Uptown Funk, then Jazz and the Blues: my last few steps through New Orleans

In a lot of ways, New Orleans was a city that didn’t really feel like a city. At least, not when you were staying in the French Quarter. Well… it didn’t feel like all other other American cities – and I say that now with reference to all the other cities I visited after New Orleans, given that at the time the only reference points I really had were New York, DC, and Baltimore. Yes, it was partly to do with the architecture and the fact that the city colonised by the French and so it had a very different aesthetic about it, but there were other little things. Vincenzo had mentioned the CBD of New Orleans a couple of times, pointing off in a vague direction towards the west whenever he did so. It struck me as a little bit odd that I hadn’t been over that way yet, given that in a lot of places – or in my hometown of Sydney, at least – the CBD was very much a happening place that was very close the life of the party, so to speak. Yet my time in New Orleans hadn’t taken me that way at all. I’d wandered around the French Quarter, discovering hole-in-the-wall bars, quirky shops, and even the Louis Armstrong Park just a few blocks away from Vincenzo’s home, but I found it interesting that what would probably be considered a focal point or highlight of many other cities was simply considered a business and financial district with not that much tourist appeal at all.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

Entrance to Louis Armstrong Park.

The man himself.

The man himself.

And his band.

And his brass band – thought I don’t know that the statutes were made from.

You know jazz is a part of the city’s culture when it starts sponsoring parks.

However, I did end up going to the New Orleans CBD during my time in the city. When he wasn’t busy working, Vincenzo and I spent a lot of time together. Sometimes it would just be hanging around his house, and him surprising me by actually knowing the songs I was strumming on my ukulele simply from listening to the chords – I learnt he was a good singer when he burst into the room to join me for our own acoustic rendition of Radiohead’s Creep. Other times we would take short trips to some of his favourite cafés around the French Quarter or the Bywater and have a lazy brunch or a coffee, and afterwards we’d browse through second-hand stores and op-shops and marvel at some of their whackier wares and hidden treasures. And Vincenzo would pretend to not know me as I knew all the words and sang along to Whatever You Like by T.I. as it was playing over the store’s radio. Which only prompted me to sing louder. And add dance moves. He acted like he was embarrassed, but I was convinced he found it secretly endearing. At any rate, he didn’t kick me out of his house, so I can’t have been that bad.

One afternoon Vincenzo had to go visit his local bank, which happened to be located in the CBD. He asked me to join him, and that’s how I learnt that he owned a moped, or scooter. I shouldn’t have been surprised – I mean, his background was Italian – and so I made up for the lack of Lizzie McGuire movie moments I’d had in Rome with my arms wrapped around Vincenzo’s waist as we’d whizzed through the French Quarter and on to the city. We visited his bank, stopped to get some groceries on the way home and a rented couple of DVD’s, and spent the night snuggled up in Vincenzo’s bed watching horror movies. Later in the week – I can’t remember when, maybe when I was busy doing a load of hand washed laundry in his bathtub, or possibly after I’d just taken Princess for a walk, but Vincenzo looked at me and said, “Isn’t this nice? Living together like this? It’s like, renting a husband or something. Getting to spend time together without the necessary commitment… Think I could renew you for another week?”
I just laughed and gave him a cheeky smile, though I had to admit it was kind of crazy, the bond the two of us had formed over such a short time together. If I’d had more weeks to spare, I definitely wouldn’t have minded spending them there with him.

***

A lot of the time it felt as though Vincenzo felt he had a duty, not just as a temporary husband but as my host in New Orleans, to show me more parts of the city. When he had a full afternoon off he was adamant that he showed me some other areas so that when I left town, I could say that I’d seen more than such the French Quarter and Bourbon Street. In those kinds of situations I can actually be pretty indecisive, so I kind of loved that he could take charge and just tell me where we were going and what we were going to do. So on one sunny November afternoon we jumped on the scooter and he drove me right across the city, through the CBD and into Uptown New Orleans. The landscapes and scenery changed gradually from district to district, and as we rolled through the suburban streets and up St Charles Avenue, it was hard to believe we were actually in the same city. I might not have believed it myself if I hadn’t seen us ride there with my own two eyes. Most of the properties still had similar black wrought-iron fences like Vincenzo’s, but instead of smaller European style apartments they were big, beautiful houses with lush gardens and big trees.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way.

The houses were very different to the French Quarter, but beautiful in their own way,

We went further Uptown and passed Tulane and Loyola universities, watching students moving to and from the campuses and sitting around in the sun. Eventually we turned and headed south-east – although since the geographic terminology is based on the bends of the Mississippi River, it was actually across Uptown – and drove along Magazine Street, where the sides of the road were lined with a variety of different shops and stores, all of which still maintained that authentic, slightly rustic New Orleanian vibe. We continued along Magazine Street all the way to the Garden District, a beautiful little area that is as lush and green as the name suggests, and after a few carefully chosen turns, Vincenzo eventually pulled up at a very specific house.
“This,” he announced, with something that almost sounded like a hint of pride (of which he had quite a lot for his city, so that was entirely possible), “is the house that used to belong to Anne Rice.” I’d learnt from Faith that her and Vincenzo had been, and presumably still were, huge fans of the Vampire Chronicles, and I myself had quite enjoyed reading a few of her novels in the past, so it was quite exciting to behold a building that held such a quirky and unique place in modern literature history.

Anne Rice's former New Orleans residence.

Anne Rice’s former New Orleans residence.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

The sign out the front of the Anne Rice house.

After we’d done the rounds on our Uptown excursion, Vincenzo turned the scooter in the direction of home… only to have it come puttering to a stop.
“Ahh…” I don’t know the first thing about anything mechanical, but I was fairly confident that that wasn’t supposed to happen.
“Hmm… that’s not good… I think we’re just out of gas,” Vincenzo said. He said there was gas station only a few blocks away, so we ended up just wheeling the bike through the streets together. It was a little different without the hum of the scooters engine as we walked along, and I think in that brief moment I truly experienced the suburban serenity that existed in this part of the city. Normally I’m not a fan of the suburbs, but in a place like this even the quiet streets and their big, haunted-looking houses had an strange kind of appeal about them.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

Vincenzo walking the broken down moped through the streets of the Garden District.

After filling the scooter up with gas, we soon discovered that that hadn’t been the problem, because it still failed to start. As fate would have it, though, we were right near the place where Vincenzo said he takes the bike to get serviced. He managed to drop it off and we had lunch nearby while the problem was sorted out. As I said, I have zero clue about anything mechanical, so I don’t know what was wrong with it, but it was nothing major and it provided a little extra excitement on our Uptown tour. And it meant I got to sample some tasty tacos and a frozen margarita on Magazine Street while we waited.

***

Which leads me to something about New Orleans that I was particularly impressed with: the food. Once again it was largely thanks to Vincenzo that I knew all the good spots to eat at, whether it was beignets at Cafe du Monde, the best Cajun jambalaya at Coop’s Place, burgers at Yo Mama’s Bar and Grill, or oysters and fried alligator at the Royal House Oyster Bar. Even getting a Po’boy sandwich on the local deli on the way home one day was an exciting experience for me. Although Louisiana falls towards the edge of what are typically referred to as The Southern States, it’s undeniable that it falls well within the branches of the ‘Southern hospitality’ state of mind, with cheerful and friendly service in every establishment and complete with its own unique cuisine of dishes and flavours, thanks for the Cajun and Creole influences that just aren’t present in the other surrounding states.

On my last evening in New Orleans, Vincenzo and I were set to have another house guest – another Couchsurfer whose request he had accepted a few weeks prior, before I’d even shown up in New Orleans. I’d been mindful of it when I was booking travel arrangements to Austin, which would be my next destination.
“When is your other Couchsurfer coming?” I asked him, sitting at the guest computer in the lobby at his work one evening, while he sat behind the check-in desk. “When do I have to leave?”
“Well, she’s coming on Wednesday,” Vincenzo said to me. “But if your host in Austin can’t have you before Thursday, you can always stay too. There’s still plenty of room.” After all, it’s not like I was taking up the spare bed.
“Okay, well… I’m booking it now. You sure it’s okay for me to stay until Thursday?”
“Well I mean, you can stay for longer, if you like. Stay forever, I don’t mind…” he said rather wistfully as he turned back to his own computer screen. He had a nonchalance in his voice, though I think he might have just been playing it cool, because I really believed that deep down he actually meant it, and would have loved it if I’d stayed. Which actually made it a little hard for me to book that bus ticket – I really had been having such a great time with him. I would have loved to stay longer too, but I did have a set date that I had to reach the west coast by, and there were still a lot of things I wanted to see between New Orleans and Los Angeles.

So in the early evening on Wednesday, Johanna from Sweden arrived in New Orleans after a tour through Central America. Vincenzo was busy cooking in the kitchen, and I was coming back from taking Princess for a walk. We must have seemed like a pretty domestic pair, because after the introductions I had to establish that I was in fact a Couchsurfer too, and that we weren’t actually a couple living together. Although in the end I ended up playing host for Johanna that evening, since Vincenzo had some other business to which he had to attend. He was actually in the midst of recording some songs with another musician friend of his, and since his house was quite susceptible to extra sounds and noises, he’d asked if I might be able to take Johanna for a walk around the city while they were recording. So the two of us exchanged travellers tales and the obligatory US customs horror stories as I took Johanna through the streets of the French Quarter that I had called home for the last week. We did loops through the streets and down around Jackson Square, and I found myself regurgitating all the information that I had absorbed from Vincenzo and Faith about the history of the city, and the culture and the layout, and I surprised myself at how much I had actually learnt and taken in.
“And how long have you been here?” Only a week?” Clearly Johanna was pretty impressed at how fast I had acquired the knowledge, too.
“Yeah. Well… I had a good teacher,” I said with a smile, assuring her that she would be in good hands with Vincenzo as her guide to the city. We headed over to Coop’s Place for  some traditional New Orleanian food for dinner before eventually heading back home.

***

My last night in New Orleans was a little emotional. I was, as always, so very excited to continue on with my journey, but I hadn’t felt this sad about leaving a particular city since I’d left Berlin for the first timeleaving Dublin had been emotional too, but that was compounded by the stress of the US customs and regulations. In a similar way that I’d loved the weirdness and quirkiness of Berlin, New Orleans had captured a lot of my imagination, and a little piece of my heart. And then of course, there was Vincenzo. I felt positively blessed to have met him so early on in my stay. Not only was he gorgeous and had provided excellent companionship, he was so passionate about his city that his excitement and enthusiasm just proved to be infectious. Similar to Joris and Thijs in Amsterdam, or Tomas and Matej in Prague, having a host and a guide who is so in love with the city they live in turns a typical touristic stay into quite a heart-warming and memorable experience. Vincenzo made me fall in love with New Orleans as much as he was in love with it, and for that I am extremely grateful.

We’d grown quite fond of each other, Vincenzo and I, and had become remarkably close during the nine or so days I ended up staying in New Orleans. We made this bond, this connection – it’s hard to describe, but it was quite unlike anything I’d felt with anyone else, and to this day I still don’t think I’ve ever had such a connection with another person. I tried saying my goodbyes the night before – without getting to sad or emotional – in bed before we went to sleep: my bus was pretty early the following day, and I knew that Vincenzo wasn’t a morning person at all. But he still managed to rouse himself from his slumber as morning was finally breaking, and give me one last kiss goodbye before I loaded up with all my belonging and hit the road once again. I was excited about the rest of my journey, but my current mood and overload of feelings was going to make the two bus rides to Austin rather depressing, and there was no denying how much I was going to miss Vincenzo, little Princess, and the incomparable city of New Orleans.

Vincenzo and Princess.

Candid camera shot of Vincenzo and Princess. He hates it, but it’s one of my favourites.

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My Old Man and Our New York

My final days in New York were simultaneously heart-warming and slightly devastating. Well, maybe not at the same time, but the last few days turned out to be a kaleidoscope of emotions, and a lot of goodbyes, with not all of them turning out how I had expected…

***

The first farewell was to Melissa, and the apartment that I had, for all intents and purposes, been calling home for the last six weeks. They say time flies when you’re having fun, but honestly, so much had happened since I first stepped off the subway in Grand Central Station that sometimes it felt like a lifetime ago. And while I’m sure Melissa was ready to finally have her very own apartment completely to herself for the first time since she had moved in, we shared an emotional goodbye with lots of long hugs and me being unable to adequately express my gratitude for everything that she has done for me.
“Really, it was no trouble at all. I’ve loved having you here! It’s gonna be weird not having you around,” she said with a beaming smile. “As long as I’m here, you’ve always got a home in New York City.” To this day, I’m still amazed by the endless depth of her generosity. I gathered up my things and said goodbye for the final time, and even said a final farewell to the doorman (“I’m leaving for good this time, I promise!“) as I made my way back to Grand Central Station. However, JFK Airport was not my destination today. I still had one last night in New York, and I was going to spend it with an old friend who I hadn’t seen in many months: my father.

Back when I was staying with Mike in Washington, I got a phone call in the middle of the day. I didn’t get a lot of calls while I was on the road, since nothing was ever usually that urgent that it required them, but I remember being extremely surprised to see that it was my father calling. When you get long distance phone falls from your family, sometimes it’s only natural to expect the worst, so I was a little hesitant when I answered the phone.
“Hello? Dad?”
“Robert! How are you?”
“I’m… I’m good, though… Dad, I’m in Washington DC.”
“Ah, I was wondering where you would be! What time is it there? It’s shouldn’t be late.”
I couldn’t help but chuckle. “No, Dad. It’s 1pm.” Far from being the bearer of bad news, my dad was just on his way home from having some drinks with his work associates. Uncharacteristically, he’d had enough to push him into a state of being relatively tipsy, but rather than being clumsy or slurring his words, he spoke in a rather eloquent and poetic manner, an extension of his usual well-composed self.
“I just called your mother to let her know where I was and that I’m on my way home,” he told me. “But it’s late here, and… I just felt that I wanted to speak to somebody that I love.” I swear I teared up a little when I heard that. If we’d been in the same time zone I assume I would have been a little annoyed to be receiving drunk dials in such a manner, but when my own father – who I hadn’t seen in approximately 5 months – calls you from the other side of the world for no reason other than to tell you that he loves you… well, it was a little special.

I take after my father in quite a few ways. We’re both deep thinkers and can get extremely philosophical. I mean, we can all get philosophical after a few drinks, but my dad’s one of the few people I know who can still hold a substantial and legitimate conversation about the meaning of life after one too many nips of whiskey. I wish I could say the same for myself – I guess he’s a role model to me in that regard… and among other things, of course. We spoke for almost an hour, and if I closed my eyes I could imagine us sitting around the dining room table in my old family home, bottle of scotch open in front of us, having the same, life-affirming conversation. With a substantial amount of time still left on my journey, it was a beautiful experience that was able to keep at bay any homesickness that might have been creeping into my subconscious.

***

It couldn’t have been any more than a month later that I was hopping onto the NYC subway to to head over to the Hell’s Kitchen, where I’d be sharing a hotel room with my dad that evening. He was in the USA as part of a business trip, but had managed to set aside a night in New York for some personal time to see UFO, a beloved rock band of his youth, playing a live gig. When he’d called me up that afternoon in Washington and told me the date of the one night he’d be in New York, it seemed like the perfect coincidence that that was the night before I flew out of the US and down to Brazil. When he’d asked if I wanted to come to the concert and spend some time with him, I immediately said yes, despite not having any idea who UFO was. It certainly wasn’t how I ever imagined my last night in New York would look like, but when things like that work out so neatly, it seems wrong not to take the opportunity to make it happen.

So I rocked up to the Holiday Inn in west Manhattan, where the reception staff were apparently expecting me. My dad arrived a few hours later, and after a brief and jovial reunion we set out to have a bite to eat and a drink or two before the concert that evening. My dad had booked a VIP pass to the concert, which apparently involved some kind of backstage tour and meet and greet with the band. When we rocked up to the venue, I suppressed a little chuckle under my breath when I realised I’d already had my own behind-the-scenes tour of the place – it was the same venue that the VIVA party had been in. We were early, so there was no queue to speak of, and the doors that I knew to be an entrance to the main room of the building were wide open. When we couldn’t see any sign of an official person waiting for us, my dad took it upon himself to go inside and see what was happening for himself.
“Dad! Wait… what… where are you… Oh God,” I sighed, having no choice but to follow him. There were what appeared to be a bunch of roadies setting up equipment and running sound checks on the the guitars and drums. We stood around for longer than I thought should have been possible before someone noticed us and asked if they could help us.

When my dad explained the VIP ticket and what he was doing here, the man stared back at us blankly.
“Oh..kay…” he said, trying to make some kind of sense of the information my dad has given him. “Honestly, I don’t know anything about it, but let me see if I can find someone who does.” We waited patiently, and I exchanged a look with my dad. He just shrugged and rolled his eyes.
“You’ve gotta take a bit of initiative sometimes, Robert. Otherwise we’d still be waiting outside for someone who clearly wasn’t looking for us.” Normally I would have been a little irked that this was turning into a lecture, but I have to admit, he had a point. He’s a smart man, my father, so I let him have that one. Eventually the guy who we spoke to originally came back, with a sheepish, timid smile that looked unbelievably out of place of a guy who looked as though he could be the drummer in a metal band.

As it turns out, I was pretty close. He was the lead singer of the first opening act, a band called Awaken, and he seemed have taken his inability to help us to heart.
“I’m sorry guys, it’s a bit of a mess back here right now. I’m not really sure what’s going on with the guys from UFO.” My dad explained the VIP ticket thing again, throwing in that’d he’d only managed to get a regular ticket for me and asked if I’d be able to still join. From the looks of what was going on, it didn’t seem like it would have been a problem – nothing here was too official or professional. But there didn’t even appear to be any kind of meet and greet, or any VIP experience at all.
“Look, I’m so sorry for this,” the guy said, and finally introduced who he actually was. “But here – I’ll give you guys these.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out some official looking lanyards, with passes that were emblazoned with Awaken’s logo and the letters ‘VIP’. “The show isn’t officially opening for a little while, but when you come back later you’ll be able to use these to skip the queue and come and sit in the VIP area.”
So we walked away from the whole thing a little confused, but not empty-handed. “All you have to do it look like you know what you’re talking about,” my dad said with a chuckle, “and people will respond to that.” I guess there’s still a lesson or two in life I can still learn from my old man.

My VIP pass, courtesy of one very persuasive father.

My VIP pass, courtesy of one very persuasive father.

***

We returned to the venue later to see a line of fans dressed primarily in black lining up along the edge of the building. Dad and I flashed our VIP passes.
“We’re with the band,” my dad said with a laugh as the bouncers inspected them, and I suppressed a groan of mild embarrassment. We were waved through to a foyer area, where we were required to present our actual tickets, but then once I was inside no one gave much notice to which kind of ticket I’d had – I had a VIP pass from the band! There was a small roped off VIP section, so dad and I got a drink each and sat down in it, just because we could. We watched a security guard come around and usher people who weren’t supposed to be there out of the area, but he left us well alone when we showed him our passes. It was all pretty hilarious, to be honest. I can’t say I’ve ever really been a VIP at any kind of event, but I had a feeling this kind of magic that my dad worked landed him in similar situations often enough.

Awaken playing their opening set.

Awaken playing their opening set.

The rest of the night was pretty standard – we saw our mates from Awaken play, and even had a chat with them after they’d played their set, and eventually UFO came on. I didn’t know a single song, but they were a crew of old men who still knew how to play their instruments after all these years, and they put on a really good show. It was an enjoyable evening, and I’m glad I’d chosen to take the time on my final night in New York to hang out with my dad. I guess it took being on the road for was long as I had been, and being away from them for so long, for me to really appreciate just how much I love my family, and how much they love me.

My dad and I in the VIP area.

My dad and I in the VIP area.

The main event - UFO.

The main event – UFO.

***

My dad had to leave New York quite early the next morning, but we wandered down the streets of Hell’s Kitchen to get a slice of pizza before heading back to the hotel. I got up to say goodbye in the morning, but I was probably a little too tired to be emotional.
“Stay safe, call if you ever need anything, and I’ll see you in the new year,” he said with a hug and a pat on the back, and then he was gone.

I’d hoped that I would be able to say one final goodbye in New York before heading over to JFK later that afternoon to catch my flight. Ralf was also leaving New York that afternoon, but his trip was only half-vacation and half-business, and he’d told me that he still had some work he needed to get done, and in the end there wasn’t any time for us to meet up one last time before we parted ways for a final, indefinite time. If I had known that the last time I was going to see him was on the subway home from our walk through Central Park, I might have taken the time to make it a little more meaningful than “Oh crap, this is my stop! Sorry, I’ll text you when I get home, see you soon!”
Because that was what happened the last time I saw him – an abrupt, awkward leap off the subway, completely convinced I would see him again before leaving New York. The fact that it really upset me that I didn’t see him again… well, in retrospect I can’t really put my finger on it. He had been a really enchanting person to meet – a diamond in the rough in an almost literal sense, when you consider where exactly we met in Berlin – and I think I had carried that enchantment with me when I had continued on my journey. Knowing that I actually was going to see him again in New York had kept whatever romantic spark we had had alive in my mind, but to have that final goodbye that I had been building up to ripped away from me so easily was, in short, devastating. I probably cried as hard as I would have at an emotional goodbye at the airport, but being alone was an extra twist of the knife – an extra knot in my stomach.

But that’s the way the cookie crumbles, and after the brief moment of heartache I remembered that I’d been getting quite good at being alone over the past five months. But it was in New York City, baby – New York City that I had really experienced it all. Many people say it’s the greatest city on Earth. I think that’s a very subjective title to award any city, but I have to admit, I understand why the Big Apple is a big contender. It exists as the epicentre of the world in countless stories and works of fiction just as much as it does in the minds and hearts of people all over the world. I’d both loved and hated New York, for all of it’s beauty, excitement, danger and wonder, and the city had both loved me back and crushed me at the same time. It was those experiences of that I was living for – the ones that test you, amaze you, open your eyes, open your heart, and eventually morph you into a better person. I reflected on all of this on my long public transport journey through Queens and out to the airport. For all it’s worthy and memorable experiences, it was time to finally move on from the Big Apple.

So long, NYC.

So long, NYC.

Thanks for having me, New York: I’m sure I’ll see you again soon.

From Green to Goodbye Blues

So on my last evening in Dublin, with the sun making its ever so gradual descent over the city, I met Matt at my hostel and he helped me collect my things and check out. I still had one more night there, but after the dreadful sleep I’d had last night and the rude awakening from the trains that morning, I was more than happy to forfeit my bed and take Matt up on a better offer. We were going to catch a train a little way down south to where Matt’s Garda friend – the one who had driven us home with sirens blaring on my first night in Dublin – lived, and we were going to stay with him that night, and he had offered to drive me to the airport the following morning. Since I had arrived by boat, I wasn’t even 100% sure where Dublin airport was, but since Matt himself wasn’t in possession of a drivers licence, my only other option would have been catching a bus (or an expensive taxi, I suppose), so I took them up on the generous offer.

That last night was an emotional night. I had spent quite a lot of time with Matt over the last several days, and we’d gotten to know quite a lot about each other in our conversations, jokes, stories, and general cross-cultural and personal education about each others lives. We’d also grown remarkably close for two people who had just met – although I suppose that is often the case with such whirlwind romances where the expiry date has already been set before the affair has even begun. There was an element of déjà vu for me – during my travels I’d left behind a handful of short-term romances with some truly incredibly people, from London to Berlin and even Vietnam – but while I felt there had definitely been strong and real connections with all of those people, in the end our farewells had been a few blinked back tears and a resigned smile, accepting our meeting as a beautiful but brief moment in time. Matt was different, though, and I began to learn that for every charming and endearing typical Irish trait that was winning me over, there was, somehow, something about me that was doing the same to him twofold. And somehow, that made him even more special.

The three of us ordered pizza and drank a lot of wine, and there was a lot of laughing and joking about, having a lot of fun. But as the wine flowed freely, so did the feelings, and there suddenly came a point in the night where the very real fact that I was leaving tomorrow hit everyone, especially Matt, like a tonne of bricks. He’d hate me for saying so, but he cried that night.
“Ah, look what you’ve done to me,” he said with a laugh, trying to shake off the very obvious feelings that he was trying his best to suppress. “I don’t cry. I never cry!” But from the sound of his sniffles, and the wetness I could feel on his face as it was pressed against my own, I could tell he was definitely shedding a few tears. “Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I did… When me… when me dad passed away last year… not even then! I didn’t even cry then. But for some reason, I’ve known you all of five days, and look at me! Big, blubbering mess, I am!” Matt held me in his arms, and I held him back, at a loss of any words to actually say that could possibly mean more than what he had just told me.
And I cried too.

***

The following morning was a cloaked with a mood that was almost melancholy, as we stood around the kitchen sipping our cups of coffee and nursing our hangovers. The several bottles of wine had somewhat heightened our emotions the previous evening, and in the morning gloom the words we’d said felt like an elephant in the room. We stood there in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and was scared that almost anything I did say would trigger more of last nights sentiments, and Matt already looked a little worse for wear. So we all eventually piled into the car, and Matt’s friend drove us to the airport. We encountered a little bit of traffic and were running only fractionally late, but when I arrived I was ushered to the front of the check-in queue, while the other two waited behind the crowds. And that’s when the morning took a turn from depressing to stressing.

I thought I had planned the whole thing out pretty well, to be honest, but then I’m no travel agent. When checking in for an important international flight, there is nothing worse than hearing the phrase: “There seems to be a problem with your booking.”
My stomach dropped, but I instantly flipped back to being optimistic. There’s all kinds of tiny little glitches that can happen, they probably just need some extra information or something, I assured myself.
“Your ESTA visa waiver for the United States lets you remain in the country for a period of up to 90 days,” the woman behind the counter said to me. “But according to your itinerary here, you’re going to be there for a period longer than 90 days.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Oh! Yeah, that’s because I plan to go to Canada. I’m going to get the train up to Montreal for a week, then come back.”
“Oh… have you got the ticket for that?”
“Not yet,” I said, a little more uneasily this time. “I’m not sure exactly when I’ll go, so I couldn’t book the tickets. But I’m planning on going before the first 90 days.”
The expression on the her face was still rather unimpressed. “Give me one moment,” she said as she furrowed her brow, and moved away to make a phone call. There was a couple of other staff around us, as I’d been moved to the late check-in counter, and I could detect an annoying vibe of curiosity from them.

Suddenly, Matt appeared beside me. “Everything alright?”
“Ahh… I think… I’m not sure…” Then the woman behind the desk moved over to speak to me.
“I’ve just been informed that travelling to both Canada and Mexico does not reset the 90 day count from having entered the country. As a condition of entry you must have proof that you are going to leave the North American continent within 90 days.” My stomach dropped again, and this time I was out of reach of any optimism to cling to. This could not be happening.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have have that proof then I can’t let you through, otherwise you’re only going to get turned away from pre-clearance customs downstairs.” When flying to the US from Dublin with Aer Lingus, all passengers went through a security and customs clearance at the airport in Ireland, meaning they could land in the domestic terminal in the US and not have to worry about it over there. But wait: it gets better (well, worse).
“Unfortunately, since boarding is about to close, you’re not going to make it on this flight.” Well, she didn’t beat around the bush. The words came down on me like a tonne of bricks, and it was clear that I had screwed up. I stood there in shock, trying to hold my disappointment together and blinking back rising tears.
“However, we do have another flight leaving for New York this afternoon that is not full yet. If you can come back to me with tickets as proof of departure before 90 days, we may be able to get you on that flight. What would you like to do?”
“I… I… ah… I need to think about it for a couple of minutes,” I said, and she nodded as Matt steered me away from the desk.

What followed was a lot of swearing to and at myself, and a racking of both my brain and my contact list for a solution. I called my mum back at home – luckily the time difference meant that it wasn’t the middle of the night – and I frantically explained the situation. Like any good mother, she remained calm in a crisis.
“Well, what do you want to do?” she simply said to me in a steady voice that was the absolute contrast of mine at that moment.
“Uh, well coming back earlier seems to be the most obvious thing?” Although I already had my flights booked from LA to Hawaii to Sydney, so that would involve rebooking two flights instead of one. My mother seemed to have similar train of thought.
“Well you’re over there, you might as well stay over there,” she said with a sigh. “Is there anywhere else you want to go? How about Costa Rica again?” she asked, referring to the trip I had made there a couple of years ago.
“Mum, I can’t afford another international flight!”
“Look, don’t worry about that. We can sort it out later.” I was incredibly lucky for such an amazing woman to have my back. “Is there anywhere else? Anyone in South America you know?” That last question triggered something in my mind.
“Brazil!”
“Brazil?” she replied, sounding a little confused. “Okay… that’s a big country. What city? Rio?”
“Um… I have no idea. Let me call you back.” And so using the airport wifi I logged onto Facebook to look up Fausto, who I had met in Barcelona. Turns out he lived in São Paulo, and so I called my mum back straight away, as she had since been liaising with my travel agent.

“Mum? São Paulo!” I said as soon as she answered. I quickly scanned my brain through all the rough, tentative plans I had for while I was on the east coast of the US, and I figured out a period of a couple of weeks were I could head to Brazil and then return to the US that would effectively navigate around the laws of the ESTA visa waiver.
“Okay, São Paulo.” I still had no idea if Fausto was even going to be in Brazil at the time, but it was the best shot I had. I made a mental note to send him a message ASAP. “And you want to fly back to New York?”
“No! New Orleans!” It was a spur of the moment decision, but in the end I had my reasons.
“New Orleans? Okay, well, let me see what we can do.” She hung up to call my travel agent, at which point I collapsed into Matt’s embrace. He had been sitting with me this whole time, trying to calm me down and keep me from hyperventilating. And I thought he was doing rather well, knowing how sad he must of felt over the fact that I was still, despite the complications, leaving.
“It’s almost like a sign,” he said with a smile. “Maybe you were just meant to stay in Ireland.” I laughed, and gave him another squeeze, though I could somehow sense that he was only half joking.

***

So my mother booked the flights for me, and my travel agent emailed the itinerary, but then I had to print it off. There was a police station on the airport grounds, so Matt’s friend was able to print it off for me there.
“So, how the hell did that happen? How did your travel agent not pick up on that?” he’d asked as we wandered back over to the terminal.
“I don’t know” I said with a shrug. “I guess I did have a lot going on in that itinerary.”
“Yeah. But still…” he said, a little disgruntled, probably just because he thought he’d be well on his way out of the airport by now. Matt, on the other hand, was making the most of every final moment we had together.

I went back over to the check-in desk with my documents, and they seemed almost as relieved as I was that I had figured something out.
“Where are you heading off to after the States, then?” one of the guys around the counter said with a smile.
“Brazil,” I said happily, feeling pretty sure that everything was going to be okay from here on out.
“Brazil! Nice! Well, that’s not too bad an outcome now, is it?” he said with a grin, and I couldn’t help but return it. He was right – in a bizarre twist of fate, my own mismanagement of my travels had forced me into a side trip to Brazil. When you put it like that, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The first woman who I had dealt with before seemed satisfied with the itinerary too, so my bag was checked-in, weighed and spirited away on the conveyor belt, and I was handed my boarding pass for the afternoon flight to New York. But as we walked away, I realised that that had all seemed a little too easy.
“So they’re just going to put me on another flight? Just like that? It wasn’t even their fault. I thought I’d have to pay something extra there too.” It seemed odd, but then Matt had a confession.

“Well… There’s usually a fee of €100 for changing a flight.”
“Oh really? Well, that would make sense. Why did they waive it?”
“Well, look… I told the guy at the desk there that I was gonna pay for any extra charges it might’ve been. But when he asked how much you’d spent on the new tickets, and I told him, I think he was a little sympathetic. He’d said you’d spent enough today, and he said they wouldn’t worry about charging you.” Matt was just constantly outdoing himself, and that Irish charm of his seemed to never cease in perform miracles. However, it wasn’t until much later in my trip, after both Matt and the Emerald Isle were far behind me, that I discovered it wasn’t just a €100 fee – it was €100 in addition to the difference of the cost of the ticket you originally bought, and the current price of the one you were switching to. And when I was switching from a ticket that I had booked months in advance (on a flight that had already left) to a ticket that was leaving that afternoon, that was a lot of money. I felt a wave of gratitude to the workers at Aer Lingus, who had taken pity on me and waived such a large fee, but also – and especially – to Matt, who had ridiculously volunteered to pay that sum had they not decided to waive it. And to even do so without telling me! He knew I would never have let him do that if I’d known, which I suppose is why he didn’t tell me, but it was further proof in my mind that the Irish were truly a different, yet beautiful kind of crazy.

We had another couple of hours before I had to begin boarding the afternoon flight, so Matt and his friend hung around with me and waited. The mood was calm and nonchalant on the surface, but I knew Matt was upset – despite all the drama of the morning, I was still leaving.
“Don’t think of it as goodbye,” I said to him, trying my best to not sound like a Hallmark card or a line from a cheesy romantic comedy. “It’s just a, ‘see ya later’, and I’ll see you further down the track. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to Australia?”
“I think I might just have to!” he said, and flashed me that cheeky grin I had grown to love for the final time.
And when the time came for me to board that plane, he hugged me one last time, so hard I thought that he might not even let me go. But he did, and I gave him one last gentle kiss on the lips before turning and heading towards the gate. I looked back a few times, tears in my eyes, and he was still standing there, watching, waving, all the way until I was out of sight.

I felt a little guilty. It was by far the most emotional goodbye I’d had on my journey so far, but I had so many adventures and exciting things waiting for me in New York and beyond. I was sad, but I was also very excited. Matt didn’t have that prospect of adventure to look forward to, and he was returning home to his life that was stained with a mark that I had so deeply, yet unintentionally, left. He was a mess that evening, and on many evenings to come – I know that because he told me so. But of Matt, I will say this: for better or for worse, he made me truly realise how some of the smallest things we do in our own lives can have some of the greatest impacts on other people and in theirs. It’s a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget, just like I’ll never, ever forget him.

Space Cakes, Champagne and Other Adventures in Amsterdam

The end of Saturday night (or Sunday morning) had felt somewhat euphoric – the next day, not so much. It had had been a long day of drinking and partying, and we all felt particularly rough. Joris made breakfast again, and we all nursed our hangovers as we reminisced about all the fun and crazy things that had happened – Thijs still couldn’t believe we’d gone swimming in the canal. We all had a good laugh over the memory, but come the end of the morning, it was time for André to leave. He was heading off to Antwerp to compete in the OutGames, so we all said our goodbyes and promised to stay in touch. After that, Joris and Thijs were heading over to Vondelpark, the huge, long park towards the south of the city. Their friends were all meeting there that afternoon to hang out in the sun – making the most of it while it lasted – and said I was welcome to join them, but I had a few other things to do beforehand, so I told them I would meet them there later. André wasn’t the only person I would be saying goodbye to today.

Despite our best attempts, Ralf and I had failed to coordinate our actions and movements over the weekend, and hadn’t even seen each other since our arrival on Thursday afternoon. But now it was Sunday afternoon, and Ralf had to get back to Berlin. I hopped on my bike and rode back to Amsterdam Centraal, the main train station, parked and locked my bike and then went inside to find him. I found Ralf on the platform, saying goodbye to his friend who he had been staying with here. We were briefly introduced, but then he headed off to leave me alone with Ralf.
“How was your 4th pride weekend, cutie?” he said to me with that gorgeous smile of his. I told him where I’d ended up and what I’d been doing, and he laughed when I told him I’d been at Bear Necessity. “You must have really stood out there, right?”
“You could say that,” I said with a wink. Ralf had actually been on one of the floats in the parade, though I didn’t remember seeing him on any of them – probably because I was too busy being a fool swimming around in the canal. He found that particularly amusing. “You’ve had a shower since then though, haven’t you?” I mocked outrage, probably to cover the fact that I had gone almost a full 24 hours before showering after the dip during the parade.
“Of course I have!” He chuckled, and then we had one final kiss and a long hug goodbye before he made his move onto the train.
“It’s not even a goodbye this time,” he said reassuringly. “Just a ‘see you soon’.” It was true, but despite knowing I would definitely be seeing him again, I couldn’t help but get a little emotional as we said goodbye. He’d been a big influence on me in a lot of ways, and quite the catalyst when it had come to planning my trip around Europe, and I don’t think it would have been quite the same if we had never met. We waved through windows of the train as it pulled out of the station, carrying him back east, and I blinked back the few tears that I may have otherwise shed, knowing that I would in fact be seeing him in the not too distant future.

***

After I said farewell to Ralf, I went to meet up with another friend who would also be playing a recurring role in my round the world tour. I had met Giles when I was in Berlin during pride, and he actually lived in London, but it turned out that he had come to Amsterdam for their pride celebrations as well. While I hadn’t managed to catch up with him during the weekend either, I met Giles at the train station in Amsterdam for a brief catch up before he was due to fly back home. We caught up and talked about our weekends, and he told me how to get to his house in London from the airport that I was flying into. Yes, my next destination after Amsterdam was London, and Giles had offered me a place to stay while I was there. So we had a brief catch up before he had to depart, and I said farewell knowing that I would be seeing him in only a few days time. After that it was off Vondelpark to meet Joris, Thjis and their friends.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Vondelpark is full of lakes.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

Statue in the middle of Vondelpark.

It was another beautiful afternoon, and after riding through what felt like an enormous park – it was long and narrow, and seemed to stretch on forever – I finally found where their company had spread out on picnic blankets to soak up the sun. I met a few new people, and had the same conversations about my travels – what I was doing in Amsterdam, where I was going next, where I had been and how long I was going to be away on my whole trip – with a few different people who I hadn’t met, as well as chatting with some of the people who I had met at the parade yesterday. At the end of the afternoon, when all the beers had been drunk, everyone hopped back on their bikes and cycled to Rembrantplein, a plaza in the middle of the city where the final closing pride party was taking place. More beer was drunk, and we danced the afternoon away. I met a bunch of people here and there, not really not really getting to know any of them but getting on well enough with them to have a good time. There was a performance by Willeke Alberti, Holland’s ‘gay mum’, an older female singer who was something of an icon among the gay men of the Netherlands.
“You don’t have anything like that in Australia?” Thjis asked me. “Australia’s gay mum?” The only Australian female singer I could think of who was something of gay icon was Kylie Minogue (although we did have Marcia Hines popping up all over the place at Sydney Mardi Gras 2014), and I don’t think anyone could consider Kylie a ‘mum’. As the night eventually grew darker there were some pyrotechnics, and it was safe to say that Amsterdam Pride 2013 went out, literally, with a bang. The night was complete with a stop at the fast food shop on the cycle home, and Joris getting a huge bag of French fries and, in typical Dutch tradition, smothered them in mayonnaise. I had watched watched Gemma do that as a teenager back home, but it was only now that I actually believed that it really was a Dutch thing. Regardless, they were delicious, and an appreciated addition from Holland to my list of international drunk food cuisine.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The Closing Party of Amsterdam Pride 2013.

The beer cups knew the score.

The beer cups knew the score.

I don't know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

I don’t know who these guys are but they wanted a photo with me. Gotta give the people what they want.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

The pyrotechnic display for the finale of pride.

***

The following day was back to real life for Joris and Thjis. While I had only intended on staying in Amsterdam for pride, the best deal on the flights to London were on the Wednesday, and Joris and Thjis generously let me extend my stay in their home for the remaining days. They’d done their time in showing me around though – it was back to the working week and their jobs for them – so I was left to my own devices. I rode around the city on my bike, taking photos of some of the main plazas and squares. I attempted to visit the Anne Frank Museum, which is actually in the house where she hid from the world all those years ago. However, the line was absolutely, ridiculously long. I would have loved to visit it, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to even contemplate standing in the line that stretched down the street and around several corners. So I abandoned the history, and instead spend my time wandering the more contemporary streets of Amsterdam. The Red Light District isn’t that confronting during the day, but the whole area still has this eclectic and kooky vibe that largely contributes to Amsterdam’s international reputation.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

Dam Square in the centre of the city.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

The National Monument is a WWII monument in Dam Square.

I also had lunch with Asja on one of my last days. We bought some delicious sandwiches from a shop she recommended, and walked over to Vondelpark and laid out in the sun. We talked about life and travelling, and I got to know her a lot better than I ever had when our paths had crossed when we were in Australia. Back then, if you’d told me that the two of us would one day be hanging out in a park in Amsterdam and chatting away like old friends, I probably wouldn’t have believed you. I guess it’s funny how different walks of life end up bringing people together like that, and it definitely reinforces that idea that the world really is a small place after all. After our gossiping and sun baking session, Asja had to get back to work. However, there was one thing in Amsterdam that I was yet to do that I really wanted to try.
“I don’t like smoking it, though,” I confessed to Asja. “I’ve never really been a fan of smoking anything, really. It hurts too much.”
“So, what? You want to try a space cake?” It was weird to think that it would be perfectly legal for me to go and buy a baked good with marijuana in the recipe, but we were in Amsterdam, and it was completely legal.
“Well, I don’t want to be some typical tourist. I know there’s more to Amsterdam than weed, and that not everyone here is a stoner. But… it is legal here.”
Asja just laughed and rolled her eyes. I was probably spouting a lame excuse she’d already heard a dozen times before, but she didn’t seem to mind. I walked her back to her house and her work, and on the way we stopped in and bought me a space cake from one of the infamous coffee shops.
“Now just remember, it takes a while to take effect when you eat it,” she warned me. “You might think it was a dud, and that nothing is happening, but just wait. Don’t go off and start riding your bike around or doing anything stupid.”

So off Asja went to work, and I was left to consume my space cake by myself. I took it home to eat it, and sat in my room and played with Bolli and Stoli while I waited for it to kick in. I know plenty of people who smoke weed back home – I’ll admit to having tried it a handful of times, but it never really did anything for me. I didn’t know I expected this to be any different, but I thought eating it would be different. Maybe it was a dud, I’m not sure. All I know is that I’m pretty sure I dozed off at some point in the afternoon – I don’t know if the marijuana made me sleepy, or if I was just tired. But when I eventually stirred the only thing I could think of was how hungry I was. I’d anticipated this, and proceeded to eat the entire bag of potato chips I had bought on the way home and drank a whole bottle of Coke. As I sat there staring at what remained of my munchies, I heard Thjis come home. The spare room I was sleeping in was also used for storage, so he ended up coming in to get something.

Stoli

Stoli.

Bolli.

Bolli.

“Hey Robert, how’s it going?” Thjis said to me. I can’t really explain it – I guess it must have been one of the few noticeable effects of the drug, but as soon as Thjis spoke to me I broke out into a fit of uncontrollable giggling. What was funny? I had absolutely no idea. And I think the fact that I was laughing at nothing made it even funnier (for me), because I was unable to stop.
“Ahh… are you high?” Thjis said with a chuckle. My inability to speak through the fit of giggles probably answered his question, but eventually I calmed down enough to reply.
“I think… yeah, I guess I am.” The giggles only last about 10 minutes or so – the same amount of time as the munchies – and afterwards I felt particularly normal again. In the end I guess the experience reaffirmed my believe that weed didn’t really do anything for me – or that I’ve still only ever tried really poor quality stuff. But if the main effects it has on me are making me sleepy and hungry, and it is a well known fact I do not require pharmacological assistance for either of those things.

***

On Tuesday evening, Thjis asked if I wanted to join him at a BBQ for dinner with some of his friends. Joris had been feeling ill that day and had stayed home from work – a few jokes were made that it was from swimming in the canal, which made me a little uneasy – so he wouldn’t be joining us, but Thjis and I set out across town on our bikes, stopping to pick up some wine along the way. We were going to Frans’ place – the same friend who’s boat we had been on during the parade on Saturday. It was a mild and pleasant afternoon, and we all sat on the building’s rooftop terrace, the barbecue sizzling away in the background as I listened to the group of friends chat and gossip about the weekend that had just passed. There would have been about eight of them, and while I recognised a fair few from Saturday, I hadn’t had much luck with remembering names. Jan, one of the names I did remember, had a black eye – apparently Joris had swung a hand or an elbow too wide when he had been launching himself into the canal, and accidentally hit him in the face. I don’t know how I missed an event like that at the time, but it was a pretty funny retrospective story (sorry Jan).

Houses by the canal.

Houses by the canal.

At one point in the evening, before the sun had sunk below the horizon, Frans helped me up to the highest point of the rooftop so that I was able to get a view of the surrounding city. Frans lived quite close to the centre, and the area was full of old and beautiful buildings. He pointed out a few landmarks and features, and I took a few pictures of the quaint little rows of houses set alongside the canals. We returned to the table with the others, and we stayed out there as long as we could. But as the sun started to go down it became a little cooler. Blankets were brought up from inside, and being the warm-blooded creature some the Southern Hemisphere that I am, I needed several draped over my legs and shoulders to keep from getting the chills. Eventually everyone had to get going though, so I said goodbye to all the guys I had met over the weekend, and thanked them for letting me crash their circle of friends for pride.

Amsterdam rooftops.

Amsterdam rooftops.

In the end there was just Frans, his partner Michel, Thjis and myself. “You know what we should do?” Frans said to us. “We should take Robert to gay bingo!” I couldn’t help but laugh – traditionally I thought bingo was supposed to be a game for little old ladies, but it seemed the world of gay nightlife has adopted it as a popular pass time, too. Holland isn’t the only country I’ve seen it in, but it was actually going to the first time I had attended a gay bingo night. The four of us headed to a nearby bar called The Queen’s Head, and took a seat with our drinks and waited for the game to begin. It was a cozy, dimly light bar, and we were seated near the back with a view over the large canal through the windows, lights twinkling at us from across the water. The evening was hosted by – of course – a drag queen, and I felt that sense of familiarity that you get from walking into a gay bar with drag queens anywhere in the world. The bingo cards were set up in squares so that each game had three rounds – the first to complete a straight line, the first to complete one of the nine sub-squares, and then the first to completely check off the entire square. As it would happen, during one of the rounds I was the first to call bingo for checking off a straight line – the reward for which was the lucky dip box. After the drag queen did the usual run of asking a few questions and embarrassing me in front of the whole bar, a trapdoor popped up in the middle of the stage, and a box full of small white pieces of packing foam appeared.

Setting out to search for my prize.

Setting out to search for my prize.

“Your prize is in there,” the drag queen said. “Now get in there and find it!” I got down on my hands and knees and reached into the polystyrene, while some silly game show music played overhead. I hadn’t expected it to be too hard to find the prize – the people in the previous rounds hadn’t had any problems – but as I scrambled around through the box, I kept coming up empty handed. Judging by the laughs from the crowd, I assumed the drag queen was making some kind of lewd gestures towards me while my butt was sticking up in the air, and for a moment I thought this might have all been a big practical joke on me. But eventually the drag queen exclaimed, “Oh come on, have you still not found it?” and I came up empty handed and shrugged my shoulders. She seemed legitimately confused.
“Well.. that’s not right… there’s definitely something in there.” She ended up getting down to help me search for it, to the point she even stepped in to the box and waded around in the knee-high packing foam in an attempt to find it.
“Well this is a little awkward,” she said with a laugh. In the end she ended up calling over the hunky bartender to help us. To my horror, he fished around in the depths of the box for about 10 seconds before pulling out “Diamonds: The Unofficial Biography of Rihanna” on DVD. It had been lying flat on the bottom of the box, and had very easily escaped most of our clutches and desperate attempts to locate it.

Still looking for my prize.

Still looking for my prize.

We all had a good laugh, and I felt a little stupid but I just had to laugh with it. But in the end the joke definitely wasn’t on me, because the bar also gave me a nice bottle of champagne as a way of saying sorry for having me down on me knees for so long – the pun, surely, was intended.
“Wow, this is actually really nice stuff!” Frans said as I sat back down at the table. “What a nice parting gift from Amsterdam!”
We didn’t stay out too late, since everyone did have to work tomorrow, so I said goodbye to Frans and Michel as Thjis and I headed back to the bikes.
“Have you seen the Red Light District at night yet?” Thjis asked me as we began peddling. I told him I’d been very close, but hadn’t gone through it yet. “Okay, let’s go that way home. I mean, you can’t leave Amsterdam and not see it.” On a Tuesday night there wasn’t as much going on, but Thjis did take me past a few of the windows lined with red lights, girls standing suggestively in the window with their come-hither looks. It was almost difficult to fathom – a world and a concept of prostitution that was so different from my own country, and therefore so far from my own preconceptions – but in the end I guess that’s why we travel, isn’t it? To learn these new things, new perspectives, and to learn more about the world outside the world we’ve always known.

***

The following morning I bid farewell to Joris and Thjis. I was heading over to catch up with Asja one last time before heading to the airport to catch my plane to London. I left them the bottle of champagne I’d been given the night before as a way of saying thank you for letting me stay the extra few days, and I didn’t even know if I’d be allowed to carry it on the plane anyway. “It’s supposed to be good stuff though, so save it for a special occasion!” Later on in the year, I would be delighted to learn that they popped the cork after Joris had popped the question and asked Thjis to marry him. It doesn’t get much  more special than that!

I spent the afternoon with Asja and one of her work colleges visiting a small brewery called Brouwerij ‘t IJ. There was a bar inside with a whole heap of different beers to try, although I thought the production end of brewery made a rather unpleasant smell that was a little off-putting. Still, what made the brewery special was that it was inside a windmill – things don’t get more Dutch than that. My last day there was also very overcast and rainy. “It seems like your luck with the weather has finally run out,” Asja said with a laugh. It was true, and not a moment too soon. I joked with her, saying that I’d packed the sunshine into my backpack and would be taking it to London with me.

The windmill pub and brewery.

The windmill pub and brewery.

I’d been incredibly fortunate during my time in Amsterdam, and not just with the weather. I’d had a great time getting to know Joris and Thjis and the great bunch of guys that was their group of friends, and felt like I’d really been integrated into the locals way of life. I couldn’t thank them enough for the amazing time I had. Also getting to catch up with old friends like Michael and Asja had been lovely, and there hadn’t been a moment in Amsterdam where I had felt lonely or bored. Definitely up there as a major highlight of the trip so far, I was a little sad to be leaving the city. London beckoned from across the sea, but at least I could leave knowing I’d had an amazing, authentic and incredibly enjoyable Amsterdam experience.

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.

Much More Moscow: Kremlin and State Armoury

After our first failed attempt at visiting the Kremlin, seeing it became the primary objective on our second morning in Moscow. We rallied in the hostel common room bright and early, then made our way back into the city centre. But before that, we had some goodbyes to say. Rach and Marti would be leaving us this morning, and travelling down into Eastern Europe rather and continuing on to St Petersburg. The two girls had definitely been a dynamic presence within our group, and I think most of us were sad to see them go. We went around the group taking turns to hug them goodbye, with warm wishes for the future and promises to stay in touch.

***

Maria had advised us that the tickets to all the Kremlin attractions, including the State Armoury, can sell out rather quickly, so we kept that in mind when we were planning our day. We were so punctual in arriving to purchase our tickets for the Kremlin that I wouldn’t have been surprised if we were the first people there, but somehow there was already a line of tourists waiting outside the security check point out the front of the complex. We purchased our tickets, checked our bags into the holding room and joined the end of the queue. I remembered back to something Kostya had said at Lake Baikal: “Yeah, in Russia… Russians don’t really understand the concept of a queue.” That can be very frustrating, especially in big crowded queues like this one. People would elbow their way in wherever possible, but I think by the end of our stay in Russia we’d learned to play by their rules, and we found that our group – small in comparison to some of the larger tours – was flexible enough to slip in between other people and slither ahead in the “queue”, non-existent in the eyes of Russians.

The Kremlin is essentially a huge palace complex that has been the hub of political power in Russia since forever, pretty much, and is surrounded by high walls made of blood red brick. It was once the centre of the Russian Orthodox Church, but also the central office for the royalty and tsars as well as communist leaders and democratic presidents alike. The red bricks surprisingly have nothing to do with the name of Red Square, and are no suggestion to communism either. Later, Maria would inform me that in Russian, the word for red has dual meanings, and that it had actually been the word for beautiful long before it was ever affiliated with the colour. The more you know. The main features of the Kremlin, though, are the churches inside, some of which have been transformed into museums and exhibitions. Most are still very well maintained in their original condition, designs that appeared to be far more modern than the palaces I observed throughout Asia, though can easily be admired as whole pieces of art in their architecture and decoration. They all follow similar Russian Orthodox designs on the outside, but the insides are far more intricate. Most places required the purchase of a permit to take pictures, but I don’t think any photos can really do justice to these places – especially not the camera on my iPhone.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

Outside the Assumtpion Cathedral in the Kremlin.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Annunciation Cathedral.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

The Ivan the Great Bell-Tower Complex.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

An old Tsar Bell, now on display in the grounds of the Kremlin.

On this particular day, there appeared to be a lot going on inside the Kremlin. Once we were inside the main complex, we stumbled upon a huge congregation of priests who were all dressed up in their very formal robes. We asked Maria what was going on, but she confessed that she wasn’t a very religious person and so didn’t really know much about the occasion.
“Some angels have days, that are holy days that are assigned to them. I think today must be some angels day, and so they are praying and celebrating or something. I’m not sure which one though.” I still didn’t really understand, so I just settled for observing the crowd of devout men and watching them meander about the courtyards, looking rather excited as they chatted amongst themselves. We waited around for a little while, watching the men and listening to some of their singing while we waited for everyone to come outside of the final museum, before heading out of the Kremlin and back towards the ticket box.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

The crowd of priests who were standing around in the grounds of the Kremlin.

I’m not really sure of the specifics or details of what happened next, since I had been taking a pretty passive role in decision making, happy to visit whatever sights had been deemed must-see. We took our time looking through the churches and various exhibitions, and Maria told us that we would be able to arrive at the ticket booths at 11:15am in order to get tickets to the session at noon. Maria had collected the groups money in order to buy all the tickets, but I came along with her because I was going to attempt to buy a student ticket with my ID – it was my university student card from last year, and I was well aware that it had expired, but the foreign people rarely noticed the expiry date and the savings, particularly for entrance to the Armoury, were worth at least attempting to score the discount. However, literally as we got to the front of the line, the woman selling tickets announced something in Russian over the a loudspeaker. I waited tensely beside Maria, who finally turned to me to translate. “She said that there are no tickets left for the Armoury, so…” She shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know, I guess we should see what the others want to do.”

The others weren’t impressed. There was another session in a few hours, but I think most of the group had given up and decided we had wasted enough time trying to see these places, when it seemed like a constant uphill battle to even get into them. We ended up separating again after having some lunch, with some people going shopping, and others going for a longer, scenic walk back to the hostel. I returned to Red Square with Kaylah to take some photos, but after that I returned to the hostel via the metro to have a rest. I didn’t gotten a very good sleep the night before, and after talking to Tim yesterday we had decided we might like to go out for a few drinks and see some of the nightlife in Moscow. However, it rained rather heavily that night, which put a bit of a dampener on the mood. We went out to the Moscow Circus and had a beer before the show, but afterwards no one really seemed to be in a partying mood, so we called it a night and headed back to the hostel in the wet weather.

***

I was woken up the next morning by a knock on the door of my dorm. It was Kaylah.
“Tracy and Jenna and I are gonna head back to the Armoury. It’s early enough that we should definitely get tickets.” It was a struggle, but I rushed to ready and head out with them – inside the State Armoury is an opulent collection of treasures and artefacts that is considered one of the major attractions in Moscow, and even though I’d had another terrible nights sleep, I couldn’t justify sleeping in when I knew there was a group planning to head out that way one more time. “Okay, but we need to get back here before noon – we have to check out by then and I’ll have to get my stuff together.”

So off we went to the Armoury. I tried to purchase a student ticket, but unfortunately the woman working had been more attentive than the woman who sold us our tickets to the Kremlin, because she picked up on the expiry date – I still figured it was worth a try. But finally, after three days in Moscow and our numerous trips to this part of the city centre, we finally got into the Armoury. The collection of treasures inside was definitely worth it – all I could think of was how many millions of dollars these items would be worth. Goblets and plates and portraits and books and tea sets and dresses and weapons and – well, the list goes on, but everything was decorated with lavish jewels and pearls and I’m almost at a loss of words for how extravagant it was. It was the kind of extravagance that you only ever really saw in movies, and even then you knew they were most likely props that were worth only a fraction of the real thing. The diversity of the collection was also impressive. Jewelled sword handles and horse armour were in the room next to elegant pearl inlaid gowns, which were in between classical horse drawn carriages and a room full of velvet-lined thrones. We followed the directions of the audio guide tour, seeing the most important and interesting pieces in the collection and learning a bit about their histories.

While seeing the Armoury had been worth the rushed trip, it definitely made the rest of my morning a little more stressful. Firstly, as we walked down the stairs out of the exhibits, I dropped my audio guide. Despite having the safety strap around my wrist for the entire time we were in the museum, is was on the hard marble stairs that it slipped from my grip. It landed with a clatter, and I clutched at Kaylah’s arm when I saw that one of the buttons had lodged loose. I quickly scooped the handheld device up and shoved the button back into place, but the LED screen was starting a flicker, a sure sign that the machines life was about to expire. An endless stream of mumbled profanities escaped my mouth – we’d only needed to leave one form of ID as insurance when we’d collected the devices, but it was Jenna who had left her drivers licence with the desk.
“Just be cool, be cool Robert,” Kaylah had assured me. Once we got the desk, we placed our devices face down, showing the woman behind the counter their numbers, and she returned Jenna’s licence.
“Okay, be cool, stay cool, but go! Go! Go!” I’d whispered to the rest of the girls as we scurried out of the museum and back into the sunshine.

The second thing that made my morning just that bit more stressful was our returning time from the Armoury. I literally ran from the metro station back to the hostel, arriving at 11:58am. Perfect, I’d thought to myself, I literally only need two minutes to gather my things into my bag, I’ll be fine. Unfortunately, the hostel hadn’t been to sure I would arrive back in time, and I found my bag on the floor of the main hall with most of my possessions thrown into two big black garbage bags. Which, honestly, wouldn’t have been that bad. What actually sucked about this was that it wasn’t just my possessions – the bags was a mixture of my clothes and what may have been the possessions of one, or maybe two other guys from the room who weren’t part of our group. I felt kind of bag for that guy(s), because I’m not even positive they were supposed to be checking out, yet they’d had all their things scooped into a bag and thrown into the hall. I had to sit in the common room of the hostel and sort through all the bags to make sure I’d recovered all my things, while the rest of the group sat around waiting for me.
“I’m so sorry guys, sorry for holding us up,” I must have said a dozen times, but they all dismissed my apologies and said it was fine.
“We’ve got the entire day where we don’t have anywhere to be, so we’re not on a tight schedule, don’t worry.” I was glad they were being so nice about it, and as far as I could remember this was the first time I’d ever really had a problem or held the group up in any way, so they seemed fine with it.

Still, I had run all the way back to the hostel, and combined with the embarrassment of sorting though my bag and packing everything while the others patiently watched on, I found myself dripping with sweat. It was a warm, sunny day in Moscow, and I ended up mopping myself down with my towel and changing into a singlet and shorts. When I’d finally packed all my stuff up and put my pack in the storage room, we headed off as a group to get some lunch.
“Wow, Robert,” Don had said as we walked beside me, “You look like you’ve just had a shower or something.”
“Yes, Don, I’m a little sweaty,” I said, feeling a little testy and unable to hold back the sarcasm. “Thanks for pointing that out. I would rather have had a shower, but I’m actually just really sweaty. ” I think it’s safe to say that I wasn’t in a very good mood for the rest of the afternoon.

***

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The Russian Market we visited in the afternoon.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The park where we had lunch, watching the children frolic around in the warm weather.

The rest of the day was spent as a group, hanging out in a park to eat some street food lunch, visiting a popular Russian market, and finding a few restaurants and bars to have a few drinks in and just hang out, enjoying each others company. I think the long train ride had really brought a lot of us together, but it was nice to hang out with each other in a different, relatively normal environment, although the absence of Rach and Marti was strangely noticeable. But after we whittled the afternoon away, Alyson and Tim and myself had a few more drinks at a pub just near the hostel, and eventually it was time to head to the train station to catch the midnight train to St Petersburg.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

The long, cavernous escalator tunnel in one of the Moscow Metro stations.

Maria had met us back at the hostel and taken us to the station, and made sure we’d all gotten on the train safely. “There’s two places empty?” she had asked us, and we reminded her that Marti and Rach had left us the day before, forfeiting their tickets for that section of the journey. “You should come with us to St Petersburg, Maria!” someone had said jokingly. At first she had just smiled and laughed, but five minutes later she stuck her head into our cabin, where Tim, Tracy, Jenna and I were preparing our beds for our final night in transit. “I think I am going to come to St Petersburg. I have a friend who I have been saying I will visit, but I have never been, and it’s been, oh, I have been saying I will go for four years or something.”

We were all a little stunned, but we couldn’t help but laugh. Maria had seemed like quite a lax and easy-going woman, and while it had been a little frustrating when she hadn’t known some things about Moscow that we might have expected from our guide, I couldn’t help but applaud her spontaneous nature that told her that getting a train to another city, with absolutely nothing except a phone, wallet and the clothes on her back, was a perfectly good idea. I guess I learnt something from Maria that night, because with my plans for the rest of my time in Europe being just as unplanned and flexible, I was going to have to learn to be just as swift and spontaneous when it came to making decisions about my travels.