Madrid: The End of a Long Journey (Nov. 10-16)

Retiro Park

Retiro Park

I arrived in Madrid late with an anxious feeling about getting into a city for the last time of my journey. But I guess mostly I just wanted to get to a place where I could dump my stuff – a common feeling of any backpacker between cities. I would be staying at my friend Katelyn’s flat, an American I spent a few days traveling in the South of France with, although she wouldn’t be back from New York until the next morning. Her roommates let me in just before 1 am.

I slept in on Tuesday and decided to take a bit of a rest day. I’ve said it before that when traveling is your life, you can’t just go go go without taking days or time off, and this would be my first time not staying in a hostel in weeks. After hours of resting, next-door pizza, television and writing, I left for dinner with two friends from high school who were teaching English in Madrid.

Sam Claflin at the Hunger Games premiere in Madrid

Sam Claflin at the Hunger Games premiere in Madrid

On the way to the restaurant, El Tigre (which serves free tapas with drink purchases), I noticed a huge crowd around a movie theater off of Madrid’s main street, Gran Via, and a large screen showing a red carpet. Apparently the new Hunger Games movie was having a small premiere there, and the super hot guy playing Finnick was standing outside flashing his sexy smile for the cameras. Not sure if there were any other celebrities there, but I was happy with him.

It was great catching up with Michelle and Kate after so many years (I had eaten lunch with Michelle in December but hadn’t really seen her or Kate otherwise since graduation), and El Tigre was a really fun (albeit very fried and greasy) place to have dinner. For about €8, I had two sangria-like drinks and a beer and all the potatoes, bread, meat and croquetas I could eat.

Wednesday was probably my most productive day, waking up at noon and heading to a popular sandwich chain called 100 Montaditos for lunch. I caught a 2pm walking tour, which was one of the better ones I’d been on. The guide was really awesome and made it easy to pay attention to 2.5 hours of history. Usually I find myself tuning out a little bit (being tired, on my feet and distracted in a new place don’t generally help me focus), but he’d talk for 20 minutes and I’d realize that I actually was keeping up with the whole story.

Sabatini Gardens and the Royal Palace

Sabatini Gardens and the Royal Palace

After the tour, I met up with my friend Adi, a Spanish girl whom I met in Marseille. She would be the fourth friend from my time there for me to meet up with. Adi and I walked around a few cool neighborhoods in Madrid, stopping for coffee and a drink at a cool café/bar and for a nice dinner at a restaurant called Lateral. I then headed to grab drinks with my friend Roope from Finland and ended up out until 3 drinking lots of red wine, which is not normally my style but is a must in Spain.

Kate, me and Michelle in the Plaza del Sol

Kate, me and Michelle in the Plaza del Sol

I took Thursday mostly off again due to the late night, getting lunch with Katelyn and again catching up on some writing and television. Thursdays in Europe had been American Horror Story days since its airtime in America is equivalent to 5am in most of Europe. That night, I met up with Katelyn and her friends for my first ever poker night, where I won €20. I felt pretty good about that.

Friday was much more productive – I left early afternoon to check out the Sabatini Gardens and the gay district of Madrid, Chueca. There wasn’t really much going on there, it being the middle of the afternoon and all (“siesta” time is 2-5 or so and a lot of places are closed then), but it was nice to see the area.

Us with the symbol of Madrid, a bear and a tree. The guy we asked to take a photo cut off the top of the statue, obviously unaware why we wanted the photo.

Us with the symbol of Madrid, a bear and a tree. The guy we asked to take a photo cut off the top of the statue, obviously unaware why we wanted the photo.

I met up with Michelle and Kate for a fantastic dinner at a hip spot called La Musa, which had a weird combination of Spanish tapas and Japanese fusion dishes, all of which were delicious. We got the guacamole (you mash it yourself and it was perfect), empanaditas (Asian dumplings affectionately translated as “little empanadas”), California roll, a plate with a well-seasoned selection of meat and shrimp, croquetas and red wine. In true Spanish/European fashion, we took our time with our meal and ended up ordering another bottle of wine after we had finished our food. We sat and talked post-entrees, sipping away at our bottle of wine before ordering dessert. I had carrot cake, which is one of my favorites and didn’t disappoint, while the girls split a chocolate brownie and cheesecake. Delicious all the way round.

Roope and Me

Roope and Me

After dinner, we taxied over to one of Kate and Michelle’s friend’s apartments for pre-drinks, my friend Roope and some of his friends from Croatia coming there to meet us. I randomly met this girl who I went to camp with ten years ago who was also teaching in Madrid and knew Michelle and Kate – always interesting the people you run into in the world! After some drinking games and conversation, we all left for a club called La Nuit. One of the girls knew someone at the bar and was able to get us table service for about €12 each. I figured it was probably my last night out in Europe, so I dropped €60 on taxis, dinner and drinks, which really isn’t that bad (especially considering I’d won €20 the night before!). I ended up getting home probably at 5:30 in the morning, but we didn’t leave for the club until probably 2 – the schedule in Madrid is pretty wild. There’s a reason they have “siesta” time!

Predrinking before going out

Predrinking before going out

I got up late on Saturday and went to get my first Mexican food in months with Michelle and Kate. We walked around for a while after, Michelle getting some well-needed shopping in and buying a cape. I made fun of her by pretending to toss my hair back a bit as she had done to get it out of the way, and the store attendant laughed out loud. I felt pretty accomplished with that one. I got another pizza from the place next door to Katelyn’s flat for dinner and then went to watch The Fault in Our Stars with Roope. I didn’t cry, although I cried a lot reading the books – maybe the movie was a bit more boring and the characters less charming. Nevertheless, it was nice to have a relaxing last night abroad.

I woke up on the last day of my journey with the bittersweet feeling that comes with the end. I knew I’d want to take advantage of my last day, but I would feel the empty feeling of parting ways with something I loved throughout.

Me and my favorite (and now lost) hat in El Rastro market

Me and my favorite (and now lost) hat in El Rastro market

I met up with Kate and Michelle at the El Rastro Sunday Market in La Latina. The market was really busy but had some great finds, including a green wool brimmed hat that I fell in love with, bought and promptly lost in my taxi getting back to Chicago. I was obviously extremely upset about losing my favorite souvenir and European style statement from abroad. I did make it home with all the things I bought my friends and family, though, including a tapestry for my friend’s birthday, some pottery and some baby shoes for my niece.

Later I would walk around Retiro Park alone, getting some time to reflect on my travels while looking at another stunning European park. After about an hour, it was time for my to go home and gather my things before making my way to the airport and the following 26-hour lonely journey home.

Madrid was a great choice to end my travels on and remains a place I would love to spend more time in. Oh Europe, how I miss you.

Retiro Park

Retiro Park

My Favorite City: Berlin (Oct. 30-Nov. 5)

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Graffiti on the East Side Gallery

Berlin just might be my favorite city in Europe.

Its great nightlife (which I still have only had tastes of), hip markets and stylish food joints make it a very livable city, and its minimal fashion and modern urbanity give it a contemporary charm unlike most older European cities. The people pride themselves on a liberal, easygoing attitude that clashes with a tumultuous history, making you wonder how one city can come so far in such a short amount of time. Berlin is a Western city at its finest.

#glamourcat

#glamourcat

After a long train ride from Brussels and a night in, I woke up on Halloween day in Berlin and met up with one of my travel companions from my time in Greece, Mirjam, who is from Berlin. She and a friend met me at pretty much the only costume store in Berlin, where we waited in line for maybe 30 minutes during the Halloween rush. I had a limited budget and limited clothes (I’ve been living out of a 13 kilo bag for four months), but I happened to have a pair of leopard print pajama pants (affectionately known as my hot pants) and a leopard print blanket (only because my mom gave it to me before I left). Obviously I would be a leopard, so I bought a €2 face mask and was ready for the night. Later I would mention the availability of leopard print in my bag to a German girl, whose response was: “and you’re not even gay! … are you?”

I eventually headed back to the hostel for a short break, meeting my Australian friend Josh who was going to be traveling with me for the following 11 days. He also knew Mirjam and her boyfriend Felix from our time together in Ios. Felix and Mirjam invited us for dinner at their house, so we went over an hour before the party for a home cooked meal. When the party started, I somehow ended up being the designated makeup artist and turning Josh and Mirjam into zombies… you can decide for yourself whether I was any good (the answer is no, not really).

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

Would you hire me as your makeup artist? (Note: Mirjam added her own line details)

At one point in the party, which was pretty much all Germans except for a few people from Felix’s roommate’s lacrosse and running teams, I started talking to a guy who I assumed was German. When I asked him where he was from, though, he said, “Arkansas.”

I assumed he was messing with me at first until he mentioned that he was from Fayetteville, which there’s no way he would have known about if he was from anywhere else. After talking for a few minutes, I learned that he had moved to Berlin to teach English through a company called Berlitz that didn’t require him to know any German. He seriously may have changed my life because I’ve thought about living in Berlin for a long time.

The next day, Josh and I got out of the hostel pretty late and headed to Winterfeldt Markt, a neighborhood food market in Winterfeldtplatz. We got a lot of small dishes, which means we ended up eating a ton – brats from the Bauer Lindner stall, a smoked fish sandwich, zucchini fritters, spring rolls, fresh squeezed juice, tiramisu and cappuccinos.

I had almost forgotten that I should show Josh the touristy things since I had already seen them when I visited in 2012, so after the market, we walked to the Holocaust Memorial, Brandenburg Gate and the Neue Wache. After a longer-than-expected walk back to the hostel, we met up with Felix and Mirjam for dinner at a modern Asian restaurant called Toca Rouge, which had a really cool vibe but somewhat underwhelming food. We were all pretty tired, so we said goodbye and Josh and I walked back to the hostel.

We were debating whether to go out since it was Saturday and Berlin but we were also tired, so we thought we’d go grab some drinks at the Wombat’s Bar in the rooftop of our hostel and decide after. We ended up meeting some cool people (along with some very, very loud American guys) and taking some Jäger bombs and eventually we realized that we were keen on going out.

Jesse and me at Roses

Jesse and me at Roses

One of my friends living in Berlin suggested a club called Ritter Butzke, so Josh and I, along with our new friend Jesse, made our way to the area of town it was in, running away from the American guys knowing that they would potentially cause us not to get in the club (they were yelling and running around in the metro and Berlin clubs are known for stringent door policies). Not ironically, they wouldn’t let Josh in because he said he was 19 and didn’t have ID. Jesse and I went in anyway – Josh understood.

After about 45 minutes in the club, Jesse and I decided to go to a gay bar called Roses, which must be where the expression “stroke the furry wall” came from because the entire place was lined with pink fur. There was a really interesting and diverse clientele and the two of us hung out there until probably 5:30 in the morning. Berlin clubs don’t get going until late, so we hadn’t left the hostel until maybe 1:30 anyway.

Homemade robot at Mauerpark - it could spit out water!

Homemade robot at Mauerpark – it could spit out water!

Josh and I slept in again on Sunday morning and went to a really good Korean restaurant by our hostel called YamYam. I think it was Josh’s first experience with Korean food – I got the bibimbap and he got the bulgogi, which I preferred. After lunch, we left for the Mauerpark Flea Market, which was basically recommended by everyone and did not disappoint. I bought a photography print and a screen-printed canvas bag for myself and some cartoon prints for my friends and me, although I could have bought way more. There was a ton of really cool stuff for sale there, along with talented street performers and artists keeping us entertained in and around the market.

Josh and I left Mauerpark to meet up with an English girl, Chloe, who I had met briefly in Berlin in 2012. If you read my post about Copenhagen, I had met up with our friend Sissel there whom I met at the same time. We met her at a nice bar/café in Mitte called Zur Rose and caught up for a couple of hours over coffee. Chloe recommended a nice German restaurant called Schwarzwaldstuben for Josh and me. We sat at the bar and both ordered schnitzel and cold potato and cucumber salad – yummmmmm.

Chloe and me after two years!

Chloe and me after two years!

London: Home Away From Home (Oct. 7-22)

The house in Forest Hill

The house in Forest Hill

My third and final trip to London would be by far my favorite. I would see my old flat (C6) from study abroad together for the first time in two years, although I had seen most of them at some point in the summer in visits to their homes or at the house in London. I’d be spending nearly two weeks with them, and those were two weeks at home.

Family breakfast

Family breakfast

At the house in Forest Hill, I have my own key. Fixing an extra cup of tea for me was automatic. We would clean together, cook together – spend pretty much all of our time together drinking tea and chatting and watching television on someone’s computer. I rarely left the house, which was a welcome break from the constant movement of traveling.

Nothing beats that feeling of not seeing someone for a long time but picking up like no time has passed at all. We could talk about anything, be weird around each other. We could cuddle watching TV, chat nonstop or sit in silence without it being weird. When one of us went to the store, everyone else would shout requests, knowing the others would return the favor. “Bring us some munchies,” was regularly shouted before the front door shut.

I cooked a full English for the house

I cooked a full English for the house

We were all quite sick by my second week in the house, and when I got sick later than everyone else, my flatmates would give me their medicine. I got food poisoning before heading to Paris, and my flatmate Boyan brought me vitamin water. When my flatmate Connie left for the weekend to go back to Portugal, she gave me her room (I had been sleeping on a futon in the living room).

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

Hanging out in the living room (AKA my room)

The house was and remains a magical place. It’s not even a sense of welcoming in C6 – to be welcome is to be a guest. I was not a guest – I was home. It was so much my home that when I got back from a two-night trip to Brighton on the coast, Connie welcomed me with “it was weird not having you here.” The sense of belonging I feel with these friends is one of the most beautiful things about my life travels. I consider my flatmates family, and the only thing that makes saying goodbye to them okay is knowing that I will see them again soon, somewhere and sometime unknown.

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

From our Christmas dinner in 2012

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Shaunagh and I met up with some friends from Sail Croatia for a night out in West London

Brighton Pier

Brighton Pier

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Met up with some girls I met in Budapest at their university in Brighton for a couple of nights

Croatia: Zagreb (Oct. 5-7)

We drove from Plitvice to a nearby village called Rastoke, which is known for its mills and waterfalls – many of the homes and stores there are built on top of the water. We were pretty hungry by this time since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we grabbed pizza and lasagna from a restaurant there. We then set out to make the final two-hour stretch to Zagreb.

Getting to Zagreb from Split was pretty easy – signs mark the entire way there. Finding the airbnb apartment we had rented, however, was no easy feat. Once in the city, we had to turn the data on my phone to use the maps. After a series of one-way streets and maybe ten turns, Stuart was driving behind a tram on the road when the road ended and we were driving on gravel.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to be here,” I said. I wasn’t paying attention before and had no idea how we ended up on the gravel. I shortly realized we were driving on the train tracks.

“Oh my god. Oh my god what are we doing?”

“Brennan – it’s okay,” Shaunagh said, realizing I was probably not making things any better.

Another tram drove past us, the driver looking shocked at our presence, and we noticed a platform of leering passengers waiting for the tram shortly ahead to our right. Stuart tried to pull up over the median, but our wheel got stuck, which made the situation increasingly tense. None of us said anything. After finally pulling off the high curb, Stuart drove forward on the tracks until we reached the grassy part of the median, where we were finally able to get over and back onto the road and off the tracks.

Most of us burst into laughter the minute we got onto the road.

Inside the cathedral

Inside the cathedral

We arrived at our airbnb quite late, realizing it was not as close to the city center as we originally thought. We were pretty tired from the long day, so we weren’t up long before going to sleep.

The next morning, the four of us headed into the city center of Zagreb for lunch, eating at a fantastic restaurant called Mundoaka Streetfood. I had a cappuccino while I waited for their sandwich specialty (it was incredible) and ended up having two desserts, a carrot cake muffin and a poppy seed and pear tart, because the food was so good. I would return by myself the next afternoon before my flight to London.

After lunch, we met up with some friends I met in Ios, Australians named Josh and Jess, who had come from Split the day before as well, also stopping at Plitvice. I would later meet up with them in more cities, making them some of the main traveling companions of my trip. One of Shaunagh’s companions had been working in a hostel in Zagreb and met us after lunch as well, taking us around the city center and to Dolac Market, where I got six clementines for less than 50 cents.

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After wandering the city, the entire group went to the grocery store so we could have a rare home cooked meal when we got back to the apartment. I would be making sweet chili stir fry, although they didn’t have a lot of my typical ingredients. We bought chicken, corn, three kinds of peppers, onion and zucchini as well as some cheese, olives, biscuits and wine to snack on.

Back at the apartment, we started sipping wine and I started cooking the vegetables. When they were done, I pulled a large, cone-shaped mixing bowl out of the cupboard, criticizing the pointed design of the bowl that could not stand up straight. Why on earth did they think it was a good idea to design a bowl like this? I had to put the pointed bottom in a mug to keep it upright, and it wasn’t until after I’d put the sauced-up vegetables in the bowl that one of my friends pointed up at the ceiling.

“That bowl looks a lot like those light fixtures…”

(LOL)

Our guests left shortly after dinner (which was great), and my three companions planned their next stop, a trip to Lake Bled in Slovenia. I already had a flight booked to London the next day, and there was nothing I could do to change it. I was pretty jealous that they would have two more nights together, and it confirmed one of the great lessons of solo traveling – plan as little as possible whenever possible.

“Welcome to the Family” (Marseille Part 2)

"The Family"

After Katelyn left, I decided I would just take it easy for the rest of my time in Marseille. I slept until 3:30 in the afternoon after staying up all night and watched some “Mad Men” when I woke up. Of course travel plans never go the way you think they will, and I ended up befriending a girl from Frankfort when she moved into the room. I *shamelessly* made her wait for me to finish my episode before heading to grab cheap burgers with her.

When we got back to the hostel, we ended up making a group of extremely international friends who would join me on one of my best days of the trip.

Afternoon in Cassis

I’ve said before how easy it is to make friends in hostels – sit down somewhere there is English being spoken, ask where they’re from. Our table expanded into eight people in the span of half an hour, with chimes of “do you mind if I join you?” coming periodically. 

“Of course! We’re a group of people who all met by asking the same thing!”

A few drinks later, we all ended up taking an early night and decided that we would meet at breakfast and that I would take them to Cassis in the morning. I didn’t feel like I had enough time there the day before and wanted to get some hiking and ocean time in.

Looking over the Calanque

In the morning, six of us from the night before met up for the day, managing to snag two more to join our party in the five minutes before we left. America, Germany, Spain, Austria, Poland, England and Japan all intersecting in Marseille for reasons ranging from quick holidays to grandiose Europe trips and all coming here alone – well, alone in the never-really-alone way industrious, wanderlusting solo travelers go.

We grabbed groceries before fighting our way onto the bus (we had to ask the driver to let our friend from Poland at the end of the line on the bus with us) so that we could enjoy a nice picnic and get straight to the calanque. Of course I had to play tour guide since I’d been there before, so I took them straight to the isolated rock face on the side of the calanque I had spent with Katelyn only two days before. We found a nice shady spot, fixed sandwiches and almost all jumped into the water, though not without hesitation from some who saw our shocked faces and loss of breath as we jumped in.

Hiking

The sky started to get a little cloudy, so we decided it was cool enough to take a hike around the calanques and walk out to where we could look off into the sea unobstructed. We goofed around and joked like we’d known each other for ages. We talked about our homes, our travels and mostly how much of a good time we were having together. Paul, from Austria, found a big hole in the side of a cliff and jumped in, scaring the shit out of us before we realized it was filled up to only a couple feet deep. We lost it laughing. Paul would later play tour guide and host to me during my time in Vienna.

Team Effort for Dinner

After hiking, we all decided we’d cook a big family dinner when we got back to the hostel to save money and enjoy a nice evening together. We headed to the supermarket and bought the makings for lettuce-less salad (they had one package of lettuce a week expired), nice cheese and toast, pasta with vegetables and homemade tomato sauce and four bottles of wine. Referring to our group all day as “the family,” we joked later about how we even innocently bickered about the type of pasta like family would. All in all it cost less than 7 euro each.

My Homemade Pasta Sauce

When we got back to the hostel, a couple of the group took showers while I started making pasta for eight people (it ended up feeding more than 10). Some of the guys cut vegetables while I made the sauce – it was a really cute team effort. Others would walk into the kitchen and tell us how good it smelled, how much fun we looked like we were having. Other solo travelers saw our ease with each other as strangers and asked to join, making our group explode into nearly 20.

Setting the Table

“Join the family!” became the motto of the evening, and we added friends from Italy, Sweden, Australia and more to our international posse.

Eventually, we were having too much fun for the hostel to manage and we started to get yelled at by a hostel worker. While hanging out in the courtyard, an angry neighbor started throwing eggs at us from his window (no warning, of course), and the hostel worker walked out yelling “f-ing Americans” even though there were only two of us. I guess he heard English and just assumed, but the reputation of Americans in other countries is a whole other post entirely. I was mostly mad he was screaming at us for getting eggs thrown at us when the hostel had no available accommodations for us to spend what was most of our last night together.

Cheers!

We ended up heading out to a bar and sitting outside and talking there, and a few of us snuck into one of the closed common rooms and chatted into the late hours of the night afterward. Saying goodbye to my big international family was one of the hardest goodbyes of my trip.

There’s a tough to encapsulate feeling that comes every one of these amazing nights – nights like the pubs in Dublin and the family dinner in Marseille – a feeling of pure joy and happiness in the moment mixed with a sad dread that this moment is so isolated, so against the odds of having happened in the first place that it will never be repeated after it ends. A long goodbye after a short hello, you enjoy every second but have to accept its inevitable end. It’s these moments that make traveling hard and easy at the same time, and more than anything make me realize how lucky I am to be on this journey. Traveling is more than just about seeing the world and partying, although that’s a great side effect. It’s about being 22 and young and afraid of the future and forgetting that for a moment to see what and who else more is out there than what I’m used to. People around the world are different in so many ways, but we are all the same in how we connect to each other. 

Marseille Part 1

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My trip to Marseille was all about getting out of Marseille – making it one of my favorite spots of the trip (I know I keep saying that but it’s really hard when every place defies my expectations). 

I checked into my hostel, Vertigo Vieux-Port, in the early evening on Wednesday and could not find a single English speaking and/or young person to hang out with. Much of Marseille’s tourism is French people on holiday, although I would later find a large group of solo travelers. Eventually I met two girls who would become my companions.Processed with VSCOcam with c1 preset

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On Thursday, we got up early and headed to an island in the Mediterranean called Frioul, just a 40-minute ferry ride from Marseille. We had a relaxing long afternoon on the rocky beach, occasionally running into the cool, buoyant waters of the sea to float and swim. After briefly falling asleep, we hiked through the rocky hills and forts of the island before pushing our way onto the ferry to head back to Marseille for dinner. Lines in Marseille, especially for its infrequently running transportation, can be really forceful and breed much anger. After missing the first ferry, which was late, we managed to make our way onto the second only 30 minutes after (we thought it would be 1.5 hours).

So Mediterranean

Our first dinner experience in Marseille ended up being one of the more memorable (not in a good way) experiences of my trip. We went to a super touristy (mistake) restaurant that was 15 euro for three courses. The food was some of the worst I’ve had, and after our main meal we could not get the waiter’s attention to order dessert. We kept calling him over, finally asking another waiter who responded:

“Don’t ask me. I’m the boss here.”

He then proceeded to stand awkwardly looking for things to do, like brush crumbs off other tables. 

After 45 minutes of waiting and calling for the waiter, we put down an incomplete payment, which of course I would never normally feel like was okay (we weren’t getting our full meal anyway), and ran off when the waiters weren’t looking. Huge adrenaline rush, slight guilt but less frustration because our dinner was cheaper than planned. Don’t think I’m a normal dine-and-dasher – we could have easily not paid anything, and we were trapped!

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Our third companion left the next morning, so Katelyn (the one who didn’t leave – obviously) and I headed to Aix-en-Provence for the day. Aix-en-Provence is a small(er) town in the south of France but not on the coast. Its cuisine is much better and easier to navigate than Marseille’s, and I had one of the best meals of my trip for lunch shortly after arriving. It was a meat plate of foie gras, chicken and goose breast with a few lovely sides of different vegetables and a potato gratin – wine of course on the side. Always wine in France, obviously. We finished off with two decadent desserts: a rich flourless chocolate cake and a raspberry crème filled cake with raspberry sauce on top.

Our waiter was extremely attentive and suggested everything we had. We hadn’t originally planned on dessert, but after such an enjoyable meal and a quick recommendation, we let him take our order and indulged. This and the following day would be two of my biggest food splurge days of the trip – followed by cheap take out and home-cooked (yum) meals.

Tartare

We walked a bit more around and then headed to another restaurant, where we split a delicious white fish tartare and an overcooked “barely-cooked tuna.” Our waiter suggested a pistachio cake for dessert, which was nice but not comparable to our wonderful lunch. We headed back to Marseille pretty late and headed to bed, although it should be noted that a whole bottle of wine or more was split every night of my time in France.

Beach in Cassis

The following day we woke up early to go to Cassis. In typical Marseille fashion, we couldn’t get on our bus after much pushing and shouting (we did get there 30 minutes early) and ended up waiting another hour and a half to head there.

One of the Calanques

In Cassis, we had a nice lunch at Le Poissonnerie, a restaurant owned by two brothers – one who fishes and one who cooks. We split a bottle of local wine (Cassis is known for its wine) and a hearty portion of fish soup, which you pour over toasted bread with mustard and cheese on it. Our main course, a filet of white fish, was fresh though a little overdone and overshadowed by the buttery vegetables on the side. After lunch, we headed to one of Cassis’s calanques (water inlets from the sea surrounded by rocky landscapes). We found a more isolated rock face to spend the afternoon relaxing in the sun and diving into the water, which was too cold to spend more than a minute in but extremely refreshing.

The Port of Cassis

We headed back from Cassis in the most heated transportation rush we had been in, with two busses worth of people trying to fit into one. Luckily we made it on, and the bus after us was completely stuffed with people.

Travel Companions!

Glittered Up

Later that night, we headed to the Positiv festival, an electric festival with Disclosure, Flume and Cashmere Cat headlining. We danced until 5 in the morning and then had to walk an hour back to our hostel, where a crazy homeless man decided to throw a giant cinderblock towards us (it was too big to make its way anywhere near us). Obviously we ran.

Positiv Festival

 

The Opposite of Lonely

Kilmainham Gaol

A week or two into moving to DC for the second time, knowing only three people, the loneliness of going off on my own inevitably set in. I reached out to all the corners of my real-life social network, hitting up people I’d met once or twice to try to stretch out my friendships and break up my days of constant work. Each weekend, I’d meet new friends and make small talk consisting of “what school did you go to?” and “what do you do?” – which (contrary to what some argue) are perfectly fine things to discuss when starting from a first handshake.

The small talk was exhausting. Sometimes I felt lonelier being around others than I did by myself. I felt like I was having the same conversation for weeks on end. I’d miss my friends from before, but I’d remind myself that it was work to create a new life. It took work to make the friends I had, and it would take work to make new ones.

Of course this changed when I got closer to people whom I’d met, and the lonely months are an unavoidable part of living on your own, and small talk is the first step in ridding yourself of said loneliness. It’s the litmus test of friendships, and eventually, with some, you remove the barriers that these basic questions mask and delve into something more. But the reason I’m saying all of this is that I’m over here traveling alone and meeting people I more than likely really will never meet again, and I haven’t felt lonely once.

Cliffs of Moher

It’s almost impossible not to make friends in a hostel. In fact, I’ve found it difficult to do really anything on my own. I walked into my room in Dublin on Sunday to put my things up before grabbing a bite to eat, and immediately I befriended an Australian girl named Simone who invited me to drinks with her and some Finnish girls she had met before. As a rule, I say yes to pretty much everyone (spontaneity is the foundation for all good things when traveling – never plan too much ahead), so I left with the girls for drinks, knowing I could eventually find food somewhere even if I hadn’t eaten in nine hours.

First Night

Small talk dissolves quite quickly when traveling. The few basic questions quickly turn into broader ones – ones regarding culture, previous travels, whether its acceptable in ones’ home country to cross the street without a walking sign (Ireland – yes, Denmark – no, Norway – yes, Finland – never). You can’t ask someone about his or her studies without learning how the university system works in her country; you can’t ask about their drinking laws without learning about their drinking culture. With the threat of time moving fast (Simone was leaving the next day, the girls were going on a tour) and the looseness that comes with a few pints of Guinness, you ask about relationships and family, and without the threat of judgment (you can always hang out with new people if you’re not getting on), you tell the truth.

It’s beautiful. Barriers that I (and all people) usually put up during introductions cease to exist in the world of solo travel. I feel connected to the people I meet. Our friendships seem to exist in a vacuum where we don’t have to worry about how we present ourselves, where we want to learn everything about each other as fast as we can.

Americans Abroad

I went on a pub-crawl with my hostel in Dublin on my second day. I had bought a ticket for another one, but decided to go on the one with my hostel because the people looked nice and it was right there and again spontaneity is key (I managed to sell my other ticket – phew). There I met Charley from Brooklyn and Brian from Arizona, who would become my companions the next day. I met a number of girls from Australia and England who we would spend the following night with. The English girls were just on a quick trip together and were taken aback by American accents really existing in full, not just on television or overheard at a train station. We drank a lot, we laughed even more. Charley and I bonded over Beyoncé.

Hostel Friends

Sometimes I get nervous about coming out to these people. I usually feel like I need to so that the girls know I’m just friendly and not hitting on them. Some guys asked me about girls, and I cheekily responded that I wouldn’t know because I was gay. Laughter again. I’m always reminded that there’s nothing to be nervous about. No one cares about these things here, and if they did people would think it was strange. People who travel are open – the ones who aren’t are probably holed up in an all-inclusive hotel somewhere doing the most boring museums and paying for the most overpriced, touristy meals.

Cliffs of Moher

After a day at Kilmainham Gaol with Brian, Charley and I befriended two Germans, Britta and Niels, who would be going on the same tour of the Cliffs of Moher as us the next day. We spent a relaxing day together on the tour, most of which consisted of a long but beautiful bus ride broken up by a couple hours at the Cliffs, where I nervously sat out on the edge of the world and let my feet feel the too-cool winds of the coast. Don’t lean up against the fence if you go there – it’s electric (I learned the hard way – ouch).

So International

Britta had broken her shoulder, so the girls waited down at the edge of a rocky shore we stopped at while Niels and I climbed up a rock face to get a view from up high. We sat together in a quaint town called Galway and had a late lunch. We talked about our studies, former travels, our hometowns.

Go Cats?

We decided we would grab a couple of drinks when we got back in Dublin at 8 that night. We found a pub with live music, grabbed a pint and sat in a quiet(ish) table in the back and swapped stories. We left for a livelier pub, where we talked and drank even more. A pint of Guinness turned into two turned into four turned into we can’t afford any more so let’s just grab the ones people abandon on the tables.

Our New Friend

We danced together, with strangers, with an elderly man and later a homeless woman who were both as joyful and happy as we were. We took photos with a bronze statue of a man; I put my Northwestern sweater on him. We climbed on things – a lamp pole, an electric box – on the street. We stayed out until Niels and Britta’s taxi picked them up for the airport at 4:15 in the morning.

Dancing in the Street

I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much in my life. I can’t even post most of the pictures on Facebook because you’d think I’d gone mad, though I’ve given you a few…

Climbing

One of the greatest nights of my life was spent with people I’d known for a day, people whose lives existed so far apart from mine that the chances of us ever meeting were near zero. There were no boundaries between us, no feelings of embarrassment to have fun or to let ourselves go. The night and our time together may have existed in a vacuum, but the memories (though hazy) and the sheer joy towards others I felt that night will be carried with me.

#selfie

Maybe one day, like my friend Sisi in Copenhagen, we will all meet again somewhere else.

The joy of traveling alone is never being alone. The joy of meeting strangers is never letting them be a stranger. The joy of small talk is never letting it be small.