Turkey and Trees: Happy Holidays on the West Coast

After waking up at the crack of dawn to say one final goodbye to Gary, I returned to his bed to sleep until a more appropriate hour. I saw Brandon, later on my way out, and thanked him again for inviting me along to dinner and letting me join his friends in the celebration.
“Not a problem at all, it was great having you there! Not everyday we get Australian travellers stopping by to join us.” We said our goodbyes, and I headed downstairs to travel via bus back to Noe Valley, where I had to get ready for what I was anticipating would be a long afternoon. It was the first time I would be experiencing a real American holiday, and from what I had been led to believe from numerous popular culture references, as well as most Americans I had discussed it with, Thanksgiving was quite an event.

The one problem for me, however, was that Thanksgiving is typically a family affair. Already Gary, Kayvan and Todd had left the San Francisco to return to their hometowns to celebrate the day, so if I actually wanted to celebrate the day in some capacity then I would have to be relatively proactive about it. Thankfully, while I had been discussing my plans in San Francisco with Kayvan, he had told me about a few of his friends who were hosting what is fondly known as an “orphans Thanksgiving”: a holiday for people who couldn’t make it back home, or were otherwise unable to spent the holiday with their actual families. Kayvan told me about Rob and Jessie, two best friends who lived there in San Francisco, and said that he would put me in touch with them so that I wouldn’t have to spend the holiday by myself. Not that I would have felt that sad or lonely, considering I’d never really had a Thanksgiving to truly understand what I was missing out on, but all the same, I was excited to participate in yet another American experience that so far had only ever been confined to the realm of Hollywood.

***

As a general rule, the entire day of Thanksgiving is spent in the kitchen, making more food than it is physically possible for all your guests to consume. As a guest to the Thanksgiving dinner, all that Rob and Jessie asked was a contribution to the alcohol supply for the evening, so when the time came for me to head over, I stopped at the corner store and picked up a bottle of whiskey. The walk there took a little longer than expected, as once again I had forgotten to factor in the steep topography, and instead of heading back through the up-and-down towards the Castro, I was heading up to Diamond Heights (the name should’ve given it away, huh?), which felt like the suburban equivalent of sheer, cliff-face hiking from start to finish.  Upon arrival I was greeted by the hosts and a handful of guests who had already arrived, and I was led towards a table absolutely packed with plates of salads and sides and breads and snacks, as well as a hefty supply of booze. Jessie and Rob told me to relax and make myself at home, so I poured myself a cup of wine and sat down in the living room while they carved the turkey and attended to the final touches in the kitchen.

While a traditional Thanksgiving is more of a family affair, with a sit down dinner around a big table and I assume some inevitable family holiday drama, the orphans Thanksgiving was very chilled out. There were movies playing on the TV, and we mostly just sat around the living room with plastic cups and paper plates, getting up to help ourselves to the food as we wanted. There was nothing too dramatic or eventful though. In fact, although there had been some talk of maybe heading down to the Castro later in the evening (it kind of goes without saying that this was primarily a gay orphans Thanksgiving, right?), eventually people started dropping like flies, either heading home early or actually passing out around the house. Jessie went to his room at some point, although he never ended up emerging, and as the night progressed I noticed that I was the only person who was drinking from the particular bottle of red wine that I was drinking. So I was a little surprised to eventually find it completely empty, although it probably explained why I had been consistently dozing off on the couch while the rest of the party wound down around me. It didn’t appear as though anyone would be heading anywhere to keep on partying, not that I would have been able to keep up if they did, so eventually I took my leave, bid farewell to whoever was still conscious, and rolled back down the hill to Noe Valley.

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The Castro Theatre, in the Castro at dusk.

It was the following day when I learnt of the delightful consequence of making more food than can possibly be ingested: leftovers. Struggling through my late morning hangover, I received a group Facebook message from Jessie informing us all that there was plenty of food leftover from night before, and that we were all welcome to come and help finish them off or take some home. So eventually, when I felt ready to take on that steep trek again, I walked back up to Rob and Jessie’s to continue eating (and eventually drinking). We hung out there for most of the afternoon, and later in the evening Rob suggested that we head down to the Castro like we had been planning the previous evening. I think there might have been a few other people who joined us on the way down, but given how the night ended, I can’t guarantee that my memory of that was accurate. Maybe I was going through a lightweight phase. Maybe it was all the food I’d been eating, which was combining with the alcohol to make me feel sleepy and lethargic rather than tipsy and energised. All I know is that we started at a gay bar called The Mix, which was another chilled out gay bar with a nice outdoor patio. We also went two other clubs: QBar and 440 Castro, which were much more like nightclubs with dark rooms, flashing lights and loud music. I also lost absolutely everyone that I knew at some point, and eventually Rob found me in 440 Castro, were I was lying down in the dark on one of the couches, very close to passing out, if I hadn’t already done so. He gathered me up and told me we were heading home, and I was in no state to protest.

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The Castro Theatre at night. 

Rob helped me into a taxi and we headed back to Diamond Heights. Maybe he asked me where I lived in an attempt to drop me home, and I was just incapable of knowing or remembering the address, or perhaps he realised that I was in such a state that getting myself back into a relatively unfamiliar house by myself would have been a disastrous endeavour. I never really found out – my only clear recollection is stumbling out of the taxi back in Diamond Heights, and having my breath taken away by the sight that I saw. Under the glow the of street lights, the entire setting had been enveloped by a thick fog. I’d heard of San Francisco being well known for the fog that rolled over the water and into the bay, and for being quite a cold city even in the middle of summer, but I hadn’t realised that the fog would come all the way up the hill like this.
“Wow! The fog! It’s so beautiful!” I remember exclaiming, flocking forward into the misty haze and twirling a few times, scooping the low clouds up with my hands and watching it dissipate into thin air. Rob just chuckled and let me have my moment, before guiding me out of the fog and back into the house, where we both eventually crashed.

***

Thanksgiving wasn’t the only holiday that I would be experiencing while I was in the USA, and while it was still a good month away, the end of Thanksgiving celebrations marked the beginning of Christmas celebrations. Slowly but surely, coloured lights and shiny tinsel and big green Christmas trees were popping up all over the place. Whether I was riding my bike north to the Marina District and the Golden Gate Bridge, or going out for a stroll to dinner in the Castro, the festive season was well and truly upon us, and like most other holidays, Americans take Christmas very seriously.

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Rainbow Christmas tree in the heart of the Castro.

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Christmas provides San Francisco with an excuse to create some amazing gay propaganda – not that it needed an excuse, really.

The end of the weekend after Thanksgiving also marked Todd’s arrival back in San Francisco. It was a little strange at first, meeting a man after having already lived in his house for a week, but as soon as I met him I could sense that he was a kind and generous person. You know, the sort of kind and generous you would expect from a man who let a travelling stranger live in his house for a week before even meeting him. Todd was a lot older than me, no longer of a partying, young adult age, but after the few experiences I’d had out in the Castro during my first week, I was more than happy to take it easy and hang out with him in the evenings when he finished work, check out a few of his favourite eating places around the city, and talk about our travels and share some of our stories – as a host, Todd was a bit of a Couchsurfing veteran, and he’d done some pretty extensive travelling in his time too. It was always so nice to meet people like that, and to have such engaging conversations with them. That was the one thing I loved about travelling – people could come from all walks of life, from anywhere in the world, have all kinds of different interests and have relatively little in common with you, but travelling is a universal experience that connects you with those people and forms a diverse and vibrant international community.

***

Unlike Thanksgiving, I wasn’t completely unfamiliar with the holiday of Christmas, and during my life I’d had a handful of traditions that I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to maintain during my travels. However, I was delighted when one afternoon Todd sent me a message, saying that he was going to be buying a Christmas tree on his way from work that evening, and that if I was around I was welcome to help him decorate it. Decorating the Christmas tree was something I usually always done with my mother, so it was nice to know I’d still have the chance to roll out the lights and tinsel and stick some ornaments on another tree. Even better was that for the first time I would be putting decorations on a real tree. Todd found some amusement in my enthusiasm for a tree that wasn’t made of plastic, and I told him all about how Christmas in Australia has to cut corners in ways like that if it ever had a hope in mimicking a Northern Hemisphere white Christmas.

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Our Christmas tree, ft. red wine.

When decorating the Christmas tree, Todd confessed that he preferred to keep the whole ordeal sleek and simple, not loading up the tree with too many colours or random decorations. I could appreciate that, and realised that that was actually an option when you didn’t have school-aged children who would bring home arts and crafts projects from school that simply had to be hung on the overcrowded tree. It made me smile to remember, but I have to admit that perfecting the simple, elegant Christmas tree look was not exactly simple. The branches of real, natural trees aren’t all as evenly spaced as their perfect, plastic counterparts, but after some twisting and turning and spinning the tree back and forth, we managed to get the flow of the lights pretty close to perfect.

After that we sat back on the couch to admire our handiwork, and with a clink of our red wine glasses, I turned to Todd with a cheesy grin.
“Well, I guess it’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas.”

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On the Edge of the World: The Grand Canyon

My journey to Flagstaff did not start with it’s best foot forward. I’ve already expressed how tedious the journey via Greyhound bus was between San Antonio and Albuquerque, but if I’m completely honest, it was only because it was such a long distance. For all the hours I spent travelling on that leg of the trip, everything ran on time and according to schedule. However, the same could not be said for the rest of my experiences with Greyhound. The weather had taken a turn for the worse across the Southwest, which was causing massive delays in the bus schedule. Usually I can deal with unavoidable delays, but this was one was particularly aggravating, and not because I had woken up at the crack of dawn to get from Santa Fe to Albuquerque. When I finally jumped off the Rail Runner at Albuquerque and made my way to the check-in desk, I was informed that the bus would be delayed.
“How delayed?” I asked, slightly relieved that I didn’t need to rush anymore but simultaneously annoyed that I’d rushed so much in the first place.
“We can’t exactly say. The journey has been affected by the weather, so they’re estimating about three hours. But it could be sooner than that, so you shouldn’t go anywhere in case the bus comes earlier.” In other words, I would be forced to wait around the bus depot for three hours with no real indication of when the bus was going to show up, and leaving to explore the city came with the risk of missing the bus, should it manage to make up for lost time.

The weather was pretty crappy, so I wonder if I would have been bothered to go wandering around Albuquerque at all even if they had been able to confirm the arrival time of the bus. Regardless, I was still pretty annoyed by the fact I’d gotten up so early to literally just wait around at the bus depot. There was also an uncomfortable amount of chatter among other travellers about the tendency for Greyhound to oversell buses and have passengers stranded with no other option but to wait for the next bus. And that was so not happening. After about an hour and a half of waiting I ended up sitting in a queue on the floor in front of the doors that lead out to the boarding area. I mean, I didn’t have anything else to do, and I was already behind schedule, so I wasn’t leaving things to chance when it came to getting on that bus. Eventually it arrived, after the initially anticipated three hours, and we all clamoured our way onto the bus, and I made sure I got a window seat so I could peer outside and make sure my bag was loaded underneath the bus – I’d overheard other horror stories from my fellow travellers about Greyhound leaving luggage behind.

The bus ride was another long trek through relatively uninhabited land, slowed down by the fog and wet weather, and with the days were growing shorter, it was dark by the time I arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona. I had been sending messages to David, the Couchsurfing host who I’d arranged to stay with during my time in Flagstaff. He’d actually been at work for most of the day, so instead of having to kill time until he had finished, he was actually waiting for me at the bus depot when I finally arrived, and together we walked back to his place. Flagstaff was definitely a small suburban town, and probably the only reason that it got as much tourist attention as it did was because of it’s proximity to the Grand Canyon. David was French Canadian, living in Flagstaff and doing his PhD research at the nearby university. He was soft-spoken and polite, but also very chilled out. We went home and he cooked me some dinner, where he managed to make a delicious meal seemingly out of scraps and leftovers that he had lying around his kitchen. The weather was cold and miserable, so once again I had a nice evening in with my host, drinking some craft beer and wine, getting to know each other and sharing our own travelling experiences and Couchsurfing stories.

***

The Grand Canyon is huge, stretching across the borders of several states, meaning there are plenty of places where you can stay and base your visit from. I chose to visit it from Flagstaff because… well, I didn’t really know what else to do while crossing the Southwest. I’d spoken to my mother about a week earlier, when I was in Austin booking all my buses and getting a travel plan together, and she had told me of a friend who had had rave reviews about the helicopter tour that they had done of the Grand Canyon, and told me that I should really consider it and make the most of being there. I shopped around online and found some day-trip packages from Flagstaff that included transport out to the Grand Canyon, lunch at a restaurant in the Grand Canyon National Park, and a helicopter tour that took you out over the canyon. It seemed like a good deal, so I went ahead and made the reservation.

However, the weather on the day I was set to head over the Grand Canyon proved to be as horrible as it had the day before. I had rugged up with several layers, including the thermal underwear that Bradley had given me, and made my way to the hotel that was the first pick-up point of the day-trip. There were 7 people on the day-trip – three older couples and myself – and once we were on our way out we received the disappointing news that the cloud cover was so low that the helicopter ride would have yielded absolutely no views of the canyon. Helicopters are not allowed to fly below the rim on the canyon – in fact they have to remain at a certain elevation about it – so that portion of our day unfortunately had to be cancelled (fortunately, it also had to be refunded, so it didn’t end up being a waste of money). We still stopped by the visitor centre where the helicopter would have departed from, and watched a 3D film about the history of the canyon and its exploration, which was also included in the price of the day-trip. After that it was on to the canyon itself.

I’ve heard people talk about how impressive the Grand Canyon is, and I’d seen plenty of photos in the past. Sure, it looks really big, but it’s a huge hole in the ground: of course it’s big. I didn’t really think that much of it at first, but once we arrived and I stood on the edge of the canyon… no pictures, no photographs, and no description could compare to the feeling of standing there and staring down into the open expanse. It honestly took my breath away. And I know I said that photos really do not do it justice, especially not when taken with an iPhone, but you best believe I took quite a few:

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The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

The clouds that rudely cancelled our helicopter flight.

And the obligatory Grand Canyon Selfie

And the standard Grand Canyon Selfie

We were dropped at one point on the edge of the canyon, and there were short hikes along the edge with various vantage points and viewing spots. I kept mostly to myself, occasionally chatting to some of the other members of my group, mainly taking photographs for each other.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

An old lookout tower on the edge of the canyon.

Cougartown

Cougartown

Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon felt like standing on the edge of the world. I’ve stood on the top of immense skyscrapers and looked down at the people below, scurrying around like ants, but this was definitely something else. I don’t know if its because it’s even wider than it is deep, or because it’s a natural phenomenon as opposed to a man made structure, but its just one of those things that really forces you to look at the world in a new perspective. There’s a humbling effect in standing on the edge of something so awe inspiring and realising how minuscule and ultimately insignificant we are in the bigger picture scheme of things. But not in a depressing way, or a realisation that we don’t matter, but more of an appreciation of what it means to be part of something so huge – something so grand. It’s the kind of stuff religious epiphanies are made of, and while I wouldn’t go as far as to say I had one of those, it definitely increased my appreciation of the world around me, and the forces of nature.

***

After our visit to the Grand Canyon, the day-trip took us home through the Navajo Native American reservation, and our guide explained a little more about the reservations and their existence. We also stopped at a small shop by the side of the road, which was run by a Native American woman, selling all kinds of souvenirs that were all supposedly authentic and handmade by the Navajo people. I must admit I’ll never be able to tell if that is true or not, but I didn’t have any reasonable reason to doubt it. Turquoise was the precious stone used most commonly by the Navajo, and there was a lot of beautiful jewellery designed with it, as well as other stunning looking gems and stones. I ended up buying some earrings and necklaces for my mother and sister for Christmas presents. I hadn’t been one for much souvenir shopping over the last eight months, but as my journey was coming to an end I felt that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable to start acquiring a few more bits and pieces to take home with me. After that, there was one last stop at a service station before we were taken back to Flagstaff.

The driving service which was part of the day-trip was a hotel pick up and drop off, but I obviously wasn’t staying in a hotel, so I jumped out as the bus drove through the main street of Flagstaff, as close as I could get to David’s house. When I sent him a message, it turned out that he was having a beer at a bar not too far from his house, so I went to join him there. I joined him at the bar, but when I asked to order a beer, the bartender asked me for my ID.
“Oh, yeah, of course”, I said, as I pulled out my drivers licence. The guy stared  at it for a second, then had an uneasy look on his face.
“I’m sorry, it’s the law in the state of Arizona that we can only accept federally issues forms of identification.”
“Um… excuse me?” For safekeeping, I never took my passport out with my unless I knew I was going to need it somewhere. Literally everywhere else in the entire world had readily accepted my New South Wales drivers licence as proof of age in bars and clubs.
“It needs to be a federally-”
“I know what you mean, but… look, it says my date of birth right there.”
“I’m sorry sir, but I can’t accept it.”
“Are you serious? Look, that’s me, that’s my date of birth, it clearly says I’m over 21.”
“I’m sorry.”

I rolled my eyes and was about to give in and just get a non-alcoholic drink, but it was actually David who ended up kicking up a fuss and telling me to not bother, and we just left to go home.
“It’s so ridiculous,” he said to me as we plodded along home in the cold. “I had all kinds of problems when I first arrived here too. Although, they wouldn’t accept anything because my ID was in French. But I mean, I’m almost 30! I don’t look under 21 at all!” He just shrugged his shoulders and sighed. “Oh well. I’m going to go buy some food, I’ll make us some dinner. How about you grab your passport, and head over to the gas station and get some wine, and we’ll meet back here?”
So that’s what we did, and it ended up being a thoroughly enjoyable evening. Aside from his little outburst after the bar, David was an incredibly chilled out guy, and we spend the evening eating and drinking and talking, with the wood fire burning juniper logs, creating a warm and cosy feeling. It was the perfect way to end the chilly day out by the Grand Canyon.

***

In the morning I awoke to find it had been snowing. I pulled back the curtains to reveal a thin layer of white that had covered everything outside. After my experience up on the mountains near Santa Fe, I was still a little enchanted by the whole idea, especially since the snow was actually in the town and on the houses. David was less enthusiastic, and he let out a long sigh, completely contrasting to my sense of wonder. For someone from Canada, I suppose snow outside your front door was something of an everyday nuisance during the winter, and not something to get overly excited about.

Snow on David's neighbours house.

Snow on David’s neighbours house.

Much like my stay in Santa Fe, I was only scheduled to be in Flagstaff for two nights, a temporary refuge on my trek across the Southwest. David was heading off to the university that morning, so we had a slow start before saying our goodbyes in the morning. I headed off to the bus depot, early enough that I didn’t have to rush to get there, but late enough that I wouldn’t be waiting around for hours. Or at least, that’s what I had thought, and what would have happened if the bus was on time. Of course, the worsening weather had only compounded the delays that the Greyhound buses had been experiencing a few days beforehand. To make things even worse, the bus depot in Flagstaff was a fraction of the size of the depot in Albuquerque, so I was cooped up in the box of a building with the rest of the impatient travellers, with the horrible cold weather bleaching the colour out of the surrounding suburban landscape. There was nothing to do but simply read my book and wait.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

Snow scattered ground as the bus departed Flagstaff.

The bus eventually arrived, but once it did, we had to wait for another bus to come through, as there were a few passengers that were catching our bus as a connection. As annoying as it was to have to wait for the second bus, I guess I could appreciate the fact that they did wait, as it would have been even worse to arrive and find you’d missed your connection – buses don’t leave these places particularly frequently, and such an occurrence would have spelled disaster for my travel plans had it happened to me. It was early afternoon by the time our bus finally set off, several hours after the originally scheduled departure time. I sent my next host a text message informing him of the delay, and then settled into another long drive across the desert. It was quite a different feel this time, with snow covering the ground as we drove though the gloom, but despite the weather and the delays, I couldn’t help but feel excited. My next destination was a place that I’d seen in countless movies, and heard countless crazy stories, both good and bad, about people’s experiences there – I was brimming with anticipation about what the city of Las Vegas would have in store for this adventurous traveller.

Lazy Days in DC

So after our long day of sightseeing on Saturday, Robert and I returned to his apartment after the open house had finished. We were both so exhausted that we quickly abandoned any notion of going out to a bar or club and instead had dinner in the neighbourhood and watched a movie at home. I did, however, have another pressing issue that I had been trying to deal with the past few days. When I had initially messaged Robert on Couchsurfing, he had agreed to host me for three nights, though I wasn’t able to stay any longer than that, because he already had another Couchsurfer who was arriving on Sunday. My initial plan had been to try and travel back to New York via Philadelphia, since Melissa had a few friends who lived there, but it turned out that they were unavailable during that time, and I’d had zero luck with arranging anything via Couchsurfing either. Things were getting pretty desperate, and it was looking like I might have to buy an expensive last minute ticket back to New York, even though I’d been hoping to see a little more of the country out here before returning to the Big Apple.

And then out of the blue comes Mike. After meeting him on Friday night, I’d sent a message telling him I’d had a nice time and it had been lovely to meet him. He’d taken a little while to reply, so much that it had caught me a little off guard when he did, saying that he would really love it if he could see me again before I left. I considered it for a moment, knowing how forward and pointed a request it was going to be – but I’d become quite skilled at writing such requests thanks to Couchsurfing – and then decided to write to Mike explaining that I would love to see him again as well, except I would be leaving DC the following morning… unless I could find a place to stay. I tentatively proposed the option of staying with him for a few days, and despite having a bit of study to do and having classes during the week, he said it would be a pleasure to have me over. I have to admit I was actually a little surprised Mike agreed – an international one-night-stand that asks if they can temporarily live with you does seem a little bit dodgy – but nevertheless I was grateful, and excited that I would actually get to see him again. When I’d parted ways with him the morning after, I hadn’t been entirely sure if that was ever going to happen.

Mike was busy during the day on Sunday though, and had a bit of study to do, so I delayed my departure from Robert’s place for as long as I could. His next Couchsurfer wasn’t arriving until the evening, so the two of us spent the afternoon visiting the Smithsonian Zoo which was conveniently located right down the road from his house. We walked around in the hot sun, admiring the adorable otters and the playful elephants, and laughing at the some of the ridiculous warning signs that you could only ever find in America. Afterwards we headed home, and I gathered my things and bid farewell to Robert, preparing myself for the subway trip to the other side of town.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

The Smithsonian Zoo in DC.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

Oh, Americans and their obvious warning signs.

The otters were adorable.

The otters were adorable.

One of the zoos three elephants.

One of the zoos three elephants.

Galapagos tortoises.

Galapagos tortoises.

I don't know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

I don’t know why but I found the expressions of the prairie dogs hilarious.

***

Mike was still busy studying when I arrived, but I spent the rest of the afternoon working on my blog while he finished his revision. When he was done it was time for dinner, but he didn’t have much at home so he suggested that we should go and eat out somewhere. It was nice, getting a little dressed up and going on… well, I guess it was like going on a date. I hadn’t done anything quite like that in a while, but Mike was such a gentleman that I don’t think I could have said no if I’d wanted to – but of course, being the gentleman that he was, obviously I didn’t. We had more conversations over dinner, and then we went for a walk through the streets down to Dupont Circle, one of the major intersections and basically the centre of Washington DC. He told me stories – brief history lessons about the features of the city, as well more personal ones as we got to know each other better – and we ambled through the cool evening air until we finally made it back to his apartment block.

With the exception of a day trip to Baltimore, the rest of my time spent in DC was very relaxed. Mike left me a spare key when he went to university, so I could come and go as I liked, and I did make a second trip down to the National Mall to see the parts of the Natural History Museum that I had missed last time I was there. But for the most part I took some time out from the tourist activities and just chilled out at Mike’s. He had an old acoustic guitar that had been kept in beautiful condition, but he had confessed that he’d neglected playing it in recent years, so one afternoon I pulled it out and sat down and strummed to myself for a little while. I did have my ukulele with me wherever I went, which sufficed to a point, but it had been months since I had been able to get my hands on a full size guitar, and it felt really good. I also, at the insistence of some of my friends back home, ventured out to try some ‘traditional American’ foods. My friend Gemma had repeatedly said “hot dog with cheese”, but I’d gone one step further and taken an apparently local classic: a chilli dog and cheese fries. I’m not going to lie, it was absolutely amazing, but when you finish off a meal like that you understand why America has an issue with obesity.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog - so bad that it's good.

Cheese fries and a chilli dog – so bad that it’s good.

I was also in town to experience something which has unfortunately become a somewhat regular occurrence in the United States – a mass shooting. Okay, to say I experienced anything is probably a bit of an exaggeration, but I was definitely in the city at the time of the Washington Navy Yard shooting which, with twelve fatalities and three injured, was the second-deadliest mass shooting to take place on a US military base. It was kind of surreal, and more than a little terrifying, to wake up after Mike had already left that morning and turn on the news to see that there was a killer on the loose in Washington DC. I jumped on Google Maps to find the exact location of the Navy Yard, and while it wasn’t exactly close to Mike’s home near U Street, it was definitely a little too close for comfort. I followed the news all morning, reluctant to even leave the apartment, but by midday the worst of the disaster seemed to be over, and eventually it was made public that the perpetrator had been gunned down and killed by the police. It was a solemn mood in the US Capital that day, and I even sent Mike a little message – despite his university being on the other side of the city – to check that he was okay. It was a reminder of the fragility of human life, and unfortunately it’s a reminder that the United States receives with an alarming regularity. I counted my blessings that that was the closest I ever came to gun violence during my time in America.

***

The evenings were spent at home with Mike, making dinner, sharing stories, drinking wine and watching The Walking Dead on Netflix. I think he might have felt bad for not really taking me out to see or do anything, but I had never expected that of him when I asked to stay with him, and to be honest I think I much preferred just hanging out with him – having someone to talk to, and making that human connection. He reassured me when I got an email from my mother telling me that the Germans had sent angry-sounding letters back to my address in Australia, regarding the fine that I never paid for not having a ticket on the U-Bhan, and he printed out my ticket for me when I finally booked my seat on a bus back to New York City. I stayed with him for four nights, and in the end I was a little sad to be leaving, but we didn’t let it get too emotional as I kissed him goodbye on my last morning there. Mike had to head off earlier than I did, so after he’d left I wrote a little note, thanking him for everything he’d done for me, and left it for him in the kitchen. I was back in New York by the time I got his reply, but it definitely made me blush, knowing that he appeared to have been just as smitten about me as I was about him.
“…I’m so lucky and happy to have met and spent time with you. You are an amazing guy. If we were closer in age and lived in the same country I’d ask you to marry me. I hope I can find someone like you some day. Best of luck on your travels and be safe…”
Needless to say, it was something to gush over and gossip to Melissa with over a bottle of wine back in New York, and it was once again another example of the amazing people that you can meet and welcome into your life when you decide to take a chance on a stranger.

Underage Drinking: cheap wine and Lil Wayne

Since we were sharing her studio apartment, Melissa and I had obviously been spending a lot of time together, even if it was just hanging out at her place and just chatting about life or boys or whatever. I also had the pleasure of meeting a few of Melissa’s good friends while I was staying with her, including her gay best friend Stefon, who I had heard so much about, and who Melissa had basically described as her soulmate. He lived over in Brooklyn, and his personality was the perfect blend of inspired, creative depth and sassy street smarts. The first time we met, Melissa and I were heading out to grab dinner with him and Nirali, another close friend of theirs. It was always interesting to join new friend groups, and see how their dynamics shift and differ from country to country, and how different they are from my own friends. When it came to Melissa’s friends, and essentially all over the United States, I found a familiarity within the social circles that I hadn’t felt in a lot of other places. I guess the lack of culture clashes was partly the reason – I spoke the language, I understood all the references, and I didn’t feel like quite such a tourist as I made my way through this country.

But Melissa’s friends were just so… nice. Honestly, they were lovely. I know that sounds like a strange thing to zone in on, but most of my own social circles back home… well, we’re all friends, and we all like each other, but so many exchanges are laced with cutting sarcasm, playful yet offensive implicit insults, and jokes that are usually funny but often at someone else’s expense. Melissa, on the other hand, was just one of the kindest and most caring people I had ever met, and that was definitely reflected in the company that she kept. Melissa just had so much love for everyone in her life, and that really shone through when I met her friends. It was a really positive experience, full of positive energy, and I was so happy that she was opening up her home and her life to me while I was in the city.

After dinner we bid farewell to the lovely Nirali, who had to work early the following day, and Stefon, Melissa and myself made a detour to Trader Joe’s. They were both surprised that I had never heard of it, and after I’d discovered it I was a little surprised as well – from that day on it seemed like the chain was everywhere, not just in the streets I wandered thought but in movies and television shows too. It was just like any other supermarket, really, except this particular location we were in had a huge selection of very decently priced wine. Stefon said he’d recently been paid, so tonight the wine was on him. I think we clocked up about 10 bottles before we finally cooled off and decided we were officially well stocked, but when when it came time to actually buy the wine, Stefon handed some cash to Melissa and then quickly walked outside. I was confused, so I questioned Melissa about it as we waited in the humungous line.

“Why did he…?” I half said, half pointing to the door Stefon had just passed through, the implication of question evident.
“He’s only 19, remember?” she said, trying to keep her voice down.
“Yeah?” I had known Stefon was a couple of years younger than us. “But that… ohhhh!” The drinking in age in America was something that I hadn’t given much thought to, other than always telling myself I would never travel in the states until I was 21, for that exact reason. I’d almost forgotten that their drinking age was different to ours. So we bought the wine for ourselves and Stefon, but I didn’t even really think twice about doing it. For me it didn’t even seem like it was a bad or illegal thing – back home I was buying and drinking wine when I was 18, so purchasing it for a 19 year old who couldn’t buy it himself felt like a Robin Hood-style correction of justice, as though we were helping to right a crazy flaw in their system.

We stopped to get cupcakes before taking the subway back to Melissa’s, but I couldn’t help but pick Stefon’s brains about the whole drinking age thing.
“So, you can’t buy alcohol at all?” I mean, I know how drinking ages work, but I just couldn’t adjust to the fact the restriction was different here. But of course, Stefon had his ways.
“Well, sometimes you can get away with it. Like at dinner tonight.”
“Oh yeah!” Stefon had ordered an alcoholic drink at dinner, just like the rest of us. I guess that’s why I was so shocked by this realisation now – the fact he couldn’t buy the wine had felt unnatural.
“I just ordered last, and waited to see how the waitress reacted when you all ordered alcohol. She didn’t ask to see any of your IDs, so I figured I was pretty safe to order alcohol too.” And he had been right, since he’d fooled the waitress as well as myself.
“Wow… yeah, you’re totally right! That’s clever! I’m impressed!” Stefon just let out a smug little smile and shrugged his shoulders. The boy knew what he was doing.

***

The following day, I had the opportunity to do something that was – in my opinion, at least – very American: be an audience member of a television talk show. I know things like that happen all over the world, but the states have all the big stars and major shows that are known all over the world. While we were at dinner, Melissa had received a message from her friend Justin asking if she wanted to come to the taping of an episode of The Katie Show tomorrow, and if she knew anyone else who might want to go – he had a handful of spare tickets that he had won or been given, I’m not sure exactly.
“The Katie Show?” Melissa had said with a chuckle. “Who or what is ‘Katie’?”
“Oh my God – The Katie Show? As in, Katie Couric?” That earned me blank stares from Nirali, Stefon and Melissa. “She’s… like… I don’t know exactly but I know she works in TV.”
“That’s hilarious,” Melissa said with a laugh. “The only non-American out of us is the only one who has even heard of her!”
“Okay, well… the only reason I know her is because she guest starred as herself in the episode of Will & Grace were Grace and Leo get married in the park. She was doing the news report on the mass wedding in Central Park.” That sparked another round of laughter, and Melissa asked Justin a few more questions about the taping. Apparently the major guest of the show was going to be Lil Wayne, and while I’m not the biggest hip hop fan, I had nothing else to do the next day, and Melissa and Stefon didn’t have classes, so we thought it would be something interesting to do.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

Melissa and I at the filming of The Katie Show.

The set of the show before filming started - for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The set of the show before filming started – for obvious reasons, cameras had to be put away during recording.

The taping itself was actually pretty fun. They had crowd warming exercises, and weird things like dancing competitions which actually turned out to be pretty hilarious. They had a variety of guests, from a tragedy survivor to a struggling family to famous journalist Barbra Walters, who was actually Katie’s personal friend. The interview with Lil Wayne was actually particularly engaging – I ended up learning quite a lot about him and leaving the studio with a newfound respect for the man, or at least for his current public persona. But that’s not all away I walked away with – there was a surprise gift for every single audience member. At the beginning of the show we had to fill out some forms and give our addresses so that whatever the prizes were could be mailed to us. When I asked the woman handing out the forms about international addresses, she gave me a dismayed look.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Unfortunately for tax reasons we can only give away prizes to US citizens.” She made a mark on the corner of my form in red pen before continuing on. Undeterred, I got another form and just filled it out again, but instead I wrote down Melissa’s address. It didn’t really matter in the end, since you had to go online to register to have the free gift delivered, and you had to enter an address again anyway.

But what we actually got was pretty awesome. At the very end of the show, Katie came out and stood next to a table with a large cover over it.
“Now I’m sure you’re all wondering what you’re all going to be going home with today,” Katie said, and it was true. We were all brimming with anticipation. So when she removed the cover to reveal a computer, a HP ENVY Rove All-In-One PC, the crowd went absolutely crazy. We all started screaming. Melissa looked stunned. Stefon looked like he was about to cry tears of happiness. Even I felt a little giddy. I mean, it was just a computer, but the fact they were giving it to us for literally doing nothing except sitting and watching the show inspired a sense of delirious happiness. Sure, Oprah wasn’t giving us cars, but it was still pretty damn cool.

When the computers finally arrived at Melissa’s house, I struggled to decide what to do with it. I would be meeting my dad in New York towards the end of my stay here, and was thinking if it was small enough I could send it home with him. The boxes were huge though, and so heavy, which also ruled out posting it home unless I wanted to pay probably more than what the computer itself was worth in postage fees. In the end, Melissa and I came up with the best solution. Melissa’s mom had been wanting a new computer, and had offered to buy my prize from me. At first I refused to sell it, since it had literally cost me nothing to obtain, but she wouldn’t let me give it to her for free. I was travelling, she had insisted, so I could always do with the extra cash. She was right, of course, so in the end that was what we did. The money was of much more practical use than a computer ever would have been, but I still like to remember myself as one of those fanatics that went ballistic about winning a prize as a television talk show audience member.

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.

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.

From Green to Goodbye Blues

So on my last evening in Dublin, with the sun making its ever so gradual descent over the city, I met Matt at my hostel and he helped me collect my things and check out. I still had one more night there, but after the dreadful sleep I’d had last night and the rude awakening from the trains that morning, I was more than happy to forfeit my bed and take Matt up on a better offer. We were going to catch a train a little way down south to where Matt’s Garda friend – the one who had driven us home with sirens blaring on my first night in Dublin – lived, and we were going to stay with him that night, and he had offered to drive me to the airport the following morning. Since I had arrived by boat, I wasn’t even 100% sure where Dublin airport was, but since Matt himself wasn’t in possession of a drivers licence, my only other option would have been catching a bus (or an expensive taxi, I suppose), so I took them up on the generous offer.

That last night was an emotional night. I had spent quite a lot of time with Matt over the last several days, and we’d gotten to know quite a lot about each other in our conversations, jokes, stories, and general cross-cultural and personal education about each others lives. We’d also grown remarkably close for two people who had just met – although I suppose that is often the case with such whirlwind romances where the expiry date has already been set before the affair has even begun. There was an element of déjà vu for me – during my travels I’d left behind a handful of short-term romances with some truly incredibly people, from London to Berlin and even Vietnam – but while I felt there had definitely been strong and real connections with all of those people, in the end our farewells had been a few blinked back tears and a resigned smile, accepting our meeting as a beautiful but brief moment in time. Matt was different, though, and I began to learn that for every charming and endearing typical Irish trait that was winning me over, there was, somehow, something about me that was doing the same to him twofold. And somehow, that made him even more special.

The three of us ordered pizza and drank a lot of wine, and there was a lot of laughing and joking about, having a lot of fun. But as the wine flowed freely, so did the feelings, and there suddenly came a point in the night where the very real fact that I was leaving tomorrow hit everyone, especially Matt, like a tonne of bricks. He’d hate me for saying so, but he cried that night.
“Ah, look what you’ve done to me,” he said with a laugh, trying to shake off the very obvious feelings that he was trying his best to suppress. “I don’t cry. I never cry!” But from the sound of his sniffles, and the wetness I could feel on his face as it was pressed against my own, I could tell he was definitely shedding a few tears. “Honestly, I don’t remember the last time I did… When me… when me dad passed away last year… not even then! I didn’t even cry then. But for some reason, I’ve known you all of five days, and look at me! Big, blubbering mess, I am!” Matt held me in his arms, and I held him back, at a loss of any words to actually say that could possibly mean more than what he had just told me.
And I cried too.

***

The following morning was a cloaked with a mood that was almost melancholy, as we stood around the kitchen sipping our cups of coffee and nursing our hangovers. The several bottles of wine had somewhat heightened our emotions the previous evening, and in the morning gloom the words we’d said felt like an elephant in the room. We stood there in silence. I wasn’t sure what to say, and was scared that almost anything I did say would trigger more of last nights sentiments, and Matt already looked a little worse for wear. So we all eventually piled into the car, and Matt’s friend drove us to the airport. We encountered a little bit of traffic and were running only fractionally late, but when I arrived I was ushered to the front of the check-in queue, while the other two waited behind the crowds. And that’s when the morning took a turn from depressing to stressing.

I thought I had planned the whole thing out pretty well, to be honest, but then I’m no travel agent. When checking in for an important international flight, there is nothing worse than hearing the phrase: “There seems to be a problem with your booking.”
My stomach dropped, but I instantly flipped back to being optimistic. There’s all kinds of tiny little glitches that can happen, they probably just need some extra information or something, I assured myself.
“Your ESTA visa waiver for the United States lets you remain in the country for a period of up to 90 days,” the woman behind the counter said to me. “But according to your itinerary here, you’re going to be there for a period longer than 90 days.”
I breathed a sigh of relief at that. “Oh! Yeah, that’s because I plan to go to Canada. I’m going to get the train up to Montreal for a week, then come back.”
“Oh… have you got the ticket for that?”
“Not yet,” I said, a little more uneasily this time. “I’m not sure exactly when I’ll go, so I couldn’t book the tickets. But I’m planning on going before the first 90 days.”
The expression on the her face was still rather unimpressed. “Give me one moment,” she said as she furrowed her brow, and moved away to make a phone call. There was a couple of other staff around us, as I’d been moved to the late check-in counter, and I could detect an annoying vibe of curiosity from them.

Suddenly, Matt appeared beside me. “Everything alright?”
“Ahh… I think… I’m not sure…” Then the woman behind the desk moved over to speak to me.
“I’ve just been informed that travelling to both Canada and Mexico does not reset the 90 day count from having entered the country. As a condition of entry you must have proof that you are going to leave the North American continent within 90 days.” My stomach dropped again, and this time I was out of reach of any optimism to cling to. This could not be happening.
“I’m sorry, but if you don’t have have that proof then I can’t let you through, otherwise you’re only going to get turned away from pre-clearance customs downstairs.” When flying to the US from Dublin with Aer Lingus, all passengers went through a security and customs clearance at the airport in Ireland, meaning they could land in the domestic terminal in the US and not have to worry about it over there. But wait: it gets better (well, worse).
“Unfortunately, since boarding is about to close, you’re not going to make it on this flight.” Well, she didn’t beat around the bush. The words came down on me like a tonne of bricks, and it was clear that I had screwed up. I stood there in shock, trying to hold my disappointment together and blinking back rising tears.
“However, we do have another flight leaving for New York this afternoon that is not full yet. If you can come back to me with tickets as proof of departure before 90 days, we may be able to get you on that flight. What would you like to do?”
“I… I… ah… I need to think about it for a couple of minutes,” I said, and she nodded as Matt steered me away from the desk.

What followed was a lot of swearing to and at myself, and a racking of both my brain and my contact list for a solution. I called my mum back at home – luckily the time difference meant that it wasn’t the middle of the night – and I frantically explained the situation. Like any good mother, she remained calm in a crisis.
“Well, what do you want to do?” she simply said to me in a steady voice that was the absolute contrast of mine at that moment.
“Uh, well coming back earlier seems to be the most obvious thing?” Although I already had my flights booked from LA to Hawaii to Sydney, so that would involve rebooking two flights instead of one. My mother seemed to have similar train of thought.
“Well you’re over there, you might as well stay over there,” she said with a sigh. “Is there anywhere else you want to go? How about Costa Rica again?” she asked, referring to the trip I had made there a couple of years ago.
“Mum, I can’t afford another international flight!”
“Look, don’t worry about that. We can sort it out later.” I was incredibly lucky for such an amazing woman to have my back. “Is there anywhere else? Anyone in South America you know?” That last question triggered something in my mind.
“Brazil!”
“Brazil?” she replied, sounding a little confused. “Okay… that’s a big country. What city? Rio?”
“Um… I have no idea. Let me call you back.” And so using the airport wifi I logged onto Facebook to look up Fausto, who I had met in Barcelona. Turns out he lived in São Paulo, and so I called my mum back straight away, as she had since been liaising with my travel agent.

“Mum? São Paulo!” I said as soon as she answered. I quickly scanned my brain through all the rough, tentative plans I had for while I was on the east coast of the US, and I figured out a period of a couple of weeks were I could head to Brazil and then return to the US that would effectively navigate around the laws of the ESTA visa waiver.
“Okay, São Paulo.” I still had no idea if Fausto was even going to be in Brazil at the time, but it was the best shot I had. I made a mental note to send him a message ASAP. “And you want to fly back to New York?”
“No! New Orleans!” It was a spur of the moment decision, but in the end I had my reasons.
“New Orleans? Okay, well, let me see what we can do.” She hung up to call my travel agent, at which point I collapsed into Matt’s embrace. He had been sitting with me this whole time, trying to calm me down and keep me from hyperventilating. And I thought he was doing rather well, knowing how sad he must of felt over the fact that I was still, despite the complications, leaving.
“It’s almost like a sign,” he said with a smile. “Maybe you were just meant to stay in Ireland.” I laughed, and gave him another squeeze, though I could somehow sense that he was only half joking.

***

So my mother booked the flights for me, and my travel agent emailed the itinerary, but then I had to print it off. There was a police station on the airport grounds, so Matt’s friend was able to print it off for me there.
“So, how the hell did that happen? How did your travel agent not pick up on that?” he’d asked as we wandered back over to the terminal.
“I don’t know” I said with a shrug. “I guess I did have a lot going on in that itinerary.”
“Yeah. But still…” he said, a little disgruntled, probably just because he thought he’d be well on his way out of the airport by now. Matt, on the other hand, was making the most of every final moment we had together.

I went back over to the check-in desk with my documents, and they seemed almost as relieved as I was that I had figured something out.
“Where are you heading off to after the States, then?” one of the guys around the counter said with a smile.
“Brazil,” I said happily, feeling pretty sure that everything was going to be okay from here on out.
“Brazil! Nice! Well, that’s not too bad an outcome now, is it?” he said with a grin, and I couldn’t help but return it. He was right – in a bizarre twist of fate, my own mismanagement of my travels had forced me into a side trip to Brazil. When you put it like that, I certainly wasn’t complaining.
The first woman who I had dealt with before seemed satisfied with the itinerary too, so my bag was checked-in, weighed and spirited away on the conveyor belt, and I was handed my boarding pass for the afternoon flight to New York. But as we walked away, I realised that that had all seemed a little too easy.
“So they’re just going to put me on another flight? Just like that? It wasn’t even their fault. I thought I’d have to pay something extra there too.” It seemed odd, but then Matt had a confession.

“Well… There’s usually a fee of €100 for changing a flight.”
“Oh really? Well, that would make sense. Why did they waive it?”
“Well, look… I told the guy at the desk there that I was gonna pay for any extra charges it might’ve been. But when he asked how much you’d spent on the new tickets, and I told him, I think he was a little sympathetic. He’d said you’d spent enough today, and he said they wouldn’t worry about charging you.” Matt was just constantly outdoing himself, and that Irish charm of his seemed to never cease in perform miracles. However, it wasn’t until much later in my trip, after both Matt and the Emerald Isle were far behind me, that I discovered it wasn’t just a €100 fee – it was €100 in addition to the difference of the cost of the ticket you originally bought, and the current price of the one you were switching to. And when I was switching from a ticket that I had booked months in advance (on a flight that had already left) to a ticket that was leaving that afternoon, that was a lot of money. I felt a wave of gratitude to the workers at Aer Lingus, who had taken pity on me and waived such a large fee, but also – and especially – to Matt, who had ridiculously volunteered to pay that sum had they not decided to waive it. And to even do so without telling me! He knew I would never have let him do that if I’d known, which I suppose is why he didn’t tell me, but it was further proof in my mind that the Irish were truly a different, yet beautiful kind of crazy.

We had another couple of hours before I had to begin boarding the afternoon flight, so Matt and his friend hung around with me and waited. The mood was calm and nonchalant on the surface, but I knew Matt was upset – despite all the drama of the morning, I was still leaving.
“Don’t think of it as goodbye,” I said to him, trying my best to not sound like a Hallmark card or a line from a cheesy romantic comedy. “It’s just a, ‘see ya later’, and I’ll see you further down the track. Who knows, maybe you’ll come to Australia?”
“I think I might just have to!” he said, and flashed me that cheeky grin I had grown to love for the final time.
And when the time came for me to board that plane, he hugged me one last time, so hard I thought that he might not even let me go. But he did, and I gave him one last gentle kiss on the lips before turning and heading towards the gate. I looked back a few times, tears in my eyes, and he was still standing there, watching, waving, all the way until I was out of sight.

I felt a little guilty. It was by far the most emotional goodbye I’d had on my journey so far, but I had so many adventures and exciting things waiting for me in New York and beyond. I was sad, but I was also very excited. Matt didn’t have that prospect of adventure to look forward to, and he was returning home to his life that was stained with a mark that I had so deeply, yet unintentionally, left. He was a mess that evening, and on many evenings to come – I know that because he told me so. But of Matt, I will say this: for better or for worse, he made me truly realise how some of the smallest things we do in our own lives can have some of the greatest impacts on other people and in theirs. It’s a valuable lesson that I’ll never forget, just like I’ll never, ever forget him.