A year ago I took a brief trip to Europe. Here’s what I wrote upon my return, late 2015.
In mid August I boarded a flight bound for England, the start of my two month trip to Europe. Months prior I decided to finally buy a ticket, thinking it was about time. Friends had gone, I’d listened to stories, seen the pictures. Time to go, let’s see what it’s all about. Sheepishly and nervously I boarded my first international flight on my own, without any real expectations. Over 24 hours later I stepped off the tube and out onto Borough High Street in London. It was oddly warm and humid but that aside the city slacked my jaw: huge, busy, crowded, rushed. It was all surreal for a suburban Melbourne boy, and it was the start of my brief sojourn.
My first night in a mixed dormitory was marked by the scene of an Englishman having his bed pissed on by a very sleepy German. The accusations and the perp’s defence woke me. Did you piss on my bed?! The lights turn on to reveal the crime scene, dripping wet. The offending chap could neither definitively say it was or wasn’t him and it took some wrestling with the hostel manager on deck to get him out of bed to face the music. ‘You know,’ he said to the incredulous manager, ‘you can’t really prove it was me’. A Frenchman pipes up, annoyed at the disturbance. The German’s colleagues apologise on their friend’s behalf, despite his denials. Ordered out onto the street, gone, no bed, evicted. Glad to have watched this from a top bunk where my chances of being marked were slim (and gladder still to see that he had at least the courtesy to piss on the foot of the bed, not the head) I wonder if this is one of the first silly nights among many. Yes, yes sir. Yes it will be.
Apart from the drinking that wouldn’t really stop until I left Tullamarine, I set about my site seeing. I travel to Oxford for a day and take a walk through Balliol, the college of the late and great Christopher Hitchens. I sit in the Eagle and Child for an average fish and chips, the same place where Tolkein and C.S. Lewis sat to discuss their writing. The physical closeness and timely distance to and from the great and historical would become a constant thread, and one is consistently reminded of it. My guide at Oxford, Ian, an elderly man whose enthusiasm appeared endless, pointed out Tony Abbott’s old college and upon discovering my nationality, teased me for it. (This wouldn’t be the last time I couldn’t escape from the embarrassing turd: in my journal I would write every so often of any recent attempts at governance or leadership, although it would all turn to glee in the coming weeks when in Prague I learn of Turnbull’s coup.) I catch up with a friend and make a trip to Cambridge. Buckingham Palace’s apparent majesty is lost on me, made unimpressive by its hereditary principles, and paled compared to Westminster. The House of Commons seems even smaller than you’re told beforehand, and this makes it all the more impressive as a house of debate. The busts and statues of the greats line the halls and intersections, champions of politics, actual leaders—something I feel in wanting of.
Being so swamped in history I felt a slight disconnect with the here and now, but despite this I would be brought up to speed. After visiting Paris for three nights I booked a Thalys train service to Amsterdam, and it was a Thalys service that was only days prior, on the 22nd of August, boarded by a man who attempted to open fire with an AK47 before being subdued by off-duty American servicemen and others. The culprit managed to kill no one and was apparently dumbfounded at the terror charges laid against him. Though not at all scared because of this, I was reminded that a holiday doesn’t place you at that great a distance from world events.
Paris was more or less a city sized museum. I visit the Louvre, Versailles, see the Notre Dame, and cruise the Seine. A tour up to Montmart takes us through what has been known as the Bourgious Bohemian quarter of Paris. Or, in other words, home of the hipster. Mystique, an infamous street artist, once lived here and was broken up with and kicked out of her boyfriend’s apartment in the middle of August—the worst time to be homeless in Paris—and told he never wanted to see her again. So she stencil’s her face and paints it everywhere she knew he’d ever be, even his home. The loser fled, never to return to the city of love. My other favourite story is that of the Beloved King, a man loved by many and who lived to party. On the completion of the New Bridge he threw a party: wine for all! Once the supply was exhausted, it was champaign for all! He then commissioned his artist friend to sculpt the heads of all his drunken friends, all of which now adorn the New Bridge. This King, amongst all the other monarchs I learnt about, with at least 54 mistresses and over 30 illegitimate children, was quite the cheeky standout. My favourite.
Amsterdam struck me as the first city I’d imagine myself moving to. A bike ride through the city, particularly through the Jordaan district, revealed to me in full the pretty streets and handsome canals. I note in my journal that parts of it remind me of places like Brunswick back in Melbourne. I would later feel and write the same of Berlin, Kreuzberg in particular, decidedly and easily my favourite city. Funnily enough the two places that reminded me most of home were the one’s I warmed to most, where I could imagine living.
The Netherlands is also where I began the necessary moral education: a visit to the Anne Frank museum. Even after later visiting Dachau and Auschwitz, this was easily the most touching, tearjerking experience. Two details struck me hard. First was the preliminary room, blank apart from those four perfect pictures of Anne: laughing, smiling, happy, the pictures spread across one corner of the room, all on their own. Then there was the picture of Otto, Anne and Margot’s father, standing alone in what looks like their hiding place. Such a forlorn look in the eye, a sadness, alone there without a family that came so agonisingly close to emancipation. I couldn’t help but feel there was a man forever recalling. How many small moments must’ve passed before his mind’s eye. I write in my journal that day: ‘my heart could weep forever.’
I’m surprised to learn that Anne was born in 1929, the same year as Werner, my Opa—my grandfather, my mother’s father. It was with this in mind that I made my next visit to Freiburg, Germany, on the edge of the Black Forest. In the dying days of the war, Opa, only a teenager, was sent to the Western Front to face off the American tanks. Sent out in groups of three and under threat of punishment, he went out and was always the only one to return. At war’s end, he walked home, through the forest, through the hills. I took the Schauinslanbahn to the top of the mountain range and walked the paths, listened to the breeze running through the trees, touched the bark and the Earth in an unwitting ceremony of connection and left with two leaves placed in a book. My next stop was Friedrichshafen, Opa’s hometown on the edge of Lake Constance. Lacking any addresses, I attempt to gain at least an idea of the town, and it was just that: a small industrious population, home to one university campus. I had hoped to have a swim in the lake like my Opa must’ve done and before my hopes were dashed by the weather, I was encouraged by one of the students living in the apartment I was staying in. ‘You can’t not go in now that you’re here!’ Despite the odd looks from the locals, I wade in. Just a swim perhaps, but it’s the same lake Opa grew up by. Whether it means anything, I don’t know, but it felt necessary. A touching of bases, a loose connection despite separation, a brief dive into remembrance. I feel the cool rush of the water, the rocks beneath, and lying back my eyes are drawn to sun breaking through the clouds. I think of Opa and how strange it feels to think he died earlier this year. He lived a long and happy life, Anne did not. I take a couple of pebbles from the shoreline—a piece of Friedrichshafen for Mum.
Leaving behind the familial connection I travel to Munich, enjoy the beer, sit in Hoftbrauhaus for a pork knuckle and two litres of HB, and otherwise continue my backpacking as well as the education, paying a visit to Dachau, forerunner concentration camp for the Nazi’s. Why the gas chamber and crematorium if the killing was done beyond German borders? No one really knows for sure, apparently. After leaving the birthplace of Hitler’s popularity, I travel to Prague and was happy to stand on the same ground the Velvet Revolution made its stand on. I visit a monastery where monks undertook what was considered a sacred duty: the brewing of beer. It was the safest thing to drink, once upon a time. It was during my final hours in Prague that I learnt of Turnbull’s challenge and I knew that as soon as he made the pitch, he’d won. So much experience and political maturity means he’d know when to strike. It was all over for uncle Tone, and if there had been a time to drink to it it would’ve been right there and then but there was a night bus to catch. I write an ecstatic email home instead. In any case, much much more drinking is to be done at my next stop.
Budapest. Staying at a party hostel, I book for six nights but in the end I stay for nine. This is a common theme, I discover. For eight nights straight it was a party and I quickly empathised with those who told stories of arriving at the hostel a long time ago, planning only to stay for a couple of weeks but ending up staying for a year, two or even three. I’m reunited with my high school chum a few days in. Seeing an old friend is most welcome alongside the sea of new faces. There’s a spa party, a boat party, a karaoke night, ruin-bar pub crawls, and most memorably a beer bike. I learn here that it’s a very small world by running into a friend from Melbourne on the street at 2.30am. ‘Is that Luke Burns?’ I hear a voice to my side. I turn and we embrace, laughing at the coincidence. Some of the best people I met I met in Budapest—Buda-Fuckin-Pest—so it was with a slight pang that I left for Serbia. The night before I leave, two Mexicans check in to my dorm and upon learning of my next destination they are shocked, being concerned primarily for my safety. Irony always goes down well.
The wars of the 90’s and their closeness were obvious in Belgrade and especially so in Sarajevo. There was a slight hint of terseness from one tour guide when I asked how Serbians think of the wars, with the answer being they don’t, ‘we just want to move on.’ Another was more open to the topic suggesting the Serbs suffered too, although granted they weren’t invaded nor was there a Srebrenica equivalent committed in Republika Srpska and there is definitely no denying the plans for a greater Serbia under Milosevic. In Sarajevo the act of remembrance is strong and reminds me of the German tradition. The Srebrenica exhibit was thorough, though interestingly it isn’t at all supported by the government. Sarajevo Roses—fatal mortar impacts painted red—keep announcing themselves throughout the city. Bullet holes riddle building facades, houses still lie in ruin and one realises that many, if not most of the people walking the streets lived through the siege, were there, were shot at, targeted, and you can’t help but feel that the old man passing by looks slightly more weathered because of it. Youth unemployment here is at around 65% and our guide, who was just a boy at the time, taking us to the Olympic bobsled track and Serb sniper and tank positions, tells us that you only get work by making friends, connections, doing favours, that much could be solved by a constitutional change and, most obviously, much less corruption.
It wasn’t all war and bad economies. The befriending continued in both cities. Sarajevo is beautiful, a true melting pot: there is a real line in the stone that shows the Austro-Hungarian side and the Ottoman and my best meal was had in Belgrade, in a theatre styled restaurant with live classical music, made all the better by a more than favourable exchange rate. At this point, one becomes proficient in delivering a standardised, verbally efficient account of their trip and circumstances when meeting fellow travellers. Many I will never see again, and names become, because of this realisation, a passing detail.
I take a flight up to Krakow and, despite experiencing the worst hangover I’ve had for a couple of years, I make the most of it. There comes the eventual trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where I wasn’t necessarily surprised by any of the details, even those new to me. Made clear to me was the scale of the murder, made into a large-scale industrial process. In Krakow, a walking tour takes me through the old Jewish quarter of the city and we pass through sections and passages related to Oscar Schindler and the film. The guide makes sure to tell the group that it’s important to remember that the businessman at first took full advantage of the dispossessed before a change of heart.
Berlin is my final destination, and I saved the best until last. Again, I’m reminded of home as soon as I arrive in Kreuzberg and I arrive just in time for the Fall. By chance I find that a good friend is staying at my hostel and he tells me this is the place where he’s felt most at home, where he’s most able to be himself. A few days later I begin to think he’s onto something. It must be the diversity—in people, cuisine, music and art, all in a once divided city. I ride a bike along the East Side Gallery, I’m shown the underground art scene, I experience the Berliner nightlife (It’s easy to have fun in Berlin. In fact, one is offered fun in many forms as they walk certain streets and parks. Prices negotiable), and there is the history lesson at every turn: the marks left by the Third Reich, the catalogue of crimes and police terror in the Topography of Terror, and the Cold War. I’m amused by the story of the bronze Goddess of Victory that rides atop the Brandenburg Gate. When Napoleon took it as a war trophy it was known as the Goddess of Peace but when he then felt defeat the Germans took it back, renamed it Victory, and the Goddess now looks down on the French Embassy. Another detail. Thoughts of home started to resound in the last couple of weeks despite my fondness for the city. Happy to go home, sad to leave Berlin.
Befriending people came easily and I fell into the company of many fine people. Australians were everywhere and it was clear to me how small the world can be. I’d make friends with people who were friends of those I was yet to meet; I ran into friends from back home in the dead of night; there were unexpected rendezvous with others, and I even ran into the same person three times in three different cities (and would later see them on a Melbourne train, months later). The refugee crisis I largely missed, though the increased police presence here and there and the unexpected border checks were a reminder. I also learn niche things about myself: I prefer the Impressionist movement of the 19th and early 20th century rather than the ghastly aesthetic of the 16th and 17th century and in seeing the Van Gogh collection, I realise the similarities between painting and poetry. More details.
Tim Winton in his essay Thoughts on Landscape suggests we, Australians, have part of our consciousness still dominated by our geography. It’s still so wild, large, and at times menacing compared to Western Europe, relatively boxed in by mountains and cities. Our landscape still holds a profound place in Australian art because we’re yet to reign it in. During his time in the Old World, Winton found that the European cities cramped his constitution. He was too used to the long horizon and the untamed nature of the island continent. At first I didn’t feel this. I enjoyed the enclosure of the forests, the sight of Swiss Alps, the old and dominant architecture. Though towards journey’s end I began to feel the need for a hotter sun, a bigger sky, for the dry Australian air. The foreign allures, but the home country is still that.
I’ve heard people refer to such a trip as a right of passage for young Australians. Maybe it’s just a holiday. Whatever you want to call it, it would be, overall, an education in difference, an exercise in character development and indeed, perhaps a necessary one, for despite the grandiose natural world of our home continent we share no borders like many other states. We’re not entangled in a group of smaller nations, of huge language groups. Regardless, many of us tend to look beyond our shores, and young Australians seem typically drawn to the Old World.
It is a strange change of pace to be home again. I’ve woken several times not knowing where I am, more often than I did in Europe, and it’s odd to be alone again after being surrounded by others so often—over breakfast, along walks, over dinner, whilst going out. But it feels good, even after only two months away, to be home. Some details amiss, indiscretions and naughtier details aside, but there it is, my brief sojourn.