“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling 22”

As my Amtrak train chugged through upstate New York, I watched the scenery pass me by. Back where I grew up, changes between the seasons were relatively mild compared to some other parts of the world. The eastern coast of Australia is populated by a lot of evergreen trees that generally don’t lose their leaves during the winter, but the eastern coast of North America was a different story entirely. The autumn equinox had occurred while I’d been in Canada, and summer was officially over. As my New York City bound train travelled through the woods, I could see that the trees surrounding us had already taken on hues of red, yellow and orange, and the normally green scenery was combined with a wash of natural fiery tones. It was something that I had only seen happen very sparsely in my own country, so I soaked in the sight and enjoyed the novelty of it all. It certainly made for a pleasant visual accompaniment on my trek back to the smog of the Big Apple.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

Upstate New York at the turn of autumn.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

The timing of my trip was so perfect that I observed foliage of both green and red, as the former gave way to the latter.

Returning to Manhattan almost felt like coming home. After casually jumping on the S Train across town to Grand Central Station, receiving a friendly welcome from Brandon the doorman as I arrived at the apartment, and letting myself in to wait for Melissa to get home so I could tell her all about my trip, I realised just how much time I had spent here in the the last month. “Home is where the heart is”, as the old adage goes, and there in that moment I don’t think anything could have rang more true in my mind. After being on the road for so long you start to believe that you’ve lost all concept of home, but the reality is that if you have the right attitude, and surround yourself with the right people, anywhere can feel like home – no matter how brief or temporary a home it may be.

***

While I’d been keen to get back and see my New Yorker friends like Melissa and Stefon, there was also another reason why returning to the city this time had been such an incredibly exciting prospect. Georgia, one of my best and dearest friends from back home, had been doing her own tour across the USA for the past couple of months, and now she and her friend Eva had arrived in NYC, just days before my birthday. She’d kept warning me that she had a surprise for me, but that she couldn’t wait until my birthday and would have to give it to me as soon as she saw me. It was well into the evening when I arrived back in NYC, and Georgia had some final plans with the girls who she had been on the tour with, so we made plans to meet the next day at Grand Central Station.

I could barely contain my excitement as I almost ran the few blocks up Lexington Avenue, and it was almost surreal to see her big golden curls of hair and big smile waiting for me by one of the subway exits.
“Oh my God! How are you, baby?” Georgia said as I threw my arms around her and hugged her tight for at least a solid minute. “It’s been so long!”
“I know! I’ve missed you!”
“Let’s never be apart for that long again, okay?”
“Deal.” And just like that, within moments, our casual banter had returned, almost as though we hadn’t been separated for the last six months. I guess that’s the sign of a true friendship.
“So, tell me everything. What’s been going on? How was Canada? How was Stuart?” We set off walking down the street as Georgia bombarding me with questions.
“Canada was great! It was really nice to-”
I was cut off mid-sentence, startled as someone bumped into me from behind. New Yorkers can be very pushy when it comes to their pavement etiquette, and for a moment I thought I might have been in the wrong somehow. “Ah, I’m sorry I-”
“Hey, watch where you’re going next time, fool!” I might have been more offended if the words hadn’t come from a very familiar face.
“Oh… Oh my God. Oh my God!” The person who had bumped into me was my other best friend, Jesse, who was – to the best of my knowledge – still in Australia. “What are you doing here?!”
“Surprise!” Georgia said with a sheepish grin, and suddenly it all made sense.
“We’ve been planning this the moment Georgia booked her tickets,” Jesse said. “I called her up and told her, ‘If you think I’m gonna let you and Robert be in New York City without me, then you’ve got another thing coming!’ The three of us are in the greatest city in the world, your birthday is coming up, and this place isn’t gonna know what hit it!”

***

Apparently everyone had been in on the surprise – from Ellie in London to Stuart in Montreal, and even all of our mutual friends on Facebook – everyone had known about the surprise, and nobody had let the secret slip. Jesse had blocked me on Facebook under the guise that he was “taking a break” from social media, so I’d had no idea of his whereabouts.
The three of us had lunch together and caught up about everything we’d been doing in the past few months, sharing travel horror stories and laughing both at and with each other. Afterwards we decided to visit the Museum of Sex, and as we browsed the halls of artworks and exhibitions we made crass jokes and probably nearly got ourselves thrown out on a handful of separate occasions. But I’d been reunited with some of my most favourite people in the whole world, so right now where I was at was definitely starting to feel like home.

Reunited with my best friends.

Reunited with my best friends.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

Perhaps the most definitive piece of art in the Museum of Sex.

And the reason why we can't have nice things.

And the reason why we can’t have nice things.

Over the next few days, it was the little things that made the time around my birthday so special. Whether it was stumbling across a little street market with Jesse and Georgia, where we bought a variety of fresh mini donuts and sat and ate them in the sunshine at Madison Square Park; or when Jesse and I bought $15 tickets to an Iggy Azalea gig at a gay bar on a Friday night; or when we trudged around Midtown for over an hour looking for a place that would cut our hair for $20 instead of $100; or when all three of us visited a phoney psychic just off Times Square, who told us we were all troubled people with shady pasts and dark futures, so we retreated back to Georgia and Eva’s Air BnB apartment with margarita mix to watch The Little Mermaid and feel sorry for ourselves – there are a whole heap of fun and slightly bizarre memories that made it a special week for me.

New York City with my best friends.

New York City with my best friends.

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again...

Georgia and I were a little excited to see each other again…

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event...

Strange warm-up entertainment in the gay bar before the main event…

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

Iggy Azalea in all her glory.

***

When it came to the actual weekend of my birthday, I had a few more intercity and international surprises. Mischa was making a second trip down from Baltimore to join the birthday celebrations, and I even received a little surprise from Ireland. Well, in the end I knew to expect something, since Matthew had asked for my address in New York several times over the past two weeks, obviously anxious as to whether whatever he had ordered would arrive. In the end a package arrived that was addressed to both Melissa and myself, so I know that had to be it. True to his national pride, he’d had a bottle of Coole Swan delivered to me.
“It’s like Baileys, but better,” he’d told when I finally wrote to him saying I’d received it. “Gotta have a little bit of something Irish on your birthday, no?” I could almost hear his accent in my head as I read the words, and imagined that cheeky, playful grin of his.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

A bottle of Coole Swan, courtesy of my favourite Irish gentleman.

The actual day of my 22nd birthday fell on a Sunday, so we decided that we’d go out on the Saturday night for the big celebration. Melissa had offered to have all our friends from far and wide over at her apartment, so that evening Georgia, Eva, Jesse, Mischa, Stefon, Nirali and Melanie, another friend of Melissa’s, all came over to join in the festivities. Melissa and Nirali cooked an amazing dinner, and we all caught up over food and drinks. I was surrounded by so many beautiful people, friends both old and new, and it really was a fantastic evening.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

The best friends at the birthday dinner.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

Mischa reunited with more of his Australian friends.

The meal was delicious, and in true Australian fashion the drinks were flowing freely. Unfortunately Stefon wasn’t over 21, so he wasn’t able to join us when we eventually headed out, and a few other people didn’t end up making it to the clubs. We had vague plans, but I’d be lying if I said there was an overall aim to the night. I was in bar called Therapy with Melissa and Nirali, dropping my phone all over the floor and dancing like a hot mess for over half an hour before they managed to tell me that the rest of our friends still weren’t here yet. Jesse, Georgia and Eva had someone gotten lost, and we ended up meeting them in another place just across the road called Industry. From that point on, my memory of where I was, who I was with and what I was drinking became a pretty intense blur. All I know is that I was definitely having fun.

The one vivid memory I have is stumbling out of somewhere in Hell’s Kitchen with Jesse, jumping into a cab and screaming at the driver to drive. I don’t know where we told him to go, and I don’t even remember where he ended up taking us. But as we sped down a road through the West Village, we hung our heads out of the taxi windows and howled to the moon like wolves, shouting at the top of our lungs. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the taxi driver had stopped and told us to get out, and I know it’s a hideous cliché, but in that moment I felt absolutely, 100% alive. Young, dumb, drunk and free of cares, at least I was never going to look back on my life and regret that I had wasted my youth.

The morning after - birthday brunch.

The morning after – birthday brunch.

I woke up at noon, curled up on the couch with Jesse at Georgia’s apartment. We’d gotten home just after dawn, apparently. Everyone was feeling a little tender as we attempted to sing happy birthday over a very hungover afternoon brunch, but I didn’t mind – the night had been worth it. For a night that I will probably never 100% clearly recollect, it was certainly a special and memorable birthday that I will never, ever forget.

The Good Ol’ Days

After my stressful afternoon in Hamburg, and then having to catch another three trains because there was not a single hostel bed left in the city, the feeling of relief when I stepped off the train at Groningen station was almost overwhelming. It was after 11:30pm and Groningen was the final destination on the train line, but as my few fellow passengers spilled out onto the train platform, I saw a familiar face through the sparse crowd. I dropped my bags to the ground so I could give Gemma a huge hug when I finally reached her halfway up the concourse. Gemma and I went to high school together, and she had been my best friend for years, but now she lived and studied over here in the Netherlands. She’s still quite easily one of the best friends I’ve ever had though, and after the afternoon I’d had there was nothing quite so comforting as collapsing into the arms of an old friend whom I hadn’t seen in years, and discovering the embrace was just as familiar as though I’d seen her yesterday.

After the emotional greeting at the station, Gemma and I caught the bus back to her house. The main feature of Groningen is the university there, and so the city has become somewhat well known for its large population of students. Gemma’s share house can usually accommodate four people, but at that time there were only two people living there. Still, I couldn’t exactly take up an extra room without paying rent, so I would be sleeping on the couch in Gemma’s room, which was actually the spacious attic of the house. She’d added her homely touches to it, with magazine covers, letters from our friends and other decorations covering the walls, and furnished in a way that reminded me of her room back home. It’s such a strange sensation, to have such a familiar feeling in an undeniably new place.
“I hope you still like Coke Zero and Doritos,” Gemma said as she followed me up the extremely steep staircase to her room, as I tried not to overbalance with my huge bag and fall back down. Gemma had run out to do a bit of last minute shopping when I’d told her I was coming a day early, and she’d even remembered all my favourite snacks from the countless movie nights and sleepovers we’d had when we were teenagers. We sat up for a few more hours, watching Geordie Shore on TV, eating and drinking and catching up, telling Gemma all about my journey so far, and her telling me all about Groningen, what to do and what to expect, but also just hanging out, shooting the shit and talking about pointless stuff to make each other laugh. It’s a testimony to our friendship to go so long without seeing each other and still be as comfortable as though not a day had passed since we’d last been together. Sitting there on the couch with her, I think I was actually glad that things hadn’t worked out in Hamburg – right there, I couldn’t think of a better way to spend my Saturday night.

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

After 12 hours and 3 counties, we were finally reunited!

***

The majority of my time in Groningen was spent in a similar fashion: hanging out with Gemma, cooking tacos and pasta and all our favourite foods, watching movies and chatting and just enjoying being in the same city for the first time in almost a year. We also played a lot with Gemma’s cat Ananas (which means ‘pineapple’ in Dutch, and actually a lot of other languages too), who was a little bit crazy but incredibly cute. It was the beginning of Summer in Europe so Gemma didn’t have any classes – just one exam on the Tuesday morning – and the only times we couldn’t hang out was when she was working. However, my string of good luck with the weather suffered a lapse when I was in Groningen. It had been all smiles and sunshine in Copenhagen, but there was only one particularly sunny day out of the five full days I spent in Groningen. This worked in our favour, though – Gemma works as a waitress on the outside terrace of a bar in the city centre of Groningen, but if the weather isn’t very nice then people tend to not sit on the terrace, in which case her shift is sometimes cancelled. While that is probably really annoying somedays, it was great for this week because it meant we got to spend more time together.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Ananas by the window.

Ananas by the window.

I’d arrived late on a Saturday night, and would be returning to Germany for the following weekend, but Gemma had assured me that being a student town, some of the best nights to go out in Groningen were week nights. A lot of people travelled back to their hometowns and families on the weekends, and there was generally more people around during the week – though she did warn me it might not be too busy since it was currently exam time for most people. If they were anything like the students I knew in Sydney, though, there would still be plenty of people out and about. So it was a Wednesday evening when Gemma, her boyfriend Atze – whom I’d also become good friends with – and myself set out for some of the nightclubs in Groningen. First and foremost, drink prices were substantially lower than they were in Scandinavia, so the night was already set to be either much cheaper or a lot trashier. Our first stop was a pretty popular bar and club called Ocean41, which is actually the establishment that Gemma works at during the day. When we arrived we discovered that Atze was friends with one of the bartenders, and therefore we enjoyed half a dozen cocktails at an extremely competitive price. I wasn’t too sure how I felt about the nightclub itself, though. I’m generally not really a fan of straight clubs at all – too many wasted white girls who step on your feet with their heels, and guys who either can’t dance or just wait around the dance floor staring down everyone else.

“Be careful of guys who look really young,” Gemma leaned over and said into my ear as I was scanning the room. “You can get into some clubs when you’re sixteen here, so some of them don’t look young, they are young.” I laughed, feeling confident that I wasn’t going to find anyone in the club of any age group that swung my way. After a while we took off to another bar called Chupitos, where the specialty was all kinds of fancy and gourmet mixed shots. “You have to try the marshmallow one,” Gemma had insisted, “and the one ‘Harry Potter’!” The marshmallow one was a sweet shot that you downed after you’d eaten your toasted marshmallow – yep, they actually lit a small section of the bar on fire so you can cook the marshmallow so it’s nice and gooey. The Harry Potter one was similarly spectacular – they lit the bar on fire around the full shot glasses, which had slices of orange on them, and then sprinkled the fire with cinnamon so that it flared and sparkled. It was really cool to watch, and after you downed the warm shot you sucked on the slice of orange – almost like a tequila shot with a deeper, sweeter twist. I got to pick the third shot the three of us would have – the menu board only had names, not ingredients, and I randomly selected one called the Flaming Asshole. It was a colourful layered shot that was also lit on fire, and then drunk through a straw while it was still on fire. My lack of knowledge of physics left me terrified that I would be sucking up a mouthful of fire, but it actually had a really nice taste, and Atze, Gemma and I left the bar a little more drunk and feeling pretty satisfied.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

We visited a couple more bars, the next one being a place called Shooters. “I got refused entry to this place once, I was so drunk,” Gemma laughed as she narrated her personal history of the bars and streets as we hopped our way along. The air in Shooters was heavy with the smell of cigarette smoke and it was completely packed, so we didn’t stay for too long. We then visited another bar called Het Feest, which had the interesting feature of a rotating bar. I imagined that such a device would get extremely confusing the more intoxicated one became in a crowded bar, but fortunately the crowd was pretty thin that evening. We put it down partly to the exam excuse, and partly because it was also raining that night. After Gemma and Atze had shown me the bars, we headed back to the first night club to collect our jackets and head home. “But first you have to get something from the wall! You’re hungry, right?” Gemma knew me too well. I’m not sure if its a thing throughout the Netherlands or just in Groningen, but in the centre of town there is a fast food shop that makes croquettes, sausages, burgers and other greasy post-drinking snacks. However, instead of over the counter service, there is a wall that acts as a sort of vending machine. There’s rows of tiny compartments, most of them filled with some kind of snack, and all you have to do is put in a few euros and you can open it to get the food. I helped myself to a few croquettes while Atze lined up to get some chips – which we ate with mayonnaise, in true Dutch fashion – and then we walked home through the rain. It had been a fun and fairly inexpensive night, and it had been nice to see the kind of things my best friend had been getting up to on the other side of the world.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

***

The rest of my time in Groningen was a little slice of normality in the life of travel and organised chaos I had been living. Gemma and I went to the movies and saw The Hangover: Part 3, went shopping for some cheap clothes for me at H&M, and I also got a much needed haircut. On our way back from the movies we walked down one of the few red light streets that existed in the small city. “I guess it’s a Dutch thing, but it’s not like in Amsterdam. A lot of these girls are just normal girls, probably some foreign girls, and even students.” Gemma pointed to one of the windows, where a girl dressed in her sexy outfit was sitting with a laptop, tapping away at the keys. “She’s probably studying or doing her university homework, or something.” It was an interesting thought, I suppose. The whole thing didn’t seem that sexy to me, and not because the windows were just full of women. “Wait until you see Amsterdam,” Gemma said. “The girls there are… it’s all just really different.” I wasn’t due to hit Amsterdam for nearly two months, so for now I would have to take her word for it.

After my desperately needed haircut.

After my desperately needed haircut.

On my last night in Groningen, I crawled into Gemma’s bed with her, and we stayed up late talking about our lives – hopes, fears, dreams, secrets: all those things we still talk about, but never feel the same way over WhatsApp as they do in a face to face conversation. Gemma knew me so well, knowing exactly what to say to calm any nerves or fears I might have about travelling and my uncertain future, and it made me realise just how much I had missed her while she’d been away, and probably how much more I was going to miss her now that I was leaving again. It was a little sad that night, but when we had our emotional goodbye in the morning it was actually a really positive moment. It was a little uplifting and affirming, knowing that we were still the best of friends after all this time, and that even though we weren’t sure when we’d be seeing each other next, that we could still be just as close next time our paths crossed, wherever in the world that might be.