“We do not remember days, we remember moments.”
– Cesare Pavese, Italian poet and novelist.
As I write this, I’m sitting on a bus en route to Munich from Prague. To my left: my friend Garrett. To my right: a window with a view to the world.
Morning haze. A babbling stream. Train tracks. Green pastures. A handful of red clay-roofed houses looking up to a proud steeple. Rolling, wooded hills as far as the eye can see.
I’m listening to Kanye West’s new compilation album Good Music, Cruel Summer. Jury’s still out on whether I actually like it, but the intro music in the first track “To The World” seems to fit the sights and my mood:
Faint introduction. Electronic string orchestra pizzicato. A deep, slow bass line underlying a confident beat. Melodic voices fading into the atmosphere.
The combination of visual and aural stimuli is inspiring me. And I’ll take inspiration however it comes. I feel the lightness of endless possibility. I’m free, liberated. Must always remember to appreciate this feeling.
I reflect on my past sixteen weeks on the road. A couple thoughts come to mind.
First, it’s hard to believe I’ve been vagabonding and homeless for sixteen weeks. I’ve hit points of exhaustion, but as a whole I’m still happy to be on the road. I’m learning more about the world and myself everyday.
Second, I realize this trip feels less like one continuous journey and more like a series of separate, unrelated trips. Each trip could potentially have existed on it’s own. But each trip is best understood in context of the other trips and the journey at large. As the locations and people change from trip to trip, the only constant is me.
Maybe it’s similar to an album, made up of separate, seemingly unrelated tracks. Each track can stand alone on it’s own, but it’s best understood in context of the other tracks, the album as a whole, and the musician’s body of work. The featured artists, beats, and melodies may change throughout the album, but through it all, the artist is the constant.
So if this journey is like an album, the tracks (so far) would be:
1. Iceland feat. Steve & Mike
2. UK and Ireland feat. Mike
3. Solo in Ireland
4. Recharging in London
5. Solo in Lithuania
6. Scandinavia feat. Mom, Dad & Rick Steves
7. Solo in Estonia and Latvia
8. Copenhagen, Berlin, Poland, Prague & Oktoberfest feat. Garrett
Just like the tracks on Kanye’s album, each trip begins immediately as the previous trip ends. Sometimes there’s a moment of transitional silence to reflect on the previous track and anticipate the next, but it’s usually brief.
Track 6: Scandinavia feat. Mom, Dad & Rick Steves
As I walked through the door of the Nordic Sea hotel room in Stockholm on August 12, a new track started. It didn’t build up or slowly unfold. Nope. It kicked off in full force with a soul-rocking beat, dramatic fanfare, and a familiar melody. I knew it was coming, but it still startled me. The melody was one I liked, but I wasn’t done jammin’ to the last track!
Of course, I was thrilled to see my parents — I love them to death. I drop my bags. We kiss and hug. As expected, they comment on my unruly facial hair. Also as expected, a question:
“What took you so long? We were worried about you!”
Instead of the express train my mom suggested, I found a bus for half the price and twice as long. I used the time to read up on Stockholm and learn some Swedish words. It’s liberating to embrace travel time not just as a means to an end. When used for learning or reflection, longer travel time is sometimes more valuable.
The conversation quickly went to their flight over, my brother and sister, and happenings in our hometown, Chagrin Falls.
Suddenly in my mind, I’ve transported back in time. I’m sitting at my parents’ house in Chagrin. We’re in the living room. I’m home from college or visiting for the holidays. Trips 1 through 5 feel like a distant memory, even dream-like. For a moment, I wonder if the previous weeks even happened at all.
What if I lose everything I’ve learned along the way? About myself. About travel. About the world. I still have so much to learn.
I realize the next few weeks will challenge me. Solo travel is liberating, but it’s selfish. I need to remember what it’s like to play nice with others. More importantly, I need to learn how to easily transition between the two. I’m no longer on my own agenda; I’m part of a team. Knowing my wallet would get a break for ten days really helped me get on board with the new agenda.
As for an agenda, we actually didn’t have much of one. We eventually decided to spend most of our time in Stockholm and Estonia, with a quick stopover in Helsinki, Finland in between.
My parents were surprisingly energetic after an overnight flight, so we decided to set off and explore the streets of Stockholm. Sweden’s land mass is huge — the 3rd largest in EU. If you look at a detailed map of Sweden, it’s speckled with thousands of lakes. It’s no wonder so many Swedes settled in Minnesota. Some parts like Stockholm are basically just a collection of islands.
We walked around the streets of Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s Old Town, which is mostly on the island Stadsholmen. Our first meal was a healthy portion of Swedish meatballs. Since we were in the main tourist area of the city, I’m positive these weren’t the best meatballs the Swedes had to offer.
As we walked around, I teased my dad about spending more time looking at the map than around at our surroundings.
“I want to know where we are!” he’d retort.
“Why does it matter which street we’re on? Look up! We’re HERE!” I’d say, pointing all around me.
I’ve become accustomed to exploring cities by wandering around them. Sometimes I have a destination in mind, but rarely will my focus be on the tourist site circuit. I’m all for seeing the main attractions, but I like to approach it less like a checklist. The sites are great, but I find the most rewarding thing to be the people, meeting locals and travelers alike. Having conversations about people’s outlook on the world and way of life. I’ve learned so much about the places I’ve been through these experiences.
This is the luxury of slow-term travel. You can absorb a place at your own pace and let a city reveal itself. When you only have a two or three days in a place, you feel obligated to see the main attractions with every other tourist. So while my parents wanted to explore places slowly, it’s just not possible with a tighter timeline.
It’s a tough transition from solo slow-travel to faster-paced sightseeing. The objective of one is to absorb surroundings; the objective of the other is consume them. After weeks of being a traveler, it was frustrating to feel like a tourist.
We decided to do a hop-on hop-off bus tour — one of those big red double-decker buses that rides around the city while a voice recording describes the sites you’re whizzing past. As much as it hurt my ego to do it, I’ll admit it gives a good geographic overview and background of a city. By itself however, it’s a terrible way to experience a city. It’s about a halfstep above watching a Rick Steves PBS special on Stockholm.
Stockholm is a beautiful city that seems to have its stuff together. Things operate smoothly. The streets are clean and the parks beautiful. Like everywhere else I visit, I feel the urge to stay for months and absorb it all.
The next couple days in Stockholm passed quickly. We spent one afternoon riding bikes around the parks of Djurgården island. Another day we visited the Vasa Museum, which houses a magnificent 17th century ship which sunk on its maiden voyage. It was finally resurfaced and reconstructed in the 1960s, and finally put on display in 1990.
When my parents and I planned our trip together, I didn’t realize they were bringing a guest in the form of a book: Rick Steves. Rick was quiet at first. I hardly noticed him. But as we planned our steps after Stockholm, he began to speak up. Rick must be shy, because he only revealed himself to my mother and insisted on channeling himself through her.
My mom would say things like:
“Well, Rick Steves says we should book the Tallink cruise to Helsinki, not the Viking.”
“Rick Steves says we should see the Temppeliaukio Church, but the Helsinki Museum is ‘skippable’.”
“I’m not so sure about the Scandic hotel. Rick Steves says it’s ‘forgettable.'”
I began to refer to our phantom guest as Father Steves and his book as The Book of Steves.
“Let’s see what Father Steves says about Tallinn’s Old Town… Be attentive! This reading is from the Book of Steves, Chapter 4, verses 20-25.”
I joke, but mostly out of respect. Rick Steves has built up an incredible following. With his mission to “encourage Americans to travel as temporary locals,” he’s managed to curate the best of European travel for the frequent traveler and simplify it for the novice. His guidebooks have a conversational tone of a best friend whispering all of Europe’s best-kept secrets in your ear. Best-kept secrets that over 500,000 people per year know about.
Per Rick Steve’s suggestion, we took an overnight cruise from Stockholm to Helsinki. It featured things like a casino, a duty-free shop where Swedes and Fins stock up on cheap(er) alcohol, and an all-you-can-stuff-your-face-with buffet.
After a short stay in Helsinki, we jumped on 2-hour ferry to Tallinn, the capital of Estonia. It’s tough to summarize Estonia because it seems to have an identify crisis. Historically in terms of the Soviet Occupation from 1940-1991, it’s grouped with Lithuania and Latvia as part of the Baltic countries. Demographically, especially in Tallinn, there seems to be a good mix of Estonians and Russians. Idealistically, Estonia considers itself more like it’s northern Scandinavian neighbor, Finland. And Rick Steves considers it part of Scandinavia, so I won’t be sacrilegious and say otherwise.
While in Estonia, we spent several days exploring Tallinn, the capital. Tallinn’s Old Town is a beautifully preserved medieval city, surrounded by spires and castle walls, and speckled with churches. Unfortunately, it was filled with more tourist groups than I’d seen yet on this trip.
After a few days in Tallinn, we wanted to get out of a city and explore the Estonian countryside. Several people suggested seeing Saaremaa, a large island off Estonia’s east coast. So we rented a car, left Rick back in Tallinn, and drove several hours to Kuressaare, Saaremaa. At our restaurant the first night, the waitress mentioned we were her first Americans all summer.
I only poke fun of our time together because I love them so much. I’m sure they’d love to give their perspective (and you can in the comments!). I know I frustrated them at times, and they were patient with me while I adjusted my attitude.
The truth is we had an amazing time together. We managed to find middle ground, exploring the main sights, but not at break-neck speed. I was able to take a break from budget traveling, have some really nice meals, and enjoy time with the people who helped make this trip possible in the first place.
Plus, I’ve learned to ask an all-important question whenever I’m at a crossroads: What Would Rick Steves Do?