Another milestone reached: today is the seventh monthiversary of Us Europeans. The slight midtrip crisis I reported about a month ago faded out in just a few days, and I quickly got back to the task at hand: browsing through the future history of Europe.
When I think of Europe, I see the map of the continent in front of me. Before this trip, it was already marked with red dots showing which places I had been to. I am now traveling along a seemingly endless red line around the continent. It is very strange to see the red line in front of me being replaced by the red line behind me. What used to be a just a line turns back into just a line with every step forward. While the red line in front of me is a mystery unfolding, the red line behind me now represents unforgettable experiences, meetings and faces.
..exchanging curiosity for consciousness
Reading and running
Even though I claim to be writing a book, it feels more as if I`m reading a book. As some people suggested, I could indeed have read a book as an alternative to what I am doing now. But first of all, I am not a very good reader and whenever I do read something, I prefer to stick to the conclusion and then only read the essential bits of whatever remains. Secondly, I forget. Whatever makes sense is worth forgetting ? it will come back automatically on request anyway. The good thing about this trip is that I can`t skip any pages. I am forced to read it page by page. Indeed, I can forget everything that made sense, but the memories of everything inbetween will remain ? and add irreplaceable value to all of the logical information that is stored in a large warehouse at the back of my head.
Throughout this trip, I have spent a lot of time writing and typing. The official `Us Europeans` stories about all sorts of subjects have taken a good share of my time, but they only represent a very small part of the actual adventure. A lot of people keep asking me about what it feels like to travel, and how I experience this adventure. All of that is difficult to describe, but I will give it a try. And the list will be long, like this trip is.
I was obviously very excited when I started thinking about how to shape this project, and in deciding that I was actually going to carry it out. I spent quite some frustrations on getting the website to work properly, felt thrilled when booking the first flights and a bit scared to quit my job. Knowing that it was the right thing to, I was happy to see my colleagues support my decision, despite some initial irritation about the unexpected move. I felt satisfied and relieved when finding proper replacement before leaving.
The first of August quickly came closer and most conversations I had were about my plans to do this. It must have annoyed some people, but there was no other way. It served as mental preparation for a self-inflicted marathon operation, the dimensions of which were unknown at the time. One year sounded abstract and so did the 30 euro daily budget. I did not even try to imagine what it would be like, I just knew it was the task at hand.
Actually leaving The Netherlands felt like going on a holiday. Saying goodbye to colleagues, friends and family was an unreal experience. It felt like I would be back on the next day, even though I knew I would not.
What happened afterwards is a long list of different events, reflections and feelings. It was strange to start off with articles numbered 1, 2, 3 and an archive initially consisting of nothing but that. It also felt strange to tell people about my plans to be away for a year, having to add that I had only been away for 1, 2 or 3 days. Fortunately, the Irish proved as helpful and friendly as I had come to know them on earlier trips which made the Green Island a very good starting point indeed.
I felt a bit desperate in Killarney when I could not find a place to sleep, while night promised to be rainy and cold. The problem sorted itself out and eventually gave me for future challenges. Being back in Limerick felt a bit strange because it reminded me of earlier visits to Sin?ad and her family. Northern Ireland was the first test to my aim to write objective articles, and it was also the first place where the rain really poured down. Also the first place where the pound made everything 1.5 times more expensive than necessary. Joining Mark and his friend to the Derry ? Longford football match in the catholic Bogside was quite new experience too. Back in Southern Ireland, I re-enjoyed the Irish accent, saved some money to buy a Guiness, met up with a Czech guy I met in Killarney and a German girl I met earlier in Limerick.
Lithuania was the first Couchsurfing experience, which was very pleasant and saved me from sleeping on the tiny airport of Kaunas after my late-night arrival there. A Lithuanian girl named Vilda hosted me and she also took me to the capital Vilnius to meet her sister and her sister`s boyfriend. Also during my stay at her place, I saw a Lithuanian hospital from the inside after her friend almost broke her back in the Centre of Europe Park. Vilda`s friend Rita gave me a lift to the city of Siauliai which uptil today remains the place where I felt most uncomfortable. In spite the apples an old lady gave me on the bus, the city itself was a strange place.
Latvia seemed to be an empty country when I arrived in Liepaja on a Sunday. I got annoyed by an Australian guy who put ketchup on the pasta I offered him. He spent the next day in jail for falling asleep in the street. No relation between the two events though. I enjoyed the storm in Ventpils, climbing the lighthouse with Anda and Sandra. Europe`s widest waterfall in Kuldiga was a bit of a disappointment. OK, it may be 100 metres wide but it`s hardly half a meter high. Riga did not please me too much and it was raining in most places between there and the Estonian border.
Estonia was a pleasant surprise, and the late summer sun in Tartu gave me lots of new ideas. My host Tarmu and his lovely 3-year old daughter Mari added to the pleasant stay. In Viljandi, Kristiina interviewed me for a local Estonian newspaper. Picking berries and walking in the bog near Joesuu was veru nice and refreshing and so was my stay on the island of Saarema. Tallinn was a very nice and pretty place, and I happened to run into people I knew from back home, which was a nice surprise.
Finland and the prices there came as a shock. Doing a lot of Couchsurfing proved to be a nice solution, starting with my stay on Teemu and Katja`s balcony in Helsinki. I did some Karaoke with Johanna in Jyv?skyl?, then joined Panu from Kuopio to a Finnish student party with sauna, where I ended up being naked and talking to naked Finnish women. Very interesting but also very normal, because of the way everybody else found it normal. Group psychology. Walking around in the forest of Lapland with Etienne and Philippe was very nice and made a welcome change from a few days in which I felt I was going to get ill. In the end, I fortunately did not. Ended the Finnish adventure in Vaasa in good company.
Sweden was nice because I always like Sweden and I very much liked staying at Elin`s place in Ume?. Jenny from H?rn?sand helped me improve my Swedish a little, and was a nice host on the way to Stockholm. I waited for Sanne at Arlanda Airport and we spent a week exploring the close surroundings of Sweden`s capital, including the Archipelago and the otherwise uninspiring Eskiltuna.
Scotland was nice for the smiles but not so much for the food. Glasgow, Edinbourgh and Saint Andrews were nice places to visit and it was a pleasure meeting up with my friend Katie and with Nikki, my former classmate from Clermont-Ferrand. I hadn`t seen Katie for a few months and she helped me a lot during the preparation of the project. I had lost contact with Nikki since I saw her for the last time in Ballymena (N Ireland) in September 2001, and it was great to see that she was still the same cool person, just like her friends Karen, Orlagh and Lynne.
After feeling slightly depressed in Newcastle and Liverpool, German-Portuguese Helena warmly welcomed me in Porto, and I was more than happy to get to a place with food markets full of fresh fruits and vegetables. Helena and her friends took me out dancing in Porto, which has cool pubs that made me tired two evenings in a row. On the first evening, I got to know lupin seeds, which proved to make a nice sidedish for beer. The university city of Coimbra was the next place. I walked around the city with an Austrian-Croatian guy by the name of Josko and witnessed the procession held to celebrate the opening of the academic year. Lisbon, my next stop, struck me by its size. I met nice people there, including Fabien from France, a 50-or-so year old lady from Scotland, and an Argentine girl named Veronica, with whom I went to Belem to eat the local pastries and to Sintra to illegally climb the walls of the castle. Veronica found a 20 euro banknote when we were there, which was enough to also try the local pastries from Sintra and buy the subway tickets back into Lisbon. A round along Beja and Evora took me back to Lisbon before visiting Rui and his friends in Castelo Branco. Then back to Porto where I stayed with Helena`s friend Ivo, who told me about Port and treated me to the local Francesinha dish before taking me to the train station so I could get to Spain.
Spain was the country where I almost knew everybody I went to visit. The adventure started in the inspiring city of Santiago of Compostela, where I enjoyed meeting like-minded people. I was hosted by Sigrid, a girl I met in February of the same year in Parc Guell, when was in Barcelona for work. In Madrid, I met up with Carmen, a girl I met in Derry when she and her friends spontaneously offered me one of the tuna sandwiches they were preparing. Then I visited Bas`s friend Susana in Torrevieja, attended an English class there and got served birthday cake on 19 November at midnight. Susana dropped me off in Valencia where I caught the train to Barcelona, where I had met up with my Jalima and Enriko and celebrated my birthday again ? with champaign and a nice dinner! Next was a quick stopover in Logro?o and my first introduction to Bask country.
On the way home
Getting to France made me feel like heading home and it was a lot easier to get around language-wise. In Angoul?me, I met up with Charlotte, whom I met in Cork on the second day of my trip. Then I got back to a city that I must have visited about 15 times by now: Caen in Normandy. I had a coffee with Diane on the seaside of Luc-sur-Mer, just in time before the start of her one-year adventure in San Francisco. Next person on the list was my cousin Arjan and his wife Olivia in Notre Dame d`Estr?es. They had just moved into their new house and I was lucky to also meet my other cousin Tjeerd and his wife Tirza before heading for Paris to spend the weekend with Sanne. From there, I moved back south to see my former classmate Claire in Lyon and to celebrate Saint Nicholas with her and her friends. I then headed back North to Metz, where I joined Elena and Fran?ois to a T?l?ton concert first, then to a Couchsurfing meeting in Strasbourg. From there, I got a ride to Luxembourg, which was the one-but-last country before the Christmas break. I felt a bit strange leaving France, knowing that I would not be back there for a longer time than I have ever been away from it since 2000.
Luxemburg surprised me by the number of languages people spoke, and I had a nice meeting with an Italian lady at the European Commission. I got interviewed by a local Belgian TV-station, but now realise that I have never seen the results of that shooting.
Winter really started when I got to Belgium, which was full of Christmas markets and where I was worrying about finding a place to stay in Brussels. Stef and Sven helped me out, after I had stayed with some other hospitable Couchsurfers in Liege, Namur, Louvain and Leuven. Brussels was also important for some quick meetings with EU-people, most of whom were very enthusiastic about my project. Last stop before heading home was Ghent, where I paid a visit to my colleague and walking-to-Wroclaw-friend Frederik, whom I first met during a voluntary work project in Poland.
The first part of the trip came to an end in my home town The Hague. It was good to see so many friends and family during my short stay in The Netherlands. I missed them on the way, but without feeling homesick. I also enjoyed seeing my own country from the same perspective I had used to attack the preceding 13 countries.
Overall conclusions part I
Thanks to the many people I met on the way, there was not much reason to feel homesick. Travelwise, I had been away for almost five months, but socially, all of that seemed to represent little more than one day. I felt like my friends and family were with me all the time, trusting that they were doing alright during the time I didn`t speak to them. Thanks to the internet, I was able to collect the everyday news from everybody and also general news from the internet. I remember being quite worried about the political developments, and I must admit I still am. The country seems to be falling apart in two camps and still everybody somehow feels confident that nothing will happen because we have such a civilised nation. But bad things also happen in civilised nations, especially when they are confident about being very civilised.
Anyway, I hope this story pretty much gives an overview of how I felt during the first part of the trip. It`s easier to describe it looking back than on the moment itself. Every day has its own excitement, but an equal amount of excitement on every single day makes it hard to tell an interesting story about it. I always prefer to understand trends than to know facts, so how I feel on one particular moment does not mean a lot. Putting things in this perspective helps me get along. One thing at a time. Or as Antoine de Saint-Exup?ry worded it: `What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step. It is always the same step, but you have to take it`, or another one from the same author: `Life has meaning only if one barters it
day by day for something other than itself` and a final one to complete: `What makes the desert beautiful is that somewhere it hides a well`, which to me means that it`s worth searching something without knowing where exactly you will find it and what it will look like in the end. You find what you search for, in the way you harvest what you plant. If you ask the right questions, you will get the right answers.
And that`s all for now.
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