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"To escape is the greatest of pleasures. Still, as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it, and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet." — Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays
Seventy years ago, the art intelligentsia of Scotland got together and founded the Edinburgh International Festival. They'd invite top artists from around the world, they decided, and people would pay lots of money to come see those top artists, and the Festival Director and his colleagues would profit nicely. It was a great plan. And it worked, quite nicely. The top artists came, and the wealthy spectators came, and the aristocracy of the arts reeled with all expected pomp.
But others: they weren't invited. Theater companies, good theater companies, unknown theater companies. They wanted to participate in the arts too! And so eight of them packed up their costumes and their props and their scripts and headed to Edinburgh, were they took advantage of the large crowds to showcase a bit of their own work. And, even though the Festival Director didn't tell them it was any good, the people liked it. They enjoyed the fresh new theater and they strolled about the festival's rim where the uninvited actors set their stages, making up their own minds as to what was and what wasn't worth seeing. And there it was born, in the now-famous words of Scottish journalist Robert Kemp, "'round the fringe of official festival drama": the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
It as since been replicated—oh, has it been replicated—in Hollywood and Washington and New York and Philadelphia, in Cincinnati and New Orleans and some non-American cities, too, but no one does it quite like Edinburgh: indeed, it's the largest arts festival in the entire world, three thousand unique shows in twenty-five days. And I was there for two of them.
I stepped off the bus and headed straight to the Royal Mile, the (now-paradoxical) epicenter of the Fringe. All along it, buskers juggled and tourists strolled, and hundreds of performers passed out bills advertising their art—"Great comedy, 9PM tonight, just down the road!" ... "Hey, can I interest you in a musical?" ... "Excuse me sir; do you like to laugh?" —and others actually acting out little snippets of their stuff, live commercials, on any of the half-dozen mobile stages down the Mile. If all of this felt a bit too chaotic (it was very, very chaotic), one could quickly download the official Fringe application to their phone and see all of the Festival's offerings neatly and filtered by time, type, or price.
Ah, price. Like couchsurfing, much of Fringe operates within a different economy than that of global Hobbesian capitalism; it's an economy based on fairness and trust. It's called Free Fringe, and it works like this: (1) you pay nothing, (2) you watch a performance, (3) the performance concludes and, having now seen it, you pay what it was worth to you. How nice, to be trusted to do the right thing; how nice, to not pay fifteen quid at the door and be terribly disappointed by a subpar showing. I liked the spirit of Free Fringe, and I dove in headfirst, veering off the Royal Mile by early afternoon and navigating through busy streets to my first venue.
Oh, the venues. Those deserve a mention too. There were three hundred of them around the small city; really, any Edinburgher with some brick and mortar (and sometimes not even that) could open up their pub, basement, or patio to performers needing a place to play. Consequently, the fortunate Fringe-goer gets a wonderfully intimate view of town. In my short two days there, I found myself in local bars, community centers, a double-decker bus, an old church-turned-beer hall, a yurt, a double-decker bus yet again.
I saw comics in ones and twos and threes, and a pun-filled lecture on ancient Roman history, and a one-woman play about depression, and some of them were good, and some of them were very good, and some of them were not so good, but that was okay because it was the Free Fringe and at the Free Fringe nobody gets scammed. I saw a beautiful bit of LGBT theater in a basement that seated seven, and a stirring account of a poet-turned-activist in a storytelling attic, and happened upon a magnificent poetry slam featuring a handful of great Scots. On the second night, I thought I'd venture outside of the Free Fringe, maybe see a paid performance. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde. I paid five quid, regretted it ten minutes in. There was dubstep involved.
It works, this donation-based economy. It makes us all try harder, makes us all better. I regretted the five quid I'd spent on Jekyll, and yet I didn't hesitate to toss twenty pounds into the bucket, unsolicited, on my way out of the storytelling attic. If you give them the chance, people will give what's deserved.
I was loving the Fringe, lapping up five or six or seven performances each day. Yet I felt awful, still sick from Inverness, a walking mess of blurry eyes and runny nose and scratchy throat. I'd sit away from the others and I'd hold a tissue to my face and do my best not to sniffle, and sometimes it'd work and sometimes I'd have to rush out in a bout of muffled sneezes. The weather remained as cloudy as my sinuses, as foggy as my head, as rainy as my nose. I'd been in Scotland nearly a week and had yet to see the sun: all was cold, all was grey, all was wet.
Terrible as it was, I can't imagine any better weather by which to see Edinburgh. Fringe aside, the city is still interesting and artsy and beautiful, high spires and weathered brownstone and a great castle up on the hill. Tight alleys, cozy closes, brick to spare ... the place felt like the setting for Harry Potter—which is no surprise given that the start of the series was written there, right in the very cafe I stumbled into for a cup of coffee on the morning of my second day in town.
On the third day my Fringe binge drew to a close; I had a flight to catch. I woke early, caught the sky before she got dressed in her silky silver robes. I admired her blue naked flesh, bright and unblemished, marveled at its beauty—it'd been nearly a week since I'd seen true blue—before she caught me staring and covered up in hurried indignation. Clouds or no clouds, I trekked out from the baroque facades of the city center and climbed the grassy hills of Arthur's Seat; I stood up on its edge and admired its vistas. To my east: all of Edinburgh, pretty and brown, spellbinding and mysterious; to my west: Ireland, the final frontier of my European odyssey.
For nearly three months, I had roamed east of Edinburgh, cutting great lines across the Old World. And now it was August, and I was not east or west but indeed in Edinburgh, and now I was going home, six days left to make it to Dublin.
I decided to take the long way. A short bus ride to the airport and a short flight from there whisked me out of Edinburgh, out and west of it, up, up, and away from the Fringe and right on past Dublin to Ireland's southern shores, over and down to a little city called Cork. Cork was a lovely place, small and scaled and everything one expects Ireland to be, and I arrived in the late afternoon and walked along its calm river to a pretty, bustling park, and read books under blue skies—finally, sun!—until dusk fell. Still feeling ill, I called it an early night.
The next morning I picked up some sinus medicine, found it actually helped, and trekked to Cork's college campus for a leisurely day of more books, more blue skies. I picnicked on the lush quadrangle flanked by old moss-covered stone ramparts, parapets and all, and read for hours. That evening I ran, showered, did some laundry. I was feeling a bit better, so I headed down to the common room of the hostel and met a few friendly travelers, all also going solo: a girl from Alberta, a guy from Switzerland, and another from, of all places, Washington, DC. We were hungry—a few of us at least—so we went for a walk about town, got dinner, and grabbed a round at the bar beneath the hostel. We were joined by a really obnoxious Canadian, and I'd never met an obnoxious Canadian (she was from four miles north of the border, so I suppose that explains it), and around midnight my patience for her and my sinus medicine both wore out. I went to sleep.
After eighty-seven days of quick, rough travel—not all of it, but lots and lots of it—I was ready for a vacation, a little unwinding and reflection before returning home. I'd had a vision of shacking up in a remote Irish cottage and spending a few days with my literature and my thoughts, but after nearly a week of illness-induced introversion (I was doing much better by the time I left Cork), I felt a quiet hostel in a coastal village would be just as good. I did some research; I found a little town on the west coast known as Doolin. It had no banks, no ATMs, no cinema or nightclub or tanning salon. It had a rugged coast, and farms, and a cliffside trail that led straight to the Cliffs of Moher. It had a hostel that opened up right onto a creek. It had horses and ponies and big skies and quiet. It sounded perfect.
A pair of buses carried me from Cork to Ennis and Ennis to Doolin, clean across green, rolling Ireland. In my Irish vision, I'd be spending the next three days alone, and wearing dark flannel, and still sporting a bushy beard, and I think probably doing everything by candlelight, cooking hearty stews in a dark cottage with wooden walls. An iron pot, a creaking rocking chair, musk ... that sort of thing. This, Doolin, was not that vision, but it was something just as good, even better.
It was, for starters, tiny. Sure, it wasn't a shack for one in an empty valley, but it was really nothing more than a few dozen single-story edifices smattered about a hilly kilometer or two. The hostel itself was all stone, maybe three hundred years old—with creek, as promised. I got off the bus at no point in particular, just out on the side of the road, and walked through town in search of a grocery. There wasn't one ... there wasn't one of much. The nearest place to get whole foods was a few kilometers up the road at the petrol station, so I headed that way. I climbed into rain, felt baptized by it, cleansed, rejuvenated. Forty minutes later, I reached the shop and picked up whatever I could find that was simple and vegan: apples, tomatoes, carrots, onions, mushrooms, potatoes, pasta, wine. Heavy shopping bag clutched in my left hand, I set out the way I'd come.
It was a lovely walk, but the bag was heavy. I stuck out my thumb, hopeful for a hitch as I walked, and didn't have it raised for more than five seconds before an automobile materialized to my right. I lumbered in, thanked the old Irishman inside for his kindness, and we chatted for a few minutes until that skinny road brought us back into town. My hostel was right at the center of town—the center of town being nothing more than the intersection of Doolin's two roads—so I walked a few meters back to the creek, entered the old stone hostel, and checked in.
I showered, changed, headed to the kitchen and cooked a colorful stirfry. I sat down to eat and struck up a conversation with a guy at the next table over; he was from Australia, traveling with his partner, cycling around the world. I met his partner, switched tables, learned more about their trip. They'd just begun, maybe six weeks ago, and figured it'd take four years, this wild, daring, incredible journey of theirs, a bike tour de force from Britain to Ireland to Western Europe, to Morocco and Tunisia and back to Europe, to Turkey, to Central Asia, to China. A flight to Alaska, then Canada, then south through the States. South still, all the way down to South America, to the southernmost part of South America at the tip of Argentina, four full years of adventure and education. I was impressed, inspired. Not only did they seem like great travelers; they seemed like great people. They were—are—great people. I spent hours getting to know Sarah and Scott that night, and loved their passion, passion for travel, passion for each other, passion for life. At our table sat a fourth, as well—John, whom Sarah and Scott had befriended since their arrival a day earlier. He was wonderful, too: older, he had a full lifetime of adventure to share, and the four of us passed the whole evening sitting at that old wooden table talking, always intending to make it out, never quite getting there.
Doolin is a natural resting place for travelers headed to or from the monumental Cliffs of Moher, just eight kilometers south of town. I figured I'd head down the next morning, and Sarah and Scott planned to as well, so we hiked over together after a lazy breakfast. The hike was marvelous, two hours there and two hours back along the edge of towering cliffs plunging into the angry waters of the Atlantic. We stopped to feed grass to horses as we went, we skirted crumbling corners, we got sprinkled with beads of water from feeble waterfalls blowing upward from the cliff face. The landscape was nearly pristine, the seascape entirely so, and the sun sparkled against everything: glittering hayfields, twinkling waters, dark shiny cliff.
The cliffs of Moher stretch for miles, but tourists and the buses that ferry them all stop near the congested visitors' center, creating an unpleasant chokepoint on an otherwise calm hike. Already approaching mid-afternoon, we decided to break for coffee and then begin our return, arriving back at the hostel with weary legs and roaring bellies. We made dinner, caught up wit John, and spent another night around that same old table with a bottle of wine, once more too engrossed in conversation to make it out to the pub. Once more, bed.
Sarah and Scott were thinking of taking off the next day, but John and I convinced them to stick around one more night—we still had to make it to the pub! They agreed, and Scott and John headed out to the grocery, and Sarah wrote, and I ventured north for another hike, this time up to the Burren.
Walk five kilometers south of Doolin and it's all Wilder Ranch cliffs, but head just a few clicks north and it's something altogether different. Great heaps of limestone litter the landscape, sheets of shale that crack and stretch and ebb and flow like the waves that lap against them at the water's edge. Persistent grass grows here and there, and the occasional shrub, but otherwise it's a barren Burren, an isolating, desolate place. Yet beautiful, too: a badlands.
I walked along the road to reach the Burren, then ditched the trail and just scrambled atop the rock, way out there at the western edge of Europe. I continued north, walking for hours, tiny villages in the distance. To my right, a long ridge followed the coast; I wondered what it looked like on the other side. I didn't see any roads crossing over, but it was all quiet grass, so I turned east, hopped a fence (apparently someone felt they needed all that land for themselves), landed right in a heap of stinging nettle (apparently someone felt they needed to keep everyone else out), and headed straight toward the ridge with tingling legs.
About three quarters of the way up, the grass got taller and the terrain bumpier; nothing was as smooth as it had looked from way down below. I'd come too far to turn back, so I soldiered on, weeds and thorns and little biting bugs now joining the nettles in the all-out assault on my shins. Things worsened, as they always tend to do in these moments, and as I reached the top of the hill's spine I found that the hill just climbed higher, earlier obscured by the incline. Well, shit.
I debated whether to continue up through chest-high grasses or retreat down through chest-high grasses. I looked up, I looked down. I looked at the sky, growing greyer by the minute. I looked left, nothing but hill; right, nothing but hill and that skinny road—wait, a skinny road! My eyes followed it down, right down the slope from the way I'd come. Well, shit, I thought in an entirely different tone, let me get over there.
It was no easy feat, getting over there. More sharp weeds, more piercing thorns, a tough scramble up a steep slope at the road's edge. I climbed ever so carefully over the barbed wire bordering the road, felt blessed to once more be standing on smooth, solid ground. I followed the road up to the top of the ridge, where it curved south over a series of pleasant mounds, gentle rocky vertebrae. At the end of the curve sat a few acres rimmed with a short stone wall; inside the tract three horses ambled. They were the most beautiful horses I'd ever seen: one white with all the grace of a unicorn, the other like sculpted chestnut—oh, and a baby. The pony was nothing pretty, a rather scrappy-looking fellow, but he was the first to wander over to where I stood. "Hey there," I said, slowly raising a hand and extending it peacefully forward. He eyed me, bowed his head and allowed me to run fingers through his tousled mane.
His parents came over, and they let me pet them too, gentle caresses along their strong jaws. I noticed all the good grass on their side had been well-grazed, so I stooped and yanked some from my side of the wall. I offered the long green stalks to the pony and he chewed them gratefully. Some more for the white horse, some more for the chestnut, and then another round for all three, and another, another. I stayed up on that ridge with the skies darkening ominously overhead for quite some time, there with those gorgeous horses otherwise all alone ... I loved them, and I didn't want to leave them. But eventually, the wind chased me out; I left a fresh pile of grass for them atop the wall and backed away. I turned, followed a calm road back to Doolin for one final night in that wonderful village.
Back at the hostel, Sarah and Scott were starting on dinner, and John was perched in the corner near the kitchen. I cooked some pasta and we all ate around that table for a third night. We did make it out this time. After a bottle of wine and some beers at the hostel, the four of us set out to a tiny, crowded pub on Doolin's north end, then crawled on down to another with some live music, and a few other friends from the hostel, just a few meters away. We stayed up late enough to feel young, late enough to remember that we were old, and then we returned to the little hostel by the creek for some welcome rest.
After ninety-one days of barely hanging on, my phone broke the next morning, its screen victim to a little water that had seeped in through its double-cracked glass. Just a week earlier, my tablet had given up too, its z, f, h, and j keys suddenly quitting on me after three years of loyal service, just as I was about to finally conquer the Sisyphusean task of catching up on my writing once and for all. Go on, the electronics seemed to be saying, you can take it from here.
And I could; after all, I was at the end of my road. The next morning, Sarah, Scott, and I said a sad goodbye to John and boarded a bus to Dublin by way of Galway; it was one of the few shortcuts they'd be taking on their trip. Bikes stowed below deck, the three of us bumped about narrow Irish roads; we transferred in Galway and arrived in Dublin around five. It was, alas, time to part ways with the lovely friends I'd made in Doolin. We wished each other safe travels—me for a safe flight home the next morning and them for a safe long ride home over the next four years. It wouldn't be the last time I'd see them, I knew: before departing, I promised to join them cycling through Utah in, oh, 2017.
There are two ways I could have spent my final night in Europe. The first: meet some others in the hostel, go out on the town, see the inside of Dubln's bars and toilets and come back late and drunk. The second: take a quiet stroll about the city center, grab a simple dinner, sit and read, reflect, turn in early. I chose the second. I did all that, and then I slept, and then I woke, and then ... I went home. I left Dublin and I wrote as I crossed the Atlantic, getting down every last word in a final rushed bid for posterity, for the grandkids, for myself if I make it that long, and then I touched down in New York and leapt up again, and I went back and added all those missing zs and fs and hs and js with a soft keyboard, and then I was done telling my story, for there was no more story to tell. I had spent ninety-two days in Europe, and I'd seen and learned wonderful things, and now, for the first time in what felt like a lifetime, I was stationary, settled.
I was home.
Hey: this post was written in Edinburgh, and it concludes in Edinburgh, and I'm still in Edinburgh. This is the closest I've been to real-time journaling in months.
Hey: I'll be home in a week.
"But in a few weeks I shall move into a quiet and simple room, an old gallery lying deep in the heart of a large park, hidden from the town with its noise and incidents. I shall live there the whole winter and rejoice in the great quietness, from which I am hoping for the gift of good and profitable hours." — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Megabus. I once dated a girl who once spent three months up in Boston, and nearly every other week I'd load myself onto an overnight Boston-bound coach, spend eleven sleepless hours in semi-delirium. The air was always stale, the seats always cramped; without fail, some juvenile found it absolutely essential that, at 3AM, the entire bus join him in listening to Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter II through the tinny speakers of a smartphone. Usually, we'd arrive in Boston hours later; usually, the bus would break down before then. Sometimes, the bus would crash, plow into little cars that got in its way. I had vowed never to take Megabus again.
And yet it was Britain, and Megabus reigned for long-distance budget commuting. Trains booked with such short notice would cost hundreds of quid, and they'd be almost too speedy to get a full night's of rest in, so instead I bit the bullet and bought a Megabus ticket for a fourteen-hour ride from London to the Scottish highlands. I boarded, we took off, and I tried for sleep.
I did okay, relatively. It was a night of stops and starts—I'd wake and find us inexplicably parked in a deserted parking lot for hours on end—but the half-day imprisonment at the back of a bus ensured at least a little rest; I woke for a morning transfer in Edinburgh, slept again, woke mid-morning as we began to climb the hills of Scotland. Scotland was beautiful, all undisturbed rolling dunes of golden grass, little farms checkered along the hillside. There were sheep and there were glens and there were those famously Scottish grey skies, sprinkling down upon us as we neared the north.
I drank some water, found that it hurt to swallow. My throat felt tight and my eyes burned and my muscles ached, but I reasoned it all away as punishment for a night of poor sleep, told myself I'd feel better once I got some fresh air in Inverness. We drove on, we stopped for an hour on the highlands highway—a bad accident—we continued toward the loch and arrived almost two hours later, mid-afternoon. I did not feel better. If anything I felt worse, and the weather was no help, all windy and rainy and cold. Scotland was in the middle of a "heatwave," which meant it was still too frigid to comfortablely sit outside, so instead I picked up a few groceries, headed to my hostel, and didn't emerge for the rest of the day.
Okay, I was definitely sick. I rarely get sick—indeed, I'd enjoyed three months of good health all throughout my rough ride of Europe—but when I do fall ill I fall hard, and I hadn't even the energy to stand. I was too tired to read, eyes too red to write, but the internet was fast and the bean bags comfortable, so I fluffed a few into a little nest and passed six or seven hours streaming Woody Allen movies to my tablet, warm and cozy as my fellow travelers bustled in and out of the hostel in big parkas.
I felt no better the next morning, but I was determined to make a day of it. I was, after all, at the edge of the Loch Ness. I had dreamed of this day. As a child, I had something of an obsession with Nessie, the collective name for the clan of plesiosaurs that roam the bottom of the Scottish lake, holdovers from a Jurassic age, protected from mass extinction—like other water-dwellers of their time—by the loch's record-breaking depths, protected from us by that same murky depth, protected from the dangerous ocean by the bottleneck that makes Ness a loch and not a bay. For years, I'd fantasized about coming to the loch, pulling up a rocking chair along its calm shore, reading a good book and sipping a good tea and waiting for one of the Nessies—Nessie XXVI, Nessito, Papa Ness, didn't matter—to slither onto the shore and say hello. And sure, I was sick, and sure, it was dreadfully rainy, but I was determined: this would be that day.
Inverness doesn't actually abut the loch—it sits instead on the River Ness—so I caught a local bus to Drumnadrochit, a tiny village selling Nessie wares, hosting Nessie museums, that sort of thing. I passed through town and got off the bus a little beyond it, literally on the side of the road, where I trotted happily through forty minutes of Scottish countryside, sheep and all to the Urquhart Castle. I was drenched upon arrival, so I hurried into the busy visitors' center and stripped off some of my wetter clothing; I grabbed a hot tea and sat in the cafe with its crystal-clear full-length windows, watched the loch over the tops of castle ruins in the distance. I had arrived.
I wrote for a few hours, peeking up every few minutes and expecting to see Nessie waving from afar, but for whatever reason, she didn't present herself. When the rain abated, I stowed my things and got a little closer to the loch, walking past old wooden trebuchets and up the narrow winding stairs of tower ruins for a truly superb view. The skies overhead were a dark grey, the wind fiercely cold, but it was all so beautiful despite it. A man marched with a whining bagpipe in the courtyard—make no mistake, this was definitely Scotland.
More rain, more cowering inside, more venturing outside, waiting for Nessie. Nothing. I was cold and still wet, and my eyes burned and my nose ran and my throat hurt, so by mid-afternoon, heartbroken, I threw in the towel and headed back to the hostel. I picked up pasta and spinach along the way, cooked a whole big batch of it and devoured it in my bean bag nest, more film to pass the evening. Once more, I slept early.
The next morning, I left the Loch Ness with unrealized dreams; I retreated to Edinburgh hoping for better health and warmer weather. A long bus ride, another late arrival, and I didn't really find either. But no matter: I had found myself in Edinburgh of Scotland, on August 1, the epicenter of arts the world over. Around me: 50,000 performances, 4,000 shows, 300 venues. Buskers, musicians, comics, actors, performers of every last imaginable variety.
I was at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, day one.
"The greatest pleasure of town life: rambling the streets of London. How beautiful a London street is, with its islands of light, and its long groves of darkness, and on one side of it perhaps some tree-sprinkled, grass-grown space where night is folding herself to sleep naturally and, as one passes the iron railing, one hears those little cracklings and stirrings of leaf and twig which seem to suppose the silence of fields all around them, an owl hooting, and far away the rattle of a train in the valley. But this is London, we are reminded; high among the bare trees are hung oblong frames of reddish yellow light: windows; there are points of brilliance burning steadily like low stars: lamps; this empty ground, which holds the country in it and its peace, is only a London square, set about by offices and houses where at this hour fierce lights burn over maps, over documents, over desks where clerks sit turning with wetted forefinger the files of endless correspondence; or more suffusedly the firelight wavers and the lamplight falls upon the privacy of some drawing-room, its easy chairs, its papers, its china, its inlaid table, and the figure of a woman, accurately measuring out the precise number of spoons of tea which— ... She looks at the door as if she heard a ring downstairs and somebody asking, is she in?" — Virginia Woolf, The Death of the Moth and Other Essays
I left for London the next morning. After weeks of gliding ever east along smooth rails and smoother waters, a great mechanical bird lifted me and my westward brethren high into the sky and undid all that work, depositing us, well before tea time, in the heart of England. As we soared, I shaved: I'd been sporting a thick black beard since eastern Europe, just the latest in a series of Europe-bound experiments in growing a beard, a mustache, a head of hair, and the various configurations of all three, and though it'd been a worthwhile endeavor—just the night before, an Estonian man outside the pub had called the shaved-head, face-full-of-hair look "fuckin' awesome"—I felt silly, this strange carpet draped across my cheeks and chin and upper lip; I felt irritated, annoyed by its itch and its weight and its way of catching the sun's angriest rays. Somewhere over Poland, I decided that it simply must go, that it simply could not wait.
The tiny bathroom stood unoccupied. I stood and occupied it. I closed the flimsy door and latched it shut and pulled the shiny buzzer from my bag; I clicked it on and swooned at its dull vibration and traced a line clean across my face. Coarse black hair sprinkled down onto the chrome sink. Another dash of the buzzer, and more: flurries and hailstorms of black and brown and a little red, the shearer now choking on the hair and nearly coming to a stop. I paused, slowed—this was not the time to break the buzzer.
Thirty seconds later, five weeks of work had been erased from my face. I looked in the mirror. I felt naked, exposed; by contrast to my reddened upper cheeks and browned forehead, the rest of my face, hidden from the summer sun for over a month, looked paler, whiter. I looked away, I washed the sink clean, I stashed my buzzer back in my bag and unlatched the door. The whole sordid affair had taken under a minute. I sat back down in my empty row at the back of the plane, feeling guilty of something, though I knew not what. A passenger in the neighboring row looked over, did a double-take. I continued looking forward, smiled a little.
The plane touched down in Stansted, and I waited with the others in an abhorrently long line to clear customs. I loathed customs. An hour later, I was called to the window, where a stout little man had somehow found himself by the empowerment of other stout little men—white men; it's always the white men—to determine whether I was worthy of admittance to the great underused landmass that he and his stout little brothers claimed full ownership of. "How long will you be in England?" he asked.
"I'm not sure," I said. A little while?
"What do you mean, you're not sure?"
"I mean, I don't know. Maybe three days, maybe two weeks. I haven't decided."
His eyes narrowed, face crinkled. "And where are you staying? I see you didn't write an address on your declaration."
"No, I'm actually not sure where I'm staying. I'll figure that out as I go."
He didn't like my answer one bit. I wasn't trying to be difficult; I just really didn't have answers to his questions.
"Will you be in London the whole time?"
I sighed. "I don't know. I don't know where I'll be going. I'd like to get to London and figure that all out." Borders weren't made for travelers like me.
He changed the subject. "What do you do back in America?"
"I work for the government."
"Doing what for the government?"
Something of value, I wanted to say. Not this. "Housing, urban development."
He eyed me; I eyed him back just as fiercely. His fingers traced pudgy circles along his iron stamp; he fancied himself a decider of fates. I fancied him a child with a little stamp plaything he liked to press onto the little coloring books he and his ilk called passports.
Thump, click. The metal slammed down, sprang back up. "Here you go," he said, returning my passport with an air of him doing me a great favor.
I'd given him nothing. I proceeded to London.
A quick coach, and there I was. I hadn't actually been excited for London, not in the least. I didn't think I had the stamina for another big city, another Barcelona or Rome or Prague, but all that malaise washed away the second I stepped onto the ancient streets, saw my first bright red double-decker swerving around a corner and flopping down the left side of the road. I had nowhere to be, and lots to see. I walked.
I walked a massive loop around that great big city. South to the Thames, south over the magnificent Tower Bridge, west, west along the South Bank, west straight through a waterside Festival of Love, south again, south to the iconic London Eye, west to Big Ben, north to Parliament, north to Westminster Abbey. Rain. East to the nearest Tube station for shelter. Waiting, watching. Blue skies, northward. A quick peek in the National Gallery, the National Gallery with its great big blue hen out front, north still, north then east, up and over to Russel Square. It was evening. I'd been walking for hours; I'd seen a ton.
I checked into my hostel for the night, dropped my things and got dinner. I read Candide in one sitting as London rushed by from the bistro patio. It had been a long day; I'd crossed the continent. I went to sleep.
After checking out the next morning, I took off to see more of London. I'd done a quick search for poetry slams the night before—I was back in the land of the English, and I was starved for a good slam—and I'd found one just the next morning, an LGBT slam in Victoria Park as part of the London Pride Festival that weekend. It didn't start until one, the slam, so I passed the morning lounging in famous Hyde Park, figuring out what my plan in the UK actually was. I did a little research, made a few decisions, ended up building myself a clean itinerary of my two remaining weeks in Europe: London, Inverness, Edinburgh, Cork, Doolin, Dublin. I had time to kill, so I booked my bus to Scotland, my flight to Ireland, my hostels just about everywhere. Rising from the grass around noon, I had the rest of my trip set in soft stone.
The poetry slam was at Victoria Park, way out in east London, three transfers of bus and rail and bus away—but just one straight shot on a bikeshare cycle. I'd seen the blue bikes all around London the day before and missed the gentle arc of pedaling legs, so rather than crawl deep into the underground to be shot in steel tubes from one end of the city to another, I walked to the nearest bikeshare station and got myself a day rental. I climbed onboard, kicked away from pavement, took to the streets.
I've been an avid cyclist for years, so I usually feel pretty comfortable on two wheels. Give me rush hour, give me angry sweaty drivers and great big trucks, give me potholes and ice and rain; I'll best them all with a smile on my face and a grease stain on my right ankle. But not in London. No, I realized as soon as I took off in the saddle that I was wholly unprepared for a safe spin through London's inverted roads, that all my years of biking had put me at a terrible disadvantage. Try as I may, I simply couldn't bring myself to the left side of the road, just could not follow the lines on the asphalt without the cyclist inside me taking over: stay to the right, sharp corners, wide lefts. I zig-zagged through the streets and I cursed the backwards driving and I found that even if I could adhere to one side, I still couldn't adhere to one direction: all those eastbound roads curved, banked toward the river. The sun was no use sitting listlessly in the southern sky, and every time I was sure I was going east I'd wind up back on some road I'd seen before. It was noon, it was 12:30, it was one and yet I still couldn't escape the tugging whirlpool of the city center.
I gave up, disappointed. I docked my bike and grabbed some sushi and headed to a park instead. I sat against a shady tree while I ate, watched a circle of men, women, and children bang against hide drums and wooden folk instruments as they took turns part-dueling-part-dancing with each other in the middle of the pack, a yoga-based Brazilian martial arts called capoeira. The sushi was exceptional, the entertainment enthralling, the weather wonderful and the city simply full of surprises. I liked London quite a lot.
Imagine a world where money is worthless. Imagine a world with a much stronger form of currency—generosity, trust, reciprocation—a world where kindness gets you further than avarice, where bad people with big cash are wholly unwelcome. Imagine a world in which great people open their homes to complete strangers, in which they offer them a bed and a shower and a friend in a distant land, in which they do all this and ask nothing in return but gratitude, that you do your part to pay it forward. This world, it exists all around us. And within it, travelers have crossed the Sahara without paying a dime; they've holidayed for months and they've made great weekend getaways; they've made great friends and gone home and done just the same, opening up their own door, their own couch, their own heart to friends-not-yet-met.
It's called couchsurfing, and for decades, millions have benefited from this generosity-based economy. It's quite simple, the way it works: you join a site, you make a profile. If you're home, maybe you post a few photographs of your couch or guest room and let others know they're welcome to inquire about it. If you're traveling, maybe you take a look at those profiles and photographs, maybe you find someone who seems to have a few common interests and maybe you tell them when you're headed their way and why you'd make a good guest. Maybe, if you seem like a nice person or have hosted couchsurfers before, they'll tell you to come on over: couch is all yours.
You go, and you stay, and you aren't charged anything. Sure, it's nice to bring them a bottle of wine or pick up some groceries or make them dinner or help them fix a leaky sink, but this exchange isn't about making a profit from the weary traveler—it's Airbnb for communists and communalists. You stay, and you sleep, and maybe you spend a little time getting to know your host, maybe you share your tales of travel and maybe you let them know that they're welcome at your place if they ever find themselves in your neck of the woods, and then you leave. Oh, and after you do, if they've been nice and hospitable, you leave them a positive review on their profile, so other couchsurfers know they can be trusted, so other couchhosters know they've given back to the community with a couch of their own.
It's a wonderful concept, a great community, and for years, I'd meant to try it out. But I travel quickly and spontaneously, and as I rocketed across America the summer before, I could never seem to get a sense of where I'd be, at least not with enough notice for a generous host. In Europe, too, I moved where the winds took me, I stared up at departure boards in crowded train stations and picked my stops minutes before I barreled toward them. I simply hadn't had the opportunity to give couchsurfing a go. But a week prior, I knew I'd be in London—indeed, I'd booked a flight to carry me over—so I logged on and paged through the kind British souls offering to put up folks like me; I messaged a few, and I waited.
Of course, I expected nothing. I was owed nothing. I hadn't paid my dues; I hadn't hosted anyone in my home. I'd wanted to, but I had excuses: for one, I didn't yet have a couch. For most of the past two years, I didn't have a working shower, or running water, or lightbulbs. I vowed to change all that when I got home—it might still have a composting toilet, but the tiny house was nearly done and I'd be happy to open it to anyone who dared to try it—yet I knew it was a paltry promise against a community of couchsurfers who had dozens, hundreds, of hard-earned recommendations.
I misjudged their generosity. Only a day later, I got a reply from a woman named Flip—fellow photographer, fellow do-it-yourselfer, fellow traveler—who graciously offered me her couch in central London for three full nights. I was excited, overjoyed. Thank you! I said.
That was a week earlier, and now it was a week later, and I'd arranged to meet Flip in front of the Tube station near her flat. I left the park and I walked over to Angel station and sat on a planter, waited. A voice: "Are you Jay?"
I turned, smiled, greeted the Flip I'd only seen in one small thumbnail online. I liked her immediately: she seemed sharp and witty and unpretentious. I thanked her for her kindness; she swatted it away and led me toward her apartment. We took the scenic path, which was so scenic, a gorgeous stroll along London's sole canal, all lined with garden beds and trendy coffee shops and adorable little houseboats themselves adorned with lush green planters, solar panels, tiny porches. Pedestrian bridges arched overhead, styled graffiti etched onto their underhangs.
Ten minutes along the canal and then we veered up a small ramp toward Flip's flat. It was lovely: small but cozy, well-decorated with scores of photographs and mementos from her extensive travels. She gave me the grand tour—kitchen, shower, toilet, her bedroom, my living room and my couch—and put a pot of tea on the stove for us. The kettle whistled, the tea steeped, and we sat on the floor as we sipped its strong black tannins; we got to know each other, compared travel notes, compared living in the UK and living in the US.
It was late afternoon when our conversation wound down, and Flip asked me what I planned to see while in London. I told her I wasn't really sure, that I'd seen the big sights from the outside and maybe fancied a museum for the evening. She recommended the Tate Modern—Abbilyn, too, had recommended the Tate Modern before leaving Europe—so I decided on the Tate Modern. "Splendid, I can walk you down there," she said.
My phone could have guided the way, but it was a generous offer and Flip insisted, so we left as the sun dipped behind the highest stories, Flip with her bike in tow. We talked more as we walked the forty minutes to the Thames, and as the crowds thickened and Flip began struggling to maneuver her bike, she gave me the last set of directions to the Tate, straddled the seat, and pedaled back home.
The Tate was lovely, a massive arthouse in an old power plant, and I kept busy in there for hours. I lost track of the time; I remembered I'd made plans to meet up with Allie and Hugh from Copenhagen and rushed out toward London's northern parts. An hour later, my feet slowed outside of our rendezvous point; I scanned the crowd and spied the couple, greeted them on their home turf. We caught up on the past week—had it really only been that long?—as we walked to dinner, chatted about life in London over Indian curry. After eating, we took a short stroll to a cider tap—an entire pub selling nothing but cider!—and were joined by a few of their fencing friends. Allie, Hugh, the friends, they talked shop a bit, and I didn't really mind. For years I'd wanted to take up fencing, so it was great to hear about it from seasoned professionals, to learn the lingo and, well, to sit next to a gorgeous six-foot blonde with a sabre tucked away in her bag and a ranking of fifth in the nation under her belt.
But the night ebbed and I didn't want to get back to Flip's too late—the worst offense a couchsurfer can commit is to use a host's place as nothing but a crash pad, and that certainly wasn't my intent—so I said goodbye to the group and walked back (so much walking in that big city!) to Angel. Flip was sitting around when I returned, asked me how my evening was, asked me if I wanted a glass of the Estonian wine I'd brought for her. She popped the bottle, poured two glasses, and we sat on the carpet and drank the sweet wine as we talked into the early hours of the morning.
I spent the entire next day following street art around the city. After heading to the grocery and chopping up a fruit salad for us, I asked Flip if she knew where I might find some good graffiti, and she—once again, so generously—offered to walk me down to a decent jumping-off point in East London. So by noon I was on my own; I followed the canal until it became all weeds and marsh, I steered south and wandered down to Liverpool Station. From there, north, east, east-west-east, south, north again, a great winding maze through the city's streets and alleys and little lanes. I saw entire buildings canvassed in bright colors, clever creations embedding right into the urban geography, wonderful works of gorgeous graffiti that led the London eye from corner to corner. I got to know the repertoire of London's street artists, I saw a famous Banksy and a million infamous tags. Beyond the art, I saw a whole side of the city I hadn't previously seen, hip and gritty and a world away from London's western edge. Another day, another twenty miles, maybe more. Weary legs, I returned to the flat that evening. More tea with Flip, a little more wine, more sleep.
I woke early the next morning and left while Flip was still in her room. She'd recommended the British Museum, and so had Allie and Hugh, so I headed over early to beat the crowds and failed miserably in that pursuit, the museum already swarming with sweaty legions of tourists by 11AM. The museum was filled with stolen artifacts, and people needed photographs of this or that, didn't really matter what it was. No time to read the captions; there's more to be photographed! I sought refuge on the top floor, a place the elevators—consequently, the tourists—didn't go. There was a nice peaceful exhibit on Japan. I walked through it; I imagined Japan. Flip had been to Japan; Flip loved Japan. I decided sometime that year I'd bike across Japan.
I left the museum as the heat of the masses began to reach the upper floors, and I wandered south to the river once more. The South Bank was awash with buskers, so I spent the afternoon watching contortionists bend themselves into bowls and pretzels, watching men juggle machetes on ten-foot unicycles. The afternoon passed in a flash, and I walked back to Flip's sometime that evening. We talked some more, sipped some tea, and I slept one more night on Flip's couch.
It was my last day in London. I said goodbye to Flip, thanked her a million times for her kindness, returned her house key and set off into the city one more time. A morning spent at the National Portrait Gallery, an afternoon spent writing in St. James Park. For dinner, I met up with Sarah and Isaac, old friends from DC who had relocated to the UK two years earlier. It was lovely seeing their bright, smiling, familiar faces again, catching up over more terrific British Indian curry and a few bottles of wine. The hours flew by and I was sad to leave, but I had a bus to catch.
I had planned to walk to the bus station—I'd walked everywhere else in London, so why not—but had lost track of the time over dinner and was running late. Sarah and Isaac, great people they are, gave me a ride in their cab to the nearest Victoria-bound Tube, and I hurried down the endless escalators, jumped the turnstile when my ticket didn't seem to register, and caught the next train to the bus station. Minutes later, I emerged near Buckingham Palace; an hour later, I was onboard a northbound coach, off to Scotland.
"To retreat into oneself and meet nobody for hours on end—that is what one must be able to attain. To be alone, as one was alone as a child, when the grown-ups walked about involved in things which seemed great and important, because big people looked so busy and because one could comprehend nothing of their doings. And when one day one realizes that their affairs are paltry, their professions benumbed and no longer connected with life, why not still like a child look upon them as something strange from without the depths of one's own world, regarding them from the immunity of one's own loneliness, which is itself work, position, and profession? Why desire to exchange a child's wise incomprehension for self-defense and disdain? Incomprehension is loneliness, but self-defence and disdain are participation in that from which one is trying to separate oneself by these means." — Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Sometimes little boys like to play games. They build themselves little forts out of pillows and blankets and sometimes brick and stone, and they call these games they play king-of-the-hill or capture-the-flag or the-great-war. They don't let girls play, which is just as well because girls don't usually want to play anyway, but sometimes the girls and the other little boys in the playground get pulled in anyway, get some stray sand kicked in their face, maybe their tower of blocks knocked over by a hurtled ball.
Sometimes the little boys need even teams, so they force other little boys to play with them. They kick over those peaceful towers made of little blocks, or the boys who have hit puberty and sprouted a few inches simply tug at those who haven't, and they say "come play" and the littler boys have no choice. Sometimes, the boys bore of evenly-matched teams and just go about bullying, knocking over the towers and tugging at those boys for the sheer diversion of it.
Sometimes the little boys pick up a stick and draw deep lines in the sandbox, and they say "this is my side and this is your side" to the other little boys, and sometimes the other boys play the game and other times they don't, and sometimes when they don't the boys who drew those lines pick up those sticks and hit the others with it, and they say, "I told you not to come on my side of the line!"
Sometimes the little boys forget that not everyone wants to play their games. A little girl might just want to cross the sandbox, and sometimes they'll let her, but sometimes they won't, especially if she's ugly or brown or comes from the wrong side of the tracks, and they'll hit her with sticks and tell her she can only cross if she knows the password or pays them her allowance. And even when the nicer boys let her cross, they let her know that they're just letting her cross, and if she thinks she can sit somewhere in the corner of the sandbox and stay a while, maybe build herself a little sand castle, then even the nicer boys will wobble over and knock down the sand castle and kick sand in her face, and they'll say "get out of our sandbox, this is ours!"
Sometimes little boys like to play games, and sometimes it'd be nice if those little boys remembered that the sandbox is big enough for everybody, and that not everybody wants to play their games. Sometimes some of us just want to build sand castles and make sand angels and watch the clouds go by with our feet in the sand.
I had intended to go to Russia, to spend a few days in Saint Petersburg before returning to the West, but absurd visa requirements and despicable geopolitics had gotten in the way of that plan. I was finished with the Finnish capital, not welcome in the new USSR, so instead I made for the Baltics, rounded out my eastward return with a quick trip to Estonia.
Of all places, of all people, I had chosen Estonia and its capital of Tallinn by recommendation of Svetlana. Svetlana, the bartender from Paris. Svetlana, who had attacked my travel mate's itinerary for reasons unfounded and, frankly, homophobic. Svetlana, who had nothing good to say about anything, but everything good to say about Tallinn, her hometown back in Estonia. Tallinn, with its medieval flair! Tallinn, with its turrets and its castles and its quaint old city center! Tallinn, with its beautiful stone walls! She had shown me photographs, and though I hadn't liked her one bit, I had liked what I saw.
Tallinn was but a two-hour ferry ride from Helsinki, so I hopped onboard and sailed away from Scandinavia where the prices grew cheaper and my interrail pass grew impotent. I entered the Baltics.
She wasn't wrong, Svetlana. I loved Tallinn from the moment I stepped off the dock, from the first glimpse of its pebbled beaches, its waterfront ruins, its cobbled streets and mish-mashed architecture. I walked through the gorgeous old city to a well-reviewed hostel, checked in, took another heavenly shower. As I stepped out, a group of fellow travelers were heading to dinner and asked if I wanted to join. Sure, I said, sacrificing sleep for social time after what had been a very isolating week. Plus, they were headed to an African place down the street that I had heard good things about, so I tagged along and found the African food wholly disappointing but the company redeemingly good. Across from me sat another American, Vanessa, and she was lovely and friendly and we seemed to have a lot in common, so we chatted amongst ourselves and chatted with the whole table and chatted still as we all got up to leave, stop at a grocery to grab some wine, and head to the beach.
We all sat along the beach and watched the orange sun deposit itself into the slot of horizon in the distance. We passed around cups and bottles and I built a little castle of sand and stone on the ground in front of me. I had mentioned to Vanessa that I was a vegan, and Vanessa mentioned that there was a vegan place she'd passed in town. She asked if I wanted to join her for dinner there tomorrow; I happily agreed. We all headed back to the hostel. Some folks were changing and getting ready for a night out; I, for one, had a bed for the first time in a week, and planned to make the most of it. On an actual mattress, I slept.
I got a late start the next morning. I woke feeling more rested than I had in ages. I yawned, stretched, dressed. I headed into the common room and said good morning to a few of the travelers from dinner the night before. They were maybe thinking of going to the beach. I was also maybe thinking of going to the beach. Around noon, we lazily convinced each other to turn out maybe-plans into actual-plans, and the four of us headed off to the bus stop. A bus took us to a sandier beach than the one we'd walked to for the sunset the night before. It was a crowded beach with shallow water—shallow enough to walk out fifty meters and still be only at your waist—and we passed a few hours there before the crowds grew too large and the sun too hot, before the pale skin of our Dutch friend turned from red to purple. We caught a bus back into town and everyone scattered for a little rest; I dropped a few things and grabbed my camera for a walk about town.
The town was extraordinary. I walked around old city walls and gritty castles and great big eastern churches, through skinny alleys and stone gates, along colorful rowhouses and quiet lakes. Everything was cobblestone, everything felt authentic. Sure, there were tourists, but this was Estonia, so everything felt a bit more relaxed than it might in Paris or Berlin or Rome. I loved it there. I snapped great photographs as the setting sun lit my scenes; I lost myself again and again and simply navigated to the nearest church spire or turret to find my bearings. Around eight, my stomach growled; I remembered I hadn't eaten in hours, remembered I was hungry, remembered I had dinner plans with Vanessa.
Vanessa was just getting back from a day trip to a national park when I returned. She showered, changed, and we headed out into the twilit town of Tallinn as she told me about the Estonian parklands. Ten minutes later we arrived at the vegan restaurant, and ten minutes after that our conversation was halted by great heaps of delicious food: beet ravioli, cucumber cream rolls, a whole assortment of imaginative platters. We ate, chewed, swallowed, talked some more. Vanessa was off to Stockholm early the next morning and had a very early flight to catch, so an hour or so later we walked back toward the hostel, popped into the downstairs bar for a few minutes, said our goodbyes. She took off to pack, and I found a few friends from earlier in a corner of the bar and joined them for a beer.
A pair of girls crossed the room as we talked; one of them was wearing a marvelous plaid shirt. I wanted that shirt. I eyed her shirt, she eyed me, smiled. I smiled back. They left through an archway, returned a few moments later, and the Girl with the Gorgeous Plaid Shirt came over and told me I looked really familiar, like someone she knew. I didn't really know what to say to that—what does one ever say to that?—but she seemed friendly, and she was wearing that shirt, so I asked if she wanted a drink. Sure, she said.
We headed up to the bar and introduced ourselves—her name was Marika, and her friend's name was Bibi, and they were both from Estonia. We got a round and chatted about where in Estonia they were from, chatted about the States and about my travels. Marika asked if I wanted to play Jenga. Jenga? I asked. I love Jenga.
The Jenga pieces were stashed in a shopping cart in the back of the bar: a shopping cart because this wasn't Jenga we were playing, but giant Jenga. We stacked the blocks on a small stage and the tower stood up to my torso; we started playing and it grew taller: chest, neck, head. We took turns squatting or kneeling or bending over and prodding at various blocks—no, that one's too tight; no, there's a little friction there—and the tower began to wobble. Marika stooped to grab at a block toward the bottom, and the whole thing crashed down on her spine.
The loser, we decided, would buy the next round, so we headed back to the bar, got a few more drinks, and downed them rather quickly. Marika and Bibi were headed to another bar; you should come, they said. I didn't have anything else to do—and I was hypnotized by that shirt—so I shrugged and dropped my empty cup on the counter and followed them out of the pub. Tallinn had grown dark, the first proper nighttime I'd seen in a week, and we walked through its black alleys. I had no idea where we were going, wondered if it was wise to trust two Estonian girls in a traveler's bar, but they seemed so nice, so I didn't resist as Marika grabbed my hand and guided me toward a steady thump I could make out in the distance.
We arrived, and the bar was crowded, and the line was long, and none of us felt much like waiting in it. They knew of another place, they said. More wandering, more twists and turns through Tallinn as I was towed by my trusty guides. We left the old town, passed the new town, arrived back near the beach, at the steps of an imposing concrete thing. It was a building, sure, but it had stairs up the side of it and narrower levels above, like a step pyramid, and we climbed from one level to the next without a care. The steps ended and there was still higher to go, so we hoisted each other up the walls and crawled onto the black tar of the strange edifice's roof and stood up, on something, somewhere, with a magical panorama of a midnight Tallinn all around us.
Marika put on some music, and we sat quietly on the edge of the concrete ruin with the dim lights of the small city twinkling in the distance, with the stars twinkling above and the reflection of those distant suns and the boats and the buoys twinkling just the same in the great sea before us. We walked squares around the roof and we danced slowly in the moonlight as Bibi skipped little pebbles into the waves below. The night grew old and I grew young.
"I have been searching all of my days, all of my days
Many a road, you know, I've been walking on, all of my days
And I've been trying to find, what's been in my mind
As the days keep turning into night.
Many a night I've found myself with no friends standing near, all of my days.
I cried aloud, I shook my hands, what I'm doing here?, all of these days.
'Fore I look around me, and my eyes confound me
And it's just too bright, as the days keep turning into night."
— Alexi Murdoch, "All My Days"
It was the day that would never end. I'd woken in Copenhagen seventy hours earlier, and I'd since seen Gothenburg, seen Oslo and Bergen and the Norwegian fjords, seen Oslo yet again, and still, I hadn't a shower, nor a bed, nor a proper ninety minutes of uninterrupted sleep, not even a full setting of the sun to confirm the earth was still spinning on its axis. I had become untethered to time.
I was at the Oslo train station, then I was on a Stockholm-bound train, then I was in Stockholm, and maybe I'd slept a little, and maybe I hadn't. My body was all jelly and lumps, legs of sandbag and lids of heavy steel, my head had been filled with lead and my neck felt far too weak to support it without snapping. My stomach was a whole different sort of battered; for days, I'd fed it nothing but cheap waffles and unripe bananas, and it demanded a real meal.
I walked into Stockholm's pretty old town—despite my drowse, I acknowledged that it was really, really pretty—and found, against all odds, a restaurant offering a home-cooked vegan buffet for only sixteen dollars, which was a steal at Scandinavian prices. My body pulled me inside, I sat, stood, grabbed a plate and loaded it with heaps of vegetables and curries and rice and bread and a small mountain of sprouts, ate it all and came back for seconds. I stayed there for a while, hungry stomach and malnourished muscles fighting it out with sleepy head, and only once I couldn't possibly pick up my fork again did I leave for a nap in the park.
I slept, I woke. I felt a little better. I walked around the center of Stockholm, crossed the lovely bridges between its dozen little islands, wandered inside of the plainest cathedral I'd ever seen and its neighborly counterpart, adorned enough for the both of them. I admired the cinnamon and saffron buildings, the sparkling waters, the grassy harborside. Stockholm was clean, it was positively picturesque. It was also hopelessly boring.
I wasn't disappointed; again, I knew not to expect much from the cities of Scandinavia. I was merely moving east from the fjords—Oslo, Gothenburg, Stockholm, the Finnish places to come, they were just pit stops along the way. And so I moved, quickly, unregrettably, from one stop to the next: here, pause, now onward, now toward Helsinki.
On my way back to the train station, I discovered that I was going the wrong way. I assumed I'd be arriving in Finland by train, rounding the Gulf of Bothnia and coming at Helsinki in a great arch along the coast. Instead, I realized that I'd actually be ferrying there, cutting clean across the gulf in a direct shot from one harbor to the next. Sure thing; I loved ferries. I spun on my heel and walked back toward the water, traced the shore to Stockholm's southern port and ambled up to the ticket window. The overnight ferry cost forty dollars, which was unfortunate, but it promised a smooth ten-hour journey—finally, a chance for some sleep!—so I grabbed a ticket and climbed onboard.
Most of the passengers were making their way to the cabins, cabins with beds and bathrooms and doors that close and lock. All my ticket afforded me was a seat in the "sitting room," which was a small corner of the main deck with about twenty train seats bolted to the ground. The seats reclined as train seats do, all of six or seven degrees, but toward the back of the room I spied a seat that had been violently flattened to nearly the angle of a dentist's chair; clearly, someone else had really, really wanted their sleep. I crashed down in it, twisted to one side and then the other, tossed my feet up on the window ledge and turned my head. It would do.
I left my things on the prized chair and headed to the duty-free shop at the other end of the ship for a bite to eat. The offerings weren't wonderful, but they were cheap: ciders for two euros and cashews for three and a mighty bar of dark chocolate for four. I bought the lot, wandered back toward the sitting room, stopped at the information desk along the way. "Excuse me," I asked, not wanting to get my hopes up but simply needing to ask, "do you know if there would happen to be any showers onboard for those in the sitting room?"
"Oh, certainly," the angel behind the desk smiled, "deck two."
The next thirty minutes may be among the happiest of my life. The next thirty minutes were what the whole spartan week had been about, deprivation for heightened gratification. Remembering that which is to be appreciated, appreciating it as one has never appreciated it before. The next thirty minutes consisted of nothing out of the ordinary for the ordinary man; hell, the ordinary man might complain about the cramped shower or the warm cider or the meager meal. But oh my: to shower! To strip off grimy garments and stand naked under hot rushing water, to watch the filth of the week wash down the drain in soapy spirals; is there any finer joy in life? To be reddened by the heat and force of the faucet, to pat one's self dry with a scarf and brush one's teeth with a real mirror, to rifle through one's pack for the freshest shirt-pant combination and find one that just might work. To dress, to walk past others and not desire to shrink into a corner from smelly shame, to lie down, almost horizontal, on a simple cushion and crack a cider and toss a handful of salty cashews into one's mouth—and then, to sleep! To sleep without shoes on! To shut one's eyes and not fear the next patrol of petty police nor urban rodent, not worry about dropping temperatures nor biting wind. In the words of Tolstoy, "What more can the heart of a man desire?"
I woke in the morning—in the morning—a perfectly reasonable time of day to arise. A beautiful family rested in a heap to next me, father and mother softly singing lullabies to their two boys. Out the window, we sailed by the loveliest little islands, tiny saucers no more than fifteen meters across, with little dollops of foliage sprinkled in the middle. I felt rested, I felt at peace; I felt so, so happy. The day felt bright.
We docked some time later at Turku, Finland's southwesternmost city. I walked through its pleasant town, stopping to read in a park for a few hours, strolling along the river and slowly making my way to the town's train station, where I boarded the next hourly train for Helsinki. I arrived in Helsinki a few hours later, found it just like Stockholm and Oslo and Gothenburg and Copenhagen: pretty, pleasant. Amusement park in the center of town, as is the Scandinavian custom. Wide streets, short buildings. A nice harbor with a nice harborside market. Not much to do or see, but not a bad place to be.
If you're going to Helsinki, be sure to wear colors in your hair. Everyone there does it, I discovered: the young girls and the old women and the middle-aged men, all bustling about with mops of electric blue and tendrils of hot pink on their head. I liked the Finnish style—subtle punk, you might call it—I liked the self-expression and butch haircuts and, yes, those crazy colors. I liked Helsinki, I just didn't know what to do there, and so I took to doing my favorite thing to do while passing time in a new place: hit the grocery, get some snacks, picnic in a park and let the city come to me.
Finland was a bit cheaper than Stockholm (and Stockholm a bit cheaper than Norway), so I managed pretty well with a baguette and hummus and chips and juice and whatever else my eyes and stomach fancied in the local grocery. I carried my little bag of food stuffs to a busy patch of green, plopped down with the rest, and pulled out a book to read while I slathered the soft bread with spicy chickpea puree.
From behind me, a few chords on a guitar, astonishingly familiar. They sounded like the first few chords of Alexi Murdoch's "All My Days," but they couldn't be, because I was in Helsinki and that was one of my favorite songs and the odds of a busker strumming that out all the way in Finland seemed improbable, but sure enough, another few chords followed, and there it was. I turned, basked in the music, felt grounded by its familiarity, basked in the sunlight, felt rejuvenated by its warmth. And then, more: Nick Drake, Simon and Garfunkel, a full set of well-known classics and obscure b-sides that rang through the little park with mesmerizing grace. I passed the whole afternoon there; where else did I have to be?
Nowhere; nowhere in the whole wide world.
"This morning I am at low ebb. I did not sleep well last night, waking, tossing, and dreaming sordid, incoherent little dreams. I awoke, my head heavy, feeling as if I had just emerged from a swim in a pool of warm polluted water. My skin was greasy, my hair stiff, oily, and my hands as if I had touched something slimy and unclean. The thick August air does not help. I sit here lumpishly, an ache at the back of my neck. I feel that even if I washed myself all day in cold clear water, I could not rinse the sticky, untidy film away; nor could I rid my mouth of the furry unpleasant taste of unbrushed teeth." — Sylvia Plath, The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath
My eyes fluttered open as the trans-Norwegian train shuddered to a stop. Bright lights, the backside of cushiony seats, parka-protected passengers bustling up and down the aisle. My lenses focused, pupils narrowed, eyes widened. Beyond all that, there was window, and beyond those windows, oh my: I was in the land of the fjords.
There's nothing quite like seeing new terrain for the very first time. Not new land—we see new land often—but new types of land, novel and unseen ways for terrestrial turf to present and adorn itself. I had the pleasure of that particular awe for two straight months the previous summer: great rocky mountains, highland meadows and ghostly forests, ghastly badlands and deep black chasms and monumental sand dunes and, above all else, the unbelievable and unsurmountable red rocks of canyonland. I knew this pretty planet had more surprises for me—has more surprises for me still—but I hadn't yet unearthed those of-earths on European earth (European nature was pleasant and gorgeous and welcome, just familiar). The fjords, then, were that surprise I'd been waiting for, that breathtaking moment of, well, oh my.
The fjords are mountains of a different creation than the mountains we know. The fjords were once plateaus, gargantuan slabs of stone, since racked and wrecked by glaciers that etched deep grooves in their crevices, melted and froze and turned those little cracks into big cracks, repeated the practice for millions of years and turned those big cracks into lush valleys. And so the fjords rise sharply, and they stand jagged, and they hold up little fragments of those once-great glaciers on their peaks—behold that which did this to me—and between them, between the cleaves, the canyon walls, meadows stretch out in tranquil glory, bits of stone the size of buses just strewn about, relics of the wreckage.
The train dipped between the fjords; it followed the valleys as a snake slithers through the sunken sands of the joshua trees. I did my best to stay awake—the excitement of the fjords made easy work of that—and arrived exhausted but ecstatic at the coastal town of Bergen by mid-afternoon. I wasn't really sure where I was supposed to go from Bergen, clueless as to how I could get closer to those magical mountains, but I hadn't the energy to figure it out at the moment. I found a nearby park; I fell asleep on its sunny grass.
I woke a few hours later feeling ever so slightly closer to the land of the living. I walked across the pretty town toward the harbor; I found a tourism agency and peeked inside. Pamphlets and bulky brochures lined the wall, advertising elegant cruises and fun-filled ferries to Norway's best-known fjordlands—day trips, night trips, weekend excursions and week-long holidays. I flipped through one of the smaller booklets and stopped at a neat little itinerary, a multimodal journey that brought the visitor closer to the fjords by train, by foot, by boat, and by bus. The photographs promised unspeakable beauty. I was intrigued.
The price tag for the trip was roughly two hundred dollars, which seemed reasonable, but I loathed this type of vacation-in-a-box business and hated to throw two hundred dollars of monetary support behind its success. I pulled out my phone and queried for reviews of the excursion: "Beautiful" said Cheryl; "Some of the most incredible scenery I've ever seen," wrote John. And then: "A great trip!" Sally concurred, "But note that this is really just a collection of reservations to get you onto Norway's public-private transportation system; the tour from there is on your own."
Public transportation? I thought. I have a pass that gets me onto that for free. I did a little more research, and sure enough, all the tourism agency did was package up a number of transfers neatly, print the tickets, and sell it to you at a hefty surcharge. Granted, a few of the legs would require a supplement even with my interrail pass, but that could all be handled onboard. Pleased, I hurried out of the dark little building and reemerged in bright Bergen sunlight.
On returning to the station, I discovered the next fjordbound train wouldn't leave until morning, which was just as well as the excursion would take a full day. Bergen, of course, was even more expensive than Oslo, so I kept frugal by merely walking about the city. I found a lovely park, then another; I wandered through a gorgeous Viking village and the grounds of a well-preserved castle. I crossed the street, was nearly run over by a driver who wasn't looking, tapped gently against his rear window twice as an unspoken "hey, be careful where you're driving." The driver stopped, threw his car into park, angrily opened his door and stormed toward me. He had an angry face and a mean energy. "What'd you hit my car for?!" he demanded.
"I tapped your car because you almost ran me over. Just be a little more careful when driving, okay?"
His angry face became angrier, uglier. "Maybe you shouldn't be in the street."
I sighed. I was too tired for this, of this. "I was crossing the street. I was at an intersection. Maybe next time you look where you're going when you plow through a crosswalk."
He neared me, all puffed-out chest and glaring eyes. I chuckled, walked away. I heard the angry man with the mean face get back in his ugly car, slam the door and dash away with a cloud of exhaust in his wake. Off to run down another pedestrian, I'm sure. So it goes.
I found a little shop selling falafel sandwiches to go—only seventeen dollars!—got one wrapped and brought it back to those castle grounds. There was a small amphitheater and a large troupe practicing for an upcoming performance, so I sat against the tree and listened delightedly as lovely opera wafted through the evening air, no cars to spoil the moment with their loud smoky motors.
It had become five, and then seven, and then eleven, and still the sky looked the same. Brightness be damned, I needed sleep; I had fjords to see the next day, and there was no way I'd allow myself to be tired for those. I left the castle and walked across town to the city's central park, a magnificent fountain with a little grassy ring, and laid down lakeside for a try at slumber.
It was a good try—I got a little sleep in—but I woke just an hour later with a shiver; hot as the day had been, the night was a little nippy. I stood, brushed myself off, and walked about looking for somewhere sheltered to sleep, but the train station was closed and the ATM lobbies wouldn't admit me with my American card and everywhere else was locked and shuttered. I shuddered again as a biting breeze blew by.
I collected sleep like coins on the sidewalk: I'd see something that looked promising, stoop to pick it up, a nickel's worth of sleep here and a dime's there, a bench here and a step there. Five minutes, ten minutes added to the piggy bank of rest I'd surely be smashing to pieces the next morning—I'd need every last cent. As one became two and two became three and the sun changed its mind in the southern sky—actually, I think maybe I'll rise again—I wandered downtown and hoped for an unlocked hotel lobby. No luck, of course; I'm sure I wasn't the first to try to steal a little sleep at the expense of the great multi-billion dollar hotel chains that erect their hideous edifices in the world's wealthy cities. Luxury, the ritzy towers promised in sharp neon, and I pictured the only luxury I could muster at the moment, a dark unlocked linen closet with fluffy carpet and—dare I even imagine it—a spare duvet.
I waited by the door for an early-morning exit, a hotel-goer taking off for an early flight. No one came. There was a TGIF next door with a wicker couch on the patio and I settled for that—wicker had never felt softer! Thank god for Fridays.
The sun was up, so it could have been nearly any time of day, but I checked my phone and it was almost six; I had a train to catch in an hour. I returned to the station, which had reopened its doors, and laid down on a bench as I waited for the train. A security guard came by. "No sleeping!" he shouted.
"Oh, I'm sorry; I'm just waiting for a train. I'm not sleeping; just resting."
I looked around at the room full of empty benches. I rolled my weary eyes, got up and sat on the floor. He walked away, and I stole some sleep while he wasn't looking.
The train came and I got onboard and slept once more; I was going back the way I'd come, so I was fine missing the sights a second time around. I woke outside the tiny fjordtop town of Myrdal, stepped off the stale train into the crisp mountain air. The place felt otherwordly, all misty clouds and white sky and foggy peaks, snow caps and countless crags and, ah, the sweet smell of fresh pine. I couldn't see much of the town, just tracks wandering off in either direction, and I crossed the platform toward the northbound tracks and awaited my first transfer down into the fjords.
The Flam Railway is a marvel of engineering. Built nearly a century ago to connect about a dozen Norwegian towns, the rail carries passengers alongside and over and through the magnificent face of the Naeroyfjord, passing little villages and great big waterfalls and deep valleys as it descends from the heights of Myrdal to the depths of Flam some several hundred meters below. The trains are kept in the old style, with comfortable couches and sliding windows and maroons and maudes just everywhere. It's a slow train, too, which is good for both enjoying the scenery and not crashing into it as the locomotive careens around the fjord face's tight corners and hairpin turns. One hour, eighteen kilometers, six stops, a thousand vivid memories of lovely landscape. Though it was built for commuting, its beauty has turned the Flam Railway into a tourist train, so there was plenty of camera-snapping, too. The coach stopped dead on the tracks at a few points for passengers to take photos of this-here-valley or that-there-glacier, and at its wider berths, we were actually welcomed to hop off the train and get up-close-and-soaked by the fjord's mighty waterfalls.
I forgot to mention the waterfalls, the way the indescribable beauty of the fjords is absurdly accentuated by dozens of fat and skinny and long and short wisps and veils of glacial waters fluttering and flying clean off the peaks and precipices of those majestic mountains. At the mightiest of those falls outside Flam, the train stopped and we all hustled toward the drizzly base, close enough to hear the thunderous crashes, and then: the waterfall sang to us.
Beautiful music could be heard amidst the water's rushing roar; it got louder, clearer. Suddenly, the whole side of the mountain was singing, and its echo across the valley sang back. A woman draped in a flowing orange dress stepped out from behind a rock on the face of the fjord, just meters from the fall's midriff. Arms outstretched, head to the heavens, it was her singing. Her blond hair whipped around with the winds and the waters, she raced along the rock and leaped at its height, Norwegian folk music now reverberating all around us with ample amplification. Another turn behind the rock and she disappeared.
And then no less than a moment later, there she was again fifty meters away, now literally underneath the waterfall, standing solidly on an island of stone in a river of whitewater. The music continued and the dance continued and she glowed golden as the sun and the mist cast a flurry of rainbows around her. Again, behind a rock; again, she teleported to afar, now once more at the midsection of the mighty fall. Seamless, effortless, gorgeous. They were doubles, of course, well-trained and well-choreographed after years of rehearsing this routine for ten passing trains per day, but the effect was still something glorious.
The show ended; once more all that could be heard was the roar of water, now too the roar of applause. We headed back to the train, back to our seats; onward to Flam.
The town of Flam consists of the following: bus station, cruise port, ferry port, grocery, three restaurants, convenience store, souvenir shop, bridge, access road, four hiking trails, beach, banking curve of one wonderful fjord.
I was tired, and much as I wanted to climb the fjord we had just descended, I needed rest. I walked across town—a sixty-second endeavor—to the pebbly beach, sat on my scarf. I stared out at the azure waters and the lush forests, yearned to swim in the river and wash the filth of train stations and parkland and city benches from my body. I stood, dipped a toe in the water, pulled it out in a flash. The river, fed by the runoff of glaciers, was glacially cold. I retreated back to my scarf; I laid down and read in the type of reading nook that dreams are made of, fjord wrapping around me in all directions.
Morning became afternoon even if the sun didn't know it, even if the sun still hung around in the south like a lazy lightbulb. I stood up—this standing thing was becoming difficult—and walked to the ferry port, bought a ticket for the 1:15PM ferry to Gudvangen, boarded the ferry and got a nice seat on its upper deck as it tooted its horn and pulled away from the dock, from pretty little Flam, and deep into the watery valley of the Naeroyford. Oh my.
I can't say I've ever seen anything more unfailingly and blissfully beautiful what I saw from the deck of the Flam-Gudvangen ferry that midsummer's day. Blue sky, big blue sky that seemed to wrap around the unseen earth in its weighty magnitude, deep jade river across which we floated like a quiet glacier, giant island of purple rock that rose from river and reached for sky, tiger-striped rock and cleanly cleaved rock and rock stained by waterfalls now fallen. Gulls followed our boat like pterodactyls through a prehistoric lost world, they dipped and dove and glided with us for two perfect hours. All along the way, we passed villages of five houses, ten houses, a single dock and often a single family eating peacefully on that dock; they'd lift their heads and wave to us as we passed, and we'd wave back, and I'd wave back, and I'd wonder what life must be like in a place like that, so removed from the dirty ills of the great big world, just community and heavenly vistas and the occasional floating ferry to pass the time.
The Naeroyfjord banked like the giant footprint of a godly horse, it curved north and then curved back south and the scenery never faltered, not for the slightest second, and then we were experiencing the fjords under a new sun that cast gentle shadows on the eastern face and dark shade toward the west, and we all oohed and ahhed and sometimes just sat in silent wonder, and after a long afternoon that was still too short, the motor cut with a huff and we sidled up quietly at the port of Gudvangen with a simple splash.
I didn't stay long in Gudvangen; I caught a bus that puttered along the valley floor and slowly climbed its twenty hairpin turns, each corner the coach took bringing us higher; first we were within the fjords, then we were along them, and then we were once more atop them, rolling along the cliff's edge into the fjordtop town of Voss. Once again, I didn't stay long. Weariness had caught up to me, and I knew it was too cold to sleep outside at that altitude, so I caught the last train of the night back east, slept as much as I could on the way back to Oslo.
I emerged from the Oslo train station once more. The sky was the same as I remembered it: bright, wisps of pink scrawled across it, deciding if it felt like sleeping that night. I was deciding, too—though not if I'd sleep, but where. The opera house was still crowded, and the train station would close in a few hours, and downtown was busy and loud. I ventured east, found a nice patch of grass outside of a church, began to lay my scarf out when an armadillo-sized rodent scurried into the bush. I moved on.
It got a little darker, and the quieter parts of town became a little less quiet once the working girls went to work. They'd call at me from across the sidewalk, and I'd hurry on, but unlike in Hamburg, I had no refuge: the hookers owned the parks, the streets and the sidewalks and the benches, and any time I stopped they'd flock toward me, hungry for a dollar. No thank you, I'd say, but no thank yous were useless. What I should have said was "smell me," for after three days of sleeping outside, three days of sweating in cities and not finding a shower, no price could be worth getting to near my rank odor, or so I thought.
I was too polite, I suppose. I got up, walked on, was offered cocaine for the millionth time that night by a man in the shadows. "Oh, no thanks!" I smiled, "have a good night, though!" Maybe I wished him the best of luck with his enterprise; I can't remember.
I passed by a fifty-floor Radisson; the lobby was lit and open. I wandered inside, made for the elevator, was disappointed to find that it required a room key to work it. I returned to the lobby, stretched out on a long leather couch, put an open book in my lap and closed me eyes—oh, silly me; I must have dozed off while reading.
I was woken up four minutes later by a pretentious manager with an upturned mustache and an upturned nose. "Excuse me," he said with long fingers coming to a point at his chest, "are you a guest of this hotel?"
"Uh, my girlfriend is," I lied, "I'm just waiting for her to get back." I didn't really say from where, didn't really care to build out the lie. He seemed to accept my answer, walked away but forgot to take his musky cloud of cologne with him. It lingeerd. I could have lingered too, tried for sleep again, but I knew he'd be checking on me in fifteen minutes, so I grabbed my things and left.
I needed sleep. I could have easily bought it, I knew. I had found a hostel with a spare bed on my phone, only thirty-four dollars, an incredible bargain for a place in Norway. But it wasn't about the money—it never was —it was about the victory, about the assurance that I could, had I none of it, make do on my own for that Norwegian night. And so I continued on, past the road with the hostel and back to the train station, onto a steel bench outside, a little sleep, a shuffling inside with the other vagabonds once the doors opened at 3:45AM. Another uncomfortable steel bench inside, but warm; I stretched out and closed my eyes.
I opened my eyes; a man with a shiny yellow vest was rattling a stick against the edge of the bench.
I looked around. The station was nearly empty. I would be taking an early morning train. Why did he care if I was able to get some rest before it?
I looked at him with a gentle loathing. I sat up and he walked away. From afar, I watched the minutes wind around the clock.
I opened my eyes; the man with the shiny yellow vest had returned.
"Um, I'm sitting up. My eyes were just closed"
"You must keep them open! No sleeping!"
Are you kidding me?
I left them open. The sleep police wandered away to make someone else's morning an unfortunate hell. I closed them again.