Changing seasons/transition time

September came and went, and with it, the four month marker of me being away. Four months since I handed in my thesis, packed up my room, and left Melbourne to commence this epic trip of mine.

On the one hand, that date – the 23rd of May – when I got on a plane with my parents and sister and, 30 hours later, got off in Rome to begin our two week family holiday, seems like only yesterday. Time flies hey? But on the other hand, it really does feel like four (plus) months have passed. It’s a long time to be on the road, living out of a backpack, constantly changing cities and figuring out bus timetables and getting up at the crack of dawn for red eye flights with Ryan Air.

Over these months in Europe, I have seen summer come and go. I have caught up with old friends who I never knew if I would see again, and I have met so many amazing new people. I have been overwhelmed by peoples’ hospitality, friends and family who have given me a room/bed/couch/floor to crash on for a night or two, sometimes many more, and who have taken time out of their busy lives to show me around their cities, take me out for drinks or dinner, introduce me to their friends, and generally take me into their lives for just a short time.

And yet, as I have alluded to in past posts, this constant moving, and constantly being around people, has been tiring. As I felt the seasons turning, and watched the leaves around me changing colour and the German skies becoming more and more grey, I was beginning to feel a sense of travel fatigue.

But I had one stop left in Europe. Originally my plan was to fly out from Rome, but I decided to end my trip in the city that still feels, after all these years, almost as my second home: Copenhagen.

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I left Dresden in the pouring rain, but almost as soon as we boarded the ferry the clouds seemed to clear, and there was nothing but (albeit still cold) sunshine and blue skies ahead. When my bus finally arrived in Copenhagen that night, I was met by Mikkel, and we made our way back to his apartment where I would again be staying for the next ten days.

When I left Denmark after my exchange in 2009, it felt like really saying goodbye – when would I ever possibly be back, when would I see all these friends again? In fact I was back only the following year with my then (Danish) boyfriend, and although it was an amazing month, it was a completely different experience. Roskilde festival, camping with his friends; staying outside of Copenhagen with his family; a few crazy days and nights partying in town.

This time, this visit, seems almost like my entire collection of experiences, friends, histories in this city, blurred into one.

I caught up with two old exchange friends – Jamie, who I’d met up with a few times in London and who was visiting Copenhagen for the weekend, and James, a fellow Australian, who had moved to Copenhagen a few years ago and was about to embark on another huge move, to Aarhus to study (in Danish!).

I partied through the night at KB18, an old favourite from when I lived there, and at PB43, a new space right near where I was staying on Amager.

I drank coffee and Baileys with my old friend Christopher, who is the reason I have such a great group of Danish friends to begin with, and stayed up late drinking beer in Eiffel bar in Christianshavn, another regular hangout of ours.

I went out to a party in nordvest with Christopher, the birthday and housewarming of someone I vaguely knew. And I walked in the door to come face to face with so many familiar faces, friends old and new, and ended up staying until I was one of the last three stragglers reluctant to admit that the party was over.

I spent many a day/evening/night on the couch at Signe and Joakim’s (and now, their beautiful son John’s), having their post-wedding celebrations, going to the zoo, watching stupid movies, and staying up late talking and playing card games in their old caravan out the back of their house.

I went for coffee all over Vesterbro, my original neighbourhood, rediscovering old favourites and being introduced to the new.

And I finally did what was missing from my last two visits – I found a bike, and rode (and rode and rode) around town, over the bridges, along the canal, criss crossing from one side of the city to another. You haven’t experienced Copenhagen until you’ve experienced it by bike.

The ten days passed so quickly, but in the end I was ready to leave, and begin the next chapter of this adventure: Sri Lanka, and south east Asia. Even though I was sad to say goodbye to Copenhagen, and all my friends again, I now know it won’t be the last time I go back, and that my friendships won’t disappear in my absence.

So Europe, this was not goodbye, but rather ci vediamo/hasta luego/vi ses…until next time.

Off the beaten path (and into the forest)

One of the best things about travelling to visit friends has been that it has given me a reason to travel to places I would otherwise have passed over. Whether this be because I had already been there (Berlin), that they had never really appealed to me (London), or, in some cases, because I had never heard of these places to begin with.

Such was the case with Freiburg, a small city in southern Germany right near the border of France and Switzerland, and at ‘the gateway’ to the Black Forest.

In 2011 I took a uni field course in Asia, which was also attended by three students from the University of Freiburg. Veronika and Dan were both Germans, and we all became quite close over the course of the two weeks. From the very start of planning this trip, I knew I would make the time to go and visit them.

And so I did, in mid September (sorry, I’ll be up to date and back in chronological order soon!), using carpooling and busses to make the trek westwards from Vienna to Freiburg.

During semester time this is a bustling student city, but during summer it quietens down – apart from the groups of elderly German and Swiss German tourists who seemed to be everywhere. I stayed with Veronika and her boyfriend in their lovely apartment right in the centre of town; the perfect base to spend a week exploring the city and (making the most of the first few days of sunshine) to walk out into the surrounding hills and forest.

And of course, eating the local speciality: Black Forest cake.

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The town is small enough that you only need to walk ten minutes from the centre to find yourself in the ‘city forest’. And, if you’re lucky enough to have a car (or a friend with one!), it’s barely half an hour to get into the high forest. A few days into my stay, one of Vroni and Tim’s friends called to say he was driving out to go picking pfifferlinghe mushrooms – and did we want to join? Why yes, thank you, we did indeed.

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We spent a wonderful, if slightly chilly afternoon wandering off track through the forest, and I soon got my eye in for the bright orange mushrooms – at first slightly hidden amidst the undergrowth, and towards the end, growing in abundance along the muddy paths.

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In between picking mushrooms we snacked on wild blueberries and raspberries, then all headed back to town to dry off and warm up over a delicious mushroom pasta dinner.

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Over the course of the week, I began to feel like I was really settling into some form of local life with Vroni and Tim in Freiburg. We had their friends over for drinks and dinner, caught up with Daniel, and went to his apartment for birthday pizza. We danced all night at a lame 90s party, won a bottle of local liquer at a trivia night at an Irish Pub, tasted local wine at a village wine festival, and drank a beer in a local beer garden. In between all of this, we got up and had daily morning ‘German breakfasts’ where we picked and chose from a table full of bread, cheeses and spreads, shopped at the outdoor produce market, and sat around catching up on work and errands.

And, one intermittently sunny and rainy day, we made a road trip to Konstanz (including a tiny detour across the border into Switzerland to utilise their free parking) to drop off Tim’s masters thesis at the university and to wander around the lake and the old town.

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I felt like I could easily have spent another week in this cosy Black Forest city, but a good guest never overstays their welcome, and besides, Berlin was calling me back…

Berlin with my bro

The first time I visited Berlin was for New Years 2008. I met my friend Nat from Australia, and we couch surfed with a local guy in his cosy flat in Freiderichshain. Despite it being minus seven degrees and snowing, I fell in love with the city. Going back the next summer just cemented this feeling, that it was one of the few places I’ve travelled to that I could imagine myself living in.

Maybe because parts of it reminded me of Melbourne – the leafy green streets, the  cafe strips in gentrified Prenzlauerberg, the young (yes, increasingly hipster) vibe mixed with the multiculturalism of Kreuzberg and the expanse of Freiderichshain. Then there is the amazing and diverse food, the cheap beer, the art and parties and everything else it has to offer.

My brother has been living in London for 18 months, but hadn’t yet made it to Berlin – and I knew he would love it as much as I do. So, for his birthday and Christmas present, I bought him return tickets so we could spend four days there together.

Like me, James is a pretty laid back traveller, and was happy to follow my lead. That lead led us to stay in a beautiful backpackers in Kreuzberg, complete with huge common room and (sometimes) sunny rooftop terrace. We spent our first night enjoying the amazingly cheap food Berlin has to offer (haloumi and pesto wraps for 3 euro anyone?), exploring the seemingly endless expanse of Kreuzberg and its surrounding neighbourhoods by foot, and sitting in street side bars sipping local beer and watching all the colourful characters pass by.

During my first visit to Berlin Nat and I took a ‘free’ (ie. tip only) walking tour, which covered all the ‘must see’ tourist sites. Still, that was five years ago for me, and James was keen to do some sight seeing, so on Tuesday afternoon we headed into the centre to join a three hour Sandemans tour.

We joined a massive group at Brandenburg Tor, then split off into a smaller group with a young English/Spanish guide. As is often the case (and benefit) of having a tip only system, he was excellent – energetic, full of knowledge and (his)stories about the city, and combined more serious facts with humour and fun.

From Pariser Platz we walked onwards to one of the points that had stuck in my head from the last tour – the monument to murdered Jews. Unlike most memorials that tend to consist of plaques and names, this (apparently quite controversial) memorial is an experience, completely devoid of information. As the ground slopes downwards, the concrete pillars rise higher and higher, bit by bit blocking out the sunlight and sounds until you are completely immersed.

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After some time exploring, we regrouped to discuss our impressions. Our guide gave his interpretation – to him, it signified the way in which Jews were incrementally stripped of their rights, to marry non Jews, to have health insurance, to be full citizens in German society.

My brother later told me that it reminded him, in a similar sense, of what he had recently been reading in Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (how’s that for some light summer reading?), where the crimes against Jews were justified by the slow process of dehumanisation, deeming them as immoral, dirty, less than human. To me this is the sign of an effective commemoration, something that invokes thought and emotion rather than just bombarding you with a list of names.

The next hour took us past other war and East German sites, from the former location of Hitler’s bunker to socialist propaganda in the form of painted murals on the wall of what is now the Ministry of Finance.

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And amidst all of these historical markers, the modern commentary and reminders that we do not live in a world free from war.

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Unfortunately James began to feel unwell halfway through the tour, so we called it a day and headed back to the hostel where James crashed out for the next 16 hours and I spent a lazy evening drinking beers on the rooftop with fellow travellers.

The next day, after our mission out to the children’s hospital (see my Abandoned Berlin post), we made the most of having bikes for the day and spent a sunny afternoon exploring Prenzlauerberg, checking out the East Side Gallery, and riding along the river.

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These two Berlin posts seem to imply that our four day stay was largely about sight seeing, history, monuments, culture – the serious stuff. Yes, there was that, but our time in Berlin really centred around something quite different – food.

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In part due to my tight budget, and in part due to the fact that I’ve mostly been staying with friends, I’ve hardly eaten out at all during this trip. But in Berlin, it seems a waste not to. Everywhere you go there is an abundance of diverse and CHEAP food, from Turkish and Arabic, to Vietnamese and Thai, and everything in between. On our last night we went to Markethall 9, where James ate his way through the street food stalls and I cried in a combination of happiness and chilli induced fever over a 4 euro green papaya salad.

The fact that we also found real coffee was just the icing on our Berlin-foodie-cake.

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Back to Berlin

A word of warning – for those of you who have been following my posts chronologically, sorry, but these recent ones have been a bit all over the place. Bratislava before Berlin (whereas in reality they came the other way around) and now, my second Berlin post while a write up of my time there with my brother, back in early September, still sits unfinished in my drafts folder.

But there I was, back in Berlin after an epic loop through Slovakia, Vienna, Munich, Freiburg and Bamberg. Travelling by bus and car pooling, almost 2000km in less than two weeks. There is something about Berlin that keeps pulling me back.

This time, rather than staying in the bustling heart of Kreuzberg, I was staying in the quiet suburb of Biesdorf with Aischa, a friend from IFSS.

Actually that’s not completely true – arriving late on Friday evening, I checked into a hostel near Kotbusser Tor, and had planned a quiet night before meeting Aischa the next day. Until I realised Clare, a good friend from Melbourne, was in town. And so the night began. Drinks at her place across the canal, drinking beers in a cubby-like mezzanine of a local bar, a house party in Friederichshain. A wonky ride back to the hostel, arriving in the dawn hours to the common room empty and my bunk bed calling.

Berlin is like that. I can understand why so many travellers get stuck there, coming for a few weeks and ending up staying for months, or even years. There is so much going on in this crazy city. When I went with James it was Berlin music week, this time, Berlin art week. On Saturday night, Aischa and I had planned to go to a Brazilian music concert, but got distracted by the lure of a colourful poster advertising Balkan beats at a local club. The night after that, planning a short tour around Mauerpark, we got stuck listening to a Dutch street performer playing funk, reggae, and even the odd Prince, then later found ourselves in a small square with a small beer garden and live music stage set up for the night.

Still, for all its charms, I was thankful to be staying outside the city this time. I woke up on Sunday morning and drank my coffee outside in Aischa’s dad’s sprawling backyard, enjoying the sunshine and the feel of damp grass on my bare feet. We went for walks in the forest with her dog Oskar, and made pumpkin soup mixed with apples picked fresh from the old trees in the garden. And I slept the best nights sleep I’d had in goodness knows how long, away from the endless sirens and car horns and church bells and street noise I have been surrounded by for the majority of these four months.

These are the things I’ve been missing from home.

Fun facts from Vienna

Some random facts and (hi)stories I discovered during my two day stop over in the pretty Austrian capital:

  • A Wiener Schnitzel is so called because it comes from Wien (Vienna). While his may be common knowledge to readers more perceptive about food etymology and history, for me it was one of those oooooh! moments
  • The beautiful low skyline of the city is such due to the restriction that no building may be taller than St Stephen’s Church
  • Viennese are bemused as to why the Sacher torte is so popular and well known amongst foreigners
  • K u. K, seen throughout the historical centre on a number of old buildings, or as part of present day hotel/cafe/shops, stands for kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal) and prefixed/was used for central government bodies and acts under the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Apparently it also signified a royal seal of quality for goods
  • Apricot schnapps is good for a tooth ache
  • The two heads of the eagle on the Austrian coat of arms represent Empire and Kingdom… or distinguish the imperial title from the royal title…or something like this
  • Pretzels (the real bread ones) taste EXACTLY like the tiny pretzels you get in a bag (just not crunchy)! But bigger! I mean, it’s like they magically combined a whole bag of pretzels into one giant piece of amazing!
  • If you’re stupid enough to get over-excited at the sight of tropical fruit in Europe and buy three mangosteens from the (already overpriced) Naschmarkt, then you have no right to be even slightly shocked by the final price
  • If you know enough about architecture, look up and take note – you will be able to read a history of where bombs were dropped by the style of the facades built in post-war reconstruction
  • Wine spritzers are not only drunk by old ladies with purple-wash hair, they are also quite an acceptable drink to order at a thronging pub packed with young people and football hooligans

For someone who knew (perhaps embarrassingly) little about this lovely capital before, I now feel quite the expert. It helps having two wonderful local tour guides to show you around. Thanks Mara and Clemens, you’re both welcome in Melbourne any day.

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Abandoned Berlin

You can’t escape history in Berlin. From the monuments of history, such as the towering Brandenburg Tor, to the monuments to history, such as the memorial to murdered Jews, it is all around you, an inescapable part of this city.

And yet, once you leave the centre of Mitte, or the bustling heart of Kreuzberg, parts of Berlin feel like a city lost in time. There is a sense of space that you don’t feel in many other European cities.

Wandering through the leafy neighbourhood streets and along the winding canal on a quiet Monday evening, with barely a soul to be seen, my brother and I got the feeling that we were in an abandoned city, one that perhaps was only recently being rediscovered.

And, to a certain extent, that is the case.

In 1939, the population of Berlin was a little over 4.3 million. In 2013 it is less than 3.4, a figure which has remained fairly static for the past two decades. A loss of almost a million inhabitants; a stark contrast to so many other capital cities that are struggling to support a growing population.

It is city built for far more people than it holds. The former inhabitants long gone, and yet the buildings and space remain.

Crumbling stone buildings covered in creeping vines, their tall walls often turned into a canvas for graffiti or street art.

An old fountain still standing in a murky green pond, almost hidden behind the tangle of trees and vines that have reclaimed this quiet parkland.

Empty lots, fenced in with barbed wire or wooden railings and overgrown with weeds and ivy.

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Some of these spaces seem forgotten and discarded. Others are being reclaimed, informally by squatters or parties, or formally by the Liegenschaftsfonds, the state owned body which, over the past decade, has sold off many listed or formerly special use state buildings to investors for bargain prices on the condition they be maintained or restored. A condition that has apparently been forgotten, with many investors going back on their promises and leaving these buildings to fall further into ruin.

Such is the case with the Hospital Säuglings-Kinderkrankenhaus, the old municipal children’s hospital in the northern suburb of Weißensee. Built in 1909, it was soon considered the best of its kind anywhere in Europe. However, in 1997 it closed its doors, and was left forgotten for almost a decade until it was sold to MWZ Bio-Resonanz GmbH in 2005. And yet it still lies abandoned.

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We read about this ‘zombie children’s hospital’ on Abandoned Berlin, a fantastic blog that lists all number of such abandoned buildings throughout Berlin, complete with ‘difficulty ratings’, directions, photos and the history of the site (where much of the info in this post has been gleaned from – credit where credit is due!).

So, on a sunny Wednesday morning, James and I hopped on our rental bikes and rode the 9 odd km north to track it down and explore.

As its difficulty rating of 1/10 implied, it was almost too easy to find and get into. Its tall iron gates hang open off their hinges. As soon as you pass through, the tall trees seem to swallow you in, blocking out all sound from the busy road behind.

The buildings are in complete disrepair – roofs set to collapse, rubble and broken glass littering the empty corridors, roots growing through the cracked and rotting floors. Vandalism and nature taking their course.

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Coming across a shiny new looking fire hydrant standing on its own in the dirt, we were reminded of how, as we had read, this complex has been set on fire no less than 11 times since closing its doors.

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We spent an hour or two exploring the maze of buildings and corridors, and the dark woodland behind, all the while watching out for manholes, watching our step on crumbling stair wells, looking overhead, and constantly listening for any sound that could indicate the whole thing was about to collapse.

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Apart from the odd rustle of leaves, or a shadowy figure seen slipping out through the gates – another voyeur, or perhaps a local ‘resident’ – there was barely a sound or sign of life. It was quite easy to forget we were just off a main road in a busy capital city in the 21st century.

And yet back in the centre, we are rejoined by the constant sights and sounds of jackhammers, scaffolding, and cranes – signs of construction and development everywhere.

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Berlin has been rebuilding itself since the end of the war, and rebuilding and redesigning itself as a (re)unified city for the past 20 odd years. So get out and explore. Look up (and sometimes down!). Take it all in. You can read as almost as much of the modern history of this city from its built landscape as you can from any history book. Or, at the very least, you’ll see some cool stuff.

Some things never change

Danka, Anicka, Saruska, Zuzicka.

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Four girls on exchange in Copenhagen in 2008 and 2009. Anna and Dana, two friends from Slovakia; Zuzana, from Czech; then me, the one Australian. I met Anicka and Zuzka in the Danish language course at the very start, and soon after Danka arrived. From then on, throughout the year of comings and goings of friends and other Erasmus students, the four of us were pretty inseparable. We partied together, cooked dinners together, moved in and out of each others’ houses, and sat up all night drinking wine and watching terrible movies and talking for hours on end. They were like my sisters in Copenhagen.

Four years later, we were back together again for one short weekend in Bratislava.

I arrived on Friday evening after an epic 11 hour trip on a rickety old Hungarian bus from Berlin, and was met by Anna and Danka at the central bus station.

While Anicka went to finish some work, I settled into Danka’s cosy apartment and we talked and talked as she prepared dinner and I shared photos and stories from my trip. By the time Anicka joined it was 9pm, so we finished off our wine and headed out for a night on the town, tracking down a favourite dj and dancing through the night, just like our old Vega or Jolene days in Copenhagen.

Then it was Saturday, and after nowhere near enough sleep we dragged ourselves out of bed to meet Zuzicka at the train station. And finally we were four again. While we had so much to catch up on – who was doing what job, who had finished studies, who was coupled up etc – it was like no time had passed at all.

We spent a sunny day around Bratislava, driving up to monuments and eating cake and drinking wine while overlooking the city.

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We posed for photos with my camera while Danka, the ever creative one, took shots with her medium format film.

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We visited the castle and looked out over the Danube to the other side of town, or west to Austria. The contrast between the side of the river where the girls live and the other – low old buildings, a mix between Soviet grey concrete and colourful stone, versus a sprawling expanse of pre-fab apartment blocks and shiny new shopping malls respectively – was almost as strong as the contrast between the two countries, which we jokingly observed was exemplified by a dirty old factory on the Slovak side and an expanse of forest with wind turbines in Austria.

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In the evening we took a short road trip to Austria, to a stony ‘beach’ by the quiet riverside, where we finished our wine, skipped stones in the water, and recreated an old ‘four flowers’ photo with ‘four feet in the water’.

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Despite not getting back to Bratislava until late, we stayed up making halusky, a typical Slovak dish of gnocchi like dumplings in brindza sheep cheese and sour milk sauce (it tastes FAR better than it sounds, or looks) that was a feature of many of our Copenhagen dinners.

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Despite plans to head out to a Balkan beats night in town, it was suddenly 1am, Danka was already curled up with the cat on Anna’s couch, and my lack of sleep over the previous few days was catching up with me. And so we called it an early night, with plans to meet first thing the next morning and pack in a much as we could before Zuzicka’s afternoon train back to Prague.

Unfortunately, as it turned out, her 2pm train had to become a midday train as she was called back for a meeting (yes, on Sunday! Law firms seem to be the same all over the world…) so we packed some bags full of food and two disposable BBQs (I’ll get to those) and drove ten minutes out of town to a beautiful forest and park reserve.

It was full of families making the most of the sunny Sunday. We grabbed a table, set about preparing our food, then suddenly it was time to say goodbye to Zuzka. And then we were three.

Right, the disposable BBQs. I’ve never seen anything like this in Australia, and had never seen them before Copenhagen. Maybe because, in Australia, most parks have permanent gas BBQs, or people have backyards and their own…but in Europe, this is what they have to resort to:

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Still, they do the trick, and soon enough we were sitting down to plates of BBQd veggies and marinated tofu or chicken.

Feeling full from our two days of eating, we decided a walk and a row in the little lake nearby was needed. We took it in turns rowing the little wooden boat, spotting (real) turtles (it’s apparently a dumping ground for ex-pets) and fighting (imaginary/log) crocodiles with our oars.

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And then, once again, Anna had to work (she’s a top film/commercial producer), so Danka and I, and later her boyfriend Wilko, spent a lovely afternoon and evening hanging around her apartment, going for 70c (!!!) pancakes at a nearby cafe that only sells pancakes, albeit with about 50 choices of topping, wandering up through the hills into the forest, drinking coffee at a cosy wooden park cabin, and exploring the town by night.

Now it’s Monday. I’m writing this sitting on Danka’s couch while she prepares an application to show her jewellery in an upcoming exhibition. The sunshine from the weekend has been replaced by grey rainy skies, a sign of me leaving Danka said.

Soon I’ll be on a bus to Vienna, to catch up with an IFSS friend. But I’m sad to be leaving Bratislava, and hope that it won’t be another four years before we see each other again. Still, I take comfort in the feeling that with these girls, no matter how much time passes, nothing will really change.

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