us. I cannot predict how a part-time, minimum-wage job is going to pan-out long-term. Perhaps our days here are numbered.

But I’m almost okay with that. Perhaps that is why I choose to ignore the potential symbolism of Stephen Fry.

The difference between London as I knew it and London now is five years. For me, that means I’m days away from thirty; for London, that means a recession. Between twenty-five and thirty lies the most transitive period one undergoes short of puberty. That’s when you really settle into who you are.

As we spent this morning moving from one hostel to another, from Bayswater to Docklands, from tube to bus (thanks “track maintenance”) to DLR, there comes a moment when you find it just too tiring to fight off that nagging realisation that “I’m too old for this shit.”

Aviary Photo_130301708622643821I’m too old for hostels. I don’t need to get to know young people from Holland only in town to party. I don’t have the patience for single beds or shared showers or a lack of privacy. God damn it, I’m almost thirty. Some most evenings, I just want to collapse into the sofa with my husband and watch a few episodes of whatever show we’re working our way through this month.

Now will someone please rent us a flat so we can get on with this already?

estonian wanderings

This gallery contains 17 photos.

finnish wanderings

This gallery contains 19 photos.

dutch wanderings

This gallery contains 21 photos.