Across Northern Europe: I Traveled Europe Without a Watch

I traveled Europe without a watch.

No one uses watches now and my cellphone doesn’t work in Europe so when the sun woke me in Iceland it might have been noon. But when I scrambled out of my tent and checked the clock at reception it was half past three in the morning.

In Berlin breakfast ended at 9:30 so I put my jeans on and went out to the street to find a parking meter with the time on it. Barely 8:00. (In Brussels they don’t want to serve you breakfast so they close the kitchen at 9:00 and you wake up at 9:10.)

At a flea market in Berlin I finally bought a five euro watch in need of a battery. But the battery seller couldn’t get the watch open so I returned it and soldiered on with a loose sense of time.

I didn’t need a watch to know I had a month in northern Europe. Denmark, Iceland, Germany, Belgium, Holland.

I remember meeting a Swiss guy in Delhi, India a couple years ago who wore languid, linen clothes and spoke with a certain calmness. He never travels for more than three months, he said, because for him the most important part of traveling is coming home.

When I landed last night in New York I hadn’t showered in 70 hours and three currencies. And as I walked east on 34th St what I noticed first were the faces. Northern Europe is a fairly homogenous place and the people looked like flowers of a certain species, all different but alike. But back in Manhattan last night the faces looked to me as if they’d been formed from chunks of clay, the lumps sculpted with determination into a face. You could see in the sculpting all the complex ancestry, assimilation and reunification of America.

In that walk I felt proud, or at least privileged, to be part of the group; as if the rest of the world were stuck back in a time warp of segregated DNA and we were living in the globalized, multi-cultural future. I thought maybe that was why the US is so rich and then I thought how much more complicated it all is.

Maybe that is what I get for my month away: a different perspective on a Manhattan street I’ve walked across a thousand times.

A SHORT LIST

I wrote last week that part of this trip’s purpose is to figure out if I want to keep traveling, so maybe I should think of what else I liked and didn’t like. I liked the canals in Amsterdam and loved the beer in Belgium. I liked very much meeting new people and becoming fast friends. I think I should stop the list there because I guess that’s the point; for me it is the alchemy of instant friendship that defines solo travel. It is a peculiar experience made possible by the hunger for connection you feel when you’re away for a long time.

I understood that more completely as I re-united this month with some of the friends I first met on my long trip. It was good to see them, but it was different. We weren’t held afloat by the common excitement of being somewhere strange and wonderful. There were jobs and boyfriends and appointments in the way now. The allure of someone’s spontaneity on the road became the annoyance of their indecisiveness at home.

“I wouldn’t travel alone again,” my travel friend Jens told me when he got back from 18 months out. “I just got so sick of having the same conversation; ‘Where are you from? How long you traveling?’ I hated it.”

I didn’t hate it, I told him. I never disliked meeting new people for a very short time. And if I look back at my favorite moments from the last month I think of an early morning campfire in Iceland with pork cooking slow and smoky and the group trying to define their country. I think of a couple Swiss girls trying to play it cool in front of the older American and the American trying to play it cool in front of the babyfresh Swiss. I think of the Dutch immigration officer driving me west from
Germany; he told me he has a heart, but at work needs to pretend he doesn’t.

I think now of the south Indians on the subway platform last night in Newark, who complimented my English. “You are very easy to understand,” they told me.

“I’ve been away from the U.S. for a month,” I said. “So I’ve gotten used to speaking slowly.”

Just then, waiting for the train, I hadn’t walked across 34th St yet and I still felt like I was traveling. The world was floating around me as it does while you’re away, like you’re swimming in the ocean far from shore. When you get back home your feet touch bottom and then the water recedes and you navigate that familiar, stable little world.

WHEN IT ENDS

Sometimes I search the web to see what people are saying about my documentary and I stumbled upon an interesting one the other day. An American woman in her 20’s had bought the DVD and liked the movie and felt somewhat inspired to go traveling. “I have struggled between the desire to wander around the world for a while in my “youth,'” she wrote, “and the even greater desire to be creating a life right NOW…that gives this gift to my family one day- a lifestyle.”

And perhaps partially as justification she noted two side effects of long-term travel mentioned in the movie: “They became numb,” she wrote, and “at the end of the trip they inevitably returned to ‘true reality.’ What a sad perspective.”

I wanted to scream–or at least post a rebuttal–but I refrained.

Maybe I’d like to tell her about the night two weeks ago when the German couple and the Nepalese couple took me out for drinks after a screening of the film. Nikki, an American on the last night of her summer in Europe, tagged along too; her flight didn’t leave until early the next morning.

It was the Nepalese couple’s third wedding anniversary and I was flattered they’d spent it with me and happy to offer them tips on cameras and computers. The Nepalese talked about the Maoists and the Germans spoke of the DDR and I’m sure at some point someone asked me about Bush. But we were in Potsdam and the bar finally emptied until we were the only group there.

Nikki and I walked to the train station and picked up a kebab and a beer for the ride to Berlin.
She had left her stuff at a giant Berlin hostel that didn’t know she wasn’t staying there anymore because it was so big. They didn’t know I wasn’t staying there either and we sat in the common room waiting for morning.

Nikki didn’t have a watch either and we didn’t need one because there was a clock to help her catch the 4:30am bus to the airport.

When she left I felt lonely and alive to know I liked her and would never see her again. It was cold and I’d been drinking but I didn’t feel numb.

Now I’m home and writing this on a bus that’s about to pull into Providence, RI. I flew home yesterday because my ten year high school reunion is tonight. I’m guessing that many from the class of ’97 have spent this decade creating a lifestyle for themselves and on this night they can be forgiven for displaying that lifestyle to the rest of us.

I think I might like to have a lifestyle some day. I think there will come a time when the allure of owning one pair of jeans becomes the annoyance of not really looking like an adult. “You can’t do this forever,” my British travel friend Jason said in New Zealand two years ago. “You can’t just leave your stuff at your parents place and keep traveling until your 40.”

But these days Jason is sending group e-mails from South America, having reconsidered appare
ntly.

I’m not sure when it will end, or when it should end or even what will make it end. But whenever the time comes to stop doing this I know I won’t find out from a watch.

###

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer
  11. Two to a bed in Bruges
  12. A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam
  13. A second thought on museums in Amsterdam
  14. Couch Surfing Europe

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Couch Surfing Europe

Europe is the world’s great couch surfing destination since so many travelers everywhere call the continent home. On my around-the-world trip I theorized you could spend 80% of your European nights crashing with friends you’d met elsewhere. On this trip, which ends today, I’ve spent just over half my nights sleeping gratis. But the last night riding the wave of others’ kindness had to be the most interesting.

I met Lonnie and Tania on the bus from the airport in Rio de Janiero. They thought I was French and a bit forward but they didn’t know where they were going so they got off the bus with me at Calle Nove and we spent a week at the Wave Hostel playing cards and drinking acai together. A couple months later they had an apartment in Buenos Aires with a spare couch. It was a small couch to be sure, so I found a folding chair to position at the end of the couch and rested my legs on it when necessary.

But Lonnie and Tania left South America and came home to Copenhagen where I found them here this month using just half their beds.

Speaking of Copenhagen friends, I met Emily on a ferry to Santorini, Greece where her family has a house which I haven’t had the pleasure of. But she came back to Denmark too and I met her for drinks last night. Lonnie and Tania were resting up for a night out and I was going to call them from Emily’s phone a bit later.

Emily and I sat down for a drink near Norreport and when I asked to use her phone it was gone.

“I’ve never lost a phone, how strange,” Emily said, taking it amazingly well.

This development meant Lonnie and Tania couldn’t call me and they weren’t answering my payphone calls either (turns out they were set to silent, sadly). The thing about relying on the kindness of strangers is it doesn’t leave you a lot of options at 2am when you can’t reach them.

Maybe it’s worth mentioning that Emily and I had hardly traded an e-mail in the last two years. But since I was in Copenhagen I figured I’d say hello and she had a little free time so we decided to meet up. But now she was without phone and I was without couch. So she hailed a cab and took me to her guest room and in the morning Lonnie answered her buzzer and made me some toast.

###

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer
  11. Two to a bed in Bruges
  12. A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam
  13. A second thought on museums in Amsterdam

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: A second thought on museums in Amsterdam

You should never agree with yourself too often, at least that’s what I’m thinking today, so I’d like to mention a few museums that are worth all of our time. Some readers may remember an anti-museum post a little while ago, though more readers may have stopped reading after that one and are missing out on this mea culpa.

There are plenty of very good museums in Amsterdam, but the three I visited were Van Gogh’s, Rembrandt’s, and Anne Frank’s. Museums dedicated to one person tend to be really interesting; Picasso’s museo in Barcelona may be my favorite anywhere with work spanning from his childhood to old age.

But in Holland’s capital I first stopped into Van Gogh’s temple with work spanning seven of the ten short years he worked. In contrast to my experience with Picasso, I came away from Van Gogh’s museum with less awe rather than more. The work we always see from Van Gogh (Starry Night, the sunflowers, the self portraits) hews to a familiar and wonderful style. But a fuller sampling of his work revealed a scattershot, groping attempt to find that style. One portrait looked like a rough Rembrandt, many like so-so Seurats. But they also helped you understand the steps he took to reach his own iconic style. Most striking to me was Pietà (naar Delacroix), a painting of Mary and Jesus with a pallet so identical to Starry Night that it had to be put to canvas with the same physical paint (both were completed in 1889 but that’s as far as my scholarship goes on this one).

A couple canals away is Rembrandt’s house, where the master lived for two decades before creditors came calling. There are only a couple Rembrandt paintings here, but dozens of his etchings are on display and many are amazing. The various rooms of his multi-story house have been restored to approximate the furnishings he knew but it has a slightly sterile, fake feel. At one point a security guard started fiddling with the painting tools in the studio, underscoring that the original items are long lost. Still, the studio where most of Rembrandt’s work was created is inspiring. The light in the room has the soft, flattering quality of his portraits.

Another excellent display is at the entry, where a broken vase and other items sit just below a painting of the same items. Comparing the vase and the painting reveals the hyper-reality of the art and also the natural imperfection of the pottery which you might otherwise hold against the painter rather than the sculptor.

If you’re walking through Amsterdam and see a thick line snaking around the corner, you’re probably at Anne Frank’s House. It was after 8pm when Sabrina and I got there but the line persisted. Better a line than an over-stuffed museum.

“I feel really bad being German here,” Sabrina said. I tried to commiserate by mentioning the War Crimes Museum in Vietnam.

Still, I thought I’d make the most of her presence by using her as a translator but we were both surprised to learn the diary is written in Dutch rather than German. Anne was just four when the family moved to Amsterdam, it was another seven years before they went into hiding.

The first most striking thing about the Frank house is how big it is. Most Amsterdamers would be happy to have an apartment as big as the secret annex. Most Amsterdamers, of course, don’t share their flat with seven others without leaving for five years. When we’re talking about experiences as horrific as the Franks we’re apt to think of it as an unmitigated hell, but the relative spaciousness of the annex is maybe an example of our narrow conception of hell (and/or the way its been presented to us in film and story). Regardless, it didn’t have to be small to be awful.

It was a pleasant, wet night in Amsterdam when they closed the museum on us. Sabrina sat on the back of her bike and I peddled hard up the little canal inclines, proud to keep the bike upright with someone on the back. I flew to Copenhagen the next morning and I’m no Tony Bennett so I took my heart with me. But the airline must have been more sentimental, cause they left my bag in Amsterdam.

###

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer
  11. Two to a bed in Bruges
  12. A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: A Coda to Travel Love in Amsterdam

Sometimes I walk to the southeastern corner of Central Park and watch the tour buses respire tourists. I walk by slowly and try to pick up an accent or language. For a while I thought of stopping and offering to show them the city, to take them for a drink or walk through the park. But I never did.

One nice thing about New York is that there are always plenty of travelers to watch and I like watching them more than I like looking through my own photographs because they are living something current and exciting and photos only remind me I was doing that at some other time but not now.

If there is one honest to goodness reason not to go on a long trip it is because coming home is so impossible. A married friend of mine e-mailed me while I was away saying how much he still misses that time in his life – now fifteen years in the past – when he went traveling in Asia. At film festivals, after the Q&A, someone always comes up to tell me about the trip they took two years or two decades ago and still think about always.

I’ve sometimes compared travel to a dangerous drug, which makes you feel high in a new and fabulous way and then becomes necessary just to feel normal. And I think that’s true.

But just now I’m thinking that high is more like a first love.

First, with love, you find yourself with a certain kind of new-found freedom. In high school or maybe university you start to become your own person and its flush with possibility and uncertainty and innocence. And then you meet someone who makes you feel high in a new and fabulous way.

When it ends, if you’re lucky, you’ve learned something about finding the right person but certainly you’ve lost the innocence of caring so much so quickly so blindly.

Isn’t that how it felt on your first week out alone? Wasn’t it like a new kind of freedom? And wasn’t it filled in by making connections to people that were much stronger and faster than they had any right to be?

If you are unlucky, when the newness has warn off, you’re left looking at pictures. You are too jaded or scared or cynical or bored to make new pictures that mean anything.

“Hell,” Dostoevsky wrote, “is the suffering of being unable to love.”

I have no idea where I’m going with this.

But its worth reminding myself that I’m in the apartment of the girl who filled up my innocence when I left home more than two years ago. The thing about love when you’re traveling is that you can always blame the road for the split. You don’t have to learn what’s wrong with being together, because itineraries split you up before you find out. So its like the magic of that first love in high school, but without the kick-in-the-gut first break-up. What a dangerous little thing.

“It’s really good to see you,” I said when we touched glasses tonight, my last in Amsterdam.

“Is it different seeing me in my real life instead of the other times when I was traveling?” she asked.

“It’s very much the same but its very different too.”

“I think its very different,” she said.

“Yes, but you are the same person.” And that hung in the air.

What I meant is that in the bar in Amsterdam with the warm red light and the white, leather benches I saw the same face I met at the World Bar in Sydney 31 months ago. I heard the same voice inflecting the same way.

At most museums and some monuments they have benches in just the perfect place. You have a very good view and can rest your legs. You don’t wait in line to sit on them, of course. You maybe mill around hoping someone will get up. Or you stand there looking at the paintings while someone else sits. And when someone gets up the bench is immediately filled.

There are certain people like this too, who when they become available will always be made unavailable by the next passerby. The passerby might truly love the view or only know that it is a good seat and they should take it. But if you ever fall in love with such a bench and then leave it to go to Asia and Europe and South America you can be certain if you drop in for a few days it will not be empty. And if you’re very unlucky that won’t even hurt because all those places will have made you almost unable to love seeing new things or unable to do other things. You’ll only be reminded that something current and exiting is in a 31-month-old picture.

That’s not hell, it’s Amsterdam.

###

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer
  11. Two to a bed in Bruges

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.

Across Northern Europe: Two to a bed in Bruges

There are many ways to end up sleeping with someone in a hostel bed but this was a new one for me.

Bruges, Belgium is a little city of 117,000 with about five million tourists on every cobblestone street so I was happy to find shelter at a hostel in the north part of town. My friend and I claimed beds in dorm room 10 and headed out for a long day of beer reconnaissance. Our exploration was as thorough as 8% alcohol levels will reasonably allow. It had been a good nine hours of diligent effort when we made it back to room 10.

Room 10 was darkened and filled with sleeping bodies, including one in my bed. My guidebook — which had been on top of my bed to hold the place — was now on top of my bag which had also been moved to the door. Naturally, reception was closed.

But the hostel bar was open and I staggered over there and asked the bartender what to do. He walked with me back to room 10 and observed that there was in fact someone else in my bed.

We went back to the bar and squinted at a computer spreadsheet. A group of nine had been split between rooms 10 and 11 and it appeared one of the fellas from room 11 had gone into room 10 instead. Sure enough there was an empty bed in room 11 and the barman gave me a key to the room and went back to pouring bier.

It was a comfy bed on the bottom of the bunk with a blanket of ideal weight. I was asleep for five minutes or an hour or a year when Stacey came into the room. I have no idea if her name was Stacey but we need a name for her.

“You’re in my bed,” Stacey observed in close proximity to my slumbering head. “You’re in my bed!”

“Shut up!” a guy in an adjacent bunk offered.

“I need to sleep and he’s in my bed,” Stacey clarified with a distinct Queensland, Australia accent.

I explained what had happened to Stacey and suggested she talk to the bartender. The bar was closed, she noted calmly and not at all drunkenly or annoyedly. It had reached the hour where even annoyedly was a word.

“I’m sorry, but this is the bed they gave me and it’s the only place I have to sleep and I’m not getting up,” I said.

Stacey curled up on the floor and proceeded the squirm audibly. “If you want to share you can,” I offered chivalrously. “That’s the best I can offer.”

And with that Stacey climbed into bed with her back to my back and her feet to my face. Sleeping with someone in a dorm-size bed is an act of skill, sleeping with someone in a dorm-size bed without touching them is an act of will.

I don’t often remember my dreams but I remember one from this night which I feel compelled to share. In it, I was sitting up in the bed while Stacey slept and since I didn’t know who she was I looked her up on Facebook and read through her profile. It seemed an odd way of learning about someone you were sharing a bed with. I don’t recall if her name on Facebook was Stacey but there is no accounting for the subconscious.

In the morning, Stacey and I were in much better spirits – though no thanks to each other, if you know what I mean – and both agreed that it had been no ones fault and we both behaved admirably. At breakfast she gave me a knowing smile and though she wasn’t as cute as her Facebook picture had made her seem, I hoped she’d share an undercooked egg with me and tell me her name and a few personal details I could put in this section of the story.

But instead she sat next to an American girl who had just been to Amsterdam. Reception was open now and they gave back my 17 euros. The hostel’s slogan is “party hard, sleep easy” but in Bruges the partying was the easy part.

###

Previously on Across Northern Europe:

  1. Shining a Light on Iceland
  2. Lonely Love on Iceland
  3. Iceland Gone Wild
  4. A Trip to the Airport
  5. Why Bother Going to Berlin?
  6. A Perishable Feast
  7. Globians Film Festival
  8. The Elusive Dutch Drivers License
  9. Terror in Berlin
  10. Authentic Belgian Beer

Brook Silva-Braga is traveling northern Europe for the month of August and reuniting with some of the people he met on the yearlong trip which was the basis of his travel documentary, A Map for Saturday. You can follow his adventure in the series, Across Northern Europe.