Swamps, Sorcery and Sin

So far most of my experiences in the US had been limited to either the glitz, glamour and bright lights of the big city, or the sightly more domestic lifestyle set against the backdrop of modest suburbia. As my journey progressed, my stay in New Orleans afforded me with my first of several upcoming opportunities to explore some of the great outdoors that America had to offer. While it may have seemed like a very touristic activity, and I’ll admit was probably partially fuelled by an obsession over True Blood, part of me knew that I just had to take a day trip out of the city and visit the swamps of Louisiana. Even Vincenzo agreed that it would be something worth seeing. In fact, he was adamant that I got out there and saw more of the surrounding area, and didn’t get hungover and bogged down in the real tourist trap that was Bourbon Street. I shopped around some of the visitor centres that were scattered around certain corners of the French Quarter, and eventually chose to go along on one of the day trips – with the climate that it has, New Orleans was by no means cold, but it was getting slightly cooler, and the thought of a swamp tour at night perhaps played a little too well into the nightmare fantasies spawned by my television viewing.

On the morning of my tour I rose relatively early, tiptoed my way around a still snoozing Vincenzo, and eventually set off to the tour pick up point. From the centre of the city, the swamplands were still a substantial drive out to the east, crossing the long bridge the stretched across Lake Pontchartrain, and eventually the urban sprawl faded out and gave way to the wetlands wilderness, a lot of which is located in protected national parks. The drive took the better part of an hour, and when we finally arrived at the tour company’s boat house, the bus full of people was divided into group and we were gathered up for our tours. The boat ride itself almost reminded me of a similar tour I had done in the Daintree Rainforests in the northern reaches of Queensland back in Australia, but instead of the chance to spot freshwater crocodiles, the swamps of Louisiana were home to alligators. It was really a matter of luck as to whether we spotted any today, our boat driver/tour guide had told us – it wasn’t peak season but it wasn’t the worst time for spotting gators.

At least the cats aren't afraid of the alligators.

At least the cats aren’t afraid of the alligators.

'Gator Country.

‘Gator Country.

Trees along the waters edge.

Trees along the waters edge.

We did see quite a lot of wildlife in the tour. At one or two moments we caught the slightest glimpses of the elusive alligators, but there was nothing but eyes and snouts breaking the surface of the water. We also spotted a few species of birds, and even some of the trees and vegetation proved to be quite interesting as the boat turned off the main, wider bodies of water and into the winding paths through the marshes. But when it came to the wildlife, the highlight was undoubtedly the wild pigs.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

One of our few small glimpses of a gator.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

The winding waterway paths through the marshes.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

From the murky swamp water grows an abundance of lush greenery.

The pigs must be quite accustomed to the tour groups coming up into their habitat, because they trotted over to the boat was an air of almost familiarity. Our guide seemed to greet them with a sense of affection too, though we were still warned to keep very clear from them and keep all limbs safely inside the boat. The guide had a couple of food scraps to give the wild pigs to encourage them to come a little closer, and they had no qualms about diving into the water and trudging through the marshes to get it, despite the stories we’d just been told about other tour groups who had witnessed one of the crowd favourites being ambushed and dragged off by an alligator.

One of the bigger bill pigs.

One of the bigger bull pigs.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

They waded through the shallow water and right up to the boat.

While the animals were entertaining, probably the most peculiar thing that we came across in the swamps that day – for me, at least – were the other people. Towards the end of the journey though the swamps, our boat went down one of the wider branches of the estuary to find a collection of water-front houses spaced out along the banks. But they weren’t the the fancy mansions that spring to mind when people first envision water-front real estate – most of them were simple homes that looked like any old cabin in the woods. At some of the houses, there were men sitting on their porches overlooking the river, having a cigarette or a beer, or living up to the classic cliché and slowly rolling back and forth on a wooden rocking chair. Some of them did a polite wave or a salute. Some of them just stared us down as the boat went by. While I was all about surrounding yourself with nature, I struggled to accept the fact that people actually lived out here. Not only were they relatively isolated from civilisation by distance, but the only way to access their homes was by navigating a boat through the alligator riddled swamp lands. I couldn’t even fathom what like must have been like living in a place like that, and how radically different these people would be from someone like myself. Or would they? It was some tasty food for thought that I contemplated on the remainder of our boat journey home.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

Swamp houses on the water, in the middle of nowhere.

More houses along the marshes.

More houses along the marshes.

IMG_4351

They look like they would be a nice place to live if it weren’t for the isolation to people and the proximity to alligators.

***

It was early evening when I finally made it back to the French Quarter. Vincenzo was still at work, so to kill a bit of time I went to visit the nearby voodoo museum. After my experiences over Halloween I wanted to check it out and see if there was anything more I could learn or understand about the crafts and practices. However, I have to admit that I would use the term ‘museum’ rather loosely when describing this place. It’s not a museum in the same way that the Museum of Natural History in London is – it’s small, specialised, and looks like it has been set up on the ground floor of someones house in the French Quarter rather than any actual official museum building. But then, given the content and subject matter within the museum, I think that kind of setting was actually a perfect fit.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

Model alters on display in the voodoo museum.

voodoo

Sculptures and icons, draped the the iconic Mardi Gras beads.

The museum itself had a shop out the front, selling a variety of mystic yet somehow also slightly commercial objects, and the exhibits themselves were limited to only a few rooms. Later, when I told Vincenzo about my visit to the museum, it almost seemed as though he was holding back a wince, or a pained expression. Perhaps he thought it was too stereotypical, or a simplistic introduction of voodoo, aimed at appealing to the curiosity of tourists rather than delivering any actual authenticity. But I managed to enjoy it as I took the exhibits with a grain of salt, and did see a few creepy yet fascinating things.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Artwork depicting tradition voodoo ceremonies.

Voodoo dolls.

Voodoo dolls.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

Physical depictions of some of the voodoo deities.

***

One other typically New Orleanian thing that I knew I had to experience in some capacity was the one thing every New Orleanian seemed to talk about with more just a hint of contempt, or at least with some undertones of remorse or regret: Bourbon Street. While all of my Halloween festivities with Vincenzo had taken place off the strip that is oh-so popular with tourists, the world explorer in me couldn’t simply be satisfied with the tales told by others when the real experience was waiting for me just around the corner. So after popping into the guest house to visit Vincenzo and tell him about my day, I went back out for a wander through the streets, with the intention of scoping out Bourbon Street and finally being able to form some opinions of my own.

There’s no denying it – the street is crazy. Perhaps not crazy in the fundamentally kooky or weird way that some other aspects of New Orleans are, but Bourbon Street was definitely the setting for one hell of a raging party. Pedestrians wandered over the road, which had a total absence of cars – it was the weekend, so I can’t say for sure if that was a regular set-up – and from balconies of hotels, women danced with cocktails in their hands were bearing their breasts for the entire street below. Strip clubs with flashing neon lights beckoned passers-by, and karaoke bars with live bands spilled their music out the doors and onto the footpaths. The sidewalk itself was sprinkled here and there with food vendors, although most people seemed much more interested in their alcohol, which you could get in a take-away cup to go, if you so desired. Take-away alcohol was something I had noticed on Frenchman Street during my first nights in New Orleans, but it took on a whole new meaning here – as though it was a licence to get completely messed up and simply trash the joint. People were all over the place, as though the seventeen year old kids raiding their parents liquor cabinet for the first time had finally grown up, yet somehow never made it back to sobriety.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

The raucous crowds of Bourbon Street.

Now, I’m not going to judge those people, because God knows I have been in similar, and undoubtedly much worse, states in my lifetime as a drinker and a partier. When people go on vacation, they want to party, have a good time, let their hair down, and get a little crazy. But I was stepping onto Bourbon Street for the first time having already heard the impressions of it from the New Orleanian locals, and that was something that I couldn’t just switch off. I like to party as much as the next young adult with limited to minimal responsibilities, but I’ve found that I’ve always taken a sense of pride in my beloved Oxford Street, the pink mile of Sydney where all my favourite gay bars are located. And from what I can tell, both the locals and the tourists take pride in it too, and we respect it. My impressions of Bourbon Street was that the party-goers not only had a lack of respect for themselves (excessive alcohol will do that to you), but also a severe lack of respect for the place they were in and the scene they were interacting with. I could potentially liken it to the spectacularly trashy scenes that I have witnessed in Kings Cross in Sydney, another nightlife district that for the most part is not respected by the partiers and revellers who travel far and wide across the city to get absolutely wasted and mess themselves up as well as the surrounding streets. I know local residents in Kings Cross who lament the state that the area so often finds itself in (although recent restriction laws have drastically changed that), and I can see a similar train of thought within Bourbon Street.

But having said that, messy nightlife districts aren’t the worst that could happen to a city. It obviously attracts a lot of tourism, which I would hope at least does something for the city’s local economy, as New Orleans is still in a long process of recovery from Hurricane Katrina. Yet the French Quarter remained largely unaffected by the hurricane in the long-term, in comparison to some other parts of the city which were completely annihilated, and therein lies what I believe to be the thing that the locals take issue with about Bourbon Street the most – the rest of the city, which has so much more to offer than a trashy night out, is ignored. One filthy area is highlighted above all else, making the city a popular tourist destination, but for so many of the wrong reasons. And while Vincenzo was an amazing host for a variety of different reasons, I think I’ll always be the most thankful that he was able to steer me in a better direction, and show me how to get much more out of the city that I ever would have managed without his guidance.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

The juxtaposition of sin and depravity with apparent moral righteousness is actually kind of amusing.

After all that, though, there were some entertaining aspects of Bourbon Street. In particular, the groups of religious people that camped out in the streets with their picketing signs and huge silver crosses, calling out Bible verses and cursing the party-goers for their sins. Talk about fighting a losing battle, right? There were a couple of hecklers who gave them grief, but for the most part people just laughed at them. They were impossible to take seriously when you saw them in an environment like that.  I wanted to loathe the preachers, but I ended up feeling rather sorry for them – wasting their own time condemning people who were simply having fun. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

So despite everything, I marched down Bourbon Street with my head held high, a proud sinner, taking in all the lights and the laughter in the rambunctious scene around me. I had finally checked the “visiting Bourbon Street” box on the to-do list, and while my stroll down the street was probably atypical, my sobriety at the time allowed to me to come out of it with a somewhat fresh perspective that I must assume very few tourists would ever walk away with.

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.

The Good Ol’ Days

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

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

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

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

***

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

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Cuddling with Ananas in bed.

Ananas by the window.

Ananas by the window.

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

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

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Toasting our marshmallows over the bar.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

Sparks over the Harry Potter shots.

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

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Scoffing down my snack from the wall.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

Gemma and I probably enjoying ourselves a little too much.

***

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

After my desperately needed haircut.

After my desperately needed haircut.

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