Sydney is Sydney

“It’s so laid-back, it reminds me of San Diego!” I exclaim as we hike along the coast of Sydney, barren cliffs and crashing sea to our right and mid-century modern architecture to our left.

“Oh, but these buildings!” I shout above the city noise as we walk down George Street and the aged green rooftop of the Queen Victoria Building joins the skyscrapers and towers that create the Sydney skyline. “It makes me think I’m back in New York!”

“But these gardens, these gardens can only remind me of London,” I concede as I amble through the huge green space full of towering trees, squawking birds and, at the end, the majestic Opera House.

Everywhere I go here, I try to fit this place into another’s box: the gardens are from London, the vibes are like San Diego, the cosmopolitan downtown screams New York, the quirky architecture is reminiscent of San Francisco.

And the people oblige me:

“Sydney is expensive and sophisticated – exactly like New York!”

“Sydney is exciting and stunning – exactly like San Francisco!”

“Sydney is elegant and sprawling – exactly like London!”

“Sydney is…”

…But nobody would say what Sydney was exactly, without referencing another city to explain it.

So let me try:

Sydney is walkable.

Sydney is not walkable.

Sydney does not know what iced coffee should look like.

Sydney does know what an iced mocha should look like.

(Hint: it’s like a milkshake. Which is amazing.)

Sydney is striking.

Sydney is puzzling,

Sydney is like any other big city you’ve ever been to.

Sydney is unlike any other big city you’ve ever been to.

Sydney is big and small, unique and similar, hot and cold, coastal and cosmopolitan, artistic and rigid.

Like any other city and like no other city, Sydney is, well, Sydney.

Everything that everybody told me about it before I came was true and not true, all at the same time. Because, though it’s true that it is like New York and San Diego and San Francisco and London, it is also true that it is like none of those, really.

Sydney is Sydney, I really can’t explain it.

(So come and see it for yourself).

naked in nature

IMG_2900Alone and surrounded by an expanse of dry green brush, sharp maroon rocks and the hot white sand of a dried up riverbed, we took off our clothes.

It started with our backpacks – 35 pounds of leaden weight dropped off with a simple click of a buckle. Next came our sweat-stained shirts, ripped off in haste, anticipating the relief from the murderous glare of the desert sun. Our boots were next, followed quickly by our socks and shorts. We stood for a moment in silence, bare feet in smooth sand, our eyes closed and tilted toward the sun, wearing nothing but our sports bras and underwear.

A light breeze ran through the canyon.

We awoke from our brief reverie and quietly got to work on setting up our tent, putting our food in bear canisters and unpacking what we needed for dinner. There was a rustic routine to it all, we could now do it in absolute silence. Four ravens circled overhead, cawing lazily and searching for their next meal. Across the stream there was a towering tree, mirrored by two others on our side of the creek, with delicate pea-green leaves that grasped at the pale sky.

Suddenly, our work was done. The tent was constructed, the food was safe, the hike was over.

We waded into the stream. I let the coolness of the water rise up to my ankles, my calves, my knees. I bent over and stuck my whole head in the water, running my fingers through the tangles of my unwashed hair.

“What time is it?” I asked.

Glancing at her watch, my friend responded, “It’s four o’clock.”

“And no one’s here,” I mused.

Then I took off my sports bra and my underwear and sat down amid the rocks and the water. She did the same. After a moment, I laughed and the canyons echoed my booming delight back to me. My friend joined in. We splashed around and felt invincible, as though we were now, and always had been, a necessary part of this landscape. The idea that we had always been here, naked and running around in a knee-deep stream while ravens cawed overhead and trees reached toward the sky, seemed obvious, essential, ineffable. The idea that we would always be here was clear.

We laid back down in the stream, our heads resting on rocks and dirt. I opened my eyes to see the pale blue sky, the blazing canyon walls, the small circles of green leaves reaching above. I was struck by its simple magnificence, the unimposing grandeur, the vast humility of the nature that surrounded me, created over millions of years of erosion and evolution and cultivation to become this simple setting:

A cavernous canyon with one shallow stream, three tall trees, four circling ravens and two naked girls lying alone in the blistering desert sun.

Five o’clock in Rome

 

It is five o’clock in Rome and we are boarded on a train – our suitcases and backpacks scattered about the second-class train carriage in the hopes of warding off potential cabin mates. It didn’t work. So now we are three in a cabin: my friend, me and a dapper Italian woman who, I must assume, chose our cabin because we were so spread out and thus unlikely to attract any other passengers. Better sit with two haggard-looking American girls than five unknowns, I suppose.

It is five-oh-five in Rome and I am thinking about the time I have spent in this magical city. No, magical is not quite the correct word for such a place – majestic, perhaps, or grand or extravagant – but not magical. Magic implies simplicity, a slight of hand, a kind of hidden wonder and Rome is truthfully none of these things. It is big, it is towering, it is a peacock strutting proudly in front of any visitor who happens to find themselves on her marbled streets. Our party of three has now blossomed to a crowded six, our luggage now stowed uncomfortably in our cramped space, the woman seems to have been joined by her posse, who seem to not particularly enjoy the fact that two haggard-looking American girls are crashing their commute home.

It is five twelve in Rome and the train is now pulling away from the station. The streets ripple by, walls covered in graffiti and people walking in that slow Italian way that had me letting out a steady flow of curses when I was unlucky enough to be caught behind them. Rome was, again, a strange mix of wonders for me: it was mostly grand and loud and majestic but it was also, at times, confusing and overwhelming and in-my-face.

I am finding that this is how I have been experiencing the places that I’ve been so far on my grand tour:

I love them, I hate them, I am indifferent to them, I come to peace with their reality, I love them again.

A cycle, I think, that seems to be true for most things that I encounter in my life. Whether it be a class, a person, a book, a film, a song – my way of navigating what I like and dislike in this world are rooted in initial extremes and an eventual middling out as I find the compromises and justifications, the excuses and rationalisations that are so necessary to make as one navigates their way through the diverse situations that life often throws their way.

It is strange that I say that I settle on love in my cycle. I read it back to myself and wonder if I should change it – I certainly do not love every place that I’ve been, book that I’ve read, film that I’ve watched, person that I’ve met. But something keeps me from hitting

COMMAND + X

and erasing the statement from the white blinking page and, soon, from my own memory.

I think there is something beautiful about examining a thing, understanding it, accepting it and still disliking it. It brings more meaning to the things that are fully examined, understood, accepted and then are loved. That balance brings beauty – the fact that opposites exist at all is beautiful and the knowledge that they also happen to be perceived slightly differently by every human is even more amazing.

If opposites did not exist, if there were not things to be loved and disliked in equal measure, how boring life would be – how meaningless our sentiments would become! When we tell somebody that we love them, it only bears meaning with the mutual knowledge that we also harbour hatred and dissention and conflict and that amid all of that, we feel this love and passion and zeal and we choose to spend our time and effort tending to those things.

So when I notice that I go to these far-off places and feel everything that I’ve felt – these strange and confusing mixes of love and hate and indifference and bewilderment and passion and beauty and pain and struggle and accomplishment and contentment – I no longer am worried that I am not experiencing my travels as I am meant be. I know that without the uncomfortable feelings, the ones that wrap me up in a warm embrace would not feel quite so comforting.

It is five fifty six in Rome and I am

happy and sad and tired and lethargic and energetic and wilful and in pain and strong and beautiful and worn out and passionate and sleepy and bumbling and in love and in love and in love

the jumble is what makes me human – what makes the happiness so wide, the sadness so deep and the love so lovely. The jumble means that I’m learning, that I’m feeling, that I’m seeing, that I’m doing.

The jumble means I’m alive.

A Knowledge of Nothing

I remember the first time that I went to Dante’s. My friends and I had heard about it from past study abroaders. “Stop right there,” We said collectively one Skype session, our friends relaying to us details of a place in Florence that served free wine to students, so long as they ordered an entrée. “You had us at ‘free wine’.” And so we ventured out onto the darkened cobblestoned streets one night, dressed in what-we-thought-were Florentine essentials: black skinny jeans, Italian leather boots, a flouncy sheer tank and topped off with a leather jacket. We were giggly clientele. We flirted with the wait staff, winked at the table of students next to us, stumbled on home, stopping in on a few discotecas and pubs on our way. We woke up the next morning with clear heads and bright eyes. We laced up our sneakers, went to classes and did it all over again. Every day, every week, every month passed like this until it was time to pack up my pink suitcase, board a plane and cross the Atlantic.

It is eight o’clock in the morning on September the twenty fourth. Florentine traffic pounds by outside of the open hostel window. The room is musty, the smell of mold so faint that I wonder if I’m only imagining it. It is silent in the sixteen-person dorm. The four girls lay face down on their bunks, legs peeking out of white sheets, escaping the heat while maintaining some sort of imagined privacy. The two boys in the half-empty dormitory flout the small amount of privacy we are afforded, sprawled on top of their sheets in their tight boxer briefs. The room is illuminated by the dusty sunlight that manages its way inside, tumbling over buildings and twisting around windowsills just to touch the dirty concrete floor. The glow from my laptop screen casts a slightly garish blue light onto my face and the wall behind me. I click the small sun icon on my keyboard to turn the bright blaze down to a dull burn. I begin to write: “Oof. What a night out in Florence…” Hoping that the gentle pattering of my fingers on the keyboard wouldn’t lull any of my roommates out of their hungover snoozing.

It was my first visit to Florence since the time I had spent studying here, back in 2013. I turned to my travel partner, who had only ever been to Florence on a short weekend trip, and asked her an all-important question, “Have you been to Dante’s?” As she shook her head, my heart soared. I loved showing people elements of a city that I knew well and that they knew nothing about. It is akin to letting someone listen to a song that you love, it has a certain weight to it, a certain personal attachment that makes it carry much more meaning than an Italian restaurant that serves free wine to students should have any right to carry.

So after a day of walking for miles and miles around the small city, touring around the Pitti Palace and gazing longingly at the €12 Boboli Gardens, of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio and contemplating taking the window out of window shopping on the Ponte Vecchio, of longingly staring at crepes and giving in and buying crepes, of running through the rainy cobblestoned streets and turning down the offer of ‘Umbrella?’ on every corner, we finally made our way to Dante’s. I wore a short white dress with my white lace up sandals and a black trench coat. I led my friend through narrow alleys and over hilly streets, taking brief refuge from the intermittent rain under striped awnings, until finally we made it. The restaurant was packed and the two of us could barely be squeezed in to a table framed by the kitchen and the toilet. I smiled in anticipation, the memories of flirting and winking flashing fondly through my memory.

“Students?” The cute Italian waiter asks knowingly. We nod expectantly, grinning and affirming, “Si, si!” The man claps his hands and smiles back, turning around briefly and returning with a flagon full of sparkling white wine. We order the necessary entrées, though the wine would likely be enough for us. The loud table next to us catches my attention; it is the table that I used to sit at as a student. It can seat ten people comfortably – and fifteen people uncomfortably. Tonight is the uncomfortable fare. There are fourteen people stuffed hastily around the table. They are loud, unselfconscious, American. They signal at the waiter and wave their student cards under his nose. They stare at us as the night goes on and our full flagon of wine is joined by another – the waiter winking – while theirs sit empty on their table. The boys wear cargo shorts and the girls wear that oddly familiar uniform of skinny jeans, flouncy sheer shirts and leather jackets.

Suddenly I’m greeted by something I can only call déjà vu. I am back in Dante’s, it is 2013, I am in a leather jacket and skinny jeans. It is our last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty and I am traveling, I am cultured, I know so much, I can say thank you in another language! I sit contentedly among a bubble of Americans in a foreign city, thinking that I was perhaps at the tippy-top of the cultured ladder.

But now two years and countless plane rides later, I come to another conclusion. I am in Dante’s, it is 2015, I am in a short white dress. It is my last night in Florence and my eyes are bleary from the constantly refilled pitcher of wine. Wow, I think, I am twenty-three and I am traveling, I am lucky, I know so little, I can’t say so much that I want to. I sit contentedly across from my friend in a foreign city, thinking that I have a long journey of learning, seeing and doing ahead of me.

The prospect of knowing so little has never delighted me so much.

First day in Berlin

 

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Tuesday 9 February 2016, 16:00:

My backpack is haphazardly slung across my back, my purse dangles from the crook of my arm, my suitcase is poised next to the door, all packed and ready to go. A partially constructed table from IKEA lies on the floor, its seemingly simple construction instructions gazing up at me, I imagine with a smug look of feigned innocence: Oh you can’t figure out how to put me together? I can’t say I’m surprised. I type out a quick note of apology to my roommate as my Uber rings incessantly to tell my that my ride to the airport is waiting outside – not-so-patiently, it would seem. I rush to the airport and board the plane that will take me to Amsterdam, Berlin and a real test of my own purported dreams.

Twelve hours later, I am exiting a small KLM plane onto the tarmac of a one-terminal airport in Berlin. I hail a taxi and make my way into the city. The hotel that I am being put up in is near to the city centre where I will soon be working – just a five minute walk from the hub of the Berlinale International Film Festival: the Martin-Gropius-Bau. I check in to the hotel, shower, meet my fellow interns and head over to the Ritz Carlton. We jump into the elevator and punch the top floor – number eleven – and wait in that ever awkward boxed silence until the doors ding open.

We enter the suite uncertainly, looking around in awe at the movie posters with famous faces, the Presidential Suite at the Ritz Carlton, the faces of the executives that I had been studying in a homemade Excel spreadsheet for the past week. Immediately, we are toured around the suite, being told whose office is whose, how to greet and handle clients, the importance of keeping all of our receipts – a list that seems to extend longer and longer as we continue to walk around the huge suite. Suddenly, I panick. In all of my working experience, I had never done this sort of work – working for a specific group of people rather than the lovingly vague consumer. It all feels so immediate, the results so tangibly material. In my past work, a mistake could be corrected in the office before it was sent out to a client or customer, a tweet could be deleted if there was a spelling error, a blog post could be edited if I misspelled somebody’s last name.

But here, I would find, the stakes are higher. A mistaken Starbucks order is written in stone, the crestfallen look on the executive’s face forever etched into my inerasable memory as I quickly realise that they had, actually, asked for no whip on their Frappuccino. Not catching an important client’s name under a thick accent as I escort them into the office saw me having to quickly and humbly run back, lean in and hope to god that I understand them on my second, embarrassing ask before scribbling their (hopefully) correct name on a Post-It and rushing it into an executive’s room – while, in the meantime, a slew of other important clients with other thick accents form a congested line at the front desk and I have to start it all again. A request for a lunch reservation in an hour at a fully booked restaurant could not be met with an incredulous I have to do what now but instead with a determined of course and a smile.

In short, the work I was about to embark on would be hard. It would be long. It would be demanding. It would be erratic and electric and frenzied and scattered and – the list could go on. But the craziest thing of it all? I would come to find that the work was fun. Something clicked on in me that first day of running around the office and suddenly getting Starbucks orders correct, snagging reservations at fully booked restaurants, finding the only egg sandwich in all of Berlin all began to feel like soaring achievements.

It is with this soaring feeling, this energetic high that I walk into the elevator of the Ritz Carlton flanked by my two fellow interns. I steel myself for the days ahead, the promised losses of tempers, the advice to not take anything personally, the uncertainty of it all. I walk out of the building, the red carpet guiding us outside. The flashes of cameras stun me and the voices of the photographers rise up into the cold, steely night. I smile and take out my sunglasses, put them on and lower my head surreptitiously. I am in Berlin for an international film festival. The photographers yell at me to look at them. They scream some person’s name who I could be mistaken for. I step off of the red carpet and the voices fade, the flashes disappear and I am greeted by the crisp Berlin night. It is calm out here, a man bikes slowly in front of me, the streetlights change lazily from green to yellow to red. We amble tiredly back to our hotel, alarms set for another day full of – what exactly?

And with that mystery, I fall asleep and find that my dreams are exactly where I left them: big, bright, blooming.

Beginning to remember

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Thursday 18 February 2016, 07:01:

My heads spins and my body aches. I open my eyes and am surrounded by the warm glow of the New York sun filtering in gently through my gauzy crème curtains. My phone reads 7:01am. My head begs Go back to sleep. My bladder pulls me out of my bed and to the toilet. My logic draws a warm shower. My head still pounds, my throat still aches, my body still shakes – and my mouth can’t help but smile. Wide and goofy, I feel like a drunkard being tucked in lovingly at the end of a long night by a tired friend.

The word is blasting through my head, loud and echoing: BERLIN. I can think of nothing else. It crashes through my sickness – a result of the city and its luring nightlife, its vibrant festival energy, its spanning itinerary of things to do and places to be – and makes my headache more bearable. In retrospect, it begins to blur: the people, the work, the bars, the clubs, the films, the days. The memories already slip out of my mind like a quickly rewinding film – I can catch only glimpses and snippets. So I get back into my warm, white bed and thumb through my week day-by-day, a mug of tea in one hand and my open Notes in the other.

Manhattan

  

 I exited my apartment building, curt note in hand for the UPS delivery person:

The buzzer for 2R is broken – please leave delivery inside the door. Contrary to what somebody told you yesterday, there are tenants in 2R – one especially who would have loved to have slept on a mattress last night.

I crammed the note between the old brick wall and the broken buzzer and made my way down the now-familiar street to get coffee at a café that I had been referred to by seasoned locals. They’d been here since August, anyway. The rectangular olive-green sign beckoned me onward, steel and hard with flashing bulbs that made it look like an old and woefully lost Vegas sign. I ordered an almond croissant and a cappuccino and took a seat at a small, round marble table. I found myself flanked by hipsters, the luminescent glow of chalky white Apples and the click-click-click of their modern keyboards surrounding me. Extremely conscious of being the only person in the large café without a laptop, I grabbed my cappuccino and croissant, settled into the hard wire stool and opened the book that I had brought, The Hours – a favourite whose staccato syntax and city setting fit in seamlessly with my new life here.

The morning passed by in an almondy haze, the overcast skies reminding me wistfully of the London weather that I do not particularly miss, but also of the elegant city that I assuredly do. Wanting to walk around for a bit, I gathered up my things and departed, making my way down Wyckoff, to downtown Bushwick. The now-familiar sights and smells and people and shops greet me as I make my way through the quickly developing part of Brooklyn, bathed in kooky graffiti, minimalist cafés and wannabe dive bars. My boots click and it finally starts to settle in that I live here – I, by default of my choice of residence, am a part of the wannabe hipster movement: the cappuccino-drinking, fake-glasses-wearing, I’m-so-poor-but-still-spending-six-dollars-on-a-smoothie movement that I have come to know and laugh at – with safety and legitimacy from across the country. But now I am here and am unmistakably a part of it.

I have been in New York now for five days and have spent those five days cleaning my new apartment, waiting for packages to arrive, waiting on utility companies’ appointments, wandering about the neighbourhood, familiarising myself with my surroundings – but I have not yet been to Manhattan, that beautiful, tantalising, intimidating piece of land. I wonder to myself why that is. Though rationalisations ranging from duty to busy wander through my head, in the end, the only word that seems to hold up is one: fear.

Not fear of harm or safety, but a more psychological fear, the one that crawls around deeply in all of us – the one that is dark and tar-stained, whispering all of our most intimate worries into our brains as though they were unequivocal truths: you’re not cut out for this place, you made the wrong decision to come here, you’ll never make it here, you’ll never find a job, you aren’t talented enough to be here… On and on it whispers – it falls asleep with me at night and wakes up with me in the morning. His name is Doubt and he can be a real buzz kill.

And so, with Doubt slowly staking claims to ever-growing parts of my mind, I have believed him, obediently staying in my neighbourhood, refusing to challenge his proclaimed truths. Forever worried that he might be right, I’ve left his whispers unchallenged – if he was right, if I made the wrong choice, going into Manhattan would unequivocally cement these whispers, releasing them from the slithering aura of Doubt to the pages of the even more dreaded unchanging book of Fact.

But what if he was wrong? Was the gamble too high-risk to make?

I stopped walking, positioned squarely in front of the descending stairs of the L train. The word stares at me, challenging me, beckoning me.

Manhattan, it reads, white script dirtied with age, crumbling, peeling a bit off of the sign.

Manhattan, it calls, glowing, almost knowingly stark, boldly white against the dark forest green of the sign’s background.

Manhattan, it pulls, drawing me downward to its tracks, littered with plastic bags and candy bar wrappers.

Manhattan, the static female voice says as the train rumbles to a stop at the platform.

“Manhattan,” I whisper, stepping onto the train, smirking boldly at the lost figure of Doubt left on the platform, scratching his head and looking around.

Manhattan, I think, taking my seat on the train and wobbling contentedly, fashionably, familiarly with the metro as it stops and stutters and rushes onward.

“Manhaaaaaaaaaaattan!” A man sings as I reach the top of the stairs and tumble into Union Square, alive with people and wind and sounds.

A gust of wind pushes me forward, quickly, urgently, impatiently, as if to say, Go on and explore! What the hell took you so long?

Welcome to New York 

28 January 2016

It is just past one o’clock in the morning in New York. The building that I’m in – my apartment building – creaks and moans. I am lying in my sleeping bag on top of my camping mat. My unpacked suitcase is beside me, spilling its once so neatly folded contents out onto the shining hardwood floors. From my vantage point, I can see the moon, hazy and half-hidden behind translucent clouds. Sirens blare as ambulances and fire trucks whizz by. The orange glow of a street lamp casts shadows and silhouettes onto the bare walls of my new room. A snow shovel scrapes achingly loud outside. 

And then, for just the briefest moment, everything is silent, still, dark. 

A man yells and a bottle breaks. The silence is broken and the world comes alive once again. 

Welcome to New York, It seems to say in all of its raucous clamour, We hope you enjoy your stay

The only problem is that I think it was being sarcastic. 

Four Days in Falkenberg

Our day started in Munich frantically searching for Wi-Fi to connect with our flighty host in Falkenberg. Whereupon we discovered that we were not headed to the Falkenberg one hour away by train, but to the one that is a six-hour bus ride, an hour train ride and too many euros away. Our unapologetic host mentioned this about an hour before the last bus ride to Berlin departed. Forever ignoring the red flags from the start that warned us of what this adventure would entail, my traveling partner, Laura, and I hurriedly purchased Megabus tickets northward, ran to the bus station and sat anxiously on the crowded coach. Once in Berlin, we stomped tiredly through the slick streets fresh with rainfall, our eyes glued to our Google Maps app telling us patiently where to go to catch our train to Eberswalde. Letting out a sigh of relief once we boarded, we unstrapped ourselves from the luggage that was attached to us and sat on the quick one hour train from Berlin to Eberswalde, from which we would allegedly catch a twenty minute ride to Falkenberg – the last train of the night to our quaint German getaway.

I had first learnt about Workaway through the extensive research that I’d done to prepare for the trip. By Googling terms like “cheap ways to travel Europe” and “how to travel for free”, I came across numerous blogs and travel sites proclaiming the wonders of Workaway. I discovered something that seemed like a dream come true: a site that facilitates work exchange arrangements by allowing hosts with extra space and work that needed doing to list their needs online for cash-strapped youths such as myself to browse and choose working arrangements that suited our plans and abilities. The deal is room and board for the worker in exchange for work and time for the host. As a way to subsidize my gallivanting, I arranged to do five weeks of Workaway – one in a small town in northwestern Germany and four in the Scottish Highlands.

This is how I had come to find myself in such an unplanned and harried situation – our host had not responded to my barrage of emails starting a month off and leading up to the day of our supposed arrival. “Hi! Just confirming that you have us penned in to come the fifth of October…” Turned into more frantic and agitated, “Thomas, can you confirm that we should come today?” And ended with, “If you don’t respond within the next hour, we will not be coming.” And, of course, at the forty-five minute mark, I received a lackadaisical reply: “Of course you will be welcome to come, we are at the Falkenberg Mark train station.” And with that scant information to go by, we eventually found ourselves stepping off of the one car train at the Falkenberg Mark station, ten hours after departing from Munich earlier that day.

We were greeted by a man who looked like the hippie version of Doc from Back to the Future: his hair was white and wild, shoulder length and frizzled. His face was smooth, tan and lined, looking much like the final draft of a clay sculpture before it has properly hardened. He was tall and skinny, wearing light jeans and an untucked black and white flannel shirt. A woman stood beside him, tall and shorter than him by no more than two inches. Her unruly hair was gathered into a hasty bun on the crown of her head, a light auburn color. She wore a striped thermal undershirt with a colorful wool dress layered over it. Together, they looked like a 1970s version of American Gothic, their background a dilapidated brick train station, a faded “Falkenberg Mark” sign drilled resolutely into the wall.

“Welcome to Falkenberg,” The woman said. “My name is Adrienne.” She extended her hand with a dutiful air and Laura and I both grabbed it and gave it a crisp pump while we exchanged names and how-do-you-dos.

“And I am Thomas,” The man said, smiling shyly and already turning on his heel to walk down the darkened steps off of the train platform.

“Is your home close to the train station?” I asked, curious because Thomas had never given me a direct address to his house, he had only ever said to go to Falkenberg Mark.

Adrienne gave the sort of laugh you expect to come from a pernicious villain in a Disney cartoon. “This is our home,” She explained, her voice full of something close to bitterness and heavy with ire.

We turned the corner, snaking around the old brick building to enter through two large white doors.

“This is the main house,” Adrienne told us. “This is where you will make all your meals and shower, though you will be sleeping in the other building.”

Her tone was businesslike and flat, she sounded disinterested and almost angry that she had to be out of her apartment at ten o’clock at night to welcome two American girls into her home. Thomas, meanwhile, was bumbling about behind us, tinkering around with small appliances and moving pieces of furniture with difficulty. His attention span seemed to be quite short, a fact that made Adrienne turn even colder as the tour continued. The last leg of the tour deposited us in the kitchen where two boys were sat at the table surrounded by hamburgers and condiments and empty bottles of beer.

“These are our current Workawayers, but they’re leaving tomorrow,” Adrienne said. “They wanted to make you a welcoming dinner. They’ll show you around and give you your keys.”

“I hope you enjoy the meal,” Thomas said. “Be in this kitchen at eight o’clock tomorrow so that we might discuss your time here.” And with that, the pair left the kitchen and left us alone with the two boys.

“Hi,” I said. “My name’s Mary.” I extended my hand and Laura and I exchanged niceties with the pair of them. We discovered that their names were Nick and John, they were from Texas, they had been here for a month, they were planning on traveling for eight more months, they were on their gap year following their graduation from high school.

“So,” Nick ventured after a couple of beers. “What’d you think of Thomas?”

“He’s… Nice,” I managed. “He seems like he doesn’t have a much of an attention threshold.”

The boys laughed. “That’s Thomas for you,” John said. “He barely made us do any work, we just moved junk from one room to another for an hour a day then the rest of the time he let us hike around. They’re great though, they took us out to dinner almost every day and let us pick out whatever we wanted to at the grocery store! Whenever we run out of beer,” He gestured to the nearly empty flat in the back corner, “They’ll take us to the grocery store and buy us another one.”

“Sounds like best case scenario,” I said.

“It’s definitely better than what I thought Workaway would be,” John said. “But Thomas is a really weird dude. There are like five other people living here for free that aren’t Workawayers and I’m pretty sure that Thomas is the town loony, he owns like fifty cars and is always driving around town picking up everyone’s junk. They just leave their stuff on the corner and Thomas drives around every day and picks up whatever he sees on the corners.”

“Well as long as our food and room is paid for, it can’t be that bad, right?” Laura said.

“Right,” Said Nick. “Just ignore Thomas for the most part and do what you want and this will be the best place you’ve stayed at.”

And with that, we drank away the last of the flat, played a rousing but half-hearted game of Monopoly and exchanged stories until three in the morning, where we dragged our luggage up three flights of stairs in a rickety building and fell into a deep sleep on a queen mattress on the floor with a kitten duvet cover and old crème colored sheets.

My alarm buzzed me awake, a deafening din of synthetic bells and whistles. The time read seven thirty in the morning. I shook Laura awake and we began to ready ourselves for the day ahead of us: one we dreamed would comprise of at most three hours of work and the rest dedicated to experiencing the forested mountains and green trails that wound through the city. We walked down the creaking stairs, mindful of the woman on the first floor that the boys warned us about last night. Her name, they said, was Dogma and her profession, they insisted, was training dogs. Dogma the dog trainer had six dogs, all of whom she kept in her tiny flat and all of whom would bark incessantly at the slightest creaky provocation. So we tiptoed carefully down the roughly hewn wooden stairs and made it to the kitchen just before the clock struck eight.

The Texans were in the kitchen frying up bacon-wrapped bratwursts. We hadn’t been allotted any food or space in the kitchen, so we just waited there as the boys scarfed down their hearty breakfasts. Other people began to filter into the small kitchen. Some said hi, like the friendly German couple with Irish accents – a souvenir from their recent travels learning English in Ireland. But now their funds were dried up so they found themselves living in Thomas’s train station for free, helping out with light housework in exchange for a room. Some didn’t say anything to us, like the tall skinny man with deep purple bags under his eyes and a bowl cut that would make a mother from the fifties proud. The only thing we would ever see him do was take out the pot that held the constantly stinking compost and the only thing we would ever hear him utter was the light whistling tune that he’d croon when he would take out the compost.

They all made their own breakfasts, apparently unaware of the two new recruits sitting breakfast-less at the table. Nobody offered us their food. The people came and went and it wasn’t until the grease-stained oven clock read nine twenty five that Thomas finally entered the kitchen. He came flanked by Adrienne and the pair of them ushered the Texans, all packed up and ready to go, to the train platform. There were fond goodbyes and lingering hugs and promises to see one another again as the boys left their hosts. Then the train rattled away and the four of us turned slightly awkwardly back to the kitchen, the ghost of the boys’ easy and lighthearted presence mocking our stiff silence.

“Did you have breakfast?” Thomas asked us when we had finally settled into the kitchen.

“No,” I responded, slightly incredulous. “We weren’t told of any food that we could use.”

“Oh yes,” Thomas said, apparently forgetting that part of the deal was that he provide us with food. “Well Adrienne will take you to the grocery store tonight to get you food for the next week.”

“And until then?” My friend asked, her stomach helpfully rumbling in the silence before he answered.

“Well, let’s see…” He said, standing up and rustling through other people’s food. “I’m sure you can have some of this bread. In Germany, we have very light breakfasts, so just bread and butter should be enough.”

“Oh ok,” I said, the lingering smell of the Texans’ bacon-wrapped bratwursts and the German couple’s fried salmon making his light breakfast comment tauntingly laughable.

As my friend and I started toasting the bread and sneaking butter out of the small refrigerator of other people’s food, Thomas started discussing the terms of our working arrangement.

“I am very laid-back,” Thomas started. “I have lived in many places and love getting to know people and learn about different cultures. This is why I have opened my home up on Workaway,” Thomas then went on a long and rambling speech that was rather hard to follow. He waxed poetic about culture and connections and work and France for what felt like thirty stretched out and disconnected minutes. I zoned back in when he finished up his speech with, “I mainly want you here so that I can learn English better, but it will be nice if you would help with lunch and dinner and some simple work around the house, some painting, some organizing, that sort of thing. It shouldn’t take more than two or three hours a day.”

“That sounds great,” I said. “We were hoping to do a lot of hiking and walking while we were here in this beautiful area, can we have some scheduled time for that?”

“Yes, of course!” Thomas exclaimed. “As I said, you are here mainly to help me with my English and to explore German life and culture. I think the best way to do this is to not work so much, but just to talk and hike. But I do not really like structure or schedules, so really, just go whenever you want to.”

“That sounds perfect,” I said. “Will you need us to do anything around the house this morning or can we take a hike now?”

“I will want you to paint this room this morning,” He gestured to the room behind the kitchen where the Texans had been staying, “Then you can have the rest of the day off.” His phone started ringing urgently. “Please wait here for me while I take this call and I will show you where the paint and brushes are. While you wait, please move the furniture into the other room so that you can paint when I get back.”

It was ten thirty when he left. It was ten forty-five when we had moved all of the furniture from one room to the other. It was ten fifty-five when we went outside to wait in the sun. It was eleven thirty when one of the students asked us where Thomas was and we shrugged in response. It was noon when Laura and I finally saw the outline of Thomas’s lanky body staggering toward us, weighed down from carrying large white cabinets. He was coming in from the town and he called to us to help him as he rounded the corner to the main house. We ran to help him and assisted him in carrying the large cabinets into the kitchen, where he insisted on perching the flimsy white drawers on top of the similarly flimsy wooden chest full of the housemates’ food. The towering spectacle screamed of safety hazards and illogical thought processes, but Thomas gazed on the thing with a crazed look full with pride and satisfaction.

“Why is the room not painted?” Thomas asked, looking into the empty and, admittedly, unpainted room beside the kitchen.

Confused, I answered, “You said to wait for you to get the paint and brushes…?” I tried to keep my voice calm and unaccusing.

“Oh, yes,” Thomas said. “Well now it is too late to paint! I would like it very much if you both made lunch for the students and I.”

Thomas called the people staying in his house students, though of the five others, only one was actually an enrolled student.

“Ok,” Laura said. “What food can we use to make the lunch?”

Thomas rummaged around the kitchen and produced a mesh sack full of small red potatoes and a single packet of powdered hollandaise sauce.

“This should work,” He said. “And please don’t use salt, I can’t have salt because of my health.”

“Are there any other ingredients that we can use?” I asked hesitantly. “I’m no cook, but this seems like it will not be much of a meal.”

“Just be creative,” Thomas replied cheerfully, looking at us expectantly with a broad smile on his waxy face. “That’s all the work I have for you for now. Please be ready to serve us at one.”

And so, as best we could, we prepared the meager meal. The result was as I had expected: not much of anything. Laura and I tasted the hollandaise sauce and could not pretend, even for each other, that it was anything close to good. The potatoes were, unsurprisingly, exactly as boiled potatoes would be expected to be: mushy and tasteless. The clock ticked closer to one and Laura and I fretted about our terrible two-ingredient meal. As the crew entered the room and sat around the table, Laura and I prepared to sit with them before realizing that they expected us to actually serve them. They looked up at us expectantly and made no moves to get their own dishes, utensils or food. Astounded, but at a loss for words or knowledge of our rights as Workawayers, Laura and I quietly gathered the necessary dinnerware and made the rounds serving them potatoes and hollandaise sauce. We just stood next to the full kitchen table as they dug in, the lone thank you coming from the soft-spoken woman in the German-Irish couple. They ate with a flagrantly undisguised lack of fervor – Thomas even pushed his plate away after two bites – and left the kitchen one by one, leaving behind their dirtied dishes and half-eaten meals.

 

 

The ensuing days followed this harrowing pattern. Thomas became more scatterbrained ever than before – I was aghast that this was possible – and the dream life in Falkenberg that the Texans spoke of became more hazy and unbelievable. We were not taken to the grocery store to get our own food until our third day there – trust me, we asked. A lot. It seemed that every time we were geared up to go on one of our promised hikes, Thomas needed us. Though he would often make us wait around for hours at a time on a sort of lockdown as he decided what, exactly, he needed us for. Ironically, we became the de facto cooks, though we were only given potatoes and hollandaise sauce and had no food stores of our own (we had taken to sneaking bits of bread, cheese and plums from the cabinets cluttered with the students’ food). We were asked to clean and watch their children and move furniture and to wait for Thomas.

Then on the third morning when Bjorn, a so-called student, stopped us and asked us to wait for Thomas before we set off into the village, we said, Okay! cheerfully and then promptly walked away, towards the town and into the woods. I sneaked a glance at him over my shoulder as we turned the corner and saw him actually shrug his shoulders and get back to working on one of Thomas’s fifty junk cars parked beside the train station. Laura and I burst out laughing. I felt like I had just broken out of the loony bin. I was giddier than I had ever been in my entire life – we ran through the empty town streets, zigzagging and whooping as though we had just found out that we had won the lottery. We eventually calmed down and found the trailhead that the Texans had told us about.

“God,” I said to Laura, sighing. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“I know,” She replied. “If getting twenty feet away from that place made us feel that happy, we should not be in that place.”

We spent the rest of the hike figuring out the logistics of getting out of the small-town German prison we’d found ourselves trapped in. We were lucky: Laura had a high school friend in Berlin who could host us for a couple of days until we could check into our hostel there. Relieved, we spent the rest of our hike imagining life outside of our abandoned train station, dreaming about Berlin, getting excited to eat something other than potatoes and oatmeal. But now came the hard part: telling our hosts.

 

 

“If you must leave tomorrow to see your friend, then that should be alright,” Thomas said rather dispassionately after we told him our fabricated story regarding a good friend and urgent plans. “But you are in luck – you will still be here for the barbeque tonight.”

“A barbeque?” I asked, nervously adding, “Who’s coming?” Fearing that we would have to cook for the whole town.

“Well, we have a new Workawayer, Allan, coming in,” Thomas said. “And, of course, everyone who lives in the station and some other friends from the town. You two will do the cooking, yes?”

“I guess,” Laura said hesitatingly. “Is there anything other than potatoes to cook though?”

“Yes,” Thomas said, rubbing his chin and thinking. “I think we have some steak and some liver.”

“Well, then,” I said with heavy sarcasm that I knew he wouldn’t catch, “Let’s get cookin’.”

 

 

Allan, as luck would have it, was an engineer from the Czech Republic who absolutely loved to cook. So there we were at five o’clock that evening: in the small yellowing yard beside the train station cooking steak, liver and zucchini for a party of twenty on a lukewarm grill. There wasn’t nearly enough food to feed the entire party (three small cuts of steak, one liver, two zucchinis), but Thomas didn’t seem to care much about people being fed at his own barbeque. As I watched the mayhem stir around me – the screaming children, the sparse food, the angry exchanges between Thomas and Adrienne – I couldn’t be gladder that I would be leaving this place the next morning on the first train out.

“So,” Allan ventured, after most of the party had left and the three of us were stacking dishes and preparing to take them to the kitchen, “How is this place?”

Laura and I looked at each other. What should we tell him? He had already told us that he was committed to staying here for a month, that his travel was all lined up and planned out, that his tickets were sorted, that he was excited to spend time in Germany fixing up a train station and designing a ‘cultural hub’ – the online promise that Thomas had made. Should we be brutally honest and warn him of the perils to come? Should we be dangerously optimistic? I thought of how the Texans’ positivity made the stark reality that much worse. I thought of how the Texans seemed to have a much different experience than us. I thought of how the Texans never mentioned cooking or starving or cleaning. I thought of –

“Allan, why don’t you join us and let the girls take care of the cleaning?” Thomas interrupted my train of thought.

And then it dawned on me. The Texans hadn’t been lying or too optimistic or woefully oblivious… They’d been men. And thus pardoned from the jobs of cooking, cleaning and childcare.

“That’s ok,” Allan said. “I like doing the dishes.”

Thomas shrugged as if to say, Suit yourself, and walked back to the group of lingerers still chatting and pushing around cold steak on their plates.

When we got into the kitchen, I ran my new theory past Laura and Allan. Allan seemed hesitant to jump on our radical-American-feminist­ bandwagon, but Laura was indignantly with me.

“Well,” She said, “The sooner we’re out of here, the better.”

So we spent one more night in our unlockable room on the top floor of the abandoned train station and woke up eagerly the next morning, bags packed and ready to go. We boarded the train and our two hosts didn’t bother to give us hugs or pretend to be even a little bit sad to see the backs of us. I made to give Allan a sympathetic little wave but then remembered that he wouldn’t need my sympathy so I gave him a friendly smile instead. Then the train doors closed and we zoomed off to Eberswalde, Berlin, Laura’s friend’s apartment.

The couple, Laura’s American friend and her German boyfriend, was aghast when they heard our tale. Our retelling was long and indulgent, plump with injustice and incredulousness. The couple gasped at the right times and interjected horrified exclamations with a satisfying regularity.

“Wow,” The boyfriend said as our long yarn came to a close. “Well thank god you’re in Berlin now so we can show you what real Germans are like.”

“That’s the best thing I’ve heard in four days,” Laura said.

“Come on,” The friend said, grabbing her scarf and purse. “There’s a football game just starting. We can watch at the bar on the corner!”

“Now that’s the best thing I’ve heard in four days,” I said, buttoning up my coat and sliding my boots onto my feet.