19th July 2017 –
I awoke from a nightmare of being stalked. Waking only made me feel worse. I dressed quickly, and packed up the remainder of my belongings, and left the hostel as quickly as possible. I wanted to put as much distance between myself and this place as I could. I felt a little relief as I rode the Metro to the bus station, but I knew I wouldn’t feel better until I had left the Czech Republic entirely, or perhaps until my journey was over and I could return to the safety of home.
I arrived at the bus station over an hour early. I had been so desperate to leave my hostel that I hadn’t thought much about time. I sat on a bench and tried to refrain from crying. It didn’t work. Tears streamed uncontrollably down my face. Up until I’d left the hostel there was a part of me that had expected a miracle, expected my laptop to be found, and for everything to be alright. But here I was, about to leave the country, and that meant I had to accept defeat.
I am used to being lucky, and now that I was no longer lucky, I felt cheated by life. There was this immense sense of loss, because the Universe was no longer on my side. There used to be a part of me that believed everything happened for a reason, but I was struggling to see the reason right now. I could feel myself growing increasingly cynical.
On the bus to Berlin I watched sad movies – Brooklyn and The Book Thief – as a way to let out the pain I felt. I spent a great deal of time sobbing, and to some extent it helped. I remember a couple of years ago when my usb stick had broken and I’d lost the majority of a novel I was writing, and the loss I felt at that. Or the more recent loss when a close friendship ended earlier this year. I thought I wouldn’t recover, that the loss was insurmountable. But the more things I lose, the more I learn that you do move on. Sometimes the loss changes you, and it becomes a part of you. But your life will not stand still just because you lost something that matters to you. You have to keep moving forward, always. Theft feels different to other kinds of loss, because you can’t chalk it down to error, to people’s good intentions falling short. When someone steals from you, they make the decision to take what isn’t theirs, they deliberately choose to hurt you. They disrespect your existence entirely, because they place their own desires above your rights.
From the windows of the bus I could see mountains, and they made me ache for home. Where I grew up, in the Eden Valley in Cumbria, there were mountains all around. And even in Glasgow, if you go to the pedestrian bridge across the M8 at Charing Cross, you can see mountains in the distance. Most of the countries I’ve travelled to have been flat, with barely any hills, let alone mountains. Here I feel a little bit closer to home.
If there’s one thing that travel has taught me, it’s how to be patient. After the nine hours that it took me to get to Prague last week, the five hour journey to Berlin seemed like nothing. I watched two movies, and after that I listened to some of the music selection on the bus’s entertainment screens. There wasn’t anything I normally listen to, so I ended up listening to Abba, which made me feel like dancing, in spite of the tears which were still fresh on my face.
As I walked through the bus station, trying to find my way to the underground, I accidentally made eye-contact with a man sitting on one of the chairs in the waiting room. A couple of minutes later I saw that he had taken this as a cue to follow me outside. He tried to approach me, but I walked away hurriedly. Perhaps his intentions were harmless, maybe he had merely wanted to ask me for directions or something. But since having my laptop stolen, my trust of strangers had gone down to zero, and every time someone so much as looked at me I freaked out.
After checking into my hostel, I went to a supermarket to buy food. When they say that Berlin is the vegan capital or Europe, they’re not joking. I went into Lidl, which in the UK barely stocks soy milk, and was delighted to see that they had a wide range of vegan products. It was like I had entered a utopian parallel universe.
I made dinner, and then headed into my room, with plans to get an early night. However, this did not happen, because I had friendly roomates. There were two Australian girls, and a Malaysian woman, and the four of us ended up chatting and laughing for ages. It didn’t miraculously clear up my newfound distrust of strangers, but it was nice to have roommates who weren’t hostile or weird like some of the people I’ve shared rooms with on this journey (I’m looking at you, Nutcracker!)
I awoke in the middle of the night to the sound of crashing thunder, and bright flashes of lightning. It was the heaviest thunderstorm I’d ever seen in my life. There’s something about thunder that feels like a change of energy, new cleaner air, and I wondered if that was what this symbolised. Perhaps this thunderstorm was here as a sign that my luck had changed, and that my journey would be different from here on out.
20th July 2017 –
The magic has returned to travel! For the first time in weeks, my wanderlust has returned, and I feel joy to be travelling. This morning I went to the East Side Gallery, and got very lost on the way there, which meant I spent a great deal of time wandering around Berlin in the sunshine. The East Side Gallery itself was so cool, all the art and graffiti, all the history… And how someone had written “fuck the Tories”, because my country’s government is so crap that there is graffiti about it hundreds of miles away.
As I was walking back to my hostel, the strangest thing happened. I’d just come out of Gesundbrunnen station, and this guy walks past me and winks. I don’t know the protocol for dealing with such an occurrence, so I awkwardly try to wink back (if you’ve ever seen me try to wink, you will know that I am terrible at it at the best of times), and then I go on my way, laughing at the incident.
For some reason I glance behind me, and I see that the Wink Guy has turned around, and is following me. I start walking faster, and turn my music down so I can hear if he’s behind me. He soon catches me up. I’m rather freaked out at being followed, but there are other people around, so I figure I’m relatively safe.
Wink Guy asks if I speak English. I tell him yes. He tells me he’s from Malta, and that he followed me because he likes how I look. I have no idea how to respond to this, so I laugh nervously. Wink Guy (or Winker, as I shall now refer to him) asks if I have a boyfriend. I tell him no, I do not. (One day I will learn that I should just lie when people ask me that, but today was not that day). He asked how old I was, and I said 19. He told me he was 22, and had moved to Berlin for work. He then told me that he thought I was very pretty, and that he wanted to ask me out on a date. My social awkwardness, and the fact that we did not share the same first language, meant that the conversation stuttered quite a lot. Once I finally switched my brain on, I explained that I was only in Berlin for a short period of time. The Winker complimented my appearance yet again, and I finally came up with the excuse that I had to go and meet a friend. We shook hands, and parted ways.
I felt weird. On the one hand, I wanted to laugh hysterically about the fact that a man who 1) wasn’t totally ugly, and 2) was within my age range actually found me attractive. Because that never happens, and therefore I found it completely hilarious. But on the other hand, I felt very uncomfortable that he followed me. I’m sure his heart was in the right place, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t creepy.
21st July 2017 –
Today’s wanderings take me to the Kreutzberg district, famed for being a paradise for artists, hipsters, and all kinds of counterculture. I sit currently in a cafe called d’espresso, on a hard, wooden bench, drinking a very small and overpriced cappuccino. The place is part cafe and part bar. The cafe section is painted white, with wooden chairs. The bar room, where I sit, is various shades of brown, lit mostly by natural light, which comes through the large windows, though two lamps glow dimly in the far corners of the room. Both the waitresses have brightly dyed hair, one a faded green, the other a vibrant orange.
A cute-ish guy with an earring sits two tables away, typing on an Apple Macbook. He wears a simple grey t-shirt, and he doesn’t have a beard, but other than that, his existence basically screams hipster.
If I had to define myself into some kind of category or label, I would say artist. And whilst a lot of artists overlap with hipsters, there’s a subtle difference. I don’t know quite what it is. Perhaps that I could never afford (no would I want) a Macbook. It seems the hipster lifestyle is very expensive.
I just want to live a life surrounded by artists and eccentrics, a life of second-hand clothes and brightly coloured hair. And whilst I like my coffees large and cheap, I can’t help but fall in love with cafes like this one.
I only crossed to this side of the street because I saw some cool street art. Then I saw the word vegan and was won over. In Prague, I only ever went to Starbucks for coffee, because I knew they did soy milk. But here in Berlin, so many places have vegan options, which means I can go to cute independent cafes, and that excites me very much.
My initial reaction to Kreutzberg was that it seemed like a slum. Parts of it do give off slum vibes. But I quickly reminded myself to check my privilege. Just because an area is poor, it doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. I started thinking about art and counterculture, and how there is such a link between those concepts and poverty. So many artists have been on the edge of society, throughout history, and so of course there is going to be an overlap between places with artistic identity, and places with a lot of poverty. Artists are often society’s rejects. And what does it say about me, that I want the art but not everything that comes with it? So much art does not come from a place of beauty, it comes from places of struggle and hardship, and to think that art can exist without the circumstances that made it is just ignorant and naïve.
As I was wandering around aimlessly (because what else do I ever do whilst travelling), I saw two dogs playing in a fountain, and it was so cute that I stopped to take a picture (because dogs are so precious and they melt my heart every time I look at them), and a creepy-looking guy rode up to me on a bicycle, and reached out for my phone, as if he expected me to give it to him. My heart raced in panic – I couldn’t lose my phone, especially not after losing my laptop! I snatched my hand away quickly, glared at the man, and walked away as fast as I could. I glanced behind me every couple of minutes to see if he was following me, but thankfully he wasn’t.
I had quite a few instances of men staring at me today. I counted 7 in total who were definitely staring at me, and 4 who either followed me or outright approached me. I am so unused to this. Whilst there were a couple of instances of strangers approaching me when I was in Riga, for the majority of my trip people have left me alone. It makes me feel unsafe to get so much attention from strangers, especially when I cannot speak their language.
22nd July 2017 –
If life was a competition of who loved their friends the most, I would win. Why? Because I woke up at 5:30am to travel half way across a country to visit my best friend. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is. (I would also win because of my superior snuggling skills, but that’s irrelevant. Though seriously, the thing I receive the most compliments from people about is how good I am at hugs #humblebrag).
I had to take a bus and then a tram to get to the train station, which I was worried about, as I am not always skilled at navigating public transport. But it all went fine. The sun was beginning to rise in the sky as I arrived at the station. I located the right train platform, and then set off in search of coffee. I was super proud of myself because I managed to order a coffee in German. My language goal for this trip was to be able to order coffee in the languages of every country I travelled to. I failed at this once I left the Baltic States, but I was happy to be back on track.
I had to take two trains – one from Berlin to Hamburg, and another from Hamburg to Kiel. After six weeks of travel, long journeys don’t faze me. I spent most of the journey to Hamburg looking out the window, or observing the other passengers. The guy in the row in front of me was very tall and reasonably attractive, so I watched him for a bit (not in a creepy way – he was in my line of vision!!), and I spent a great deal of time playing out stories in my head, my preferred method of entertainment.
My second train arrived twenty-five minutes early. In Britain it’s rare to find trains that run on time, whereas in the utopia that is Germany, trains arrive early!?!
I stepped off the train at Kiel station, through a crowd of people, and ran screaming into the arms of my best friend, who proceeded to tell me that I was shorter than she remembered me, and that she’d forgotten what my voice sounded like, but that she remembered it was high-pitched. I responded by protesting that I didn’t have a high-pitched voice (in a very high-pitched voice, naturally).
I was in a tired daze for the first half hour or so (the effects of the coffee I’d had in Berlin had long worn off by now), so I followed her around the city, nodding along as she talked. We then went to a cute hipster-looking cafe and got coffee and cake. The combined caffeine of chocolate cake and coffee soon revived me to my normal talkative self.
One of the greatest and most simple forms of therapy for me is to have coffee with a friend. As an introvert I often don’t feel comfortable in groups of people, but one-on-one time alone with someone I love is hugely important to me, and one of the things I need to have lots of in my life to function well. Contrary to what I sometimes say, I do hugely enjoy interacting with other humans. I just prefer it when it’s one at a time. Once I break through the initial anxiety barriers and find people I’m comfortable with, I crave their company as much as I crave time alone. Because the people I’m close with become a part of me, and they become part of the fabric of my world, part of the equilibrium I need to be happy. And that’s one of the things I’ve missed the most since leaving Glasgow, all the people who tether me back to reality when I’m lost in the clouds.
After we left the cafe, we went and hung out at my friend’s place, and chatted and gossiped and read each other our poetry. I’d hardly written any poetry in months, but I read her the two poems I’d written back when I was in Lithuania, one of which was about the many crushes I’d had within the past year, and the other called “The Cider Side of Me” about all the stupid stuff I say when I get drunk.
Later on we went to the botanic gardens, and then went to a burger place for dinner. Before I knew it, our time was up and I had to get my bus back to Hamburg, to get yet another bus to Berlin.
There was wifi on the first bus, and I skyped with some of my friends. The line was bad, and I felt uncomfortable talking loudly on the bus, but just listening to their voices was enough.
It was cold as I waited at the Hamburg bus station, and I could feel people staring at me. I wasn’t sure if it was paranoia or not. I went into a store and bought a bottle of water, and then rejoined the skype call with my friends for a while, because it made me feel safer and less alone. My wifi kept cutting out, so I eventually gave up.
As I waited for the bus to arrive, a number of people approached me. Some spoke to me in broken English, asking for directions. A little while before my bus arrived, a man came up to me. He was Arab, with shoulder-length black hair, and jeans that were ripped at the knee, I could see a little dried blood on the skin that the tear revealed. We made eye-contact, and I knew he was going to come and talk to me. He explained that he was a refugee, and that he needed money to get to another city to get a job.
I had about two euros left in my purse, and I needed that for a train once I got back to Berlin. I told him I was sorry, and that I didn’t have any money. “Why are you sorry?” he asked frustratedly. “I don’t need your sorry, I need money.” I felt terrible.
Even once I was on my bus, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It’s one thing to call myself open-minded, to share “refugees welcome” pictures on Facebook, yet when it came to it, at the moment that it actually mattered, I proved myself to be as useless as anyone else. I didn’t help that man, and I was so angry at myself for that. I tried to reason with myself, to explain to myself that I had to be careful with my money because I needed to 1) make it back to the UK, and 2) have money for rent when I return to Glasgow. But a little voice in my head reminded me that I had enough money to go travelling, and that that was a luxury, and I should therefore feel terrible about it.
My bus arrived in Berlin an hour later than it was meant to. It was almost 3am. The bus station was deserted, which I found somewhat freaky. I had to cross a darkened car park to get to the train station. I spent the whole time glancing over my shoulder, petrified. Even once I was on the train, my nerves remained. The 3am crowd weren’t the most harmless looking creatures. Half of them were drunk, and there was a guy who looked like Voldemort but with bigger eyebrows.
Once I had left the train, I still had a 20-minute walk from Gesundbrunnen station to my hostel. This was the part of my journey I had most been dreading. I can deal with waking up at 5:30am, I can deal with multiple train and bus journeys half way across a country, but if there’s one thing that freaks me out it’s walking alone through a strange city in the middle of the night.
To calm myself down, I pretended to be talking on my phone. I told myself that if anyone wanted to hurt me, they would be put off by the fact I was talking on the phone. I don’t know how realistic that is, but it made me slightly less scared. I was filled with relief when I finally tiptoed into my hostel room at 3:30am and crawled into bed.
23rd July 2017 –
A couple of days ago, I’d made plans with my roommates to go to the Sunday flea market at Mauerpark. I like markets, markets are cool. But it had been raining yesterday, and the ground beneath us was flooded with muddy puddles.
The four of us browsed the market for perhaps an hour-and-a-half, and I found myself filling with this strange feeling that I couldn’t quite place. At first I thought it was maybe hunger. I bought a tofu-filled pitta bread from a kebab truck, and realised that the feeling wasn’t hunger at all: it was impatience. I’d been travelling alone for so long, that I’d forgotten what it’s like to have to go at someone else’s pace. Or, more precisely, the pace of three other people, who are all practically strangers to me. Have you ever lost three people in a huge market, and not even known their names or remembered what they’re wearing? Turns out it’s quite hard to find strangers amidst a field full of strangers. When I finally relocated them, I told the not-quite-lie that I was tired, and was going to go.
I went to a coffee shop, and bought a huge cappuccino and a vegan lemon-flavoured cookie, and let myself feel the bliss of solitude. I am a very honest person, and I pride myself on my honesty. I am blunt, I am tactless, I wear my heart tattooed on my forehead (I feel like I possibly wrote that exact sentence in my last blog, so I hope you’re not reading these all in one go. I don’t want you to think I plagiarise my own material!), but there are a few occasions where I tell little white lies. If I am in a social situation and my anxiety is too strong, then I have to do what it takes to get myself out of it, even if it involves telling a lie. My go-to lie is that I’m tired or ill (if I say these to you it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m lying – I spend half my life either tired or having a headache). I remember the first time I went to Improv, and when I went to the pub afterwards I felt too anxious to stay, so I made up an excuse, and left after five minutes. Even though I continued going to Improv, it took me almost an entire semester to go to the pub afterwards. And now that’s my safe place. So you can see that it takes me a long time to feel comfortable in social situations. But if I stick it out, it’s worth it in the end. However when you’re travelling and only in one place for a week, there’s not much opportunity to stick it out and get past the anxiety barrier.
24th July 2017 –
There is only one thing that happened today that matters. I remember insignificant snippets of the day, but not in any chronological order. I remember I texted my mum in the morning, and she mentioned she’d taken my cat, my sweet baby William, to the vet because he seemed a bit under the weather. I was worried, but it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind for most of the day.
I remember that I went to Kreutzberg, and wandered around for a while. I remember seeing a rat across the street and being really freaked out, because I have a huge phobia of rodents. I remember going into a second-hand bookstore, which had a piano in it. I remember listening to the conversation of the other two people in the bookstore, and hearing them talking about Scotland.
I remember both my parents messaging me and asking when would be a good time for them to call. I knew it then, before they told me. I knew that something was wrong. I messaged them and asked if something had happened to William, asked if he was still alive. All they would say was that they wanted to call me. My wifi disconnected, and I felt the panic welling up in me. I knew it, but I didn’t want to believe it. I raced across Kreutzberg, trying to find an underground station, to get back to my hostel. I was on the train when my wifi finally connected, and I saw the message, telling me that my poor William, my baby cat, had had cancer in every organ in his body, and had had to be put down.
That cat was the great love of my life. I’d first got him as a seven-month-old kitten, when I was 8 years old. For ten-and-a-half years, he was my baby. He had thick fur, and a face that looked like it had run into a bus, and he was the most beautiful creature on the entire planet. Every time I put a picture of him on Facebook my friends would joke that he was the most depressed cat ever, because he always seemed to look sad (I don’t think he liked me forcing him to take selfies with me). He may have had a grumpy face, and a grumpy personality, but he was the most precious cat, and I loved him more than anything.
I was in shock. I couldn’t believe he was gone, gone when I wasn’t even in the same country! And how could I go home to a house without a cat? I’ve had cats since I was four years old! I don’t know what my house is like without the smell of cat food permeating through all the downstairs rooms. I don’t know what it’s like to go downstairs in the night without the fear that William has left dead mice outside the bathroom door. Or worse, live ones! I couldn’t imagine a world without that furry face. Even though I’d lived away from him at uni, I knew he was always there for me to come home to. And now he wouldn’t be. The thing I was looking forward to most about coming home from this trip, was burying my face into his fur, forcing him to pose for hundreds of photos, picking him up like the great big baby he was and carrying him around the house. But he wouldn’t be there, he didn’t exist any more. My beautiful baby was dead.
Tears streamed down my face. I didn’t want to cry in public, but what choice did I have? Privacy didn’t exist in the world of travel. I silently sobbed until I got off the train, and then I sobbed some more as I walked out from the station. I went into Aldi and bought a tub of vegan chocolate ice cream. Then I went back to my hostel and ate the entire tub of ice cream and sobbed some more. Then I ate a tin of stuffed vine leaves and sobbed even more. I ignored my parents’ messages. My grief was my own and I didn’t want to share it with anyone.
When I went to my room I saw a note on the door saying the room was being deep-cleaned, and a key attached for my new room. I crawled into my new bed and cried. I didn’t have any roommates yet. When my roommate did arrive, it was an elderly man. Normally I wouldn’t have been keen on sleeping alone in a room with a strange man. He wasn’t keen on it either. I heard him discussing it in German with the staff. I only understood a couple of words, but the gist of it was that he didn’t want to be alone in a room with me. I didn’t care in the slightest. All that mattered was that my precious furry baby was dead and that my world would never be the same again.
25th July 2017 –
When I awoke I glanced over at the bed next to me, and saw that my other roommate was also a man. The Eliza who would be less than thrilled to share a room with two strange men was gone. Instead there was just Eliza the Nihilist who didn’t care about anything because she knew that everyone she loved was going to die eventually and that the world was cruel. I wanted to spend the day crying and thinking about how cruel life is, but alas, I had plans.
I had a second (?) cousin who lived in Berlin, and we had arranged to meet. We went to one of Berlin’s extremely-hipster cafes, and I tried my hardest to pretend to be a fully functioning human for an hour. We talked about our extended family. I told him about my sister’s cute baby. He ordered a turmeric latte, without knowing what turmeric was, and choked on it every time he took a sip.
My social anxiety was in a strange place. On the one hand, I was more mellow than normal, because my reaction to my cat’s death was for my brain to go straight to full-on nihilist mode. Who cares about anxiety when life is so ridiculously brief? But on the other hand, it takes a lot of effort to go an entire hour without crying when the great furry love of your life has been put down.
After parting ways with my cousin, I went into the city centre, to see some touristy sights, because it was my last full day in Berlin. I didn’t feel particularly enthusiastic though. Because why does travel matter when my cat is dead?
I went back to my hostel, and read for a while. One of the previous occupants of my previous room had left Paulo Coehlo’s “Adultery” behind, and when my stuff had been moved to this room, the book had made its way here too. I decided I may as well read it. After a few hours of reading, I began to pack up my belongings. It was time to get rid of what I didn’t need.
I am a sentimental person, and I don’t like getting rid of things. To the point that back in Glasgow, my wardrobe was filled with old amazon packaging “in case it came in useful someday”, which it never would have. Can you see why I was so devastated to lose an entire laptop full of photos/music, etc? I have trouble letting things go.
But now it was time to chuck anything I didn’t need, regardless of sentimental value. I threw out old bus tickets, a map of Riga, and…the Laptop Case from Hell. I can’t believe it had taken me this long! Why would I carry around a broken laptop case which didn’t even contain a laptop? It was hard to let it go, but it made me realise that travel is about sacrifice. You should only carry with you what you actually need.
26th July 2017 –
My flight was in the evening, and I had to check out of my hostel by 12pm. I went out to a stall that sold vegan currywurst, which was about five minutes away from my hostel. As I walked back it started to rain, and I got very wet, as did my food. I was in a little less of a nihilistic mood than yesterday, but not enough to care about something as menial as the weather.
After collecting my bags from my hostel, I took the underground to Alexanderplatz, and spent a couple of hours hanging out in Starbucks. I was thrilled to discover that they sold vegan muffins. German Starbucks is so much better than British Starbucks!
When I finally got bored, I decided to head to the airport. I had to take two trains to get there, and then there was a brief walk from the train station to the airport itself. I found a cafe and bought some overpriced coffee and overpriced vegan cheesecake, then I spent a few hours sitting in the airport. After going through security, I found out that my flight was delayed. I found another branch of the cafe from earlier, and bought more overpriced coffee and cheesecake. The woman sitting at the table across from me was reading Jane Eyre, which is my favourite novel, and I wanted to say something to her, such as “hey, you have really good taste in books”, but my social anxiety kicked in, so I contented myself with sending lots of messages to my friends, complaining about my delayed flight.
Even once I was finally onboard the plane, it was delayed even further. All in all it set off close to two hours later than it should have. By this point I was extremely frustrated. I wouldn’t get to Paris until after midnight.
I spent most of the flight trying to see out the windows, which is somewhat of a challenge when you’re in an aisle seat. I could see the lights of Berlin below the sky, and dark grey clouds, and the orange light of the setting sun. About an hour later, I caught my first glimpse of Paris. All I could see were lights, lights, and more lights.
I had to take a shuttle bus from the airport to the Metro station. I have been on many bus journeys within the past two months, but this is the only one that I would call “the bus ride from hell”. There were not enough seats, barely enough standing room. People and bags were all squished together. There was no room to move. Every person was pressed against every other person, a mess of hands and armpits and too many limbs. It was a twenty-minute journey, but it felt as though it lasted for hours. There are few times in my life where I have felt that uncomfortable.
I had to take two Metro trains to get to Montmartre. The Metro station was a warren of tunnels, and took seemingly forever to navigate. On the first train, there was a short man sitting on the seat opposite me, with a handbag on his lap. He wore very short shorts, and when he moved his handbag, I could see his entire testicles sticking out from beneath his shorts. It took all my self-control to not visibly cringe or laugh out loud. I’d barely been in Paris half an hour, and I’d already seen the sights!
The second train ride was longer. I finally came out from the Metro station and saw darkened Parisian streets. I knew my hostel was only a couple of minutes away from the Metro station, but I got a little lost. It was a relief to eventually arrive.
When I reached my room, I saw three sleeping men, and one empty bunk. The top bunk. The only time I had a top bunk bed during this trip was in Prague, so the climb up the ladder triggered memories of stolen laptops and misery.
As tired as I was, it took me a while to get to sleep. I lay awake in the dark, a pillow over my head to block out the sound of the loud snores of the man in the bunk below me.
I must admit, I was not the best at keeping a diary whilst in Paris. By that, I mean that I wrote absolutely nothing, and jotted down a few bullet points about it once I was at home. So rather than writing a day-by-day account of my journey as I did with every other city, I will instead write it all in one block.
I was excited to be in Paris. In spite of my sadness about my cat’s death, I allowed myself to feel joy at being here. I had wanted to go to Paris since I was about ten years old, so being here was huge. Especially being in Montmartre, as it’s the setting of Joanne Harris’s novel The Lollipop Shoes, which I absolutely adore.
I dressed in a red-and-white flower-patterned dress, and red lipstick, and practically danced down the streets that I walked, taking in the beauty of this city that looked exactly as I imagined it. For the first little while, everything was great. Then I began to realise that something weird was going on…
A lot of men were staring at me. Whilst this had happened a little in Berlin, it is not something I am normally used to. Men do not pay attention to me. Yet in Paris, they seemed to. Men stared at me, some looked me up and down and said “Bonjour madame” in suggestive voices, men made kissing gestures at me when they drove past in cars. There was one man, sitting on a parked motorcycle, who didn’t just turn his head to watch me walk past, he turned his entire body around to look at me for longer. At first I found this all completely hilarious, until one man started to follow me. He followed me down at least four different streets, I walked faster and faster, freaked out. When I still couldn’t shake him off, I ducked into the nearest Metro station, and ventured to a different part of the city.
I could see the Eiffel tower in the distance, which made me fangirl over the fact that I was actually in PARIS. I then went into Starbucks, and was brought right back down to earth by the fact that my coffee cost almost six euros. That’s horrific!
The lesson of the day was that Paris is the most expensive city I have ever been to. It makes London look cheap! I found a vegan pizza shop, and didn’t see the price until it was too late. I spent 12 euros on two slices of pizza. I was beginning to worry about money, because I still didn’t know how much I would have to save for rent once I got back to Glasgow. I decided it was time to enforce a strict budget upon myself. No more coffee, no more cafes.
The reason I had been wanting to go to Paris since I was 10 years old is because, once upon a time, I was obsessed with the French Revolution and Marie Antoinette. This meant that a trip to Paris would not be complete without going to Versailles Palace, where Marie Antoinette lived. It took me many Metro trains and a bus to get from Paris to Versailles. But by the afternoon of my second full day in Paris, I had finally arrived at a place I had waited almost half my life to go to.
I didn’t go inside the palace, because that was way out of my budget – I only went to the free areas, which was a small part of the gardens. But it was enough to be there, to say that I had made my ten-year-old self proud.
I bought a postcard from the gift shop, of a painting of Marie Antoinette, and wrote myself a letter to remind myself that no matter how long it takes, I have the power to make my own dreams come true.
By the end of my time in Paris, I began to wonder if I had actually experienced this city, or just seen it? I’d seen Versailles, I’d seen Montmartre, I’d seen the Eiffel tower, but all I’d done was walk through this city, I hadn’t actually done anything here. Paris is expensive, and I had already gone way over my budget, which meant I was fairly limited in what I could do. The fact that I was still mourning my cat and my laptop didn’t help my attitude. But I couldn’t get over the fact I’d waited half my life to come here, and hadn’t made the most of it.
If I did a trip like this again, which honestly I’m not sure if I ever will, I would do it the other way around. I would start in the most expensive countries, and finish in the Baltic States (because if there’s one country I know I’ll visit again, it’s Estonia).
On my final day in Paris, I went through the usual routine of preparing to leave. I packed up my stuff, left my bags in the hostel’s storage room. I made myself porridge for breakfast, because at least oats don’t cost a fortune here (though they are more expensive than in the UK), and then headed out into the city. I spent a few hours exploring the Jardin de Tuileries, and I went to Place de la Concorde (the square where ma gurl Marie Antoinette was beheaded a couple hundred years ago). Then I walked around the city for a while, bought some falafel (a friend to poor vegans everywhere) for lunch, and eventually gave up on my resolution to stick to a budget, and went to Starbucks and spent the extortionate six euros on a coffee. The fact they charge extra for soy milk when their coffees are that expensive makes me resent them even more.
Also, fun fact: Paris was the hardest city to find vegan food in, out of all the cities I’ve been to. Even Riga was easier than Paris, and that is really saying something.
I had a lot of time to kill, and I wanted to save money, so I decided to walk across the city to my hostel, rather than taking the metro. I’m glad I did, because I finally got to see a huge chunk of the city. I stopped at a supermarket to buy dinner. My options were limited, so I bought some cereal bars, nectarines, and a large packet of crisps. There were some green metal chairs outside the supermarket, and I sat there to eat.
I realised that I was no longer just seeing, I was experiencing, too. Paris isn’t just Eiffel towers and royal palaces, it’s moments like this, sitting outside a supermarket on rue corvetto, with nectarine juice dripping down my fingertips in the early evening. I didn’t feel like a tourist or a traveller, I was just a person, and it felt good.
I made it to the bus station with plenty of time. I sat inside for a while, letting my phone charge, and then located my bus. The driver was friendly, he spoke English. He checked my passport, and then scanned my ticket. It didn’t scan. He looked at it again, then he said “this is five”. I looked at him confusedly, unsure what he meant. Then he pointed “30/05/2017”, rather than “30/07/2017”. I had booked my ticket for May rather than July! He told me to go to the information office and speak to them. I rushed inside. The information office was closed. I ran back outside, explained my plight. He told me there was one seat left on the bus, and I had ten minutes to get a new ticket. I begged him, on the verge of tears. I HAD a ticket, it was just the wrong month, and he’d said there was a spare seat. Couldn’t he just let me on? He repeated that I had ten minutes to get a ticket.
I looked online. The ticket cost 99 euros, when my original ticket had cost 25. I didn’t have time to weigh up the pros and cons, I had to make a snap decision. I had to be in London by tomorrow afternoon to get my train home. What choice did I have? I bought the ticket, and showed it to the driver, with a scowl upon my face. He nodded and let me on.
The guy who sat next to me looked very shifty. I was not in a particularly trusting mood, and I didn’t want to deal with other people. I shoved my headphones in and looked out the window. After maybe twenty minutes the guy beside me touched my arm. I flinched. I then realised he was trying to talk to me. I pulled out an earphone. I couldn’t quite understand what he was saying, but he seemed to be asking to switch seats, which was the last thing I wanted to do. I was not in the mood to accommodate other peoples needs. I told him I didn’t understand, thrust my earphone back in, and faked sleep for the next hour or so. I was still fuming with anger about the ticket. I just wanted this stupid trip to be over. Why had I ever thought it was a good idea to go travelling? I could have stayed at home and spent time with my cat and saved myself a whole load of money. But no, I was dumb enough to think I wanted to see the world. And what had I got out of it? A dead cat, a stolen laptop, a lot of wasted money, and a whole load of existential crises?
It was nearly three o’clock when we reached Calais. We had to get out of the bus to go through border control. As we began to file out, I noticed my seat-mate sliding under one of the chairs in front of us, and suddenly it clicked: he was a refugee. That was why he was acting so shifty, why he wanted to have the window seat rather than the aisle one. I walked on out as though I hadn’t seen anything.
When the rest of us returned from getting our passports checked, I saw the driver getting the refugee out from the bus, and handing him over to the border guards. It was only once I was on the bus, without the man sitting next to me any more, that I began to dissect my response to it. As a Philosophy student, I am often opinionated on moral issues. I found it interesting that my instinct was to live and let live. Which is more moral, to pretend I hadn’t seen someone breaking the law, or to report them? I would have never considered reporting him. It’s not in my nature. But what does that say about me? I am someone who prides myself on being honest. I am also someone who (before this trip) considered themselves to be a good person. But in situations like this I don’t know what is right or wrong. In the end it didn’t matter, because it was beyond my control. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it.
A little while later we had to get out the bus again, to go through the British border control. I almost wept when the lady who checked my passport greeted me with a bright “Morning!” in a British accent. I finally felt like I was almost home.
31st July 2017 –
I cried when the bus emerged from the Channel Tunnel. I cried all the way from Dover to London.
I’m not a patriotic person. To me a country is just a bit of land that people may or may not have had the luck to be born on. Perhaps my lack of affection for my country is related to the fact that I wasn’t actually born in Britain. I don’t know. All I know is that, in the grey light of early morning, I felt more love for this island than I’d ever felt for it before. All I could think was I love my country, I love my language, I love my home.
When I arrived in London, it was almost 6am. I walked around for nearly an hour before I found what I was looking for: Pret a Manger, my favourite coffee chain. I bought a coffee and some coconut porridge, and read a book while my phone charged. I stayed in Pret for about two hours, because there was an all-important event at 9am that I needed internet access for: Lana Del Rey tickets were going on sale.
I waited patiently, reading to pass the time. Finally it was 9 o’clock, and the tickets went on sale. The website crashed every time I tried to buy a ticket, so I assumed they’d sold out. I swallowed my disappointment, and began my walk across London. I couldn’t do much carrying a huge bag, so I decided I’d just hang out in Euston station until my train arrived.
I’d been in the station for a couple of hours, and was getting super bored, when I decided to try the tickets again, just in case. And it worked! I got a ticket, to see Lana Del Rey perform in Glasgow on August 23rd. I was going to see my favourite singer, in my favourite city! There was good in the world again!
It was so strange to be back in my home country. I went into a supermarket to buy some water and falafel, and I kept forgetting people could speak English. I was so used to having to communicate non-verbally, that it felt almost unnatural to speak. My brain was still in French mode. Every time someone was in my way and I wanted to say excuse me, my brain automatically went to say “pardon” with a French accent.
The train from London to Penrith is the train that goes to Glasgow Central. And even though Penrith is two stops before Glasgow, it felt symbolic to get on that train. Because I was heading towards both my homes.
The train was just past Lancaster when I saw the mountains that told me I was nearly home. I felt like crying again. Within the next hour, the train arrived in Penrith, and I ran into the arms of my parents. It was over, I was back to reality. Everything was the same, but everything was different. I was going home to a house without a cat. And I was not the same girl who had left two months before. I wasn’t sure who I was any more. I wasn’t as nice, as optimistic, as happy. I had to get to know myself again, and that would take time. But I was home to my mum’s cooking and my dad’s coffee-making skills, so I knew I would be alright.
August 31st 2017 –
Today it’s exactly a month since I arrived back home. It took me almost all of that month to feel like myself again. Going travelling was like taking a knife to my ego and slashing away at it until almost nothing remained. It was tough, it was heartbreaking, it was humbling. Now that it’s over I can see it in a positive light, I can remember the good parts. It’s easy to focus on the sadness, the pain, the dead cat and stolen laptop. For a long time that was all I focused on. But I can feel a change taking place.
I’ve reached the point where I find myself saying things like “This time when I was in Latvia…” or “I haven’t seen * insert thing * since I was in Prague”, and I can remember my experiences fondly. I got so much out of that trip, and I couldn’t see it until I had returned to my native environment. I have yet to move back to Glasgow, but I’ve been up there twice since I returned from my travels – once to hand in paperwork for my flat, and another time to go to the Lana Del Rey concert (which was practically a religious experience, and one of the best nights of my life!).
It took going back to Glasgow for me to see the full extent of how I’d changed. Whilst I still hadn’t got to a point where I liked myself, I could see the road ahead more clearly, and I knew that I had a whole new journey ahead of me. I needed my travels to strip away everything I relied on, because it means that now I am free to rebuild and become the best possible version of myself.
I arrived home as an anxiety-riddled mess, and after a full month of soul-searching, I no longer feel that way. I feel comfortable in myself, comfortable in who I am and where I’m going. And I can see now that the brutal loneliness of travelling was what I needed to give me a new sense of perspective. It gave me the time and freedom to work through the issues I’d been harbouring, and I’m finally at a place where I can forgive myself, and forgive people who have hurt me in the past.
If there’s one thing I will take away from my experience is this: the world is both bigger and smaller than I ever could have imagined. The world is big enough for all my dreams to come true, and small enough that I can one day actually make that happen. I feel closer to the world than I did before, but I also know that there is a reason that I call certain places home. Because it’s more than about where you go, it’s about where you are loved.