Reflections on Europe

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

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

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

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

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

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

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

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

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

Prague.

Prague.

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

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

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

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

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

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

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

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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.

From Beach to Butch: My First Day in Amsterdam

As much as I had wished Lola’s prediction was true, there eventually came a time, again, when I had to leave Berlin. However, this time the departure would end on a much lighter and livelier note, despite having to get up before 6am. Last time Ralf had seen me off at the U-Bahn station on his way to work, and I’d waved goodbye as I descended down the steps onto the platform. This time, Ralf would be coming with me to Amsterdam. Throughout most of my travels around Europe, I had always been planning to finish up in Amsterdam on the coming weekend because – you guessed it – that’s when they were celebrating pride. I had already planned ahead with my Couchsurfing hosts a couple of months in advance, but as it happened Ralf was also travelling over to the Netherlands to visit a friend, and join in with the pride festivities. While we both had our own plans for while we were in Amsterdam, Ralf had suggested that we catch the train there together, to provide each other with some company on the 8 hour journey. With the exception of Itzel on my way to Prague, most of my train trips had been moments of solitude, so I gratefully accepted the change of pace.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Staring out the window while my coffee goes cold.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

Ralf having a nap on the train.

During the journey Ralf told me a little bit about Amsterdam and their pride celebrations. When I was in Groningen, Gemma had also told me a little about what she had heard of Amsterdam pride, so unlike my experiences in Madrid and Paris – which had been completely unexpected – pride in Amsterdam was something that had been highly anticipated for quite some time now. Towards the end of the journey, I saw rows of rainbow flags strung up across the city, waving gently in the wind, and suddenly my heart swelled with excitement. Pride or not, Amsterdam was one of those cities with a worldwide reputation for a lot of different things, and I was excited to get amongst it and experience it all for myself. When we disembarked and stepped out into the bright sunshine – something that was apparently quite uncommon in this city – it was time for Ralf and I to part ways. He was going to meet his friend, and I would be meeting Michael – an Australian friend of mine who was also travelling in Europe – and crashing with him in his hotel for the night. We bid each other a quick farewell, assuming we would probably run into each other at some point in the weekend.

***

Michael had had a big night of partying the previous night, so we ended up just having dinner out and hanging out at the hotel, catching up and relaxing. He was catching a train to Berlin the following day, and I was more than happy to take it easy in anticipation for the coming weekend. As much as I love meeting foreigners and new local people, it’s always nice to sit down and have a chat with a familiar Australian and not having to worry about running to cultural barriers of any kind. It was a fleeting encounter though, and the next morning we parted ways – him to the train station and myself onto the next friend I was catching up with. Asja was was the ex-girlfriend of my best friend Gemma’s older brother Brendon, who I’d met up with in Thailand. The connection really isn’t as complicated as it sounds when you try to say it out loud, and I had met Asja a few years ago when she was living in Australia. Originally from Germany, she was now living and studying in Amsterdam, so at Gemma’s suggestion I had gotten in touch with her and arranged to meet up. After arriving via foot at her small flat – located above the shop she was working in – I was dripping with sweat, so I was delighted to learn that she was planning on taking me to the beach.

“It’s such a beautiful day! You don’t get many sunny days like this in Amsterdam, so you have to make the most of it!” We were going to be joined by a couple of Turkish guys Asja had made friends with earlier in the week, and so I left my luggage in Asja’s room and we set off to the train station. The city limits of Amsterdam itself are so small that the beach Zandvoort aan Zee, Asja had explained, is technically outside of Amsterdamn, but it only took about 20 minutes to get there. However, as Asja had said before, you need to make the most of days like today, and so the train was absolutely packed with beach goers. We squeezed like in like sardines for the relatively short train ride, but it wasn’t that much better when we finally arrived at the beach. The shoreline stretched on in both directions for what seemed like miles, and every inch of it was covered in people. We made our way down to the sand and eventually found a space to claim as our own. We laid out on our towels and began to soak up some sun.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

Asja and I enjoying the sunshine.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord ann Zee.

The crowded beach at Zandvoord aan Zee.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

At the Zandvoort station after our afternoon at the beach.

“This sunshine is so amazing! It almost feels like I’m back in Australia,” Asja said with a grin.
“Well, I guess I just brought the weather with me,” I responded. “But at least this sunshine isn’t going to kill you.” I had been using sunscreen here and there, but I was amazed at how impossible it seemed to be to get sunburnt around most of Europe. No wonder so many Europeans came to Australia and got burnt to a crisp – the strength of the UV in our sunlight really just seems to be in a whole new ballpark. A few more of Asja’s Dutch friends joined us for a little while on the beach – I briefly met so many people during such a short period of time that I had no hope of keeping track of all their names – but I chatted to a few of them between dips into the cool water. It was lovely and refreshing, but if someone had told me the first thing I would do on my first full day in Amsterdam was go to the beach, I’m not quite sure I would have believed them. Yet it was a much needed escape from the heat wave that was currently moving across Europe, and it was great seeing Asja and catching up with her. Eventually we packed ourselves up and headed back to Amsterdam – Asja had plans to meet another friend, and it was time for me to go and meet my Couchsurfing hosts.

***

Asja’s place was relatively near to the centre of town, and just a short tram ride later I had arrived at my new hosts place. Asja had been right in saying that Amsterdam was a relatively small city – in comparison to sprawling cities like Sydney, nothing was actually that far from anything else. When I arrived I was greeted by Joris, who loomed over me in height – the Dutch are typically one of the tallest races in the world – and had a short buzzed haircut and a warm, friendly face. His two beautiful Russian Blue cats, named Stoli and Bolli, also made a point of introducing themselves as they came up to inspect the new visitor.
“So my boyfriend Thijs is away on a work trip, but he’ll be back tomorrow morning. We’ve actually got another Couchsurfer staying with us this weekend too, and I’m pretty sure I just accidentally gave him the wrong directions,” Joris said with a sheepish grin. “So we may have to go pick him up from another tram stop.” So I’d barely been in the house 10 minutes before we were off to pick up André, who was originally Portuguese but now lived in Copenhagen. When we arrived back at Joris’ place he offered us a beer each, so we cracked them open and had a brief chat as we got to know each other. But it wasn’t too long before it was time to move again.

“So, I have to go and help run this rugby workshop.” Joris was a member of the Amsterdam Lowlanders, the city’s gay rugby team. As part of the pride celebrations, the team was organising a workshop for anyone who was interested in getting involved, or even just learning a thing or two about the game. André was meeting up with another friend of his that evening, but I had no other plans, so despite having somewhat of an intense fear of team sports, I decided to go along with Joris and check it out. But instead of driving, we would be getting into the local culture and riding our bikes there. Joris was planning on borrowing a couple of bikes from a friend for André and I for the weekend, but for now I would be borrowing Thijs’ bike. I found it remarkable just how popular cycling was in the city, and in the Netherlands in general.
“Why, don’t people ride bikes in Sydney?” Joris had asked me when I’d seemed rather incredulous.
“Well, they do… But you have to be, like, really serious about it. It’s mainly an exercise thing. You need to be motivated, since most drivers just hate cyclists.”
I think that surprised Joris a little. “It’s nothing like that here. Everyone rides bikes. It’s just an easy way to get from Point A to Point B. Nothing too extreme about it.” Indeed, it would appear that bikes too precedence over cars in most of the city. Amsterdam was similar to Copenhagen in that it seemed as though bikes really did have right of way in almost any circumstance. They had their own lanes and their own traffic lights, and if there wasn’t a cyclist whizzing by you at any given moment, you could be sure there would be at least half a dozen locked up no more than a few metres away from wherever you were standing. I think I remember Gemma telling me that there were actually more bikes than people in the Netherlands, a statistic that was extremely believable when seeing cities like Amsterdam.

Still, the cycling culture was a little intense to the point of being terrifying, as I’m not the strongest cycler. I did my best to stay as close behind Joris as possible so that I didn’t get cut off or intercepted, and have to manage the intersections on my own. It wasn’t too long before we arrived at the park, where a fairly large crowd had assembled for the rugby workshop. I was an obvious beginner, but after getting over the initial nerves I found that for the most part I could adequately pass and catch the ball – well, maybe not according to the more experienced players, but I don’t think they minded too much since it was a workshop for beginners. After the passing practice came something even more terrifying – learning how to tackle. Team sports? I can deal with that. But contact sports? Terrified. Absolutely terrified. I’d done a couple of crazy things that should probably have killed me over the last few months, but this one was still by far the scariest for me.

Or at least, it was at first. But as the experienced players explained it to us, it became a lot more simple to understand. In fact, the whole logical behind tackling, and being tackled, was to not be afraid of falling. If you’re going down, be aware of how you’re falling and just go down. It’s when you try to resist it or when you’re afraid of falling that your body reacts in a host of weird and potentially painful ways when you inevitably do eat the dirt. I have to admit that by the end of it I was actually quite enjoying myself, getting down and dirty with a bunch of sweaty guys – hey, maybe Amsterdam wasn’t quite so different to the initial expectations? At the very least, I was able to prove to myself that I wasn’t completely devoid of any masculinity in a traditional sense, or that I wasn’t a complete gay stereotype. I was also once again I was reminded, like I had been with Robin in Zürich, that I really needed to get some more hobbies when I got home. After all, I did know I few team members of the Sydney Convicts… well, we’ll see how I go.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The Lowlanders showing us some more technical rugby skills at the end of the workshop.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

The scrum was one rugby technique that I decided not to take part in.

After the rugby workshop, we got back on our bikes and headed back home to get cleaned up. It was the Friday night of Amsterdam Pride weekend, and the adrenaline I’d been pumping during all that rugby had made me more keen than ever to get out and experience the city’s nightlife.

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.