Featured photo: Students in Munich watching the sunset on the bridge over the railroad tracks.
In the last five weeks, I have been to seven European countries and eight major cities. I’ve stayed in seven youth hostels, a rural Bavarian air B&B, and the homes of three different third cousins of my mother. The April of my junior year was atypical to say the least. Despite possessing little concern for religion these days, UK universities have a month-long “Easter Break” before May exams, giving me my long-awaited opportunity to explore a slice of Europe by train, completely on my own. Yet the thing I found about traveling alone is that I often was not alone—it just meant that my company consisted of a rotating cast of colorful characters who knew nothing about me and me about them. Yet there is something about the anonymity and adventure of being a traveler that makes it possible to go deeper in the space of a few hours with a complete stranger than you ever have with the majority of classmates you say hello to almost every day of the week.
All that time I did spend truly alone was rich and wonderful, but difficult to translate into a short blog post. Yet I feel it is possible to capture a bit of the character of each city I went to through interactions I had with people there. I will not come close to sharing them all, but I’ll tell of a few.
Berlin was my first stop, and my second night there, I was nearly back to my hostel after seeing a German musical, when my phone reached two percent and perfunctorily shut down. Realizing too late my excessive dependence on Google Maps, I took stock of my options. I knew I had to be within a few blocks of my hostel, but it was 11 p.m. and I had no idea what the name of the hostel’s street was. The road I was on was dark and quiet, but I noticed a little candlelit bar just ahead of me. Feeling exhausted and a little homesick, I went in clutching my phone and charger and asked the young barista if there was any chance I could charge it. He smiled and took it, plugging it in behind the bar. I ordered the cheapest beer and grabbed a bar stool near a woman in her late 20s or so. Unexpectedly she turned to me, and asked what brought me to Berlin. Her name was Marie, and she’d up and moved to Berlin on a whim three years before from Montreal with zero job prospects but an itch to be elsewhere. Now she works for a travel agency helping French-speaking tourists, and has no intention of leaving Berlin. So began a long conversation about multiculturalism and traveling and taking risks.
We eventually joined two men, the only other patrons left. One of them was Marie’s fiancée, also a Canadian but from Toronto, who had similarly come to Berlin with no game plan. The two had met at a Berlin music festival when she overheard him talking about Canada. The other was an older German man I realized later they didn’t know, but who along with the barista Andreas, created this little, comfortable haven of people all joking and laughing and asking me about my future, reminiscing about their pasts, and informing me where to go next. All of us left together when Andreas finally decided to close up an hour after he ought to have, and they pointed me to my hostel—less a than a hundred steps away, just around the corner.
Every day for the next five days I walked past that bar, and every single day no matter the time, it was closed, shut up tight as if it had never been open. It made me wonder if I dreamed the whole thing, but I have the sketches I did of Marie and the two guys perched on bar stools to prove it. The impractical, spiritual side of me though can’t help but feel it wasn’t a coincidence that I found that place and those people when I did, and that that night of all nights, the bar was open.
Too many of my stories start with a failing phone battery, and Budapest’s no different. This time I found a coffee shop in the middle of the day. When I asked if there was Wi-Fi, the two baristas said no apologetically, but then one brightened. “If you’re looking for something to do, read this!” He thrust a giant, very thick book into my hands. “It’s the best book on coffee you will ever find. It’s the coffee bible.” Which is how I ended up learning the insider secrets to crafting cappuccinos and flat whites, filter coffee techniques, and the colonial ties still present in coffee production. The reason I paged through that book for so long though wasn’t really for coffee knowledge, but to watch the interactions between the two baristas in the quiet café. At one point one of them plunked a cappuccino down unprompted on my table. They’d messed an order up, he said, so it was mine. Half an hour after that, another coffee arrived, this time a casualty from trying to outdo one another in new foam designs. I felt this inexplicable warmth from them, quiet and comfortable and kind, and I didn’t want to leave it.
The next morning, I was in the midst of a minor breakdown, and made my way back to that café in a fog. I sat on a bench outside, furiously writing in my journal, until I sensed a hovering presence. I looked up and there were the baristas. “Can we get you a coffee?” one asked anxiously. I spent hours in that café, talking on the phone, writing, reading. Every now and then glancing up to exchange a smile with one of the baristas. When I finally left, the one still there asked, “See you tomorrow?” In all my months in British coffee shops, no barista had ever asked me that. “Definitely,” I said. With only four days in Budapest, it was rather impractical to go back to the same café a third time, but I did anyway. And sure enough, I was greeted with a shy smile of recognition and a free muffin. I never exchanged more than a few sentences with the baristas, but in a large and foreign city, I felt seen and appreciated and welcome in an inexplicably simple, unassuming, undemanding way.
Flash forward to Salzburg and surprise, I’m on the terrace of another café. (I promise that’s not all I did on my travels.) At a table nearby were three girls near my age, drinking wine and laughing and chattering in very loud German. After an hour, I was about to leave when one of the girls tripped on the stairs for the third time, issuing a string of curses, and I couldn’t help but laugh along with her friends. They switched to English, and when the waiter came with my bill they batted him away with instructions to bring me a glass of wine. Renate, Magdi and Aurelia clued me in on their university studies and boy drama, and taught me the all-important Austrian term I can’t spell but sounds like prolait, which refers to a guy who thinks he’s hot stuff. Most Austrian boys, they told me, are prolaits, and whenever a boy drove by with his arm dangling out the window of his expensive car with music pumping, they shrieked prolait!!! I barely stopped laughing that whole evening.
Salzburg became a full Austrian crash-course, as I met up with them and more of their friends the next evening, and sat on the edge of a lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains with Renate most of the day after, shifting naturally between our travels, family history, Austrian and American politics and the refugee crisis. It was one of the richest conversations I’ve ever had, and this year has been full of them. We didn’t agree on everything, but we didn’t need to, pushing each other to explain our points of view. Sometimes laughing with a stranger is all you need to break through the barrier and find a way to connect.
The theme of my journey was falling into conversations when I least expected to. I was in a park in Vienna, writing postcards at a picnic table. A very old woman sat on the other side facing away from me, working on the newspaper crossword and watching her black Spaniel snuffle around in the grass. When I got up to leave she looked up and said something in German. When I admitted I didn’t speak German, she apologized in English for speaking it badly. “I learned Czech and then German and then English, so I’m not fluent in any of them,” she said.
She began then to talk about her childhood in Czechoslovakia, and its takeover by the communists. It was clear she had a lot to say. I moved away from my bike and sat down beside her. She told me about having to go to communist schools after World War II and about becoming a truck driver in the 1950s when she couldn’t go to university because her family wasn’t communist, and eventually moving to Vienna to give her children the education she couldn’t have. She spoke thoughtfully about the current political climate, on how Trump was “a crazy man” (said with the utmost politeness), how United States is both too powerful and too far away to help Europe, England cares only about England, and Putin is more clever than Trump but strong in a narrow way that will hurt him eventually. She talked about sending her last dog “into the sky” and how she was teaching her new dog, an elderly rescue, that he didn’t need to be afraid of men. I sat and soaked in all in, asking questions here and there so she wouldn’t stop.
I couldn’t imagine how close I was to walking away without saying a word, how close I was to remaining ignorant of the treasure trove of memories and stories and observations this 86-year-old Czech-Austrian woman—Marie-Elise—held within her tiny frame. Everyone has stories, and most people want to share them. Somehow being an unknown traveler made me into a natural receptacle for people’s stories, and I lived for it.
I could go on and on—I’ve got another story about hitchhiking Moroccan YouTubers on a bridge in Munich—but I will stop here, because really what it all adds up to is that the encounters I had on this trip gave me back a little of the faith I had in people as a kid, my naïve conviction that the world is good. I don’t think the world is fundamentally good anymore, and I’m sure none of the people I met are saints, but they showed me kindness and openness and each one of them taught me something, whether that is what to call men with large egos, or that it is possible to move to foreign city just because, or simply that offering someone a free coffee can do a whole lot more than just caffeinate them.