Yeah, I was abroad in London last semester, though I traveled quite a bit, left town most weekends—got around. Amazing. Best semester of my life. And I figured I’d tell a bunch of my stories at once so I don’t have to keep repeating them over and over again to every single person I run into, you know?
Though London was great, when you’re studying abroad you have to get out a little, get that passport stamped. I got the real backpacker’s view of Europe: hostels; the Eurostar; sleeping on strangers’ couches; and living off free breakfasts and fifty Euro wine. No matter its romantic, low budget virtues, traveling like this is kind of unpredictable.
For instance, you might get thrown out of a hostel in Berlin, or get stranded in the Bratislava airport with no Slovak koruna. Once, I was held prisoner by a taxi driver in Barcelona who smelled like mayonnaise and wouldn’t slow the car until I’d sung along to “Love is a Battlefield” and “Achy Breaky Heart” with him and his mix tape.
Another time, I was having lunch at a family friend’s apartment in Vienna, when she started explaining the original artwork on the walls. “I experiment with the human artist in all her forms,” she said, gesturing to the wide swaths of crusty brown-red on the otherwise blank canvas behind her. “Art is pain,” she continued on. In yet another instance, I encountered a short, balding, Hitler-mustachioed Passport Control official in Berlin whose nametag read Adolf Schiller. And once, a Hungarian policeman grabbed my ass. That was unexpected.
The craziest city? Definitely Prague, where street vendors sell flasks of vodka along with their sausage rolls and tequila shots cost under fifty cents. My first night there, some friends and I found ourselves at this underground bar packed full of Czech men. The only other woman in the place followed us to the bathroom. “Hello excuse me– I with a friend. He sent me to find out how much.” She pointed back towards the bar to a balding, shiny-headed sixty-something whose neck spilled out from the top of his collar.
“He very rich,” she continued. “He pay what you like but he want all three. Only all three or no deal.” She took our stunned silence as hesitation. “Oh—those boys you with? They deal? They you deal? Okay I talk to them.” Apparently, certain bars in Prague are frequented only by Czech men and foreign prostitutes. Take note.
Our later escape from Prague was thwarted when the Amtrak ticket machines were broken and all informational help to fix them was in Czech. By eleven we were starving, and the limp chicken legs our Bulgarian seatmates offered us didn’t look too appealing, so we went in search of food. We found there was no Amtrak packaged-sandwich café but instead a dining car, with white tablecloths and a bow-tied waiter. The Czech-English menu had three items, of which potatoes egg pea soft-meal sounded the least offensive (preferable, at least, to cabbage liver dumpling-stew).
Menus don’t always translate well. Unfortunately, this one did: ten minutes later I was served a lump of grainy mashed potatoes surrounded by frozen peas, with two raw eggs oozing over the top. Yet a better surprise was waiting for us when we made our way back to our compartment (slowly, nauseously), for there, we came upon two men stretched across each row of seats, passed out, naked. Very, very naked.
We slept in the corridor.
I encountered many such problems with long-haul trains. I awoke from a nap somewhere in Eastern Germany only to see that pointed at me from across the hall was an enormous erect penis— its owner having no compunctions about jacking off in full view of spectators. In Girona, I was attacked by a topless obese woman, her pendulous breasts swinging dangerously near me as she accused me in Portuguese of kicking sand on her towel. An old man jogged by my Barcelonan hostel every hot Spanish afternoon wearing a neon blue thong, his ass jiggling despite his body’s total lack of discernable flesh. And it was in an alley in Madrid that I first saw a couple having sex in public—at nine in the morning. Nudity happens.
Well, not in England, where they’re whiter than death and more squeamish than their Continental counterparts. They don’t ever get naked. But do they drink. Pubs are full by four; their denizens are drunk by five. Everyone goes there: I had a pint with my professors; I had a pint with my British grandparents. But not everyone is well-behaved. I saw a guy drink a fifth of Cuervo in thirty-two seconds even. Two septegenarians in a mug-smashing barfight. A thirtieth birthday party with the single rule of “A pint a year.” And—counterpoint—an American friend who tried to do a flaming shot of Sambuca, coughed, and lit his face on fire. With second-degree burns, he was offered a free pint from the smirking bartender.
London itself was thoroughly enjoyable, though I can’t say I lived in the nicest part of town. In fact, Time Out called my neighborhood “notoriously dodgy.” I learned from reading Bleak House that my building stood in the part of Jo’s foul slums where they threw the rotting corpses of the poor fucks who couldn’t afford proper burials. By the time I moved in, it was all heavy traffic and greasy kebab stands, roving drunks and prostitutes, and gangs of loud weedy chavs. My first day there, I saw a kid get thrown to the ground and kicked in the face walking home from school in broad daylight. Two blocks later I passed a pub and watched the same thing happen to a drunk in the wrong football jersey. So much for my neighborhood.
The rest of London, though—amazing. Expensive. A movie ticket set you back twenty-five bucks. Two rolls of sushi: forty. Club entrance: fifty, easy. I thought about that one night at a club in Soho when I watched this gorgeous Brit order Grey Goose service. The waitress carelessly brought Ketel One instead. In response, he grabbed the bottle by the neck and shattered it on the table. His girls screamed as glass shards flew and thousand-dollar vodka showered their multi-thousand dollar dresses. That was society. And I loved it.
In my spare time, I dated a Scottish motorbiker and an Irish 747 pilot. I slept in the Munich-Nord train station and in Eiffel Tower park. I was swindled by a one-eyed man in Ibiza. I was out cold when an Ecuadorian crawled into my upper bunk in a Brussels hostel. I lost my wallet in Berlin and had it returned in Vienna. I crawled up a fire escape in Paris when I got locked out of my room. I drank with Bono, saw Keira Knightly, went for drinks with a Swiss playwright and had Thanksgiving dinner with the Swedish ambassador.
And of course I got high in Amsterdam.