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80 Trains, 15 Countries, and a Bottle of Wine

By: Camey VanSant

By Katarina

I know nothing about wine. 

Yet, as I roll out of my hostel bed in Florence and check my phone, I’m greeted by a reminder reading “12%-14% charisma plant of sunshine red wine”. These cryptic descriptors were left in my notes app by Vivi, a Parisian girl I met not 24 hours earlier. After hearing our plan to come to Paris in a few weeks, she immediately offered to host me and my twin brother at her family’s home in Paris (despite our arrival date also being her first day at a new job working for the Olympics). The note was a possible thank you gift for her father. 

One of the first observations I made on my travels was the astounding speed with which friendships develop when you’re backpacking. Something about the temporary nature of each other’s presence encourages an unabashed openness that is hard to find at home where lives tangle rather than briefly touch. When there is no certainty that our lives will intersect again, it’s easier to completely embrace each other for who we are in that exact moment. This freedom, vulnerability, and pressing finitude makes what would otherwise be absurd––a single night of cards, conversation, and pasta transforming into hosting strangers at your flat in Paris––into the most natural thing in the world. I knew that as long as I stayed open and ready to absorb the little stories and lessons these strangers had to offer, each interaction would offer a new lens through which I could view the world. This principle informed my whole time backpacking and is a habit I hope to maintain back in real life

The first step in this process is to reach these strangers, which in the case of my hostel in Florence, was much more difficult than anticipated. We were warned that our lodging, an old converted monastery, was quite a distance from the city center, including a 20 minute hike uphill from the nearest bus stop. This hike turned from 20 minutes to an hour when we missed said nearest bus stop. And so, our trip to Florence began with an unexpected roadside sunset hike twisting up the Italian hillside. After about half an hour of our trek, the citrus orange and pale pink backdrop began to ripen into dark blues and blacks. As the vibrant colors faded away, so did our wonder, leaving only the anxiety that an oncoming car wouldn’t see us peeking through the dark with our phone flashlights and massive backpacks and would abruptly end our adventure.

Eventually though, with the guidance of an old Italian man who had undoubtedly directed many a stressed backpacker to this tucked away monastery, we made our way through the pitch black trail and towards the hostel. Sweaty and out of breath, we arrived just in time for the hostel’s famed pasta dinner where I first sat across from Vivi.

A day or two later, a fateful selection of seats on the bus taking me to the train station had me chatting with an Italian man who happened to be on his way to pick up a suitcase meant exclusively to carry wine and olive oil home. Naturally, I asked him for a wine that fit the criteria Vivi gave me. Right under the note she left me, he typed in his recommendation: Rosso di montepulciano. In doing so, he left a permanent imprint on a story which could have been insignificant but was made profound and wonderful in a way that’s only possible when colored by the wide-eyed-whimsy of an 18-year old girl discovering herself, the world, and her place in the it (in at least some of the important ways) for the first time. I immediately got off the bus, bags and all, and ran to the nearest supermarket to secure myself one of these bottles, not stopping for a second to think about the fact that I would have to carry it with me through Genoa, Nice, and Montpellier before finally arriving in Paris. After a week or two of miraculously surviving my backpack, the wine bottle acquired a creation myth that seeped through its glass walls, transforming its contents from a simple bottle of Rosso di montepulciano into a potion of charisma and sunshine (hopefully enough charisma and sunshine to show my gratitude to Vivi and her family.). 

Serendipity and wine were the first of many generosities I was gifted on my trip. Soon after my time in Florence, we joined a friend whom we met in Innsbruck at an Airbnb in Montpellier for a much needed break from the 12-person dorm hostel life. There, while sitting on our couch trying to binge French films to prepare us for Paris, she invited us to Groningen, a little student city in the Netherlands, to celebrate her birthday and attend her university graduation. She had friends of friends host the three of us in their apartment on borrowed deflating hiking mattresses with no blankets, and we took our places next to her family and friends, some of whom had flown all the way from Romania, introduced as “those kids Iasmina met a few weeks ago”. Later on in my trip I got the chance to stay with her and her family in Timisoara, Romania for a few days and enjoyed plenty of kurtoskalacs at the local Christmas market. This pattern continued. In Scotland, I was invited to stay with a friend of a friend, literally sleeping in the same bed as her, for 6 days. In Hamburg we stayed with family friends of my aunt who had promised my mother they’d make sure we were all well fed (and definitely delivered on that promise). In Berlin I stayed with a girl I had met in Genoa, Italy at an improv jazz concert in an abandoned, open roofed church. Her family made sure I had advent calendar treats for each day I was with them. 

These kinds of not-so-small kindnesses spun together to create the web of my not real life. These are what made my trip possible.

I think that anecdotes like these are the best way for me to capture and communicate my experience backpacking. As such, I’ll split my time into three more stories reflecting on something global, something local, and then something personal. For anyone who has followed my @sparlinggapyear instagram posts, these stories may be a bit familiar.

Something Global

The self in suspenders: reflections on Oktoberfest

Life in Munich during the pinnacle of tourism and festival was quite an experience. Everywhere we turned there were dirndls, markets, old wealthy retired English couples, and overpriced beer. Oktoberfest originates from a marriage celebration over 200 years ago, but I think there’s something a little deeper. As we strolled by roast chicken the size of 10 people, I asked myself, “what could possibly get all of these men to dress up in absurdly expensive silly little suspenders”? This question and the entire sensation of Oktoberfest’s costumes, alcohol, and mass gatherings eerily reminded me of the themes I’d read in The Secret History the previous summer. Through glimpses into Ancient Greek and Roman mythology the novel proposes that the divine, drugs, and ceremony are all methods humans have manufactured to experience being something outside of themselves. While Oktoberfest isn’t a Dionysian Bacchanal, and replaces wine and hallucinogens with beer, I think it appeals to that same human desire to be transformed into something bigger, more visceral and beautiful. To escape oneself through costume, festival, and alcohol. 

Similar to the novel, Oktoberfest also shows that this obsession with fantasy can blur the lines between beauty and terror. It fuels incredible consumerism, creates massive waste and emissions, and it leaves behind more than a few hangovers and regrets as real life comes crashing back through the doorway in the morning. 

Backpacking can have some of the same appeal and consequences. Leaving my real life and taking on the invisibility that comes with entering and leaving a city often within 3 days had an appeal of glistening freedom and independence. But impermanence would’ve been a waste. The intention is not to be transformed temporarily or to escape reality, but to be transformed yourself, taking a sliver of each moment along with you. Oktoberfest, in a surprising turn of events, taught me to reject superficiality (even in its goofy suspenders).

In Mostar, superficiality further disintegrated as I took a step away from the city’s fairytale-touristy-old town, and into the recent violent history of the country.

Something Local

A glimpse of the Balkans: Mostar

After Miran, the owner of the famed Hostel Miran in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina, pulled out an old bazuka from the Bosnian war, I should’ve known we were in for a trip during his day-long tour of the area. 

It began with a relatively standard trip to various tourist sites: to Blagaj where we saw a famous old Dervish monastery, to the historic ruins in Počitelj, to the beautiful Kravice waterfalls. 

 

Then we came back for the second part of the tour. It began with the most thrilling drive of my life, flying at what felt like 100 mph up Hum Hill, taking 180 degree turns with no hesitation (or slowing down), for Miran’s war tour. Here he shared his experiences with the disintegration of Yugoslavia and the ensuing conflicts between Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia from 1992-1995. This piece of history, which would have likely remained hidden to me if not for this tour, has become the most significant and memorable topic of my trip. To summarize, the conflict began after Bosnia declared independence after the fall of Yugoslavia, but Serbia was determined to secure the ethnic serb territory in Bosnia, so they mobilized forces and invaded. At this point in time the Croatian army (armed by American weapons) helped fight against the Serbs with the Bosnians out of fear that Croatia would be next if Serbia succeeded. Eventually though, the Croatian army switched sides, hoping to split Bosnian territory with Serbia, and attacked the Bosnians in 1993. The war consisted of large scale ethnic cleansing and rape, displacing over 2 million people and killing over 100,000. Zooming in on Mostar revealed even more cracks the conflict left behind. During the Bosniak-Croat phase of the war, the city was divided into Bosnian forces (ARBiH) on the Eastern side of the Neretva River and Croatian forces (HVO) on the Western half. This division remained even after the Croat-Bosniak war ended and parallel administrations were implemented and is still present despite the relatively superficial 2004 “unification” of Mostar, with a Croatian/Christian majority on the Western bank and a Bosnian/Muslim majority on the Eastern bank. Miran took us to the front lines where Bosnian forces clashed with Serb/Croat forces in Mostar. We saw buildings still riddled with bullet holes standing right next to an elementary school, or in the middle of a bustling strip of shops. These buildings do not remain to serve as memorials, rather, they remain because corruption and a refusal to collaborate in the government has made authorizing the money necessary to renovate them unfeasible. The frustration and disappointment in Miran’s voice was palpable as he told us how impossible it is for people in his generation to move on from the war when there are these constant, striking reminders of the conflict they experienced. When the children are being put into school right next to those reminders, how is the next generation supposed to move on either? The desire for reconciliation was just as strong as his frustration and mistrust.

The unique experience of being able to dissect and understand the conflict with someone who lived through it, feeling the poignancy of the ethno-national divisions between communities and within the government, while also seeing the physical legacy of the war throughout the city, made this experience particularly significant. I came out of the day understanding conflict in a way that no history book could replicate. The impossibility of change in the face of prolonged and severe corruption reminded me of how frustrating it was to work against gerrymandering in local elections in Charlotte. Understanding the universality of these sentiments, of frustration, disillusionment, mistrust, and of the hope for change and reconciliation, cemented my belief in the importance of grassroots activism (which is desperately needed in Mostar, but is difficult to plant given the toxicity of their political soil). My conversation with Miran also cemented my belief in the importance of storytelling. For me, his stories humanized a conflict/crisis which used to seem far enough away that it subconsciously qualified as not real life. For them, stories may be the path to a better future; because while rebuilding the famous Stari Most (old bridge) of Mostar that was destroyed during the war was symbolic of Bosnian resilience as a sovereign nation, it is a rebuilding of the bridge between nations, through personal stories, apologies, and ultimately forgiveness, that is necessary to heal the ethno-national divides that plague the region with instability, conflict, and corruption.

Traveling onwards to Slovakia, stories continued to be an important motif. Only this time, oral storytelling materialized into oil paintings in the studio of an old family friend.

Something Personal

On mortality: Bratislava

As I walked into the art studio, I was shocked to see dozens of images of Robo’s corpse.

An artist and family friend of my mothers in Slovakia, Robo was still alive; he just habitually painted himself in the context of his own death. His home is covered from floor to ceiling in books, paintings, photos, and a fascinating collection of trinkets and religious symbols from his world travels. His artistry flowed from every inch of his home, but it didn’t even compare to his studio. Paintings on every wall and all over the floor, including dozens of graphic paintings of his own corpse. Despite the significant language barrier between us, I learned that he creates these images to meditate on his mortality. The inevitability of age and death is a major theme throughout his works. A few hours earlier we had visited the newly renovated art museum of Bratislava to see his exhibition– a series of portraits of his grandmother depicting her descent into dementia. Robo’s ability to capture the sense of self and recognition fading from his grandmother’s face was all too familiar to my family. Seeing it so clearly out in front of us was comforting, in a way. The paintings, both of him and his grandmother, so boldly confronted the reality of death, that it tore away some of its taboo, and thus, its loneliness. Despite difficulties in language, the images translated a powerful message of the most universal human experience— our own mortality.

It was a dual realization, sitting on the floor in the center of his studio staring in wonder and the paintings around me. I had grown up with stories of this man, with his paintings covering our home in North Carolina, but met him for the first time at 18 years old. The thousands of miles between Charlotte and Slovakia had detached me from him, like many aspects of my mother’s life and my heritage in Slovakia. Yet, his art persisted in my life, even molding my artistic tastes, from his style and composition to contents—even his works’ disturbing and dark undertones. 

Tending to our roots is important, and so is expanding them beyond where they were first planted. For me, this means visiting Slovakia and spending time with my mother’s family and friends to better understand her, and in turn, myself. It means traveling to learn about Bosnian history, Central European art, and Oktoberfest. Our history, and the intertwining histories of those around us, are what form who we are as individuals and communities. It’s a deeply fulfilling objective to understand that.

Reflections: 

During my not real life, I visited 15 countries and 30 cities, taking over 80 trains and traveling over 10,000 km by train, all within 3 months. Here is a full list of my destinations:

Dubrovnik, Croatia
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina
Split, Croatia
Trogir, Croatia
Munich, Germany
Vienna, Austria
Bratislava, Slovakia
Innsbruck, Austria
Florence, Italy
Genoa, Italy
Portofino, Italy
Cinque Terre, Italy
Nice, France
Menton, France
Marseille, France
Montpellier, France
Paris, France
Lisbon, Portugal
Sintra, Portugal
St. Andrews, Scotland
London, England
Amsterdam, The Netherlands
Groningen, The Netherlands
Hamburg, Germany
Berlin, Germany
Krakow, Poland
Nitra, Slovakia
Budapest, Hungary
Timișoara, Romania
Prague, Czechia

This required a very, very fast pace of travel. I stayed an average of three days per place, with plenty of one or two day stops, and my longest stay lasting a week. This style of travel definitely had its drawbacks. You meet so many incredible people and just have to pray that you will cross paths again, but have no certainty of it. You fall in love with a place but have to leave the next day. You at the very least want to get souvenirs that might preserve this moment in time forever, but you have no space in the little backpack that currently carries your whole life. At its core, backpacking is a practice in being transient, and it’s strange for sure but also incredibly beautiful. As I traveled, it became clear to me how human connection has been the force directing my curiosity, my love for storytelling, and my interest in politics, history, conflict, and human rights. I see the world in terms of relationships and patterns, little threads connecting people to each other, to the past, present, and future, to the environment. So, to cut these threads prematurely, without any certainty of reconnection, was emotionally taxing on me even as it was enlightening.

These new experiences were like miniature case studies on my internal workings, and taking the time to reflect on them allowed me to see how I operate, what I love and what I hate, what I excel at and what I struggle with, helping me to understand myself in a much broader sense. Once I could do that, the world around me became much more accessible. As I continued my leapfrogging around Europe, I also realized that the connections I made, both with people and places, were not nearly as fleeting as I had initially been concerned about. My not real life did not, in fact, exist solely in my mind and dissipate the moment I released physical contact. The lines between what I had designated as real life and not real life blurred. After I left Europe I had friends from hostels messaging me Merry Christmas, then happy birthday, then congratulations when they saw the plans to hike Kilimanjaro that I had floated by them become reality. I began to consider which place I would want to study abroad in, or what research I could pursue on interests sparked during my travels. Friends from Berlin and Romania began planning to visit me during my spring in Moldova and discussed staying with me in North Carolina. It quickly became clear that these experiences and friendships were more permanent than I could have imagined. I revisited conversations about the Bosnian war, the best sunshine-charisma red wine, the sensation of Oktoberfest, and an artist’s obsession with mortality over and over again, turning the temporary lenses I tried on into deeper grooves in my mind.

I still know nothing about wine, but now I know a little bit more about how the September ocean feels in Croatia, about my love for German romantic art, about small talk in hostel kitchens and deeper talks over dinner tables, about my ability to embrace new and challenging experiences, and about how I can continue nurturing my love for life, learning, and connecting. So cheers to Europe, to backpacking, and to Duke and my family for allowing this all to be possible.

Categories:Katarina