Europe

Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum incl. Iron Men

The Kunsthistorisches Museum is the final location in Vienna I’ll be blogging about. I wanted to visit primarily to see the Kunstkammer, because Kunstkammer and Wunderkammer are music to my ears (Wunderkammer admittedly more so, because wonder!) – I love a cabinet of curiosities. However, when we bought tickets, the ticket man tried to upsell us into seeing their Iron Men exhibition, which runs until 26 June, and because it was only €3 extra (on top of the hefty €21 base admission) and because I love armour, I gave in, so that was where we headed first.

And I’m so glad we did, because this was probably my favourite thing that we saw in the whole of Vienna. It was such an amazing exhibition. Not only were the objects on display excellent and unusual, the interpretation was fantastic as well. They told us the things we really want to know about armour, like how do you move in it, and how does it stay on your body? The only thing missing was how you poop when wearing it, though they actually might have covered that somewhere and I’ve just forgotten.

To illustrate my first two questions (don’t worry, not the third), they had a series of videos showing a modern man doing stuff in armour, my favourite of which featured him climbing up ladders, doing a somersault, and a “bonus move” of doing the little side jump and heel-click that I can’t master even in normal clothes. He also put on the armour to show how it was held together by leather linings and straps, which is what fitted it to the body, but because the leather has deteriorated so much in most surviving armour, all we can usually see is the steel that was left behind. Happily, they did have a few pieces here that still had straps intact so we could get a better idea of how it worked.

I was also delighted to see that (one of) my ancestral homeland(s) of Slovenia was responsible for some of the finest pieces in here, like the eagle helmet above the preceding paragraph. I hadn’t seen much armour from there before, nor did I really know what was going on there in the medieval era, so it was nice to get some idea from the descriptions of armour and tournaments. The most interesting part was probably the section on jousts of peace, which were were done purely for fun, and for which competitors wore amusing masks, like devils, birds, the excellent lion shown above, and creepiest of all, ones painted to look like people, which you can see below.

There was so much here that was absolutely fascinating, from the techniques used to make different colours of armour (peep that gorgeous blue armour at the start of the post), to the clothes they were wearing under the armour, and the way fashions changed over time. Particularly loved the pointy toed boots with the removable tips so the wearer could enter a room in style but take them off for battle, and the suit of armour with removable ruffles on the sleeves. Honestly, they spent so much time on the construction and style trends of armour that this felt almost like a fashion exhibition, and that is certainly not a complaint coming from me!

I think it’s pretty clear that I think this exhibition is a must-see if you’re in Vienna, and I could go on about it a lot longer, but in the interest of time, and as I had to in real life (since we were flying back home that afternoon and had an airport to get to), I’ll cut things short and move on to my original reason for visiting, the Kunstkammer.

 

The Kunstkammer takes up almost an entire floor of the museum and contains the accumulated treasures of a number of Habsburg rulers, mainly those who ruled in the 16th and 17th centuries. We made the mistake of walking in at the wrong end and deciding to walk back to the entrance so we could see everything in order. This was…not a short journey. I think it’s impossible to visit, walk through that endless parade of rooms stuffed with exquisite objects, and not conclude that the Habsburgs were both far too wealthy and in power for far too long. Not saying that most of their collection wasn’t gorgeous and worth preserving, but it was far more stuff than any one family needs.

 

Because our time was so limited and there was so much here, I decided to focus primarily on the things that interested me most, which means automata! The ones here were unbelievably intricate and fabulous and included a ship that moved across a table whilst musicians played on board, with the ship’s cannon firing as a finale; a spectacularly creepy archer that also moved forward whilst his eyes rolled around in his head and he fired a bow with a real miniature arrow; a moving musical carriage with a rearing horse; a few different clocks with moving figures, and more! Though I wished we could have seen them live in action, I suppose it wouldn’t be great conservation-wise if they had them constantly up and running, but they did have the next best thing in the form of videos showing them in motion, available to watch on tablets in each room. They are happily also available on the museum’s website, so you can watch them too.

There were also lots of exceptionally detailed figurines and much less exciting silverware and glassware, save for a glass dragon that shot water in the face of the unsuspecting user if they pressed the wrong button when dispensing their drink (below left). You would need to spend hours here to be able to read all the signage and take everything in properly; as we had less than an hour in the Kunstkammer before we needed to leave, it was only ever going to be a whistle-stop tour. Still, I think I did manage to see all the best bits!

Lest you think this is all there was, let me assure you that the museum did have a number of other galleries. We quickly walked through the Roman and Egyptian collections (the Egyptian galleries, as you can see, had beautifully decorated themed interiors, as did the rest of the museum). There is also a picture gallery, which most famously contains a number of Bruegels, including The Tower of Babel. Although we were trying to hurry, we ended up walking through the whole of the picture gallery as well, because there was only one entrance/exit so we had to circle through all the rooms to leave. Consequently, we had to skip the entire top floor of the museum, which contained the coin collection and possibly another gallery, but I’m not that invested (ha) in coins anyway, so no major loss.

 

Basically, the moral of the story is don’t be like us, and allow yourself a whole day here if you want to see everything properly, because three hours was nowhere near enough time. I would also advise not using the toilets in the basement – there was a massive queue for the ladies’ because there were only two stalls (I thought the British Museum was bad at peak times, but at least they have about twenty stalls, so you’re in with a chance) and some woman jumped the queue just as I got to the front, which I was definitely not happy about (I did express my displeasure in English, which she clearly felt free to ignore). It’s an expensive museum that would almost certainly be free if it were in London, but at least we got our money’s worth out of the Iron Men exhibition, which I could not have loved more. 5/5 for Iron Men, 3.5/5 for the rest of the museum.

Vienna: The Wurstelprater

There are few things I love more than a creepy European amusement park, and Wurstelprater, or simply Prater as it’s more commonly known (though there are no shortages of sausages inside the park, which is how I’m going to assume it got its name), is no exception. This is one of the few places we came on our last visit to Vienna, and remembering how many creepy clowns there were, I definitely wanted to come back. The park is free to enter (you only pay if you want to actually ride anything), and though we didn’t do much other than wander around and eat some cotton candy and ice cream, I wanted to do a (admittedly half-assed) picture post to share some of the creepiness with you. Enjoy!

This whole block of toilets was creepy clown themed.

Why does this man have a coin coming out of his butt? Can anyone explain this to me?

Possibly the scariest clown here, and there was some stiff competition.

Not as scary as the clowns.

We did not go in there.

I can’t decide if the hot dog or the clown bin is weirder.

I loved this gorilla. He delivered a whole speech in German, but I’ve no idea what he was saying.

I don’t remember this looking quite so unsettling in person, but yikes!

My German isn’t great, but I’m choosing to translate this as “Shit Hall”.

Don’t think I’ll be boarding that train.

There’s even a mural in the Prater U Bahn station featuring creepy bench clown!

Vienna: Central Cemetery & The Funeral Museum

I couldn’t visit Vienna without visiting a cemetery, and Central Cemetery, which is one of the biggest in Europe, caught my eye immediately, not least because they have a funeral museum within the cemetery. Central Cemetery was opened in 1874 as an interdenominational cemetery, which was somewhat controversial at the time (the Catholic church was NOT happy). Despite its name, Central Cemetery is far from central (it’s in Simmering, which is literally the end of the line on the U Bahn and you still have to take a tram from there to reach the cemetery), so to attract burials, the Viennese authorities decided to create a “celebrity section” of composers, which involved digging up Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Salieri, Strauss, and Schoenberg from their respective cemeteries and re-interring them here. Mozart was spared that, presumably because he’s already buried elsewhere in Vienna, but there is a memorial here to him.

Other than the composers’ corner (and the museum of course), the main attraction of the cemetery is the massive chapel pictured at the start of the post, St Charles Borromeo, which was completed in 1911. It’s equally impressive inside, with art nouveau mosaics and stained glass and a beautiful starry ceiling. I had to laugh at the hand sanitizer bottles shoved in to the holy water fonts though.

I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about Falco, who seems to be the cemetery’s leading attraction. Of course I know “Rock Me Amadeus” and “Der Kommissar”, but I’m not exactly familiar with his entire oeuvre. However, every single Austrian seems to be, judging by both his impressive grave and memorial benches and the sheer amount of people who apparently make a pilgrimage to his grave. His was the easiest to find in the cemetery – all we had to do was follow the crowds!

Other famous burials include Hedy Lamarr, who has quite an unusual memorial consisting of wires with balls strung on them (perhaps something relating to her scientific work?) and Manfred Deix, who I hadn’t heard of previously, but who had my absolute favourite monument in the cemetery. He was a cartoonist, so I assume the cat was based on one of his drawings. I looked at some of his work on the long U Bahn ride back into town, and I like his style!

Marcus has a couple great-grandparents and various other distant relatives who are buried here, so we spent some time looking around the Jewish section for those, and can I just emphasise again how massive this cemetery is? It is incredibly huge; each section stretched on for what felt like miles, and the ground between the rows was not particularly well tended (though still nowhere near as bad as most British cemeteries), so I found myself stumbling a lot as we searched the sections his ancestors were meant to be in. We never ended up finding most of them, possibly because this section was bombed during WWII, but we did, however, find someone with Marcus’s exact name (except for Marcus was spelled Markus), which was kind of exciting, in a creepy way. (I might have forgotten to use my cemetery voice and yelled out, “Holy shit, it’s you!” when I spotted it.)

And on to the museum. The Funeral Museum is housed in the bunker-like basement of an otherwise rather charming building near the cemetery’s entrance (I should say one of the cemetery’s entrances…there’s at least six different tram stops and entrances all outside the perimeter of the cemetery) and costs €7 to enter. Given that the website was all in German, I wasn’t entirely sure if we’d find any English inside the museum, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that everything had an English translation, including a large interactive screen with tonnes of information on the history of the cemetery.

Though this museum wasn’t anywhere near the scale of the National Museum of Funeral History in Houston, and focused primarily on Central Cemetery itself rather than death-related traditions around the world, it was still a pretty cool little museum. We learned a lot about 19th century funerary practices in Austria and enjoyed looking at displays of mourning jewellery, caskets, adorable miniature models of the cemetery, a collection of uniforms worn by funeral attendants, and even a knife for stabbing the heart of a corpse (I guess to prevent vampires?).

The museum clearly also had a sense of humour about itself, because in addition to an excellent collection of death themed cartoons in the last gallery, they also had a quirky little shop selling amusing t-shirts, tote bags, LEGO hearses, and even honey made in the cemetery! I would have loved to buy some of the honey, but because we had hand luggage only, I wouldn’t have been able to take it back, so I settled for a tote bag and some postcards.

 

Other than there being far too much walking, this was a very nice experience. Loved the museum and the cemetery itself. It seems clear that Central Cemetery is meant for the living as well as the dead, as the cemetery also contained a bustling café and another little shop by the entrance full of black humoured merchandise, and was probably one of the busiest cemeteries I’ve been to (which sounds weird to say, but you know what I mean), with most of the visitors seemingly fellow tourists, though there were some people obviously visiting deceased family members as well. It’s just nice to see a cemetery being used as a gathering place in true Victorian style! Even though it’s a little bit of a pain to get here, I highly recommend visiting if you find yourself in Vienna. It’s not the most picturesque cemetery I’ve ever been to, but it’s certainly one of the largest, and the museum is the icing on the (soul) cake.

Vienna: Imperial Carriage Museum

If it wasn’t already clear from my last post, just let me say that if you like the Habsburgs, you are going to love Vienna. To stick with the Imperial theme, after seeing the underwhelming Anker Clock and eating an exceptionally large Kaiserschmarrn with caramelised walnuts that unfortunately left me disgustingly full for the rest of the day (Kaiserschmarrn is also Imperial, having been a favourite of Franz Joseph I, hence the name, so it was in keeping with the theme), we headed out to Schonbrunn Palace. On our last visit to Vienna, although we walked around the grounds and ate that giant pretzel I mentioned in my last post, we didn’t actually pay to go inside the palace, as it was obscenely crowded. This time, we set out with the best of intentions and fully meant to see Schonbrunn, but when we got there and saw the price and the crowds and thought about how much we hated Charlottenburg and the fact that this just looked like more of the same, well, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to do it. Instead, we headed over to the much more appealing sounding Carriage Museum, which is a very short walk away from Schonbrunn, despite what the misleading signage in Schonbrunn’s gardens would have you believe.

Despite being right by Schonbrunn and containing all Habsburg stuff, it is actually run by the Kunsthistoriches Museum, so it’s not included on any Schonbrunn ticket package (not that we bought one anyway). It’s €12, and you can buy tickets at the museum – it certainly wasn’t very busy when we were there, which was extremely refreshing after the crowds at the nearby palace. I said that I would talk more about Sisi in this post, and I wasn’t lying, because even though Sisi has her own dedicated museum (which we did not visit), that is clearly not enough for the Viennese, and the Carriage Museum is also basically the Sisi show. That’s her wedding dress you can see above right.

“Who the hell is Sisi?” you may rightfully be asking if you’re not Austrian, because I certainly didn’t have a clue. Well, the museum was here to tell you, and even went so far as to bill her a 19th century Princess Diana, so apparently beloved is she by the Austrian people. Her proper name was Empress Elisabeth of Austria, wife of the comparatively unremarkable Franz Joseph I (except for his love of Kaiserschmarrn I guess), and after reading the museum’s description of her, I’m still not quite sure why she was so beloved, as she seemed incredibly vain, high maintenance, and frankly, a bit of a nut.

I mean, just look at her extraordinarily creepy mourning dress, or at least what you can see of it in the above picture. 19th century mourning dress typically included a crepe veil for women, so nobody was going to see your face anyway, but Sisi took it upon herself to have a mask made of black feathers that covered her entire face like some kind of scary bird woman, and then still wore a veil on top of it (honestly, I think it’s kind of awesome, but her obsession with mourning is really the only thing I can get behind. Well, that and the horse chapel I talk about later). She spent hours on her beauty regimen and refused to have any photographs or paintings done after the age of 32 so she would be seen as eternally beautiful, which, as a 36 year old, I honestly find kind of insulting. I’m not that decrepit yet! It also sounded like she had an eating disorder – she would go through periods of starvation followed by binge eating, and she was described as too thin by acquaintances. In fairness to her, I don’t think she had the easiest life – Franz Joseph was supposed to marry her older sister, but fell in love with the beautiful Sisi instead, who was unprepared for life at the Austrian court. She had multiple children die in tragic circumstances (including a murder-suicide), had a difficult relationship with her husband, who was cold and businesslike, and was eventually assassinated by an Italian anarchist at the age of 60. Perhaps her violent death has something to do with her exalted posthumous reputation.

But this was still a carriage museum, not exclusively the Sisi Museum, and there were lots of fabulous carriages too, most of which belonged to, you guessed it, Sisi. Or more broadly, the Habsburg family, who managed to amass quite a collection over the years. The frequent tragedies that befell the Habsburg line in the 1800s also meant that they had some fab mourning carriages painted true priest black, rather than just a very very very very very dark blue.

My favourite thing was that absolutely fabulous leopard print sleigh, shown above left, though I was less keen when I realised the leopard print was actual leopard skin. I also learned that the Habsburgs built carriages with springs under their seats for comfort, but none under the coachman’s seat, even though the coachman would be expected to sit outside for hours in all weathers driving these people around. That is just a straight-up dick move, and almost made me glad most of them were assassinated. Seriously, clearly you can afford springs, so why not give everyone springs? Because they were assholes, that’s why.

The main reason I was drawn to the Carriage Museum in the first place was because they were hosting a temporary exhibition on masks and epidemics, which, even after experiencing a pandemic, is still very much my jam. The exhibition turned out to have been put up during the first lockdown in 2020, so only incorporated artefacts that were already in the museum’s collections, and was fairly small, but still interesting. I wish I could have read the Viennese equivalent of the Bills of Mortality that was on display here, but alas, I do not speak German (all the signage here was in English as well though, so it wasn’t an issue for the bulk of the museum). I also liked Sisi’s collection of horse paintings. She apparently considered horses her only friends, and had a whole chapel decorated with horse paintings, which sounds totally bonkers. I wish it was still around, because I would have loved to have seen it.

The museum took us right up into the modern era, with a Hapsburg automobile and even a custom racing car. I loved the old auto – naturally, the Hapsburgs didn’t have anything so plebian as a license plate number, just an image of their coat of arms on the plate, and the car was decorated in Imperial colours, as were many of the carriages.

I actually enjoyed this museum quite a lot. Although I don’t think I would have liked Sisi much as a person judging by the way she treated her servants (in addition to the coachman thing, she also forced the woman who styled her hair to wear white gloves at all times and save every hair that fell out of Sisi’s head whilst styling it, and then Sisi would yell at her if she thought there were too many hairs), learning about her was interesting, and I loved all the mourning carriages and reading about what was inside each carriage, though it would have been even better if we’d actually been able to see inside them (some of them had beds and reading lamps. Luxury, though not for the poor coachmen of course). 3.5/5.

And because I’m sure you’re dying to know what happened with the giant pretzels at Schonbrunn, well…after a far too long slog around the gardens where we failed to find the pretzels I remembered, we headed over to the Easter Market set up behind the palace. They were selling giant pretzels, but they weren’t the same ones from my earlier visit, not being quite as large nor delicious looking, and unfortunately, the stall was cash only, which meant we had to find a cash machine that charged a fee to use it (I hate that scammy shit. Those machines are illegal in the UK now, so it’s sad they still have them in Europe). I mean, I still ate the pretzel, and it was a good pretzel, but not at all the heavenly item I remembered from my first visit. The market had other delicious looking foods, like Kasespaetzle, but unfortunately, because I was so damn full still from breakfast, I just couldn’t eat any, much as I wanted to, so Schonbrunn Palace was sadly mostly a bust, except for the slightly disappointing pretzel.

 

Vienna: Kapuzinergruft (Imperial Crypt)

This trip to Vienna was my first time back in continental Europe since well before Covid – I think the last time I went anywhere besides Britain or the US was when I visited Oslo and Gothenburg back in summer 2019 – so though I was much less worried about travelling than I had been before I’d had Covid (because I think I’m unlikely to catch it again so soon), I was still feeling anxious about visiting a non-English speaking country for the first time in so long, and wanted to ease myself in with somewhere on the well-beaten tourist track. Marcus and I had visited Vienna once before, but since that was all the way back in 2010, and we couldn’t remember actually doing much apart from seeing the Josephinum (I would have loved to go back there to blog about it, but it’s currently closed for renovations), eating a giant pretzel in the gardens of Schonbrunn, and making frequent trips to the Manner Wafer shop, we figured we were probably due for a revisit.

 

So, we managed to find some cheap last minute flights and a deal on a hotel (which thankfully turned out to be pretty nice), and headed off to Austria. We were originally intending on going to the late opening at the Welt Museum the evening we arrived, but even though we hadn’t done much other than sit around an airport all day waiting for our flight, we were too tired to bother, so after a quick stop at a nearby supermarket for food, we crashed out at the hotel and saved sightseeing for the next morning, when we got up bright and early to have time to see the Imperial Crypt before the Anker Clock did its thing at noon.

Other than the infamous Habsburg jaw, my knowledge of the Habsburgs is patchy at best, so I wasn’t really that sure why they were all just shoved in this crypt in a fairly nondescript church in the middle of Vienna rather than some kind of bigger mausoleum somewhere, but I wasn’t going to pass up the chance to look at some rad skeleton and skull décor. Actually, when I heard it was a Capuchin crypt, I was picturing something more like the one in Rome, where the actual bones were arranged into art pieces, but of course that treatment wouldn’t be suitable for emperors, so their bodies are all firmly contained within extremely elaborate caskets.

Admission is €8, which gains you entrance into the depths of the coffin-lined temperature controlled crypt. Lest you be worried about any kind of a smell, these coffins are welded shut and encrusted in so many death-themed geegaws that nothing would be able to seep through (plus the earliest sarcophagi are from 1618, so those emperors must be good and skeletonised by now). The crypts provide a free map in English that lists the names of all the people “resting” here, but that’s pretty much it. There’s almost nothing about who these people actually were, so if you’re not au fait with the Habsburgs, as I am not, you’ll be pretty clueless.

I’m not entirely sure if all that matters though, with tombs as fabulous as this. It was really worth looking closely at each one, because the detailing was incredible. So many derpy lions and skulls and creepy veiled ladies. Lesser names got a small, roughly chronological spot along the main galleries, but Maria Theresa (probably one of the most famous Habsburgs – she was Marie Antoinette’s mother, and a formidable ruler in her own right) and her lesser known husband Franz I got an entire mausoleum (pictured at the start of the post) with painted ceilings and marble detailing that was the centrepiece of the crypt.

As we moved towards the 19th and 20th centuries, the sarcophagi got noticeably less ornate. Guess the Habsburgs finally had to cut their budgets in the age of assassinations and revolution. You can’t go to Vienna without hearing about Sisi (much more on her in next week’s post), and she was here in a casket decorated with delicate ironwork, but I don’t think we even photographed it because we didn’t learn what a big deal she was until visiting the Carriage Museum that afternoon. The casket below with the sombrero (apparently also a traditional Austrian hat) belonged to the ill-fated Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, who only reigned for three years before being executed, though he had no business being in Mexico in the first place. The last Imperial funeral was for Empress Zita, who died in 1989; though she and her husband had been deposed following WWI and exiled to Switzerland in 1922, her body was allowed to return to Austria and rest in the crypt. I think the most recent addition to the crypt was one of Zita’s sons who died in 2011.

Although I would have appreciated more English text in the free handout to learn who these people were, since the German text seemed far more comprehensive, I very much enjoyed looking at these completely remarkable and no doubt insanely expensive tombs. I don’t know if the tombs were always open to the public or if it is a more recent development, but somehow I can’t picture them allowing plebs in during more turbulent times when the Habsburgs were still clinging to power. Though there were other visitors, including a man who photographed literally every single coffin using a camera that made a super loud and annoying noise after each photo, it was still empty enough that it didn’t feel overly touristy. Well, that or the Viking Cruise people had already been through before us – we had to fight through hordes of them in a nearby square en route to the crypt. 3.5/5.

Krakow 2008

I got an “overnight” train from Budapest to Krakow, via Katowice, which unfortunately meant I had to get up at 4 in the morning to transfer trains, so I’m sure I was not a happy camper. Still, I was excited about visiting Poland. I’m of 75% Polish descent, as far as I know (my paternal grandfather was Slovenian, but everyone else was Polish), so, like many Americans, I had weird fantasies about visiting the land of my ancestors, like I’d somehow instantly feel like I was among my people. Not so much. Instead, what I mostly felt like was an outsider, especially when old men would stop dead in their tracks when they encountered me in the street, make the sign of the cross, and start ranting in Polish at me. I’m still not sure what that was about, but it freaked me out. Could I somehow be a vampire without realising it?

Having been raised on my grandma’s pierogi, chrusciki, paczki, and various other stodgy Polish foods (though I wouldn’t eat the weird meaty ones), I was very excited to try the Polish versions to see how they compared. So, I went to a restaurant that only served pierogi and eagerly ordered a platter of potato and cheese ones. Unfortunately, what I was served was basically a platter of unadvertised fatty bacon chunks, with a few pierogi around the edges. Being a vegetarian, this was very much not ideal, but I don’t like to waste food, so I tried my best to scrape the bacon off, but the strong meaty flavour tainted the entire dish and I ended up just dumping them all in the bin. Undeterred, I decided to try an all-vegetarian place next, where at least I didn’t have to worry about surprise meat finding its way on to my plate. However, when the pierogi arrived, they turned out to be filled with this disgusting sweet cheese – they were literally full of sugar, and whilst I made a valiant effort to eat them, after a pierogi or two, these too found their way into the bin (I know sweet cheese pierogi are a thing (my uncle really likes them), but that wasn’t what I thought I was ordering; even without the sweetness, I hate the gross curdy farmers’ cheese they’re made from. I just make potato and cheddar ones normally!). And I quickly discovered that they only sold chrusciki just prior to Lent, so I struck out there too. I did manage to find a paczki-esque doughnut, but instead of being light and pillowy and filled with my choice of delicious jam, nuts, or chocolate, it was dry as a fart and contained a tiny plop of some kind of unidentifiable red jam, with some shrivelled chunks of dried pineapple that looked older than I was glued to the top. At that point, I just gave up, and for the rest of my time in Krakow, I subsisted almost entirely off these delicious bagel-esque breads coated with sesame seeds that street vendors would set up shop to sell every morning (you had to be early though, because they disappeared by noon), and Polish soft serve ice cream, which was surprisingly rich and delicious. It barely even melted, maybe because the butterfat content was so high, and a giant cone only cost about $1, so I was not totally unhappy with this turn of events, nutritionally void though it was.

I wasn’t doing well with either the people or the food, and my choice of hostel wasn’t much better. It was basically a party hostel full of French people. I tried to go out on one of their pub crawls one night, but it involved doing shots of strange colours that I knew would make me puke, and since I could barely speak to anyone there, apart from this Australian guy that worked at the hostel who kept trying to take his clothes off, I gave up trying to befriend people from the hostel pretty quickly, and resigned myself to spending all my time alone and open to harassment from strange old men. (There were some Irish girls in my room, but they just ignored me because they “thought I was Spanish,” as they told me when I finally tried to initiate a conversation. Weirdly enough, this wasn’t the first time in my backpacking adventures when people told me they thought I was Spanish, which I really don’t get since I don’t even speak Spanish.)

I felt like I should probably see Auschwitz whilst I was there, but the bus tours left very early in the morning, and I’m sorry to say that at that stage in my life, my sleep was far more important to me than visiting the scene of one of the worst atrocities in human history, so that was out (Jessica of the past was really kind of a jerk, but in a slightly different way to the way I’m a jerk now). I didn’t even make it to the famous salt mine that had a salt statue of John Paul II in it, even though I love salt mines, because again, you had to get up early. I did make it to Wawel Castle though, as that was in town, and open all day. I don’t remember much about it apart from the grotto and fire breathing dragon statue, but I do like a dragon (I don’t like the giant dragon tattoo on my thigh that I got when I was 18 from a heroin addict who would shoot up whilst he was tattooing me, but it’s far too big to remove, so I live with it, and compensate by having super cute tattoos on my other leg). I even bought my brother a little ceramic figurine of a dragon eating one of those bagel things I loved so much, which he attempted to “return” to me years later when he finally moved out of my parents’ house (the ungrateful little turd) by leaving it in my old bedroom.

Actually, it seems like most of what I did on this trip was shop. Although my face apparently isn’t very Polish looking, I guess my body must be, because the clothes they sold there seemed to fit my body shape oddly well, and I ended up buying some jeans that were my absolute favourite pair for years afterwards. My mother wanted me to bring her back a nativity set, and I did look, but they were all big and expensive, and when I got home and found out she never bothered to tell me that the transcripts I had ordered from my former uni had never arrived, delaying my already very late Master’s applications by another week, I was glad I hadn’t bothered.

I guess I must have done something other than the above, but I don’t remember what it was at this stage – I think mostly I was stressed out about having to go back home yet again, since I didn’t know if my MA applications would work out at that stage, and of course the applications themselves, so I wasn’t in the best of moods. Sadly, the weird experiences with old men and the sub-standard food (apart from the bagels and ice cream) have put me off from returning to Poland – frankly, by the time I left, I could see why my great-grandparents got the hell out, but I’m probably being unfair. Maybe I should give it another go eventually, though if anything, I probably look even more like a vampire/witch than I did back then (if that was the issue with the old men!).

Budapest 2008

I mentioned at the end of my EuroTrip 2007 series that although I missed out on most of my planned Eastern European itinerary in the summer of 2008 due to deciding to apply to Master’s programmes in London, I did manage to visit Budapest and Krakow. I didn’t keep a journal this time around, so although there were plenty of memorable events, I might have them out of order since the chronology is a bit harder to keep straight without daily journal entries to guide me. I flew directly from London to Budapest, and I remember getting money out of a cash point at the airport and being fascinated by forints, as it was my first travel outside the EuroZone in Europe, apart from Britain (the first time I went backpacking, I took some traveller’s cheques, as advised by most travel guides at the time, only to realise that almost no one used them anymore. This time, I got smart and got a debit card for cash withdrawals, even though I’m sure the fees were astronomical).

I was staying in a hostel called Carpe Noctem (which looks like it’s still around), which I initially really liked because it was run by a bunch of chill British people and had a comfy couch and little library in the reception area where you could curl up with a book. However, I had an incident fairly early on in my trip when I was hanging out on my bed in the co-ed dorms reading a book during the day, and some guy from California came in and started talking to me. He was kind of creeping me out, but we were alone in the room so I was trying to be friendly so he didn’t turn all angry and rapey (because this is the kind of shit women have to do), but it didn’t really work, because he suddenly walked over, scooped me up onto his lap, and started trying to slobber all over my neck. I had to physically fight my way out of his arms and push him off of me, and as I left the room, he made some creepy comment about catching me that night. Now, I don’t remember why I didn’t report this to the people who ran the hostel, or if I did and they didn’t do anything about it, but regardless, I now had to spend a night in a room with this guy, and I was absolutely terrified (I don’t know why I didn’t just change hostels, but my mind worked in weird ways back then). So I befriended this British guy in the bed next to mine, and begged him to keep an eye out for me in the night in case anything happened. I ended up going to a bar with this British guy and a few other people from the hostel until late (I remember he kept talking about how much he loved British milk, and how much better it was than milk anywhere else, and I don’t even like milk, so I wasn’t disagreeing with him, but he still wouldn’t shut up about it), even though I was quite tired and I just wanted to go to bed, since I was trying to avoid creepy guy. I stayed up late the next night too, and ended up getting sucked into reading Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, since it was one of the books on the shelf in the reading nook, which led to me becoming obsessed with Murakami for a number of years afterwards (which probably made me insufferable to the people around me). Fortunately, California creeper left after the first couple of nights, and I was able to avoid seeing him again by staying up late enough that he was asleep by the time I went to bed, and getting up early and staying out of the room during the day, but I really should not have had to deprive myself of sleep because of that jerk.

Fortunately, after Cali creeper left, he was replaced by a nice Welsh guy named Jamie and his friend (maybe girlfriend?) Cassie, and I spent a fair bit of time hanging out with them. We went to the House of Terror together, which is a museum about the horrors of communism in Hungary (I don’t remember much about it, other than it being really depressing), and to Body Worlds, which happened to be in Budapest at the time, and ate a lot of Wok to Walk, which Jamie, a fellow vegetarian, was obsessed with (they just did takeaway stir fries, hence the name. I think there’s a few in London). They were both there to attend Sziget, which I had never heard of, not being much for music festivals. However, after listening to them rave about it, I decided to give it a go, and bought a day pass for a random day, since I had no idea who was playing.

Sziget takes place on an island in the middle of the Danube, and I got a tram there with a couple of people who worked at the hostel who were also going (I became MSN Messenger friends with the guy, and he sent me increasingly pervy messages that I eventually stopped responding to for a year or so after). As soon as I got there, I realised had made a huge mistake. I had only been to one festival before, which was a punk festival that took place in the basement of a Unitarian church in Philly, and that was ok because you could stay in a hotel and just wander around the city if you didn’t like the bands playing that day, but Sziget was the full muddy fields festival experience, and I was so not into it. Also, the headliner that day was REM, who I loathe, and before them were bunch of crappy NuMetal bands, including the singer from System of a Down, and it was not my scene at all. Still, I tried to make the best of it, and split a bucket of Jagerbomb with the woman from the hostel, which was fortunately pretty weak, so I didn’t have a repeat of my usual Jager experiences (like in Munich), and found a tent of obscure ska bands that were at least playing a type of music I liked, even though I didn’t know any of the songs. I was starving, and the only vegetarian option seemed to be langos, which they were selling at a load of stands (basically a savoury elephant ear), but they were all topped with sour cream, which makes me gag, and I was worried my attempts to tell them I didn’t want it would be lost in translation. So, I was thrilled when I found a kurtoskalacs stand instead, which was frankly the highlight of the whole day (if you haven’t had one, it’s basically like a sugared cinnamon roll-esque bread that’s cooked slowly on a spit so all the sugar caramelises on the outside. So delicious). I haven’t been to a festival since, though I have eaten kurtoskalacs every chance I’ve gotten!

I also went to the castle in Buda one day by myself, and I seem to remember it taking hours to walk there from where I was staying in Pest, so that I’d pretty much lost the will to live by the time I arrived. I mainly wanted to see the labyrinth, but it was not where my map indicated it should be at all, and whilst I was looking for it, some obnoxious American tourists started making fun of me. I don’t know if they thought I couldn’t understand English, or if they just didn’t care, but I wasn’t bold enough at that stage in my life to tell them where to stick it, so I just gave up on the labyrinth and wandered away from them so I didn’t have to listen to their jerkishness. I do remember the castle being fairly empty apart from them, though, which was definitely different from when I was in Budapest a couple of years ago and it was absolutely heaving.

I’m sure I must have done more, but that’s really all I remember from that particular trip. On a positive note, I did stay friends with Jamie for a number of years afterwards (we’re still Facebook friends, but he moved to Sweden a few years ago, and I’d kind of fallen out of touch with him a while before that) – he stayed with me once when he was visiting London, and we shamelessly cheated on a pub quiz and won a bottle of wine, which was a blast, and though he and Cassie weren’t together for long after that trip (actually, I was never totally clear on whether they were dating, or just friends. It may have been the latter), I did meet up with her once shortly after moving to London to see a Jack the Ripper exhibition at Museum of Docklands, which was also really fun. On the whole though, I enjoyed Budapest much more when I went with Marcus in 2018, since I didn’t have to deal with any creepy guys, and we ate a lot more cake! I’ll talk about Krakow next week.

EuroTrip 2007: The Aftermath

Celebrating my 22nd birthday after returning home. Don’t ask me why one of the 2 candles is backwards – I didn’t put my own candles on!

And just like that, my fabulous adventure was over, and normal life resumed. I had to go back to my awful boyfriend and my boring life, and pretend like all of this hadn’t happened. My jerk boyfriend certainly wasn’t interested in hearing about my travels, and my family were pretty sick of me as well, so we just started getting in more fights than ever. The only Master’s programme I had ended up getting into was my safe choice, the university where I had done my BA, and though I liked the history department there very much, I couldn’t bring myself to commit to spending another two years in Ohio. So, I deferred enrolment for a year whilst I tried to figure it all out, and got a job in the department store nearest my house because it felt like less of a commitment than trying to find something that might have actually used my degree; plus in those days no one would hire you for an office job with facial piercings and weird colours in your hair, and my appearance was more important to me than gainful employment (I’m happy that the world has at least evolved to the point where I don’t have to choose between them anymore!).

Unfortunately, this was probably the worst job I’ve ever had, and there’s a lot of competition for that honour. It paid $3 less per hour than the department stores in malls, but because I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t get to anywhere better paying, and they treated us like absolute crap. You weren’t allowed to sit down at any point, except during your half hour lunch (if anyone ever says “if you have time to lean, you have time to clean” to me again, I might punch them in the face), and one of the managers thought I was stupid because of the way I looked and because I wasn’t familiar with her obscure retail terminology, having never worked at a department store before, and she spoke to me in this real condescending way, like I was a moron (she was shocked when I eventually told her I was quitting to do a Master’s, since she didn’t even think I was capable of getting a Bachelor’s). And don’t get me started on the customers and the disgusting things they did to our fitting rooms! The only things that made it bearable were a few of the other employees I made friends with, and the fact that it minimised the amount of time I had to spend with my parents. This was obviously not a sustainable way of life, and things with jerk boyfriend were worse than ever. He had started working second shift, and had taken to picking me up afterwards at 11:30 at night, when I would be expected to cook him dinner. He would eat it, drink some beer, and then immediately fall asleep, and then get super angry when I tried to wake him up to take me back home – one time he threw me across the room, and he claimed he was still asleep and didn’t know what he was doing, but considering this was the same man who used to shoot me in the ass with a BB gun whilst laughing hysterically as I tried to run away (I was genuinely terrified he was going to shoot me in the face), I don’t believe that for a second. Asshole knew exactly what he was doing.

That November, World/Inferno came through town, and though I was super pumped to see them, I was definitely not on the guest list as promised, possibly because of an unfortunate incident where I took ‘shrooms again and sent a long rambling email to Jack Terricloth about how much his music meant to me, having obtained his personal email address from Dan and Ed. This is also possibly why I never heard from Dan and Ed again. No matter, I still went to the show and befriended their photographer, Konstantin, and ended up working the merch table with him during the opening acts, and I basically thought I was the coolest person ever when various acquaintances walked by and saw me sitting there. The band invited me to hang out with them after (Jack clearly didn’t realise I was the person who sent the email), so I told the person I had gotten a ride with to go ahead and leave without me, and I was on top of the world until I realised they only asked me because they wanted someone local to tell them where to score cocaine. I have never done hard drugs in my life, and though I knew of people who did, I certainly was not about to procure drugs for anyone, so I had to call my jerk boyfriend to come and pick me up from downtown Cleveland, and as you can probably imagine, he was not pleased. I did go to a couple World/Inferno shows after that, and I still like their music, but that was definitely the night when the infatuation started to end for me.

Since my entire life was even more miserable than before I had left for EuroTrip at this point (having seen that there was something better out there), I needed some form of escape, and that came in the form of Tim, the British art student I had met in Barcelona, who had left me the lovely handmade card and promised to keep in touch. We became Facebook friends, and it soon emerged that Tim had a bit of a crush on me, which led to us sending each other increasingly flirtatious messages over the following months. I took to staying up half the night just to talk to him when he got up in the morning, since it was the only time I could use the family computer without my parents hanging around. And I started saving up my crappy department store earnings, and planning on visiting him that summer. I thought since I would be in Europe anyway, I might as well go backpacking again, and started planning a trip through Eastern Europe this time (I still had some savings left after my first trip, and was basically stashing away everything I made, even though it wasn’t a lot). And I finally started to make some moves towards independence by trying to split up with horrible boyfriend (well, I thought we were broken up, but that clearly wasn’t his understanding of the situation) and reconnecting with my old friend Kim, who I had known since kindergarten, and was absolutely joined at the hip with all throughout middle school and high school until I started dating jerk boyfriend, who drove us apart early in our relationship because she tried to tell me how awful he was. I’m happy to say that we were able to rekindle our friendship, and remain close friends to this day, even though we only get to see each other a couple of times a year.

And so June rolled around, and I put that whole awful year behind me as I prepared to embark on a second EuroTrip. Tim still lived with his parents, so he had found some friends I could stay with in Romford for the week I was planning on visiting, who generously let me crash on their very comfortable couch that you can see me pictured with, above. We had a great time that week – or at least, I did. I didn’t realise that British people bought each other rounds (it’s not as common in America, plus jerk boyfriend usually just bought all my drinks), so I thought everyone was just treating me on account of being a visitor, totally oblivious to the fact that they were all probably silently seething because I never bought any of them a drink in return, but were far too polite to say so. I thought they were all really lovely people because they had never met an American before and seemed really interested in me and my life. I also didn’t realise that I was coming on a bit strong for Tim, who had become very religious over the course of the past year, and was intending to become a minister. I think my heathen ways were a bit much for him, because despite all the intense flirting, our in-person relationship basically consisted of a few make-out sessions, and in retrospect, he made it pretty clear he wanted to get rid of me after that.

Unfortunately, I was completely unaware of all of this at the time, and decided that because I loved London so much this time around, I should try to move there, which I could most easily do by getting a student visa. So I decided to forego most of my Eastern Europe trip, and instead spent time researching Master’s programmes and getting applications ready, and basically invited myself to stay for another week at Tim’s friends’ house. I had actually become friends with two of them by this point, and they weren’t that bothered, but the other housemates clearly were, and sort of passively aggressively tried to get me to leave, but since they wouldn’t actually kick me out, and I was real bad at reading signals, I just stayed on until I had taken care of all the school related stuff, and then left to return to Cinque Terre for a bit, and finish off the last portion of my intended holiday by visiting Budapest and Krakow (I might talk about that trip in another post since I don’t see myself wanting to hop on public transport to visit a museum any time soon, even though I know some are reopening in July, so I won’t say any more about it now).

When I got back home in July, I did not have time to mope around, because I was a woman on a mission! I applied to four different MA programmes in London, and to my amazement, got in to all of them, even though they were mostly with better schools than the ones I had been rejected by in America (it’s amazing how that hefty overseas student fee gives you a foot in the door), and started the student visa process in August. For September admission. I couldn’t decide between three of the programmes (metropolitan history at the University of London, a creative nonfiction writing course at City, and early modern history at King’s College London) until Lucy, the programme convenor at King’s, had a word with the British consulate in Chicago to get them to rush my application through, and as she had also been really lovely to me on the phone, I decided that was the programme for me. I literally didn’t know if I would be able to go or not until the middle of orientation week, when my visa finally came through, and I booked a flight for the next day, broke up with jerk boyfriend again (he had been harassing me over the phone, as he still seemed to think we were together), and packed my life into two suitcases to start again in London.

At the airport with my brother before moving to London.

This was without a doubt the scariest and most stressful thing I had ever done, but I rushed into it without giving myself time to think, and I was fine (for a while, until the adrenaline started to wear off). There hadn’t been any student housing available due to my late admission, so I booked a room in a hostel to live in until I managed to find a place. After two weeks of frantic house hunting using the Spareroom website, I settled on sharing a terraced house with a group of people my age in Elephant and Castle (chosen mostly because the room was the biggest and cheapest by far of all the ones I looked at, it was an easy bus journey to King’s, and because Toby (one of the housemates) and I shared a mutual love of Bruce Campbell). Unfortunately, I’d inadvertently burned bridges with Tim et al (he definitely thought I was moving there on account of him, which was not the case, but I can certainly see how he would have been creeped out if that’s what he thought), and I didn’t befriend anyone in my MA programme either (they’d all already bonded during the orientation week that I’d missed, and though I tried to make friends by going to the pub with them after class, I gave up after overhearing one of them telling everyone else not to tell me about the party she was planning because she didn’t want to have to invite me. It’s one thing if people don’t like me after they get to know me, because I know I’m opinionated and certainly not to everyone’s taste, but these people didn’t even know me, and I hate not being given a chance. Takes me right back to being bullied in elementary school), so it was lucky I had my housemates, one of whom was Marcus. Thanks to tequila and Futurama (it’s a long story), we got together about two months after meeting, and have been together ever since. And I’m still good friends with Toby too. In many ways, that first year here was one of the most difficult emotionally of my life (I thought once I got out of Cleveland, all my problems would magically be solved, and had a bit of a breakdown when I realised that wasn’t the case), but I made it through, and things eventually got a lot better (and awful ex finally got the message when I started dating Marcus and told him I was applying for a working visa after I finished my course. I had no plans to move back to Cleveland, at least not if I could help it). There are many more stories I could tell about that year, but I think I’ll leave it there for now with the whole EuroTrip 2007 series, on a sort-of happy ending, and talk about something a bit different next week.

EuroTrip 2007: Amsterdam

Amsterdam was the last stop on my backpacking adventure, and being well aware of what the city had to offer, I made sure to allocate myself a full five days here. This was during my relatively brief pothead phase, which basically lasted from the age of 20 until I stopped dating my jerk boyfriend, since his brother grew it and could always be counted upon to ensure I had a steady supply (said brother has since done time in prison for vehicular manslaughter whilst high on cocaine, but I wouldn’t use this as an argument that weed is a gateway drug, since his brother never actually smoked it himself, he just sold it). But I digress, let’s get back to the more cheerful subject of Amsterdam. Just a heads up that there is a LOT of soft drug use throughout this post – I’m not advocating it, just being honest about what happened at the time.

I was due to meet Dan and Ed, the World/Inferno roadies, the day after I arrived in town, so I decided to wait to begin the weed-smoking until I had some company, and instead rented a bicycle and attempted to navigate my way around town. I had never done city cycling before, and the idyll didn’t last very long, because within a matter of hours: I managed to get spectacularly lost and then got screamed at by some woman when I stopped to consult a map, as I apparently wasn’t far enough off the bike path when I stopped; got yelled at by several more people for not going fast enough (because I didn’t want to get lost again); and almost died when I got the front wheel of my bike lodged in a tram track with a tram fast approaching (I managed to get it free in time (obviously), but making tram tracks the exact thickness of a bike tyre in a city like Amsterdam seems like a recipe for disaster). After that, I rapidly decided a bike was not the form of transport for me, but as I had rented the bike for four days, I was for some reason too embarrassed to return it so soon (why did I care what the bike rental place thought of me?), so I just chained it up securely to a railing, and basically abandoned it until I had to return it.

Because I had originally planned on cycling everywhere, I had booked a hostel quite far out of town, but after I put the kibosh on the whole bike idea, I decided to move somewhere a bit closer after the first night, and found a place that was still outside the centre (because the places in the middle of Amsterdam were expensive!) but was a reasonable walking distance away from all the action, and then headed out to meet up with Dan and Ed. It was a very cold and rainy day, and I soon found myself smoking weed with them in a dirty wet alley (don’t ask me why we didn’t just smoke it in one of the many, many cafes dedicated to that purpose). As our two previous meetings had been relatively short, I got a chance to know them better (doing Class B drugs together will facilitate that) and quickly discovered I preferred Dan, who was shorter and quieter, to Ed, who was sort of gawky and geeky, and was frankly a bit of an embarrassment once he was high (despite my extremely low alcohol tolerance, I had a strangely high weed tolerance, and definitely thought that I wasn’t being annoying, though I’m sure I was). Nonetheless, they came as a pair, so I went with them to eat noodle bowls, and then to a cafe where we smoked some more and I ate a space muffin. At some point, we decided to wander through the red light district (depressing), and ended up in the Erotic Museum, where I took the only pictures in my entire stay in Amsterdam, other than the one from the boat tour you can see at the start of the post, but because the photo involved me hugging a giant penis, you will not be seeing it (not so much on account of the penis, but because I look awful).

The next day, I started smoking early, before I had even met up with Dan and Ed, and after we met, I drank a strawberry space shake and smoked some hash, so I was pretty far gone and just wanted to sit down somewhere, which led to us taking a boat tour of the canals. Unfortunately, there was a German guy on the tour who was even higher than I was, and he spent the whole time screaming things in German in an annoying falsetto voice and then laughing hysterically, so I couldn’t wait to get off. I tried to take an upper to counteract all the marijuana in my system, but eventually decided it was a losing battle, and retired to my hostel room with a load of snacks procured from a nearby health food store (including really delicious seitan broodjes), with plans to meet up with Dan and Ed again that evening. But when I went back into town to our arranged meeting place, feeling much better after a nap, they never turned up (and in the age of no mobiles and no internet unless you had access to a computer, the only thing I could do was go to their hostel and leave a message at the front desk telling them I’d be at the same meeting place the next morning, if they fancied meeting then), so I thought, “screw it, I’ll just do some ‘shrooms instead,” and bought myself a big old box.

Despite my proficiency with weed, I had never done ‘shrooms before, and didn’t really know what to expect. In a total rookie move, I ate half the box, didn’t feel anything, so I ate the rest of the box and ended up the highest I’d ever been as a result. I couldn’t sleep at all that night because I was busy exploring the inner dimensions of my mind, and what the inner dimensions of my mind mainly contained was Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, after spending the past five weeks reading the books nonstop, so I found myself wandering through Discworld. God knows what the other people in my room thought of me, but I was having a great time, at least until I went to the bathroom and looked in a mirror and my face freaked me out so much I had to just hold in my pee for the rest of the night, rather than risk seeing myself again (as a side note, throughout the entire trip I had worn flipflops every single time I used a hostel toilet, including in the shower, because I lived in fear of getting a wart from someone else’s dirty feet. This night was the one time I went without flipflops, because I was too high to consider them, and I ended up developing a big painful plantar wart on the bottom of my foot shortly after returning home. Took me months to get rid of it – I tried everything, and the only thing that worked was sticking a piece of duct tape to the bottom of my foot for a couple of months until the whole wart, including the surprisingly deep core, just peeled off with the tape. So satisfying! As a bonus, my stinky foot marinating away in the duct tape produced one of the most disgusting smells I’ve ever smelled, and I used to chase my brother around the house with the used pieces of tape, because I am a jerk).

After a completely sleepless night, it was time to meet up with the guys, per the message I had left at their hostel the night before, so I dragged myself out of bed in case they turned up this time. They were there, and it turns out the reason they hadn’t appeared the night before was because they had also decided to do ‘shrooms, and were too high to leave their room. So we were all in a bad state, and tried to compensate by taking more uppers and some “herbal XTC” they had acquired, which basically just upset my stomach and made me really emotional, which was unfortunate as we were headed for the Van Gogh Museum, and Van Gogh makes me sad at the best of times. I basically spent most of the time crying at how much beauty Van Gogh saw in the world, despite his difficult life. I felt pretty ill by that point, so went back to my hostel to have a nap and a shower (and let’s be honest, to have access to a toilet for my diarrhea, because those pills destroyed my stomach and I didn’t want a repeat of Paris), and came back out that evening to go get a pizza with Dan (Ed kept insisting he didn’t want to eat in a restaurant, and I was equally adamant that the pizza from street food vendors in Amsterdam tasted like potatoes, and I wanted a proper Italian pizza, so just Dan and I went) and then met back up with Ed to say goodbye to both of them, as they were headed to London the next day to rejoin World/Inferno. We promised to stay in touch, but I never saw or heard from them again.

On my last full day in Amsterdam, I was really upset about my trip ending, and was ready for a physical transformation so everyone could see how I felt I had changed inside as a result of the trip, so I headed to a hair stylist I had encountered on the street soliciting business a few days before, which would typically not be a good sign, but this guy was crazy in the best possible way and gave me exactly what I wanted at the time – short and spiky black and purple hair. After buying some last minute souvenirs, I got another space shake and smoked two bowls of weed, and then ate way too many candy bars and gave myself a stomachache again. I also had to retrieve my bike from where I had left it so I could return it and get my deposit back, and miraculously, it was still there! (It was very obviously a rental bike, with the logo of the rental company welded to the frame, so I don’t think anyone wanted it, frankly.) And then it was time to spend my last night in a hostel before heading back home.

Because this post is already ridiculously long, and I feel like I can’t just end the journey here (and most museums aren’t going to be opening any time soon, so I have plenty of time to keep waffling), I’ll explain what happened after I got home and how I ultimately ended up moving to London in next week’s post.

Me and my new hairstyle shortly after I returned home. I had poison ivy on my face at the time, which is what the weird rash is.

 

EuroTrip 2007: Liege and Bruges

Arriving in Liege after a long and complicated train journey, I was immediately struck by how cold and rainy it was for June, especially as I’d become accustomed to the heat of Southern Europe. I was also slightly taken aback by the ugliness of their train station, which was still under construction. I managed to catch a bus to my hostel, despite the driver not understanding me when I asked if the bus went where I needed to go, and spent as much time as I could be bothered wandering the town and eating waffles and chocolate, though I was thoroughly unimpressed with Liege (this trip was the beginning of my hatred of Wallonia, and my love affair with Flanders). But you may be wondering why I was there in the first place, especially since I took such an awkward journey to get there. The answer is of course World/Inferno, who you may recall were my favourite band at that time, and were playing a show there that night.

While hanging out at the hostel prior to the show, I started talking to a couple of Aussie guys who expressed an interest in coming to the show with me (maybe they had designs on me, I don’t know, but certainly nothing ever came of it), and I was happy enough to not have to find my way back late at night alone, so we all set off together, picking up some frites on the way. The venue was called CPCR, which apparently stands for the Centre PolyCulturel Résistances, which I’m guessing is some kind of anarcho collective not dissimilar to the venue in Paris, though this one was less weird, containing a bar, a kitchen, and a small show space in the back. When we arrived, the band were all sitting around a table eating soup, and I went full fangirl on Jack Terricloth, the singer, who was quite a bit older than me and not an attractive man by any stretch of the imagination (he was balding and had black teeth), but I loved his voice so much that I was super excited to talk to him and give him some British change I had knocking around, since they were heading to England next, and he promised to put me on the guest list the next time they came to Cleveland, which I was thrilled about (never happened, but I’ll explain more about that in a future post). And I got to meet up again with Dan and Ed, the roadies I had befriended in Paris. I loved this show even more than the one in Paris, probably because Jack specifically mentioned me on stage a handful of times (it was a fairly small crowd, so it wasn’t really as impressive as I thought it was), and I waltzed with Dan, who, unlike the Frenchman in Paris, did not urinate on my feet, so that was a definite improvement! Dan and Ed had a week off before heading to Britain with the band, and since we were all getting along so well, we agreed to all meet in Amsterdam in a few days’ time.

After an uneventful remainder of the night in Liege, I gratefully left the city and set my sights on Bruges, which had similarly crappy weather, but it was so pretty, especially after Liege, that I didn’t really care. I was pretty unimpressed with my hostel when I saw it, particularly the shower facilities, but I was kind of used to being smelly at this point in the trip, so I wasn’t too bothered about going a couple of days without showering, and instead headed out to explore the town. I had more frites (sans mayo, which is the devil), and discovered my favourite soda of all time, Fanta Pomelo, which unfortunately turned out to be a limited edition flavour that only hung around for a couple of years (I have found on subsequent visits that Schweppes sells an Agrumes soda in Belgium that is similar but not quite as good – my kingdom for a delicious pink grapefruit soda!), and ate more waffles and chocolate (when in Belgium). I ended up at Dumon, which is apparently recommended by Rick Steves, but for once the man got it right, because I LOVE their chocolate. I’ve gotten at least a kilo box of it every time I’ve been back to Bruges, and excitingly, Marcus found a place in Chiswick that sells it and got me a box for Valentine’s Day (though they’re not even doing mail order since lockdown started, so I’m shit out of luck for now), and on this occasion, I picked up a box for myself and one for my grandpa, which I stashed in my locker back at the hostel, and endured a sleepless night thanks to the guy snoring like a chainsaw in the bunk below mine.

The next day, I wearily headed out into the cold again to check out the produce and flower market in the Markt, which was very quaint, though I would have liked it even better if it had been the day for the weird antiques market that I discovered on a return visit. I also went to St. Jan’s Hospital Museum, because I had read in my guidebook that it was formerly a plague hospital, and how could I pass that up? Nowadays, it is mainly an art museum, but I was given an English audioguide that talked about its plague-ridden past, and there was a death cart that they used for the bodies inside the museum, so I was still pretty happy with my visit. I then went to the Halve Maan brewery for the tour, since it’s an obligatory Bruges kind of thing (you can read about the tour I took a few years ago here) and ate yet more frites and some ice cream (which I suspect might have been from Da Vinci Gelateria, which still has my favourite ice cream in the city). All in all, it was quite a pleasant day…and then I returned to the hostel.

If you were hoping the scatalogical stories were over with, I’m going to have to disappoint you here, but I think this was the last incident of the trip. That night, I was having a beer in the hostel bar, when an Australian guy I recognised as the human chainsaw in the bunk beneath me approached me and tried to hit on me. I rebuffed him, and asked if he could try very hard not to snore so much tonight, as I wasn’t able to get much sleep the night before. Well, he was clearly already completely pissed and instead wrapped me up in a big smelly bear hug I had to fight my way out of, and offered to buy me a drink in apology. I again rebuffed him and made another angry comment before heading upstairs to try to get some sleep before his drunk ass rolled into bed.

At some point in the middle of the night, Snores McGee came in and passed out and started snoring like a chainsaw again. I was already ready to kill him at this point, when the unthinkable happened. He jumped up, and started puking up spaghetti in the middle of the room. It was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever seen. The strands of pasta were stuck in his throat, and he was standing there gagging and pulling them out and dropping them on the floor. He left the mess there, and returned to bed, starting to snore again almost immediately. Whilst this was happening, I reached down from my top bunk and pulled my bag, which was sitting on the floor, onto my bunk with me, so it remained clean, but some of the other people in the room who somehow managed to sleep through this were not so lucky, and their luggage was covered in vomit. I just sat there for an hour in total disbelief, not really knowing what to do as I would have to walk through his puke to find someone to clean it up, and I really did not want to do that.

As if this wasn’t bad enough, he then woke up again, and puked twice more, again, all over the floor, with no attempt to even leave the room. This time, it woke up an American guy who had a top bunk across the room from mine, and we just sat there staring at each other in horror whilst this was taking place. The room was equipped with six or eight sets of bunk beds, with an extra single bed on the floor, which a Mexican guy had to sleep on because there was no room in the bunks. While we looked on aghast, the puker started violently farting, and all of sudden, abruptly pulled down his pants and took a shit right on the Mexican guy’s duvet while the poor guy was sleeping under it (and how he managed to sleep through it, I will never know). At that point, the shitter ran out of the room and fortunately, the door locked behind him (I later found out that he had also smeared shit down the walls of the corridor and on the outside of our door). Somehow, the American guy and I were still the only ones awake who had seen the whole thing, and we had to wake up the poor Mexican guy who was still innocently slumbering away with a giant turd on his duvet, so the American guy, who was closer, shook him a bit with his foot and told him to get up because there was shit on his bed. He was still half asleep, but it obviously sunk in when he saw the turd, because he freaked out and threw the duvet across the room, as would anyone in that situation. In the meantime, the shitter had returned from his fecal depredations of the hostel and started pounding on the door to be let back in. Well, that woke up some more people, but I kept telling everyone to not let him in under any circumstances, as he had desecrated the room. After an hour of straight pounding on the door and yelling, one guy couldn’t take it any more and let the shitter in, where he immediately collapsed back into his bunk and started snoring again. I have never been so angry and disgusted in my life, and I couldn’t even complain without getting puke on my feet!

The next morning, the puke was still on the floor, so I had to just suck it up and step down on the least vomity part in my flipflops to head down for breakfast, not that I had much of an appetite. There, I encountered the guy whose duvet had been shit on, and we discussed the awful night before. He said, “I thought it was a bad dream, but I woke up, and the shit, it was real!” which is one of my favourite quotes ever. The shitting chainsaw got kicked out of the hostel, but as it was my last night there anyway, it didn’t do me much good, and the owner also made him clean the room, all the luggage he had puked on, and forced him to take the duvet to the laundromat, though I was personally disgusted that they would even try to reuse it at this point. If it wasn’t already obvious from the awful showers, that was a clue that the hygiene standards of this establishment were not the highest, as was the fact that when I went to pack up the chocolate I’d put in my locker, I found out it had been gnawed by rats, and I had to go buy more before I left. I would tell you not to stay there, but I can’t remember the name of it, and I would sincerely hope it no longer is in business anyway! (Lest you think all establishments in Bruges are like that, every place I’ve stayed since I’ve been back has been very nice, so maybe just stick to hotels and avoid the hostels!) Surprisingly, this experience did not put me off Bruges, since as you may have gathered from my asides, I have returned a few times (and have been to Belgium probably more than any other European country – I really love Flanders) – the chocolate, waffles, and prettiness of the town overrode the awfulness of that night – though it did very much put me off hostels! The next post will cover Amsterdam, which is now all a bit of a blur, for reasons which will not surprise you.