To the Europe that I met

I received a text from Eun yesterday morning, asking if I would like to join some of our other friends to visit her in Korea at the end of the year. By then, it would have been exactly a year since I last saw her. Or rather, a year since I left Europe at the end of my exchange.

I spent about 5 months in Europe on study exchange in 2015 and travelled more than 33 cities in 15 different countries in my free time. I am a budget traveler. As a record, I spent less than 200Euro (SGD300) on a monthly trip around Eastern Europe, food, transportation and accommodation all inclusive. I made do with loaves of bread from supermarkets for my meals, froze in 3degree Celcius coldness for 2 hours to board the cheapest overnight bus I could find and generally slept in my Couchsurfing hosts’ living rooms. Most of my friends preferred a more comfortable and layback holiday and thus granted me the freedom to travel through most of Europe alone. Those who didn’t mind an alternative travelling experience joined me. This post is dedicated for the people whom I met on my journey, helping me in one way or another and making Europe more meaningful than just being a continent that I have been to on the world map.

Dresden, Germany: The girl with many rolls of bread

I went to Dresden with a close friend and when we came back three days later, both of us had a bag full of sweet-smelling bread that could fill our stomach for an entire week. They came from Maren, our Couchsurfing host.

SNCF Scholar
From left: Maren, I and my friend

Maren is a university student pursuing a career in occupational nursing and a passionate environment activist. She and her friends started a project in Dresden where they go around the city collecting consumable breads from bakeries at the end of the business hours and distribute them to the needy the following day. At the time when I met her, she hasn’t done shopping for about a year or two. All her items are savaged from a local “co-living” warehouse that stores still-functional products donated by people. Literally, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. She dreams of a day when she would no longer produce any waste at home.

Florence, Italy: the man who transforms on the dance floor

My host in Florence is a forty years old single man living with two cats and works from home. His house is located on the outskirt of the city where I had to take tram to the last stop and crossed a deserted train track. When I arrived at his place at 10pm, he asked if I would like to go out with him to see Florence in action at night. Sounds dubious?

He’s an avid salsa dancer at night. I knew nothing about salsa, or any form of Latin dance. The closest I had ever come across with dancing is my amateur street jazz classes in school back in Singapore. My jaws dropped when Francesco led me to a salsa club that night.

Men and women ranging from twenties to seventies were dancing themselves away on the dance floor and every single one of them looks fabulous. It doesn’t matter if you can’t dance – it’s about expressing yourself and moving to the music. “Feel it”, as Francesco put it.

I am a horrible dancer. I couldn’t even get the basic steps right and I stepped on Francesco’s toes so many times that I began to feel bad towards him. A seventy years old grandpa standing beside us probably decided that I was bringing too much shame to this form of art with all my mistakes and decided to take me under his wings. And he was one of the best dancers that night. Believe it or not, I actually managed to catch some moves from him.

When I got back to the Netherlands, I promptly signed up for a Salsa beginner class.

Siaoliai, Lithuania: the old man on the bus

Traveling alone in Eastern Europe means that I am on extra alert at all times. Never let your guards down, especially when you are on a public bus in Siaoliai, a small town in Lithuania, travelling to the countryside and probably the only Asian in the entire town. I was going to the Hill of Crosses, a famous place of pilgrimage in Lithuania. As the name suggests, it is really, a hill of crosses.

hill of crosses
The Hill of Crosses in Siauliai, Lithuania

The Hill of Crosses is the only reason why I was there in Lithuania. Lithuania is exceptional in the Baltic States for its religiosity and the Hill of Crosses is probably the best evidence for that. The only problem – the Hill of Crosses is extremely out of the way for travelers. I had to take a 2 hours train from Vilnius, the capital to Siauliai and then a bus to the outskirt before a 20 minute walk into the wildness to find it. In the meantime, the bus back to Siauliai train station only comes every 2 hours because almost no one lives in the proximity and therefore has no demand for transportation.

There is no roadsign indicating the stop to alight for the Hill of Crosses.

Once I was on board the bus, I was busy staring at my GPS and tracking the movement of the bus. Was I on the wrong bus? Where should I alight?

An old man sat close to me on my left, even though there’re plenty of seats behind. My instinct alerted me and as I looked at him, he smiled. I began to worry. I knew I had to excuse myself and avoid more contacts with him.

All of a sudden, he tapped on my shoulder and spoke to me in a language that I did not understand. He shouted something to the driver. The bus came to a halt. My heart almost sunk. What was going on?

He pointed to a road on my left and said “Kryziu Kalnas”. It’s the only word I understand in Lithuanian. It means “the Hill of Crosses”.

I couldn’t remember if I actually said “thank you” to him because I was still in shock when I alighted the bus.

I hope I did, and I wish that I could tell him that I am really very sorry for misunderstanding him.

There are many others that I would like to thank for making my Europe trip the best thing in 2015. It was such a wonderful experience and I had learnt so much from every single person that I met. I wish I would see some of them another time – be it in Europe or Asia, and wish the best for the others that I would never have a chance to meet again, like the old man on that bus in Siauliai.

And in case you are wondering, yes I am going to Korea to see Eun and those friends I made on -exchange at the end of the year.

SNCF Scholar Guo Mei Qi

Guo Mei Qi
Sociologist-in-the-making/ Traveller/ Couchsurfer/ Human rights activists/ Dancer/Adventurer/ Foodie