Notes for a Friend going to Europe

Have a journal and let it be more than another weight in your backpack. Write every day so that those days may stay alive on the pages where you left them, waiting to be lived again. I’m not saying you won’t remember it if you don’t, you are doing something memorable, but you can’t share that memory the same way you can share your notebook. You may sit at a bench and admire the sunset over a building, contemplate your life as it stands, but unless you sit and dialogue with yourself, put things down, you will likely forget the enormity of the life you are currently living. By all odds, you won’t be able to live this life long; therefore you should live it to the utmost possible. Write something down every day. How you felt when a Spanish girl walked by you and made eye contact. The brutality of your hangover and how you couldn’t pay attention on the walking tour because the throb took up your whole mind. Write about a new friend or the smelly guy who finally left the hostel. Write about how you lost a day to a bad piece of chicken, or your view from the window of a bus. 

It could all happen, it probably has all happened to someone, but it has not yet happened as it will happen to you. So take a few moments every late afternoon, before you go out to dinner or to drink with whatever new friends you’ve made, sit alone with a notebook and let your hand let out what it needs to say. Just do me a favor, and don’t say it too much better than I can.

Have fun, be smart. Don’t trust everyone, but don’t be afraid to trust someone who seems trustworthy, time does not quantify how well you know someone and every stranger has the potential to be more. Let locals show you their spots. Always try to remember where you are, even when you know it’s futile. Memorize minor landmarks. You’re going to get lost in big cities but smile and ask for help and you’ll always find your way. Don’t be afraid to go out walking alone and don’t be afraid to waste your money getting drunk with people you don’t really know; it’s one of the best ways to get to know them.

Drink cheap red wine on the Seine. Bring bread.

Do a pub crawl through the red light district in Amsterdam.

Spend money you don’t have on a rooftop London bar.

Go out for tapas with a big group of people in Barcelona. Listen to conversations you don’t understand and try to guess what they’re talking about.

Go to an underground bar in Prague. Eat a shit ton of food everywhere and don’t be afraid to miss big sights for littler things with good people. People make the place, whether it’s just enjoying yourself or six drunk Australians telling competing stories.

If you’re going somewhere you’ve never been before I’m excited for you. I’m probably a bit jealous of you too. Tell me something you learned there but keep some secrets for yourself. Smile, and talk to the person next to you on the plane.

Greetings from far away, sorry I can’t be there with you.

-Maxwell

Lost in Lille part I

I arrive at the train station in Lille, sober after the contemplations of aging perspective. I finish my orangina, scarf down my pain de chocolate and come to a sudden realization; I have absolutely no clue how to get to the Hostel Gastama. I step out into the drizzling rain, thankful my friend Anthony had given me a black quilted jacket, feeling representative of Cincinnati with my accompanying orange pants. Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever been lost in a strange city that you’re really only visiting because you met three pretty French girls told you to, but it can be quite overwhelming. Take trying to find the science building on your first day at college, enlarge your campus to fit a million people, add a language barrier and subtract almost everyone you know. You talk your first few steps. It’s exciting. It’s terrifying. But you always find your way.

I had briefly checked the written directions on Gastama’s website while waiting in Gare du Nord and could only remember something about Rue Saint Anthony. I set off straight and as the road banked left I found myself in the rectangle of the Grande Place, old brick buildings surrounding a circular fountain, surrounded by Parisians spending their weekends behind their cameras.

Being lost makes me hungry, I find a small over-priced patisserie and buy a sandwich, delighted to find they heat them in a Panini press, and I go sit with it outside and let its heat combat the wind, enjoy the only 5 minutes of sunshine I will see that day.

I stand up, full-bellied and ready to continue, when I spot a woman with a green backpack, a call sign for world-wanderers. Knowing there’s only one hostel in Lille and lacking better alternatives, I decide I might as well follow her in hope of at least being led to one of the three streets I recognize. We walk at least a mile and I make a note of a sign pointing to the tourist center. We walk another eight blocks and I can’t help but realize this is now a purely residential area, nowhere suitable for a “hip” new Hostel and much too modern to be the old quarter.

So me and my backpack and my aching feet in shoes unfit for walking however many kilometers I’ve walked, we find a bench and I sit and contemplate, see skinny girls pass with rolling suitcases clinking on the brick paths.

I suppose this is the risk. They say when you get lost you can really find yourself. I only really find myself thinking, “that’s a load of crap, all you really find is that you’re bad with directions, that you should probably research or prepare or something and epiphanies don’t come every time you get lost.” I sit and chew on that and just have to say aloud “fuck that”.

I get back up and I find a small park and I find an old lady and I ask her in my pidgin French if she has heard of Hostel Gastama. She hasn’t but speaks English, and tells my best bet is the tourist center. So I make it there and I try to guess the wifi password and it is a hopeless prospect. I wait in line behind four elderly Dutch tourists. I ask my questions to a kind well-spoken French lady who gives me a map and I realize the green backpack led me in the complete wrong direction but it doesn’t matter. Traveling is mostly walking and to be lost in a city is to be intimate with it.

I follow the map north, take a street right then turn left after the opera. I end up going the wrong direction again on Rue des Canonniers, end up in Parc Henri Matisse.

I’ve been to something like 50 cities and never been so lost as this. I hide my worries from the locals lounging between the tree-lined paths. I weave through gravel and mud, erupt through the trees, and find the traveller’s oasis. McDonald’s. Free wifi and western restrooms in over 30,000 locations worldwide. What I used to consider the worst blight upon the gastronomic world has become my bastion, and I laugh as I sit on a wet bench.

8% battery on my phone, I connect to the wifi and open google maps for guidance. Three turns, 15 minutes through an antiquated shopping district and I have found my new weekend home, Gastama. I pause for a cigarette before facing whatever new possibilities may come, and hope I am no longer lost in Lille.