Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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Friends, Romans, Countrymen

After a day of extremely touristic activities at the Vatican, I was looking forward to doing something a little different on Saturday night. When I first arrived in Rome, Valerio had told me about something called the ‘Gay Village’, an annual event that was held in Rome. I shouldn’t have been surprised – after being to three different gay pride festivals during my time in Europe so far, I had to conclude that it was simply the season for pride all over the continent. “The gay scene isn’t as big here in Rome as it is in other cities or countries,” Valerio had informed me. “We’re so close to the Vatican, so there’s lot of influence from the Catholic church… It’s not repressed, exactly, but it’s just very… subdued.” Valerio went on to inform me that rather than having one weekend full of pride festivities and a parade, there was this event called the Gay Village which ran for weeks during the middle of summer. Valerio hadn’t been yet this year, so I told him I’d happily join him. He also had another Couchsurfer who arrived that Saturday evening, and American from New York named Steve. Steve himself wasn’t gay, but he had no plans and was keen to come along, so the three of us got into Valerio’s car and went off to investigate whatever Rome had thrown together as part of their pride celebrations.

After driving though dark roads in areas that seemed almost rural, we emerged at what appeared to be a festival ground. That’s what Gay Village seemed to be – a big festival village, with food stands, games and rides, performances, bars and a huge dance floor. We met up with a few of Valerio’s friends once we’d lined up to pay and gotten inside, and after a quick wander around to see some of the sideshow attractions, we inevitably ended up by the bar and on the dance floor. I was still fairly exhausted, so I only had a couple of drinks for fear of passing out right there if I overloaded myself with booze, and the group of us danced among the huge, seething, sweaty crowd. Oddly enough, the person who seemed to be having more fun than anyone was Steve – I’ve always found that straight people are usually rather impressed by the way the gays can throw a party. We danced and danced until the ice in our plastic drink cups had all but melted and keeping my eyes open became a little too much of a struggle. It was fairly late by then, and we’d seen the best of the performances, so we said goodbye to Valerio’s friends and headed back to the car to drive home.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The pumping crowd in the Gay Village.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

The lights turning up over the dance floor.

On the drive home, I questioned Valerio about something I’d noticed throughout the night. “So did you not drink tonight because you were driving, or do you just normally not drink anyway?” Not that long ago I wouldn’t have even thought to consider that second option, but meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely shone a light on that perspective for me.
“No, I don’t drink alcohol,” Valerio said rather simply. “I don’t really like the way it affects me – I don’t really like being drunk.” For a man of such small stature, I could only imagine that it wouldn’t take much to get him heavily intoxicated – something of a foreign concept for me. Now, I’m not a complete idiot – I know there are plenty of people in the world who don’t drink for the sole purpose of getting drunk. I guess that binge-drinking behaviour is mostly the kind of thing I’d been experiencing back home, but I was surprised that find that there were people who actually liked going out to nightclubs to dance and party while not even drinking the smallest amount of alcohol. It was a pleasant change, because for the first time in my life I didn’t feel like I needed to drink as much as I could in order to catch up and keep up with the rate at which all my fellow companions were drinking. Being outside of it for the first time, it was made painfully clear just how problematic and potentially dangerous Australia’s drinking culture can sometimes be. Not that I’m condemning or praising any culture either way – it was just some food for thought on the quiet drive home.
“Well, either way, thanks for driving us tonight. That was definitely a side of Rome we wouldn’t have seen without you.”

***

The next day I slept in. I know, I know – there is so much to do in Rome, how could I possibly waste an entire morning just sleeping? But I was exhausted, and I had reached a low point in the cycle of motions you move through when travelling. Some days you’re so full of energy and feel like you can do anything and literally get out there to take on the world. Other days, things catch up to you a little bit, and you have to remember you’re only human. It was another new perspective I had to consider – on a two week holiday you can cram every day full of activities and sleep it off when you get home, if you so desire. When you’re on the road for nine months, you really do need to be a little more self-conscious and give your body time to relax and recover. It was something I’d neglected over the past few weeks, and I’d paid for it when it culminated in the form of a small breakdown.

Steve had gone off for a day full of sightseeing, but I awoke very late in the morning to hang out with Valerio for a while. The most peculiar and interesting thing about Valerio was his obsession with Madonna. His living room was crammed with memorabilia that spanned back through the years of her career, from CDs and DVDs to posters to books to official tour merchandise, much of which had been signed by the Queen of Pop herself. Normally I might have found such an affinity with one artist slightly creepy, but when Valerio got talking about Madonna, there was such passion and vindication in his voice that it was almost a little inspiring. The decades long career, the different themes and styles in her music, the shocking and controversial material in some of her discography, and the way she’d adapted to achieve longevity in her musical career – but the end of our discussion, Valerio had me wanting to go and purchase all the Madonna albums to discover it all for myself. There was definitely a look of disapproval when I mentioned that I only had two Madonna songs on my iPod – I decided it was best not to mention my Lady Gaga inspired tattoo. We had a good afternoon though, sitting in our pyjamas and drinking tea while he showed me some of his favourite scenes from her MDNA tour – which he assured me would never make it to Australia. “She’ll never go to Australia,” he said rather simply. “She always announces it, but she’ll always cancel. Her tour is too elaborate and expensive. The cost of getting it down there would be more than she could ever make back from an Australian tour.” At that moment, arguing about the worlds various pop divas when I was still in my pyjamas at noon, I felt more at home than I had in a long while.

***

However, I did have other plans for the afternoon. A couple of days ago I had received a message from my next arranged Couchsurfing host – a man by the name of Ike, who lived in Ancona, on the eastern coast of Italy. We had been exchanging messages to arrange my stay since I’d been in Madrid.
“Robert, how are you? Are you still in Rome? I’ve just had a Couchsurfer named Stefan stay with me. He’s a lovely guy, he’s gay too, and he’s heading to Rome now. I’m not sure if he knows anyone – if you have a chance you guys might like to catch up?”
It wasn’t really a lot to go on, so I can’t tell you exactly why I bothered following through – but I got in touch with Stefan, and after a few miscommunications we planned to meet on the Sunday afternoon near the Colosseum, one of the last sights I had left to visit.

From the moment our conversation began, neither of us were at a loss of words. Stefan was from Austria and was currently travelling through Europe as well. We talked about our travels, or lives back home, friends and studying and working. We seemed to have so much in common, and before long we found ourselves discussing things like our hopes and dreams for the future, the things that inspired us and the things that terrified us, things we were doing, and the things we really wanted to be doing. Stefan spoke several languages and had been working as a translator for some time – he’d been a conscientious objector to the compulsory military service in Austria and had instead spent the time working on peace efforts and treaties in Japan. “But I’m also an artist,” Stefan had confessed to me. “I do sculpting… for me, that’s my real passion.” I asked him why he didn’t do that – why he didn’t pursue the dream that meant so much to him. He struggled to answer.
“I feel a similar way, I guess, but about music,” I told him. “I write and play music, and God, there isn’t much else I love in the world more than that. But to actually pursue it further? To really do it? I guess… I’m a little scared.”
“Scared of what?”
“I guess… of failure. What if  you gave it all you had, 100% give it your all, but you’re still not good enough? It’s just a cut-throat world out there…”
“Well, I’m scared too. But not of failure.” We were sitting on a park bench, staring out over the broad Colosseum in front of us. “But of losing that dream. What if you do make it, but it’s not all you dreamed it to be? That dream keeps me alive some days. If I made it that far, only to learn I’ve been wrong along…” He didn’t need to finish his sentence.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

Posing with the Colosseum from where Stefan and I had our long afternoon conversation.

It was a strangely profound moment to have with someone that I had just met, and a tragedy that we probably wouldn’t be meeting again for a long time. I’d wanted to stay and talk more – I felt like I could have talked to Stefan until the end of time itself and still not gotten bored. But my time in Rome was fast coming to an end, and I wouldn’t forgive myself if I didn’t catch even just a glimpse of the Roman Forum and the inside of the Colosseum. We had already talked for much longer than I had anticipated, and I only had about an hour and a half to get down and see those final attractions before closing time. But the structures had stood there for thousands of years, so I could always return another time if necessary – the Forum wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. And if I’d made such a point on seeing every last speck of historical tourism Rome had to offer, I would never have met up with and made a new friend in Stefan. It was a brief yet memorable moment, and I’m eternally grateful that it happened.

***

Fortune was favouring me that afternoon, because I somehow managed to breeze through the swift-moving line for the Colosseum and get in an out in what was probably a record speed. I didn’t climb to the upper tiers for the view down on the main arena, but standing at the bottom and looking up and the walls of relics towering over me was enough to give me a few shivers. The main stage was overrun and off limits to tourists, but I spared a moment for the countless men who would have died there centuries ago.

The Colosseum close up.

The Colosseum close up.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the arena of the mighty Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Inside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

Arco di Costantino right beside the Colosseum.

The Roman Forum was a little bit overwhelming. After finally finding the entrance, I entered the grounds and wandered through the ruins, using my Lonely Planet book to roughly guide me through the highlights – there was only an hour left until the Forum closed. I didn’t rush through it too quickly though, but instead appreciated the sights that I did get to see. In the end I think I saw a great deal of the ruins, but Valerio was mildly horrified that I hadn’t spent more than hour there. Still, it was a beautiful afternoon as I watched the dying light fall across the Forum, and the furthest part of the ruins up near Palatine Hill offered a pretty remarkable view of the area.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Some of the first sights I saw upon setting foot in the Roman Forum.

Ancient ruins.

Ancient ruins.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Ruins in the Forum. There were far too many for me to keep track and remember them all.

Monument inside the Forum.

Monument inside the Forum.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Unfortunately some parts of the Forum were under repair while I was visiting.

Tempio di Saturno - the Temple of Saturn.

Tempio di Saturno – the Temple of Saturn.

More ruins in the Forum.

More ruins in the Forum.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

A fountain in the upper reaches of the Forum on Palatine Hill.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

View from the top of the surrounding area and of the Forum itself.

Afterwards I met Valerio back near the Colosseum, and we wandered through the streets as dusk sank over the city. Valerio told me that there are over 900 churches in the city of Rome, and he himself had managed to visit a few hundred of them during his time living there. We walked past the National Monument for Victor Emmanuel II, and ended up back in central Rome. The area looked quite different at night, as we wandered past the Pantheon, through Piazza Navona, and ended up near Trevi Fountain, where we were due to meet up with Steve.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

The illuminated Pantheon at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi - Fountain of the Four Rivers -  at night.

Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi – Fountain of the Four Rivers – at night.

“Did you throw a coin into the fountain?” Valerio asked me as we watched the hordes of tourists struggle to get their picture taken with the fountain in the background.
“Nah, it was too crowded when I was here,” I replied pretty casually. But Valerio turned to me with a look of horror.
“What?! No, you must throw a coin into the fountain, or you will never again return to Rome!” That was one superstition that I hadn’t heard of, and I just laughed. But Valerio seemed insistent, so I went down the fountain to appease him, tossing 20 euro cents over my shoulder, and getting another picture with the fountain, remarkably without anyone else in the crowd creeping into the shot. Later, I would read in my guide book that an average of €3000 is thrown into Trevi Fountain everyday – I guess that’s one superstition that a lot of people take pretty seriously.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Just before braving the crowds to throw my coin into Trevi Fountain.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

Valerio managed to capture a shot of me and the fountain without the hordes of tourists around me.

We finally caught up with Steve, and we went for a wander to the Piazza di Spagna and the Spanish Steps, which were even more crowded than the afternoon I had first visited them. The whole city seemed to have a different vibe at night, and the three of us sat at the top of the steps and just looked out over the crowd of people, enjoying the warm, humid air. That was my last night in Rome, and I have to say it was a rather enjoyable one. I’d made some new good friends, and after the few days of sightseeing, it had been great to just wander around with someone as chilled out and relaxed as Valerio and, if you will, do as Romans do.

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom...

View of the Spanish Steps from the bottom…

... and from the top.

… and from the top.

***

The next morning Valerio dropped me off at the metro station so that I could make it to my train out of Rome in time. He bid me goodbye and wished me good luck on my travels. I thanked him for his hospitality and his generosity, and with a wink I reminded him that I threw that coin into Trevi Fountain, “So I’m sure I’ll be back to visit you again.”