Sometimes, travel tests you like no other experience! It throws two monkey wrenches into your plans, the entire kitchen sink at your emotional psyche and finishes off by pulling the proverbial rug from underneath you not once, not twice, but several times. Gleefully watching as you fall each time squarely on your tuckus!
This trip, more than any other in my life, had both my girl, Alison, and I feeling as if the travel gods snatched us out of the ocean, threw us up on the beach about 20 feet from the shore, grabbed some popcorn and binge watched as we flailed around like fish out of water, trying desperately to get back to the sea before we ran out of air.
Or zest. Or patience. Or willpower. Or worse, the strength to stay together!
Bill Murray, famous actor/comedian/sage, says something to the effect, “If you really want to know you have found the right partner take him or her traveling for a month. If you make it through that and still like each other, you may be on to something that will last.”
Excellent advice no doubt – then again, he is divorced now!
I have traveled with other friends over long and dusty roads enough times to know how crucial the temperament of your companion is to the overall positive travel experience. A pain in the ass partner who has a hard time adjusting to life on the road is a colossal difficulty to overcome. Inflexible peeps can turn already challenging situations into exasperating ones, crushing the spirit of all those around.
As it stands, when traveling, you are already operating outside your comfort zone, away from your base of operations, unable to follow your daily routine, without the amenities you are accustomed to and often amongst folks speaking in another tongue. When traveling to other spots in the world your own world gets turned upside down, spun in another direction.
It’s easy to be off-kilter, not totally at ease, operating on a heightened sense of awareness and increased energy. So, when the travel world starts crashing down around you, as it surely can and often does, you really need to stay centered as best possible. Staying centered when your environment is spinning and decidedly ungrounded is not necessarily easy.
The trick, as with so many other similar predicaments in life, is to go with the flow. Swimming in uncharted waters requires you to adapt to the tide, the ebb and flow of the current. A trained swimmer knows it is futile to work against the riptide. Let it take you out to sea, then start paddling your way around it.
Thus, if your swimming partner is spastically trying to wade through the riptide back to shore while you are trying to stay afloat and ride the turmoilfurther out to sea where calmer waters can be found, well, you have a precarious dilemma in front of you no? Two people, one bad predicament, two drastically different ways of reacting and both of you going in opposite directions at exactly the time you should be working together.
After a tumultuous time out at sea, in very turbulent waters, I can honestly say my swimming partner and I managed to stay afloat, battle off a few sharks, ride some gnarly waves and eventually make it back to shore without drowning one another. We even saw a few dolphins along the way.
This particular three-week sojourn we took to Europe was such a mix of calamity, ecstasy, frustration, wonder, setback, wackiness and accomplishment all rolled into one big “WTF Just Happened?” it truly is hard to properly relate. Tested like no other time in either of our lives as far as previous travel adventures go, we found ourselves on such a daily rollercoaster of extremes the whole trip left us stupefied for many days upon our arrival back home.
We laughed, we cried, we got knocked down, we fought, we reconciled, we battled, we stood in awe, we ate tantalizing food, we got ran over, we got back up, we visited old friends in older places, we got knocked down again, we had no place to stay, we argued, we stormed off, we reunited, we sat in wonder, we made promises, we sat in silence, we experienced such a cornucopia of emotions it makes the word plethora look like a beggar!
Seriously, in no short order the following happened:
1.) I lost my phone on the flight over.
2.) Our hostel/hotel reservations were messed up not once, not twice but three times a lady…
3.) Alison fell off her bike and smashed her knee and her hip on a metal trolley track
4.) I was hit by a car while on my bike
5.) We lost my passport at the airport for awhile
6.) Alison fell and whacked the back of her head ‘hard’ on a stone sidewalk
7.) I was attacked and assaulted by a pack of 6 Gypsy’s
8.) Alison’s computer was hacked and they stole $1,600 from her account
9.) We misread an email and thus missed a flight, adding $800 extra in fees and five hours wait time in the airport
10.) One night our room was located just above a street party where balloons were being popped all night until 4a.m.
11.) Alison broke the GoPro when she fell
12.) A 280lb. guy on the plane next to Alison had a diabetic attack and fell on top of her, then into my arms. He passed in and out of consciousness at least twelve times until a doctor came some 10 minutes later
13.) We had a room at a hostel with no power and/or heat in late winter
14.) We argued several times, both needing “cool off” periods several times
15.) Alison’s credit card was also hacked and they purchased a new Mac computer for $2,000
16.) All of Alison’s debit and credit cards had to be frozen, leaving her with nothing. Then they shipped her out an emergency visa debit card and… it still didn’t work.
17.) Due to all the chaos, we forgot we had already purchased a one-way ticket for me from Lisbon to Amsterdam, so, we booked another ticket. Thus, we awoke the next morning and I had two tickets to Amsterdam, not Eddie Money’s paradise…
Not a bad list of mishaps for a 21-day period huh? We can both say with sincere honesty nothing remotely close to half of this list has ever happened in all our travels before. Every time we turned around some fucking goofy misfortune befell us. I swear, it was like sparring with Mike Tyson – he knocks you down, your head spins, you shake it off and get back up, he does it again, you do it again and round and round we go.
Normally, maybe half of these situations aren’t that bad when you are at home; comfortably nestled in your world with all the solutions a phone call or quick email away. Or you can at least close the door, crawl in bed, pull the covers up and go to sleep until tomorrow. The bottom line is you can take your time, do it from a place of safety and security, have all the people in the same time zone and speak the same language as those your are interacting with. Plus, you don’t have to pack up and move to a new spot every day or two.
From all angles the challenges came. Every time we had to jump thru hoops, hurdle over obstacles, tiptoe around protocol and/or break down walls. No problem was resolved with one phone call, let alone two emails. Each incident required effort, resolve, patience, forgiveness and most importantly, humor.
And, I am not afraid to say, numerous visits to a nearby church. Lucky for us every church close by happened to be jaw dropping places of spirituality, so we didn’t mind spending time just sitting, waiting for answers, relief or simply a “this too will pass” from the Big Guy in the Sky. It’s quite easy to chill in edifices that take your breath away and display a reverence, from their very foundations all the way to the altar, for sacred and shared places of worship.
We find serenity amongst others who come to such splendid structures in search of solace!
On the flip side, our mental backpacks came home overflowing with memories of spectacular sights, astounding architecture, tranquil parks, quirky and historic cities, a multitude of marvelous monuments, lush botanical gardens, tantalizing food, delectable treats, eclectic characters, newfound dear friends and laugh out loud moments.
We still ended up having a blast despite all the crap. We had four days in Amsterdam, Netherlands, five days in Budapest, Hungary and ten days in Lisbon, Portugal. A great Western European swing encompassing three radically different city’s with wholly diverse vibes. Each place has very unique charms, customs and pulses to them. Not to mention all three having such diverse landscapes which make up so much of the character of the food, the people and the way they interact.
The weather in all places was superb. Alison and I rode bikes all day, every day we were in Amsterdam. Eight to ten hours a day we were exploring the city and all her enchanting little spots. The canals provide a relaxed vibe to this city like no other in Europe. They seamlessly combine urban living in a natural setting. Amsterdam is so touchable, you are such a part of its fabric; you can’t help but relax and revel in infatuation.
We are smitten with Amsterdam. Kitschy, quaint, old school and yet exceptionally modern, filled with all kinds of characters, excellent food, vibrant outdoor lifestyle, and for us, the bikes. They absolutely bring a zest and vitality to the streets unlike every other car crazed urban jungle on the planet. Fun, familiar and funky is how Amsterdam feels to us.
Budapest is just – WOW! Brilliant, imposing, firm, grandiose and stupendous are a few words that come to mind. While the people seem somewhat hard at first appearance, over time you begin to see a very soft and sweet underbelly to them.It’s Eastern Europe, they still remember very difficult times and are not necessarily “out of the woods” when it come to those times. Tough times for extended periods makes for people who don’t smile as often as we hope, but still know and understand what it means to be hopeful nonetheless.
The Danube River gives Budapest her spirit, guides the city’s layout and strengthens its residents. The city sprawls along the river, with majestic edifices, ornate and foreboding government buildings, palatial castles, bridges beaming with charisma and enormous cruising boats gently meandering along, packed with residents and tourists enjoying the incredible panoramic views. Magnificent, stately and grand – Budapest stands tall when it comes to establishing a presence.
I promise to cover more on Budapest in our next edition as it merits it’s own piece, but for now let it suffice that our roller coaster of a trip continued right on through our time in this visually enthralling city. It was here we got to stay in our cozy hostel room with no electricity and heat for a day while it was rather chilly outside to say the least.
Even though we had goofy things transpire here, we also had an emotional zenith. One night, while having a quiet dinner, Alison and I had a very special, emotional conversation. I would call it the last laying out of our cards, so-to-speak. We shared the things we were embarrassed by in our pasts, our harshest failures and deepest foibles. It was epically honest, forthright and sincere. It 100% validated what I saw in this very special woman the very first day I met her.
We left the restaurant around 11:45 and meandered back to our hostel. I said, “Hey, let’s jump inside and grab the camera, go over to the Freedom Bridge, soak up the night and take some pictures.” She replied, “Sure.” I grabbed a box from my bag and off we went into the late night air.
It was the day after the full moon, so the moon was still at 98% and the skies were lit up. The bridge too was aglow, as it stood firm over the Danube. The lights were on at the castle up on the hill, the Parliament building, the statue above the castle on the hill, along with every other bridge and building skirting the river. The night and the views combined for a magical moment that could not be passed up.
It had to be seized! And seize it I did. I dropped down on one knee, said a few sentences of which I can’t remember nary a word but Alison says were lovely, and asked for her hand in marriage. Flabbergasted and completely caught by surprise, she paused for a few seconds to clearly focus on the ring, the entirety of the situation sinking in, and said with a gleam in her eye, “Yes. I would love to be your wife.”
Of course we kissed and hugged, she started to cry tears of joy streaming down her rosy cheeks. Some English ladies were taking a late night stroll over the bridge and happened to clue into what was going on, so when we finished with our moment they came running up to Alison, showering her with congrats and love. Their excitement for her was touching and I know Alison enjoyed the feeling of being able to share what had happened with some one, anyone at all who could appreciate what it meant. Once again, travelers showed us why we adore them so.
On a side note, you have to ask Alison about the rest of the evening. You see, the funny thing about when a guy decides to propose is he has made the decision already. He is way down the road in the process because he had to go get the ring situation all set up. Here I am traveling to Europe, knowing the ring is in my bag, waiting for the right time, freaking out every time we went through an airport that some random baggage handler would stick his hand in my bag and walk off with the ring.
By the time I asked her and it was all done, and we had taken a half hour walk to revel in our new commitment to one another, I was flat out exhausted. Spent. Done. It was time to pass out as the pressure was finally off.
I asked Alison if she would be ok with that. Seeing as how it was now about 1a.m., we were staying in a hostel dorm room with separate bunk beds and I had absolutely zero energy left, she kindly let me do so. Imagine her, all amped up beyond belief, in a foreign country with not a sole friend, and I pass out. God bless her, she stayed up until 4a.m. due to the excitement level and could only show off the ring to the night desk clerk who spoke minimal English.
One of the other splendid events was reacquainting with an old friend now residing in Budapest. I had a friend who taught English with me while we both lived in Korea eight years ago. He was kind enough to show us all around his second home for a number of days. We really bonded on this trip in a way we had not when working together; time and life events had allowed us both to see the other more clearly. Alison and I will forever cherish the time we spent with our dear friend Istvan and his incredible kindness in sharing his days with us.
Lisbon was the final destination on our European adventure, with a full plate of activities and goals on our to-do list. Up until about two or three years ago Lisbon was the best-kept secret in Western Europe, unfortunately that has begun to change. Unfortunate in the sense we always hope places with such a terrific combination of charming people, delicious food, superb sights and affordable costs never lose all these features to the eventual onslaught of those in search for such places. Fortunate for the folks of Portugal though as it is seeing a large influx of investment, which is raising the tide for many citizens.
I was hoping my girl Alison would fall in love with Lisbon the way I had when first visiting the city a year earlier; especially considering we have wanted to find a place for another residence in Europe. Our joint dream was for her to find it as enchanting as me, and then we would look for something to purchase. We were ready, had made all the necessary arrangements and had our hearts set on actualizing this dream.
Low and behold, on our first night seven Gypsy’s assaulted me! Not a great way to start Lisbon off in when it comes to the positive impressions category from Alison’s perspective!
I won’t go in to the details, but it had to do with them trying to sell us drugs and us politely refusing over five times as they followed behind us for a few hundred feet. After the sixth decline, I started to get upset and let the guy know he needed to back off. He did not oblige my request and before we knew it all of his buddies, who came out of the cobblestone cracks like vermin, where all over me. Luckily I fended them off without significant damage, only a few blows to the head and my blood reaching maximum boiling point.
It was also in Lisbon we had hostel issues, noise issues and Alison had both her computer and credit card hacked into. Oh, she was forced to cancel all cards and be left with zippo in terms of anything that could be used as means of currency. Finally, when we first met with our attorney to discuss the amount we needed to spend on a real estate asset in order to qualify for a Portuguese visa we found out the amount was much larger than we had researched – thus leaving us momentarily crestfallen.
It seemed our dream had been snatched from us before we began searching in earnest. We left the lawyer, walked back to our hostel in somewhat a stupor and grabbed a sandwich. I said, “Let’s go to that church you love and sit for a bit.” And we did. We sat there holding hands, having separate conversation with the Big Guy and then we prayed together. After 20 minutes or so, we felt good enough to leave the church.
After taking her to this park I was familiar with we came upon a neighborhood neither of us had visited before. We decided to check it out. Sauntering around various streets we found cute mom-and-pop shops, quaint restaurants, warm residents and tranquil vibes to all be in place. I was commenting how my years in real estate had allowed me to establish a feel for when a neighborhood was about to explode. I felt this particular neighborhood we had happened upon was in that spot presently, with all signs pointing toward rejuvenation.
Alison, an astute real estate investor on her own, agreed. And then it happened. We walked half way up a random street and came upon this exquisite old building with a giant sign on it, of course all in Portuguese. By this point we already knew what for sale was in Portuguese and fixed our eyes on finding those magical words. Boom, sure enough, there they were.
I turned to her and stated with wide-eyed excitement, “This is it! This is the place. This is our home in Lisbon. Everything in my bones says this is where we are meant to be. What do you think?”She looked it over, closed her beautiful blue eyes for a few seconds, opened them and replied, “Yep! This is the one. I love it!”
Immediately, we grabbed the number and called the company. The next seven days were a whirlwind of activity, research, registration and paper signing. Our exceptionally sweet attorney worked over time and on the weekend to ensure all our ducks were in a row, reached out to the builder to discuss all pertinent issues, got us through all the relevant government processes and secured the deal for us. What’s more, it looks like we will be able to make the purchase qualify for the coveted Golden Visa that Portugal offers, which was the hoped for result when we began our efforts many months back.
How amazing! We not only solidified our love for one another on this trip, but we accomplished a goal we both had held for many years, which was to buy our first real estate endeavor in another country. A country we both fell in love with individually, and together. Yes, despite all the turbulence Alison found her own love affair with Lisbon. To the point she volunteered to be the one who stayed for an extra week in order to get all the necessary details worked out on the transaction.
One night we went to an absolutely off the charts Rave and had a blast. The atmosphere was electric, the music was electric and the people were electrified. The first band that played had a guy who just crushed a 12-foot long Didgeridoo for over an hour and a half. Spectacular groove they put out for just three guys on stage playing random instruments. We literally were handed joints left and right, all night long, by other dancing fools attending, always accompanied with a big smile and an “Hola!”
Entirely too many people at the event chatted with us, engaged us in light-hearted banter about America and how goofy it is to the rest of the world right now. Everywhere we turned the whole evening folks could not have been friendlier. At one point we left our bags on the floor and walked around, coming back to them about a half hour later. Nothing was missing, nothing even moved. This is an absolute no-no when you travel: Never, ever leave your bag! Ever. Yet here, we felt, as we did throughout our time in Lisbon, the Portuguese are, for the most part, without guile.
We got there at about 11p.m., after walking up an enormous hill that stretched a mile leading to the top of the campus wherein the event was being held. We left at 2:45 a.m. after shaking our tail feathers for over three hours. As we are walking out the door the bouncer asks, “Where are you going? The party has just started.” I replied, “We had such a great time but we are exhausted, time to go find our beds.”
With a giant a smile on his face he then says, “What? Are you two crazy, the best performer doesn’t come on until 5a.m. You can’t miss out on the fun.” Alison states, “Awww man, that is way past our bedtime.” He turns to the line of people waiting to enter and loudly demands, “Everyone to the right, old people exiting. Give them some space.” He winks at us as we walk by. We start laughing out loud and agree with his assessment, “No denial on that charge here. We are pooped.” Thanking him for the line clearing and wishing him well, we wave goodbye and walk off into the crisp morning air with our hearts and spirits full.
I am going to say something here that some folks may not believe in, but I hope you can understand the sentiment – God is fucking great! He constantly takes care of us. Right after we were down and out, right after we had our spirits crushed and a few bad experiences in Lisbon, we go to a church and give Him thanks. A half hour later He takes us to exactly where we need to be to see our dreams come to fruition.
Believe. Don’t believe. Say whatever you want. It’s cool. I am not evangelizing, nor preaching. Simply stating the facts for my truth. Every time we put our faith in Him, He gets us to the other side. Quite often in better shape than before to be honest, we just have to go through His lessons on the way.Whenever I get challenged, whenever I get stepped on, whenever I need to summon strength I can not muster within – He is always there to provide.
Right along with that belief is the fact my girl and I battled, clawed, took several beatings and had a shiiite load of crap thrown at us and we never, ever gave up on each other or the trip itself. No matter what went down, we did our best to stay calm, cool and collected. And when that failed, we took walks. And when that failed, we took separate walks. And when that failed, we went to churches. Which always lead us back to conversation and reconciliation and peace amongst ourselves.
My girl is tough. She has what they used to call “sand” back in the day. She can take a beating and get back up. She can get thrown into a situation that makes her head spin and find her way back to sanity. She can take the good, the bad and the ugly – all in stride. And all the while still be looking for the silver lining.
She also knows how to find small bits of wonder, glimpses of beauty in odd places and appreciation for all the joy of cultural exchange. She likes to get lost, not follow the maps – which I love. She is not afraid to be adventurous and search for the hidden gems of each place. She, like me, sees the majesty of the world and wants more.
Yep, Bill Murray was right. Travel is indeed a fantastic barometer of how well you can work together, finding a partner who keeps a steady eye on both equanimity and peace in the midst of the most random and challenging circumstances is rare. After this trip, I am confident we can tackle anything heading our way moving forward. My girl and I got game! Go ahead travel gods, throw our way whatever ye may wish, we are still coming back for more.
The road less traveled is still our favorite road of them all.