Tucking In, Nights Out, Bottoms Up and Going Down: Eating and Drinking in Austin

Life threw something of a curveball at me during my first few days in Austin. I was only supposed to be staying with Aaron for 3 days, as he was actually flying to New Orleans on the Sunday to visit his father, which worked out perfectly because that happened to be the day I was supposed to meet Alyssa. Alyssa was a distant cousin, just a year older than me and related through some connection on my fathers side that my aunty has relayed to me a dozen times yet I can still never seem to remember. She lived in Oklahoma, and as we’d kept in touch as my time in the states grew nearer and nearer, we had made plans to meet up, although she had suggested meeting in Austin when I was there, rather than coming up out of my way to visit her in her own state. However, on Friday afternoon, as Aaron and I were nursing hangovers and eating food from one of the food trucks around the corner from his house, I got a message from Alyssa telling me her father had gone into hospital and that she wouldn’t be able to make it to Austin. Her family offered to pay for a bus ticket to Oklahoma or for accommodation in Austin without Alyssa, whichever I preferred. It was a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to meeting my long lost cousin for quite some time now, and it was awful news about her father (although in the end he was okay), but I knew a detour north rather than my planned journey west would be a time consuming endeavour that would throw off a lot of other plans.

When going over the dilemma with Aaron, he had an idea that seemed the most practical, although it was one I could never have asked for without him offering.
“Well, if need a place to stay after Sunday, I’m happy to let you stay here while I’m in New Orleans. Saves me having to leave Sergio in a kennel while I’m gone, too.” In the end, Aaron’s trip to New Orleans got cancelled, so I ended up staying with him the full week that I was in Austin. But the fact that that scenario even happened was yet another amazing example of the kind and generous things that people you hardly even know sometimes do for you. I know I gush about that kind of thing a lot, but honestly, it’s a pretty heart-warming experience that ultimately changes the way you see the world.

***

Since I’d won $150 in the strip-off in my first night in Austin, Aaron seemed determined to make the most of a Couchsurfer who liked to drink and party as much as I did. A couple of nights we split bottles of wine over take-away pizza and just chatted about our lives, sharing what turned out to be a lot of deep and personal stories and forming what turned into a pretty strong and natural friendship. Aaron also took me to a few of his other favourite watering holes around the city, drinking beers and whiskey, and meeting some of his friends to sample a seemingly endless array of alcoholic drinks that contained tomato juice.

An easy decision.

An easy decision.

This drink was a

This drink was a “margarita meets Bloody Mary” concoction that was… interesting. I don’t remember it’s name though, so you know it’s good!

I also got to sample some great food in Austin, mostly from the various food trucks that dominate the town. They’re all actual trucks, so technically they can move around, but I’m starting to doubt that most of them ever do, considering the great business they seemed to be doing when they were parked on random stretched of grasses in the middle of the suburbs. I had the most amazing pulled pork with a side of slaw, but unfortunately the only photo I thought to take was of the bee that dived into my Mexican Coke and almost tried to kill me.

:(

😦

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Benches and tables set up around the food trucks, which makes me fairly certain these trucks hardly ever actually drove anywhere.

Though I have to admit, probably the favourite piece of food that I ate during my week in Austin – and it pains me to say it because I honestly though it would be disgusting, but it was actually amazing – was chocolate-covered bacon.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

Trust me, it tastes SO much better than it looks.

I think the thing that was most noticeable was how much the local foods changed in between short geographic distances. The general cuisine was so different in Austin compared to the flavours of New Orleans, but I imagine that most people who had never been through the area would assume that “The South” is just a culturally homogenous space of land, or at least never expect it to be so diverse in that sense.

There was one meal I did have that was particularly memorable, but not because of the food. I had still been keeping in touch with all the friends I’d made along my journey, including Matt from Dublin, who I wish I could call a leprechaun but he’s just too damn tall. Anyway, upon hearing that I was in Austin, Matt asked me if I knew of a restaurant called Moonshine Grill, and if it was near to where I was staying. I asked Aaron, and he said it wasn’t far, just in closer to the centre of town. Matt then asked me what I was doing on Monday for lunch, and I said I didn’t have any plans, and he tells me I do now. On Monday lunchtime while Aaron was at work, I head over Moonshine Grill and make myself known to the hostess. They’ve been expecting me, and promptly take me to a reserved table, but there was no one else there. I sat down and shortly afterward a waitress came over with a cocktail. I must have looked pretty confused, because she smiled as she explained. “I believe your order has already been taken care of,” she said as she placed the drink in front of me, “but let us know if there’s anything else we can do for you.” I drank my cocktail and ate a delicious burger, and at the end of it all I found the bill had already been paid in advance, including tip.

Matt eventually confessed his motives to me later. “Ah, you’re a very special lad, ya know?” he told me in a brief international phone call. “And despite all the nights we spent on the town drinking ourselves mad and stupid, I never got the chance to buy you dinner. Or lunch, or anything. I know it’s probably not the same when I’m not there, but I figure it’s the next best thing.” However unconventional it might have been, it was extremely sweet, and by now I was plenty used to eating in restaurants alone that it hadn’t bothered me in the slightest. Although I assured him it would have been much better had he been there. Just another way that the amazing people you meet on your travels are able to surprise and inspire you.

***

There was a lot of eating and drinking going on during my time in Austin, but the Saturday night definitely takes the cake, for better or for worse. Actually, I honestly can’t remember if this all happened in one night, or if there were several more booze benders, but there were a handful of bars that provided somewhat memorable experiences.

The first venue we kicked the night off in was Barbarella, although I think on that particular evening it had joined forces with a neighbouring venue to throw a huge dance party, complete with an outdoor beer garden. Despite how cold it was, we spent a fair bit of time outside since Aaron was a smoker, and I chatted to a lot of people who seemed genuinely shocked to be meeting an Australian – though a handful of them attempted to impress me with their knowledge of the names of Sydney beaches (Cronulla’s reputation from the events in 2005 has travelled further than I’d like to believe). Barbarella also distinctly stands out in my mind because none of the toilet cubicles had doors. That was very weird, and not in an alternative or arty kind of way, but in a way that made me think they’d had one too many drug problems in the toilets so they’d solved the issue by just ripping the doors off. The music was good but the party wasn’t too lively so eventually Aaron and I headed back over to the warehouse district, 4th Street, and Oilcan Harry’s. We had more strong drinks from some bartender that Aaron knew, but after a while we moved nextdoor, to a nightclub named Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

Aaron and I at Rain.

The place was huge, with a long bar and a long dance floor that stretched down the entire length of the venue, and the floor had lights underneath it that gave the place a deep, colourful ambience. The place was packed too, so we jumped on the dance floor and mingled with the locals. I had half a conversation with a ridiculously good-looking cowboy – half, because I don’t think I could form words probably when I was staring into his dreamy eyes – and even ending up kissing a different boy on the dance floor. And Aaron and I continued to drink, and this is where things started to go wrong. Aaron had left his credit card at home, and at some point early on in the evening he’d run out of cash. Considering I’d just won $150 a few nights prior, I was happy to buy the drinks, and he offered to pay me back later. Now, I know that I can drink a lot and handle my alcohol pretty well, but I also know when I’ve had enough. And it got to the point in the night where I was fairly sure I had had enough. Aaron wanted another drink though. Okay, no worries, I could buy him another drink. But he wouldn’t let me not have another drink with him, so that’s how I came to be in possession of the final whiskey and Coke that would be my undoing.

We danced. We drank. We partied together. We partied with other people. I kissed that other boy. I was having a good time. Aaron decided he was going to go home, and said I was welcome to share a cab with him or stay with the boy. I decided to stay with the boy. Aaron left. I danced with the boy more. But I was very, very drunk. So I ended up losing the boy, and was dancing on my own.

The room started spinning, and I wasn’t feeling so well, so I made my way to the bathroom. At that point I really just needed to pee, but I was so unsteady on my feet that I took the opportunity to sit down as well, so I went into a cubicle – luckily these ones had doors. I sat there with my head in my hands, trying to stop the world from spinning. Before I even knew it was happening, and before I had a chance to turn around and lean over the toilet bowl, I threw up. Into my underwear – which were still around my ankles – and all over the exposed insides of my jeans. Needless to say, I was mortified, although probably not as much as I should have been because I was just so horribly wasted to comprehend the whole scenario properly. I attempted to wipe myself clean with toilet paper, but it was a futile task, and I still felt hideous. There was someone knocking on the door. A security guard, I think.
“Are you okay?”
“Yes. Just… just give me a minute,” I call back, trying not to slur my words as I figure out what the hell I am going to do. The stalls starts rocking slightly, and I see a face peer over the edge of the cubicle beside me. Maybe they though I was overdoing on drugs or something. Had something like this already happened at Barbarella? Is that why their cubicles don’t have doors?
“What’s happening? Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, just…can you just… give me a goddamn minute?!”

In the end, I realised there was nothing else I could do except pull on my vomit-streaked underwear, buckle my belt, and walk out of that club. Or you know, stumble, whatever. Despite not having a single friend there to help me through it, I think it was made better by the fact that I was in a city where I knew absolutely no one, and would never see any of these people again. In fact, no one I knew would ever have to know that this had ever happened, except for the fact I am all about frank honesty and am, for some reason, repeating it here right now. So I opened the cubicle door, and immediately the security guard ushered me out of the bathroom. For a brief moment I thought he was going to give me some water, or take care of me or something, but he merely ushered me to the front of the club, helped me out onto the street, and then left to go back inside without saying a single word to me. Luckily it was quite late and there weren’t too many people outside, so my temporary shame was limited. I feel awful for the taxi driver who took me home, although she was very light-hearted about it and said she didn’t mind, although I’m sure I smelt absolutely vile and she was probably gagging for half the trip.

Aaron was still awake when I got home. My cheap Primark shoes were covered in vomit, so I didn’t even bother salvaging them and instead threw them straight in the trash outside. Not a word was spoken when I walked into Aaron’s bedroom. We just had this sole moment of eye contact and understanding before I continued through into the bathroom and stepped into the shower fully clothed, and spent the next half hour cleaning myself, and getting as much of the stench of vomit out of my clothes as I could. And as embarrassing as the whole ordeal was, and as stupid and disgusting as I felt, it probably wasn’t even the worst thing to happen to me on my travels, so I couldn’t help but laugh at myself as I sat there in the shower, scrubbing at the denim. And even as I write it now I can’t help but smirk a little, because as awful a memory as it is, it still makes for a thoroughly amusing story.

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The Kindness of Strangers: Part 2

Often when I reflect on my travels I find myself becoming rather overwhelmed when I remember all the random acts of kindness that I experienced from almost complete strangers. Being a backpacker and travelling the world can be an amazing and fulfilling journey, but anyone who’s done it will tell you that it isn’t always easy. You find yourself in some pretty desperate situations, preparing yourself for the worst, when out of nowhere these people descend like guardian angels to remind you that it’s not as bad as it seems, and often offer a helping hand or a shoulder to lean on. I’ve already written specifically about this idea before, about the somewhat surprising friendliness and hospitality I received in Russia, and whether it’s been through Couchsurfing, friends of friends, or quite literally strangers on the street, some of my most memorable experiences have been when someone who barely knew me decided to take a chance on me, completely out of the goodness of their heart. But there’s one story in particular that seems almost too good to be true that I often have to remind myself that it wasn’t actually a dream…

***

After a week of fun, exploring Rio and hanging out with Tom, the morning that my bus was due to depart back to São Paulo finally arrived. It was just past dawn when I had to get up, but Tom even got up as well and made a bit of breakfast and called me a taxi. I have to admit, I got a little emotional when he accompanied me down to the street to say goodbye – we’d become pretty close during my short stay. I had stayed with a lot of Couchsurfing hosts so far, and I’d gotten on really well with every single one of them, but often our friendships were formed around learning about each others cultures, languages and customs. But I think Tom and I had more in common than any of my previous hosts, and our friendship formed so easily and naturally, although it was based on some weird, distant familiarity rather than any kind of cultural discovery. I was definitely sad to be leaving, and I gave him a big hug before climbing into the taxi, and wishing him all the best for his remaining time in Brazil. He wished me well on my travels, and waved until the taxi had disappeared around the corner.

I’d gone with the taxi option for getting to the bus stop because there was very little traffic at that time of day, and so I made it there quite quickly and it was relatively cheap. I was grateful that I had sorted out the issues with my ticket the afternoon that I had arrived in Rio, so it was smooth sailing from there and onto the bus. It was even more empty than the bus from São Paulo had been, and the WIFI was even working this time, so I slept a little bit and otherwise kept myself amused for the six hour bus ride. When I finally made it back to São Paulo, I tried to get in touch with Fausto. When I had been booking my bus tickets to and from Rio, he had suggested that I arrive back in São Paulo with plenty of time before my flight, and offered for me to swing by his apartment to have a shower, freshen up, and have some dinner before getting another taxi to the airport. However, I hadn’t been in touch with him since the morning I left São Paulo just under a week ago, and I hadn’t even ended up meeting him or any of his friends while I had been in Rio. I had exchanged a few text messages with one of his friends, but in the end the plans hadn’t matched up very well, so I’d spent my time hanging out with Tom.

At first I had tried to send a message through the internet with iMessage. I wasn’t sure if it had worked or not, so I sent a regular text message saying hello, and asking if he had received the earlier text.
Shortly afterwards I got a reply: “Did not get any messages.”
“Oh, okay. Was just letting you know I’m back in São Paulo 🙂 ”
“I never heard back from you. Thought you were already gone. Safe trip.”
“Oh my plane is tonight. I just got back with plenty of time to get to the airport, like you suggested.”
“Hope u had fun in Rio.”

I stared at that final message, a clear allusion to the fact I was not going to be seeing him again before I left Brazil. A combination of anger, frustration and nervousness began brewing inside me. It’s easy to play the blame game – we hadn’t contacted each other while I’d been away, and I had assumed that our previous plans had still been in order, while clearly he hadn’t. Maybe he was mad that I hadn’t met him or his friends while I was in Rio? Maybe he had legitimately forgotten and was just too busy to have me come over for those last few hours? Maybe I was reading too much into it, but his messages didn’t seem to indicate I was at all welcome, so I found myself facing the prospect of another nine hours in this city with nowhere to go, no one to call, and speaking practically none of the native language. I think it was the first time in the entire two weeks that I had spent in Brazil where I actually felt scared.

I could have headed straight to the airport, but it was just after 4pm, and my flight was scheduled to leave at 1am. There had to be better ways to spend my last hours in Brazil than sitting on the floor in the airport terminal, so after catching a bus further into the city I wandered around until I found something – anything – familiar. And that’s how I found myself in a Subway restaurant, desperately begging the employee for the WIFI password on the condition that I bought a sandwich. I must have looked as desperate as I felt, because he looked overcome with sympathy and gave it to me, despite it not being their usual policy. I thanked him profusely, and began scouring the web on my iPad while eating my food.

What I wanted more than anything was a shower, or some way of freshening up and maybe putting on a clean outfit before boarding the plane. I’d already done a lot of travelling that morning, so I wasn’t feeling particularly great, and I still had a long slight ahead of me. A quick search of the airport at Guarulhos told me that it was absolutely awful and had no such amenities I’d be able to use, so I searched for anywhere where I might be able to use a shower. There were a few beauty salons and health spas, some of which might have had showers but none that explicitly said so – as far as I could tell and translate –  and none that were close enough that I would be able to get there before they closed for the day. There were pools and gyms, but anything like that required some kind of membership, and I wasn’t about to sign up to a Brazilian gym just for a shower.

In the end I realised there was one place where I knew I would be welcome that would definitely have a shower  – a gay sauna. As fate would have it, there was one that wasn’t even too far away – relatively, for São Paulo – and as the battery of my iPad was quickly depleting, it was coming to crunch time and I had to make a decision. I’d been writing down a bunch of addresses on some scrap paper, but in the end I left the Subway, found a taxi, and showed him the address for the sauna. It was about 15 minutes away, and when I arrived I was still feeling that bitter combination of frustration and nervousness. The place didn’t look like a sauna at all – it was a big, spooky looking house with lots of lush greenery in the front garden, tall fences, and a path that presumably led to a front door which was concealed by the vegetation. I followed it through the garden and arrived at the building, and I had to ring a doorbell and be buzzed in. I didn’t need to say anything, but I imagine there was some kind of camera, what with everything I had seen in Brazil about security measures so far. Once I was inside, it definitely felt a lot more like a sauna. There was a pretty sleazy vibe in the place, and there were a couple of guys sitting around the main entry room, talking quietly or gathering their things to leave.  I tried to talk to the guy who was sitting at the payment office, but he didn’t speak much English.

One of the guys in the room noticed I was struggling, and came over to help translate and assist. He was tall, and seemed to be a little drunk, but he was quite friendly.
“Your… your bag? What are you going to do with it?” He was referring to my huge backpack strapped to my shoulders, containing most of my worldly possessions.
“I just… I wanted…” I was already regretting my decision to come here – clearly it wasn’t working out. “Don’t they have lockers?”
“Well, yes,” the tall guy said, “but not that big. And you can’t leave it here… No, I wouldn’t leave it. It’s not safe here. Are you… are you okay?”
I sighed, realising how pointless this endeavour had been. “Yeah, I’m fine. Just looking for a place to freshen up.” I turned around, marched out of there, and plonked myself down on the gutter, completely out of ideas. After about five minutes, the tall guy came up the path and out of the greenery, and noticed me sitting by myself.

“Hi… You know, if you’re looking for a place to stay, there are a few cheap hotels up the road. I could help you check into one, if you like?” I ended up explaining my entire situation to him, and he listened carefully.
“Well, I don’t know, exactly. But you shouldn’t stay here. Do you want to try one of the hotels?” At this point I was just grateful for some company, so I agreed to at least walk with him on his way home. His name was Rafael, and he asked me some more curious questions about myself, so I told him all about my travels.
“Wow, an Australian,” he said with a gentle smile, “so far from home! Anyway, I mean, I would offer for you to come spend a few hours at my place, but, I don’t think my boyfriend would like that.” He giggled a little and smiled, and even though it didn’t really solve anything, I couldn’t help but smile back, and I guess that made me feel a little happier.

“Now, lots of these places would try to rip you off if you didn’t speak Portuguese. But I will help you and make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Oh, wow, okay. Thank you so much.” It just seemed so surreal how quickly my circumstances had changed.
“It’s no problem. When I was younger, I was living in England. I met so many lovely people, and they were always so nice and generous to me. Now, when I meet a traveller in my home country, I want to help those people in the same way other people helped me.” It was such a kind and simple adherence to the ‘pay it forward’ mentality that it actually made my heart swell just a little bit. I’d been so scared of running into less than favourable strangers in Brazil, yet here I was wandering down the street with a man who seemed to be the epitome of selfless kindness.

Unfortunately, the first two hotels that Rafael tried to check me into were completely full.
“You know, thank you so much, but you really don’t have to do this,” I said as we left the second one. “I’d only be around for a few hours anyway, it’s probably not even worth it.” But he dismissed my concerns, insisting that there was another hotel nearby that would definitely have some room. I shrugged and followed him, not really having any other bright ideas of my own. This third place was a little nicer looking that the previous two, and after talking to the receptionist for a couple of minutes, Rafael turned to me with a grin and signalled me with a thumbs up. However, when I’d reached into my wallet to sort out the last of my real, he shook his head and shooed my money away.
“Please, no, this is on me. I know what it’s like to be in your shoes.”

I was totally shocked. This man who I had met no more than half an hour ago was willing to fully pay for a hotel room that he knew I was only going to spend a few hours showering and possibly sleeping in. I know in a lot of other ‘stranger danger’ situations that that would seem incredibly creepy, but there was nothing sleazy or suspicious about Rafael at all. He finalised the booking, explained my situation to the staff and said that I would be leaving again that evening, and than accompanied me up to the room to make sure everything was as it should be. It was a small, simple room with two single beds, a small desk and a bathroom, but it was all that I needed. Rafael wrote down his phone number, and told me to call him if I had any other problems while I was in Berlin.
“I just… thank you so much,” I said to him as I gave him a hug goodbye. “This is so generous of you, I wish there was some way I could repay you.”
“You just have to pay it forward,” he said with a smile. “You sounded like you were having a terrible afternoon. I would hate that to be your final, lasting impression of my country.”
“Well, you’ve completely turned it around with this!” I said with a smile. “If you’re ever in Australia, I’ll be sure to make it up to you.”

And with that we said our goodbyes, and I showered, packed and even had time to squeeze in a quick nap. Eventually the time came for me to head to the airport, and I managed to take a photo of the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge, possibly one of the more recognisable sites of São Paulo. It had been shrouded in fog on the morning of my arrival, but tonight it was lighting up the night.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

Passing the Octávio Frias de Oliveira Bridge.

***

The rest of my night at the airport went by smoothly. I checked my bags, ate some food, did some duty free shopping with my remaining cash and then just enjoyed the serenity of an empty airport, with short queues and very little noise. But the whole time I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face due to the whole completely unexpected act of kindness that Rafael had done for me. Something that like can really restore your faith in humanity, and I really wonder if he knows just how much he completely turned around my bad day. And I think the most beautiful thing about those random acts of kindness, helping out strangers in need, is that when they do deeply affect someone, they don’t just stop there. Because I do believe that a person is more likely to pass that kindness on, pay it forward, and contribute to someone else’s life by doing something that could mean so little to them, but mean the world to that someone else. I know it’s definitely changed my perspective on the world. The world can be a scary and terrible place, but if you give it a chance, there is an abundance of kindness just waiting to be unleashed upon you and make it all worthwhile.

Welcomed With Wasps

My train arrived in Helsinki precisely on time at six o’clock, although the sun outside felt as though it should only be about three in the afternoon. I disembarked and made way to the end of the platform where I found Susanna waiting for me. Although we’d never actually met, I guess you could say Susanna was technically a family friend. Her mother is a close friend of one of my aunts, and when I had been telling her about my travel plans and mentioned that I was thinking of going through Scandinavia, she has suggested that I get into contact with her daughter Susanna. She’d Susanna might be able to offer me a place to stay or at the very least show me around Helsinki, the capital city of Finland. Susanna herself was from Canberra, living and working in Helsinki, so even though it was our first time meeting we seemed to have a bit of common ground, and we got on quite well.

Helsinki Station.

Helsinki Station.

We got one of the local trains back to her apartment, which was only five or ten minutes away from the city, and as we walked from the station she explained the public transport system a little bit more, and told me which trains to back to the city. She also explained a few of the other little quirks about the Finnish systems and culture: the tickets were available on trains, but the people who sell them aren’t the people who check for them; beer is available in the supermarkets but only until 9pm, and everything else is sold at shops appropriately called ‘Alcos’; most people diligently obey road rules, including pedestrians – you won’t see any jaywalking from a local in Helsinki; access to free Internet is officially a human right in Finland, and there is free wifi basically everywhere. It was interesting how different things were from Russia – particularly the alcohol availability – when the geographical distance was so small, but that was one of the beautiful things I was soon to discover about Europe. You can travel a matter of hours between countries, or even just within cities, and there is such a rich and unique cultural diversity that just isn’t as prevalent or profound as it is in “multicultural Australia”.

When we arrived at her place, Susanna gave me a quick tour of the building, showing me the laundry room where I could do a much needed load on washing, and the sauna where she had a weekly reservation every Friday evening. She gave me a detailed briefing, to the point where I could essentially be left to my own devices, though it was only at that point that I realised that was exactly what she was doing. She clarified by saying that she had work the following day, a Friday, and then an all day hens party on Saturday, and that she was going to leave me the keys to her place and stay with a friend for a few days. I was a little shocked, and again felt a surge of gratitude towards someone who I hardly knew, yet was going out of her way so far as to give me her apartment for the next two nights. It was a small studio, so realistically it would have been a bit of a squeeze for the two of us, but she assured me that it was no problem for her. She’d mentioned a few times that she had done a bit of travelling herself, so I suppose she knew how much a few free nights of accommodation can mean to a budget backpacker. Furthermore, it would be nice to have my own room and some private space for the first time in weeks.

***

As I was unpacking my things, and Susanna was preparing to leave, I noticed a bug flying around in the kitchen. I moved a little closer to take a look… and then bolted to the other side of the apartment. It was a wasp.
“Ahh, Susanna? Is it normal to have a wasp in the apartment?”
“What? A wasp?” She’d been in the bathroom gathering some of her things, but now she stuck her head out into the main room. “Err, no. No, that’s not normal.” We watched the wasp buzz around, hoping it would fly out the window again. Instead, it circled around and flew to the top of the windowpane – where its nest was hanging from the curtain railing.
“Oh my God! Is that a wasps nest?” It was only the size of a golf ball, but there was no denying what it was it after we watched the wasp climb through the hole at the bottom. “It’s definitely new. They must have come in and made it today, because that was not there this morning.” Her reaction was a combination of disbelief and concern – but I had to drop a bombshell that could potentially add panic to the mix.
“Ah, just before anything else happens, I should probably mention that I’m allergic to wasp stings.”
“Shit, really? Like anaphylactic allergic?”
“Um, I don’t really know. I haven’t been stung in years, but I don’t have an epi-pen or anything.”

After a little while of deciding what we were going to do, the wasp emerged from the nest, and I had a mini panic attack and ran to the bathroom to hide in terror. But by some chance the wasp decided to fly out the window, and Susanna quickly jumped the close them all as soon as it left. We’d previously been deliberating whether or not we could knock it out the window with the broom, but we weren’t sure how many wasps were inside and were too concerned that it might miss, which would be even more of a disaster. We’d even googled “How to get rid of wasps nests” and watched some pretty unhelpful YouTube videos that only inspired more fear. But now, as we slammed the windows shut, the nest seemed lifeless. But it wasn’t a risk we were willing to take, and Susanna had no equipment suitable for removing wasp nests. We made a quick trip to the supermarket to see if we could find some kind of pesticide or bug spray that might help, and on the way back we ran into some of her neighbours who were working in the communal garden.

“The wasps mostly live in the trees around here, like the ones just outside the apartment,” Susanna had reasoned, “so maybe some of them will have experience with getting rid of one.” She conveyed the problem to one of the older women, using a combination of English and Finnish, and it was almost a little amusing to watch the expressions on their faces change as the tale was told and retold in Finnish. Eventually one of the men offered to come up and have a look at the nest for us. When we got there, he simply plucked the small nest from the curtain railing and put it in a plastic bag. There mustn’t have been any more wasps inside, because that was the end of it – we thanked the man and he took the bag with the nest out with him. Later, I would find a wasp angrily buzzing at the closed window, so I made a point of opening none of them for the rest of the evening.

***

After that initial moment of excitement, I spent the rest of my evening – and in fact most of my time in Helsinki – just relaxing. I spent a bit of time in my evenings at Susanna’s sending requests and emails on Couchsurfing – Susanna was only able to offer me a place to stay for two nights, and I also didn’t have any contacts for the next few cities I would be visiting. I also used the sauna during the time when Susanna had her weekly reservation – she wasn’t going to be around and said that I was more than welcome to use it. Saunas are hugely popular in Finnish culture, and my experiences in Russia had reignited my love for their intense steamy heat. However, in Finland it’s customary to always be naked when inside the sauna, and is actually considered quite rude, and in some cases unhygienic, to wear swimwear whilst in a sauna. I don’t really have a problem with nudity in the first place, but since I had the sauna to myself I didn’t see any reason as to why I shouldn’t go naked.

During the day I ventured out into the city to do some exploring. I walked through some shops and ate at a few places, and it was quite startling to see how expensive things were. I’d been warned that Scandinavia in particular was quite expensive, but it was a culture shock that had progressively escalated, all the way from South-East Asia and right across the Trans-Siberian. Susanna had advised me of a lounas culture, a custom in which many places offer buffet style lunch menus that are about a third of the price of similar meals when ordered during the evening. Finding cheap places to eat at night could also be difficult, so Susanna encouraged me to make lunch the main meal of the day. I managed to find a few nice places though, and after all the rushing around with the Trans-Siberian tour, in the end I found one of the nicest things to do was lay in the park and enjoy the seemingly endless hours of sunshine. Even some of the locals agreed that it was one of the best things I could be doing, obviously smitten by their summer weather in the same way that the Russians were.

I was more than happy to sit back, soak up the sun, and access my human right to free wifi in the park. I had an email from my parents, who were also taking a short holiday through Europe, saying that the weather in Spain was cold and rainy. It seemed a little ironic, but I couldn’t suppress the sense of smugness that I felt when I replied to inform them that I was currently sunbathing, in Finland of all places.

The Kindness of Strangers

The first day of the rest of my adventure started with a hangover, of course. After dinner our tour group had hung around in the common room for a little while, exchanging emails and contact details and saying some final goodbyes, but most people had early transport booked for the morning and wanted to get a good night sleep. I, on the other hand, had absolutely no plans. So while the rest of my companions trailed off to bed, I found myself in the kitchen, where some of the other hostel guests – and few of the staff – were all drinking champagne and vodka, and celebrating the city’s birthday. I was welcomed into the fold with drunken, open arms, and while I don’t really recall any of their names, they were a lovely bunch of people. Then again, anyone who is handing out free champagne and vodka is a lovely person in my book.

So after everyone had left in the morning, I found myself sitting on my bed wondering what to do with the rest of my time in St Petersburg. The only person left was Don, who was also staying here for a few more days, but he had risen early to head to the Hermitage. I wandered out into the kitchen and bumped into Maria. She had ended up staying longer after having an accident on her first night here – her and Don had gone to see the a Russian ballet, and afterwards she had slipped on one of the wet steps outside the theatre and hit her head, giving her a concussion. She’d gone to the hospital and in the end everything was alright, but she had decided to stay stick around for a little longer and take some time to fully recover.

Over breakfast, I had a chat with her and another Australian girl named Beck, who was staying at the hostel too. Maria was meeting up with one of her friends that afternoon, and was going to be driving out to a place called Peterhof. I’d never heard of the place, let alone what was out there, so Maria explained that it was the site of an old Russian palace, and was actually in the next town over from St Petersburg near the Baltic Sea, and the grounds were full of beautiful fountains. When I confessed I had no plans for the day, Maria said that her friend would have room in her car if I wanted to join them. I’d grown to really like Maria – she came off as a little quirky, probably because she had more of a sense of humour than most Russians I’d met, but I kind of enjoyed that. She also loved to travel, so I always found we had a few common interests to chat about. Vlad had seemed like a nice guy, and had been a huge help in getting everyone to their transport out of St Petersburg, but despite all his efficiency I never really got to talk to him very much or get to know him like I had with Kostya, Oko or Snow.

So that afternoon Maria and I met with her friend Natalia, and we set off to the palace at Peterhof. The two women hadn’t seen each other in years since they’d met while holidaying in Thailand, so I let them catch up and chatter away in Russian while I sat in the back, alternating between catching up on my blog and sleeping off more of my hangover. It took about two hours to get there, so when we arrived I was actually feeling quite refreshed. We spent the afternoon walking around the garden and admiring the fountains. Natalia didn’t speak very much English, so Maria played translator as she explained some of the fountains and the buildings in the grounds. It was a nice and relaxing afternoon, and for the first time there wasn’t a real itinerary we had to follow, or a group to consult.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

In front of the main fountain in the Peterhof Palace grounds.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain - the Russians sure love their gold.

The impressive and slightly homoerotic fountain – the Russians sure love their gold.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea - of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Standing next to the Baltic Sea – of the Gulf of Finland, depending on who you ask, apparently.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

Another of the fountains in the grounds.

More fountains - I didn't take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

More fountains – I didn’t take note of any of their names, but they were all very beautiful.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

It was a beautiful afternoon in an even more beautiful place.

After we left the gardens, Maria said that Natalia had invited us to her home for dinner. I didn’t have plans of my own, so I accepted the offer and headed back to St Petersburg with them. At Natalia’s flat I was introduced to her son, a boy of fifteen named Arseny, who looked deceptively older than he was, much like the boys from Blue Oyster. He was learning English at school, and after chatting for a little while Maria suggested that maybe Arseny could show me around St Petersburg the next day. It was an opportunity for him to practice his English by hanging out with me, and I was always keen to be shown around cities by the locals who lived there. So we had dinner together – I chuckled to myself and thought of Marti when I noticed lots of dill in the meal – and made plans for Arseny to meet me at my hostel in the city the following day.

But before I left, Natalia had enquired as to how old I was. When I told her I was twenty one, there was a look of excitement in her eyes, and she went over to the fridge to pull out a bottle of clear liquid. Maria translated and explained that it was some kind of local, homemade alcoholic spirit, and poured me a shot of it. I downed it in a gulp – it tasted like vodka except much stronger. My face must have given me away, because Natalia gave a small giggle and said “Forty-five.”
“She means this alcohol is forty-five percent,” Maria explained with a smile. “Very strong.”
Indeed it was – I was beginning to learn that the Russians give us Australians a hard run for our money when it comes to drinking.

***

So I spent the next day sightseeing in St Petersburg, under the guidance of Arseny. We planned to start late – I had (correctly) preempted another boozy night and a consequential painful vodka hangover – but it was a gorgeous and sunny afternoon as we set off up Nevsky Prospekt. We walked along the street, and Arseny explained bits and pieces of history about the area and the city, to an extent that I found quite impressive for a fifteen-year-old boy. I don’t think that, at his age, I would have been able to take a tourist around Sydney and take them to all the popular tourist spots and explain the history behind them, as well as the city in general. We passed the four horsemen on the Anichkov Bridge that crosses over one of the canals, and walked through the city to St Isaacs Cathedral. There was a viewing platform around the domed roof of the church, providing a 360 degree panoramic views of the city, so Arseny and I climbed up the 200 odds steps in the stone spiral staircase to reach the top. From there he pointed out some of the other recognisable features in the city, but then he blurted out, “The view of St Petersburg from the air is not really as nice. I think maybe it is better seen from the street, or by boat.” I was a little taken aback by the brutal honesty – and wondered why he’d waited until after we’d climbed to the top to tell me this – but looking around, I could really see what he meant. There was no iconic cityscape like you might find in London or Paris, and there wasn’t the concrete jungle of skyscrapers that made places like Bangkok slightly enchanting in their own futuristic way when seen from above. From the top of the cathedral, St Petersburg looked like a jumble of buildings with the occasional landmark emerging from the seeming monotony. It really takes a stroll through the streets to truly admire the magical beauty of St Petersburg, and a few times I found myself wandering through the alleys during the perpetual dusk, admiring the older buildings and classic architecture in the smaller streets.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

View from St Isaacs Cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

The very stop of the stairs in the cathedral.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

One of the four horsemen on the bridge.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

The park Arseny and I walked through on our way home.

Arseny suggested going on a boat tour, but I had to confess that I’d already passed up the chance to do it once, and that I was so hungover I’d probably fall asleep if I sat on a boat for an hour. Instead we just decided to wander back to the hostel and stop at a small café for some lunch along the way, as well as passing the Church on the Blood of the Spilled Saviour so that I could get a picture. It was a beautiful sunny day, unlike the day that we had first arrived in St Petersburg, but ever since then we had been enjoying this glorious sunshine. There’s something about summer here in the northern hemisphere that just gets people very excited. Their winters are longer and colder, so when the warm weather hits they come out of some kind of hibernation and start to actually enjoy life again. We passed through a park on our way home, where I saw an efficient procession of workers all fixing up a stone and metal fence. “It happens every summer,” Arseny told me me. “Everything gets old and worn in the winter, so every summer things are restored, and improved.” Australian’s really do love their summers, with the beaches and the barbecues and the sun-tanned skin, but for the first time I began to think that while we love them, we don’t really appreciate them for what they are. And I could feel that from just seeing the European summer – stay for the winter, and I don’t think I would ever take the Australian sunshine for granted again.

***

I was glad that I’d decided to stay a few extra days in St Petersburg before heading off for the rest of my Eurotrip. I saw some nice sights, but it was also good for me to ease back into solo travelling while still having people like Maria around to give me some ideas and create a bit of direction. Moreover, I was also a little surprised at, but definitely grateful for, how nice some people can be to other people they’ve never even met, particularly travellers. It would be easy to write myself off as a jaded cynic after everything that happened with Charlie in Beijing, but my days in St Petersburg had restored a little bit of my faith in the kindness of strangers. Maria invited me along to Peterhof so I could see a part of Russia I otherwise never would have, Natalia invited me into her home and even cooked me a meal, and Arseny took almost an entire day out of his schedule to show me around the city and play personal tour guide. With the exception of a little practice speaking English with Arseny, each of them expected nothing in return. They were just a genuine bunch of lovely people who wanted me to feel welcome in Russia.

And they did. I boarded my train to Finland the following afternoon satisfied that I had seen some beautiful parts of Russia, pleased that I’d met and befriended some lovely people, and with a little more confidence in my abilities to continue this journey on my own. Though truth be told, I don’t think I’ll ever be alone. The world is full of these kind strangers, and sometimes a stranger is just a friend you haven’t met yet.