Miserable Bastard in Europe

 

I practice self-care, or attempt to, in Hamburg. On the train from Bremen I tear up, thinking about home and how much I longed for it, thinking of Grandad and how I would never see him again. I dumped my luggage in the hotel room and took my phone into the lobby, calling my girlfriend who was awake at midnight in Victoria, Australia. I cried when I heard her voice.

That night Amy and I ate alone in an Indian and Vietnamese restaurant. I was confused by the pairing of Indian and Vietnamese, but more confused by the lack of people in this part of town. It was a Saturday night and everything was closed, we only came here because it was close to the hotel and no other restaurants were open. We were the only customers for a while and we ate with stolen glances at each other, grinning at the strangeness. No music played. It felt apocalyptic.

I fill the bath with hot water and an excessive amount of liquid soap, wanting the bubbles to hide my naked body underwater, and wanting it to bring back some kind of nostalgia for childhood. I step into the bath and the water is hot and comforting, a drastic change from the chill outside. Germany is the coldest country I have ever been to, but the locals say it has been a warm winter so far with no snow, not even frost. Back home, Australia is burning. This heat, this warming of the globe, is everywhere, including my bath.

I put my headphones on and listen to the playlist my girlfriend made for me, which is exclusively Bruce Springsteen. I had never listened to much of his music before, but now train and bus rides were complemented with the sounds of ‘Born To Run’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’, ‘The River’. I told her that if we ever broke up, I would never be able to listen to Springsteen again. This turned out to be an exaggeration on my part.

The steam sits in the room, causing the walls to sweat. My face, too, and as I run the back of my hand across my forehead I notice the increase in my heart rate. When I pause the music, the sound of my pulse fills my ears. This doesn’t worry me as much as it should, and I sit in the bath for a little longer, until the heat becomes unbearable.

I ease myself out of the bath and grab the white towel I had left beside the sink. As I bring the towel to my face, my body begins to collapse.

A piercing ring shrieks in my ears. My head swirls and I let go of the towel, shaking too profusely to even wrap it around my body. When my vision starts to blur, I panic.

This, I think, is how I will die. Naked and wet on the bathroom floor, in a Hamburg hotel room, taken out by a fucking bath.

Slowly, I sit down on the edge of the tub and shakily fill a cup with cold water from the sink. I can barely see myself doing this; I’m used to a faint blur with my short-sighted vision, but this was another extreme verging blindness. Through the ringing in my ears, I hear my best friend and travel partner, Amy, laugh in the next room.

If I die here, what would I have made of my life?

 

I feel the desire to come home by two weeks. Our Contiki tour ends in London and most of our fellow travellers – who have been in Europe for a month, whereas Amy and I had only joined the tour in its last week – are talking about returning home. A girl from New Zealand tells me she can’t wait to go home and I envy her, wish I could squeeze into her suitcase and come with her. New Zealand isn’t home but it would be close enough.

On our first morning in London I flood the bathroom. Unused to shower/bath hybrids, I place the shower curtain outside the bathtub. Unbeknownst to me, water drenches the curtain and spills onto the floor for the next four to five minutes, until I turn off the tap and pull the curtain aside. There’s at least half a centimetre of water covering the entire floor.

Fuck.

When I inform Amy of my grave error, she bursts out laughing. I laugh, too, because it is so ridiculous. No matter how annoyed by her I get on this trip, I am grateful for her being here with me. I know that other people would not have laughed at this, would have instead made me feel embarrassed and useless. She tolerates me in ways that no one else can, holding a comprehensive knowledge of my common moods and what to do when each arise. This is what comes from almost twenty years of friendship.

We visit the British Museum but I am too tired, too sick, to appreciate where I am and the artefacts in front of me. The museum is too overwhelming for my brain, and I don’t take the time to read exhibit labels. My eyes skim over items, impressed by some, indifferent to others, and I feel a sense of shame for not appreciating where I am. As a history graduate, this should thrill me. But my mind, my sick, sick mind, cannot grasp any pleasure or wonder.

On the third morning Amy and I wake up feeling worse than ever. My chest is full of phlegm and I pine for Australia. We drag ourselves out of bed and walk to the supermarket, load up on pastries and medicine. I cheer myself up with thoughts of Virginia Woolf walking this path, the Beatles recording in this studio, Emmeline Pankhurst addressing a crowd of women in this square, Shakespeare performing at a Globe much more authentic than this. While I may pull faces on our tour of Windsor Castle and openly state my abhorrence of England’s history of imperialism, I cannot help but love the literature and music of this country.

In Hyde Park I write a poem, too.

Miserable bastard in London

wondering why she ever left the shores

of Australia Felix

to return to the colonial motherland

where all she feels like doing is

drawing the sheets over her head

and turning off the lights,

hope that she will be home soon

in the warmth, with magpies singing

on the back fence

and a girl with soft arms in her bed

saying ‘I swear travelling is greater than this’

but is it?

I feel ungrateful for wanting to go home so desperately. It’s not that I’m having a bad time, it’s just that I miss everything in my life. I have never felt the pull to home so strongly.

 

Before she died, I promised Nanna that I would visit Scotland for both of us. She had never been herself, but still felt deeply connected to the country and its people and culture, her parents and older siblings having been born there. At my parents’ wedding they had bagpipes play, amongst the rich saturation of Greek culture. Every year Nanna would watch the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, filmed at Edinburgh Castle, where her father was stationed during the First World War.

I was flicking through a travel guide that had come in the Herald Sun, sitting opposite my nanna in her nursing home. The pages were filled with beautiful shots of glistening water and beaches, of resorts in Thailand, Vietnam, Fiji. I was in my final years of high school and playing with the idea of a gap year.

“Where should I go, Nanna?”

Her immediate response dismissed the destinations that were carefully laid out within this travel guide. “Scotland.”

When I arrive in Edinburgh, a fundamental part of me that is so connected to my nanna’s memory felt as though it had returned home. As soon as Amy and I haul our luggage into the small yet conveniently located Airbnb, we leave to walk a mere five minutes before being met with the imposing sight of Edinburgh Castle. I make Amy take countless photos of me so I can send to my family. The fortress sits on Castle Rock, overlooking the city, and high up here the wind is strong and blows my hair into my face. I wrap my scarf around my head and pull my jacket’s hood up to protect my ears.

In the photos Amy takes, you can only see my eyes and nose. But it is clear that I cannot stop grinning, for I’ve made it here at last.

It is eerie to think that I am in the country I’ve been desperate to visit since Nanna died five years ago, when I receive the phone call telling me that Grandad has joined her.

 

8 Dec. at 6:54PM (AEST)

Ok so dad just casually hinted that he has bad news to tell me but will save it until I get home and now I’m like ok but I have to know now is it Grandad is he ok and Dad has fkn left me on read so now I am very nervous and think that my grandad is not ok annnnnnnnd I wish someone would just answer me but hmmmmmm I gotta go to the train station now and yeah this isn’t ideal

 

For all I cared, arriving in Paris Gare du Nord on a Sunday evening, this city could get fucked. Amy and I had already passed through on a Contiki tour for two nights – in which we rapidly consumed the Louvre, ate snails, drank champagne beside the Eiffel Tower, and attended the Moulin Rouge – and I had hoped to have seen more. Upon our second visit, though, my view of the city changed dramatically, and it did not at all have to do with the city.

I detested Paris.

Phone in my left hand and suitcase in my right, I stormed out of the international train station with Amy quietly in tow. My emotions were a mess and I was overwhelmed with anger, frustration, grief and exhaustion. I wasn’t thinking properly, couldn’t read Google Maps as well as I had become adjusted to, and led Amy and I up and down the wrong side of a street in an attempt to find our hotel. It was dark, we hadn’t eaten, and my first primal instinct was to sit on the ground in the middle of the street and cry.

Amy eventually grabbed my phone, looked at the map, and informed me of our (my) error. We crossed the road and checked into the hotel.

On our first morning, I stay in bed until noon. Amy does the same, but showers before me. During our trip I’ve managed to get out of bed at reasonable hours, aiming for earlier mornings so that we could take advantage of a full day. This is our first and only day of remaining in a hotel room all morning. We stay in so late that we have to awkwardly tell the cleaner that we do not want our room serviced that day.

I drag myself out of bed at about 12:30 and take my time getting showered and dressed. My period has come, which isn’t a huge deal but accompanied with my cold and current state of mental health, I feel like the world is collapsing onto me.

For lunch I think I have a salad. We walk around aimlessly afterwards, in a region of Paris that is cheap but not exactly safe or romantic, and with nowhere to go I quickly become fed up and make my way back to the hotel, Amy following me with no argument. I change my bloody pad, take some cough medicine, and return to bed. Amy plays games and watches videos on her phone in the single bed beside mine, and with my back to her, I curl up into the foetal position and silently weep.

 

Months after his death, I dream of Grandad. He is lying underneath a white sheet in hospital, and I stare at the top of his head that peeks out. And then he is sitting upright, facing me, his left eye missing. He talks to me, asks why he can’t see properly, and the doctors whisper into my ear “don’t tell him he’s dead.” It is a physical reaction before the body ultimately shuts down, they say. But he looks alive to me, continues to engage in conversation, though I do not understand why his eye is gone.

When I tell Dad about my dream he says I probably dreamt it because I never saw Grandad when he died, I was away from the situation entirely, dissociated from it. Perhaps to me Grandad will always be in this limbo state of life and death, until something happens that will really bring it home.

 

I don’t want to die in a bathroom in Hamburg because it is too far away from home. I don’t want to die at all because there has already been a death in the family, and this would be unfair timing on my part. And I am so close to leaving, only a few days. In the minutes where my senses are fucked from the heat of the bath I think of my family and girlfriend, and how it is of the highest importance that I return to them.

I sit on the edge of the bath. I drink a glass of cool water slowly, patiently. I focus on my breathing and ground myself. I cannot remember what stops first: the ringing in my ears, the blurry vision, the dizziness, the shaking, or the rapid beating of my heart. But at some point my body restores order.

Once I regain my senses, I cautiously stand up. Wait for a minute. I think the moment has passed, and so I dry myself and walk out of the bathroom. Amy is lying on her bed, eyes glued to her phone, headphones on, a smile plastered on her face – a smile I am well acquainted with, it is a smile that sits there in anticipation of the next laugh. She is blissfully unaware of my near-death experience.

(Maybe it is dramatic to call it a near-death experience. I really only would have fainted. But if I had hit my head too hard on the way down? It could have marked the end. But maybe I was fine, and my anxiety was the one to really convince me that I almost died.)

Amy takes off her headphones. “How was your bath?”

I almost died!

Before we fall asleep she tells me the entire plot of the movie Truth or Dare. I kind of want her to shut up because I don’t really care, but I become invested and want to know what happens. I love her enthusiasm, too, and her commentary. I hate horror movies, but I don’t mind her retellings of them – they are far more entertaining, anyway. I go to sleep not thinking that I might never wake up because some truth-or-dare-asking demon is going to come in and play games with me; I worry that I may die in my sleep because the bath incident was an indication of something much more serious – a brain tumour? A concussion somehow?

But of course, I wake up.

 

Reflecting on my time in Europe now, while the world is in lock down and undergoing a global pandemic, I wish I had taken more time to slow down. I could not control my feelings caused by grief, and as it was my first time on the other side of the world, I can forgive myself for experiencing homesickness.

I was not entirely a miserable bastard for a consecutive four weeks. My positive experiences far outweighed the negative, and I am grateful for all of it. I know that I will return, at some point in the future. Next time, I will be kinder to myself, I won’t try to fit a huge itinerary within a small timeframe, and I’ll remember that home is waiting for me whenever I’m ready.

 

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