Losing My Travel Partner and Finding My Way
Melissa was interested in my trip. I had envisioned a month-long solo trip to Ireland to visit family members, tour the landmarks of my historic heroes of the 1916 Rebellion, and explore the local punk and traditional music scenes. With a travel partner (and the interests she brought), the vision turned to that of an open-ended European holiday, the two of us galavanting around, country to country, spending a modest amount of money and returning to the United States once we’d blown through our comfortable margin.
A vagabond by nature, this was an easy transition for me, though I was going to miss the lush Irish landscape I’d waited my whole life to visit. We agreed on two weeks in Ireland before heading out across the channels to the main land. We loaded up our iPods, threw a raging party, and quit our jobs. We had no future, our future was limitless.
When I travel, I arrive in a city with blind optimism and open arms, find the first strangers who will take me in, and hug them.
When we arrived in Dublin, we wandered until we found Stephen. An old friend of one of my roommates in Boston, he took us to the home of some pals who were at work but were fine with house guests. A friend of a friend of a friend is as close as a cousin for me, and I made myself at home. When I travel, I arrive in a city with blind optimism and open arms, find the first strangers who will take me in, and hug them. Having some connection, these weren’t strangers at all, and immediately we fell into a groove of game nights, sleep overs, and helping people build their band’s practice space.
Our suddenly massive posse hopped a bus to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for a punk festival, again sleeping on the floor of a kindhearted stranger. Melissa and I were given a Dubliner’s tour of Belfast. The police stations had barred windows, the murals were colorful and violent. When we passed a group of boys, my friends crossed the street and kept their gazes straight ahead, fearing a brawl.
When I travel, I strive to feel at home wherever I am, to breathe the same air as the people who wash windows and sell produce. But as an American visiting Northern Ireland with Irish friends, my points of view collided and I felt like a stranger in a familiar land. Melissa was quiet; exhausted from travel and overwhelmed by culture shock. Whenever I feel that way, I think I need to eat. I’m a simple woman with simple needs.
By the time we returned to Dublin and walked the cold, cobbled, damp streets to the supermarket for potato waffles, Melissa wanted to go home. The word, now too expansive to hold meaning, confused me. Home? Tommy’s living room? Saoirse and Aoife’s? Having toured in bands, she was used to being on the road for extensive periods of time, but my seat-of-the-pants travel and admittedly annoying blend of ADHD and aloofness was a shock to her system. When a band tours, they know where to be and when, and typically where they will sleep and eat, for the majority of the trip.
I pleaded with her and we compromised to instead leave Ireland at the week’s end and head to Utrecht, Netherlands, where yet another friend of a friend had a home where we could stay. I didn’t know anything about this place, these plans or friends, but Melissa had done some digging at the cyber cafe and had an idea of where to go, and felt more comfortable staying with a friend of a friend than three times removed. The next few days were what an inner tube must feel when it has a slow leak. Trying hard to keep strong but with a nagging feeling of futility.
I’m a difficult travel partner. I have zero structure and prefer to spend as little money as possible to extend the trip as long as I can.
At the airport, I nosed over at Melissa’s kiosk as we printed our tickets and saw her code was different. BOS, it said in bold letters. Mine said AMS, Amsterdam, and thought there must have been a formatting error. Melissa’s face was white as she explained that she didn’t want to travel in Europe anymore, she wanted to go back to Boston and travel where the waffles were made of wheat and restaurant menus used reasonable fonts and she didn’t feel awkward about using someone’s shower. Like Adam Sandler’s character Robbie, I was receiving some information that would have been more helpful to me yesterday. In her defense, I’m a difficult travel partner. I have zero structure and prefer to spend as little money as possible to extend the trip as long as I can. In my defense, that’s why I planned to travel alone.
I remember Amsterdam as a subway tunnel where I couldn’t read any signs, and a long train ride where I hoped I would know my stop and get off there, having no information to go by. Eventually, I was outside and Utrecht was cold and snow-covered, the sun long gone. I wandered the streets with no idea where I was going, who or what I was looking for. It was a squat and the front of it was painted like a black and yellow ribcage, but I had no neighborhood, no address. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t figure out the pay phone or how to dial locally, I had no name or number. Being left is lonelier than being alone.
A stylish couple walked past and I asked in desperation if they spoke English. They laughed and, in English, called me an idiot before continuing on their beautiful, cloaked way. A few more strangers provided the same hostility until, near tears, I found a falafel restaurant and asked the shop worker if he knew where my friends lived.
Losing My Travel Partner and Finding My Way
“The Ubica?” he asked. “Painted with a ribcage on front? Sounds like a building I should know, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen that. So sorry, Miss.” He barely spoke English and the words stuttered through his teeth like a meat grater. He gave me a sandwich and let me cry on his stoop for a while as I gained my composure.
The winds picked up. My bag, which was a shoulder-style messenger bag and not meant for this amount of upright travel, upset my hips and I began walking with a limp. Now, tear-streaked and limping, strangers no longer laughed at me but kept a stoic distance and shook their heads as they passed.
I started to remember. Leah, my roommate who lived here once, had told a story about the canal near her house. I found the water and, unsure which direction to walk or if it was even the right canal, picked what felt right. I channeled her, and as if entering her memory I saw the place she slipped on the ice, where she got into a fight with Moroccans who insulted her before realizing she is an American from the Dirty South and takes no grief.
I saw the museum, the statue, the cafe she never mentioned, but they came into focus like a memory made clear. I followed footsteps that may have been my own, walking in a circle, they felt so familiar. At least I was moving and if my direction was incorrect, it was a place on a map I could place my dot and say, “here stands Carolyne, who wandered ’til death.” My hands, once numb and useless from the cold, began to warm themselves as my body temperature raised. My limbs, my mind, my heart all collectively decided to not give up just yet.
I ran, slipping on the ice as I moved, exhausted, closer to the holy sounds in worship of both a god and clock in which I suddenly believed.
Then, the church bells. I remembered again. Leah in her room, awoken by the church bells and the morning light shining so bright from the big windows. I ran, slipping on the ice as I moved, exhausted, closer to the holy sounds in worship of both a god and clock in which I suddenly believed. As I turned the corner, there it stood. The Ubica.
A narrow, four story building, the anarchist squat wedged between commerce and luxury. The church bells were so close they could have busted the windows if the wind picked up a breath. I yelled out.
“I’m here! I’m a friend of Leah’s and I’m cold!” Someone leaned out a big window and waved before closing it shut. a few minutes later, the gigantic industrial steel door slid open and like Wendy entering the home of the Lost Boys, I was safe.
Losing My Travel Partner and Finding My Way photos by Unsplash.