November 2017 - December 2017
It starts at Berlin Tegel airport with me clutching a falafel.
It ends in Budapest.
What exists in-between does so in vibrant flashes. Memories are like that.
My best friend’s name is Bee. Rebecca, but I call her Bee. I photograph her brother’s wedding in an old castle in Berlin and afterwards, her and I hit the road together. Backpacks and winter jackets.
Prague starts off funny. We stay with a lovely but funny woman who speaks awkwardly but gives us her bed and then brings us freshly cut fruit in the morning. We call four different apartments home during our week here. One with a young man who dreams of going to Burning Man. One with a cool photography student whose father randomly gifts her with unnecessary Ikea furniture. One with a friend of the photography student who is passionate about Kundalini yoga.
It is Bee’s idea to get day drunk in the city off the cheap Czech beer. Prague has already begun to feel familiar so it’s time for an inebriated wander. Besides, we hope the alcohol will keep our limbs warm—become a fire we can carry with us. I am especially cold these days with the wind biting easily through my clothes. Bee gives me her extra pair of thermals and this helps. The booze helps too.
I am practicing how to open a beer bottle on anything. This looks a lot like me hitting the lid against random objects like the sloped, rock wall of an old building. I slam my hand against the first propped up bottle and the cap comes soaring off. Then I try with Bee’s beer. And I try and I try and I try. Bits of the building fall to the pavement but the lid remains stubbornly on. Then a cluster of three women, mid 40s, walks up to us, eyes benevolently wide. One removes a bottle opener from her purse and hands it to me with a smile.
We take a night bus from Prague to Wrocław. It is my idea to come to Poland since it lies almost along the way—so close to the other cities we have been coveting and I have never been there. The decision is the modern day equivalent of throwing a dart at a map. Where’s close? There? OK let’s go there. Bee humours me. She doesn’t feel drawn to Poland but, like me, she operates from a place of why not?
Lucky us, we claim the back row of seats on the bus. It’s the best spot because you can fully extend your legs and lay flat, so I take the right side and she takes the left, our legs tangle a bit. I awake early, dawn-light still fresh, newly sprung over the Czech-Polish border, I guess in the countryside of Poland now. Bee is already staring out the window, watching it go by. We look at each other, eyes gleaming, some sort of bemusement and curiosity, and mutter: Sooo, Poland?
In Kraków, we stay in a large student flat with many interconnecting rooms and many people, although it’s not always clear who lives there and who is just visiting like us. Someone owns a white and brown-patched dog with silky fur that I nickname ‘baby cow’ because it reminds me of the calves that used to live on the farm when I was growing up. ‘Baby cow’ eats the tassel off Bee’s purse. One day, we hear the dog’s owner cheekily calling her pup ‘baby cow’ instead of by her real name and it feels like a silly victory.
I’ve wanted a harmonica all trip; I even told this to Bee before she arrived. But I want it to be a story—I want it to fall in my lap. When we head into the city on our second-to-last morning and I am still lacking a music maker, Bee says I know you just want it to happen, but I think we may need to start actively looking.
But I’m optimistic and unhurried as we make our way into Kraków from the flat.
Bee and I are hardly tourists. We are more prone to wander, following our feet and finding surprises.
This day is no different. I see a landmark on Google Maps surrounded by green so we walk that way, not knowing what it is or what we’ll find. It just seems like as good a direction as any.
We come to a large, grassy mound sitting at the top of a grassy park that overlooks the city (ruby coloured roofs, green spires, tall smokestacks, huge concrete silos) and it’s the sort of lovely surprise that makes us both giddy. From the top, we look out. Wind blows. There’s something swampy at the edge of the park’s precipice—bone-white trees, dark bushes, abandoned buildings. It looks like a horror movie set. We imagine Nazis. The dark past is so tangible here.
On our way back to the flat, we walk through a cathedral (another surprise), entering through the back and walking out the front. I turn my head and see a music shop—the first that I’ve consciously noticed this entire trip.
A harmonica falls into my lap.
Aushwitz is the heaviest place I have ever been. It sucks the air right out of your lungs. Within one of the buildings, a spider drops onto my scarf. Bee picks him up gently by his thread and places him safely on the ground.
Our last city together is Budapest. We stay with a local boy whom we only see twice but who still leaves us soup in the fridge and tells us to help ourselves. For a couple nights, a young French traveller also stays in the flat but even her we don’t see much. She’s out exploring most of the time. Budapest is our sixth city together so Bee and I are much more relaxed. We have slow mornings in the apartment making breakfast. In the afternoons, we go for a walk and then return in the evening to cook dinner and watch movies.
It’s these flows that often become my favourite thing about travelling. When all the shine and glimmer subsides and you’re left with a beautiful, simple reality.
The ruin bar Szimpla Kert is our favourite spot to go during the day. It’s popular and the beer is overpriced, but there’s a bathtub in one of the upstairs rooms where we like to sit. Bee reads her book as I blow into my new harmonica.
And then it ends. As it does. Good-byes falling out our months at the station as Bee climbs aboard a bus headed back to Germany. And then I am in the apartment alone, and then back at the station alone to catch my own bus to Bratislava for Christmas alone.
Listen: I am OK on my own. I decided a long time ago that I would rather do things solo than never do them at all, so I step into the world using my desires as the only compass that holds any weight. I have become notoriously uncompromising, often to a fault. I am doing everything I want but that inevitably means that I leave people. Or they have to leave me. It doesn’t create much space.
It doesn’t create much space so I fill what remains with as much love and gratitude that I can.
This is what I do with what remains. This is me doing what I can.
And I hope, for the people that love me, that it is always enough.