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.”

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Change Direction

After my wild afternoon and evening at Berghain, I went home and crashed pretty heavily, spending most of the day recovering from what had been a busy weekend that had been bursting with pride. Berlin had lived up to and exceeded all expectations set for it, and suddenly I was having to face the reality that it was time to move on. True, my schedule was supposed to be flexible, but I still had a large portion of my Eurail train pass to use, and I had only explored a fraction of the European continent. In spite of all that, I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to leave before moving on. I reflected on the time I spent in Vietnam with Allistair, and how upsetting it really was to cut that time so short due to the fact I’d held myself to a strict schedule, so I decided to learn from that lesson and hang back in Berlin for at least a few days. Meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely had an effect on me…

***

When we were sitting outside in the garden at Berghain, Ralf and I talked about much more than the drinking cultures in our home countries. I told him all about my travels and my journey so far – he had also travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway some years ago, heading in the opposite direction to me, so we swapped stories and compared experiences of the epic train route. He was just so easy to talk to, and since we’d already opened up to each quite physically that evening, I found myself opening up quite emotionally as well.
“So how long have you been travelling for now?” My head was resting in Ralf’s lap, and every now and then he traced his fingers over my bare shoulders, smiling every time it sent a little shiver down my spine.
“I think… It’s almost around the three month mark now,” I said as I did a few quick mental calculations. “Yeah… that’s crazy!”
“Time flies when you’re having fun?”
“Well… no, actually. In fact, quite the opposite. People say that months will go by so quickly, but… for me it definitely feels like I’ve been away for three months, maybe even longer. So much has happened already… It’s hard to believe I’m only like… a third of the way through my trip.”
Ralf raised his eyebrows at that. “Wow. That is quite a long trip.”
“Yeah… Us Australians are pretty renowned for doing the whole ‘gap year’ thing.”
“I didn’t think most people look it quite so literally, though?”
I didn’t really have an answer for that. “I guess… A lot of people stop and work along the way, or their trips are shorter, if they’re doing it before they start university. I just finished university, so… I guess I had the time to actually do it?”
“But I’m sure there’s plenty of people who could have the time if they really wanted. What made you want to do it?”

I’d thought about it quite often, but I don’t think anyone had enquired about it as far as Ralf had, beyond the simple ‘because I can’ rationale.
“Well… After sixteen years of education, and twenty one years of living in the same city… I guess I just wanted to go out and see the world. I was kind of sick of my life back home. I didn’t want to get a job and get stuck somewhere if I didn’t really want to be there.” I looked down to where the words ‘Run away with me’ ran across my ankle, freshly inked a couple of months ago in Bangkok, and laughed to myself as I traced a finger across the text.
“What is it?” Ralf could see that my thoughts had continued to tick over internally.
“It’s just… It’s funny. I always thought of this trip as running away – running away from my life, running away from the real world. But the more I see, the more I do… I realise that this-,” I threw my hands up into the air, motioning towards Berghain next to us, to Ralf, to our surroundings in general. “This is the real world. This is real life.” I let my hands collapse by my side again. “And sooner or later I need to stop running, and start living. But I’m only realising this right now…”

Ralf smiled down at me, and ran a few fingers through my hair. “Travelling is good like that. You get to see so much of the world, different cultures, and finding new perspectives. It’s all about perspective. You learn more about yourself that way too.”
It made me think of something that Rathana had told me when he was in Sydney in January, right when I was on the cusp of beginning my journey. “One of my friends back home – well, he lives in Bangkok now,” I said to Ralf. “He said to me: ‘A world journey like this is going to change you – and if it doesn’t, you’re probably doing it wrong!’ And I want that, I really do. I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.”
“It will change you,” Ralf said simply. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home, because even if things changed at home, you’ll probably have changed more. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He laughed for a moment, reconsidering his words. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”
Sitting there in the garden, staring up at the stars, I was beginning to believe that it already had.

***

I’d gone around to Ralf’s for dinner on Monday evening, stayed the night, and the following day headed back to Donatella’s apartment to gather my things. The previous week, Simon had headed to a music festival elsewhere in Germany, and hadn’t been due back until Tuesday. We had said our goodbyes then, anticipating my departure sometime during the weekend, so he was surprised to see me packing my things up when he arrived back home on Tuesday night. “What? You’re still here?” he said jokingly. “You’re really never going to leave, are you?”
“I am, I swear! I’m leaving tomorrow, I swear!” I said it in the same playful tone, but part of me really hated the fact that I knew this time I really meant it. I was going to spend one last night at Ralf’s place, and from there I would head to Berlin Haupbanhof and catch my train to… well, I still had a bit of time to figure that out. So I said my final goodbyes to Simon, Eva, and the rest of my Berlin housemates from the past two weeks, and left a small thank you note for Donatella, who was still away in Munich. It was the longest I’d lived anywhere in the past three months, and of course I was leaving just when it began to feel like home.

However, Ralf’s place was so homely and cozy that it didn’t take long at all to settle in, even if it was for just one more night. The fifth story apartment was on the top floor of the building and had a quaint little balcony with a lush herb garden. But it was raining that evening, so Ralf and I snuggled up on the couch with some herbal tea – brewed with the plants from his very own garden – to consider the immediate problem of where I would be going tomorrow. I’d had plans to head east from Berlin, to travel down through Prague and Budapest, then down through Croatia and do a clockwise circuit through the Mediterranean. Though I had also planned to leave Berlin on Friday – it was now Wednesday, and the past weekend had once again changed my outlook on this journey. I’d become so obsessed with planning a route through Europe, trying to fit in as much as I could, that I had forgotten the entire reason I had chosen the flexible train pass. I was allowed to be flexible. Plans were allowed to change. Do whatever you want Bob, my mum had said to me when I’d sent her a couple of emails expressing my ideas and concerns. As long as you don’t miss your final flight to New York, you can make or change your plans as much as you like.

My mother had been a voice of reason, but it was Ralf who had really been the catalyst for change. In addition to our profound conversations in the garden at Berghain, spending those extra few days in Berlin with him had been so lovely, and he had reminded me that those spontaneous decisions of mine were often the most rewarding. But since I had spent more time than anticipated in Berlin, I felt like I really had to choose my priority destinations. I’d come to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to be able to see everything, so Ralf tried to help me brainstorm ideas. “Where is it that you really want to go?” he’d said as I flipped through my Lonely Planet guide, and stared intently at the railway map. Poland was close by, but the trains there weren’t included in my rail pass. Prague was meant to be a beautiful city, but the Czech Republic had only recently been devastated by severe flooding. Switzerland was just to the south as well, but there were other destinations further west in Europe that I wanted to see… and that’s how I made my decision.

Ralf had reminded me that I was, in fact, a bit of a romantic. So the following morning, after saying our final goodbyes, I boarded a train heading towards a city officially known as the City of Lights, but also commonly known as the City of Love – Paris.

Conversations in Copenhagen: what we have, what we want, and what we really need

After spending some time riding our bikes through Christiania and grabbing a bite to eat, Esben told me that he had another appointment that evening. He was playing billiards at a local pub with a few of his friends, a regular meeting that happened every week, and Esben said I was welcome to join him or go and do my own thing, if that was what I preferred. I had no idea what I would have done if I’d gone wandering by myself, so I accepted the invitation to join Esben and his friends – after all, the spirit of Couchsurfing was to get to know your hosts and to see how the locals live their day to day life.

So that evening I found myself in a small room that was thick with cigarette smoke in the back of a small, inconspicuous bar whose name I never took note of. There we met Esben’s friends, who had already started a game without him. As I watched them play, I discovered that billiards and pool or snooker are actually two completely different games – Esben’s friends explained the rules of billiards and the use of the tiny wooden poles in the middle of the table, and after a while I even joined in on a few of the games, though my recently acquired snooker skills were no match for a bunch of weekly practitioners. I sat down with a beer and told a few stories of my travels while they played – mentioning the Trans-Siberan always gained an amusing reaction, a combination of curiosity, amazement and disbelief. Even when I mentioned that Esben and I climbed the tower at Vor Freslers Kirke, one of the women exclaimed with a gasp. “Wow! How was it? I can’t believe I’ve lived here so long, but I have never been up there!” I assured her it was a beautiful view, and then just laughed, smiled and shrugged my shoulder. “It’s okay – if there’s one thing I’ve learned from all the people I’ve met along my trip, it’s that people usually never take the time to be tourists in their own city.” For myself, it would have been applicable to say my own country. I have a lot of international friends who have seen much more of Australia then I ever have. I guess when you grow up on the island continent, the rest of the world over the vast seas and oceans seems a little more exciting then the unfathomable expanse of nothing in the desert in the centre of the country.

Esben was in his late thirties, and most of his friends were either of a similar age or even older, so it was a slightly different crowd to my usual company – no binge drinkers or party animals – but it was a nice chance of pace. Eventually we had to clear out of the room to make way for another group who was using the game table, and most of the group went home when that happened. In the end it was just Esben, myself, and a woman named Tot. Tot was a lovely lady, as sweet and gentle as Esben – perhaps that’s why they were such good friends, but I was beginning to suspect it was a common quality among most Danes. We talked more about my travels, and I told stories about South-East Asia and some of the incredible culture clashes I’d seen. Tot listened keenly, and I could see the sincere and genuine compassion in her eyes as I described the kind of poverty I had witnessed during my stay in Thailand and Cambodia.

She voiced some of her own thoughts and concerns when I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to drink the tap water all the way from Bangkok to Moscow. “It’s incredible how much we take things like that for granted, isn’t it?” Tot said as she sank back into her seat, shaking her head with a solemn look on her face. “Things like just going to the tap and being able to get a glass of water.”
“Yeah, but even in a lot of those places I was still able to walk to a corner store and buy two litres of water, you know?” I added.
Tot nodded in agreement. “But then there’s places in Africa where they can’t even do that! Even the most basic things that we take for granted would be such a luxury to them. It really makes you appreciate the things you have. Not enough people really see that.” There was a strained sadness in her voice, a beautiful soul that sounded so desperate to see a change in the world, yet unsure how to go about it. It reminded me of myself in a lot of ways, and the way I’d lived my life up until very recently: ideas without action, or goals without a plan. I told Tot that even the water in St Petersburg was undrinkable – that was quite a shock for her, I think, to bring what seemed like such a foreign problem to the European First World – but we remained on the topic of quality of life and the appreciation of ones own circumstances for quite a long time, and the conversation turned into quite a profound moment for me. For the first time I was beginning to consciously appreciate not just the amazing opportunities and experiences I’d had in the places I’ve travelled to, but also what I’d had in the life I’d left behind, and after this journey is eventually over, in the life I’ll be able to return to.

***

There’s only so much world philosophising one can do in an evening before the whole thing just becomes overwhelmingly depressing, and eventually Tot had to go home. “If you like, we can ride home past some of the gay bars so I can point them out to you,” Esben had offered after we had bid farewell to Tot. He had to work the following evening, but it would be a Friday night and I had expressed an interest in checking out some of what the nightlife in Copenhagen had to offer. So off we went on our bikes, until we reached what could be considered the ‘gay area’ – a stretch of several blocks where some of the most popular gay venues were located. Esben stopped outside one called Jailhouse CPH. “This one is more of a bar then a nightclub,” he said.
“Is it any good?” I asked.
Esben just shrugged his shoulders, and made a short noise that was the definition of impartiality made audible. “It’s okay. Depends of what you want to do, I guess.” I wasn’t sure if he meant it, or if his Danish nature meant he didn’t enjoy being too critical of even a simple bar, but then he said, “We can go in for a drink now, if you like?” Wary of the beers I’d already consumed, and the fact I had ridden a bike into town, I accepted the offer, deciding that familiarising myself with the setting could only be a useful thing to do.

Once inside, Esben and I sat at the bar and ordered some drinks. We’d been so busy riding around and sightseeing during the day that it was the first time we’d really been able to sit down and have a decent discussion. Something I’ve found about most naturally quiet people is that they often have the most thoughtful and interesting things to say, and Esben was no exception. We talked a lot about travelling – me about the Trans-Siberian trek, him about his smaller journeys throughout Europe, as well as his experiences at Burning Man in the USA – and our lives in general, with an overall more upbeat tone then the conversation with Tot. Throughout the night one of the guys who worked at Jailhouse, who was also an acquaintance of Esben, came over to us and told us he was taking photos for the bars Facebook page. They had an offer where if you tagged yourself in the photo on Facebook, you received a free shot. Needless to say, I had connected to the free WiFi in moments, and Esben and I were throwing back tequila shots. Following that, I decided it was time to head home, given that I still had to get there via bicycle.

“I think I might have to get the bus into town tomorrow night”, I said to Esben as we left the bar and headed for our bikes. “I won’t be able to ride my bike after I’ve been out drinking.” Even now I was stumbling a little as I mounted my bike – thank God I still had Esben there to lead the way home.
“Oh, you can still ride your bike home,” he’d said rather simply. “I’ve done it many times… some times very drunk. It’s not really a big deal.”
“No,” I said with a chuckle, “it’s not that I won’t be allowed. It’s that I physically can’t ride a bike after I’ve been drinking. Or at least as much as I will probably be drinking tomorrow.” Although I somehow managed to follow Esben’s lead and make it home that evening in one piece. On the way back I tried to make mental notes in my mind, in the event that I was brave enough to take my bike out the following evening – I was still unsure, but I would cross that bridge when I got to it.

***

Esben had a funeral to attend the following morning, and then work in the afternoon, so I said I would do some more sightseeing in the morning and swing past Christiania in the afternoon to say hello. So after consulting my Lonely Planet book and studying a few maps, I set out to see some of the other more well known sights of Copenhagen. I rode through the city centre, past another sightseeing boat trip that I had decided to forego, and up along the bank of the canals until I reached the strip that was scattered with a range of statues both great and small. There were some impressive fountains, some smaller depictions of angels and fairytale creatures, and of course the famous Little Mermaid. The statue itself seems rather underwhelming when seen up close in the flesh… or… in the bronze? Whatever, despite that I still played my tourist card for the city and climbed down on the rocks to get a photo with it, managing to get my own photo without the throngs of other tourists in the way, something that even impressed Esben. The other highlight was the impressive Gefion Fountain, a sprawling masterpiece that really makes yiu wonder what the hell is so special about the Little Mermaid at all. A Disney reference? It’s all a bit strange, but nevertheless, it made for an pleasant bike ride in the warm Copenhagen sun.

The Danish flag.

The Danish flag.

Lamp post ornaments.

Lamp post ornaments.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo'a David.

A bronze replica of Michaelangelo’a David.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons... Yes, her sons are oxen.

Gefion Fountain, which depicts the goddess Gefion ploughing the Danish island of Zealand with her four sons… Yes, her sons are oxen.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Close up of Gefion and her sons.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or 'Shipping Monument', a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

Angel statue called Søfartsmonumentet, or ‘Shipping Monument’, a tribute to fallen sailors of WWI.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

With the most famous of all the statues, the Little Mermaid.

I biked around the city for the rest of the afternoon, exploring the streets and just really taking it all in. With all the canals, it felt like a more spacious version of Stockholm, although maybe that’s because I ended up seeing far more of Copenhagen than I ever did of Stockholm thanks to the bike I had access to. Later in the afternoon I visited Christiania again for a beer in the sunshine, but I’d decided that I was going to head back home to change and maybe have a nap before heading out again. I’d started to get the sniffles, and what looked like the beginnings of a cold, so I figured a little extra rest would be necessary if I was going to explore the nightlife later.

I was half right – the nap was definitely necessary. However, I never made it back to Jailhouse CPH, or any other bar for that matter. I’d told Esben I was heading home for a little while – I managed to pass out on my blow up mattress and only wake up when he arrived home just after 10:30pm. It seemed like the excessive amounts of beer and vodka over the last couple of weeks and the constant travelling and most likely not enough sleep were all finally catching up to me, and my body gave out. So I spent the Friday evening at home with Esben which, I can honestly say, was probably a lot more enjoyable than heading out to any bar would have been. I remembered back to my time with Allistair in Vietnam, telling him how I was looking for more in my life than just partying, and the mindless nights of purposeless drinking weekend after weekend. Esben made some dinner and we shared a bottle of wine, and we talked more about our lives, the world, and the future. I went to bed with a richer soul, and a body that was (hopefully) less likely to bail out on me during a period where I needed to be healthy for my travels. Cutting back on some (but definitely not all) of the partying wasn’t just a desire – if I was going to survive this long haul journey, it would almost be a necessity.

The next morning I packed my things, bid Esben farewell and thanked him for his generous hospitality, and hit the train tracks towards my next destination. I was leaving Copenhagen with new friends, new perspectives, and terribly sore muscles in my butt from all that bike riding! It must have been several years since I’d last ridden a push-bike – the charming little city knows how to leave a lasting impression.

Lake Baikal: Scenery and Saunas

As enthusiastic as I am about efficient public transportation, our train out of Ulaanbaatar had been making such good time that it was actually ahead of schedule, and we arrived in Irkutsk almost a full hour before the expected time. Normally that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing, but we had been due to arrive in Irkutsk at about 8am, which meant we ended up waking up at 6am for our arrival at approximately 7am. No matter the season, Siberia is still extremely cold at 7am. It was hard to believe that only two weeks ago I had been sweating it out in South-East Asia. To top it all off, the fact that we were early meant that our guide wasn’t even at the train station yet, so we all sat around in the terminal building, shivering and shaking and waiting for him to arrive. I had made the mistake of not changing out of my thin material Thailand fisherman pants before getting off he train, so my legs were feeling ridiculously cold.

Eventually Konstantin arrived to meet us at the station. He was a tall, board-shouldered guy, and his face was almost always sporting a wide, slightly goofy grin. He was particularly upbeat and cheerful that first morning in Irkutsk, which was a stark contrast to how the rest of us were feeling. That didn’t dampen his spirits though, and he herded us off into the bus and took us to our first stop – our registration. Even now I’m not entirely sure what this registration business is all about, but it involved us having to part with our passports temporarily, and a small sum of money permanently, in order to receive an official stamped slip of paper with the details of our accommodation. We were told this would happen in every city, yet when he asked Konstantin – or Kostya for short – he shrugged his shoulders and through a sheepish grin replied, “I am not sure. My country does some strange things sometimes. Maybe in case you are a spy?” He chuckled, and there was nothing we could do but laugh along with him.

***

While we had gotten off the train in Irkutsk, it wasn’t where we would be spending the bulk of our time in Siberia. After our registration, we travelled for about an hour on the bus to Lake Baikal, the largest freshwater lake in the world. At its deepest point it is 1642 metres and tip to tip it’s 636 kilometres long, with a surface area of 31,722 square kilometres. Tim explained to me that it is so big it has a trench at the bottom, caused by the gap between two tectonic plates. As we emerged from the forest and into the small town, the lake stretched out and off into the horizon. The morning was a little overcast, and the clouds hung so low that the other side of the lake was hardly visible, and we could have easily been looking out onto the open ocean. After stopping to shower and refresh ourselves at the hotel, which was more of a quaint little B&B, we met back down by the lake for lunch. Russian cuisine isn’t too different from Mongolian, especially out here in Siberia, but I had a traditional Russian salad that absolutely blew my mind. It was essentially just a salami salad that was drowning in sour cream, but both creamy food and fresh vegetables were things that hadn’t featured too heavily in my diet lately. Dan commented that I practically inhaled it. I asserted that it was a talent.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

Overcast morning at Lake Baikal.

After lunch we went on a short walk to a nearby lookout with good views of the lake. Or at least Kostya told us it would be a short walk. “Not far, just… hmm… 10 minutes.” Maybe we were all just walking a lot slower than he was used to, because it took us about 20 minutes to walk down the long main road to get to the base of the hill, which we had to walk up in order to get the chairlift which would take us to the very top. The sun had finally showed up at this point in the afternoon, but we were all rugged up in our warm Siberian clothes, so the result was a bunch of hot and sweaty tourists slowing undressing as we ascended the hill. Once we reached the chairlift, we were also given the option of walking to the top. Given all the walking we had done just to get there, and the fact I played my hill climbing card back at the Great Wall, I felt that I was well within my right to cop out and take the chairlift. Regardless of how we got up there, I was glad we did – the view of the lake with mountains bursting out of the horizon in the distance was well worth the small effort to get there. “I’m kind of glad he lied about how close we were,” Alyson commented as we soaked in the view. “I feel like we we’re all so tired that we mightn’t have done it if we’d known.” The sun had well and truly emerged from the clouds, and the afternoon was brilliantly picturesque. Despite the effort, it was ultimately relaxing, and as we sat down in the sunshine with some cold beers, I was thankful that we were staying in remote countryside again, rather than a bustling city. The downtime surrounded by nature was doing wonders for us all.

Chairlift up the hill.

Chairlift up the hill.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out - its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Clear view of the mountainous horizon from the look out – its was hard to believe it was the same day that it was that morning.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

Me looking pensively out across Lake Baikal.

***

My favourite thing about our entire stay at Lake Baikal was probably the sauna at our hotel. After the trek back from the lookout, Tim, Dan, Claire, Matt, Jen and myself all got changed into our swimmers and headed for the steam room. It grew a little chilly as the evening rolled around, although it would remain a bright twilight for hours, but inside the sauna we were sweating it out at temperatures of about ninety degrees Celsius. Kostya joined us, dressed in nothing but a skimpily clad towel, to help operate the sauna, but he also had another surprise. Traditionally, in Siberia they use soaking bunches of birch leaves to throw water onto the hot coals and create the steam, and the branches have another purpose. After soaking them in hot water, the bundles of leaves could be used as tools of massage. We all took turns to lie down on one of the wooden benches while Kostya brushed, tickled, and gently whipped us with the birch tree branches. The smell of the foliage also seeped out from the leaves and hot water and mixed into the steam, creating a pleasant aromatherapy atmosphere in the sauna.

After a little while the heat would become overwhelming and we would have to step outside to cool off a little. Sometimes we would just step out into the outer room, where there were showers to rinse off, and other times we’d leave the building in which the sauna was located entirely, to let the Siberian chill tingle our hot steaming skin. When it came time for my birch leaf massage, we’d just returned from the outside air, and so the heat of the sauna enveloped me and dragged my body movements down to a crawl. I climbed up onto the wooden seat, laid face down, and waited for the massage to begin. Obviously it wasn’t a hard or deep tissue massage, but the feeling of the warm, wet leaves being dragged across my back was a peculiar sensation, somehow simultaneously relaxing and invigorating. Though the highlight was when he got to my feet – we had been standing out in the cold, and my feet had probably lost more warmth than anywhere else in my body. Normally my feet are quite ticklish, but as Kostya covered my feet with the dripping birch leaves they were filled with a warm sensation that felt so good it was almost paralytic.

After getting me to roll over and continuing the massage on my chest and arms, Kostya threw the branches back into the bucket of water and said, “Okay, let’s go shower!” By this, he meant step out of the sauna so he could douse you with clean, fresh water. Now, I’m not saying that I was exactly attracted to Kostya, but it had been a while since I’d been half-naked and sweaty with another man after getting a massage, and he did have quite a good physique – as I’d been unpacking that morning, I’d watched him and another guest have a push-up competition and let me tell you, the boy’s got guns. So I may have been a little flustered when the two of us stepped outside.
“Cold or hot?” Kostya asked me. I wasn’t sure what he meant.
“Cold… or hot?” I repeated back to him like a parrot.
“Water for shower,” he said as he pointed to the buckets. “You like hot or cold?”
“Um, warm?” I put my hand in the bucket he’d indicated to me hot, and instantly pulled my hand back out. “That’s cold!”
Kostya laughed. “Is not cold, just feels cold, ’cause… hot from sauna.” He made me feel to cold one, which felt like ice in comparison, to prove his point. “So, cold?”
“Yes but… that cold,” I said as I pointed to the warmer of the two buckets.
“So you want hot?”
I couldn’t believe how much I was stumbling through my words for such a simple decision. “Sure, bring it on,” I finally said. I was most likely going to squeal like a little girl either way, and the cold shower was quickly becoming more of a necessity.

“Okay – one, two, three!” Kostya said as he reached over me and tipped the water over me. No matter how warm he said it was, I was still a shock to the system and I’m fairly confident I let out a loud yelp as he doused me with water, washing away the bits of twigs and leaves that had stuck to me during the massage. Kostya just laughed and threw some more water on me. Cold as it might have been, it was actually amazing – the drastic change in temperature does wonders for your pores and skin, and leaves you feeling like a whole new person. I skipped away from the sauna slightly shivering in the Siberian air, but on the whole feeling like a million bucks. It was the highlight of my time there, to the point where I even went back the next night with Kaylah, Alyson, Rach, Marti and Tim.

***

Dinner also proved to be a new traditional cultural experience. On the morning we arrived in Irkutsk, Marti had attempted to pump us all up a little bit. “You guys ready to eat some dill-icious food!” She’d explained that Russians love putting dill in all their cooking – I didn’t know how I felt about that, as it wasn’t a herb I could recall coming across too often, and so couldn’t think to whether or not it was a taste I enjoyed. As we sat around the table to eat a meal that the hotel owner had prepared for us, there was a ripple of laughter around the table as the plates were set down in front of us, the generous servings of chicken and rice topped with an even more generous serving of dill. “Looks dill-icious!” Marti said through her big smile, and we all laughed along and enjoyed what was actually a delicious home cooked meal. I actually use the word ‘delicious’ a lot in my general everyday discussion of food – yes, I talk about food a lot – so the rest of the group probably thought I was intentionally overing-using the pun and persistently beating the dead horse. I swear I wasn’t, guys – it was just was delicious.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

The local vodka featured heavily during our stay at Lake Baikal.

But it wouldn’t have been a night in Russia without vodka – and we’d stocked up. We started at dinner and kept going into the night until it finally got dark, which actually wasn’t until after 11pm. There wasn’t exactly anywhere to go and party though, in this remote town, so we just sat around the dinner table talking. Slowly but steadily, the numbers began to wane as people headed to bed, and as the group become smaller and more vodka was consumed, the conversations turned a lot more deep and personal. In the end it was just Tim, Alyson, Kaylah and myself, and I feel like that night was a pivotal point in our group bonding. We’d all been together for over a week, and while it was surprising how well you get to know people when you spend so much time with them, I feel like it was those moments of candid confession and revelation that turned most of us into not just travelling companions, but also good friends.