My memory of my trip to Europe isn’t dominated by places and sights. It is instead filled with little snippets of emotion, of hilarious scenes that played out around me, of endless nights continued even with work the next morning.
Mostly though, my memory is filled with people. People I bonded with; people I forged true friendships with; people I argued with; even people I loved. No matter where you go, no matter what you see, at the end of it all, it’s the people that animate your life that are important. To tell a good story, however, you need a backdrop. These people who made my trip so special; well, they’ll fill in the rest, won’t they?
As many good things do, the idea to get away came upon me in times of despair. I had just come out of a year long relationship and was wondering where my life was headed. I could feel the inertia of all my years in Fredericton pressing in on me, and I knew a change was needed. It was time to get out of the country. And not to the south, oh no. I was headed due east, to a place I’d been before but had no memories of. I was born in Denmark but came to Canada when I was only two, both of my parents being Canadian citizens and wanting to raise their two kids in Canada. I wonder now about if they’d stayed but a Frederictonian I was, like it or not.
I went about recruiting some backup for the trip, instantly turning to two of my best friends, Ian and Matt. They were receptive, providing I found us something to do, of course. I looked at some options through UNB and decided I was going to do this on my own. Nothing offered me the freedom I was looking for that coming summer, so I was recommended the International Experience Canada program, which assists Canadians from the ages of 18-35 in getting work visas abroad.
With the method nailed down, now came the hard part: finding the job. Not only for myself, but for two other Canadian, English only speakers. Quite the challenge. Ian, thankfully, picked up an internship at a German engineering company, so I was down to two jobs to find. Still a tough task, but more manageable.
I don’t believe in miracles, but things worked out unbelievably well after that. My dad and I were sitting on the couch, mulling things over, when he mentioned an amusement park he’d stumbled across online that was in Germany. I laughed, thinking of Matt saying it’d be hilarious to go over and be carnies for a travelling circus. I looked at the website, found someone to email and set about waiting.
A week later I got an email back from a nice woman named Jennifer, informing me of something called the European Summer Program. The program brought younger people from all over the world together to live in a house and work at the park, and Jennifer said she’d be more than happy to have a couple of Canadians along.
“Language isn’t a problem?” I asked.
She responded that it was no problem at all, which surprised me, and I later found out they were really in need of workers or it would have been doubtful for us to be invited. In any case, the ball was rolling, and an interview, a contract and an annoying visa application later, Matt and I were off. We left two days after exams ended. I was ecstatic. I already had a pretty good idea that I’d love Europe, but I couldn’t have predicted how much it would alter the course of my life.
We landed in Paris and took a taxi to a bus station where we finished the day with a 7 hour bus ride to Strasbourg. Matt was not the least impressed, which came back around in many arguments about what we both deemed too long for a bus ride. I was gung-ho about thirteen-hour overnight trips to save money. Matt was not, to say the least.
Strasbourg was beautiful. It was to Paris as Boston was to New York, and I loved Boston. We slept off our jet lag that night and were off on a bus to Europa-Park the next morning, crossing into Germany from France. Jennifer met us at the park where the bus dropped us off and drove us to the neighbouring town of Rheinhausen, which was about a 15 minute bike ride from Rust, the town where the park was located. The final stretch going from the house to the park was wide open farmland split by a bike path and a two lane road, and the sunsets and sunrises made the early and late bike rides all the more enjoyable.
The house was three levels and was a work in progress when we moved in, as this was the first year the program was located there. It extended way further back than you’d expect from the street, and our room was in the back section. There were 12 rooms in the house in total, all meant to fit two people, and I believe the peak was 18 people in the house while we were there.
When we first got there we rounded out what could be considered the original crew, the notables being Jodie and Eloïse from Switzerland, Christopher from Northern Ireland, Nassim from France, Frank from the Netherlands, Neil from England, and of course, our ever present program coordinator Ray from England.
The fewer than 10 of us was the perfect number. There was no real social area in the house besides the second floor, (or first floor to Europeans; we had many a fight about that), so when there were that few of us we could all fit around the kitchen table, which was a booth like setup along the wall with chairs across. Every night at the start we would gather around that table, playing stupid games or just talking. Thankfully for Matt and me, everyone in the house spoke English. The atmosphere was electric.
Some people in the house were also happy to see Matt and me because we weren’t theme park nerds. Let me assure you, this is a thing that exists. Theme park nerds—a rare breed. Someone who I won’t name exclaimed to me when I first got there that “it’s all they talk about!” That may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but not by too many degrees. One guy loved to talk about omnimover rides, and I’m still not sure I know what that means.
I did appreciate their passion, however. That’s something I can always get behind. As long as someone isn’t always shoving it in your face, there’s nothing better than listening to someone speak on something they’re passionate about.
The trip was the first time I'd been away for an extended period of time, and also my first time living alone. I truly felt at home there. I’ve learned I’m adaptable like that; I wasn’t even a little bit homesick the entire time. I may as well have been spending the rest of my life there, and that wouldn’t have bothered me a bit.
Working at the park the first few days was quite the culture shock. Out of the crew of around 15 people whom I worked with the entire summer, 5 of them spoke pretty good english, another 5 spoke broken english, and the rest spoke basically no english. It was a challenge, but a challenge I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m happy I feel that way about challenges, because there’s no way to feel differently and be successful. If you’re in the same routine, doing the same things for too long, then you will get ingrained, you will get apathetic. The summer shocked me out of my apathy, and it was all the better if I enjoyed every minute.
Since the park was right on the border of France they got a lot of French guests, which benefitted me because my French was a lot better than my German. I got along surprisingly well, and picked up the work phrases I needed in German quickly.
It would still happen quite often that I wouldn’t understand a guest at all when they spoke German. My go to line was “English or un peut Francais” and we usually got around the problem. The guests would often point at my nametag which indicated that I spoke English and German, to which I shrugged and replied it was wrong. Very rarely, probably once every few weeks, a guest would just sigh, turn around and walk away. I took it as a personal victory that it rarely happened.
The worst was when a little kid would come up to me and start speaking German and I didn’t understand. That was when I felt really stupid: when I had to try to get them to speak English and they gave you that look that only kids can give you, like you’ve failed their expectations for what an adult should be capable of. I normally don’t get outclassed by children, I swear, but in Europe I was playing with a light deck.
I worked on a massive wooden roller coaster, one of the four really good coasters in the park, and we got a lot of traffic. That was one of the things I appreciated, was never being bored. The only times I can remember no one being in the queue line was when we had to stop running the ride due to torrential rain or thunder and lightning.
There’s not much else to say about the job or park really. It was a great setup. I worked four days on, two days off, four days on, three days off, repeat. The shifts averaged ten hours and we got a free meal for lunch at the canteen, which was usually great. The park really was world-class; it was the second biggest in Europe, right behind Disneyland Paris. Between all that and free housing, it was an amazing opportunity.
I got along with everyone in the house very well, and it kicked off quick. The first night I was there I went out to one of the hotel bars with Jodie and Eloïse to have a few drinks. Now there was a fun pair, Jodie and Eloïse. They seemed to be such good friends that I assumed they had known each other beforehand, but no, they were from different parts of Switzerland, albeit still French speaking parts.
Jodie and I were always yelling different phrases at each other, the one I remember best being “FOOD LOOP,” referring to a massive pyramid restaurant in the park that jutted high into the sky. She also let Matt and me use her extra phone she had as a hotspot in our room at night since we were so far away from the Wi-Fi router. That was awesome while it lasted.
Eloïse was the person I was closest to when I first got there. It was when we were one on one that we had our best talks, out walking, mid-May when the nights were still cool. In groups it’s almost impossible to talk seriously about anything, and I appreciated the alone time with her. Things ended up souring as time went on, and looking back, I regret how I handled things. I hope she knows how much I enjoyed those nights at the start.
The other funny thing with Eloïse and me was that one of the guys who was there at the start that I didn’t really like was, for some reason, very interested in us. I didn't have to deal with him for too long, thankfully, since he had some problems in the park and quit.
He was one of those guys who would have a girl look sideways at him and he’d think she was in love with him. We were walking back from the grocery store one day and he told me something to that effect, about how Eloïse was hot for him when they’d all first gotten there and that I should “watch out.” He then went on to talk about the ins and outs of online dating for some reason.
I’ll never understand people like that who will tell you things and not consider what your relationship is. I was clearly going to tell Eloïse about this since we were closer than I ever was to this guy. It’s not exactly rocket science. Boy, let me tell you, things were icy between Eloïse and him after that. I thought it was pretty obvious where that shift had come from, but I wasn’t too concerned about him putting two and two together. He was one of those guys who had the talk but absolutely nothing behind it.
By far the worst part of the summer was also near the start, in the first few weeks. I never lose anything, and I somehow managed to lose my wallet with €200 in it. I went to the local Bürgerhaus (not a restaurant as I first thought; it was the town’s government building) and filed a report, called the police about it, and searched everywhere, to no avail. A couple days after I had ordered replacement cards a new French girl named Angéline moved into the vacant room near the front door. That night she presented me with my wallet, which had been wedged into the side of the top bunk’s mattress.
“How’d that get there Jack?” Matt asked knowingly.
I looked as befuddled as I could and smiled. “I’m not quite sure.”
Our program coordinator Ray was not so much viewed as a coordinator as he was viewed as another housemate who happened to live elsewhere. He had been a part of the program in its inaugural year only four years prior, and he had stayed at the park and moved up to a leadership role. He was a riot, always ranting about how I needed to keep the Jack Daniel’s away from him because he always got either violent or emotional when he drank it. He was part of a few incredible nights out, two of which merit retelling.
The first was very early in the trip, maybe a week in, and Ray was looking to go out to a club in the neighbouring town of Lahr. The only problem was that if we all wanted to drink, we’d have to take the train home, and it didn’t start running again until 5 a.m. in the morning. A cab was out of the question; it would’ve run us probably €80.
Ray arrived that night and told me he was feeling rather morose and didn’t want to drink but still wanted to go out. Problem solved. The only person I could convince to also come out was Eloïse, which just shows how close we were at the time.
The club was called Fröhlichs Kneipenklub, and it was probably the best place I went out to the whole summer. A little bit of an older crowd, but the main advantage was that 50 or so percent of the songs they played were in English, which was a hell of a lot more than you could expect in other places.
Ray told me a German phrase I should say to people, “alles klar,” which apparently means “how are you,” or at least something similar. So there I was, hammered, walking around saying “alles klar” to everyone in the club. There were a group of women who had veils on, which I thought was either a strange outfit choice or a strange place for them all to be after a wedding. I threw my line at one of them and she stopped, stared at me, and yelled something in my face. I was unfazed, and quickly turned back to Eloïse to keep talking.
Ray leaned over to her, curious, and asked what she had said to me. She repeated it and he slapped me on the shoulder.
“You know what she said? Ich fich dich nicht!” Ray shouted at me. After he translated it for me, I have to say, I was a little heartbroken.
The second was the most incredible night of my entire trip. It started off slow, as I wasn’t really in the mood to drink before we left the house. It was Ray, Nassim, Jodie, Neil and me who were getting ready to go out, but before we could, Ray noticed that Neil was wearing a theme park shirt.
“Mate… you can’t wear that out,” he said, his voice filled with a joking defeat.
Neil went upstairs and changed into another theme park shirt, and then back upstairs to change into yet another theme park shirt. We were all sitting in the downstairs kitchen losing our minds with every walk of the runway. He finally came down wearing his uniform/costume for the water ride Poseidon he sometimes worked on, and Ray put his head on the table in anguish.
Old Neil; what a character. He was one of a kind. He didn’t always say much, but his jokes were killer. He had the thickest British accent I’ve ever heard and I absolutely loved it. It was half the reason I laughed at his jokes, but make no mistake, he was funny. He had a slow delivery that built beautifully to whatever he said, and his surveying of the room after was incredible.
Even funnier than his jokes were his attempts to communicate with one of the French girls in the house. God bless her soul, she truly couldn’t understand him with his accent. That’s one thing I learned over there is that, by and large, our North American accent is a lot easier to understand than the British accent.
We eventually got Neil sorted out and went to a club called the Atlantis House of Music in the neighbouring town of Herbolzheim. We got there and I had a drink but stayed sober the rest of the night. Neil was feeling himself, drifting back and forth to the music with a beer in both hands. Nassim was also rather drunk, having started on some wine back at the house.
The night progressed until we were all sitting in a booth at the back with Nassim’s head in his hands on the table, clearly very drunk. Neil and I were snapping pictures, laughing, having a good time, when suddenly, Nassim turned to his side and threw up on the floor right next to us. Neil and I grabbed him and walked him to the washroom, where on the way he threw up in the middle of the dance floor which we had to cross, and again in the bathroom before he made it to the toilet.
By far the funniest part about it was that Neil went and talked to the club workers and they gave him a pair of gloves, a bucket and a cloth to clean it all up. So there we were, Neil and I, in a club in Germany cleaning up a friends puke, laughing hysterically the whole time. Neil kept yelling in to Nassim that the Brits had saved France in the Second World War, and now here they were again, a Brit cleaning up after a Frenchman.
We were back out near our table cleaning up a little later, and I ran back to the washroom to check on Nassim. I noticed as I got to the door that two large German men, one in a kilt, were walking into the washroom ahead of me. I waited, and watched them both walk into the same stall, right next to Nassim. I swear this was the most insane night of my life. Special shout-out to Jodie for taking a few of my favourite pictures ever.
We eventually got Nassim into a cab and home, no thanks to Ray, who had not moved from the booth the entire ordeal. He could be excused though; he’d had some Jack Daniel’s. We could tell he was screwed up when we were looking for him back at the house and eventually found him standing outside of the side door, staring off into space. Not smoking, not doing anything; just standing there. He couldn’t even believe that when we told him the next day. It was the Daniel’s he said: liquor of the devil.
A month in I went on a trip to a theme park near Cologne with Frank and Christopher. Oh, Frank. We had our fights, but I do miss him. Probably the premier theme park nerd, and he knew his stuff.
The park was called Phantasialand, and because Christopher was a dual citizen since his grandparents lived in Cologne, he had spent a lot of time there growing up.
The trip was great, but what I remember best is Christopher, a man who loved Cologne. It made the trip immeasurably better to have someone along who knew the city so well, who could tell you about its history during the war and after, the everlasting construction on the cathedral which, if completed, would signal a coming apocalypse. He took me to the Gestapo headquarters museum, and some of the quotes carved into the prison cell walls are still burned in my mind.
Christopher was one of the best friends I made in Europe; he and I always had fun, as I remember us hurling pens back and forth at each other when I first got there, but as time rolled on we became really good friends. He’s maybe the first friend I’ve had who I really felt I could talk to and be honest with, not be self conscious and protective. One of those people you could stay up with and wonder where the hell the time went when a new day hit the clock.
Matt and I also owe him thanks for getting us to the airport at the end of our stay in the house. We left incredibly early, yet still almost missed our flight due to a fiery crash ahead that delayed us two hours. We got there with little time to spare and made our flight to Milan. Christopher was probably on the road for more than eight hours that day thanks to our little airport detour. Many thanks, my friend.
More and more people came into the house in the next two months. There was Aryane, Marguerite and Jon, 3 more Canadians surprisingly; Cléah and Lydie, two more French girls; Tom from the Netherlands; and Abbie, Toshi, Julian and Fionn, from Ireland. Toshi was actually Irish Indian which was quite an interesting combination.
There were more people, of course, but I’ve chosen my moments, and what’s here is good enough for me. There were trips to neighbouring towns, on the hunt for theatres playing movies in English. There were nights down the road and to the right, out into the farmland, brilliant flashes of life in the moonlight. There were evenings in the kitchen with certain housemates, feeling them out and being excited for where things could head. There’s nothing quite like falling; the weightlessness and the indelible belief that you’ll never hit the ground.
None of that is here, and I think that’s okay. Some of it’s just for me and, of course, whomever I shared the time with.
Abbie and Julian were dating, which I’m pretty sure no one knew at the start, or at least I sure as hell didn’t. The more time went on the more it seemed obvious that they were. You never know though, because I could’ve sworn Toshi and Fionn were together, but Toshi laughed at me when I asked her if they were. I finally just asked Julian about it and that was a very weird conversation. He responded yes, and I didn’t really have anything to say besides “Good for you, bud.”
Julian was quiet with a pretty good Irish accent on him, and I constantly felt like an idiot having to ask what he had just said. That Irish accent though. I really did love it. Fionn was his brother, and he was a little bit louder. His thing was that he was almost always talking out of his ass; he never broke character. I wouldn’t be surprised if he told me now that he didn’t say one truthful thing the whole time I knew him.
Abbie was a housemate with whom I really got along. The first night Lydie got to the house we all went out to one of the hotel bars, but for some reason Abbie and I were the only two who got drunk. That was also one of the original people’s last nights there, and it was kind of awkward because at least one person seemed a little overjoyed to see them go. Abbie and I had fun at least. Sticking with the mistaken relationships theme, Lydie later told me that she thought Abbie and I were together, in part due to that night. Not quite dear, just the only two drunkards.
I love to argue and spar with people I really like, and Abbie was one of those people I could go all night with. I couldn’t even say what the hell we talked about half the time, but it was always a ton of fun. She’s one of the ones I really miss.
Speaking of women I miss, that list isn’t complete without Cléah. She was, at the time she got there, the only person who went to work in the shopping section of the park. For context, there were four divisions that ESP people worked in: attractions, gastronomy (food and beverage), shopping, and hotels. Attractions was considered the best division due to the four day weeks, and according to Cléah, shopping wasn’t the greatest. It got better for her, thankfully, but I always hated it when people came into the house and had trouble in the park.
Cléah was always so much fun, and I hold it as a great testament to her that she was always so lively. That’s not an easy thing, to always be on, and I think that’s just how she was. I liked that because I’m very similar in the way that I’m always in a good mood when I’m with a few other people. We never failed to throw comments back and forth at each other, and she always put a smile on my face.
The most memorable clash we had was when I heard that she thought I was eating an awful lot of pasta. First of all, it was a hilarious thing to hear second hand, like some kind of delicate secret, spoken behind my back, was being revealed to me. Secondly, it was true, but in my defense, it was such a cheap way to eat. One package that cost less than a euro was good for three meals, and other than that you just needed some sauce and shredded cheese for a damn fine feast.
The night that I heard, I came after her in the kitchen about it, yelling gibberish about how I was being oppressed for my love of pasta. Cléah, in fine form, didn’t miss a beat coming back at me. She was sharp, so she was fun to do that kind of stuff with. Even in her second language, which was very impressive. Old Christopher was even better friends with her than I was, and I was happy for both of them on that front.
One interesting feature of the house was a massive window in the middle-floor gathering area that looked out onto a side path leading to where we stored our bikes. Not long after Tom got there, Matt was out front throwing eggs around with Jodie and Eloïse for some reason. I decided it would be fun to stick my head out of that window and play some catch with Matt, see how long we could avoid a cracked egg.
I was really leaning for some of these catches, and on one of the furthest ones out I felt my feet come off the floor. Don’t worry, I still caught the egg, and good old Tom grabbed me around the ankles to keep me in the house. Thanks for having my back, Tom.
Sometime around the middle of June the park started a weekly event called the After Park Lounge, which was centralized in the Icelandic themed area of the park. It always went late into the night, long after close. The house usually went out to these, even though a lot of our work schedules didn’t give us weekends off at this point, including mine. That didn’t really stop most of us.
By far the cheapest drink there was a glass of white wine which was €3.50. Look, I’m not saying I’m a lightweight, but I am saying that since I hated white wine and had to chug it, I could get a good buzz going after two drinks. I had a few more, we eventually went to one of the hotel restaurants for a bit, and I finally biked home a lot later with Matt. I think I went into the tall grass on the side of the bike path once or twice, but I can’t be sure.
By the time we got back I wasn’t feeling too hot, so, as you do, I decided to sleep in the washroom. No, I did not pass out, it was a conscious choice. If you think you may throw up, why wouldn’t you sleep in the washroom? Who wants to puke in their bed? Anyway, I apparently didn’t remember that I was living with other people so I was woken up by a gaggle of housemates and taken to Neil’s bed since it was right near the washroom and he was away for the weekend. By the way, Neil, I slept in your bed if you weren’t aware. And you better believe I still made it to work the next morning at eight.
My favourite person in the entire world is Bob Dylan, and when I saw that he had tour dates in Germany, I knew I had to go. The problem was the only date that worked was the night before an ESP Day, one of several house excursions the park took us on. Plus, it was in Erfurt, a city that was a solid 6 hour train journey from Rheinhausen.
No worries, I thought. I’ll just take an overnight train and arrive the day of the concert, see Dylan, then hop back on another overnight train and get picked up at the train station that morning in Herbolzheim. This plan was rife with problems, the first being the unreliability of Germany’s trains, but I’ll get to that eventually.
The first hurdle was the fact that I'd be arriving in Erfurt at six a.m. and the show wasn’t until seven that night. The only flaw in my plan (besides the fatigue) was having absolutely nothing to do in Erfurt for a full day. It was cold for some reason to top it off, in July of all months.
If I had been thinking straight, which I clearly wasn’t, I would’ve used my old hotel trick. Hotels are great because they don’t ask any questions and walking into most will hardly earn you a glance. Find a spot with a couch on one of the higher floors and you’re set. You could probably hang out in the lobby with no questions asked if you don’t look homeless.
In any case, I didn’t think of the hotel trick and instead passed the time walking. I also killed a few hours sleeping in a bookstore, and after the longest day of my life, I saw Bob Dylan. Seeing him play “Simple Twist of Fate” was a crushing sort of ecstasy I’m not sure I’ll ever feel again; the thought of time gone by, missed opportunities and a reminder of what could make life so beautiful, even when it came from dark places. Every single hardship to see him was worth it. And it was going to get worse.
I got back to the train station in plenty of time, but I noticed that my train had been delayed. Ok, fine, I’d get a later connection at my next stop and still make it back in time. A few minutes later, however, the train was completely cancelled. I proceeded to stand in a group with everyone else that was waiting for that train for a few hours while several train station employees discussed what to do with us.
Finally, with the possibility of a bus ruled out, the train company called ten different taxis to take us on the almost three hour drive to Frankfurt, where our train had been headed. I’d been chatting with a Greek girl named Lydia the entire time, and we grabbed one of the first cabs out with a father and son tandem.
Lydia and those two were both going to the airport, and that’d be our first stop. The kid was in the front and Lydia was jammed between the father and me in what was a most uncomfortable setup. It was still pretty cool looking back considering that the taxi probably cost upwards of €500 and I paid zilch for it.
When we got going the cabbie asked the father and Lydia what time their flights were departing. Lydia had plenty of time; the father’s was in two hours. He and his son were screwed, right? Not with a determined cabbie and not on the Autobahn they weren’t. I swear on my life that this man kept the car tuned above 200 km/h the entire drive, only broken by an eerie stop among a field of transport trucks to use the washroom.
It was exhilarating being in a car moving that fast and knowing that if anything happened you were dead, especially considering it was two in the morning and there was still a smattering of traffic on the road.
We made it with time to spare, and I wished everyone luck as they grabbed their bags. I waved goodbye to Lydia, and I was actually kind of sad. Isn’t it funny, people like that, who come into your life for such a short period of time, but since it’s such a crazy moment you know you’ll never forget them? I’ll never see Lydia again, but I won’t forget her.
I eventually got dropped off at the main train station, caught my train, took another two trains, and was back in Herbolzheim at eight a.m. sharp. I started to walk back to the house and one of the three vans that we were travelling in picked me up on the way. It was the most mind-bending trip of my life thus far, and I think I'd be okay with it remaining as such for the foreseeable future.
I was running on zero sleep in the previous 48 hours, and I was pretty groggy the entire day at the theme park, Tripsdrill. I was mad later as well because that was to be Christopher’s last day in the house, and I was so screwed up that I didn’t really act accordingly, you know? Things can hurt even more when you feel you’ve failed, and that’s how I felt when Christopher reminded me that night back at the house that he was leaving. I’m glad he was back to see Matt and me off.
One last night perhaps, just for old times sake. It was near the end of my stay at the house, and the park was putting on a barbeque for all their different special programs. There were two other distinct factions there: a group of around ten Chinese women and a group of a dozen or more Eastern European men. I never did figure out what either group did.
I pick this night because it’s the last one I can remember where everyone in the house was there. I may be forgetting a person or two, but I believe we all showed up for at least a bit, 19 strong, including Ray. Jon and I were rather animated the whole night as he took advantage of the free booze and tried to get me to drink some wine.
Jon was quite the character. That man slept three hours a night, partied hard and still found the energy to be the most exuberant person in the house. He was from Toronto, and we joked that it’d be better if I made the trip to go see him, rather than him coming to New Brunswick, an undeniably less exciting region of Canada.
I was absolutely not feeling it at that moment and deferred my drink to Matt, who wandered away and mimed a drink while throwing it out over his shoulder.
Unbeknownst to Matt, he was standing near the electrical outlets, which he nailed dead on with the wine. I guess it was built for that though, because the lights stayed on. Everyone started to head out a little later, deciding to go to one of the hotel bars for the rest of the night.
I hung back slightly because the place was just wrecked, and it was only a guy named Felix left behind to clean it up. It was just him, Toshi and Nassim left besides me, and Nassim was firing on all cylinders. He was getting into weird arguments with two of the Eastern European guys who were left, and it was just about time for us all to get out of there.
Toshi clearly didn’t want to go to the bar that night, and I was sober and not feeling very much like it either. So, I told Nassim we’d catch up to him, he set off, and Toshi and I biked back to the house. This is another one of those great memories I have that involve me and one other person, just talking.
On the bike back we laughed about a discussion Toshi and one of the other girls in the house had that was a total lie on Toshi’s part, which I had suspected. We talked more about Fionn, about her university dorm in Poland, about dorm life. We got back to the house and sat down in the kitchen and talked some more. The rest of them from the bar got back before we knew it.
Looking back now, I really question some of the decisions I made regarding girls. Let’s just say I got along better with certain people in that house compared to the people I was involved with. In any case, it’s too bad that night was only two weeks before I left, as there were people, like Toshi, whom I was really starting to get along with.
Leaving the house was bittersweet. Had I been going straight back to Canada at that point it would have been awful, but I had a little more time in Europe to look forward to. Still though, I was leaving my home for the last three months, and it had truly felt like home. The last night was strange. I remember it as sad more than anything. Just sitting around the classic middle-floor table. Every laugh carried the weight of being one of the last.
Nothing makes goodbyes any easier, you know? Having no way to know what the future holds, what circumstances will dictate. Not knowing if you’ll ever see certain people again. It’s hard to say goodbye to a place and people that made you so happy. It always makes me think of an old The Catcher in the Rye quote.
“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone.”
Before I start to wrap it up, just two more related anecdotes centering on events outside the confines of the house in Rheinhausen. The first is the alienation I felt when I came back to Canada. I’ve always felt a little bit out of place, never sure of where I fit or what I was meant to be doing. In Europe, I found a place and a situation that made me very happy, happier than I can remember being.
Sure, that feeling will happen coming back from any trip you go on, but I really wasn’t happy to be back, and the feeling never went away. I’ve been home now for three months and I don’t feel any more in place.
That feeling is crystallized best in my reaction upon landing back in Fredericton versus landing back in Germany. Fredericton was horrible. I didn’t feel at home at all, and besides seeing my family, I wasn’t excited for anything. It was a truly bizarre coinflip to how I thought I should have felt, and I didn’t fully understand it until now.
When Matt and I travelled in August we were gone from Germany for about three weeks before I flew back into Stuttgart from Copenhagen on my way to a small town in France. Landing back in Germany was one of the most singular feelings of my entire life. In an almost unbelievable way, it was one of the highlights of the entire trip.
I really, truly, missed it. It felt like home. I missed the language, I missed the trains; hell, I even missed the train station sandwiches. I had felt something in Germany that I’d never felt before: a sense of belonging. Because we were all wayward travellers in that house in Rheinhausen, far from where we grew up, testing out the waters with a brand new experience. And I fit. There’s nothing more to it than that. I just fit.
So, what to do? I’ve managed to get an exchange, and I’m gone next semester. I’ll see how long I can possibly stay away. I'm going to chase where I feel at home. Consider this my goodbye; to my family, to my friends and especially to The Bruns. I will miss the team. I’ll still be a contributor, but it won’t be the same, will it. Nothing will. Man, am I ever excited.
Coming close to the end of this makes me consider the nature of the work itself, of time gone by, of words on the page.
There’s something about writing for me that’s very therapeutic. Even the bad memories, even the great memories with people that have chosen to leave my life, they all hurt a little less when I write them down. That’s what this is, I think: the only therapy I’ve ever tried that works.
Writing has always called me back, again and again, as a way to try to understand life, sort through its meaning. Maybe even to try to capture it. That’s what we all do, after all: try to freeze in time moments that defy borders. Moments with such emotion and liveliness and context; moments where anything seemed possible and the darkness wasn’t so dark. Their very nature makes it impossible to fully capture them. But it’s what we do.
I sometimes wonder about living forever. Not in any physical or mental sense, but in the way Shakespeare lines will forever echo in my brain. The grand tradition of literature; it’s one of the only ways to become immortal. Knowledge and words and language can make us indestructible, even at our weakest.
None of this matters to long dead Shakespeare though, one could counter. I agree. But there’s still something so romantic about it. You have to get through life somehow. I am aware of my cognitive dissonance, of knowing life has no meaning yet still searching for it and believing in it.
To me things aren’t meaningless. Nearly endless nights with your friends back in high school. The torrid beginnings with someone you’ll grow to love. Christmas dinner with family, nearly blowing the roof off your house with all the yelling and laughter. These things all matter because it’s about finding personal meaning in a cruel world. Yes, everything will one day end, but it wouldn’t be so damn beautiful if it lasted forever.
I’d say that’s about it. Matt and I travelled Europe all of August, meeting up with Ian for part of it. I got to see my childhood home in Denmark. I remember standing outside it and thinking that everything was in flux. And that didn’t scare me; that’s the best way for things to be because it meant anything was possible. Being over here... it really felt like anything was in my grasp. I may have been going back to Canada, but anytime I thought about settling for less I could remember Europe, remember what was waiting. The world.
Really though, there’s not too much to speak of from that month that fits in with what’s here. Maybe another time. There’s always the next story. Crazy to think that one day, the next one will be the last one. Best to keep that thought stowed away for now.
There is, however, one lingering thought I can’t seem to shake. What does it say about me that I felt most at home in a veritable halfway house in a small town in Germany? Maybe it only means that it was new, that it was a challenge. That for now there’s no one place I feel most at home because there’s always the next place ahead, the next opportunity. Maybe it’s okay to have no direction home.
Christopher, Cléah, Jodie, Eloïse, Neil, Toshi, Abbie, Julian, Fionn, Ray, Nassim, Jon, Frank, Tom, Angéline, Lydie, Marguerite, Aryane. A list like that looks so neat. Crazy to think about how much each name holds, about the universes that collided that summer.
Writing this has made me realize that there’s no one person or one reason that made Europe so special for me. It was the incredible food, the rich culture, the challenge of language, the architecture, the dense history, and of course, ALL the different people I met. I’ll enjoy whatever comes in the future. There’s no telling who I’ll see on down the road a-ways.
And so that’s the end of that chapter. Another one lies ahead. Things change so fast. You look back and wonder where the time went. Looking ahead though, you remember how much time you still have to write your story. Mine won’t be written in Fredericton. It may be a harder story to write, but I never asked for easy; all I’ve ever needed was a chance. And the one thing about chances: sometimes you have to create your own.