Concrete Jungle Where Dreams Are Made

Upon returning to New York City from my brief trip to New Jersey, it hit me that this was going to be my very last week in New York, and the next time I left the Big Apple it was going to be with all my worldly possessions in tow, and no future return date in sight. There were a few tourist attractions and activities that I was yet to see and do – partly because I might have been a little bit lazy, but also because I was waiting for a fellow tourist to see and do them with. Back in Berlin, as well as talking about my previous travels, I’d also chatted to Ralf about my travel plans for the future.
“And then after the UK it’s off to the USA! I’m going to have my birthday in New York with one of my best friends.” At the time, I thought it was only Georgia who I was going to be seeing for my birthday – I was completely oblivious to my planned birthday surprise.
“Ah, very nice,” Ralf said with a smile. “I’ve also got a trip planned to New York later this year, actually. I’ll also be there for my birthday.”
“Really? When is your birthday?”
“October 9th.”
“No way! Mine’s October 6th!” And that was how Ralf and I discovered that, completely by chance, we were both going to be in New York at the same time. I guess that’s why when we said farewell in Amsterdam after our weekend at pride, it didn’t really feel like goodbye. We both knew it was simply ‘See you in a few months!’

***

So the afternoon that I arrived back in New York, I helped Melissa carry some things she had brought home from New Jersey up to her apartment, but then set off to meet Ralf for the afternoon. He was staying with a friend over in Chelsea, so we decided to meet at The High Line. The High Line is an old train line that has been converted into a long park that stretches more than two kilometres down the western side of Manhattan. I’d visited it a couple of times during my time in New York – once by myself and once with Jesse – but it’s a beautiful place that sits above the hustle and bustle of street level, offering views of the city, yet somehow also a peacefulness that comes with your removal from it, so I didn’t mind returning for another visit.

It was a little surreal to meet up with Ralf again. Meeting him a second time in Berlin had felt relatively normal, since that was where we’d first met, but to sneak up behind him and surprise him on a street corner in lower Manhattan felt like I’d found a glitch in the universe or something. But we hugged like old friends before proceeding to climb the stairs and walk along the High Line, catching each other up on the last few months while taking in the scenery and the artwork that was spread out along the thin, narrow park.

The New York City High Line.

The New York City High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

Artwork along the High Line.

That afternoon was actually Ralf’s birthday, and although he was trying to not make a big deal about turning 40, I managed to convince him he at least needed a cake, which we shared that evening with the friends who he was staying with. It was still early in the week though, and we decided we’d wait for the weekend before going out dancing to celebrate.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

Ralf and his birthday cake.

***

The next couple of days I caught up with Ralf again to do a bit of final sightseeing in New York City. We decided that we wanted to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge and possibly explore some of Brooklyn. The following day we arranged to meet at a halfway point between both our homes and go from there. We met at Maddison Square Park, but when I started to brainstorm how we could get to lower Manhattan to cross the bridge over to Brooklyn, Ralf said, “Why don’t we walk?”
“Uhhh…” I was hesitant. “It’s kind of a long way?”
“I’m not that old yet,” he joked. “We’re both fit and healthy, right?”
“Uh… sure, yeah. I guess we can walk. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

As it turns out, Ralf has a horrible sense of direction and geographical awareness. I can’t really tell you how we came to the decision, but we decided to walk to the edge of the island and then head south along the bank of the East River. There were some nice views of the various bridges, but when I kept checking our location via the blinking blue dot on the Google Maps app, I was concerned at how little progress we were making in the scheme of things as we walked along. Don’t get me wrong – it was actually a nice walk, and we talked and caught up the whole time, but October was coming along and the days weren’t as warm as they had been when I’d first hit the east coast of the USA. This day in particular was a little bit chilly with a fair bit of wind.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there's almost always something interesting to see.

The nice thing about New York is that no matter where you go, there’s almost always something interesting to see.

To cut a long story short, it took us almost two hours to get to the beginning of the Brooklyn Bridge. At which point we had to stop and rest our feet for a little while.
“Why didn’t you tell it was such a long walk?” Ralf said with a cheeky smile, and I just rolled my eyes and told myself I’d probably needed the exercise. And then we set out to cross the bridge, which actually offers some beautiful views of Downtown Manhattan and the Financial District.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Bridges connecting Brooklyn and Manhattan across the East River.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Ralf and I on the Brooklyn Bridge, with lower Manhattan in the background.

Crossing the Brooklyn Bridge itself is no walk in the park, and we even had to stop halfway across, partly to enjoy the views but also because we had been on our feet and walking for quite a few hours now. By the time we reached Brooklyn it was already starting to get late in the afternoon. After finding a place to eat and having an extremely late lunch, we were both too exhausted to do too much more walking.
“And we are definitely taking the subway back to Manhattan,” I said sternly when we decided to head home. I wouldn’t make the mistake of listening to Ralf’s judgements of distance again, plus I’d grown so accustomed to the NYC subway over the last month, I found it almost comforting. And as for Brooklyn itself, I never really got another chance to explore it. However, I knew that this was only my first time in New York, and definitely not my last, so I vowed to explore the streets of Brooklyn next time I visited the Big Apple.

Welcome to Brooklyn!

***

Ralf and I spent another afternoon heading down to the southern tip of Manhattan (via the subway this time, of course) to make a trip even further south on the Staten Island Ferry. Melissa used to live on Staten Island, and while everyone had assured me that there wasn’t a lot to do there, it was a nice (and free) ferry ride which once again provided excellent views of the Financial District in all it’s tall and shiny glory.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

The port where the Staten Island Ferry departs from in Manhattan.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Manhattan in the horizon.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Ralf being thoughtful/posing.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

Statue of Liberty as seen from the ferry.

A few people had told me that it wasn’t worth sticking around on Staten Island, and that once they’d herded you off the boat it was better to just turn around and march right back on. Defiant and determined to find something actually likeable about Staten Island, Ralf and I decided to had have a wander around. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Staten Island, it’s just that Manhattan (because Staten Island technically is still part of New York City) is hard act to follow. Most of Staten Island just seemed to be residential. There weren’t even that many shops – just a corner store here and there and a café or two. There’s is a museum on the island, at least, but it didn’t seem to be that interesting, and we weren’t even going to go inside. But as we turned to walk away, a woman came running out to tell us that entrance was free after 5pm, so we shrugged our shoulders and headed back for a quick scope around, and learnt a little bit about the history of the ferry and the history of Staten Island as a part of New York City. Which was interesting enough, but… overall, if we had turned around and hopped straight back on the ferry, we wouldn’t have been missing much.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

Boarding the Staten Island Ferry.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

The almost eery streets of Staten Island.

 ***

Of all the sightseeing that one just has to do in New York, I think I must have saved the most important for the very last. There are – at least in my opinion – three major towers in Manhattan: the Chrysler Building, the Rockefeller Center, and the Empire State Building. Each of them offers stunning panoramic views over the concrete jungle, but there’s really no need to go to the top of all of them – so how do you choose which one to visit? I spent a long time (i.e. my whole life until arriving in New York) believing that the Chrysler Building was actually the Empire State Building. I’d seen more pictures of the former, but I was so familiar with the name of the latter that the two became conflated in my mind.
“That’s because so many photos are actually taken from the top of the Empire State Building – that’s why you never see it,” was the explanation I was offered, and put that way, I guess it makes perfect sense. So using that logic, and knowing that there were three buildings, I convinced Ralf that the Rockefeller Center should be the tower the picked. To be honest, I wasn’t even sure what it looked like, and climbing to the top of it would offer views of the two towers that I did know.

Walking around New York City, you definitely get a feeling of how big the place is. It seems to stretch on forever, and one wrong turn and you find yourself lost in a place or street or suburb that you never knew even existed. But a trip to ‘The Top of the Rock’ only served to confirm these feelings that New York is an infinite city that stretches almost as far as the imagination.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

Flags around the ice rink in front of the Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

The Rockefeller Center.

Ralf and I lined up to get our tickets and, after watching a short presentation about the Rockefeller family, the building they created and their place in American history, hopped into an elevator that would take us to the upper reaches of the Rockefeller Center. Even the inside of the elevator was fascinating – the roof was made of glass, and as the little box you stood inside zoomed upwards, rows of lights that lined the shaft wall came racing towards you like shooting stars.

The tower we were about to go up.

The tower we were about to go up.

Looking up - inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

Looking up – inside the Rockefeller Center elevator.

But once we were on top, the views were breathtaking. To the north was Central Park, and for the first time I think I really appreciated just how huge it really is. It’s just massive. And to think, it’s only a fraction of Manhattan itself. To the south, the Empire State Building rose up from the street, the afternoon sun turning it into a silhouette as it began to set into the west. Words really fail to describe the immensity that surrounds you when you’re standing there, or just how tiny and insignificant you can feel when all that is New York City rises up out of the ground around you. Part of you is on top of the world, but all that you see just reminds you that you’re just another part of it. It’s a rush to be up there, but I somehow also found the experience very humbling.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Central Park and northern Manhattan, as seen from the Top of the Rock.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

Concrete Jungle: New York.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

The Empire State Building in the hazy, afternoon sun.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

Ralf and I at the Top of the Rock.

However, here's a tip: Top of the Rock doesn't actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

However, here’s a tip: Top of the Rock doesn’t actually offer such a good view of the Chrysler Building.

Ralf and I spent a long time up there, just wandering around and taking in the epic views. When it was finally time to come down, we debriefed and unwound with a walk through Central Park. After having seen it from the air, I had a greater appreciation of just how big the park was. We set off without a plan and no real direction, and soon we were lost, taking new turns and discovering new locations in the dying sunlight.

Strolling through Central Park.

Strolling through Central Park.

Night setting in over NYC.

Night setting in over NYC.

We even stumbled across the huge lakes up on the northern side of the park – that I recognised so vividly from episodes of Gossip Girl, as well as a host of other TV shows and movies – but unfortunately by that stage it was too dark to capture any good photographs. Once night fully set in, we decided that Central Park was potentially not the safest place to be, so we made a beeline for the subway, and made our way home. It had been nice having Ralf there – an unexpected surprise that had allowed me to indulge in some of the more touristic elements of New York City. Sometimes I felt like a gushing tourist, but then I know too many locals who feel exactly the same way about their home to feel too badly about it. Because let’s face it – New York is a pretty incredible city.

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Land of the Free: paying a visit to the lady of Liberty Island

My time in New York was a pretty healthy balance of tourist activities, slightly less touristic and more local activities, and things that were relatively mundane. Having just moved into Melissa’s apartment with her, we did things like grocery shopping and, once the girls who had previously lived there came to pick up their stuff, we even had to go to Bed, Bath & Beyond to buy a couple of blow up mattresses. Melissa had her own bed that would be coming soon, plus a couch and a wardrobe and all those kinds of homely things, but there was a period between “out with the old” and “in with the new” that we found ourselves living in a pretty bare studio apartment. It was kinda fun, though – like a slumber party or something. I also had to take care of some administrative issues: getting into the country had been a large hurdle that I’d overcome, but while booking my flights to Brazil I realised that I was going to need a visa before I headed down south. As it happened, the Brazilian Consulate in New York was literally a few blocks away from Melissa’s new apartment, so after printing off and filling out all the forms I got up early one morning to stand in line and file my application. It was an uncomfortable feeling, to be without your passport in a foreign country, but there was no other way I was going to get the visa, so it had to be done. I had also got in touch with Fautso in São Paulo, who had agreed to let me stay with him, so that had all turned out pretty much perfectly.

***

The first really touristic thing I did, however, was visit the Statue of Liberty. As it would happen, a friend of mine named Lexi was actually in the city at the same time, visiting her family who lived out on Long Island. Melissa was mostly busy with school, and I would never want to be the person to drag her out to see all the sights that she’d probably seen at least a dozen times before, so it been perfect timing when Lexi had got in touch and asked if I wanted to see some of the sights with her. We’d agreed on the Statue of Liberty, although we were a little disappointed to find out that tours that take you right up to the crown of the statue were booked out up until November, but we were still able to book a regular visit to the island in a decent time frame. In retrospect, we were actually quite lucky – soon after my arrival in New York, the government shutdown happened, and all government run attractions and activities, such as the Statue of Liberty, were closed. If we had put off our visit by any more than a week, I probably would never have made it there, since the shutdown was in effect until the day after I left New York City for the final time.

So after meeting on the steps of the New York Public Library, on a slightly humid and muggy morning, Lexi and I set off down Manhattan and took the subway to Battery Park, from where the ferries to Liberty Island departed. All around the dock there were street workers dressed up as the statue, selling toys and other tourist trinkets, and posing for photos. When we finally boarded the ferry, Lexi and I found a good spot to sit to get some good photographs as we approached the island, and we sat around and chatted. We weren’t exactly close friends, but I’d been to my fair share of parties with her during my adolescence, so we had a small collection of hilarious mutual memories, and our conversations always proved amusing. As we crossed New York Harbour and approached the island, the passengers from the ferry began to stir, moving around to get the best lighting on their photos of Lady Liberty. I remember my first thought actually being, Wow… it’s not actually that big. As impressive and iconic as the structure appears visually, it is minuscule compared to all the skyscrapers that had surrounded me for the past few days in Manhattan. The sculpture itself stands 46 metres tall, but the pedestal on which it stands is almost the same height, making the entire structure 93 metres tall from torch tip to ground. Which is big, I guess, but I had been in Manhattan for a little while now.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from the ferry to Liberty Island.

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

The Statue of Liberty: symbol of freedom!

When we arrived, every passenger was given a free audio tour, and we learnt more about the structure as we made our way around the island. The Statue of Liberty is actually a representation of Libertas, the Roman goddess of freedom, and was a gift to the United States from the people of France. It’s a symbol of freedom that now sits in the harbour, supposedly welcoming immigrants arriving from abroad. For the temporary foreigners, though, it really just screams “Photo op!”
And we were no exception.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

Myself with the Statue of Liberty.

And of course, a selfie.

And of course, a selfie.

After we’d finished being tourists outside, we headed inside… to be tourists again. We had tickets that allowed us to go up to the pedestal level, just below the feet of the statue. It was still almost 50 metres high, and since were in the middle of the harbour, it afforded us some nice views. Or would have, if the weather had been a little bit better. Gazing over the harbour from our vantage point, Manhattan appeared to be covered in a smoggy haze. It looked odd, and almost reminded me of the smog and air pollution in Beijing, but then I figured that that is probably pretty normal for such a massive city. It was a pretty overcast day, but I couldn’t put the poor of visibility down to simple fog or low clouds.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Manhattan as seen from Liberty Island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

Flagpole down in the plaza on the island.

We also wandered around the exhibitions, learning more about the history and soaking it all in. One thing that was particularly intense was the security measures that were in place inside the actual structure. Our bags were screened and X-rayed on the way in, and then we had to check them into lockers anyway before we were allowed to head up. At first thought I suppose it seems a little excessive, but I think the idea of freedom that the Statue of Liberty embodies is tied quite closely to the American military, who fight to protect that freedom, I guess. So with that in mind, the security procedures just some across as some ordinary military protocol.

***

After eventually getting the ferry back to Manhattan, Lexi and I were wandering through Downtown Manhattan and looking for a place to eat lunch when we strolled quite close to the Freedom Tower, the new building that stood near Ground Zero, where the World Trade Centre buildings had stood prior to September 11th, 2001. It was only at that point, passing the site of such recent historical significance, did I realise that the date that day was September 10th. I had hoped that I might have gotten a glimpse of the memorial site that afternoon, but the entire place was on lockdown as they were preparing for the anniversary memorial service that would take place the following day.

Freedom Tower.

Freedom Tower.

I’d thought about going down to the memorial the next day – the fact that I happened to be in New York City on the twelve year anniversary of that tragic event felt like a sign at first. Then I thought about it some more, and decided that maybe it wasn’t really my place to attend such an event. The last thing I wanted to do was trivialise such a ceremony by attending it for such novel, touristic purposes. Not that I would have ever treated it that way, to be sure, but at the same time I felt that it would be a moment that was for Americans, and I should leave it to them.
“It’s a pretty significant day for New Yorkers,” Melissa had told me when we discussed the topic later. “I mean, for all Americans, but particularly in the psyche of New Yorkers, and people from around here, ya know? Almost everyone knows someone, or knew someone who knew someone, who was affected by what happened.” Upon reflection, even as a nine-year-old, I remember exactly what I was doing when I learned the news about the 9/11 attacks, and I was on the other side of the world, so I can’t imagine what it must have been like to actually be there and experience the tragedy first hand.

So all in all it was a day full of American patriotism and reflecting on symbols of their national pride, and knowing when and when not to be a tourist. I’m not sure what I did on September 11th – possibly went to the movies? – but it was something low key and local, while I left the real locals to their memorial and their prayers.

 

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.

Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.

Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

River Deep, Mountain High: The Great Outdoors in Zürich

The following morning, I bid farewell to Umer as he set off on his own trip. Before he left, he gave me his dads monthly travel pass again. “My father said he won’t need this today, so you can borrow it for one more day while you’re staying here. It let’s you go a lot further around the city than one of the standard daily tickets, so perhaps you’d like to make use of that while you can.” It was the last of the numerous suggestions and tips that Umer had offered me, and I thanked him for his stellar advice as he headed off to the airport.

***

The first thing I did that morning was head back to the centre of town to the dock at Lake Zürich. The monthly pass that I was using today also covered use of the ferry, which made round trips around the lake to certain points much further down the shore. There were long trips that went to the other end, as well as shorter ones that did rotations to closer docks. Umer had said it was a nice relaxing way to spend the morning, and it was a beautiful day to be out on the water. I took one of the shorter trips, which still took the better part of an hour, and watched the shoreline glide past, admiring all the adorable traditional houses that were situated right by the water. One thing that I would continue to notice during my time in Zürich is that the Swiss love their outdoor activities. It has something to do with the seasons – during the winter there is very little daylight, and the cold doesn’t permit people to be outside for too long, so when summer rolls around and the sun doesn’t set until after 10pm, people seem to take full opportunity of as many daylight hours as possible.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

Statue of Ganymed and Zues, represented as an eagle, beside the lake.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

One of the smaller docks on the edge of Lake Zürich.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

Cute little houses beside the lake.

There were lots of pools and parks along the edge of the lake, and plenty of people were out sunbathing and swimming and kicking balls and all sorts of recreational activities. I sat in the sheltered shade of my seat in the ferry and just took it all in. I had just come from the small coastal town of Ancona, and I had been expecting to be returning to my tour of major cities when I arrived in Zürich, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that there was a small village feeling very much entrenched into the essence of this place. Even in the major intersections where trams tracks overlapped and cars seemed to be turning in all sorts of random directions, there were no skyscrapers, no obvious central business district, and no particularly large or overwhelming buildings. The feeling was cute and quaint, and it suited the city perfectly.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

The main centre of Zürich as seen from the ferry on the lake.

***

After my tour across the lake, I returned to the shore where I had plans to meeting some. Robin was to be my second Couchsurfing host in Zürich. Originally I had had three lined up: Umer had been the first and Robin the third, but my second host had to cancel at the last minute, which was why I was staying an extra night with Umer’s parents. Robin currently had a friend staying with him, which is why I could not come to stay with him any earlier, but when I told him Umer was going away he said he would be more than happy to meet up to see some more of Zürich with me. When I told him about the pass I was using for the day, he suggested we catch the train south west, just outside of Zürich to the mountain Uetliberg, which was another popular site for recreational activities in the city. Robin’s friend Tammy was busy filling out an application – the two of them were Chilean, with Robin living and studying here and Tammy visiting him, but also applying for courses so that she might be able to come back and live here too – so it was just the two of us as we hopped on the train and set off up the mountain.

As I chatted with Robin, he confirmed what I had observed from the boat – that everyone in Zürich was slightly obsessed with physical activities and outdoor recreation. The bike on the train up the mountain had quite a few people with mountain bikes, which they would ride down steepest parts of the mountain, following the popular trails before turning around and riding back up again. The public transport passes in Zürich ran on 24 hour period, so you could ride as many times as you liked as long as you were in a zone that was covered by your ticket. Robin had to buy an extension on his regular ticket, and off we went along the train towards the mountain. We got chatting along the way up – Robin was a sweet, short and soft-spoken guy who spoke with a pretty heavy accent. He was currently living in Zürich doing research and writing a Masters thesis, about a particular niche in microbiology that I would struggle to reiterate in any further detail, but it was definitely quite interesting.

When we reached the Uetliberg station – it was only about a 20 minute trip – we headed along the short hiking trail that led to a lookout. On the way we saw dozens more people out and about, who were doing a whole manner of exercising such as running, jogging, riding bicycles, and even taking part in what seemed to be some kind of boot camp drill work out. Robin and I casually trekked our way up the hill and dozens of people passed us by – we had all afternoon while Tammy filled in her application, so there was no rush. We eventually reached the lookout at the top peak of Uetliberg and gazed out over the impressive view. There was a metal tower that looked something like a huge lightning rod that we were able to climb, so Robin and I marched up the stairs to the viewing platform at the top. From there you could see the around the whole mountain, the horizons lined with even higher mountains that were cloaked in clouds and a pale pink afternoon sunlight. Up there the air was so fresh, and I breathed in a lungful as I soaked in all my surroundings. Robin pointed out a few of the natural features of the area, and we chatted about each of our home countries, our travelling experiences, and our impressions of Zürich. The nice thing about Couchsurfing is that no matter who you end up meeting or staying with, there’s always at least one thing you usually have in common – a passion for travelling. It’s the reason most people get involved – to be able to go travelling themselves – and in turn allows other people to go travelling and see the world. The more experience I had with the website and organisation, the more amazed and impressed I was at such a simple idea that very could very literally change lives.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The sun setting behind the clouds, as seen from Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

The view from the tower at the top of Uetliberg.

After soaking in the sights from the top of Uetliberg, Robin and I headed back to Zürich to meet up with Tammy, and once we did we headed to the west of the city, where Robin told us there was an outdoor concert happening. He didn’t have too many details, but he thought it might be something cool to check out, so we jumped on a bus across the city. When we arrived, we found what seemed like a huge picnic in a park, with people spread out across the relatively small stretch of grass. In the corner, a large folk band was playing all kinds of music, and there was a crowd who had gathered around them to watch. We bought some snacks from a nearby store and laid out on the grass, listening to the music from across the park and just hanging out, enjoying the cool, pleasant evening air. It was actually getting quite late, but twilight was still lingering over the city, and there didn’t appear to be any signs that the party would be dissipating any time soon. I had to get home though – I hadn’t told Umer’s parents what time I was expecting to be home, so I didn’t want to keep them waiting too late into the evening. I bid farewell to Robin and Tammy for the evening, making plans to see them again when I arrived at Robin’s place the next morning to stay with him for my last two nights in Zürich.

***

The following morning I left Umer’s parents place and made my way to Robin’s. He would be working during most of the day, so that’s when I would do my typical and touristic sightseeing, but in the afternoons when he was free Robin introduced me to some of the activities he did during his spare time and, like any typical resident of Zürich, those were outdoor activities. Enter slacklining: a sport that holds a lot of similarities to tightrope walking – you are required to balance on, and walk across, a piece of nylon or polyester webbing that is tensioned between two anchor points. However, the main difference is that while a tightrope is rigid and taut, a slackline gets its name in having a considerable amount of slack – it is stretchy and bouncy, almost like a long and narrow trampoline. The more extreme variations of slacklining involve doing it unsupported in crazy places such as between skyscrapers or mountain peaks, but Robin was taking me to learn in a much safer but still rather exciting place: over the River Limmat.

We got to one of the bridges that crossed the river, down near the riverside bars where everyone had congregated on the warm, sunny afternoon. We weren’t the only ones setting up a slackline over the river – there were two other guys setting up a much longer one than Robin’s, from the bridge to the rivers edge. “That guy is very, very good. He does it professionally,” Robin said as we set up our slackline. There were a couple of guys walking along the other slackline, but one of them was obviously extremely experienced. He would stop in the middle of the line and do all sorts of acrobatic tricks, bouncing on the line and landing on one foot, or even on his hands, pushing himself back up to keep bouncing and even walking across the line. It was seriously impressive. Robin had only been getting into slacklining recently, he assured me, so he wasn’t that good. I assured him he would be better than me, but nevertheless I was still keen to give it a go.

Once I first stepped onto the line, I realised how sensitive and reactive the slackline was to my body. It wasn’t too windy that afternoon, but as soon as I stepped out onto the line it violently shook from side to side, like a leaf in a hurricane. Robin held my hand to steady me as I took my first step, but he couldn’t take me the whole way. I tried my best to stay balanced, but as soon as I took my first step on my own, I came tumbling down to land in the river. I plunged into the cool and deep blue water, and when I finally resurfaced I realised that I had already floated a couple of metres downstream. The river was flowing exceptionally fast, to the point where if I tried to swim upstream, it was the equivalent to running on a treadmill – going nowhere fast. I quickly swam back to the edge of the river to rejoin the others on the bridge. Robin was definitely a lot better than myself at the slackline – for the first time ever he managed to cross the whole way across the slackline without falling off. That only happened once though – most of the times we both always ended up plunging into the river. I quickly learnt that you can’t be afraid of falling, and when you do fall you have to let it happen and not fight it. The one time I panicked and tried to stay on the line, I fell so awkwardly that I landed on my back in the water, and the impact left a huge red mark on my back that attracted quite a lot of comments from passers by.

Slow and steady across the slackline...

Slow and steady across the slackline…

... keeping his balance...

… keeping his balance…

... and he made it!

… and he made it!

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

Getting ready for my first attempt on the slackline.

The first, and only, step...

The first, and only, step…

... and down I go.

… and down I go.

Splash!

Splash!

That wasn’t the only reason strangers talked to us, though. The shared love of outdoor activities seems to seamlessly bring all surrounding people from all walks of life together, and make new friends out of complete strangers. Robin and I had plenty of people come up to us and ask us questions about slacklining – most of which I couldn’t answer, though – and asking if they could have a turn. The area was already pretty social with the bars lining the river, as well as a bunch of other cool things – there was a restaurant that also doubled as a DIY garage where people could come and use tools to fix and customise their bikes – so the slacklines on the bridge were just another added element to that friendly social vibe that seemed to be almost everywhere in Zürich. It made for a fun and interesting social experience – all the activities that were happening around the city made me realise something about my life back home: I didn’t have very many hobbies. The closest thing I had to a hobby was playing guitar and writing music – other than that, I just spent a lot of time drinking with my friends and going clubbing. It was a refreshing change, and I think that afternoon was when I made a pledge to myself that when I got home, I was going to find fun new things to do with my time other than drink myself stupid.

It was also an exhausting afternoon though, so afterwards Robin and I headed home for a relatively early night. We sat up for a while just chatting in his room though – there’s just something unnatural about going to bed before the sun does.

***

The following evening we set out after Robin finished work to meet some people in a nearby park. “I haven’t met these people, but there’s a group on Couchsurfing that organises hikes and other outdoor trips and stuff,” Robin told me as we made our way there. “We’re planning something for this weekend, so we’re meeting up to go over the details.” It made me realise that Couchsurfing wasn’t just a place to stay – it was a global, online community. When we arrived at the park, it was a similar sight to my first night in the park with Robin and Tammy, except instead of lazily enjoying the outdoors, everyone was extremely active. There were games of volleyball and soccer, people doing yoga and other aerobic activities, people throwing balls and frisbees, and Robin even brought along his slackline again, and set it up between two trees. It was quite remarkable to see so many people outside until the very limits of daylight. “It really is the summer drawing everyone out,” Robin later said. “The winter was horrible this year – it lasted five months and it was terribly cold, so everyone is very excited now that the warmer weather has finally arrived.” It was a familiar story that I had been hearing for the last month from all over Europe, from Finland and Sweden to Germany and even France. Not so much in Spain and Italy, but I had started heading north again, away from the Mediterranean.

It made me realise just how lucky we are with the weather in Australia, especially the temperate climate in Sydney. It’s never exceptionally cold, and only very occasionally does it get extremely hot. We get a healthy balance of rain and sunshine and we never have days with extreme excess, or lack, of sunlight. Watching these people flock outside to enjoy the weather made me realise just how little I appreciate the weather here, and so in Zürich I made a pact to myself to not only get a few more hobbies when I got home, but also to get out and enjoy the outdoors a little more too.

Recovery: From the city to the sea

I watched the Italian countryside whizz past me as the train carried me away from Rome. Eventually the train tracks became parallel with the seaside, and I gazed out into the distance over the Mediterranean. In one short trip I was going from coast to coast in Italy, from the capital city of Rome to the tiny port town of Ancona. “Ancona?” Valerio had asked me with a very confused expression, when I had informed him of my next destination. “Nobody… I mean nobody, goes to Ancona. Pass through maybe, but… well, there’s nothing there!” Ancona was a regular port for ferries that routinly carried passengers from the east coast of Italy to Croatia and Greece. It hadn’t exactly been on my high priority list of places to see, but while I had been searching desperately for a place to stay in Rome via Couchsurfing, I had received a message from Ike.

The interesting thing about Couchsurfing is that you can send requests to potential hosts, but you can also publicly post your travel itinerary so that hosts in areas where you are planning to travel are able to find you and invite you to stay with them. The majority of people who I have spoken to about this assured me that that was way too creepy for them, and that they wouldn’t just accept offers from random people they didn’t know, but my journey so far had showed me that taking a chance on the generosity of strangers can sometimes have the most rewarding results. I had been looking for other places to stay in while travelling Italy, but so far all my other searches had been unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Ike had sent me a message saying he had noticed I was travelling through Europe, and that if I ever made it to Ancona he would be happy to host me. We had stayed in correspondence during my frantic search for hosts in Rome and my breakdown in Madrid, and from what I could gather he seemed to be a nice and rather genuine guy. So when I arrived in Rome and had to make plans for my next upcoming destination, I agreed to visit Ike in his sunny little corner of Italy. Four days later, and I was stepping off the train into the blistering afternoon sun, where he was waiting to pick me up.

Ike was a fun and outgoing guy with a cheeky sense of humour, and just like when I had met Stefan – who had also stayed with Ike – we got on well straight away. I knew I had made the right decision in coming here – better to spend a couple of days in a town you’d never heard of with a fun stranger than wander around a well known city by yourself. I’d done plenty of that in Rome, so during my time in Ancona I was determined to do absolutely no sightseeing. I needed a break from all that. When we got back to his place, Ike showed me a map of the area and a bunch of information pamphlets about things to see and do. “There’s a short historical walk through the main centre,” he said, pointing at the map to a spot in the centre of town – Ike lived a little further up one of the many rolling hills that surrounded the port, about a 10 minute drive from the train station. “Stefan was very into that kind of thing, but I’m not sure what you want to do while you’re here.” I told Ike that I would be happy to find a spot on the beach and just chill out, so he gave me a few options for the nearby beaches that I could try, most of which were pretty easily accessible by bus. “I’d love to come with you if I had the time, but unfortunately I’ve got to work.” Ike even had to go back to work that afternoon, so he left me at his place to do some laundry and get some rest. When he got home, Ike cooked dinner and we had a night of great conversation over a bottle of wine. We talked about travelling, our Couchsurfing experiences, and he even taught me a couple of phrases in Italian. It was a fun and carefree evening, and I was already very pleased with my decision to stop by Ancona and take some time out in this Italian hideaway.

***

The next day Ike had to go to work again, so after a bit of a sleep in and a lazy morning, I caught a bus down the hill to the city centre and then transferred to another bus that would take me to the nearby beach of Portonovo. The bus was crowded with lots children and teenagers, and it was only then that I realised it was the height of summer and that school was probably out, and everyone in town would be heading for the beach. It also took a little longer to get there than I had anticipated – I was on the bus for over half an hour, going up and down the twisting and winding hills of the outskirts of Ancona before we finally arrived at Portonovo. I wandered through some of the shrubbery around the bus stop and down through a small woodland area before emerging onto the beach. The area had a handful of restaurants and other overpriced-looking places where you could hire beach chairs, but I bypassed all that and went straight to the waters edge.

There, I faced a problem that I hadn’t really faced since I’d been in Thailand – I was alone on a beach with a backpack containing valuables such as my phone and wallet, and I had no way of properly securing them. Even if I was to put a lock on my bag, there was nothing stoping someone from simply running away with it. The beach was fairly crowded, but not so much that I wouldn’t be able to see my things if I left them in plain sight from the water, and it was too hot to not go swimming. In the end I just had to take a chance and leave my backpack while I went into the water. I never swam too far from where I’d left it, but I was a little more relaxed than I had been on the beach at Ao Nang. And it was worth it – with the hot sun beating down on the crowds of beach goers, the cool blue water felt absolutely amazing to dive into. When I’d had enough of that, I crawled back onto the beach, lathered myself in sunscreen, and laid down to soak up some rays. I think it was something I’d first noticed lying in the park in Christiana during my time in Copenhagen, but the sun in Europe just doesn’t seem to be as strong as it does down in Australia. Obviously Italy has a lot stronger sunshine than Denmark – Ike told me he regularly uses 50+ SPF sunscreen – but compared to the sun in Australia it felt like a casual warm day. I was very conscious of my sunscreen use though, which allowed me to relax enough to actually doze off into a state of semi-sleep more than a couple of times. It was the perfect temperature, and I stayed there on the beach for as long as I dared before I thought there really was a chance of me getting significantly burnt.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

Lots of people set up camp for a day on the beach in the gorgeous sunshine.

I took one final dip in the ocean before heading back to the bus stop, and indulging in some amazing Italian gelato while I waited for the bus. When the bus finally arrived, slowly making its way down the hill from the highway, I hopped on board, thinking it would take me back to the centre of Ancona. I was surprised to find that its final stop was simply at the top of the hill. “Last stop – everyone off,” the bus driver called out to me. It was definitely up there in my travel nightmare scenarios – being forced off the bus but having absolutely no idea where I was or how I was going to get back. However, when I hopped off the bus I was momentarily distracted by the field of sunflowers that spread out in front of me in the paddock beside the road. I took the opportunity to take a few photos, and just sit back and marvel at the Italian countryside and the picture perfect landscape I had laid my eyes on.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

The sunflower fields just next to the bus stop by the beach.

But then it was back to panicking. Another bus with the right number came along, so I hopped on. It took me… back down to the beach. What the Hell was going on? I decided to swallow my pride, realising I needed help, and approached the bus driver, crossing my fingers and praying he spoke some English. I explained where I wanted to go, and he knew enough to understand and give me a reply: “Ahh – next bus!” I sighed, knowing it was about as much help as I was going to get, and stepped off the bus. It wasn’t too long before the next bus came trundling down the hill, and when it finally did I was relieved to feel it make the turn onto the main road that led back to Ancona. I had given up trying to understand how public transport timetables – or indeed, any kind of timed service – operated in Italy. I’m not one for generalising stereotypes, but I can honestly say that chronic lateness was something that I experienced in pretty much all public services in Italy. Countries like Italy and Spain are currently suffering from unbelievably high levels of youth unemployment, but I can’t help but wonder if the people who were actually employed were doing any more work than the people who weren’t.

***

That evening was my second and final night staying in Ancona, so when Ike got back from work we decided to go for a little drive to see some of the other parts around the area that I hadn’t been able to see by myself. We headed south down the coast, admiring the countryside in the dying daylight. At the small town of Sirolo, we stopped the car and got out to watch the sunset behind one of the cliffs. It was nice to be outside of the huge cities for a change, and to experience some very natural beauty such as this. I took a few photos before we continued on to the next small town of Numana. There we got out and walked around the town. It was a little more tourist-orientated than the centre port of Ancona had been, and the streets were quite well preserved in an older, historical style, with uneven tiling and cobblestones lining the streets. We walked down to the docks and looked out over the water as twilight settled in. It wasn’t quite as prominent as the white nights in St Petersburg, but even in southern Europe it still took a very long time for nighttime to actually become dark – often there was still a lot of natural light and visibility as late as 10pm. It was a strange phenomenon that I was only now getting used to.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

After wandering through the old, steep streets, we headed back to the car and went home. I didn’t ask, but in a small town like Ancona I assumed that there wasn’t much of a nightlife scene, gay or otherwise. Even if there was, I don’t think I would have bothered going. My time in Ancona had been all about relaxing and taking the down time that I had been unable to take in the past couple of weeks. I helped Ike make some dinner and we had some more wine before retiring to bed. He was leaving for a work trip the following day, and I had several trains to catch. But I’d had a fun and memorable few days with Ike in Ancona. He’d told me that it was often just a passing through town for so many people, and that people rarely discovered the little gems of beauty it contained. At that moment, I was eternally grateful that I’d decided to travel the way I was travelling: solo, using Couchsurfing, and meeting all kinds of interesting locals along the way. It assured me that not only was I having an amazing once in a lifetime trip, but that I was seeing parts of the world that many other travels might breeze over without a second glance.