People are often surprised to hear how much I enjoy traveling alone. They wonder why I wouldn´t choose to share the experience others in my life, people with whom I can talk about the things I see. More so, people presume the road to be a lonely place - somewhere where a friend would be welcome to help pass the time. The short answer is that if I was so lucky to have a friend who had the same flexibility as I do - months to meander - and a love for the same things - an interest in venturing to the odd corners of Europe - then perhaps it would be a better way of going about it. But, in the end, those folks are in short supply. That said, there are two virtues which would make it really hard for me to add a companion; the first is purely selfish - I wake up and do what I want, go where I want, see all the things I want. There is no need to compromise - I am completely independent and need not cater to anyone else and their needs/wants. Its not that I am capable of doing so - it simply isn´t necessary.
The second reason is a purely social one. When one travels alone the reality is that your days do get lonely. You do want to talk to people, to share things but not at the expense of the first reason above. You are forced to reach out to other travelers, to swap your stories, to hear their plans, and to learn about their cultures. When traveling with a friend, with a group you are comfortable with and know very well, the tendency is to remain insular and avoid these opportunities to learn. Why make friends - you already have your own by your side? In some cities luck isn´t on your side. The people aren´t engaging, their stories are bland - hey, mine might be too - and you pass time caught up in your own thoughts, writing them down, waiting for another day to pass them on to someone else. But often you can be very lucky. I have shared beers with Kosovars in Macedonia, shared a train cabin with a Turk in Greece, partied w Austrians in Bulgaria, and was forced into sharing a two liter beer with a Serbian peasant on my way to Skopje, and the list goes on. Each experience taught me a little that I probably wouldn´t have had the opportunity to learn if not for my having been riding solo.
In truth though, most of these relationships are extremely superficial and over time, the process of meeting people can leave you quite jaded. Each day you find yourself asking the same generic questions - a filter that allows you to sift the interesting from the pedestrian. Where are you from? Where are you coming from? Where are you going to next? How long are you traveling? What do you do when you aren´t traveling? Sometimes you can tell that both the questions and answers are so forced, so ingenuine that its makes the process such a waste. You can see this with those who have been on the road for a long time. They realize how ephemeral most of the relationships will be. The diamond in the rough is so elusive that its easier to take days off, to avoid the struggle rather than expend precious energy on another dead end conversation. But, every so often we do get lucky. Not everyone we meet on the road is a friend for a day or two and then never heard from again. Sometimes a true friend is found.
Such luck struck for me last year at Lake Bled. I met a great kid named Andy who shared many of the same interests as me, had attended the same study abroad program as me in Brussels, and we even had a friend in common back in the states that we could joke about in our one night together. It was fun to talk to him but we were both going in a different direction the next day and didn´t even exchange information. A week later I was searching for my hostel in Split, Croatia when I ran into Andy on the street. To our surprise, we were staying at the same place, same room, and would both be there for the next few days. As we talked I learned that our next three cities coincided. We were both fiercely protective over the next week of our space, wanting to do things our way and as I mentioned above, to avoid compromise. Every night we met up late, had a few drinks, explored the nightlife of Belgrade and Sarajevo. We spoke about the things we did each day and made suggestions on what we found the most interesting. In Belgrade we visited Tito´s grave together, something that fascinated both of us. Andy, like me, knew the history, had read or wanted to read the same books about the region. His passion and interest rivaled mine. He proved to be the perfect companion for those days and someone who I would hope to see again, to share more time on the road with..
After our paths diverged we stayed in touch over email. Sharing our itineraries, sharing our thoughts on destinations the other had already been to. Andy was going to be in Paris this past fall and with me in Madrid we´d talked about meeting up either in those cities or elsewhere in Europe. Towards the end of the trip Andy started to feel sick. When I next talked to him in September after arriving in Madrid he surprised me one day on google chat by telling me that he was at home in Connecticut. He had just been diagnosed with Leukemia. Over the next few months we talked on a semi-regular basis - every two weeks maybe. He would ask about Madrid, teaching, girls in my life - and any travel plans on the horizon. He didnt like to talk much about his health - he probably had been doing that enough. The last time we talked he cut short the conversation because of problems he was having spelling and needed to lie down.
I never saw him on google chat again. We never talked again. In late March, fearing the worse - I googled his name and I found an obituary from the week before. I was really taken aback by how emotional his death made me. We´d only spent one week of our lives together but given our shared interests, shared career intentions, shared spirit for the road and traveling solo - there was too much in common to not find the loss devastating. The obituary hailed his adventurous nature - at the age of 23 he had already visited 44 countries. When I was proud of myself for heading to such unstable places like Bosnia - it really isn´t - alone he was going one step further venturing as far as Belarus and Cyprus. He was an inspiration for me as a traveler, truly unafraid, never letting an opportunity to see a place of interest pass when he was on the doorstep. It reminded me how much I regretted sidestepping Kosovo and a that if such an opportunity presented itself again, I wouldn´t pass it up.
Anyway - the point of this message is more than to write about a friend gained and lossed. The real intention was to explain why I chose to title this years blog ¨mopping up europe¨ - these words are a direct quote of his, a response I heard him explain to many others many times when he was asked those same generic questions about his trip. He had seen it all and was trying to reach those hard to reach chips at the bottom of the bag. Given how disjointed this summer´s trip is - it seemed both appropriate, a way to honor the guy, and the best way to make sure I never stop asking those generic questions - you never know who you may miss out on meeting if you take the day off.
You don´t get lucky very often. I hope I do again...RIP Andy.