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.

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.

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.

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.

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….

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.


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.

whitby wanderings

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