This is an old piece, the first piece of travel writing I ever did. Rereading it, I see the work of a younger man—one who had the blues and romanticized things far too hard.
Without further ado:
“Aloneness is a state of being whereas loneliness is a state of feeling. It’s like being broke and being poor. I feel aloneness all the time and loneliness I hardly ever feel.”
-Townes Van Zandt
I was ready to get out of Budapest. Four months in, and the gloominess of the streets and people had started seeping into my bones, turning my general unhappiness into something greater. Each day I walked through a sea of frowns, carved out by years of hard living, the way water erodes a canyon. Politically things were bleak: the government was moving closer to fascism, the news media was already propaganda, and the downcast people had already given up. I was burnt out myself, on my fourth city in four years, and my fourth set of temporary friends. Maybe actually visiting a country before moving might’ve been smart. But I’m a slow learner; my normal afternoon routine was usually scouring the Internet for potentially utopic jobs in further off lands. Not today. I was packing haphazardly for the eleven-hour journey to the first world, where I would stay with my old friend Rasim in Erlangen, Germany and enjoy the Bergkirchweih, a giant beer fest on a tiny hill.
The train started moving two minutes after I sat down. We passed through the train graveyard, and I stared at the old Soviet architecture slipping past. It was overcast, but the sun kept shining through, giving the sky a white gleam. I’m at my most fulfilled riding a train. It’s the calm before the storm, where something big might happen, but it’s still completely unknown. When the conductor releases the brake but hasn’t put on the gas yet, the train glides silently, and it reminds me of how, as a child, I used to fly in my dreams.
Hours later, the conductor spoke in German, and I could pronounce the station names. I felt a wave of relief. I glanced at the girl across the aisle—a very cute girl with a friendly face and shoulder-length brown hair. We started talking. And then we kept talking. And then things got interesting.
But we rolled in the Vienna station, and she was gone. I have no idea how many people I’ve met in blinks while traveling, most of them, admittedly, forgettable but many could’ve been close friends in another life. Distance is love’s greatest enemy. Sometimes after one of these encounters, I wonder if human beings are meant to live in small communities where our eyes are never opened to how the Earth is too large to hold on to and how time moves too quickly for one to ever be satisfied. I looked at my phone. Eight hours to go. I was already wishing away what little time I had.
I felt weird waiting in Nuremberg, my former home, on the empty platform for the train to Erlangen. It’s always odd being back somewhere so far away that was once so familiar. The city had already forgotten me. Buildings stand stoically, indifferent to the people who populate them. These aged European cities are giants and will be around, barely changing, centuries after we die. When we wake up tomorrow, seventy years old, Nuremberg’s Frauenkirche will look just the same. The sixteen year olds who turn seventeen and decide not to get drunk at the train station anymore will be replaced by fifteen year olds who decide to—time is a deceivingly strong eddy. I felt my own insignificance saturate me on that train platform, like the ocean air on a starry night. But I was being way too introspective; I’d been traveling by myself for way too long. By the time I made it to Rasim’s it was already well past 1:00am, and we only caught up for thirty minutes before crashing.
After spending the better part of the afternoon lamenting I only had a few more days left in Germany, I was now lamenting the fact that we were going to a Turkish grill out instead of following the mass of Dirndls floating towards the Berg.
Instead of following the obvious good time, we ducked under an alleyway into a secluded courtyard. But I immediately left my self-pity behind. We drank chai and beer and ate Turkish and German food, and everyone was very friendly in the typical Turkish way. I singled out Tayla who was giving me the eye.
We chatted about German culture and Turkey, and I regaled her with my story of my visit to a Turkish hospital. She spoke no English, but her German was surprisingly good for the three months she’d’ been there. She was confident but very sweet, and I wanted her. She frowned when I told her I was leaving in two days, and I was bummed too. At the moment, I wanted to live in Erlangen forever.
“Maybe I’ll move to Izmir. I love Turkey.”
“Oh that would be great. Would you really, though?”
“It could happen. I’m always moving around.”
“If you come I’ll show you around and teach you Turkish.”
“Perfect.” But then I snapped back. I knew I never would.
Someone picked up a guitar and started playing old Turkish pop songs. Everybody started singing along, and Rasim helped me out enough to sing the choruses. He’d laughingly list each decade the song was written. “This is just like my university days,” he said, and before too long, I felt nostalgia too. Nostalgia for a time and place foreign to me, but it didn’t matter. It was so familiar, a group of friends so happy, living in the moment. I felt a powerful love swirl all around me. I wistfully wished I would marry Talya, settle down in Izmir and end all this madness—city-hopping every year, temporarily befriending new people, preparing to add them to the growing pile of fading memories behind me. Still, for the first time in years I felt content. Was this feeling of love what I was searching for? I had been looking for years in far off corners, instead of right in front of me.
My phone rang. I was late for meeting my old Nuremberg roommates at the Bergkirchweih. Talya had started focusing her eye on other things, so I reluctantly left the courtyard and began walking with the crowds, and that feeling of love that had overwhelmed me slowly faded away, like every intense emotion inevitably does.
I had been to the Bergfest the year before. It’s your typical German beer fest—all the games, rides, food, and cheesy songs of any other German festival, just stuck on a small hill, meaning it can take twenty minutes to walk two hundred feet. Since bathrooms are limited and a sea of people away, everyone usually pees on the same part of the hill. Though easy-ish to navigate its steepness at the beginning of the night, by the end, there’s a mudslide forming, and after consuming liters of beers, it’s not exactly safe. The year before both my friend and I slipped and fell towards the end of the night, covering our jeans in piss-mud. After diving for a soccer ball weeks before, I had ripped the crotch of another pair, so I had been knocked down to one pair of pants for the rest of my time in Nuremberg.
This year I wore a fresh pair of jeans and was determined to wait in the bathroom lines. I met my old roommates Hanna and Lena with their respective boyfriends on the second story of a beer garden. They were all decked out in Lederhosen and Dirndls and already half drunk.
The 10€ liters of beer kept piling up, and soon Richard, Hanna’s boyfriend was swinging violently from the branch of a tree, hanging off the ledge. I started talking to Hanna, and then I kept talking to Hanna. After awhile she said, “I need to stop talking to you, because Richard will get jealous.”
“What are you talking about? You two visited me in Budapest. He’s not going to get jealous.”
“No, I have a crush on you a little bit.”
“Then why didn’t we ever do anything?”
“Well we were roommates, so we couldn’t.” I thought back to the overt advancesI had made on her my last week of living together. Nothing happened.
After awhile I started noticing jealous glares from Richard, but I was already drunk enough to ignore them. Hanna was right, but I couldn’t help myself. Things were winding down at the Berg, so we followed the thousands through Erlangen towards the bus and train stations. One by one our group disappeared, until it was just Richard, Hanna, and me. We kept talking, Richard kept glaring, and then finally Hanna grabbed my crotch twice and ran away, disappearing in the mob. Almost exactly like how I was robbed in Budapest two weeks before.
The next night I was by myself. I had sent Hanna and Richard a text, since we had planned to spend the next day together, and I was supposed to crash with them that night. Unsurprisingly it went unanswered. Rasim graciously agreed to keep me on for another night, but it was a work night for him. The crowds were thinner at the Bergfest, though I watched an impressive German classic rock band cover Jimi Hendrix and play guitar with fingers, teeth, and a beer stein.
I was on my way out to finish my low-key evening when Lena’s boyfriend, Christian, recognized me. He was with some old friends, including a charming but sociopathic-seeming kid, Stefan, who refused to believe I was American, even after seeing my ID. We did the German fest thing: standing on top of benches, belting out the words to the songs the band played, and drinking copiously. Right before closing time, Stefan decided we deserved on more shot. “Come on,” he said, “I’ll buy you the drink.”
So off we went, finding the only stand still open. We made it to the top of the Berg, and they were already closed, but we got our last shot due to Stefan’s charm. We took it, and then he said, “I’m not gay by the way.” Fuck. My alarms went off.
We went back to where everyone was, and they had all left. Meanwhile, Stefan was flipping up the skirts of girls in Dirndls. “You are assholes!” they said to both of us after Stefan selflessly pointed me out as the culprit. We continued down the hill, on the off streets, where no one was around. Stefan looked at me and said, “So are you gonna blow me or what?”
“That’s bullshit. That’s why we’re here.”
I decided to get on the main street with the thousands of witnesses with Stefan following. He dropped his phone, my cue to lose him in the crowd. I made it to the bus. At the second stop, a drunk teenager dragged a sidewalk tree into the bus, with a trail of sod following him to his spot next to me in the back. By this time, the weird had become normal, and the present was electric, sparking. Anything was possible, and this tree-in- the-bus was as normal as the kid’s embarrassed girlfriend. He looked at me and said, “Don’t be scared.” Really? I just smirked.
I woke up the next day, nervously counting down the seconds until I shipped myself back to the East. I had one last thing to do before my train ride—hang out with Nicole. She was a girl who I’d almost had something with, and I couldn’t quite remember why it didn’t happen. We were supposed to meet at 9:30, and I expected it to be nice, polite, and a little awkward.
Unfortunately, we picked up where we left off, and I wondered why I had let her slip out of my fingers. But hindsight is sharper when you’re lonely. So we talked, swapping from German to English to German to English, moving from café to café with a pleasant rhythm until it was time to go. She followed me to the train station, and though I could’ve caught an earlier train, I wasn’t ready to leave Nuremberg. “I bet the next train will be canceled,” I said. She joined me in the supermarket, and I picked up beer and a notebook for the ride home. Finally up the escalator we went, and I was really going to leave. The train was canceled. We grabbed coffee and sandwiches, while I calmly thought things through. The next train to Budapest was at 8:00pm.
“What should we do?” she asked. I thought for a minute.
“Let’s go to Bergfest.” I decided.
“Yeah, OK. Let’s go. Are you going to catch the night train?”
“Maybe. Maybe not. Do we need to stop by your house and pick up your Dirndl?”
So after a short train ride shared with a pair of German rednecks, we made it to Bergfest. It was still quiet and early. We sat alone in the same Biergarten and in the same seats where Richard swung off the branches. It was noon, and we started drinking beer, so we let our guards down. By 2:00 we had a good buzz. Then we bumped into Nicole’s colleagues and continued the fest for four more hours. By 6:00, I knew it was time to go home, back to the East. I had had my time. I was too drunk and there were too many people for a real goodbye, and my memory is hazy. I fell asleep on the train to Nuremberg. And by the time I got to Munich, I was ready to go out for the night.
The train to Budapest was huge, and I had just enough Euros to reserve a seat and sit there. It was around 10:00, and I got comfortable in the cabin, ready to crash, before a petite girl with brown hair entered.
“Do you speak English?”
“Yes, I’m American.”
“Can I stay here? I don’t have money for a reserved place.”
“Sure. It’s pretty empty on this train. Where are you from?”
“Romania.” The conversation ended there. She put on her headphones, the international leave-me-alone sign, so I went to sleep. They woke me up to show my ticket in Austria. And in Hungary. I was clutching my passport to my chest, knowing well how things work in the East.
I woke up to the sunrise and two guys were walking out of the cabin. The girl looked at me and said, “That was weird.”
“What?” I hadn’t processed it yet.
“Two guys were in here.” I still had my passport. She looked in her bag.
“Fuck! My camera is gone! My wallet is gone! Shit!”
She chased after them. “You stole my stuff.” One of the guys walked off the train, shrugged his shoulders and gave the smuggest look I’ve ever seen a human being give. “Just give me back my wallet,” she pleaded. “Take the money; just give me back the passport.”
“Bathroom,” said the other guy as he stepped off.
The girl found an old train worker. “He stole my stuff,” she said, pointing at the smug man. The train worker, a Hungarian in her late fifties, shrugged her shoulders too but with a resigned defeated look, not uncommon with Hungarians. The train started moving, and the Romanian girl was freaking out. She started pacing, her eyes wide in fear and anger.
The worker came by after a few minutes—she spoke no English, so I spoke in German, but it was no use. We couldn’t communicate. The Romanian went to the bathroom, and the worker left. The Romanian girl came back a minute later with her wallet and camera.
“I found it!”
“Where was it?” I was very happy for her.
“Hiding behind the toilet.”
In the background I heard people in the other cabin yelling, “It’s gone! It’s gone!”
Fifteen minutes later the old train worker came by with a form. “No it’s ok,” the Romanian said happily, opening her wallet, “See! I got it back.”
The worker sighed dejectedly, a sigh full of decades of sorrow. “Jó,” she said, defeatedly crossing out the form she had spent precious minutes starting to fill out.
I started talking with the Romanian. She was excited, and I was excited for her. She had come back from Amsterdam. She had meant for a longer trip through Western Europe, but she had spent all her money getting high and eating.
“I think I’m still high,” she said, “do you want some candy?” She opened up her bag that was full of the European equivalent of Sweetarts and circus peanuts.
“No thanks. I don’t like sweets. I drink too much for sweets. I was pretty drunk when you came in my cabin.”
“I could tell.”
“How old are you?”
“I’m old. Twenty-four.”
“No you’re not,” I said. She looked nineteen. “Twenty-four is still young anyway.”
“No I’m not. I’m old. I want to die by the time I’m sixty.”
“OK. Call me when you’re fifty-nine.” I looked out the window. The sun was still rising. I turned back to her. “I can’t believe you got your stuff back!”
“Yes. I did. But what happened would never happen in Romania,” she said with a smirk. And she kept repeating that. I lost her name, and she made fun of me for not getting it at first, but names can be elusive. Perhaps it’s because you can only remember a name when you really know a person. Tayla’s name isn’t even real. I lost it too.
A few hours later we made it to Keleti, the train station where I had started my trip. I looked at my phone. “I have to go straight to work,” I said. I was already an hour late. I still had my contacts in, and my eyes were bloodshot. She met an American friend in the train station.
“So you’re on vacation, traveling through?” he asked.
“No I live here. In fact I’m late for work.” We decided not to pretend to plan to hang out. After a minute I said my goodbyes, all of us knowing full well we were just acquaintances for a second, having merely shared a future anecdote.
So I left the train station, wading once again through the sea of frowns. A survey said only 6% of Hungarians consider themselves happy. I always wondered where that 6% was hiding. Walk. Tram. Bus. Walk. Work. I was back, but my time in Hungary was winding down. I only had one month left. I thought of Mom and Dad and Harrison. I raised my head. I wasn’t going to waste anymore time searching for jobs in far off countries. Not now, at least. I was going to go home.