Travel and Loneliness

On the final night of our trip to Europe last year, Mat and I treated ourselves to dinner at an exquisite little place in Amsterdam called Restaurant Johannes. This visit was the product of some brief TripAdvisor research, an easy online booking form (always welcome in foreign countries) and the financial freedom of having come in well under budget at the close of the trip. The experience was perfect. I’m now convinced that there is no better way to spend the last evening of a great adventure than over a delicious tasting menu and many glasses of good wine. In fact, I am now determined to make a tradition of it.

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I realise now that I’ve not been particularly good at ending trips before this. On my first overseas venture, to New Zealand – a great big group of College friends on the back of a great big Jetstar sale – I wasted the last couple of days in a right sour funk. Most all of my friends had dispersed: one half of the group had long since split off northward, whilst the rest of us made ourselves cosy in Queenstown. But even by the end, most of the Queenstown crew had either caught their early flights home or begun the drive back to Christchurch to drop off their Wicked Van in time for the main return flight (in true College kid form, we’d arranged ourselves in quite a hodge-podge of comings and goings). The trip had been amazing. Spending two more days in Queenstown after that big group bubble popped, though, and I suddenly felt such a strong pang of desertion that I really quite ruined my remaining time there. I was that child who turns bitter and gloomy after a friend has been taken home by a parent the morning after a sleepover. 

A year later, my cousin and I finished off an incredible South-East Asia trip with five ‘relaxing’ days in Phuket – or perhaps, more pertinently, in the beach resort town of Patong. It didn’t take very long for me to realise that Patong is so stupendously not my kind of place. This place was a stark contrast to the low-key, local travel we’d been doing for four weeks straight with our wonderful little Intrepid Travel group. I wanted that back. I wanted out. But get out I could not, and so I counted down those five days like a captive waiting release from a veritable tourist trap. Couple that with an unprecedented case of excruciating acid reflux that lasted the entire Phuket stay, and it became an altogether pretty miserable way to cap off the trip. 

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It goes on. After two months of travelling Europe for the first time, the sheer emotional exhaustion of solo travel finally got to me. I cut the trip short by a few weeks (though not quite short enough that I wasn’t counting down the days before I could just go home already). I did another month solo in Central America a couple of years later, and almost got it right by meeting up with friends in Anaheim for a YouTube convention and a trip to Disneyland afterward. I had one more long, solo day just waiting around the hotel lobby and LAX to finish with, though, and it felt like torture. Plus, I was pining hard for a guy who hadn’t exactly given me high hopes for the continuation of a budding relationship when I returned.

Lucky for me, that particular bit all turned out in the end. And this brings us back to Amsterdam and an exquisite little place called Restaurant Johannes. 

I think of that night in Amsterdam and my heart lifts with blazing joy. Tucked away off a canal at the foot of The 9 Streets district, Restaurant Johannes was intimate and welcoming, and an absolute delight on a bright, balmy August evening. Mat and I were at the end of a six-week trip and exhausted in the best possible way; Johannes’ wonderful staff took in our tired little bodies and looked after us so well. We surrendered easily to the delicious seven-course menu with wine matching and all the marvellous little surprises in between. It was kind of magical. I wasn’t counting down the hours until I boarded my flight the next day. I was present and content and relaxed. This was how it was meant to feel. This was finally the perfect ending I didn’t even realise I’d been missing out on.

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And of course, as it’s become plainly obvious to me in writing this (I swear it wasn’t the way I saw this post going), it was never really about the food. Sure, a fine dining degustation with full wine matching helps. A lot. But I understand now that the feeling that had plagued me at the conclusion of every trip previous is one that is pretty hard to admit: loneliness. By some way or another, it was loneliness that was my downfall. Loneliness! I know myself extraordinarily able to thrive on my own, so it feels like loneliness should be at odds with my travel style. The Solo Female Traveller is meant to wend her way through the world, fierce and fearless and independent. She gets lonely? She just goes out and makes a bunch of new friends!

But perhaps, not quite.

My love of travel has always trumped my fear of loneliness, and I think it always will. And all things considered, it’s certainly never come close to ruining a trip. Sometimes the lonely path is the only way to get out there and see the world. It’s just those damn pesky endings where it really grabs you, I suppose. The profound thing about that Amsterdam evening was the fact that it was shared – and so had the preceding six weeks of adventure across Europe – with a person who trumped even my desire for travel. And what an incredible feeling that is. 

That is the tradition I want to make. 

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Our Airbnb Experience in Europe

A Parisian studio, a houseboat on a canal in Amsterdam, a house on a Tuscan hilltop and even a remodelled sauna in Munich. Yup – we rarely had a boring bed in Europe, and that was largely in thanks to a most glorious and wonderful little thing called Airbnb.

The view from our Tuscan hilltop Airbnb.

Airbnb had kind of been in my peripheral vision for a while. It was a concept that sounded really cool, but one I couldn’t quite process properly; without any travel planned it seemed irrelevant to me, at least temporarily. After booking flights for this year’s trip to Europe, however, that very quickly changed. Now that I had a tangible trip in the works, it was like falling deep, deep into the rabbit hole.

If you’re not familiar with Airbnb, it’s an online community based around the sharing of otherwise private accommodation space with travellers (for a fee). From spare rooms to entire apartments, villas to backyard yurts – the world of Airbnb is vast, fascinating and an incredibly exciting facet of the travel industry. I spent hours upon hours trawling the website, thrilled at the idea of exploring Europe through the homes of locals. This was the first time I’d planned a trip totally from scratch and the accommodation side in particular was very new to me. I mean – sure, we knew we wanted to visit Switzerland for a few days. But where in Switzerland? In this sense, Airbnb turned out to be an absolute godsend. I plugged in a search for a space within our price range, and somewhere we’d also have access to free parking as we travelled mostly by car. It also needed to be somewhere kind of on the way to Italy. That’s how we ended up staying with Sonja and Christophe in the gorgeous little town of Thun – a destination we’d never have discovered if not for Airbnb, and yet it honestly became one of the most incredible parts of our trip. 

We ended up booking roughly 75% of the trip through Airbnb; 11 different spaces in total. What I loved was not just the opportunity to stay in some really beautiful, unique spaces – but to experience a destination in a way that just felt more genuinely local. Take Amsterdam, where we closed out our trip by treating ourselves to three nights aboard Reinhart’s houseboat (docked in a canal). The houseboat itself was gorgeous, and staying aboard was obviously just a seriously cool thing to do. But it also meant that we got well away from the very touristy centre of Amsterdam, whilst still being extraordinarily close to everything we wanted to explore there. You see, to get to Reinhart’s houseboat we had to take a short ferry from the rear of Centraal Station. This ferry runs 24 hours a day – every five minutes during the day, and every ten minutes at night. And it’s totally free. The ferry pulls up, opens its gate to the dock and locals pile on – including cyclists, and even people driving little microcars! It takes but a minute to get over the river IJ, where another gate on the opposite side opens to the new dock in North Amsterdam, and everyone trundles off – right before those waiting on the North side swarm on. Reinhart’s houseboat was just another few minutes’ walk from there. It was such a fun little local ritual. Mat and I loved getting to experience that ferry passage a few times every day during our stay. And North Amsterdam was so lovely. No hostels in sight. No throngs of nineteen year old boys high on their own egos. It was a peaceful place where we we were rocked ever-so-slightly to sleep at night by soft waves.

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I made a point of trying to choose Airbnbs that had rave reviews not only centred around the space itself, but even more so the host and hospitality. Call me picky, but I wanted to choose Airbnb hosts who thrived on making visitors feel welcome in their little part of the world. These would be the first people we’d meet in each destination, and our lifeline to local living. I wanted to put my trust in people who took that kind of ambassadorship seriously. And that selectivity really, truly paid off. 

Cristina and Matteo’s spare studio apartment in Paris was an absolute dream in itself; having our own gorgeous little space overlooking the Parisian rooftops for a week was pure magic. Cristina and Matteo as hosts gave the experience a whole new level of awesome. They invited us into their own (amazing) apartment on the floor below, poured us wine and gave us their best food recommendations for the area. And for anyone who’s been to Paris, you’ll appreciate how incredibly valuable that kind of advice is! We pretty much lived on their food tips, and our tastebuds could not have been any happier for it. I’ve mentioned before how Cristina also worked tirelessly to get us a reservation at La Petite Rose des Sables. As our first Airbnb experience, Cristina and Matteo and their little studio in the Latin Quarter absolutely blew us away. 

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And then there was Sonja and Christophe in Thun, Switzerland. We stayed for three nights in the spare bedroom of their apartment, and were welcomed into their home with a truly touching warmth and generosity. Every night we sat up, lost in conversation with the pair, who were well-travelled adventurers themselves. They told us that – rather than doing it for the money (and believe me, their place is some of the most reasonably priced accommodation you’ll find in a very expensive country!) – they open their home up through Airbnb as a way of experiencing new people from all over the world. Sonja and Christophe gave us some fantastic suggestions to check out in the area – hugely appreciated, as poor weather conditions meant that much of the mountain frolicking we’d thought to do was suddenly a no-go. They even treated us to a delicious home-cooked meal on our final night. Their apartment has a huge, sprawling terrace, and during a brief half-hour of visibility on that final night, we finally got a glimpse of the mountains that loom above Thun. It’s absolutely stunning. Our time in Thun felt very special indeed. 

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Later, during our visit to Munich, we stayed with Matthias in an outer municipality called Vaterstetten. After reading fantastic reviews for Matthias’ spare room, I got in contact requesting a booking. Unfortunately I’d been pipped by someone else in the meantime, but Matthias courteously offered us his other space – a remodelled sauna he called the ‘Cosy Cuddle Box’. This does sound a little horror movie-esque, but you know what? I had a curiously good feeling about it. Plus – what a story, right? The Cosy Cuddle Box was really quite amazing – a loft-style bed had been installed inside the sauna, a bar-fridge and storage space tucked underneath and another wedge of private space curtained off just outside the door. It felt like a grown-up cubby house. And Matthias was the picture of a perfect Airbnb host. Every detail was attended to (including fresh chocolates on our pillows every day, which obviously won me over fairly quickly). He stopped to brew and share a pot of coffee with us most every time our paths crossed, and we enjoyed some great conversation together. He tipped us off to the wonder that is the schmalznudel, and we showed him videos of Aussie Rules Football on YouTube. Matthias was very intrigued indeed.

Airbnb just really opened us up to a world beyond the tourist trail. We discovered the trendy Nuremberg suburb of Gostenhof, or ‘GoHo’, after booking Eva’s ridiculously well-reviewed guest room. It actually felt like a totally separate apartment – a beautiful bedroom, bathroom and living space that split off from the entrance to Eva’s main apartment meant that we were swimming in space (especially after coming directly from the Cosy Cuddle Box!). Eva had painted a huge map of GoHo across one of the walls that detailed her favourite eateries and attractions. It was brilliant. From bakeries to beer gardens, caf├ęs to tapas bars – we loved exploring GoHo even more than the famous Nuremberg old town. GoHo felt almost like the Franconian version of Melbourne’s Brunswick, or Fitzroy, and so – combined with Eva’s beautiful hospitality – we honestly felt so at home there. It was wonderful.

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I could go on and on. A brief night with Christine in Dijon, who didn’t speak English but makes one hell of an apricot jam. Snacking on homemade antipasto platters and sipping Chianti on Marjet’s terrace, with rolling Tuscan hills as far as the eye can see. Maya’s gorgeous spare apartment smack bang in the middle of Ljubljana, a pre-stamped postcard waiting on the table (one of the most thoughtful things you could gift a traveller!). Choosing Airbnb was one of the best decisions we made for the trip, and I can’t imagine ever travelling without it in future. Even downtime at ‘home’ still felt like we were experiencing something unique, rather than time wasted in a hotel or hostel room. It gave us the power to experience a destination in a way that felt more ‘us’ – relaxed and local, rather than breaking our backs rushing around trying to tick off the sights. 

There’s Something About Stroopwafels

We need to talk about stroopwafels. 

Why, of all things, would I begin to recount six weeks’ worth of European adventure with stroopwafels? Good question. What I do know is that I can’t stop thinking about the goddamn things, and if any friend or family member ever travels to the Netherlands and returns without a packet (or five) for me, there will be severe consequences. 

Mat and I spent three days in beautiful Amsterdam to tie off our trip. A little weary after six weeks on the road, it turned out to be the perfect place to stop, unwind and soak in the last of Europe before our journey home. Amsterdam was just one of those destinations that made my heart sing. Tree-lined canals, cobbled streets flanked by those wonderfully tall, skinny houses, crossing the IJ by ferry to reach our little Airbnb houseboat, and an incredible world of cute little cafes and shops; the Dutch capital romanced us with a delightful, quiet charm.

And stroopwafels. 

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The stroopwafel, or ‘syrup waffle’, comes in two forms: the first is a large, freshly pressed treat usually found at bakeries and markets. We tracked down a small, canal-side bakery called Lanskroon – Google hinted this was one of the best places for a fresh stroopwafel fix, and it did not disappoint. As big as my plate, the stroopwafel consisted of two thin, crispy waffle layers with a thick syrup sandwiched in between. Fresh from the press, it was warm and crunchy and oozy, and tasted of caramel and toffee. It was divine. We shared Lanskroon mostly with elderly locals (through the trip, we realised this usually meant the discovery of some seriously top-notch eats), as well as a handsome little tortoiseshell-and-white cat. It was the perfect little morning pitstop.

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The second type of stroopwafel is a smaller, softer version, bought by the packet in stores. We picked up a packet of about ten in a busy sweets store called Metropolitan, located on Warmoesstraat right by the Red Light District. It wasn’t until we arrived back in Australia that we busted it open, at which point we realised what fools we had been for bringing home only one packet. These snacks are the bomb. And according to strict Dutch lore, there is a very special way one must eat these stroopwafels. You see, their size is quite conveniently appropriate to that of the rim of a coffee cup. After preparing a hot drink (coffee, tea, hot chocolate – anything goes!), one should rest a stroopwafel atop the coffee cup for about five minutes. Over the course of these five minutes, the steam from the hot drink softens both the lower waffle half and the delicious, caramel filling inside. The result is chewy and oozy and again, divine. And oh, the aroma! These stroopwafels had a hint more cinnamon to them, which I loved. It was a truly glorious week of nightly cuppas and stroopwafels before that final, bittersweet ritual, I can tell you.

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Really, that’s it for our little talk. Guys, stroopwafels are freakin’ amazing – if you ever have the chance, you should eat and/or buy as many of them as you can. Seriously. I’m not kidding on this one. And if anyone happens to know of a good supplier in Melbourne…

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