Disclaimer: This, folks, is a long one. And more of a keepsake, rather than excellent writing. But for reading purposes I’ve divided it up into countries: Iceland, France, Switzerland, England and Denmark. Read as you please!
“Once upon a time Kelly took a very random trip around Europe…..”
But wait a minute! What a minute! For those of you who know, that’s not how this story originally began. It began something more like this:
“Once upon a time Kelly decided to buy a one way ticket to France to study meditation for 3 months….” But, alas, that story, like many, had to be revised. Rather than winter camping at Plum Village like I had anticipated when I bought a ticket to Europe a few months back, I found myself on a very different journey, a journey of reunion and a quest to look at graduate school programs for this upcoming fall. I am pretty confident that the universe has had a plan for me to find roots and reconnect to old friends this past year, having recently spent the past 5 months across a hill from where my dad used to live on the Pine River in Bayfield, Colorado with two of my best friends and now, quite synchronistically, to a handful of places on this planet where some of my dearest friends reside.
And, retrospectively, even though the trip had a contrary effect and convinced me that I do not want to go to school in Europe, it was meditation after all. One of the most striking features of traveling alone I’ve realized is that most of it is like a prayer. You are alone in your own head and knocking on the door of fate to get you where you had to go. It is a way to remember how mindfulness can change everything. So many times, more than I could write down here, I have been lost, cold and confused in search of a place with a foreign map in hand, totally at a loss for what to do next, when I just stop. Stop and breathe. Only to find that the one person who can help me magically pops out of the woodworks, or I am standing on the street I had been in search of all along. Traveling is one of my favorite meditations on life. As Confucius once said (to bring in the old dead men validation trick): “If you cannot meditate, travel.”
Iceland- “Land of Fire and Ice” (and oh yeah WIND)
I arrived in Iceland at 6 a.m. under a full moon and the northern lights. Considering that this time of the year Iceland only gets about 4-5 hours of sunlight a day, that meant there was a good 4 hours before I could see anything but pure blackness. As I took a shuttle bus from the airport to the main city Reykjavik (population 120,000—yes that is its MAIN and MOST populous city) all I could make out was the silvery outlines of volcano fields in the moon and the sound of wind rattling the bus from side to side.
Not being able to check into my hostel until 2:00, I dragged my wheely suitcase (which had already had acquired a broken handle on the trip over) to the ocean edge to watch the sun rise over the North Atlantic. It was exquisite. Before me emerged a large mountain across the bay and white capped water twisting in the wind.
Iceland, as an Icelander appropriately pointed out to me as I struggled to open the hostel door, should really be called “Windland.” Together we were able to push it open. I told him I wasn’t sure which was worse—ice or wind the temperature of ice, considering the latter seeks you out. Either way, Ice-wind-land was one of the most beautiful places I have seen— when the sun finally did come out, that is. It was the farthest north I have traveled and one of the most idiosyncratic of the lot. Not only does 73 percent of its population believe in elves, serves cured shark at any possible occasion, contain the high density of hipsters per capita (my statistic), uses more green energy than any other country in the world, is covered in volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, inlets, and geysers, but is also Europe’s largest producer of bananas. Yes folks, bananas. For a country that is considered part of the Arctic Circle (with its northernmost island jumping the line) this came as quite a surprise, with entire towns made up of greenhouses filled to the brim with tropical fruit powered by geothermal energy.
I spent my first day in Reykjavik on a mission to bathe in one of their world famous geothermal pools, massive hot springs sputtering up water from the bowls of the temperamental earth below where Icelanders warm their frost bitten toes. Having walked for nearly 3 hours in search of the alleged pool, I too was grateful for its warmth. And having only slept 0 hours on the plane ride over, I found myself alongside an old couple falling asleep on the side of the pool. Perfect jet lag cure? I think yes.
That night the hostel I was staying in, KEX International, turned out to be a rather famous music hot spot, with celebrities from Europe and the US playing shows in the bar (mind you, the bar that shared a wall with my room). Not being able to sleep that night, I watched a Spanish jazz band play, where I met a group of Germans who convinced me that the next day I should wake up at 5 in the morning and take a bus tour around the island with them known as the Golden Circle. Why not? was the only possible answer to that question. So I woke up at an ungodly hour layered with every sweater, scarf and sock I had packed to take a tour around the island.
The tour took nearly 9 hours, taking us from massive waterfalls, to geysers, to glaciers, to where the Eurasia and North American tectonic plates meet, to Thingvellir National Park, where the Icelandic parliament Althingi was founded in the year 930 AD. At the end of the trip it began to snow, and then blizzard, and then a complete white-out. Stopping to wait for the weather to cool down (pun) we sat and drank hot chocolate and ate cookies at a small overlook point. When we finally arrived, in complete darkness, back to the hostel it was time for me to yet again pack my bags and make my way to France in the morning.
France- Halloween on the Seine and Notre Dame in Lace
Because I am poor and France is expensive I stayed in the red light district known as Montmart, Moulin Rouge ring a bell? After lugging my suitcase up a series of stairs above a falafel restaurant, I arrived in my hostel, roof crumbling in and all. But I didn’t care. I had two hours to eat (some falafel obviously), shower and untangle the web of that is the Parisian underground to meet my friend Sarah in front of Notre Dame to celebrate Halloween. It had been 3 years since Sarah and I had celebrated Halloween in Brighton, England, where we met when we were both exchange students. Arriving, shockingly, with 45 minutes to spare, I treated myself to an Irish coffee in a small café overlooking Notre Dame. Dressed in lace and alone in Paris, it was one of those moments in life. Deliciously cliché and all too satisfying. Afterwards I met Sarah and we went to a beautiful restaurant for dinner. I have been to France only once with my good friend Sam LeGrys and met up with several friends from Goucher who were on exchange there. Out of all the cafes Sarah and I went to in Paris it was the same exact one I had met my friends at when I was there before. I walked in and said “Oh my gosh! I have been here before!” This café was literally the only one I could have said that about in all of France. Fantastic.
Afterwards Sarah and I took a train to the suburbs to her friend’s house in order to get dressed for the big night. When we walked into the apartment there was a full on Halloween party underway, complete with tacky decorations, candy, and scary movies. Sarah and I went into the back room to change and when I came out, dressed head to toe as “Cat in the Hat” from Dr. Seuss…. not one single person knew who I was. Darn. Maybe picking an English story book character was not the best idea, especially considering my language skills where not good enough to explain why it was I was toting a ridiculous red and white hat and had painted my face in whiskers. Classic. The rest of the night was spent on a boat in the Seine (a BOAT in the SEINE!...sorry just had to say that one again) that had a massive club downstairs adorned with disco lights, free drinks and loud, loud music. After the clock hit 5 we decided maybe it was time to make our way home. Considering all of the metros were closed, we began to walk and attempt the impossible feat of finding a taxi in Paris. Long story short, we did not, and walked for an hour or so in the direction of our friend’s suburb. Which just so happened to bring us past the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and the Eiffel Tower. I must admit it was strange to look up (dressed like Cat in the Hat mind you!) and see such sights.
Ahhh, best Halloween ever.
The next day I decided to go to my favorite place in Paris, Sacre Coeur and happened to catch mass while I was there. The already incredible church filed to the brim with chorus and prayer was a memory I cannot detail in words, aside from perhaps: absolutely exquisite.
Geneva- “Explosion of sunny blondeness”
Three hours of delayed planes with no idea what anyone was saying in French, I finally got to Geneva, only to be met with one of my very best, best friends in the entire world, the beautiful Silvana. Silvana and I had been neighbors in England, been partners in procrastination, and someone who I would consider a soul friend, so to see her again was most certainly exciting. Being equally sleep deprived we continued to miss our stop on multiple buses for the house we were staying in for the evening. In Europe there is a thing called Air B and B, where people lease their houses, rooms or beds to poor traveling students like ourselves. The woman we (Silvana, myself and her friend David) stayed with made us a pasta dinner as her kitten ripped apart the apartment and we all went out for a drink at (a typically overpriced) Swiss bar where we met yet another soul friend: Elsa. Elsa and I met while I was in Ghana and is currently working as an au pair (which I will get to in a minute) and it was so wonderful to see her again. Afterwards Silvana, David and I decided to continue the night by buying an under the counter bottle of rum (selling alcohol is prohibited in Geneva after 10:30) and hung out in, of all places, the train station. Let’s just say the night ended with us dancing on old Swiss fountains to salsa music blaring on David’s phone.
The next day Silvana and I spent most of it at a small café, catching up on life and drinking overpriced coke to soothe over our previous night. Then we made our way to a CouchSurfer’s house, who Elsa had met a few weeks before. Cedric was an incredibly nice host and his roommate was from the US working for the IMF. We all made dinner, enjoyed some wine and waited for Elsa to take the train from Lausanne and meet us for a night of dancing. As we were getting ready to go out I could not believe that two of my very best friends in the entire world were in the same room, it was, as Elsa put it “and explosion of sunny blondeness.” That night we three went out, marching around the Geneva streets with Silvana’s iphone and high heels to one of the most upscale clubs in Geneva. Deciding that the 21 dollars for a mixed drink and 15 dollars for a Heineken was… a bit steep, we decided to buy a bottle of cheap champagne and drink it in a windowsill outside the club. Yep, this was another one of those moments in life. Sitting there we met three nice French guys who we talked and laughed with for some time and then all decided to make our way to the line leading into the club. Unbeknownst to us at the time, this club was one of the hardest clubs to get into and required all patrons must be at least 25. Being not really the demographic who attends such places and none of us over 25, I was pretty sure we would not get in. But alas, when we came to the front of the line we were met with a swift shuffle into the club. Our French friends and Cedric’s roommate who came later, however, did not have the same luck.
The next day we woke up rather late. And sat around for several hours talking before we realized the sun had already gone down and we were still in our pajamas. So we decided that what else would be more wonderful than going to a sauna on the Geneva lake? So all of us got up and went to pier on the lake, where we got a cheese plate and vegetable soup. The sauna turned out to be a Turkish bath, meaning it was coed and…um…naked. Charming the guy behind the desk we were able to get in even though we did not have enough money for the two towels per person and black soap that was required of us. I had never been to a Turkish bath and really had no idea what it would entail. We walked in and had our own changing closet, then followed a shower, a sauna, a steam room, and a public path area from a fountain where we covered ourselves in the black soap. The best part, however, was that we got to JUMP NAKED IN THE LAKE. Yes, it is true. Lake Geneva is the largest lake in Western Europe, and as you can imagine, incredibly cold this time of year. Let’s just say that the hot sauna was put to good use after an icy plunge in its water. Afterwards Silvana and I went to Chinatown (again in the red light district) and had some miso soup and seaweed salad.
The following day I went to Elsa’s village in the Swiss countryside. It.was.amazing. Seriously. Beautiful vineyards, rolling green hills and little villages dotting the countryside made of brick and red roofs. Elsa’s village was the most adorable of them all and her family lived in a renovated barn house made of old wood. Within a few moments of being there I was already eating caviar with a shell spoon and the evening followed with cheese plates, bedtime stories and red wine. The next day Elsa and I took a train to Lausanne and toured the adorable city, with yet another view of the lake we had bathed in the nude the night before and the Alps fringing the distance edge. We waked up to an old church on a hill and drank from fountains as any good Swiss should.
By the end of my time in Switzerland I could not be happier. And most certainly not any more grateful. Seeing these two friends, not to mention having them in the same room, was something I will never forget.
London- Rain and Pretension and Friends
After saying goodbye to Elsa and the beautiful Swiss countryside, I boarded a plane back to familiar turf. Part of my mission in this trip was to look at graduate schools and talk with professors. Oxford and Cambridge were two of these possibilities. After a night in a massive mansion converted into a youth hostel on the 7th floor and 28th bed crammed into an attic, I made my way to Oxford...
Oxford is a beautiful city, with some magnificent and very, very old building around every corner. It was, unfortunately, also (as one might anticipate) rather closed off. Even trying to get to the department I was supposed to go to you needed 3 keys at three different places. It was incredible. After a few hours of browsing the city I decided, although beautiful, not the place for me. So I bought a book my Tolsoy and read in a park for the remainder of my time.
The next day I went to Cambridge, which was almost exactly the same as my Oxford experience, with the exception that it had a meditation sitting group I went to in the evening and a fantastic department of Anthropology. Although not smitten, I liked the department and professors.
The next day I made my way back to London, took a long run in Hyde park and read some Virginia Woolf on a bench overlooking a lake. Afterwards I met my friend Anne at the National Gallery for some artwork browsing and then on to an old British pub. Anne was nice enough to invite me to her house for dinner for Mexican food, a little reminder of home. Anne and her lovely roommate Andy made fajitas and salsa and I made some homemade tortillas. It was so nice after my educational pursuits the previous few days, to see some friendly faces and was proceeded to drink, be merry and dance to dubstep into the evening. A good night indeed!
For my last day in London I met a very nice girl from China and went to the National Portrait Gallery, which turned out to be one of my favorite museums of all time! It was incredible! We spent most of our time in the exhibit of Queen Elizabeth and her tumultuous social relations all depicted in pictures. It was fun to decode the paintings as “Oh! That was King Henry’s first wife!” and “She is the one who killed her!” It was a great time. Afterwards I went to Westminister Abbey and took a stroll past Buckingham Palace just in time for the changing of the guards.
That evening was an evening I was looking forward to the entire trip: a reunion with three of my best friends from Brighton— Matteo from Italy, Henrique from Portugal and Naiara from Spain. Being the genius I am, however, I told everyone to meet at the Pret A Manger coffee shop I had been at the day before at Victoria Station. Little did I know there was not just one Pret A Manger around Victoria Station…but FIVE. After a little bit of fate and good fortune (not to mention a terrorist scare at the railway station) all of us were able to meet up. It was wonderful to see everyone and see how we have all changed since 3 years ago. Reunion is a blessing.
Copenhagen- Operas, Ballets and Plays OH MY!
Copenhagen was the only place on this trip aside from my stopover in Iceland that I didn’t know anyone or had never been before. So I truly had no idea what to expect. Luckily, not only is Copenhagen beautiful, I fell in love with Danish culture! One of the best parts of Denmark is the concept of “Hygge,” which doesn’t have a direct translation into English but is closest to the word “coziness.” The Danes love cozy things, little tea shops, comfy chairs, warm fireplaces. YES! I spent a lot of my time with an espresso in one hand and a book in another in places that resembled a great grandmother’s living room.
When I arrived in Copenhagen and was buying a metro pass to my hostel a guy approached me asking “Um, excuse me, are you going to the city?” Yes, I replied somewhat defensively (as any seasoned lady lone traveler learns). But it turned out that he was on his way to the airport and had bought a one month metro, bus and water taxi pass for all of Copenhagen and it had one week left on it and he wanted to give it to me. I couldn’t be more grateful, considering travel, eating, breathing and basically existing in Denmark is an incredibly expensive feat. So the rest of my time I was able to travel to sights I otherwise had not been able to afford, including the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art with a self-portrait exhibition of Frida Kahlo and an ocean side sculpture garden, as well as the castle Hamlet was written about and forests that were the source of many a fairy tale. Rather than drinking or eating (I had downsized my diet to cheese, bread and gummy vitamins to save money) in the evenings I found out that the Danish Royal Theaters had very cheap tickets for people who were willing to stand. The first night I went to the Opera Madam Butterfly, the next to the ballet, and then to a Danish drama the final night—in buildings around the city that looked nothing short of layered birthday cakes.
My last few days in Copenhagen were spent at the many Christmas markets drinking mulled wine and admiring the waterways and pastel colored buildings. The morning before I left I decided to go for a run and turned the corner from my hostel to, alas, a giant castle in the middle of a city with a moat! Which I proceeded to run around. Yes, life is good.
And now I am home.
Happily back in the beauty of the Southwest. Although Europe is great and the friends I saw and memories we had were priceless, I cannot express how happy I am to be back where pine trees grow freely and the mountains are always nearby. I think that this trip was really important for me in this upcoming decision of where I will spend the next 5 years or so of study. Although the name of Oxford or Cambridge would be helpful, happiness is more important (waaaaay more important). After so much time spent trying to find happiness in far away homes, I’ve now come to the realization that home is truly where the heart is, and my heart is without a doubt in the natural landscape of the West.
I cannot say I am never going to travel again, but let’s just say that I have no upcoming plans to leave the US anytime soon. Truly. In January I will be going to Oregon to start that “3-month retreat” after all at a Zen monastery outside of Portalnd. And although Oregon is still a new place for me, it is within a culture and geographic area that I am familiar with. Rather than exotic locations and adventure, I am increasingly interested in community, relationship, and a sense of place. In some ways I feel like this is the beginning of a new chapter in my life.
It is no longer a matter of finding a place to call home, just a matter of building it.