I am home.
Not a moment too soon, either. Travelling is fun but if you’re on a tight schedule and plans change on a regular basis, it gets exhausting and I feel it’s time to head home.
I’m going to be an ass and work backwards, splitting the whole thing down in two sections and keeping the hike through Lapland for last. The reason is that I don’t have the pictures yet, and it will take me forever to process them anyway. So don’t hold your breath on that one (in case you would), but I promise it will be worth the wait.
Prague, Czech Republic
On this trip, I traveled by plane, boat, train, car, bus and by foot, had conversations in 4 languages, paid in 6 currencies, covered about 7.000 km (if I were to do it all by car), spent €810 on the road (this includes transportation!), and was 21 days from home.
I don’t feel like being too elaborate about it (what’s this? Maarten grew some modesty?) so here’s the highlights.
I was pleasantly surprised to see Stockholm has kept much of its authenticity. The officials managed to combine growth with heritage rather well. The building structure and materials are different from what I’m used to, so the whole city felt as foreign as it is. You can sense there’s a lot going on, and something is bubbling under the surface. Sadly, I failed to find it.
What I did find, after some searching, were some “alternative” (hate that word) clothing shops (hate that word even more) to re-arrange my travel gear. I gave my outdoor stuff with my friends and instead, bought me some pants and a tee shirt. You see, when you’re hiking, you’ll want to be as light as possible so spare clothing is a definite no- with all due unpleasant consequences. Not to mention, my gear was made for winter conditions, and Stockholm has a surprisingly warm climate.
I stayed with a couple in the outskirts of the city. Neither of them seemed very impressed with me, so I just did my thing while they minded their own business. Not that they were unfriendly- They allowed me to use the shower and washing machine, which were both a luxury I had nearly forgotten about. Also, they made some insanely good dinners- a welcome change from 10 days of camping grub and fast food.
One thing that did bother me about the city was how damn confusing it was. Some parts really looked alike, and sometimes I found myself thinking I was walking away from the water, only to see the docks make some kind of S-curve and ending up in an almost identical spot. Bridges over bridges and streets folding back on themselves- Escher would be impressed. I lost count on how many times I got lost, though I don’t really mind that.
I booked my overnight boat to the mainland too late and I had the choice: Either I would have to cough up the equivalent of €200, or “only” €100 for a romantic cruise. Those sadistic bastards can just smell you’re on a tight budget. I saw the most mind blowing sunset from the deck, though- it single-handedly made the whole ordeal a positive one. Just barely.
The only reason why Riga didn’t strike me as extremely dull is because I couldn’t get over the fact that I just set foot on former Soviet territory. On the boat I had already heard the Latvian language and it was hard not to link it to a certain stigma. Unlike Swedish, it is entirely impossible to understand and is somewhat similar to Polish, which apparently has some negative connotation in my brain. Huh. I never knew I was a racist.
I had requested a couch with another couple but the guy in question was out of town, so it was just me and this chick in a pale apartment. The walls were bare and everything was very simplistic. No wooden furniture at all, and some sort of cots to sleep in. It made the impressive computer system, with a screen big enough to call for Batman, all the more striking.
When I told her that I am rarely interested in the old town centers where all the tourist tend to huddle together, she was so friendly to take me on the guided tour around the city. And by that, I do mean around: We must have walked 10 km and all the time, I could see Riga in the distance. It took us most of the afternoon and now and then I would ask myself, “Where the hell did I end up now” but some parts were very interesting indeed.
It’s funny, half the city looks like a Paris ghetto, but isn’t. The people there are just as nice and there’s nothing to worry about, even though chunks of rotting cement are falling from the bridge you’re standing on. There’s just simply no money to rebuild it all, most of it was passed down from Soviet times when the government had better things to bother with than safety and aesthetics, so now they’re kind of stuck with a failing infrastructure.
In the local Occupation Museum I saw a whole bunch of Soviet symbols and badges on display, and found myself wondering if they would have them for sale anywhere. Especially the “Young Pioneer” badge, which shows Lenin’s ugly face on a red star with flames behind it, really caught my attention and I was curious if I could find one anywhere for a reasonable price. They didn’t have it in the museum shop so I set out, looking for Soviet gadgets in souvenir shops.
And here’s what I found:
Fucking nothing. It’s like they’re in denial. Here in Belgium you have to walk around blind if you don’t want to see Che looking your way with those handsome eyes of his, and sooner or later you’re bound to find some commie dipshit sprouting comrade slogans of some sort. But over there? Nothing. And I looked hard.
In fact, I noticed there is a very active neo-Nazi organization there, with slogans on the subway walls. It’s funny how that seems to make more sense to these people than even admitting to the tourists that you were Russia’s bitch for a couple decades.
Lithuania is the only country I stayed at, which capital I did not visit- called Vilnius. My bus actually drove through, as part of a very retarded detour, and the whole time I sat by the window with my mouth open. This had to be the most depressing city I had ever seen, and yes I’ve been to Charleroi. Everything was broken. Construction yards were deserted; buildings as big as stadiums left to rot halfway through the building process.
Luckily this wasn’t my stop, and I was dropped off in the next town, named Kaunas. Pronounce: ka’-OON-ahs.
I already wrote this down on location: I had the privilege to stay with a student in political sciences, in the Soviet “sleeping district”. Any question I had was answered, and I could feel first-hand how it is to grow up in this concrete jungle like my host did. It was scary and inspiring all at the same time, and in general, an enlightening experience.
That’s a good thing too, because Kaunas itself was fucking boring. It didn’t really have a tourist center to speak of, and I didn’t see much of the “real” city because I spent most of the day in bed with a hangover.
Yes, Hangover. They kept nagging to me to go out clubbing with them and I figured, if I wanted to have some actual fun in a strange place with strange people speaking a strange language, I’d have to get seriously shitfaced. So I did, and I had fun, but not because of the liquor. What a ripoff.
Warsaw was the first place where I felt the weariness of being away from home so long. This was for a large part because I was having problems finding a place to stay and the two-city couchsurfing buffer I had built up was now gone. I had to use the emergency forums and ended up staying with yet another couple. Judging from their profile, they seemed like great people with loads of travel experience. They opened a bed and breakfast recently and let me use a room for free, and I could hitch a ride to the city center in the morning. Combined with the fact that they saved my lily white ass last-minute, I should be eternally grateful to them. Problem is though, that’s right where the awesome stopped.
Communication was difficult and I felt actively ignored most of the time. On the second evening I suddenly had to grab all my belongings because we were “moving” to a different apartment of theirs, where they had enough room for another friend of theirs to stay over. They told me he was a photography teacher so I was looking forward to it, until I noticed he didn’t speak a word of damn English and I sat around listening to them cracking jokes in Polish all night. The only thing close to a conversation I had was me understanding what “Testes Kurva” means. No sir, not a great stay.
Warsaw itself was cool, though. It’s a very photogenic city and I had great fun with my camera there. The birds on the old town square were so tame they almost came to sit straight on my lens, and behaved unlike anything I had seen before from pigeons.
Great architecture all around, subtle but cheerful colors, and an usually tolerable kind of tourists wandering about. I’d love to go back and stay for a couple days to focus on photography a little more, preferably with someone else. Who knows…
Every once in a while, you encounter a situation, a glimpse of what could have been, might have been if only things were different and could have, would have and should have.
Cutting to the chase: After needing the emergency forum once again, a girl invited me to stay at her place. A petite blonde, surprisingly clever and… yeah whatever. Suffice to say, we clicked rather well and even though Cracow was pretty awesome in its own right, I didn’t care much as we sat and talked.
Couchsurfing is very dangerous, in that respect: It has the tendency to romanticize the situation you’re in. It’s a classic desert island scenario and it’s very easy to get carried away. Luckily (?) I had things to do at home, and I had no choice whether to move on or not. ‘sides, she’s going to Finland for a year.
So yeah. Moving on.
As stated above, Cracow was sort of awesome, too. Lots of cultural heritage but by that time I was growing rather tired of it. It started to dawn on me that those “old town” city centers were actually the most modern thing in the whole city: Buildings were renovated, streets fixed, and everything kept clean and spotless. Compared to the rest of the city, it just doesn’t strike me as very “real” at all. All in all, I was starting to care less about those tourist traps and promised myself to follow my own advice a little more and physically get lost to see what’s “beyond.”
Because of my reluctance to leave the city, I missed my train and thus my connection. It was a matter of seconds and the international connection had already been booked, and what’s worse, paid for. No refunds. As I was being informed, a man beside me told me he was headed in the same direction, and noticed my problems to cope with this financial setback. I didn’t have enough cash on me and would have to withdraw an amount much more than what I actually needed. Since no exchange office takes Polish currency, this was all quite literally money down the drain. Money I don’t have a lot of.
This man actually paid for most of my ticket and a couple drinks on top of that, and kept me company as we both endured hellish temperatures and an unbathed, smoking family of fat Poles. It was nice being able to talk to someone, share some traveling ideas, and even co-ordinates in case we would ever want to visit. Did I mention the guy’s Australian? Anyone want to come? It’s as good an excuse as it gets.
I can’t remember how many times people recommended Prague to me so obedient as usual, I made a point of it to drop by while I was in the neighborhood. And yes, it was nice. Lots of fancy buildings and um, fancy buildings. Problem is though, I’m just not that into fancy buildings as the next tourist and to be honest, I doubt too many of us really are. It’s just what you do as a tourist, you know?
If you disagree, answer me this: Have you ever bothered to visit the churches and cathedrals in your own city (if it has any)? Ever taken a photo of your city hall? Of course not, you’re not traveling so you don’t give a damn. No one gives a damn, they just think they do. Of course, it’s possible to see the beauty of it when you stand still and take the time to look, but you can do that anywhere. You don’t need an old city center for that, or a foreign country for that matter.
So it wasn’t long before I put my map in my back pocket and wandered off in some random direction. I knew there was a river close by so I decided to follow that, soon ending up in a park atop a hill overlooking the city. There was a terrace made of marble or something like it, for a large part torn apart by skaters who made ramps and grindbars from the slabs. The rest of the park was huge, an odd thing to find so close to the center in a post-Soviet country. A kinetic sculpture stood by the edge, celebrating the working class with a pendulum-like system that swung a mast back and forth.
My host (a guy for once) declared me crazy, but this is what I look for in a city: Some character, some spirit. To know what makes it stand out as a city to live in, “we have old buildings” doesn’t count.
Even in this respect though, Prague did not disappoint. There was plenty to discover, for a large part because it’s such a big city, and there was still a lot that my host pointed out I had missed. I suppose this is another city I’ll have to go back to sooner or later. Takers are welcome.
By the way, this is also the city where I finally found my commie badge. If I had known it was only €2 (50 koruny sounds like a lot more) I would have bought several.
I arrived in Frankfurt by train (that I had to catch at 6am), without knowing where I would sleep that night. Around 2 o’clock I strolled out of the bus station and looked up- way up, because Frankfurt is basically just a series of skyscrapers. Also, I wanted to avoid eye contact with the “locals,” an army of drunks and marginal dickweed living at the base of these metal towers. I’m all for “alternative lifestyles” but walking around with a bottle in your hand, yelling at strangers, is not what I call a lifestyle.
It took me one hour flat to realize that I was tired of this city already. After spending 3 weeks in places where no one speaks a language you know and having to think where you will sleep and how you will eat, I had just about had it. It cost me some serious cash but I grabbed the next train straight home, which happened to be stopping in…
or Köln for the lovers.
For the hour that I stayed there, I learned that there would be a fireworks festival later that night, and even without the city was infinitely more entertaining than Frankfurt. All sorts of cool things were around and going on, and I felt sorry I had already paid for the train home, or I’d focus my effort on finding a place to sleep there.
Street musicians, flashmobs and spontaneous theater still couldn’t beat the prospect of home (and not throwing €100 out the window) and before long I was on my merry way again- home after 17 hours in and out of trains.