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.

Detour: Bratislava

For a trip that should only have taken approximately three hours, I spent a ridiculously long time getting to Prague from Vienna, but there were many factors I had to consider when planning out my day. The first was that Kathi and Anna-Greta would both be leaving before 9 o’clock in the morning, which meant that I would also have to leave at that time, since I would definitely need to be on a train out of Vienna before either of them finished work. Kathi was catching a tram in the same direction as myself – towards the train station – on her way to work, so when my stop finally came we said our warm, slightly emotional goodbyes, and promised that we would definitely see each other at some point in the future. She been a great girl and had been a lovely host, and I knew I had made the right decision in coming to Vienna and staying with her.

I had my next Couchsurfing hosts lined up for that evening in Prague – however, Tomas had informed me that no one would be home before 5 o’clock, so if I arrived in Prague before then I would have to look after myself until that time came. No big deal, I thought to myself. There was always pretty elementary things to take care of when arriving in a new city or country – for example, the Czech Republic’s currency was Czech crowns, or koruna, not the Euro, so I would have to exchange or withdraw some new money. There was also the possibility that trains would run late, so a three hour journey was still only a very approximate guess.

***

The trains were not running late. Neither was I. However, the train station that I was departing from was not that same one that I had arrived in, and the layout of this new one was very confusing. There was English translations for pretty much everything, but it didn’t help me run any fast when I realised I had made a wrong turn and had three flights of stairs to run up with all my baggage to even make it to the entrance of the platform that I was supposed to be on. I made it just in time… to watch the train I had intended to catch slide out of the platform and down the tracks into the distance. Luckily for me, I hadn’t reserved a place on the train, so there was no financial harm done in missing it. It just meant I had to wait a lot longer at the train station for the next train heading to Prague.

Or did I? I pulled out my iPhone and opened the Eurail app I had downloaded, which has listing of all the train stations on the Europeans rail network, as well as all the different times the trains run. It had saved me before when I was stranded in Hamburg, telling me exactly what trains I needed to catch in order to make to Groningen that same evening, and now it was giving me another piece of alternative advice. I could wait for a few hours at this platform, for the next direct train to Prague, or I could take a detour. There is a regular route from Budapest in Hungary to Berlin, and Prague is one of the stops along the way. That train doesn’t pass through Vienna, but if I jumped on a different train I would be in Bratislava – the capital of Slovakia – in just under an hour, and would be able to intercept the train there. That was the beauty of the flexible Eurail pass I was using – I could catch as many of these unreserved trains as I liked in one day, and it would not cost me any extra as it would have to catch the single train to Prague. And, I got to visit another country and city along the way! All aboard for Eastern Europe!

***

On the train ride to Bratislava, I looked up the city on my Lonely Planet book. “Bratislava was pretty fun,” Rachel had told me during the brief period we had hung out in Madrid, “but you only need a couple of hours to see the main centre, really. Talon and my brothers and I were there at like, four in the morning, I think?” She’d laughed, shaking her head at the stories she was reliving. “It was ridiculous, but it was fun. Check it out if you get the chance.”

Despite having an entire day to get from Vienna to Prague, I didn’t have a couple of hours to spend in Bratislava – then entire length of my layover was about 45 minutes. Even so, that didn’t stop me from running out of the train station and down to the nearest main road to take a few photos as evidence that I had made it this far east. I still had all my luggage strapped to me, so it wasn’t as easy as you may think. Unfortunately, the train station isn’t that close to the historical centre, where all the more beautiful architecture can be found. I didn’t want to venture out into an unfamiliar city where I didn’t speak the language and had a deadline to return to – I didn’t want to miss another train – so I settled for taking photos of some street signs, whatever buildings I could see, and the front of the train station.

Welcome to Bratislava!

Welcome to Bratislava!

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

Sign pointing me towards the Historical Centre that I was unable to get to.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

The sole street I walked down from the train station.

Slovak billboard - I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

Slovak billboard – I was limited in the sights I was able to photograph, okay?

The train station at Bratislava.

The train station at Bratislava.

And a selfie to prove that I didn't just steal these pictures off the Internet.

And a selfie to prove that I didn’t just steal these pictures off the Internet.

***

Then it was back to the station to buy a few snacks before boarding the train to Prague. The train was unlike most of the other ones I’d been on throughout Europe. Rather than being much more open with rows of seats on either side of an aisle, this train was more like the cabins we had on the Trans-Siberian railway. They were closed off compartments with sliding doors, except instead of seats that folded out into beds there were simply six regular seats per compartment. I would later be told by Tomas, one of my hosts in Prague, that that style meant the train was rather old, but it seemed pretty clean and modern to me at the time. I walked down the halls and poked my head into the cabins until I found one that seemed manageable. The curtains were drawn, and there was a young man lying across three of the seats on one side of the cabin, apparently sleeping. On the other side, an young woman who looked about my age sat by herself, looking rather timid. I squeezed in and took the window seat, peeking out the window through a crack in the curtain.

The trip started out quite uneventful. After a while, the sleeping man sat up, rubbed his eyes, and threw open the curtains. He couldn’t have been much older than myself or the other girl who was sitting quietly to my right. He gathered up his things and, without a word to either of us, departed at one of the stops along the way. I can’t say I’m surprised at his silence – in these environments, with the tourists and local travellers thrown in altogether, its pure luck as to whether the people around you even speak your language. He was soon replaced by a family – a mother, father and small child. They would prove to be strange cabin companions, with the little boy being cheeky and misbehaving so much that we witnessed the father lose his temper and repeatedly smack the child. It was a little scary, but I didn’t say anything because I really had no idea if such kind of thing was normal in this part of the world. The child would start crying and wailing, before going back to whatever he had been doing before and earning himself another smack. This exchanged happened periodically throughout the whole journey. However, when they first climbed on board was also the time when someone came around to check our tickets. Mine had already been stamped on the train to Bratislava though, so all I had to do was flash my Eurail pass.

When I pulled out my pass, the eyes of the girl sitting next to me lit up.  I saw her pull out her own Eurail Pass to show the the train attendants, which meant that she had to be a non-European resident. We got chatting after that – Itzel was a traveller from Mexico who was also backpacking around Europe after spending some time studying abroad in France. We got talking about different places we’d been to and where we were going. Itzel had gotten on the train in Budapest, somewhere that was now not on my itinerary but somewhere I had really wanted to see, so she told me all about the city and the things she did there. It sounded like a pretty fun place, and Itzel said she had an awesome time. She was doing the full length of the train route, from Budapest to Berlin, so after that I was my turn to rant and rave about my favourite European city. I told her all about the crazy things I’d done and where she should go, and how to not get turned away from Berghain. She had a hostel booked in advance as well, so I pulled out my Lonely Planet book and showed her the way to get there from the train station.

As it would happen, Itzel had also been to Prague, so she told me as much as she could about the city. “It’s a cute city, pretty small, and it’s easy to get around with the public transport. And of course there’s the castle.” I’d heard a lot of good things about Prague, but I guess I would be finding it all out for myself in a few hours. Itzel and I continued to talk the entire journey – I could hardly believe how much time had passed when my stop crept up on us. I said my goodbyes to Itzel, but we exchanged contact details just in case our paths crossed again in Europe, or if I ever found myself in Mexico on my future travels. I really enjoy the way travel brings people together like that – maybe I won’t see Itzel for months or years. Perhaps I’ll never see her again. But for that shared moment of travel we became the best of friends, and the train trip to Prague would have been quite boring without her.

Recovery: From the city to the sea

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

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

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

***

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

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

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

The refreshing blue waters of Portonovo Beach.

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

Overlooking the beach at Sirolo at sunset.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

The ocean view from our vantage point near Sirolo.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Overlooking the town of Numana.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

Ocean views as dusk settles over the province of Ancona.

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

Siesta to Sunrise

During the day, Barcelona was a charming city with beautiful attractions that brought forth scores of bustling tourists, particularly in the summer. However, for me the major drawing point had been Spanish nightlife that supposedly emerged after the sun had well and truly gone to sleep. Emphasis on the “well and truly”, because that thing about everything running several hours later in Spanish culture is especially prevalent in the nightclub scene. The general idea I had gotten from both friends and guidebooks was that Spaniards usually ate dinner at 10pm at the earliest, which carried on for a few hours. Afterwards they would head to the bars at around 1am, and not even head to nightclubs to go dancing until around 3 or 4 in the morning. I felt like that might have been an exaggeration – how could people possibly function in daily life if they were not just coming home, but going out at 4am? So I was sceptical – but apparently I still had a lot more than the language during my time in Spain…

***

Despite getting a terrible sleep the previous night on the train from Paris, and spending most of my first day in Barcelona walking around with Rich, we still had plans to hit the town that night. So in the afternoon we had a siesta – I swear, the best thing about Spain is that afternoon naps have been incorporated into their way of life so well that it’s basically a sacred ritual – and then made some dinner and drank some delicious Spanish wine as we got ready to go out. It would have been around 11pm when we left, but our first stop wasn’t a nightclub – it was a shot bar called Chupitos Espit, and it exactly like the Chupitos I had visited with Gemma and Atze in Groningen. They did the same marshmallow toasting shot, which was called the ‘Boy Scout’, the blazing and sparkling Harry Potter shots too. Rich picked out one for us to try, which was some sweet multicoloured shot that we drank through a straw. Then it was my turn – in my defence, the list of shots doesn’t detail their ingredients, only the name and the price. In retrospect, I don’t know how I could have expected anything else when I ordered two drinks by the name of ‘Hot Shot’, but Rich and I exchanged looks of horror when the bartender poured two shots of vodka and then topped each of them off with a hearty dose of Tabasco sauce.

The bar around us was packed with other tourists, and most of them looked just as horrified as the two of us, but in the end we just had to suck it up and down them. It tasted awful – why anyone would knowingly order such a drink I will never be able to fathom – and it was also very spicy. Even Rich, a Thai girl who absolutely loves her spicy food, was pretty disgusted by it. We had only planned to have two shots each, but after that disaster I quickly ordered a couple of Boy Scouts.
“I need something, anything, to get that taste out of my mouth”, I shouted over the thumping music as we roasted our marshmallows over our flaming section of the bar. I burnt my tongue shoving it into my mouth after the shot, but at least the sweetness was enough to overpower the Tabasco sauce that had been lingering on my pallet. There were a bunch of English guys and girls around us who were all getting Boy Scouts, so almost half the bar top was ablaze and we all clinked glasses as we threw back the shots.

After that Rich and I left at bar to head to another nightclub at Plaça Rieal called Jamboree. By Spanish standards it was still pretty early, but Rich had got us put on a guest list that meant we had to be at the bar by midnight if we wanted to get free entry. Loathing cover charges as much as I do, I decided it was a preferable option. As expected, it the club was pretty dead when we arrived, so I got a beer and Rich and I wandered around and explored the space. There was an upstairs room that was playing 90s music and current pop hits, while the lower floor played more urban and RnB tunes. We sat down for a little while and I had a few more drinks as crowds of people trickled into the place. Rich had some other friends who would be coming later, but eventually we hit the dance floor and began to work up a sweat, sticking mostly to the RnB room. Rich has an awesome sense of style that earned her comparisons and descriptions such as an “Asian Rihanna”, and she filled those shoes well, so together we busted some moves on the still relatively sparse dance floor.

I thought back to a conversation I had had with Ralf in anticipation to my trip to Spain. “Barcelona is a little more classy, not like Berlin at all,” he had told me when I had been wondering, like a typical gay man, when I’d get a chance to wear some of the nicer clothes I’d brought along – sometimes I’d been dressing like a homeless person to get into places like Berghain. “You can get away with dressing up: collared shirts, that type of thing. Madrid is a little more casual and dressed down though.” Looking around me as the club filled up, I observed that Ralf’s assessment of Barcelona couldn’t have been more wrong about this particular place. Every second guy was wearing a singlet, and I was one of the few people who wasn’t wearing thongs, or some form of open-toed shoes. I wasn’t too drunk, so I started paying closer attention to the people around me. Between overhearing voices as I was jostled between the shoulders of others dancers, and the shouts and cries as multiple glasses were dropped and smashed on the dance floor, I made the horrific realisation that I was surrounded by other Australian tourists, all of whom who were already beyond wasted. I don’t have anything against Australians, but I can safely say I did not travel halfway around the world to dance in a Spanish club full of them, and my evenings with Ralf and my epiphany about the binge-drinking habits in my own culture were still very fresh in my mind. Combined with the fact I was in a straight bar – something I swore I was done with a long time ago – I quickly realised I had no desire to dance with any of the sweaty bodies around me, and they didn’t have much interest in me either.

At which point Rich’s friends arrived. It was getting late – by my non-Spaniard standards, at least – and I had had an extremely long day, so I took the opportunity to take my leave from the club. I had ceased having fun a while ago, and now I wouldn’t be leaving Rich by herself. I said goodbye and left, and on the lonely walk home I couldn’t help but feel extremely disappointed with my first experience of the nightlife in Barcelona.

***

The following day I did a little bit more research, determined to find my way to a gay bar and do the kind of partying I actually wanted to do. I’d had a blast hanging with Rich, but sometimes a gay has gotta do what a gay has gotta do. However, the evening started relatively early when Rich and I headed to a bar where the school she was studying at in Barcelona was hosting a social drinks event. I got a couple of free drinks because I was with Rich, and a few of the other people there were girls who I had met with Brendon and Rich in Bangkok, so we caught up and shared travel stories of how we all ended up in Barcelona. I also got chatting to a couple of other people, in particular a girl named Selma. She was from Morocco, but was studying here in Barcelona with Rich and the other girls. As I told Selma more about my travel plans, she got very excited when I mentioned I would soon be heading to Rome.
“Ahh, yes! I love Rome! Where are you staying?” When I confessed that I hadn’t gotten that far in my planning, she told me of the lengthy time she had spent in Rome, and that she might have some friends who could help me out. “But maybe if you like, I can give you some ideas of things to do, or an itinerary? There is so much to see and do in Rome, you need to plan it to make the most of it.” So we exchanged contact details, and I thanked her in advance for her help. As the event wrapped up, Rich and her friends were planning to head towards another bar down near the beach, but that was there that I parted ways with them in search for a gay venue.

I wasn’t particularly close, but I had so much time I decided to walk. Outside the historical centre Barcelona really feels like any other modern city. One thing that was strangely common was people selling beer on the street – guys with plastic bags with one or two six-packs, selling cans for €1 each. I remembered drinking on the streets was legal in Germany, but I also knew it was a law that differed country to country. Not that that has ever really stopped me – I mean, I drank on the street in Sydney all the time – but the whole thing just seemed slightly dodgy, and with Rich’s warning of crafty pickpockets ringing in my mind, I avoided eye contact with the beer vendors and passed them without so much as a nod of recognition. So after getting lost a few times in the twisting streets and admiring the illuminated city along the way, I finally arrived at Metro, what I had read to be one of the better gay bars that was open on weeknights.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

Some of the pretty sights in Barcelona that I stumbled across on my way to the club.

I could hear music coming from inside, but there weren’t a lot of people around. All the employees I could see were just standing around casually, like they weren’t even expecting anyone to be there. When I moved over the doorman, he gave me a strange look. “You can come in if you want, I guess… It won’t be busy ’til at least 2:30.” I checked my phone – it was only 12:40am. I sighed and headed back to the street. Maybe there was another bar I could have a drink or two at while I waited? But I had already reached the peak of my inebriation, and my stomach was telling me it was more interested in food than alcohol. As a sat down with a greasy burger in the diner around the corner, I reflected on this situation. It was like my night was playing out in the reverse order that it should have – a long, lonely walk through the street, a sobering meal of junk food, soon to be followed by drinking and dancing at the club. Or so I thought.

While I was eating my burger, I tapped into the free WiFi and checked the various apps on my phone, doing my best to kill some time. As I cycled through them all, I opened one of the gay “social networking” apps, thinking I might find some advice from locals about other places to have a drink or kill some time. I got chatting to a guy named Inti, and after some friendly banter and explaining my predicament, he told me he lived literally right across the from the diner I was in, and that if I wanted to I was welcome to stop by and hang out with him while I waited for Metro to pick up a little bit. The kindness of strangers had been working for me so far, and I didn’t really have anywhere else to go, so I took him up on the offer. Inti actually turned out to be a really nice guy, and he even had a couple of beers in the the fridge that he let me drink while I was waiting. I asked if he wanted to come to Metro with me, but he declined the offer, saying that he did have to go to work in the morning.
“I might have something else for you, though,” he said as he shuffled around and searched through some draws, looking inside pockets of clothes as though he had lost something important. “Aha! Here you go.” Inti handed me a couple of small squares of paper. “They’re passes for free entry into Metro.”
“Wow! Thank you so much!” The cover charge for the bar was €19, something I hadn’t been too keen to pay for a mere weeknight.
“I used to live right above Metro,” he said with a reminiscent smile. “Those things used to cover my apartment like confetti!”
We laughed and chatted more, but as 2:30am rolled around I realised that I was starting to fall asleep right there on Inti’s couch. There was no way I was going to last in that club. but I was dreading the idea of trudging all the way back home in my current state. In the end Inti let me stay at his place, so I gratefully collapsed as he went to bed and relinquished myself to my need for sleep. My second night out in Barcelona had again been not what I was expecting, and while it could be viewed as something of a failure, I ended up meeting a really nice guy and making another friend, so it wasn’t a complete waste. But the following night was my final night in Barcelona, and I was determined to party properly.

***

The next night I did everything right. I had a proper siesta. I ate dinner late. I consumed several beers at home and didn’t leave the apartment until after midnight. I still walked half an hour to the club, but I bought beers in the street and drank them along the way. I even had the entry voucher Inti had given me, but was told it didn’t give me free entry, but rather a discounted price from €19 to €10 and a drink voucher for once I was inside. That still seemed like a good deal to me though, so I passed through the front doors and down the stairs into the booming nightclub below.

The place was… I don’t want to say it was deserted, because it wasn’t, but it definitely did not meet my expectations. It was a Thursday, and everyone knows that for homosexuals and the unemployed, the weekend always starts on a Thursday night. But this night in Metro was looking like some kind of messy, underpopulated soirée. I was given a Bingo game card for the game of gay Bingo that supposed to be happening. It wasn’t, and there was no indication from the staff that it would be happening in the near future. I discarded the Bingo card as I claimed my free drink, and stood inconspicuously on the edge of the bar and watched less than a dozen people awkwardly dance around the open spaces of the place that constituted as the dance floor. It would have been an awesome club had it been full, but right now it felt like a vibrant, colourful, yet empty dungeon.

So I sat back people-watched for a little while. The crowd was sparse and the pickings slim, but eventually I saw a group of people standing in a circle close by the bar, looking around with a similar mixture of nervousness and intrigue that I can only imagine that I was exhibiting too. Tired of standing by myself, and realising that the chances of anyone approaching me in such an underpopulated bar were quite low, I picked myself up, not without minor social anxiety, and took myself over to the group.
“Hey there, how’s it going?” I was hoping that I didn’t come across as awkward as I felt. “Just thought I’d come and introduce myself to the obvious tourist group.” A small joke to try and break the ice, but it was lost due to the noise that was emanating around us. One of the guys turned to look at me, and seemed slightly confused for a moment. I don’t think he had heard me the first time.
“Hi, I’m Robert”, I introduced myself.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Fausto.” He had an American accent, so I knew I had been right in spotting the tourists. He introduced me to his friends, two German guys named Holger and Malte. As it turned out, the other two people with them – a Hungarian man and a Korean woman – were people they had only just met, and as I chatted to the three friends, the two of them both dissipated into the sad excuse of a crowd. Even so, I didn’t see them again for the rest of the night.

Fausto and the two Germans were great guys, and I had a great time chatting with them, but here was some underlying awkwardness on my end of the interaction. I was just trying to be nice, chatting to the guys so I wasn’t standing by myself, but I think some of them – if not all of them, had mistaken it as flirting with them. There were a few subtle, tactile moments, but for the most part I kept my distance with all three – I didn’t want to be losing any friends as soon as I made them. But unfortunately, the crowd never really picked up, and the night at Metro began dying too soon after it had kicked off.

“We’re gonna go now,” Fausto told me, “but you should totally come over and hang out with us at our hotel tomorrow. We’re gonna go down to the pool and relax, it should be really nice.” I had to leave the next day, but my train out of Barcelona wasn’t until the afternoon. I told Fausto I’d have to figure out the logistics and get back to him, so we exchanged numbers, and shortly afterwards I said goodbye to my three new friends as they left the club. I hung around a little longer and spoke to a couple of people – an Italian guy who was spacing out on some kind of substance and, of course, an Australian guy from Melbourne – but no one really engaging, so I picked myself up and left not long after Fausto, Holger and Malte had departed. I stumbled home as dawn broke over the city, glad that I’d eventually made a few friends, but not without the overall feeling that I had been seriously disappointed with the nightlife Barcelona had to offer.

***

In retrospect, there are a few things to take into account. Firstly, it was gay pride in Barcelona the weekend before – the same time I was in Paris – so it was quite possible the gay scene had gone into an extended siesta for the week following their major party season. I was also only in Barcelona for weeknights, which can be hit and miss at best. Finally, I later learned that there had a been a series of violent raids on the gay bars in Barcelona before I had arrived, during the weekend of, and the week leading up to, pride. I can’t say for sure, but that may have had something to do with the turnout at the club, and the lack of locals that I met while I was in Barcelona. I can’t say I was impressed with the nightlife in Barcelona, but I would definitely consider returning one day to give it another chance.

Bonjour: First Impressions of Paris

I stepped off the train in Brussels, counting my blessings that my train hadn’t been caught up with a bunch of strikes that had been happening throughout some of the train companies in Europe. I had plenty of time before boarding my connection train to Paris, so I left the station in search of a place to eat lunch. I hadn’t done too much research about Belgium, with the reality being I would be spending approximately two hours in the country, but I knew that it had quite a reputation for its beer, so I had expected a similar beer-centric culture to that of Germany, or even the Netherlands. I’d told myself I’d have one last hearty meal of brew and sausages before moving on to the finer delicacies that French cuisine would have to offer. So you can imagine my… not disappointment, but confusion when, after browsing a couple of restaurants in the area around the station, found myself eating a pasta dish, drinking red wine and being served by a waiter with a distinct French accent. It hadn’t been what I was anticipating, but in retrospect it made complete sense: Belgium is a tiny country wedged primarily in between the Netherlands and France – the customs and culture was obviously going to get a lot more French in the southern end of the country, the closer I came to Paris. Perhaps it was something I should have already known, but in all honesty, there’s something far more fascinating about making those kind of discoveries first hand.

***

I guess the first thing I really learnt about the culture in France is that nobody is in a great deal of hurry to get anywhere or do anything. Brussels had been the starting point of my trains journey – it hadn’t been late coming in from anywhere else, yet the French train company still managed to be delayed by about 15 minutes, with no real explanation offered to the passengers. Luckily it was a high speed train, and we arrived in Paris a little over an hour after we finally got going. But before I went rushing off into the city, I had some more planning and administration to take care of. While I had been sipping on my wine in Brussels, I had also been speaking to Gemma back in Groningen, filling her in in on my time in Berlin, telling her all the stories, and explaining the circumstances in which I had left and the situation I was in now. She helped me come up with a more realistic rough plan for my route around Europe, and agreed I needed to be a little more proactive when it came to moving on from each destination. So while the plan was still essentially free and flexible, I decided to book my train out of Paris as soon as I got there – being one of the most visited cities in the world, transport to and from the City of Lights was almost always sold out well in advance. So I lined up in the dedicated line for Eurail Pass holders… where I waited for over an hour. There were only two serving windows open, one of which closed while I was still waiting. The entirety of the staff seemed completely nonchalant and blasé about the growing line and mounting frustration that was becoming extremely visible among the crowd. No points for customer service there. The line continued to grow longer and longer behind me, and at the rate it was moving I was starting to fear I wouldn’t even make it to the front of the line before opening hours ended, and would have the shutters to the serving windows slammed shut in my face instead.

But I did make it there in the end, though once I did I made another unfortunate discovery – the train departing Paris on the night I had intended to leave was completely booked out.
“There’s nothing you can do? Nothing at all?” I practically begged the woman sitting behind the perspex window. I had been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts in Paris and, not wanting a repeat of my experience in Hamburg, had booked a hostel for three nights. That was the only affordable accommodation I had been able to find, and there hadn’t even been any room beyond those three nights. I’d been planning to get the overnight train to Barcelona, but if I couldn’t leave on that evening I would be stranded for a night in Paris.
“No, I’m sorry, there are no seats available for Eurail pass holders.” She did sound genuinely sorry, but it was still frustrating.
“Okay, well… How about the next night?” I had to book something, or Paris would end up being the city that I’d truly never escape from.
She tapped away at her computer before answering. “There are places available, but…” I held my breath. “There are no sleeper beds available. The best I can offer you is the reclining seat carriage.” That was, unless I wanted to fork out for a first class ticket, she had added – you’d think these kinds of people would have a better idea of how backpacking works, right?
Once again it wasn’t an ideal option, but it was as good as it was going to get. I still had the three nights in the hostel to figure out a plan for the final night, so I made the reservation for the overnight train before trudging off to navigate the metro system, trying to not let my frustrating first impressions of Paris ruin my mood.

***

With a new city comes the excitement of getting to discover a new local public transport system. For all the negative things I’d heard about how confusing and complicated the Paris metro system was, I actually thought it was brilliant, although maybe after so many cities I just found it much easier to learn and adapt. Or maybe every other city in the world has a system that is still more impressive than Sydney’s. Whatever, we all know I have a thing for public transport. For the Parisian metro, as long as you had a map tell you where your required interchanges were, it was extremely easy to traverse the city. There are over a dozen lines that can take you almost anywhere, which is very important because not only is Paris a huge city, it’s also quite spread out, with many of the famous and popular attractions being on opposite sides of the city, no where near each other. Unlike the U- and S-Bahn in Berlin, tickets were required to even enter the stations, but they were also quite inexpensive compared to anything I had paid in Berlin, and you had the option to buy in bulk to save a couple of euros. While my experience with Parisians had been an abundance of lateness and inefficiency so far, the metro was the one exception. I suppose it’s hard to be late when it doesn’t actually run to specific schedule, as far as I know, but the trains came frequently enough.

Coming from Sydney, a city that was created through urban sprawl and expansion from a central city, it’s always interesting to see maps of many European cities, such as Paris, and notice how well-planned they appear in comparison. Paris is divided into twenty districts, with District 1 starting in the centre, and the numbers of each subsequent district progressing in a clockwise spiral shape. I hadn’t realised this when booking my accommodation, and thus found myself on my way to the 20th District, the eastern-most district that reached the edge of the official city limits of Paris. However, such is the efficiency of the Paris metro that it only took me about 20 minutes to reach my station from Gare du Nord, the major train station in the city’s north. Once I got to the hostel, I settled in and freshened up before heading out to explore Paris. While I may have entertained my romantic ideals about the French capital, I’d heard very few first hand accounts of the city from people I knew, so I was interested to see what kind of nightlife dwelled in the City of Lights.