The sun was setting on my trip, and I still had another country to see. Crossing the border between Luxembourg and Germany, I noticed a lot more evergreens outside than I had seen during the rest of the trip. I pulled into Trier, intent on killing some time and hopefully scoring some German food. The town seemed rather sad in the late afternoon, and people were milling about outside the station somewhat aimlessly. The town had several kebab-shops, all of which offered some kind of schnitzel. I was eager to try it, but I only had around 10 Euro in my pocket, and I was determined to make it last till I got on the train. A schnitzel and a soda would have decimated my funds, so I opted for just a soda. The train to Trier lasted under an hour, but I knew that the trip was far from over. It was another three hours to Cologne, then a short jaunt into Dusseldorf, which would put me at my hotel well after midnight. I wanted so desperately to be able to sleep, I had even left Luxembourg on an earlier train in hopes of hitting the sack earlier, but this only made for a longer stop in Trier.
The sun quickly set on the Deutsche Bahn train, which I quickly realized was a local. It seemed as though I was the only passenger in my car going all the way to Cologne, and it got rather eerie as the train emptied around the fourth stop and stalked its way through the twilit Rhenish woods. The car became my own, more or less, and I popped in my earbuds, as I would have done if I were at home on a train into New York or Stamford. As Lorde lamented, track after track, her loss of youth, I wondered where I stood in this age-old continuum of, well, old age. This was country number 30, and I had already backpacked two of the biggest destinations for solo backpacking: Southeast Asia and Europe. Of course, I knew, my youth was not over. I could never be so silly. However, I did relate to Lorde’s placelessness. I had accomplished great things, impressive things, I told myself reassuringly. This is just one of many adventures to come. I began planning the next one, and the one after that, but couldn’t neglect that there must be some end to my drifting. One day, I will have to settle down. Hopefully, it’ll be by choice, but maybe it won’t be. The questionably young poet chanted “Ribs,’ to a mesmerizing beat:
The drink you spilt all over me
'Lover's Spit' left on repeat
My mom and dad let me stay home
It drives you crazy, getting old
This dream isn't feeling sweet
We're reeling through the midnight streets
And I've never felt more alone
It feels so scary, getting old
Does solitude age a man? After wandering alone, and growing in the process, I never considered if it was a fountain of youth, or else an elixir that somehow speeds up time? “Fuck,” I think, “Lorde is fantastic.” It had been awhile since I had felt music. Like really felt it. I mused at having traveled to country #30, completely alone yet fulfilled. My last Asia trip had been rough, and there were times when I thought this life wasn’t for me. And I realized it’s not. This life is for no one, much less me. But, I realized I do it for these moments: feeling a song, or tasting something new; speaking a new language or seeing something you’ve never seen. Much of my depression has stemmed from the feeling that I don’t belong. Each day I go to school, or to work, and it doesn’t matter to me. It’s not new, and the things that are get old really fast. Girlfriends become ex-girlfriends, and favorite restaurants become forgotten. That’s the solution I found: new countries never get old. As long as there are lands I have still left untrammeled, as long as there is a nation that’s new to me, there is still new life, and new things to live for.
Arriving in Cologne, I went into the food court and scored some currywurst. I was handed a roll, and a soggy hot dog sleeve with unevenly-cut bratwurst drenched in a spicy brown sauce. I hadn’t eaten since my spaetzle overdose, and my stomach had miraculously grown hungry again after hours of international train travel. I devoured the currywurst and the bread, and boarded my midnight train to Dusseldorf. It was only supposed to be 20 or so minutes, but it felt like an eternity. I had fulfilled the gustatory requirement for Germany, and longed to curl into a nice hotel bed and sleep as long as possible before my flight home. When we pulled into Dusseldorf, it was raining and the town seemed deserted aside from the occasional after-club couple and homeless man. The town was bathed in artificial neon light, and I truly regretted not being able to explore the Altstadt during the daytime. I arrived on the street of my hotel and couldn’t seem to find the building. The map said it was right next to a snackbar called “Fritten Piet,” but I couldn’t find a sign anywhere. I called the hotel owner 3 times, each time he picked up, yelled at me briefly, then hung up. He seemed quite irritated, but I feel like if you own a hotel, hiring a receptionist to open the door for late night arrivals is something one should invest in if he doesn’t want to be called late at night. He eventually buzzed me in, and I got my room key from a small vending machine-like box on the wall. I went upstairs and showered and finally drifted off to sleep.
The following morning, I awoke earlier than I would have liked, and grabbed a roll and something that I would only describe as ‘liquid meat spread.’ (Further research reveals that this is actually liverwurst, or ‘leberwurst’). Quite frankly, it was delicious and perfect breakfast to pair with spreadable cheese and an airport sparkling apple juice. I made it to the airport and to the gate with about fifteen minutes to spare, which I spent in the duty-free trying to find German chocolate. On a trip where it seemed I was never done killing time, it seemed it had all now been declared dead.
I arrived in front of the Gare Centrale, and had only a few hour to see the city of Luxembourg before catching a train across the German border. The station itself is an old stone and copper building with a glass awning in the front. I walked north and was presented with picturesque homes in a stunning, lush valley. I descended into the valley and over a lovely stream to Brasserie Rosso, which serves German, French, and Luxembourgish dishes in a courtyard environment. I got a local spaetzle with an assortment of meats, eggs, and onions with a beer. The clientele of the brasserie was fairly upscale, and with the diversity of languages in the country, it was difficult to definitively say if someone was a local or not. With a rock of spaetzle in my stomach, I attempted to leave the cafe and, as I was paying, an older German-speaking man began asking me questions. After saying several times that I did not speak German, I took a jar of candy from the counter and offered the man a soft fruit taffy. He seemed content taking one, and I paid and left. I had a gut full of the heaviest, cheesiest pasta I had ever eaten, and I struggled to climb the hills in the Grund district. Naturally, I was afraid I would spaetzle all over the curb, and when cyclists passed me on the near-vertical cobblestone incline I mustered all my strength to make it to the top of the steep street.
Walking through town, I came across a small green choo-choo driving through the streets of Luxembourg. Apparently, the Luxembourgish hop-on hop-off tourist bus system is modeled after some of the United States’ more tacky theme parks. I saw the stately, but slightly ominous, royal palace as well as the regal plaza of some Guillame II. Visitors to Luxembourg are most rewarded, however, by the sweeping views of the Alzette valley. I did not try to sleep over in Luxembourg, as I was already pushing my luck by stopping in the small nation and would have likely spent way more than I would have liked on lodging. It seemed a town full of toursits, people stopping by on their way to Germany, France, or Belgium, and I enjoyed the strange mix of languages. On my way through the town, the bells tolled in the cathedral, and I realized my time was up in Luxembourg, and I had exhausted many of the main sights. I caught the 18:33 out of the Gare Centrale to Trier.
London was, as it likely is for many Americans, the first major world-city I experienced outside of the United States. I disembarked my train at London-Euston from Holyhead in the late afternoon. With about 40 minutes until the British Museum closed, I ran downtown and was able to see the Rosetta Stone, and some of the Parthenon pieces on the ground floor, before museum curators cordoned off all the exhibits a hair after 5:20.
The Rosetta Stone is, one could say, a cornerstone of London. The British Museum is to London as the Statue of Liberty is to New York in many ways. Is Lady Liberty “American”? No, she is Parisian, originally, and she does not stand for established New Yorkers but for all Americans, even future Americans. There is some controversy that the Rosetta Stone belongs in Egypt, and that the U.K. has no rights to it. However, I disagree.
At the risk of using too many metaphors, the Rosetta Stone and the Statue of Liberty maintain their cultural relevance as bridges that span between cultures. New York has its harbor, its gateway that welcomes those from abroad not just to partake in the city’s local delights, but to add some new ones as well. Needless to say, with anti-immigrant sentiment bubbling up all over the west, it is always refreshing to see one of these human mosaics in action, be it in Brixton or Brooklyn. Any place where you can walk a block and overhear conversations in 3+ different languages is a beautiful place in my opinion.
I would not be surprised if the average Londoner were not ethnically English at all, but a mix of Syrian, Turkish, and/ or Indian. Waiting for the Tube, or strolling between Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square, one sees way more hijabs and bindis than one would expect.
Unfortunately, I got to see little of this side of London. This is the drawback for tourism in these ‘world cities’: sometimes there is no guidebook to their veritable worldliness. Want an architecture tour of London? Amazon will happily furnish you with any one of 374 books to suit your needs. Food more your interests? I can tell you with complete certainty as a library employee that every public library travel section has at least a dozen restaurant guides to London.
I would not expect someone on their first day trip to New York City to go to Jackson Heights for Indian food, or check out the Tenement Museum in the Lower East Side. If you have a hot dog or a slice of pizza, and make it to the Empire State building, I would say that is good enough. So, in the 22 hours I had in London, I saw the British Museum, Trafalgar, the Rosetta Stone, and Buckingham Palace, and sat down for fish and chips.
The establishment was called “Rock and Sole Plaice,” a fairly upscale (14.50-17.50₤ per plate) cafe-style spot with outdoor seating. There were no small tables available, so I was seated with a couple. I would say the man was in his early sixties, and his wife was in her late forties. He was English, dressed in the classic English all-white way that would indicate he was about to colonize a small third-world Asian country. He was born and raised in London, and his wife, it seemed, was some sort of Eastern European that was capable of tanning. Slovenian, perhaps, or maybe Albanian? When I asked where they were both from he just said “I’m from England, and she’s from… outside of the U.K.” Real specific. He had spent the last twenty or so years largely in the UAE as an architect, so he was not necessarily a close-minded English elitist. However, he made sure he scoffed several times at the idea of my Grand Tour. I have to agree, 8 countries in 9 days is difficult, and I admit I will not get to see nearly as much as I would like. In my defense, however, most do not even attempt to travel to some countries. How can one prioritize England over Ethiopia, or Ireland over Iran? I had fish and chips, and I saw Big Ben, though all but the clock-face was covered by scaffolding. Had I remained in London longer, I undoubtedly would have seen the scaffolding come off, only to go back up again for more repairs a few years later.
My point is that, at this point in my life, I don’t go on vacation to stay somewhere. For me, vacation means “always vacating the place prior for somewhere new.” While it seems lovely to hang out in a town for a bit, make pretend you’re English or Dutch, or Burmese, and taste everything there is to offer sounds lovely, it seems extremely luxurious. My dream to see every country as soon as possible, even if it means for less than a day, is largely a logistical feat given the little free time and relatively little money I have. But, it’s also a reasonably hedonistic feat as well. Who else could, or would even want to, engorge themselves with eight different cultures in less than a week and a half? Relatively few, and so that is why I do it.
My dinner date called it a “typically American” way of doing things, to skip around. This is probably fair. I would imagine Europeans tend to vacation more leisurely. Do they not get an entire month off in August? However, I would imagine they tend not to have the desire that I have to see more countries. Something is to be gained from, for example, reading and being well-versed in a handful of classic pieces of literature. But would there not be a separate value in reading, perhaps, the first and last chapters of every major work? What about if one were to simply read the Sparknotes of every available novel and play? He may not be classically “well-read,” but he’d be one hell of a Jeopardy contestant.
Breakfast in my hostel was comprised of toast, cereal, and juice. I could have gone out for bangers and mash (is that a breakfast food?), but with all the banging and mashing my stomach had done on the similar Welsh breakfast the day before, I stuck with bread and granola. Butter is very yellow in Europe. I don’t have anything to say about that, I just think it’s interesting. Buttered toast in hand, I tried to make it as far east as possible in the hopes of seeing Shakespeare’s globe, or the London Bridge. I had little luck. At Blackfriar’s station (a very English-sounding station name) I got caught in a terrible downpour. It would have been less terrible if I had remembered a raincoat (or even a sweatshirt or long-sleeved shirt), but I was able to make it to nearby Waterloo station and ride the tube to Victoria station without getting too soaked.
The Tube offers the best insight into the diversity of London, outshining the bland white tunnel tiles. In many ways, it is a bland, white city, but you have to dig. And where better to dig than underground? On Westminster bridge, immigrants con tourists unironically in games of three-card monty. This seems like an oldish English traditional, but it is clearly also new, and not English, like, at all. London is cliche, classic, and probably a little bit clandestine, too unless you know where to look. I did not, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of Londoners don’t either, just like how a lot of New Yorkers neglect to see their own city. I write from the choppy English Channel ferry restaurant, where rogan josh appears to be on the menu. My dad always said that, as a general rule, if you go to a country and they once conquered another country, then the annexed cuisine is likely quite good. Dover rogan josh here I come!
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.