"I, in fact, find myself here without a here or an elsewhere, recognized as an outsider by the nonoutsiders at least as clearly as I recognize the nonoutsiders and envy them. Yes, envy. I am looking from the outside at the life of an ordinary evening in an ordinary little city, and I realize I am cut off from ordinary evenings for God knows how long, and I think of thousands of cities like this of hundreds of thousands of lighted places where at this hour people allow the evening's darkness to descend and have none of the thoughts in their head that I have in mine; maybe they have other thoughts that aren't at all enviable, but at this moment I would be willing to trade with any one of them." — Italo Calvino, If On a Winter's Night a Traveler
It felt strange to travel alone again. I'd see something interesting and I'd turn to share it and Abby wouldn't be there; she'd be up in the air two thousand miles away. My jokes went unheard, thankfully, and my questions unanswered, sadly, and my feeling of aloneness festered into a far more nefarious variant, loneliness.
I have only one remedy for loneliness while on the road: racing it. Loneliness is slow; it creeps up on you as you sit against a tree in the park, it wraps around your ankles as you sip coffee in a cafe and it crawls into your pack like a quiet spider and it follows you home at night, and there in your bed, as you lie still and listen to the raucous laughter of drunk diners outside, it binds around you like a constrictor, like that snake out in the ruins of Bosnia; it squeezes all the air out of you and you're all bound up so you can't fight it, and you can't call for help because no one's around. Or maybe there are people around, they might be in the bunks next to you or above you or under you, but they can't hear you. Loneliness lives in the breath of others you can't understand, who dull you with dull talk or annoy you with endless extroversion, loneliness escaping their lungs with every word, every breath, taking up all the oxygen in the room until you can't breath anymore: this time you're constricted from the inside, your lungs all filled with this rotten gas that makes them want to burst.
I dealt with this loneliness on my last journey. It came rarely, but it did come, and so I studied it and learned from it. I watched as it crept up, saw how it preferred placidity of its prey, and I realized I could escape it by outrunning it, that as long as I moved quickly and kept my mind racing, it was too sluggish, too big and lumpy and slow-moving, to ever catch up.
I left the airport, and I felt its breath on the back of my neck as I stood on the train; I saw its shadow on the floor and caught its ugly reflection in the pane of glass ahead of me. And so I did what I had to do: I ran.
I found a hostel and I dropped my things and turned the corner to the first bike rental shop I could find, and I boarded an old Dutch cruiser with its braking pedals and just headed west, aiming for somewhere around Haarlem, a little Amsterdam suburb about an hour outside of town.
Before Abby left, I'd entertained the idea of biking the Randstad, cycling down to Rotterdam and maybe even further from there, maybe making a day or two or three of it, what with Holland so flat and all. But Kiki, our bartender friend at the pub the night before, had talked me out of it, suggesting I turn west instead and aim for Haarlem, a nice afternoon trip that would give me a good taste of Netherland nature.
With speed on my mind, I took her advice. I didn't really know the way to Haarlem, just that it was due west, so I followed the sun as much as the roads would allow, passing through all of lovely Vondelpark and emerging in the outermost rings of Amsterdam and following its canals for kilometers, watching the brownstones shrink from five stories to three to two, seeing the water widen and the greenery really open up, and no matter which way I turned, there was always a bike path, and more often than not there was a park; as I've so often found in the better parts of Europe, there are simply no wrong turns.
About twenty minutes outside of the city, I hit a stretch that could maybe only be called utopia: if ever a single square kilometer of earthly space breathed gezelligheid, this was it. I didn't catch the name of the neighborhood, its exact location or longitude, but if you ever find yourself biking west of Amsterdam you'll certainly find it. Don't look for it, just feel for it, listen for the gentle quiet of a people who have found communal contentment, and only then will you see it: the way the corner cafes abut the canals so perfectly, the way every last person wears a sincere smile as you pass. Don't forget to wave, because they''ll all wave at you, because when you've spent centuries building a place that optimizes happiness and human interaction and all the good things, and you've finally finished and are now resting on a beautiful Wednesday along one of the world's greatest canals, and a lone biker cycles past with a smile of his own, wouldn't you want to wave too?
There come times in any great travel when the traveler forgets where she is, sometimes when she is and on occasion even who she is, when all the constants of life drop out from under her and she is reduced to merely a being, merely someone who is being, and self-conscious thought disintegrates. I've felt it a few times, and it's otherworldly and out-of-body in all the right ways. Perhaps it's how animals feel, when we leave them alone and don't poke and prod at them with swords and sticks. You just are, and times and days are meaningless, names of places are meaningless, everything means nothing except for the something around you: here, grass, here, water, there, sky.
It happened outside of Haarlem, the constructs all failing me, and me having to recreate them one by one. Okay, daylight, mid-sky sun: probably 3PM. It's ... June, I think? Yes, that sounds right. What day ... well, what are the days? There's Sunday, and Monday ... no, it's neither of those—wait, Wednesday, yes, it's most definitely Wednesday; that's what the humans call it. But what do they call this place? How have they boxed this delightful collection of streets and shelters into a municipality, an organization (humans sure do love their organizations) ... ah, this is Holland, or technically the Netherlands, and I'm somewhere between the place called Amsterdam and the place called Haarlem. Yes, that all sounds right.
Plugged once again into the well-ordered matrix of this well-ordered world, I heaved forward toward Haarlem, sweat pouring on that sunny summer day. The Dutch clunker I rode on made me miss my sleek, slim Cannondale back home: flat as the roads were, it was heavy and slow and single-gear, and the wide seat assaulted my ass in all the wrong ways.
I'd planned to ride back from Haarlem, but my winding path had taken nearly twice the time a straight shot would have, and the bike rental was due back at six, and I was tired and chafed anyway, so once arriving in town and cycling along its quaint canals for a little while, finding it to be a miniature Amsterdam with just as much of its charm, and after rewarding my stomach with a sandwich, I cycled over to the train station and hauled my bike onboard, enjoying a cool, quick ride back to the heart of Amsterdam.
I returned the bike a few minutes before six, showered, and walked around the city until dark, which came impossibly late at that northern latitude. I returned to the hostel and met a few of my bunkmates, already deep into their drinks, and they informed me they were going to hit the town soon and asked if I'd like to join them. They were Australian, which is not to say anything is wrong with Australians, but they were Australian bros, and Australian bros, tolerant as I try to be, may just be my least favorite type of person on this great wide planet.
I was once in Austin, Texas when I found myself in a similar situation: crammed into a hostel with a whole troop of Australians on holiday. They were playing beer pong on the patio when I checked in and were still playing beer pong on the patio when I returned later that evening, and nice as it was outside, I later ventured out onto the patio myself with a book in hand for some outdoor reading. By this point, they were all seated around a table, Miller Lites littered about, and I nodded to them in acknowledgement and passed right by in a very antisocial move, I know, but I did it anyway and sat at a different table and aimed to open up my book.
"Ay, mate," one of them had said, "you want to join us?" It sounds friendly enough when written, but the tone was more of a "wouldn't you rather be pounding back beers with us than reading a book?", and against my better judgment I said yes and squeezed in on the overcrowded bench.
They didn't really have much to say in the way of substance. I learned about half of them were Australian and the other half from different parts of the States; they numbered about fifteen in total. What made this bro group particularly interesting was its size—fifteen is a lot—large enough, it turned out, to support a dual alpha-male leadership model. Bros need a leader, that's why they're all so stereotypically similar: they mimic. And because the leader is so often the most testosterone-packed, self-absorbed, generally awful breed of human, the others emulate, and they all become testosterone-packed, self-absorbed, generally awful humans, when really all most of them want is to fit in, because they're actually quite testosterone-deprived, self-conscious, generally insecure types.
Anyway, the alpha male is usually just that, the alpha and the omega, and the animal kingdom doesn't generally exhibit dual alpha male packs. Yet here one was, an Australian alpha male on one side, which most of the Australians seemed loyal to, and a Californian alpha male on the other side, which most of the Americans seemed loyal to. The Australian alpha male was mind-numbingly mind-numb, very boring in all aspects, and the American alpha male was a little more entertaining, smart and witty, just painfully self-absorbed; I think he had eyeballs, but I can't be sure, for he wore rose-tinted aviators the whole night through.
Silence fell upon the table and someone suggested beer pong—yes, more beer pong—so the table was cleared and ten cups were set up on each side, and the group, all fifteen plus me, were split into two teams of eight each. I didn't really care to play beer pong, I hadn't really played since college, but I figured I was already in this really interesting situation and should just make the most of it, so I went along and played my best and was surprised to find I was actually quite good, quite literally carrying the bulk of my team. This earned me "mad props" from the bros, which I didn't want.
When beer pong ended—we lost by a hair—it was time to hit the town. This was the moment where I should have let them go, said I was going to turn in early and instead have a nice calm, comfortable night all to myself, but instead the anthropologist inside me won out, begging for an opportunity to study this bro pack up close and personal, Jane Goodall style, and I acquiesced. The hostel came with a token for one free beer at a bar next door, so we all headed there with tokens in hand. Apparently the beers weren't to be drank, rather chugged, so some moments later I found myself in the awkward position of being the only one with half a beer left, and the bros were ready to leave, so I left the beer on the table and got up but a few of the bros couldn't bear to see the beer go to waste, and they urged me to chug it, and for no good reason I did, earning myself a few more woefully unwanted "mad props."
We headed to the bus stop, and there stood a single girl in a tight dress, waiting innocently for the bus. The bros descended on her as bros do, asking her where she was headed and if we could join, nothing rude, just all fairly desperate and tacky, and she let them know that she was headed to a gay bar.
"Oh, can we join?" they asked, they acting as just one collective blob of bro.
She turned her head a little dismissively and let them know that she was actually going there later, at the moment she was meeting up with a few friends. The bus came, and she boarded up front while the bros took over the back of the bus.
"Okay, bros," the American alpha said in a perfect huddle-tone—he may or may not have actually used the word "bros," maybe "boys," but that's the way I remember it—"I think we should go to that gay bar."
I was floored. Not at how tasteless of a plan it was, though it certainly was tasteless, but at how utterly illogical it was, that a group of bros would think the best place for them to pick up women was at a gay bar, that fifteen bros thought it made sense to follow this one woman, who seemed very uninterested from the start. And yet, the bros were all in. We arrived at the gay bar and the bros stuck out like a caravan of Hummers in Amsterdam (see, it's tying back already), and took over a whole corner of the outdoor patio with its corner couches, fifteen deep plus me. I sat myself on the far edge, and a few minutes later a smaller group of women sat on the couch next to me, and the one on the end eyed us curiously and leaned over and asked me "are you guys all gay?"
In terrible bro form, I threw the pack all under the bus—I know, I know—letting her know that no, in fact we were all straight, and the bros had just come here to try to pick up women, and I just accompanied them to watch it all take place, equal parts voyeurism and anthropological curiosity.
She seemed to appreciate my honesty, and we talked some more, just small talk and basic banter to pass the time ... she was straight, and was just accompanying some friends there. The bros, who had been awkwardly talking amongst themselves, noticed our conversation, and deployed that all-too-famous bro play where they just merge themselves into whatever group they're next too, like a giant parasite, breaking off from the couch and arcing over to the end of my new friend's circle to complete the chain, now one giant circle occupying half the bar.
They began spitting game, or something ... they ended up making the lesbians of the group understandably uncomfortable, who decided to leave, but before they did my couch companion gave me her number and told her to let her know where we ended up later. I wasn't really interested in having her number, pleasant as she was, but the bros saw the screen of my phone light up and flocked to it like moths to a flame, showering me in more "mad props." My god, I thought, have I become one of them?
I never did let the girl know where we ended up, despite the bros' urging; but where we ended up was at a painfully loud bar with fog machines everywhere, fog all over the place, and four bros riding around in a pedicab outside, just doing laps around the block because the pedicab driver was cute and they wanted to watch her pedal—I know, I know, gross—and the rest of us inside, choking on fog and terrible drinks. And standing there in the middle of the fog, at 3AM, I remember looking out into the distance, squinting through the smoke to the far side of the bar, and catching a glimpse of the American alpha bro perched up atop a booth, seated atop it as Mufasah would sit atop Pride Rock, with his head carefully turning left and right and surveying his terrain, and all the while, never, ever taking off those goddamn rose-tinted sunglasses. And I remember thinking, where the fuck am I?
"So, bro, you coming?" the two Australians from Melbourne asked, snapping me back to reality in Amsterdam, waking me from an agonizing few seconds reliving that night in Austin.
Somehow, for some inexplicable reason, I agreed, maybe just for fear of loneliness were I to stay in that empty room my first night traveling alone once more. I followed the bros out into the Amsterdam night, followed them as they talked about absolutely nothing and walked through the Red Light District and ogled the workers there, followed them into a bar and stood next to them, still talking of nothing, and then just turned around and left silently, lungs too filled with their toxic gas to squeeze out that I was going to turn in for the night.
They left before I woke, thankfully. I left later, the hostel and then Amsterdam, but before leaving the latter I picked up some edibles for the road: a few brownies from a coffeeshop and a pack of truffles from a smartshop—it was Amsterdam, after all.
I have a strange relationship with THC, which is to say that I have no relationship with THC, which is to say that I've tried pot maybe a dozen times, maybe more, with no real results. I've smoked under careful supervision, watchful friends ensuring I was really inhaling and not breathing out too quickly, confirming that with the amount of weed smoked, I should be good and high. And yet, I felt nothing, at least nothing all that different from the feeling I might get after drinking a beer. I don't recall ever having ingested cannabis, though, so it seemed worth trying: maybe eating it would be more foolproof than smoking it. I'd had half a brownie during our second day in Amsterdam and felt no effect, but I thought a whole one might do the trick, so I picked up two and stashed them in my pack for later.
And then there was psilocybin, the magic chemical that brings mushrooms and LSD to life, and I've heard and read great things about its mind-opening capabilities and had longed to try it at some point. Already familiar and experienced with salvia, a profoundly potent but short-lived hallucinogenic, I sought something just as natural and just as rewarding, and truffles fit the bill: shrooms had been banned in Amsterdam a few years back, but truffles were more or less the very same thing. After a little guidance from the smartshop owner, I stuffed the truffles in my bag next to the brownies and made for the train station, not really too concerned about my international drug smuggling in those progressive European parts.
But I wasn't international just yet: I'd seen Amsterdam and I'd seen Haarlem, but I wanted more of Holland, so magical it was. So I took the train south to Utrecht, gezelligheid coming in great globs here, and after a great lunch and a long stroll I rode the rails further south to Maastricht, a tiny appendage at the bottom of the Netherlands butting up against Belgium.
Pointless fact: the treaty that created the European Union was signed in Maastricht. Pointless opinion: I found Maastricht to be the most wonderful town for a stroll I've ever been in. It's a small town, and unlike Venice or the center of Ljubljana, it has cars, but it's compact and diverse enough to never tire of walking, a unique mix of French, Spanish, and Belgian architecture, and even Roman, all the way up in the Netherlands, Roman walls and fortifications and fortresses that have found themselves repurposed as wall-top gardens and public parks.
I got hungry on my walk, and I hadn't any snacks with me, so I ate one of the pot brownies in my pack, really more to be satiated than to be stoned. Which is good, because I felt nothing. Some hours later—still nothing—I had a nice dinner for one on a nice restaurant patio, checked into a hostel and hooked my tablet up to the speedy internet, and sat on the hostel's gorgeous riverside terrace with a beer in hand to stream a few episodes of American television, feeling right at home with the quick English and familiar characters, finding a rare comfort in scripted drama.
The next morning, I left for Belgium, passing right over Brussels and taking the train to the country's northwestern edge, settling in the small tourist-packed town of Bruges. I'd heard Bruges was lovely, and I thought it'd make a good place for me to relax for a day or two, catching up on some much-needed writing and letting my feet rest after a hard day's work on Wednesday. And it was quite lovely, all brown brick and deep wharves, well-scaled and well-worn, wide squares and big markets, and patio cafes simply everywhere.
I loved the way Europeans sat themselves outside—this wasn't just Bruges, but all of Europe—the way the sprawling patios of the neighboring coffeeshops would fill with tables and chairs, but with the chairs all facing the same direction, each and every one pointed out toward the action. The result: all of the public square becomes an amphitheater, and people watch people and greet people and meet people, and they can also talk to each other too, turning to talk without closing themselves off to the wider world. I've yet to see a cafe in Europe that doesn't do this, nor a cafe in the States that does—thankfully and regrettably, respectively.
I stood in the main square and felt its laid-back air blow past me like a balmy breeze, and with it floated laughter and and the cacophony of casual conversation. But there was the scent of something else too, and I recognized it immediately: loneliness, that persistent beast, had followed me all the way to Belgium.
It had been just a few short days since Abby's departure, but I had grown so used to friendship at my side, to fitting in with someone or otherwise sticking out together, it didn't really matter, and I missed her dearly, both the friend and the feeling. And here, with a thousand friendships around me, I felt removed and foreign; I yearned to sit on one of those wicker chairs and stare out into the square with a familiar face by my side.
If on a summer's night a traveler is looking for a place to stay in Bruges, a place to run from this loneliness and bunk up with a book and a beer or a pen and a pad, that traveler might find herself with few options. Days earlier, I'd checked to ensure there were hostels in Bruges, and there were, but as I turned from the suffocating square and searched my phone for a homey hostel away from the commotion, a place to occupy my mind with better thoughts and maybe even write a little, I found that those hostels had all filled, that my options in Bruges were limited to pricy hotels and dirty flats, and neither suited my mood in the least. I thought about sleeping in a park, and I cursed myself for sending away my tent and my sleepsack. But even if it was warm enough to sleep without them, which it likely was, camping in that crowded city would mean waiting until late to lie down on a bench, which would mean many more hours rounding Bruge's corners and evading that pervasive loneliness, and it already had too great a lead on me to take those odds.
Instead, I left. I said goodbye to little Bruges and walked to the train station, confirming as I walked that there were open hostels in Brussels. I found a nice one as I ascended the escalator, affordable and well-rated, and I flipped through its photos as I waited for the next eastbound train to arrive.
"Excuse me," an American voice called from nearby, "do you speak English?"
I looked up from my phone as a man about my age neared, and I nodded and said "yeah, what's up?" He asked if I knew whether the next train stopped at Brussel's central station—Brussels had several—and I thought it did, so I said "yeah, I think so."
"Cool, thanks," he said. "You headed to Brussels too?"
I said I was, that I was actually just looking for a hostel for the night, and he quickly recommended the one he'd stayed at the night before, coincidentally the very same one I had pulled up my phone that very second. He praised it highly, said he had come to Bruges for the night but found Bruges a little boring and was instead heading back to Brussels for another night in that same hostel, and with that being all the affirmation I needed, I went ahead and booked the bed.
Or at least tried to. Somehow, within those two minutes of conversation, the hostel's remaining rooms had been scooped up, leaving me once again without a roof for the night. I was frustrated. Finding lodging had been so easy that past month, so easy I didn't even find it necessary to book in advance, even by an hour. But it seemed as though summer was upon us, and it was a weekend after all, that time of week and year when all of Europe packs their knapsacks and heads off to parts unknown. And I was getting caught unprepared.
The other available hostels didn't seem so promising, so he suggested I just come with him to my first choice and we'd see if a bed opened up in the meantime. That worked me, and we boarded the train and got a pair of seats and chatted as the rails shuttled us smoothly to Belgium's capital. I learned his name was Matt, that he was from California and on a three-week holiday to Europe—it was his first time there as well—and we hit it off pretty well; he was friendly and easy to talk to, and we shared stories of traveling solo as we traveled together, arriving in Brussels a quick hour later and heading straight to the hostel from the station.
Matt checked in and I waited anxiously as the receptionist checked for available beds, and sighed in relief when he found one open, and smiled with fond familiarity when he asked where I was from and I said DC and it turned out he was from there, too. His parents had brought him to Belgium six years back and he'd been there ever since, so he showered us with recommendations we couldn't possibly have time to use and sent us on our way with key cards in hand.
A few hours later, Matt and I headed out for dinner, a short walk from the hostel to the Grand Place, the famous center square of Brussels. It was certainly wonderful, and the nearby food just okay, and from there we strolled to a rowdy street where we tossed back a few rounds and walked some more, sharing our respective travels plans along the way. Matt was leaving Brussels the next day: from there Paris, Barcelona, Greece, and back home, and I mentioned that I was off to Paris as well, so we discussed maybe heading down together the following morning.
I'd planned to spend another day in Belgium, but I felt ready to leave when I woke ... the place was just too damn convivial for me. Matt and I explored the city center a little bit, then took to the train station for a quick ride to Paris, just eighty minutes from point to point on the high-speed conduit.
It being a high-speed train, and especially it being a high-speed train to France, we needed reservations, that pesky surcharge I was forced to pay for certain legs of my journey. I'd heard bad things about France's respect for the interrail pass, and they were all woefully true: the state seems to find them to be something of a nuisance, and does whatever it can to keep passholders from making the most of their rail lines. For one, the reservations: nearly all French trains require them, even during off-peak hours, and they're obscenely expensive, not ten or fifteen euros like Spain or Italy, but twenty-five or thirty for a single stretch. And even if one is willing to pay that preposterous price for an assigned seat on an empty train, they'll be lucky if they can. French trains block off just a few seats per trip for passholders, apparently preferring that its trains travel with empty unsold seats rather than carry more than seven interrail travelers with their hefty reservations.
They don't make snatching one of those rare reservations easy, either: you can't do it online, and trying over the phone will route you to a German-speaking operator way out in Germany, I've heard, so you have to actually go to the station to make the reservation, and those reservations often have to be made twenty-four hours in advance, and if you can accomplish all of that, you'll find yourself taking advantage of France's great trains once, maybe twice, but never three times, for after two reservations the interrail pass simply stops working in France: two rides and you're through.
Oh, and then—almost there—there are the French train workers, who famously strike all the time, grinding the gears of the great rail network to a halt and exciting a panic amongst stranded travelers, who then go about booking up every last seat in sight, complicating everything above by a power of ten and making an interrail pass in France about as useless as a driving companion who can't work stick in Croatia.
We found this all out only upon arriving at the station in Brussels, our foolish plan to board the next train to Paris ten minutes later dramatically destroyed, and we worked patiently with the rail associate to find another way, which was really just for us to pay ninety-nine euros each for that same train—so you're saying there are empty seats on that train, and we can't have them for thirty euros with our passes?—or, we later pried out of her, a six-hour bus for a greatly reduced twenty euros each.
It was five times longer but five times cheaper, and I didn't really mind the time, anyway. I'd done little writing with Abby's company, and I was weeks behind in my journaling, so the idea of being stuck in a seat for the better part of a day was actually really appealing. Matt seemed to agree, so we got two tickets for the bus and heading over to the parking lot to await its departure.
The bus was nice, clean and comfortable, and the ride through the French countryside simply gorgeous. I wrote some, not enough, but a good start, and we arrived in Paris in the early evening with a hostel booked, after more last-minute searching and last-minute complications, on its left bank. We got to the hostel at the very same moment as another traveler, a bunkmate of ours as it turned out; his name was pronounced POUR-is but seemed to be spelled Paris, which was worth a tired joke or two, and the three of us headed out from the hostel about an hour later to go explore the great City of Light.