I’ve been back in the US for a few weeks now, moving quickly into my fast-paced, appointment-filled existence. I’m drinking a lot more beer than I used to, though, with the typical evening spent nursing a new local brew before bed. It’s the most noticeable, immediate change to my every day life that points directly to Belgium.
Of course I miss little Belgium, still. I miss traveling all the time, and in some ways, I still feel like I’m not fully allowing myself to settle down just yet, as if another big adventure was scheduled in just a few weeks time.
Now that I’m back, I’m always asked about my favorite cities or countries that I visited. I’ve been anticipating these questions, and I knew that I’d have a near-impossible time giving a straight answer. It’s so hard to judge a city off of a three-day experience. And said experience is dictated so much by the human connections made. Interactions really determine a love for a set time and place, but to allow it to determine a love for just the place, over any indefinite time period, isn’t exactly fair. That’s where revisiting comes into play, which, of course, I’d love to have the luxury to do.
I still can’t tell you my favorite places. But I can tell you what experiences stick out.
In alphabetical order by city, because trying to order these would take weeks of deliberation, a list: My Top Ten Moments on the Road. Titles are linked to a corresponding blog post, except in the case of number one, where there isn’t one.
1) Spooning with two best friends on a boat in Amsterdam
This sounds like a really silly thing to include in a list that should be made up exclusively of epic shit, or really interesting cultural shit. I can participate in platonic cuddle puddles any day, anywhere.
But this one felt special. It was special.
The ISA group went on one final weekend trip together to The Hague in May. It came with a real sense of finality, of too-near goodbyes. To best friends, of course, this sense was unwelcomed. We extended our trip, skipped class and booked a night in a boat on a canal in Amsterdam.
There was something about that tiny, tiny room: bunk beds on one side, another twin bed tucked under a little, circular window, with less than a foot of space in between. A sink against the wall. A door. A toilet under the shower head. The lack of space is exactly what we signed up for, though, when all we wanted was to be close to each other, in all respects of the word.
2) Rejection at the Bordeaux airport
This moment will live on in my memory for a long, long time, mostly because it was so dreadful.
Getting rejected at any point in life is rough. When you feel so wronged, when it’s completely beyond your control, when it’s bureaucratic nonsense behind two countries you thought you loved, and really do love, which almost makes it worse… When it’s at an airport and you have somewhere you need to be.
But. Returning to my couchsurfing’s hosts pad for a hearty vegetarian dinner, laughs, some finger painting and a jam session with a dozen international students was not a bad way to end my stay in the region. In fact, it strengthened my perception of Bordeaux, of the French lifestyle in general, even more.
3) Cooking for three generations of Slovaks in Bratislava
Watching my couchsurfing host’s mother eye my homemade potstickers with skepticism, and maybe even some fear, was funny. Having her actually thoroughly enjoy the meal was truly gratifying. And the conversation that ensued about marriage, communism and being a single female traveler, was one I’ll remember for a long, long time. It solidified my already sky-high happiness toward the couchsurfing project as way to connect across cultures, generations and general opposite ideologies in a way that, against all odds, makes perfect sense.
4) Christmas magic in Copenhagen
I loved my weekend in Copenhagen, and in addition to my awesome couchsurfing host, I think this love has a lot to do with the weekend I was there: the first weekend of Christmas.
Copenhagen explodes with Christmas markets the first weekend of December. It isn’t freezing cold yet, but everyone’s excited. There’s real life cheer.
In particular: there’s the most epic artificial man-made Christmas wonderland that, despite being artificial and man-made and commercial, was no better way to start off the holiday season. Tivoli, the tourist classic, old school amusement park. I will probably never feel that much child-like joy, see so many twinkly, dramatic displays, or 100% believe in my heart that reindeers could fly, ever, ever again.
5) Moshing on broken glass in Madrid
Madrid was easily the most punk rock city I’ve been to. General badass feelings emanated from all over, from the kalimotxo (red wine and coca cola) being consumed in the streets to the crazy lack-of-sleep schedule to the somehow-still-cool scene haircuts.
One of my favorite nights in Europe, ever, has got to be my one in Madrid. In a small circle of semi-familiar Californian faces, in a greater circle of crazy Spaniards, all moshing together in synchronized chaos to a live electro-synth band playing “Here Comes the Sun.” On a floor completely covered with broken glass, of course.
6) The night alone in the Macedonian mountains, and hitchhiking in Ohrid
I explained these two experiences with fairly high detail already, so I’ll spare you.
On this whole list, though, these two experiences were by far the most unbelievable, the most outrageous, showcasing the Macedonian Man in two distinct forms with two very different ends.
Regardless of how ticked off I was when my host got too drunk to return to the cabin, leaving me alone in the apparently bear-filled mountains, and then bringing rotten fish the following morning when I had already not eaten since the previous afternoon, and then… Well, regardless of all of that, my time in Macedonia was likely the most memorable time of all.
7) Walking three dogs through the French countryside
My entire time working on a small farm in Western France, the Poitou-Charentes area specifically, was memorable. What was perhaps the most memorable, though, surprisingly were the daily dog walks.
I acknowledge that dog walks are pretty normal, pretty domestically universal, unlike other things I was doing, like herding goats and mating rabbits. But these! These were wild times.
There were three dogs of varying sizes. One black Labrador pup, undisciplined and strong named Kai. One big, white mutt, with a scrunched up bull-dog face named Bone. One tiny fluffy thing named Muffin.
Bone was in heat. Like, hardcore heat. To the point that Bone was attempting to ride Kai about every 20 seconds. Occasionally, little Muffin would try to get in on the action, which was just awkward. Being dragged around by three dogs is rough enough, being dragged around by three horny dogs continually trying to mount each other is a whole other story.
8) Christmas dinner in Prague
For me, Christmas at home is not a big deal. Of course I spend it with family, but it’s almost more like an out-of-default situation, not because our bones are seeped in tradition.
Being in Prague on this family-oriented holiday, without my family, was probably the most beautiful Christmas I’ve had. Not because I was away from my family, but because I was welcomed into a new one, one both of people and traditions completely foreign to me.
The three-day affair was mostly spent around the dinner table, where my Czech mom dished out the same potato salad over and over, and we never tired of its charms. I never tired of any of the charms of that tiny flat in the Communist-era suburban sprawl of Prague — the old-fashioned paisley wallpaper, the tea breaks, the tiny, Charlie Brown-esque Christmas tree, the fat orange cat, the Christmas candles, wreaths, bells and general decor.
This winter, I will realistically be dreaming of my temporary Czech family, their cozy flat and potato salad.
9) A snowball fight in Salzburg
Anyone’s first real snow is magical. But a first real snow in Salzburg, a city that evokes all fairytale mindsets at all times, is truly worth remembering.
I awoke in a shoe closet, my bedroom for the evening, to a white Salzburg.
I walked to the city center with my host, a masters student on her way to a lecture. We engaged in a snowball fight, or more like, she engaged me in a snowball fight. We laughed and laughed, shooting off frozen missiles until our hands went numb. Then she was late to class.
10) A double rainbow in Tuscany
I was slowly waking from an afternoon nap when I heard my sister screaming bloody murder. Only it was followed by (still screaming): “DOUBLE RAINBOW!!!”
It wasn’t just the incredible sight — a full double rainbow spanning across the already glorious Tuscan hills — that made the moment so special. It was the timing. It was the Bitkers’ first real family vacation, borderline reunion, with extended family, and it was our final day together.
Italy could not have chosen a more beautiful way to say goodbye.