Across the Atlantic: Arriving in Manhattan

Having a seat on that afternoon flight to New York was a feeling of sweet relief that went unrivalled for a quite some time – the emotional toll on everyone involved during my last morning in Dublin plus all the unexpected problems with the flights and visas had made for a very stressful series of events. Even if it was amongst a group of rowdy and restless Italian teenage boys who were acting like they’d never been on a plane before (they definitely weren’t locals of Ireland so I highly doubt that was the case), a seat was a seat. In a way the long overseas flight between continents was kind of cathartic – travelling by train in Europe had always left things open to possibility and potential, and plans could change at the drop of the hat, but the long haul flight across the Atlantic meant that there was no going back. As difficult as it may have been, I had felt the feelings that I needed to feel, but then I packed them up and moved along. It was almost like leaving home again – there were definitely things I would miss, but the excitement of what to come was just too overpowering.

Since I had gone through the pre-customs clearance at Dublin airport, I didn’t have to deal with any of that when I got to New York. We landed at Terminal 5 of JFK, a domestic terminal, and after collecting my bag from the baggage carousel I walked out of the terminal and… that was it. It was so easy. Too easy, I would have thought, but seeing how quickly I was out of there, I guess the whole pre-customs clearance thing in another country makes a whole lot of sense. I navigated my way to the subway system, purchased the swipe ticket that would be my access to said system for the next six weeks, and started the long train ride from the airport to Manhattan. Thank God for express trains, that’s all I can say (even then it took over an hour).

***

And so I found myself in the main chamber of Grand Central Station, staring up at the ceiling and all around me at the great, cavernous hall. It was almost like having déjà vu – I knew I’d never been to New York City before, but I had seen this very scene countless times in movies and television shows, and the familiarity was somehow there. Just being there made me feeling I was in a movie myself – hearing American accents alone was enough of a novelty. But thankfully I wasn’t sleeping in Grand Central Station – I was waiting on a message from a friend, and as soon as I got it I navigated my way out of the station to the street.

Enter Melissa – co-star in this part of my journey and subsequently in many blogs that will follow. Melissa and I had met in Sydney when she had been there on an exchange semester. She was in the same philosophy class in which I had met Stefan (the three of us had been study buddies before our final exam), and from the moment she had struck up a conversation asking me about some of my tattoos – and showing off some of her own – I instantly knew that we would be good friends. We didn’t get to hang out too much off campus or outside of classes, but we had kept in touch when she went home, and when I had told Melissa about my plans to travel the world she had insisted that I come and visit her should I ever find myself heading to New York. Of course, New York being… well, New York, I had hardly needed a reason to include it on my travel itinerary, but the fact that I did have a reason made it all the more exciting. I scanned the opposite side of the street 42nd Street until I saw her jumping up and down and waving, and as soon as the traffic lights changed I rushed over to greet her.

“Robert! How are you? Oh my God, it’s been so long I’ve seen you!” Melissa is without a doubt one of the happiest and most loving people that I know. It had been over a year since we’d seen each other, or even really spoken in depth about our lives, yet meeting her there that night felt as natural as meeting an old friend I had known for years.
“I’m good! I’m great! Exhausted, but still great,” I said with a smile as I leant down to hug her – Melissa was a short woman. “I’m so sorry I’m late, the airport in Dublin was a bit of a disaster – I have so much to tell you!”
“Excellent, I can’t wait!” she replied with a smile. “You’re so lucky, though – I know I’ve been saying you could stay with me this whole time, but I’ve been in the process of moving at the moment… I wasn’t even sure if I was going to be in this apartment by now or not, but I moved in today – literally just got the keys.”
“Today?”
“Yeah, today! I was scared for a minute that we’d have to stay out with my mom in Jersey.” The impact of that statement was lost on me at this point in time, since I really had no idea how far away New Jersey was.

“But you’ve got it now, right?” I’m all about spur of the moment plans, but I’d had my fair share of them this morning in Dublin, and the time differences between here and there had made it a very long day. I just needed to lie down.
“Yep, it’s only a couple of blocks away. Follow me!”

***

Melissa’s new apartment was on East 39th Street, pretty much right in the middle of Manhattan. At this stage I still had no sense of where that was, or how big Manhattan was, or how big New York City as a whole was, but the geography of the city is actually both simple and fascinating – anyone who’s seen a road map of Sydney might understand – and something that I would come to master by the end of my stay. But for now, we were home.
Melissa introduced me to the doorman on duty as we passed into the lobby, stressing to him that I was just a friend who was staying with her for a little while. Brandon introduced himself, a muscular man with tattoo sleeves extending from his wrists up his arms and underneath the shirt he was wearing, and I almost squealed with excitement when he spoke with his Queens accent – it was just like the movies!
“The place is a studio, and I told them there’s only one person moving in,” she explained once the sliding doors had closed. “So it just looks a little odd that there’s another person coming in with all these bags.” She just giggled, confident that it wouldn’t be a problem. When we went through the apartment door, we walked through a small kitchenette and a bathroom before walking into the main room. It was a sizeable studio, and would have been very spacious… except that there was a lot of junk all over the place: stacked boxes, stacked tables, half assembled furniture.
“So, the reason I ended up getting the sub-lease for this place was because I agreed that the girls who were here before didn’t have to move their stuff out right away. They can’t get it out for a few days, so for now… well, it’s here for now.” There were a few things that were Melissa’s, but a lot of her stuff was back at her mom’s house in New Jersey, which she would bring over once the previous owners stuff was gone.
“I don’t mind,” I said as I plopped my bags down to soak it all in. “It’s kinda cozy.” I turned around to smile at her and found she was back in the small kitchen.
“Aww, yeah! It will be cozy! I’m so excited you’re here! Are you hungry?” There was leftovers of a thick, New York style pizza Melissa’s mother had bought earlier in the day, so  we heated it up and I tucked into a piece of that. There was also red wine, so Melissa got out some glasses.

“To your new place,” I toasted, raising my glass once Melissa had poured. “And to living in New York City, baby!”
“I’ll drink to that!” she said with a grin, and she raised her glass to clink with mine. We pulled down one of the mattress that had been standing against one of the walls, and we sat on the floor with our wine and pizza and caught up and gossiped like school girls.
I also decided it was best to have a shower after the long flight, which led to the minor problem of us not being able to turn off the bath taps when we were done. Unsure what to do, Melissa ended up calling Brandon to see if he could help us. The bad news: the hardware in one of the taps had come loose, and we would have to wait until the next day for the building manager to come and repair it properly. The good news: Brandon was able to force the tap closed and stop the water flow, but it took him several minutes to achieve, and Melissa and I enjoyed the fabulous view of his butt in his tailored work pants while he was doing so. I considered it our housewarming gift.

It’s hard to believe that all this was the same day that I had had my airport emergency back in Dublin. My situation had changed so much that it was bare recognisable – I almost had to pinch myself. But such is the life of a traveller, and I didn’t dwell on it too much – eventually jet lag lulled me to sleep, and in the morning I had a brand new city to explore.

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Reflections on Europe

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

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

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

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

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

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

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

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

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

Prague.

Prague.

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

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

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

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

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

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

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

Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Change Direction

After my wild afternoon and evening at Berghain, I went home and crashed pretty heavily, spending most of the day recovering from what had been a busy weekend that had been bursting with pride. Berlin had lived up to and exceeded all expectations set for it, and suddenly I was having to face the reality that it was time to move on. True, my schedule was supposed to be flexible, but I still had a large portion of my Eurail train pass to use, and I had only explored a fraction of the European continent. In spite of all that, I wanted to make sure I was truly ready to leave before moving on. I reflected on the time I spent in Vietnam with Allistair, and how upsetting it really was to cut that time so short due to the fact I’d held myself to a strict schedule, so I decided to learn from that lesson and hang back in Berlin for at least a few days. Meeting Ralf at Berghain had definitely had an effect on me…

***

When we were sitting outside in the garden at Berghain, Ralf and I talked about much more than the drinking cultures in our home countries. I told him all about my travels and my journey so far – he had also travelled along the Trans-Siberian Railway some years ago, heading in the opposite direction to me, so we swapped stories and compared experiences of the epic train route. He was just so easy to talk to, and since we’d already opened up to each quite physically that evening, I found myself opening up quite emotionally as well.
“So how long have you been travelling for now?” My head was resting in Ralf’s lap, and every now and then he traced his fingers over my bare shoulders, smiling every time it sent a little shiver down my spine.
“I think… It’s almost around the three month mark now,” I said as I did a few quick mental calculations. “Yeah… that’s crazy!”
“Time flies when you’re having fun?”
“Well… no, actually. In fact, quite the opposite. People say that months will go by so quickly, but… for me it definitely feels like I’ve been away for three months, maybe even longer. So much has happened already… It’s hard to believe I’m only like… a third of the way through my trip.”
Ralf raised his eyebrows at that. “Wow. That is quite a long trip.”
“Yeah… Us Australians are pretty renowned for doing the whole ‘gap year’ thing.”
“I didn’t think most people look it quite so literally, though?”
I didn’t really have an answer for that. “I guess… A lot of people stop and work along the way, or their trips are shorter, if they’re doing it before they start university. I just finished university, so… I guess I had the time to actually do it?”
“But I’m sure there’s plenty of people who could have the time if they really wanted. What made you want to do it?”

I’d thought about it quite often, but I don’t think anyone had enquired about it as far as Ralf had, beyond the simple ‘because I can’ rationale.
“Well… After sixteen years of education, and twenty one years of living in the same city… I guess I just wanted to go out and see the world. I was kind of sick of my life back home. I didn’t want to get a job and get stuck somewhere if I didn’t really want to be there.” I looked down to where the words ‘Run away with me’ ran across my ankle, freshly inked a couple of months ago in Bangkok, and laughed to myself as I traced a finger across the text.
“What is it?” Ralf could see that my thoughts had continued to tick over internally.
“It’s just… It’s funny. I always thought of this trip as running away – running away from my life, running away from the real world. But the more I see, the more I do… I realise that this-,” I threw my hands up into the air, motioning towards Berghain next to us, to Ralf, to our surroundings in general. “This is the real world. This is real life.” I let my hands collapse by my side again. “And sooner or later I need to stop running, and start living. But I’m only realising this right now…”

Ralf smiled down at me, and ran a few fingers through my hair. “Travelling is good like that. You get to see so much of the world, different cultures, and finding new perspectives. It’s all about perspective. You learn more about yourself that way too.”
It made me think of something that Rathana had told me when he was in Sydney in January, right when I was on the cusp of beginning my journey. “One of my friends back home – well, he lives in Bangkok now,” I said to Ralf. “He said to me: ‘A world journey like this is going to change you – and if it doesn’t, you’re probably doing it wrong!’ And I want that, I really do. I guess I’m looking for inspiration. I don’t want to go back home to find myself in my old life, like nothing has changed at all.”
“It will change you,” Ralf said simply. “You’ll feel different, and you’ll notice it even more when you go home, because even if things changed at home, you’ll probably have changed more. You’ll feel different from people who haven’t travelled, too. You’ll want to talk all about what you’ve done, but for people who’ve been at home living their lives this whole time… that’s going to get old pretty fast.” He laughed for a moment, reconsidering his words. “That’s not to say people don’t care, it’s just… It will change you. Don’t worry about that.”
Sitting there in the garden, staring up at the stars, I was beginning to believe that it already had.

***

I’d gone around to Ralf’s for dinner on Monday evening, stayed the night, and the following day headed back to Donatella’s apartment to gather my things. The previous week, Simon had headed to a music festival elsewhere in Germany, and hadn’t been due back until Tuesday. We had said our goodbyes then, anticipating my departure sometime during the weekend, so he was surprised to see me packing my things up when he arrived back home on Tuesday night. “What? You’re still here?” he said jokingly. “You’re really never going to leave, are you?”
“I am, I swear! I’m leaving tomorrow, I swear!” I said it in the same playful tone, but part of me really hated the fact that I knew this time I really meant it. I was going to spend one last night at Ralf’s place, and from there I would head to Berlin Haupbanhof and catch my train to… well, I still had a bit of time to figure that out. So I said my final goodbyes to Simon, Eva, and the rest of my Berlin housemates from the past two weeks, and left a small thank you note for Donatella, who was still away in Munich. It was the longest I’d lived anywhere in the past three months, and of course I was leaving just when it began to feel like home.

However, Ralf’s place was so homely and cozy that it didn’t take long at all to settle in, even if it was for just one more night. The fifth story apartment was on the top floor of the building and had a quaint little balcony with a lush herb garden. But it was raining that evening, so Ralf and I snuggled up on the couch with some herbal tea – brewed with the plants from his very own garden – to consider the immediate problem of where I would be going tomorrow. I’d had plans to head east from Berlin, to travel down through Prague and Budapest, then down through Croatia and do a clockwise circuit through the Mediterranean. Though I had also planned to leave Berlin on Friday – it was now Wednesday, and the past weekend had once again changed my outlook on this journey. I’d become so obsessed with planning a route through Europe, trying to fit in as much as I could, that I had forgotten the entire reason I had chosen the flexible train pass. I was allowed to be flexible. Plans were allowed to change. Do whatever you want Bob, my mum had said to me when I’d sent her a couple of emails expressing my ideas and concerns. As long as you don’t miss your final flight to New York, you can make or change your plans as much as you like.

My mother had been a voice of reason, but it was Ralf who had really been the catalyst for change. In addition to our profound conversations in the garden at Berghain, spending those extra few days in Berlin with him had been so lovely, and he had reminded me that those spontaneous decisions of mine were often the most rewarding. But since I had spent more time than anticipated in Berlin, I felt like I really had to choose my priority destinations. I’d come to terms with the fact I wasn’t going to be able to see everything, so Ralf tried to help me brainstorm ideas. “Where is it that you really want to go?” he’d said as I flipped through my Lonely Planet guide, and stared intently at the railway map. Poland was close by, but the trains there weren’t included in my rail pass. Prague was meant to be a beautiful city, but the Czech Republic had only recently been devastated by severe flooding. Switzerland was just to the south as well, but there were other destinations further west in Europe that I wanted to see… and that’s how I made my decision.

Ralf had reminded me that I was, in fact, a bit of a romantic. So the following morning, after saying our final goodbyes, I boarded a train heading towards a city officially known as the City of Lights, but also commonly known as the City of Love – Paris.