Citymapper kept doing that thing where it turns around and around, a fluid dance in confusion. I get it, Citymapper. It was also my first time visiting Berlin. But it’s 2019 and not my job to be the keeper of maps. My job was to pay a daily $10 to my phone carrier if I’d like to request a conference with the keeper of the maps. It was an action reserved for moments of desperation. And at this moment… I was desperate. I’d only just gotten off the train but it felt like years since I was watching the German countryside flash by like polaroids. Three different train stops beginning in Amsterdam Centraal where I took two left turns before circling about and finally pushing through the gate, then in Hanover where I was met with my first humble dose of Ich spreche kein Englisch (or I don’t speak English), and finally Magdeburg, where my train was due for departure in three minutes.
Four platforms away, on the other side of the station, stood a train. It protested angrily in its standstill, anxious to depart along the tracks, and I took off running. With my backpack gripped against my body, quads screaming to the tune of the locomotive, I scaled the steps two at a time. The train jutted forward and the duel doors began closing in rapid succession, leaving just enough space for my willing body to leap between, and I lurched myself inside.
“You here for the anniversary?” A woman asked behind a curtain of blue hair- vibrant and complimentary to her pale cheekbones- her forefinger moving in mesmerizing circles across the massive map. I’d serendipitously planned my stint during the 30th-anniversary celebration of the Berlin Wall crumbling. All hostels were booked solid and I’d somehow managed my way into the single dormitory bed left in the entire city. Berlin was much larger than I had anticipated, and even still, I wasn’t sure how I’d plan to fill my days. My method of travel was less than methodical, dare say whimsical at best, leaning on faith that I would always end up wherever I was meant to be, whenever I was meant to be there.
The wooden stairs creaked every third step. I took each one slowly and graciously reflecting at the pace which I charged just five or six hours prior. Pondering my luck, if it was even considered luck, that I took a chance on a mystery train and miraculously made it to my destination as intended. Upon the fifth floor, I tapped the code into the massive oak door. It was sturdy and tall and with a whirl the handle turned and revealed a spacious interior full of eight twin-sized beds. Only one empty bed remained. A panel of light streamed from the hallway, illuminating the berth and casting my shadow neatly along the linen.
My weight sank into the soft yet receding mattress. I wondered how many people have rested here before me. I also wondered if the bedbugs rumored to have once filled this hostel slept here as well. Tired, but too wired to sleep, I collected my things to return downstairs. Besides, my higher self’s voice danced between my ears, “You didn’t travel 4,000 miles to go to bed at 7 pm.”
A week prior I was biking back to my friend’s apartment in Amsterdam. I decided to take this trip because of a four-day long storytelling festival in the city and I figured, if I was going out for four days, why not make it a month? It was nearly midnight when I left the venue. There was one teller who spun an intoxicating love tale with a teasing hook, “This story is completely true. Or it’s not.” We were all left wondering as we patted our eyes dry; tears milked from guttural laughter and heart-wrenching sorrow. Afterward, the Dutch patrons and I, the lone American, stood around and sipped on post-show cocktails. Shoshana, the girl that sat next to me during the show, helped me order a local beer. The room erupted with applause when he entered. He proved approachable as he shook hands, accepted praised, and sipped on a Heinkein. While I was overcome with an unnatural shyness that took me by such surprise that I proceeded to fade into the crowd until I eventually found myself biking through the cool October rain. A profound regret grew like a peach pit in my stomach. “You” a voice echoed in between my ears, “did not travel over 4,000 miles to not be yourself.”
I sat in the library for seven hours. I ate soup and drank espresso and met with nearly four different represented continents. “Hold on,” I said, pushing my bone-dry soup bowl across the table, “you live on Kimball and Kedzie? I live on Kimball and Whipple!” I shook hands with my neighbor, tickled to meet him in a different country rather than on our train platform in Chicago. When the clock struck two in the morning I excused myself from the modest circle I’d cast with six other backpackers, all much more seasoned than I and generous in sharing their own trials, triumphs, and traumas. I opened my wallet to pay for my soup, but no one was around, so I slipped six euros behind the counter.
In the morning I awoke to the pattering of soft feet on hardwood. Groggily, I checked for my purse that I’d hidden between myself and my backpack. My lock had snapped off of the backpack strap at one of the train stations, an annoying discovery, but I figured my things would be fine for the night. Using the ambient light from my phone I slowly crept into the bathroom to wash my face and prepare for the day. It was idyllic, really. I’d walk half an hour to a cafe that someone recommended the night before, as it was both their favorite and the halfway point between the hostel and Kreuzberg, where I was to meet a boy that shared an AP Language class with me when we were juniors in high school. From there we’d follow the markers that indicated where the wall once stood.
I emerged into the warm sun, a pleasant surprise for a November morning, and slowly made my way west. Citymapper paced along beautifully and I gawked at crumbling churches and meticulously kept graveyards as birds chirped in their own universal language. The cafe quickly came up on my left. Indoor plants grew across the interior of the shop and the familiar scent of coffee awakened my senses. I attempted my most modest german to the tanned blonde behind the counter. “Sure,” she smiled, “and what kind of milk?”
My skin turned ice-cold while my every cell began to burn. Inside of my wallet, my once heavier wallet, sat one single blue bill. Gone was the colorful visual representation of abundance. As in, gone was all of my euros. All the 500 euros that I stupidly bought. I hesitated and looked into the kind eyes that anticipated a transaction. She held my almond milk cappuccino with ease as I gripped my final blue bill.
I handed it to her. She handed me my cup.
I wanted to ask her what I should do. Where should I go? What does one do when they’ve ridden a lucky train into a brand new city where there was only one hostel bed left for the entire weekend, only to realize the lucky train and lucky bed leads them straight to being… robbed? This wasn’t part of the itinerary. “Danke schoen.” I managed through gritted teeth as she placed a single euro coin back into my hand.
I walked outside and stood in the warm sun while the birds chirped their universal song. Traveling had always been incredibly generous to me. Sure, I’ve made some dumb mistakes and taken wrong turns, but I never found myself suddenly nearly 600 dollars poorer without something to show for it. Everything turned still. The wind died down. The birds stopped their songs.
You get to decide right now if this ruins your entire trip.
And all of a sudden… I smiled. I’d never considered what I’d do in this situation but a small knowing emerged like a sprouting seed in from my core. I had 22 days left ahead of me, four more countries, three bus rides, two hostels, and two flights. And I had faith that I’d figure it out. I always did. There was always going to be a train going where I was headed and a place to rest my head. I’d learned that was the world I lived in so why should I worry for less? Besides… I did not travel 4,000 miles to not be myself. The birds resumed their song, the sun continued to shine, and I walked on, placing my single euro inside of another person’s cup.
Cassandra Ciesla began solo-traveling in 2017 after a four-year diagnosis of clinical depression. Through her travels, she has come home to herself and relishes in every experience, both good and not so good, as a tonic. Believing in storytelling as a service, she uses her voice to inspire others to explore their impulses and come into alignment with their boldest, bravest self. She is passionate about equality and justice, sustainability, Google maps, and saving the whales. Currently residing in Atlanta, Georgia but awaits the next opportunity to strap on her trusty yellow backpack and continue collecting stories from all over the world. Next plan? Earning her 300-hours of Yoga Teacher Training in Indonesia.