"Swift wind! Space! My soul! Now I know it is true what I guessed at;
What I guessed when I loafed in the grass,
What I guessed when I lay alone in my bed ...
And again as I walked the beach under the paling stars of the morning.
My ties and ballasts leave me; I travel, I sail,
My elbows rest in the sea-gaps,
I skirt the sierras ... my palms cover continents,
I am afoot with my vision."
— Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
I sat at the Portschach am Worthersee train station and watched fireworks paint the sky in the distance. With the World Bodypainting Festival over, I was untethered: one month left in Europe, still so much to see, and blissfully, not a place in the world I had to be. North, maybe?
I chatted with an artist on the platform. She was from Villach, and had come to the festival to sell her paintings. We were joined by a musician, also from Villach; he made dubstep and asked if I wanted to listen. Sure, I said. I put his bullky headphones on my ears and spent the next twenty minutes on the train listening to the oft-pleasant, oft-jagged futuristic rhythms, watching artist and musician converse in unheard German.
Then we were in Villach, and they headed toward their cars and bikes, and I had two hours to kill until the next Germany-bound train arrived. It was nearly midnight, so I walked the silent city like the last man on earth. And satisfied with what I'd seen, I headed back to the station to write, to charge my devices, to sit. I found a nice spot on the floor in a far corner and plugged my phone into the wall. Once more, knuckles cracked. Once more, fingers at the ready. Once more, interruption.
A drunken man stumbled into the station and I caught his eye. He dragged himself in my direction and made some poor excuse to flop down next to me and asked where I was from, always with the where I was from, and this led to a very one-sided conversation about a whole unintelligible host of things. Some of it was intelligible. Some of it was about how I should stay in Villach for a few days, how he had a buddy and he was going to call that buddy and the three of us were going to hang out, because they loved Americans, and especially because "us black guys need to stick together."
Puzzled, I asked him to elaborate. There aren't many black guys in Austria, he said. You and me, we need to stick together.
We didn't stick together. The train was still an hour away, and he kept falling over me, leaning up on my shoulder, calling me handsome, telling me just to stay, to spend a few days in Villach. Telling me he was going to call his friend. I told him I was going to find a bathroom, and instead scurried off to my platform. I felt bad, but it was late, and I was cranky. And sooner or later he was bound to take a good look at me at discover I was actually white, and I feared that might just break his heart.
An hour later, a Munich-bound train arrived. I hopped onboard, bunked with a fellow Munich-bound American, slept strapped into narrow couchettes through the wee hours of the morning. We woke, descended into the station, said our farewells. I hadn't a clue where I was going, so I looked at the flipboard. Koln—Cologne. Sure, why not.
Three hours later, I was deep into west Germany. The scenery was nice, I suppose. Cologne was pleasant, I suppose. Yet I found it boring, a stale sort of energy thick in the air, and after roaming the city a few hours and finding nothing to tie me there for the night, I headed back to the station looking for something different. I went to Weisbaden: perfectly charming, nice Old Town, unique geothermal fountains. A few hours, then onward. To Frankfurt: not so charming, loud, tall, like a so many drab American cities. Barely a pit stop, back on the train.
I hadn't intended to cover west Germany in under a day and a brief paragraph; I thought a whirlwind tour might take a week. And yes, perhaps I'm being harsh—it'd be unfair to write off an entire half of the country after a few hours spent in three of its larger cities. I'm sure there's plenty to love and enjoy if one searches hard enough. But here's the thing: I'd been to Munich, and I loved Munich. I didn't even have to try. And then there was Berlin, and Regensburg ... east Germany was calling to me, and it seemed silly to resist its song.
The rails swung me like a pendulum back from west to east; I'd started my morning in Munich, seen noon near Luxembourg, and then I was back again my sunset, a bit north of Munich in a little placed called Nuremberg. I knew nothing about Nuremberg beyond its infamy, its contentious hosting of the Nazi war tribunal many years ago, and so I expected little, particularly after such a disappointing day.
But oh, what a place. I exited the station as the sun doggy-paddled along the horizon and splashed great waves of pink and blue across the sky. In front of me stood a wall: tall, brick, browned and blackened with the ages, stretching left and stretching right and just hugging the whole little city, surrounding its perimeter with little interruption. Actually, there were two walls, interior and exterior, all the better for defence. In between them was a deep, wide trench—the kind that maybe was once a moat—and this trench was now a park, a lush green band with bike trails and running trails and endless wall to lean up against while having a picnic, lush with little towers and simple grasses. I crossed from the exterior wall to the interior wall, right over the sunken park, on a narrow footbridge. Statues everywhere, artful sculptures. Thirty mighty pillars outside a museum, each inscribed with one of the thirty universal declarations of human rights. Cobbled streets, more blackened wall. It was all so beautiful.
I checked into a nice hostel just feet from the wall, then took a dusky walk around the quiet neighborhood. I stopped for sushi and ate it on a patio, I walked some more, and then, exhausted from criss-crossing Germany in a day, short on sleep from my train the night before, I went to bed.
The next morning, I ran for the first time in ages. It was already hot by the time I woke, so I dripped sweat onto cobblestone as my bare feet carried me across Nuremberg's smooth streets: everything cobbled, everything gorgeous. I found more marvelous statues and circled simple churches and sped through the sprawling old town, then sighted the wall and ran toward it and followed its perimeter until it dropped me back at my hostel a few kilometers later.
I showered and checked out, set off to see Nuremberg at a slower pace. It's a small town, so a walk from the southern wall to the castle on its northern end took almost no time at all. The castle grounds were lovely, varied and aged and free to the public, and I walked through majestic rooftop gardens and wide fortress overlooks. Gleefully, I caught sight of some deliberately charred siding, the same kind I'd clad my house with back in the States. Then more sculptures, more parks abutting off the sides of the castle and spilling into the town.
I wanted to stay another night in Nuremberg, but my hostel had no vacancy and neither did the few others in town. Just as well, I suppose, for the sky had threatened rain all day, and by mid-afternoon it had begun to sprinkle. I hopped a train to Regensburg, a lively student hub with an intact medieval aldstat—the entire downtown a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I crossed a thousand-year-old bridge, then recrossed it. The rain had followed me to Regensburg. I tried to find a hostel for the night, but again no luck, so in a wildly last-minute decision, I took off for Prague.
The night was long: a late, delayed train, a wet midnight walk to the hostel, a shoddy six hours of sleep. But I was happy to be in Prague. It was about 10AM by the time I got showered and dressed and ready for the day, and a walking tour was departing the hostel a few moments later, so I decided to tag along. I knew little about the sites of Prague, and the tour seemed a good way to czech them out.
The tour, like so many in Europe, was a free walking tour: free not in the sense that you don't pay anything, but in the sense that you don't have to pay anything; you take the tour without any obligation and at the end, you give whatever it was worth to you. If only all things ran so honesty ... why, maybe we'd have a capitalist system that actually worked.
Though I love donation-based services, I've never cared much for sightseeing tours. A city can't be seen in its seven or seventy wonders, to paraphrase Calvino, but in its sidestreets, the faces of its residents, the way the cyclists and the pedestrians and the cars fight over passageway and the way the children choose to pass the summer days. Here's a famous statue, here's a famous palace, here's a famous bridge ... it bored me.
Yet the guide was friendly and the tour itself a great way to meet fellow travelers. At the end of the three-hour walk—these are long tours, I should mention—I took off in the same direction as a few others, and we congealed into an international trio and climbed the castle of Prague. Peter was from Connecticut and Kelly was from Paris, and they were both lovely people. Kelly used to live in Ljubljana!
We talked and we wandered. After the castle, we headed to a biergarten high above the city and ate a hearty lunch while we drank in great views and cheap beers. Then more talking, more walking. As twilight approached, Kelly retreated to the hostel to take care of a few errands and Peter and I grabbed another meal at a Czech hole-in-the-wall, where we met a few Polish girls at the next table over. We invited them to join us for the World Cup game a few hours later—meet at that biergarten by the river at nine? Sure, they said.
I had booked a second hostel for that second night in Prague, so after dinner I headed out alone to check in and drop my bag. I crossed the gorgeous Charles Bridge just as the sun ducked down behind the castle, and golden rays shot out in all directions, marvelous ambers shining above, the river a reflected stream of honey below. A faint mist hung in the air, and a nearby statue on the bridge, blackened with centuries of soot, smiled with a cocked head as if to say: not bad, eh?
A quick check-in at the hostel, and then right back over the bridge—all dark now, but still just majestic—toward the biergarten to rendezvous with Peter, Kelly, the Polish girls. Halfway there, I got a message from Kelly that the place was closed due to the rain (it was barely raining), so we set a new meeting point at a little Czech pub. Without any way to reach our new friends from Poland, it was once again just the three of us.
I'd been in Europe for the entirety of the World Cup, and hadn't once sat through an entire game. Oh, I'd caught halves, and lots and lots of quarters and eighths; I'd slapped fives with cheering fans in the street after late-night victories and I'd heard the roar of applause as I tried to rest in open-windowed dorms. As far as sports go, I think football—European football—is one of the best ... it's just that I get easily bored by watching men run back and forth on a television set for several hours, and couldn't even imagine tracking such folly from day to day. But with the championship just a few nights away, I was determined to immerse myself in the craze of Europe—it was the semi-finals, after all.
Argentina and the Netherlands. A round of beers for me, Kelly, Peter. A whistle, cheers in the pub, cheers on the tube. Lots of kicking, some left, some right. More right, even more right. Now left, left again, right, left, right, right. Ninety minutes of this, the kicking and the kicking back. No goals. 0-0. The clock ran out, and there was maybe an overtime. Maybe more kicking back and forth; I can't remember. Maybe another thirty minutes of it? I was bored.
But then: a shootout! I don't know if they're actually called shootouts, but it was that final tiebreaker, where the teams line up by the goal and take turns kicking balls in, or trying their damndest to, and the team that scores the most out of five would be in the finals. I liked the stakes and the suspense of it, every kick mattered, and found myself rooting for the Netherlands along with the rest of the bar—I'd been doing this the whole game, of course, clapping when everyone else clapped and following along like one might in church—but now, like, actually rooting, genuinely willing the Hollanders to victory.
They lost. I was heartbroken. Sports is a cruel game.
I'd been lugging those magic mushroom truffles with me ever since Amsterdam, and their ten grams weighed heavy in my pack. I wasn't sure what I was waiting for. I'd meant to try them in Paris, then Switzerland, then Bratislava or Budapest or Veliko Tarnovo, but no place every felt quite right; I never felt I had the time. I had stuffed them in my pocket when I went to the World Bodypainting Festival—what a trip that would be—but decided against having my first psilocybin experience in a crowded festival with frightening hydraulic cyborgs and alien fetuses and men towering on stilts with ukuleles ... the whole place already seemed hallucinogenic enough.
So it was the following morning, and it was Prague, and I figured why not. Granted, there was a great reason why not: the weather was terrible, cold and rainy, and as I slogged through the wet park near my hostel, I couldn''t help but feel that a sunnier day might be worth postponing. But I was tired of postponing. I sat down under a tree in the gardens of a hilltop fortress, laid my scarf down on the damp grass and lay down atop it, and popped eight or nine little chunks of mushroom into my mouth.
And then, I waited.