“So how was your trip?”
People ask me that every time I come home.
I’ve spent 4-5 months in Europe every other year since I was 19 and I’ve done a Topdeck trip every time. When I was younger I used to try and list off the monuments we went to, the museums we visited, the food we tried, as in
“We saw the Coliseum, and went to the Bolshoi, toured Red Light District, did a day trip up the Alps, and had absinthe in Prague, chocolate in Belgium and vodka in Poland and so on.”
After my second trip I tried to answer by giving advice,
“The rail passes are too complicated and don’t bring too much luggage, photocopy your passport, you might need a neck pillow…” and so on.
When I got home this year, I wasn’t sure how to answer any more.
Now I say “ I don’t even know where to start.”
I’ve given up on listing churches and museums, pastas and pizzas, beaches and borders, showing endless photo books and GoPro footage or trying to tell other people how to travel. I don’t even bother to try explaining the inside jokes and nicknames (when you can’t even remember how people on the trip came to be called Dick-Tummy Rob and Tw*t-Stamp Tim) and bus mascots and theme songs that only make sense if you were there.
I do not possess the words to describe the actual experience or the feelings I had on those trips, in the way that you can’t entirely express friendship, joy, camaraderie, confusion, discovery, or even love, with words on a page. I do know that I shared those experiences with three busloads of (mostly Australian) people all of whom have an eternal place in my memory, and a few who have a place my heart.
Instead of telling you how awesome and fun it is or recounting in minute detail every walking tour and group dinner and theme party and bus ride, I am just going to recount what stands out to me in my memory from a mix of three trips over five years covering all of Eastern Europe, Italy and Russia.
I was so young the first time I left for Europe. So excited that I took a plane alone, got myself a British phone (a sort of off-brand Blackberry camera phone, at the time I thought it was the coolest thing) and successfully met the group in Prague. I was 19, and a bit pale from the Canadian winter and a bit chubby from my first-year at university away from home. I had no idea about travelling and arrived with a 40 kg rolling suitcase containing 10 pairs of shoes, a full-size hot yoga mat, 5 pairs of sunglasses, a two month supply of protein bars and 8 bottles of self tan and 20 miniature nail polishes amongst other unnecessary things. I took taxis everywhere because the luggage was too heavy for public transport.
I was so self-conscious that I always kept sunglasses on, there are pictures of me on a 10pm boat cruise in Amsterdam wearing wraparound tinted sports sunglasses with a party dress. Everything was so novel and new and exciting, the amazement that McDonald’s served fried Camembert and beer and nightclubs were open until 6am. Even the mundane things, like people on the bus talking about vegemite and jandals, were exciting to a North American.
There was a group of Australian girls on the trip, a few years older than me, all makeup artists, and I thought they were so glamorous with their multi-coloured hair extensions and nose piercings, long summer dresses and high heels. They were so confident and fun, the kind of girls who just walked right into VIP and crashed bachelor parties with bottle service and who were forgiven for blowing out the power circuits of an entire level of the hotel after trying to use a Mexican hair dryer. I didn’t have friends like that at home.
People were so kind on that trip, I borrowed dresses, jewelry and hair straighteners and when my ATM/debit card stopped working in Berlin, one of the girls loaned me 100E. The cause of the problem was later found to be that I still had a children’s bank account with a 500E/week withdrawal limit. The Euro exchange rate was good for everyone at the time, not just the Americans, and people would get rounds of drinks for almost the entire group. I remember the whole group sitting in an Irish bar in Prague at about midnight, I was trying to finish an undrinkable, free-poured Long Island Ice tea, when one of the boys, a pilot, challenged someone to a absinthe drinking contest. He learned his lesson pretty quickly; I have never seen someone run so quickly out of the bar to throw up, or spew as the Australians say.
I turned 20 in Amsterdam that trip, somewhere in the Red Light District, I spent 100E drinking Malibu and lemonade, over tipping the bartender, we smoked hookah and I danced with a boy on leave from the American military. That trip was only a week but by the end I was a little more tan, a little more confident and much more aware of how not to pack.
Of course we saw churches and museums, and learned about the history and the wars, tried the local dishes (fried cheese seems to be the standard vegetarian offering in that part of the world). But what I remember most were the girls who became my friends, I remember us in the middle of a weekday afternoon at a fake beach bar in downtown Berlin, drinking bright green “forest” flavoured slushes (the bartender said the German flavour couldn’t be translated) lying on the sand, freezing in leather jackets because Berlin is still cold in June. We talked about jobs and school, boys and dreams, jokes and secrets and hopes for the future. When we went our separate ways there were the usual invitations to “come visit us in Perth if you are ever in Australia! ” I never saw any of them again after that trip but they changed me.
I was 21 when I went back. Older, wiser, thinner, blonder and more tan and somewhat better prepared, I had switched to a 20 kilo rolling duffle bag and left excessive footwear and yoga accessories at home (I did however bring the protein powder, carefully labeled so the border guards wouldn’t think it was drugs).
I joined the trip half way through and I remember when I first saw him. The bus was about to leave, the trip leader asked
“Where’s Cash? Has anyone seen him? Did he text? Someone tell him we’re leaving now.”
A second later he strolls up to the bus with no shoes on, basketball shorts, a fleece, a puffer vest (in Southern Italy in May), an SLR around his neck with a king-size pack of duty free cigarettes in one hand and open bottle of Jack Daniels in the other.
“You’re late mate and you can’t bring open alcohol on the bus.”
“Yeah, alright I lost the top, I was looking for it.” Someone offers an empty water bottle for the JD.
“And where are your shoes?”
“I left them on the dance floor in Greece.” Cash said casually.
“We left Greece two weeks ago…”
He smiled and sat down cross from me.
There were about ten of us on that trip who became good friends. Most nights we would go out but sometimes we stayed in. Whoever had the biggest room would push all the beds together and all 10 of us would crowd around and play cards, Cash would put his arm around me and we would drink cheap Croatian wine and Italian beer and watch whatever was on TV in English, the European Handball finals in Croatia, Pokémon in Bosnia.
Ten days in we needed to do laundry and despite being advised of the location of the nearest “Vash Salon” we never found it and simply threw everyone’s clothes in the bathtub, dumped in a box of washing powder, and jumped on everything figuring that was close enough. Cash lost his IPhone that night; we turned the room upside down looking for it. Another boy found it at the end of the trip; it had fallen into one of his basketball shoes and was in his suitcase the whole time.
We got out to the islands in Croatia the first week most beaches were open for the season. I failed to pack a bathing suit and had taken to wearing a tube top as a skirt-bottom and a bandeau as a top, the sea was still freezing and the resorts wouldn’t rent jet skis or paddle boats yet. We had the beaches to ourselves, we would lie on the sand drinking double strength Swedish cider, showing each other our tattoos, whispering about which boys liked which girls, trying not to get burnt and diving off the pier.
We took a sunset boat cruise that night, the ten of us commandeering the front half of the boat, drinking orange Fanta and “special Croatian tequila.” The boys let the girls they liked sit on their laps, trying to keep them warm against the wind under wet beach towels as the sun went down.
Someone suggested that we have a bonfire beach party, everyone chipped in 5E and we made “sangria” in a bucket after hauling the supplies to the beach in an abandoned shopping trolley. My roommate, who usually never drank, got so excited that she dropped her IPhone in the punch bucket. Everyone on the trip came out that night, staying until 2am gossiping, talking about home and singing drinking songs until the sangria ran out.
Around that time Jimmy, who woke up the second day in Madrid with an arm tattoo and no idea how it got there, said to the tour leader
“Hey mate, I lost my passport about two weeks ago in Spain, do you reckon that will cause any trouble crossing the border?”
Considering that the border guards asked us for beer on the way into Croatia, he reckoned that yes it probably would cause trouble and Jimmy had to be flown to the Australian embassy in Vienna to rejoin us in Berlin.
The next two weeks are a blur of campsites, bunk beds, more cider, hiking trips, cathedrals, boat rentals, fried cheese and a Slovakian Tesco. I remember people trying to explain cricket and Aussie rules football over included group dinners and smoking cigarettes indoors simply for the novelty of it.
There were strange currencies that produced restaurants bills in the thousands, people piled into the back of van taxis at 4am and waking up the next day to “Drinking From the Bottle” by Tinie Tempah every time the bus pulled into a new city. Even now when I hear that song, in my mind I’m lying across two bus seats with my roommate, watching Eurotrip on the bus TV and trying not to notice that three people just threw up because there were 15E buckets of blueberry schnapps shots at the toga party the night before. Someone was also fined 20E that night because they tried to break dance on a patio table and it collapsed.
The last night of the tour in Berlin I ordered a whiskey sour in the bar only to have the two bartenders look at each other, exchange a quick word in Czech and one proceed to pour vodka and lemonade into a cup and proclaim that it was a whiskey sour. For 3E I figured that was close enough. Cash got his phone back that night and I cried when I learned he had a fiancé in London, a blonde girl who looked just like me, and that he had lied to both of us. His best friend said it was just a green card marriage, but I ran out of the hostel into the cold air of Berlin in May at midnight and didn’t come back until 3am.
The bus left the next morning with all the people bound for Amsterdam and London, I hugged all my friends and cried, receiving the usual “Come see me in Adelaide if you are ever in Australia!” Cash never came down to say goodbye. A year later two people from that trip were married. Two years later a boy from the trip would invite me to his new house in New Zealand saying that he still had a bottle of Croatian wine we could share.
The third trip was in some ways less magical than the first, less intense than the second, and probably more pleasant than both if only because, at 23, I was more confident in myself, aware of what I wanted and had the good sense to only bring a 10kg backpack. It didn’t start off well though; I was detained at the Finnish border because they thought I might overstay my 90 days in the Schengen Zone, as so many young Commonwealth citizens are apt to do. I then thought my luggage was stolen out of a locker on the ferry, but instead, in true Scandinavian fashion, security had put it in a more secure locker at the front desk on my behalf without telling me. However, I was pleasantly surprised upon arrival that Estonian McDonalds served three different flavours of mojito along with fried broccoli in mayonnaise.
On the second day, an additional group arrived overnight from Sweden to join us on the way to Russia and we all went out to the bars, dodging British stag parties, drinking weak rainbow coloured shots from test tubes and passing around a bottle of a local liquor called black balsam, which is kind of like drinking 100 proof vodka mixed with a pine tree. Russia was in a way almost unexpectedly uneventful, I think we saw every church, museum and monument in all of St Petersburg and Moscow, with highlights being the 10am stop at the Moscow state tourism shop which features an unlimited serve-yourself vodka tasting station and seeing the Faberge eggs at the Kremlin.
At some point we went on a bring-your-own-drinks boat cruise, which is really quite a dangerous concept, especially as it was on the only night with no included dinner, so people were drinking on empty stomachs. I think several friendships were solidified that night with people passing around 40s of grocery store vodka washed down with cherry juice and lemonade. I remember sitting with the girls in the far corner of the boat talking, as always, about jobs and boys and bad decisions, giggling and taking selfies as the sun stayed up even though it was past 10pm.
When I woke up in the morning my roommates had left for the next part of their adventure leaving me a Russian cherry flavoured Krispy Kreme doughnut and a note on a Russian Burger King napkin saying that they would miss everyone and, as usual, to “come visit us in Brisbane if you are ever in Australia!”
Those next two and half weeks are defined in my memory by vodka, mosaics, second world war history, excessive amounts of amber jewelry, clubs with novelty features (in particular a Latvian one with a water feature pond that we returned to two nights in a row), 10 girls sharing hair straighteners in a hostel room, singing the latest Taylor Swift songs and pre-drinking vodka with water, misunderstandings about vegetarianism (I was served a plate of just cucumbers for dinner once), a constant search for televisions showing the Wimbledon final, a gay pride parade in Warsaw which I thought was a good sign for democracy, the comforting presence of so many British chain stores in Poland and the presentation of a makeshift cake on my 24th birthday in the form of a chocolate cornetto topped with an emergency candle salvaged from a roadside assistance kit.
I met a friend from Canada half way through the trip, we walked along the riverbank past the opera house in Riga, drinking iced coffee, complaining about graduate school and reminiscing about the last days of our undergraduate study in England. At that moment I thought that we were really quite lucky to have gone out into the world and seen that there are different ways to live. I also know that I am privileged to have a Canadian passport and live in one of the safest cities in the world and have the freedom and time to go on these extended trips.
I do not believe in purchasing souvenirs but I had broken that rule in Greece and bought a handmade ceramic pomegranate which I should have shipped home but instead lugged around, boxed and bubble wrapped so it wouldn’t break. It went missing after we left Lithuania but it turned up with no explanation in another boy’s luggage in Poland near the end of the trip, minus the wrapping.
I met someone on that trip, the best friend of the boy who found the lost pomegranate, he was endearingly American and only wore boat shoes, Ralph Lauren polos and wraparound mirrored sunglasses, he had oversized luggage and he owned three guns. My favorite memory of our time together was when we went grocery shopping in a small town somewhere between St Petersburg and Moscow, and carried home bags of crab flavoured Pringles and popcorn flavoured TicTacs and a bag of what I thought were strawberry pastries but turned out to be pork rinds because I can’t read Russian. It started raining on the way home, not in an unpleasant way, it was warm for the middle of June, but we started running, I was laughing because he couldn’t run in flips flops so we just walked and got soaking wet. It was just a moment when nothing else mattered except what we were doing, home and any of the problems that come with it were so far away, just for that afternoon. We fell asleep in my bed watching movies on his phone.
I cried in the Hofbrauhaus, the beer hall in Berlin, when it was time to leave because I didn’t realize how much I had come to appreciate the companionship of always having people around to talk to and go dancing with, to laugh and drink and fall asleep with. I had to catch a train to the airport, so I finished a half-liter of Radler and kissed the American boy for the last time and cried some more as the girls walked me back to the hostel. Only two weeks before I remembered standing at the window in his hotel room at 3 in the morning drinking cherry juice and buffalo grass vodka his roommate brought from Poland from a McDonald’s cup, and watching the sun rise over the bridges and canals of St. Petersburg and wishing the morning would never come.
This is a brief retelling of an insignificant amount of the things I remember, but is the only way I can begin to tell you how my trip was. Still, how do you explain?
In my mind it is always summer in Europe. It’s camping tables covered in half smoked cigarettes, power adapters, smashed IPhones, room keys, cheap beers, broken lighters, knockoff sunglasses, and wine being drunk out of the bottle. It’s Wi-Fi passwords, summer dresses, cobblestones, sparkling water, too much gelato, oddly flavoured crisps, smudged passport stamps and tacky souvenirs. It’s people losing things and finding themselves and the high of being with friends 24/7, even if they were strangers just the day before and trying to live the most you can each day knowing you will never all be together in the same place again.
I’m leaving again in less than a year, with plans to do three more Topdeck trips, and if I come home this time I know the first thing I’ll hear is
“How was the trip to Europe?”
And the best I can do is to say:
“ You have to go see for yourself.”