Friday, September 5, 2014

Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part I

"So you just go up to strangers at the pub and hope they want to talk to you? Don't you fear rejection?" my beautiful Australian hostelmate, Conversary, asks.

I think of all the girls over all the years; the publishers who didn't want "Twice"; the people I approached last night who kept their circle closed to me; Conversary who will likely tire of me soon. "Yes, I fear rejection."

EuroBen, Day 1

Benjamin Rubenstein departs for Europe with few possessions
Beginning my first solo trip to Europe with just a carry on, sling bag, sweatshirt and crutches
I pass through customs at London Heathrow Airport after 11 a.m. and two hours of sleep. I take my time. I go through my morning ritual in the washroom, clean my Nalgene and drink my protein shake. I follow signs for the London Underground.

My first four hours in London validate all the time I spent preparing for this trip: I purchase an Oyster card for the Tube instead of taking Heathrow Express, saving 18 pounds; secure my luggage at the hostel with the most expensive Master Lock padlock, which I bought; and buy a Vodafone UK SIM card so my mobile can function completely. It takes another hour to find a stop for the hop-on hop-off bus tour. I am exhausted and fall asleep on the bus.

I waken and exit the bus at Covent Garden after one complete loop. I enter a café and order Americano (which is espresso dunked into hot water—Brits don’t care much for freshly ground drip coffee). I sit at the bar and ask the fellow next to me for a fish and chips recommendation. He is excited to offer one and even draws a map to reach the restaurant. I connect to the free Wi-Fi and email my family “London rules,” so they know I am safe and that they can reach me by email.

I eat dinner with strangers. Italy’s employer sent him for training and Spain is here on holiday. We all roar with laughter about London’s cost of living (fried fish, fries and a beer cost us each 18 pounds, or about 31 U.S. dollars, which is a fair price there). Spain is interested in my writing and asks me to type this blog’s URL into his mobile browser. He will read it this evening, he says. Solo traveling rules. I’ve never felt so free.

EuroBen, Day 3
Collage of London sites during vacation
I tackled most of London's landmarks in one day. It was invigorating rushing from one to the other.
Collage of museums in London
I don't care much about history or art and sped through museums (except for the powerful Holocaust and mummy exhibits at Imperial War Museum and British Museum, respectively). I just had to make sure I got my souvenir magnets.
London reminds me of Washington, D.C.: the sidewalks, streets and landscaping are immaculate and blanketed with incredible and free museums; there seem to be more foreigners than locals; and people on the Tube stare at nothing while listening to music with earbuds or Beats headphones. These cities, full of people from across the planet and webbed with a beautiful rainbow of train tracks, are turned inwards. I may be right next to you here, but we are utterly alone.

There are no seats in the bar area so the pub waitress sits me in the corner. I am trying all the traditional British dishes on this trip—“bangers and mash” for this meal. When a family sits at the adjacent table, I smile and move my crutches out of their way. Like me, they order unhealthy food. I actually can't recall seeing or eating a single vegetable, and yet people are leaner here.

I mosey back to Covent Gardens and into a different pub. Whiskey in hand, I set my crutches in a corner and stand in the open, searching for my next friend. A group of four next to me talk and laugh. I interrupt with a lighthearted question and a smile. They stop laughing, answer me, and return to their banter.

I realize I must adjust my traveling expectations. Expecting I’ll find my next girlfriend, pen pal, pub buddy for the night or even a single conversation could ruin EuroBen. Now I expect to see the world and write about it, taste new foods, and meet new people during a night out or maybe just in a curt response.Yes, Europe can still rule with these expectations.

Naturally I am more introverted than extroverted. Seeking new friends depletes my energy and I have just enough left to try once more. Five Brits are out celebrating one of them losing her job—seriously, celebrating—and they take me in because “nobody should drink alone in a pub,” they say. They teach me what “taking the piss” means, and about Pimm’s cocktails and Sunday roast. I laugh at everything because they are hilarious no matter what they say or how often they curse. They buy me many drinks and won’t let me return the favor because I am a visitor. And they prevent a different Londoner from taking advantage of me. We close the pubs down. We are all Facebook friends. They rule.

EuroBen, Day 4
Haggis and jam doughnuts, two of Great Britain's culinary treats
Two of Great Britain's treats: raspberry jam donuts from Sainsbury's, and Scotland's haggis: sheep's heart, liver lungs, and stomach

I visit a pub attended by locals, away from the tourist areas. It is sparse with some old-timers watching Premiere League football and shooting pool. They also watch me. After I finish two quick pints they welcome me. Beer, I decide, is the sign of acceptance in England or maybe the world.

I ride the Tube to meet Conversary. Yesterday, we hung out at the British Library and went on an adventure to find real coffee. I forgo seeing a theater show to be with her tonight. This is not because I am a pushover—I just have a rule that, with pretty girls, I play it through until they opt out, no matter what.

Conversary is more guarded and less talkative now. I pick up the slack. “What does your sister do?...Do you like your two- or four-year-old niece more?...I bet you miss them…What does your sister do for work?”

“Are you joking?” she says. “You just asked me that. What’s wrong with you?”

I falter instead of making a joke, the wound too deep to recover from. I take Conversary back to her hostel and return to my hotel. I really wish I saw “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” by myself on my last night in London instead of this, though I know I’ll always make the same mistake, as hopefulness and a desire for adventure always outweigh a life of rejection.

Keep reading: Lonely Planet: Traipsing Around Europe, Part II


Catherine said...

YES! Vicarious travelling is the best. Enjoy your trip and do keep writing. If you wind up in Hungary, I wish you the best of times. When not in Canada, I am in Hungary. It is delicious.

(And if you want to meet more folks, get yourself outta that hotel and into a hostel. I met my husband in a hostel at the South of France - he is the Hungarian connection.)


Benjamin Rubenstein said...

Hey Catherine, I was trying a different writing style by using the present tense, though actually I returned home a few days ago. Maybe I can reach Hungary next time (there will definitely be a next time).

I was trying all different types of travel--to see which I liked best--and I really enjoyed hostels. From now on, I will likely stay at hostels the majority of the time. Thanks for sharing that you met your husband at one, that's so cool.