The immigration officer is polite and apologetic but what he’s asking doesn’t change. “Please, miss, I’m going to have to ask you to disembark.”
We’ve just settled into the carriage, nearly the last leg of a journey that now began twelve hours and two countries ago. Already the morning cab ride to the train in Belgrade lies distant, and even the eight hours to Zagreb through the gridded European country have faded. Now our bags unloaded, we stretch out over whatever length of the compartment we can claim, and our minds are set to arriving in Munich with the sunrise, and sometime tomorrow, Berlin.
And now, at the Slovenian border, I have to unfold myself, gesture apologetically to Melanie, and wave goodbye to Alex – an environmental policy intern who’s been traveling with us since Belgrade and whose life we have been slowly and painstakingly dissecting by way of conversation over the last day. We follow the immigration officer, shivering, into the cold. The platform is empty. I call my mother. “We’re in the middle-of-nowhere-Slovenia.”
In the police office I stand in front of the desk, present each of my fingers one by one for inspection. “It’s not in the system,” the official says, vexed. Finally he pulls up photographs of me, five years earlier, on my last Schengen visa. He calls a colleague over, looks at me, looks at the photograph.
In the end he escorts us out apologetically. “Just the fault of technology, I’m sorry. We can drive you to the nearest town. If you want.” But as it is we’ll need to get on the next train to Munich from here, and so we walk across to the spa hotel opposite. The receptionist takes one look at us and offers their cheapest room: five times the price we’ve been paying everywhere else.
In the morning we steal all we can from the breakfast buffet before boarding the day train to Munich.
“We needed one interesting story, at least,” I tell Melanie. Unspoken: we don’t have much more time for them. This is our last leg, our last chance-to-see, to-do, to-tick-off-the-list, to-make-the-most-of-what-we-have. And then the long flight home and the only time left will be either for regret or peace.
I’m snappier with Melanie through the day: why didn’t you pack this, you should have read up on that. I want everything now to be perfect, every dot to fall in place where it is supposed to. We must have everything we need and want prepared in advance; even this “interesting story”, too, will have its place, will slot in neatly to a list of travel anecdotes, and so I will come back to Singapore with this trip neatly packaged.
And this far in I know that’s not how it works, know that my belligerence alone disqualifies any harmonious image I’m trying to project to god knows who. I want to live in the present but also the future and I stretch myself taut in doing so.
The Austrian Alps fade in and out of view outside the window. The snow is just another wisp of cloud fading off their edges. Only the pine forests clung to their slopes cut vivid jagged silhouettes. I don’t let myself sleep the whole ride for fear of missing the peaks in some fresh ray of sunlight.
When we transfer at Munich to Berlin, at last, exhaustion finally overwhelms me and I settle into a nap, mostly out of lack of choice. But as I close my eyes my shawl is pulled away from me.
“Melanie, don’t – ” I begin, but she’s sitting opposite me; it’s a dog, a gorgeous Cocker Spaniel, next to me wagging his tail and tugging the shawl free in the process. I bend down to pet him and poke my head to the chair behind and ask the owner the dog’s name: Timtam, he says affectionately.
It takes fifteen minutes of conversation before we discover the owner’s name is Martin, a Leicestershire native teaching at a German international school. He used to host radio shows in the Middle East, and answers each of our questions about Berlin attentively. We help him lead Timtam out of the train afterwards, to meet a friend of his, and leave with his number and promises to meet again, if ever our paths crossed.
If I hadn’t been pulled off the train, hadn’t stayed longer at the hotel for the breakfast buffet, hadn’t tried to rush connections through Austria, we’d never have met Timtam or Martin or seen the Austrian Alps. I want everything to match up but the best things have happened outside the lines.
We have 48 hours in Berlin, which leaves little time for spontaneity not explicitly scheduled. I call my mother who gives me a list of things whose beginning I have forgotten at the end.
In the end we go on a free guided tour. Melanie walks down strange streets quickly and I stop for photographs of graffiti and doorways and curio shops. I want to document, experience, know everything. We dodge tourists around the East Side Gallery and sunbathers on the park grass, stand in line for three museums before abandoning each for want of time, walk manically, half running, from bus station to train station, monument to monument.
We end the day at the Holocaust Memorial’s museum a little disoriented in a room filled with families passed. Letters echo in backlight, talking of love that will endure beyond everything, beyond the city wiped clean. I am sad, because the trip is ending, because there isn’t enough time here, because to feel sad for such sorry reasons feels foolish. Because things will always be bigger than I can hope to try to grasp.
The next day we abandon Berlin altogether and wander the museums: the massive Ishtar gate, the ruins of Troy, African ritual masks. When we come out to go back to the AirBnB and pack our bags, the city floats mirage-like around; I cannot grasp it, cannot pinpoint any proof, as the train pulls away from the station, that we had ever come at all.
But everything carries that mania from there on. We reach Switzerland at sunrise and blearily fumble in connections towards the Alps. My parents came here two and a half decades back and the day goes following their paths through towns with delectable names. I take great delight in pronouncing each as we pass through them: Brienz, Lausanne, Zweissman. Each consonant feels sharp and bright in my mouth as the mountains around that cut snowy profiles out of the clouds.
From the trains everything is transitory. It rains, so we wait on the platform. When it is sunny, we walk the new towns with quick footsteps, registering vaguely the new houses, lakesides, playgrounds before hurrying on again to landscapes that last little longer than the rectangular length of the window. We see, but we do not grasp. I spend all my time either writing or with my nose against the window. In a carriage modeled on the Orient Express we descend at last to Lake Geneva, curtained in rain. The surface of the water seems to rise up to meet the sky.
I try to hold onto that picture in my mind’s eye, the water transformed, the border illusory, but it fades as we rush between connections, run to collect our bags, wait with nervous energy for lights to emerge on the far away tracks. At 2 am I pace Frankfurt station and stare at the billboards and still-open bakeries. I’m not sure what I’m doing, why I’m doing it. Exhaustion tugs at my edges.
And some hours later, Amsterdam; the train is on time, thank god, and we run across the town. At the canals we look quickly: I’ve been here before, I keep telling Melanie, though I barely remember it, it’s okay, let’s just hurry up. Our plan is to explore after we go to the Rijksmuseum – the only one we could get tickets for at short notice.
But the entire day passes there, far too easily. I am transfixed by the miniature delicacy of the Vermeers and then an exhibition of Rembrandts: every single one they have in their collection, from pencil sketch to painting. I marvel hours in the minute scratches that prove the artist really touched it, roughed his thoughts into vibrant vision. In doing so we nearly miss our connection onwards. Melanie and I glare at each other till the train pulls away to Brussels.
In the evening we eat in a restaurant for the first time in a week. Over the mussels, we reflect on the trip. Tomorrow is the last day in Europe, then London, then each of us fling oceans away from the other.
“What did you learn?” I ask Melanie. We list things together: the lingering impacts of communism, Balkans myths, Rembrandt’s talents, German history, Czech culture. But we run out of these academic insights quickly. Both of us are conscious that any cultural knowledge there can be challenged and crumpled away with little effort, just like each of us have challenged the other on our shared past and country. If so easily what we know of a place we both lived for over a decade can dissolve, how can these places – some we visited for barely two hours – figure significantly into any real learnings?
We continue with the list: European train schedules, budgeting, making itineraries, cooking, cooking together, talking to new people, coordinating conversations, coping with unexpected plan changes.
“What I don’t like about you,” Melanie says, smiling.
“Vice versa,” I reply, and steal a fry off her plate.
The next morning, at the Comic Strip Museum, I wander through the patches of sunlight and think about this. I thought this trip would be about seeing new places and falling in love or yearning or something beyond with each in turn. But at the end everything has blurred in retrospect. What am I going to write about it all?
I keep thinking of it as we walk back through Brussels city and carry our bags to the train station. Past immigration, speeding back under the English Channel, I finish up the last of my journal entries. A full book has filled with this nearly-daily documentation. I have tracked where we ate and what we saw, the buses we took, the things we were told.
But as we reach London and navigate the unchanged streets, the notebook feels like a dead weight in my backpack. All those lines I have neatly (and not so neatly) written in between, hours of attempts to compress our experiences into something memorable and memory-prompting, some proof that we were there. But the whole trip feels illusory behind us even despite these painstaking records.
We spend our last day in London largely supine. In the evening we take the Tube and go see Hamilton: I booked these tickets now a near half year ago, have listened to the soundtrack more times than countable, can recite these melodies half-asleep while balancing on a tightrope. But I am struck by not the songs now but rather the profound humanity the performance brings: the jokes are funny, now not over earphones but in person; the characters are real in ways beyond disembodied voices. I spend much of the performance thinking about how Melanie and I are reflected here: the petty fights and resolutions. Perhaps it’s self-indulgent to look for a mirror in the beginnings of the American world. But perhaps it’s self-indulgent to look for a mirror anywhere.
What has remained constant from the time I met Melanie just outside this theatre now five weeks ago? Only our humanity, only the life of it, only us, as we came across Europe and back again. In my journals I found our friendship hardest to write about. Every time I tried I would be caught up in rehashing an argument and annoyance would bubble up once more; I abandoned each effort at that, a little relieved; how would I capture the complexities of it all anyways, pay proper homage? I have always found it easier to narrate a place or history than a person. The former never objects to mischaracterization.
In the evening, Melanie and I shout missing items to each other across the room, packing for our flights the next day – “toothpaste! At the bottom! My book – where was it?” – I am grateful, suddenly and overwhelmingly. Each plan, followed or not, has disappeared so easily behind us. I think back to our list in Brussels: our tangible cultural-historical learnings completed the quickest. Left behind was the simple fact of navigating the world together. More than anything it had taught us not to live in a new place but rather live with ourselves. What do we need? What do we value? A joke after a stressful moment, a beautiful piece of art, a good meal. Most of all the assurance of each other’s presence, even with every pimple exposed and picked at, bled out, scabbed over. This quiet strong love, now years old, and maybe it’ll fade in a few months with university, classes, and I can’t write about it, but we’re here, we’re still talking to each other, laughing and teasing four weeks later back in London, and nothing—the things we didn’t see, the photographs I missed, the art unappreciated, the distances we left untraveled—seems more important than that.