It’s strange to say of a trip I’ve been looking forward to and planning for more than a year now, but I don’t want to go. I am worried, I am homesick, I am stressed, I am already counting the days back to London. Getting on the Eurostar, I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Show ticket, show passport. Sit down. Plug in earphones, click on the travel just-setting-off playlist I’ve been preparing for months now, only having listened to those songs over and over they now ring tinny.
Our train pulls away from the station, and sped up quicker, quicker, quicker. My ears block. I swallow, trying to find my equilibrium again. The windows vanish into the tunnel’s darkness.
We arrive in the middle of a protest. At first it’s just a woman carrying a papier mache Earth on a fishing pole, then three kids in giraffe onesies. By the time we get out of the train station for our three hour layover it becomes clear this isn’t, as we first assumed, Belgians acting strangely. We sit out in the square and watch as a crowd of signs carried by long-haired women and men cloud around the station doors. A Facebook events search later it becomes clear this was this month’s Rise for Climate protest.
As we eat hastily packed sandwiches, our backpacks tucked between us, we listened to the French conversations around us and tracked the people coming in and out. There’s a huge range of people: a small child wandering back and forth with a sign taller than her, and students with their face done up like bumblebees, and mothers, and fathers, and some enterprising people selling signs to those who’d forgotten them, and a loud group of ISKCON members handing out lyrics to Hare Ram Hare Krishna.
We leave for our train as the marching hordes move out – to the next station, apparently – shouting and chanting. I know why they’re here, I know why they feel this, and I’m briefly exhilarated at the sense of community.
The cathedral looms out of nowhere – I nearly have to back away from the shock of it black and tall in front of us. At the entrance we meet Hannah, a future college classmate of Melanie, and go wandering: first we marvel the vaulted ceilings, feel holy and breathless, and then like three teenagers do go in search of the chocolate museum.
We spend the next few hours wandering over gelato, talking, peering through railings into old ruins. We run off faster than we wanted after one train is cancelled and so is the next. The cathedral casts a long shadow.
The train from Cologne arrives late and at the wrong station. We have half an hour till our connecting bus leaves. When we arrive in the right place the signs to the bus stop all point in different directions, directing us one way till they all uniformly switch to point the other. Everyone we ask tells us the bus we want to get on doesn’t exist. We wave our seat reservation futilely at them.
In the end the bus is half an hour late and we are tired and aching. One hour in a group of screaming college students get on and loudly talk for the rest of the ride. When I wake up briefly at 3 am they try to ask me where I’m from. “Singapore,” I respond and pointedly close my eyes again. It’s been less than 24 hours since we left London. I’m exhausted.
The river’s glittering when I wake. Our discharge from the bus is perfunctory. It’s not quite dawn as we wander the station, gather money, ourselves.
A future classmate of mine, Sara, lives here. We meet her while I’m still bleary. She takes us out to the Charles Bridge: first light, and it’s nearly empty; the gothic statues gleam gold. Over breakfast, gorgeous at the Cafe Louvre, we get our bearings of Prague. Both her parents are Czech; Sara grew up here. She tells us about the bread here, dense and tangy. There’s nothing else in the world like it.
We talk about what it means to miss places a lot through the day as we walk through the city, past the church where her grandparents got married, the City Hall where her MUN conference happened, the ballroom where her prom was held, lovely colorful residential neighborhoods with her favorite cafes. In traveling it’s too easy to forget that most vital fact. People live here. Cities ground memories into the walls and sidewalks. Sara layers her memories onto the landscape, and the bridges tilt beyond a postcard into places with a past and present and future, daily landmarks as well as ephemeral picture – dizzyingly, locations actualized beyond us. This is Prague, and that is also revolution, Renaissance, ghetto, Gothic, communist, Catholic, atheist, hipster, Baroque, a train to take to school, home.
The next morning we eat Czech bread baked by Sara’s mother. The warm taste of it still in our mouths – like sourdough, but not quite – we say goodbye to her and her father.
Late that night, 11 pm, we get on an overnight bus to Budapest and leave Prague behind us. In the rear view another day: the synagogue decorated with black lines listing Czech victims of the Holocaust, broken only by the red names of their hometowns. When you back away the letters become ants inching along the white walls. Also, a cafe down a cobblestone road, where I slowly sipped a coffee while eavesdropping on the group next to us planning a holiday through Slovenia, a steep sunlit slope overlooking the river, and a library we reached after closing for the second consecutive day and whose courtyard we sat in instead, waiting for time to pass us by.
Backpacking Europe is a romantic stereotype; for years I held the image of setting off with nothing more than you can carry. Every day confronting a new city and faces and possibilities and coming away a little more in love with the world. One month with nothing more than the minimum, one month adrift. Why not, right?
We arrive in Budapest to a graffitied suburb close to nowhere and a confusing subway system. When we reach our hostel Melanie falls instantly to sleep on the common room couch. She leaves me awake for hours to a dawning panic that I’ve committed to a month of unfamiliar places based on nothing more than idealistic fantasy and George Ezra songs. What are we even doing here?
The feeling sticks to the back of the mouth like the oversalted rice and lumpy stew that ends up being lunch. It’s a mildly destabilizing anxiety I can’t quite tamp down, but around us Budapest revolves. There’s the parliament building, and the Danube, bridges and hills, wide avenue, and unexpected bookstores. In the middle of the tour of the synagogue I fall asleep, lulled by the sunlight soft inside and the guide’s monotone lecture. Outside the site of the mass grave of those who died in the ghetto is peaceful in trees, and a museum above speaks to the endurance of tradition through time and space, a belief that shines the ceremonial objects gold. What are we even doing here? Who cares – we’re here, aren’t we?
The next morning on a guided tour I come to a shocking realization: it’s okay to not know everything. I’m here because of the uncertainty, because I don’t know the answers to the questions, and afterwards I probably won’t either but I’ll have rooted my ignorance in the crowded brightness of Buda hill and the low chatter of the central market, goulash burning the tongue. I am stripped of pretenses at knowledge: this is a wonderful, wide-eyed kind of clueless. This is a new world.
In the hostel in the evening, over sugared chimney cake, we talk with the other travelers. There’s a Chinese man living in Denmark, and a Canadian schoolteacher exploring Europe for two months. We compare journals and planning apps, and share a brief delight in unraveling our days ahead. No one knows quite where they are. The days need only crystallize in the happening.
It starts hailing, of course. We’re in Croatia just long enough to be lulled into complacency checking into the hostel and setting out for an early evening exploration of Zagreb, which was bright and sunny and full of people until all that vanished and instead it is full of small blocks of ice.
We run for cover in a bookstore and track mud in. The proprietors look at us askance, and I seek refuge next to the two shelves of English books. Melanie sits sodden on a chair.
Eventually I summon the courage to ask about a travelogue I’ve been looking for; they do not stock it, but they do have another classic of Balkans literature, and by the way, where do you come from? I buy the book, and they tell us about traveling through India, and we ask for recommendations in Zagreb. They suggest a stall selling burek – a meat pastry? – in the Central Market and, so, Singapore, how is it like to live? How is it different from Croatia?
The bookstore warms us as the hail softens to rain outside before finally stopping altogether. For the first time in a week I feel like I’m finding my feet. I can keep this conversation going and learn something from it, just like I can find my way back to the hostel after this, like I can help with cooking a healthy(ish) dinner (though Melanie ends up doing most of it), like I can coordinate our departure the next morning, and the morning after that.
At noon the next day our guided tour leads us down a path barely an arm’s length across to a cannon shot. It’s a medieval legacy of an attempt to regulate erratic church bells that’s lasted till the modern day. The sound lingers in delicious shock.
Zagreb winds gray and twisting around us: down one alley baked cottage cheese to burn our mouths, down another a sunlit square with the Museum of Broken Relationships, a floor of donated objects placed next to stories of the lost loves they symbolize. An inconspicuous arch is the only remaining city gate. Inside stands a statue of the Virgin Mary, the only survivor of a fire that ravaged the city, and a row of pews with parishioners who ignore the Chinese tourists and sit with hands folded in penance or petition or prayer.
I close my eyes briefly too. One week since we left London. Today I haven’t thought once of going back – only the paths that lie around the corner.