i had seen halstatt. it was one of the things on my list that seemed a little more niche and extravagant, and i hadn’t been sure if i was going to pull it off, especially considering all the adversity i had encountered. but i now had a strong sense of accomplishment and pride in myself for surviving the day, as silly as that sounds. i had faced a number of my biggest fears about solo backpacking all in the same day, and i hadn’t panicked. things had somehow just worked out, which was something i had heard people say before, but the paranoid planner in me had never believed them. i’ve always come from a place that the prepared mind is the one who is granted fortune, which i think still is often true, but i knew there was romance somewhere in the no-man’s-land of spontaneity, and one of my primary goals before i set out on this trip was to force myself into that abyss. it had been uncomfortable, stressful, comical, and… wonderful. i didn’t understand it yet, as i was still decompressing and dissecting the day’s events in my mind, but the seeds of experience had been planted in my mind, and i knew that i was already beginning to change and grow from it.
i also didn’t have a plan for what to do after that. i looked at a map. i had told myself that i wanted to be in spain by november at the latest, but i still had a week before that would be upon me. i had never actually considered switzerland because of how expensive i had heard it could be. but i wanted to go to the mountains, and i was still curious about zermatt. so the next morning i walked to the train station and i bought a ticket on the first train out of town headed to switzerland, without any specific accommodations booked for where i would be that night, or if i could even make it to zermatt (it would take around 7-8 hours by train). i was really going off the cuff now.
i slept most of the way to zurich, waking up occasionally to the swift-passing scenery of white snow capped mountains and green and yellow fields in valleys below the alps. at one point, as i was nodding off to sleep, i smiled at how spoiled i had already become on this trip. in the beginning, every train ride was a photoshopped landscaped experience in fast-forward, to be cherished and enjoyed without missing a second (either because it was so beautiful, or because i’d spent so much damn money on tickets, so i better get every second of enjoyment out of it), and now, i couldn’t be bothered. sleep was so much more valuable to me. if i couldn’t interact with something, i no longer expended energy on it. what a waste i am now, that a leisurely ride on a luxury speed train through the austro-swiss alps is now lower on my priority list than a casual afternoon nap. #yolo.
when i pulled into zurich it was getting late. i hadn’t made a key connection earlier in the day, and it had forced me to wait on the platform of some random austrian border town that wasn’t particularly interesting, and had forced me to take a less direct train running through zurich instead of going straight to zermatt, costing me hours of precious daylight. i decided it best to spend the night here and push on first thing in the morning. as i entered the main terminal, i was taken aback at how big the internal structure was. it’s huge, with big, dark walls and extremely high ceilings with skylights to illuminate the building, and shops lining the walls. i wandered around aimlessly for a bit, but noticed that the dusk light was beginning to fade, and searching for a hostel in the dark is never a fun task.
i wandered down the riverside running through the center of town. zurich was quaint and charming, with a clear sense of direction and order. it was very clean and well groomed, showing nary a graffiti or defacing on any of the buildings, outwardly showing it’s composure of the people of zurich. there didn’t appear to be a lot of room for counter culture here in the city center.
the lights began to flicker and shine their light down on onto the streets. the building tops and notable church steeples were lit up by the necessary floodlights, and light danced off the river creating a wonderful little ambiance about the town. i lingered along the main foot paths, admiring the quiet, controlled beauty of it all. it wasn’t long, however, as always, that hunger started to take the reins and direct be back toward forward progress.
eventually i located a hostel (if you don’t have a phone or anything to search the internet on the fly like me, you can often just walk into the center of a city and follow signs posted for hostels. just keep your eyes open and don’t be afraid to ask local shop owners for recommendations), but not before embarrassing myself. located down a steep side-alley off stüssihofstatt and niederdorfstrasse (yeah. try remembering that after a couple beers), the entrance to “hotel biber/city backpacker” is also the rear employee entrance to the spaghetti restaurant that shares the same building. so naturally i just walked right in, huge backpack and homeless beard and all. all the cooks preparing food turned around and looked at me with blank stares on their faces. i stood in place for a second, then held one hand up with my index finger pointed up and the rest of my hand closed, broke into a sheepish smile, and then backpedaled in reverse back out the door, as if to rewind my mistake. i closed the door and walked up the stairs which i had unwittingly ignored.
it was a long, steep haul up the narrow, spiraling stairs (i think 4 or 5 floors) before i came to a densly packed lobby with only a couple couches, but people sitting on the floor and any spare space they could find, even on folding chairs, all were furiously pecking away at their mobile devices. i quickly deduced that wifi only worked in this room of the building. i went into the main office and checked in. the rooms weren’t anything special but they served the expected purpose. i quickly locked my things into my locker and went out into the night in search of some food.
everything in this town was expensive, and i didn’t really know anything about swiss cuisine yet (again, i was doing this all with zero preparation, so i really didn’t know what to look for, and i had already ditched my lonely planet europe bible at a hostel somewhere in vienna or budapest in order to create some space and free up some weight in my pack. seriously that book is massive. so i had nothing to refer to and give me a couple quick-hitting things to visit and see). i ultimately just settled on an italian place that had a very garrulous owner whomi heard speak at least 4 languages with various different customers over the course of my delightful, if not expensive, gnocchi pasta and wine.
when i returned to the hostel, i noticed as i passed by the lobby room that one of the little ottomans that had previously been occupied by some desperate backpacker’s posterior was now available. i asserted my posterior onto the footrest and connected to the interwebz.
as i browsed, i listened to some of the casual conversations happening around me. i was decidedly older than most of the people in the room, so i was simultaneously entertained and annoyed by the basicness and immaturity of what was floating around. i was impressed however, that people were still interacting despite the very specific reason that everyone was in the room, which was to interact with the digital world, not the real one.
– this next part has nothing to do with nationality or disposition based off where you are from in the world. i include the nationality part only for illustrative purposes.
i noticed a couple very attractive girls in the corner to my left, americans, in a conversation with a british girl. i wanted to be a part of the conversation, if for nothing more than to meet the two attractive americans. i listened patiently, taking note that the british girl had taken on the role of “world weary know-it-all traveler” and was trying really hard to establish her travel dominance over the admittedly less-traveled american backpackers. at some point, the conversation veered toward the american’s time in zermatt. i saw my chance.
“how long did you guys stay in zermatt?” they looked over at the new entrant to the conversation. politely, the blonde, brisha responded, “just a few days.”
“nice, did you like it?”
“yeah, it is so beautiful there, you should go!”
“planning on it. catching a train in the morning. any recommendations on stuff to do?”
we talked for a few minutes about various places to eat or hang out, as well as what hikes to look for and which gondolas to take. the conversation expanded to where else they had been to and where else i had been to. the british travel agent eventually grew restless now that the conversation had been wrestled away from her control. the brunette american, tori, had mentioned something harmless about one of the cities they had been to in europe and the british girl interrupted, correcting her over something trivial and objective, and then asking her a useless and unconstructive question, to which tori had no real response. i jumped in again, coming to her defense, taking counterpoint even though i didn’t really know what i was talking about. i more just wanted to make a point, that this person couldn’t just say whatever she wanted and not be checked in this conversation. i was going to check her.
it really wasn’t that big of a deal, and i probably didn’t need to say anything, as tori and brisha didn’t appear to really be bothered by the interaction, but i was annoyed that there was clearly a little positivity being sucked out of the life of this conversation. regardless, the british girl loosened her grip on the steering wheel of the conversation, and she didn’t interrupt anyone else in the conversation the rest of the night. oops. sometimes i guess i’m just a bull in a china shop.
i had started to share some of my story, just highlights really, nothing too personal, just casual pleasantries and city favorites thus far in the sojourn when another pretty face joined the conversation. devin from california playfully tiptoed over into our corner of the room and effortlessly introduced herself, explaining that she was curious about some of the places we’d all been. eventually we started talking backstories, and devin asked brisha what had brought her to europe. we all sat in awe as brisha explained that she had just called off her wedding and, in the ensuing chaos and family drama and stress, decided to escape to europe for a few weeks until the dust could settle. we were all dumbfounded.
up until this point in my trip, i had yet to meet someone who had truly had a major crisis that pushed them to do something comparable to what i had done and radically change their life by traveling (at least that they’d been willing to share with me about it). for the next 30 minutes, devin and i were spellbound while brisha recounted her story of how she’d slowly gotten into a relationship with a guy that was part of a friend group she’d hung out with for years. they’d gone on a group trip out to the desert and came soon after had started dating. things had gone fine for a couple years, but once they’d gotten engaged, personal and family issues had started to creep up in her fiance’s life, and it had started to alter the way he interacted with brisha in their relationship. she had attempted many times to address these new problems that had been lurking, but had never really been successful. the family drama he had been experiencing had also made it hard for her to really put any added pressure on him, because she was already doing her best to support him through it. eventually though, things had reached critical mass, and it had become clear that getting married at this stage would be a very unhealthy start to something as sacred as marriage. a week before her wedding, she called the whole thing off and left with her maid of honor, tori.
i was knocked on my ass by her story. she had told it with a humility and grace and elegance that made it clear to me how turbulent this had been for everyone involved and that she wasn’t merely being selfish and reckless. she had made a grown-up decision about a life altering event, and she’d made the difficult one, and the right one. i was so inspired, but i didn’t really know how to express it without making it sound like i was celebrating a tragedy. i played it cool and thanked her for her honesty and openness. i told her i was inspired by her refusal to shy away from a tough circumstance, and not go along with the easy road knowing that it might lead to a terrible place later.
after we’d all whiled away a few hours of conversation, i offered that we all hang out again the next day. unfortunately tori and brisha were leaving 1st thing in the morning, this was their last night in europe, they were headed back home to utah tomorrow. devin, however, was up for a little morning wandering of zurich. we all exchanged names and facebook info, of which I was shocked to learn that brisha and tori were sisters. i felt like an idiot, and had never put two and two together, in fact i still was having trouble seeing the resemblance. we had a laugh over the whole thing and said our goodbyes.
the next morning i was sitting in the corner of the small lobby area when devin sat down on the other side of the room facing away from me without noticing i was already there. a few moments later i received a facebook message saying she was ready if i still wanted to hang out.
i replied with an eerily creepy “i’m behind you.”
“creepy!” she quickly replied. my charm remains intact. she turned around and flashed a knowing smile that was just subtle enough to ride below the radar in a crowded room, but that any man lucky enough to be on the receiving end of would feel like the only guy for miles. devin has dark eyes that focus directly at what they are engaged in, they don’t dance around the room and get distracted by the world. when she’s talking to you, you feel special, like you somehow won tickets to hang out with the band before the show and therefor are just happy to be there. she has shorter black hair that slopes down around her head in a carelessly beautiful and playful way. She kinda reminds me of a peak-of-her-game meg ryan. minus the blonde hair. and before the sad facial plastic surgery.
we both checked out, as we were each headed to different destinations that day, so we towed our luggage around while we adventured. devin showed me an app she’d been using that notated all the noteworthy sites in major cities across europe called “citymaps2go.” it seemed like a pretty handy thing to have around, especially since i’d ditched my lonely planet guide and no longer had a go-to reference. devin showed me how you could just bookmark on the map where you wanted to go with a star, and there would often be a short write-up on the significance of the object or location. i made a mental note to download this once i was back on a wifi network.
as we wandered around, i started to inquire about her own background. i was surprised when i learned that her own story was in the same vein as mine, though not as fraught with the same melodrama or conflict as mine. moving to san diego after school, she’d studied psychology at the university of arizona but had gotten a job working for a start-up tech company that she’d actually really enjoyed and been very successful at, carving herself a coveted marketing & business development management role, but the longer she’d been there the further away she had gotten away from what she actually wanted to do, which was clinical psychology. so instead of continuing further with the company and the sales “money game” as she likes to call it, she decided to apply to grad schools and then leave her job so she could travel for a couple months before she starts the next chapter in her life (she’s currently waiting to hear back on her applications. if anyone from fordham is reading, give this girl a ‘yes!’). wow. that sounded nice. i laughed a little internally at my own propensity to be so dramatic with life. devin just made everything seem so graceful and easy.
after we’d been wandering for a couple hours, devin mentioned to me that fondue was the swiss cuisine that they were famous for, and she wanted to go try one of the places we had passed on our walk. i really did need to get going, as i had a long train ride into the swiss alps and i didn’t really know the layout of zermatt very well. getting there late would also be cold once the sun set, but i was really enjoying devin’s company and i knew there was a good chance i might never see this wonderful spirit again. i also was humorously sheepish about the fact that i had never in my life tried fondue before. i didn’t even know what it was, to which devin had playfully laughed at. wisdom be damned, i thought, “the train can wait. let’s eat some fondue.”
we went into one of the places on the street we had been ambling down (these things are easy to find in zurich). one thing i had been noticing about zurich so far was that most of the people i had been seeing around the streets and in the shops seemed a little older, with the hostel being the main exception, and this restaurant wasn’t any different. this isn’t to say that the city was a borderless retirement home, but every city that i had been to thus far had seen plenty of young people everywhere i turned, wandering the streets from bar to bar or scurrying busily to their places of employment. in zurich i hadn’t really seen the same bevy of youth, but there were plenty of middle aged people running the businesses and all the tourists seemed to be of a more “aged” variety.
devin and i were quickly seated at a table in the center of the restaurant, which i wasn’t immediately excited for, as i typically prefer to hide in a corner and observe others when doing something new for the first time, and i was lugging around a giant backpack around which made it quite impossible for me to remain inconspicuous. the universe continues to conspire against my insecurities.
after we had gotten settled in and comfortable, devin thoughtfully ordered the simplest and quickest fondue pot on the menu, trying to be sensitive to my need to eventually get back on the road. i watched as a large, steaming pot of boiling cheese was lowered down in between us and a basket full of small breads with skewers placed alongside. i looked innocently at devin for leadership, failing to show simple comprehension skills. she smiled and gracefully asked the waitress for any quick tips, acknowledging that she was no expert either. the waitress skewered a small piece of bread and then dipped it into the cheese sauce, rotating the skewer in her hand while also stirring the pot in a clockwise motion. she then removed the bread skewer from the cauldron and continued to spin the skewer until the excess cheese dripped off, leaving the piece of bread with an even distribution of delectable melted cheese. devin grabbed a skewer and deftly showed immediate prowess, a culinary athleticism that would be completely lost on me. i immediately failed, losing my first piece of bread in the fiery dairy lava. i watched in panic as my prey was greedily devoured by the sea of cheese, attempting to stab with my skewer and recover my carbohydrated friend. i was much more vigilant in mounting my bread on the skewer on my second attempt, but i had pushed it too far up the skewer and was only able to get cheese on half of the bread. good enough. at least i didn’t have to go fishing this time. as i slowly started to get the hang of fondue, i began to mutter aloud why the hell anyone needed to eat like this on purpose. devin started laughing at me, and eventually i joined in. some people (like me) have been old men since the day they were born.
we began talking about where each of us was headed next. as she walked me down her list of “must-sees” i noticed with alarm that she didn’t have budapest on the list. i suggested strongly that she add it, and then began recounting some of my stories and the reasons why i had loved it so much. by the time i was done, she was ready to apply for citizenship. we continued trading stories and destinations, and excitedly talked about the possibility of catching back up somewhere on the road, though we both knew it was unlikely given our current trajectories (me heading west and her heading east).
we talked about life in general, about the reasons we had each decided to make the changes that we had in our respective lives. i tried my best to soak up her wisdom and peace of mind. people like devin, with their decisiveness and effortless direction, and their vision and grace in action, are increasingly rare in this age. it is born of someone who hasn’t spent their entire life locked into a computer screen or tv, or tethered to a mobile device that demands their attention at all times by constantly offering distraction. people like devin are they who take time to breathe deeply and remain open to the universe, and when the universe offers something up, they have the ability to turn off the world around them and evaluate things with a calm that appears to be lost on much of the world now. devin had perspective and was wise beyond her years. devin was in-tune.
but alas, i had reached zero-hour; it was time to go. i was sad to be leaving devin, but i knew she had a great adventure in front of her, and i still had mine. we went our separate ways and i boarded my train, ready to take on the mountain.
this week’s new aural sensation comes from a band called ezra vine. they released this EP last year and this song “celeste” has been on my spotify account for some time, but i’ve been saving it. this song gets stuck in your head so quickly, you’ll start to wonder if its just been there all along. also, there’s a particularly appropriate section of lyrics for me:
I’m on the road with my clothes in a rucksack
over my shoulder following the whispers
people ask me where I’m going in such haste
follow me here if you’d like to see more of the playlists i am constantly drumming up.
and follow along here as the playlist grows through the year