Day 14 and travelling home

I wanted to shower once more before going home, but the day is cloudy and windy and not at all fit to warm up afterwards. Guess the other passengers will just have to put up with a stinky me.

I drive us to the library, where a very helpful and friendly assistent assures us that printing works, and I print my ticket and the luggage tags (which I dutifully tape to my backpack with a lot of tape back home). Then I think about taking a last walk, but I really don’t want to get more sweaty than I am if I don’t get to shower, or to fill my last pair of socks with forest floor, so I don’t.

Late in the afternoon, while D is grocery-shopping once more, the USB stick suddenly stops working: our data credit is gone. It’s good timing, I suppose, but it still feels like a loss. I regret every unnecessary byte while I wander around the house and look for more things to pack. I’ve spent much of the time here bored and was looking forward to going home, but somehow, leaving a place always makes me melancholic. The day after tomorrow I’ll be back home, in a flat in a house, no longer able to casually step outside the door while brushing my teeth in the morning, surrounded by the noise of the city (and lots of heat).

We go for a walk together in the evening, in a forest we haven’t been in yet. We walk around a pond and follow dirt roads covered in horse tracks. I spot a dark shape between the trees and think it’s a runaway horse for a moment or two before I notice the face.

D blinks at me when I stop abruptly, and I direct his attention to the moose standing motionless in the forest between us and the road, watching us. He is reasonably impressed while I pull out my phone to take a picture. The moose, not particularly fond of the attention, turns and ambles away just when I’ve zoomed in, and all I get are a few blurry photos of moose butt and a good memory.
It feels very fitting somehow.

We suspected that D’s partner, their dog, and her brother might have arrived while we were away, but (to my relief) the house is still deserted when we get back. D and I stay up for a while, reading and waiting and looking up at every passing car, but the night grows darker and there’s still no sign of them. Eventually we go to bed – according to D we have to leave at seven tomorrow, so I set an alarm for six, and it would be really nice to get some sleep before then.

Neither of us has fallen asleep by the time they finally arrive, though. (It’s probably better this way.) D’s partner A seems about as tired as I felt back when I arrived, although she’s dressed much more sensibly and presumably less cold, and bustles around packing her stuff while D and her brother talk about the (recently remodelled) kitchen and the water problem for a bit. It’s amusing to listen to them: they have their own dynamic and ritualized exchanges cropping up every now and then.

The dog Fenris behaves as expected, sniffing everything and jumping up on the counter to inspect peanut butter jars and bread crumbs as closely as possible. (I’m very glad I dog-proofed my stuff as well as possible.) He seems tired too, and overstimulated by the long journey – he mostly ignores and avoids all present humans, whines occasionally, and circles the house restlessly, unwilling or unable to go to sleep while there are still things happening all around him. I know how he feels.

Eventually, we all go to bed (again, in some cases). Falling asleep is not easy: Fenris takes a while to settle down, and with D’s partner in bed with us, there is one more person to move or make noise at any given moment. (It’s also more crowded, I suppose, but D usually crowds me all by himself, so that’s nothing new.)

I don’t sleep well or much before the alarm rings the following morning. Fenris follows me out of the bedroom and whimpers intermittently while I brush my teeth. I almost decide to take him for a short walk before breakfast – I don’t have much left to pack, and it would be nice to get outside and spend a bit of time with him – , but D appears to do it himself before I’m done, so I eat instead.

At 6:45, D is already pushing me to hurry “so we’ll have some reserve”. Great. Not like I asked him multiple times if our leaving at seven would be early enough for sure, precisely to avoid stress like this.
Fenris tries his best to squeeze outside with us as we leave, and is inconsolable when we leave alone anyway. I’m deeply sorry and stressed out and tired.

We use up even this reserve and more when we get stuck behind a truck for a long while on the way to Malmö. I try to quiet my panic by telling myself truthfully that panic won’t change anything, because it’s not like I can even make a good backup plan from here – if anything, I’ll have to try to get a new bus ticket or something in Malmö, no idea when or how that will work (and not a whole lot of money to pay for it). Then I fortunately fall asleep while D forces his car down the highway at 4000 rpm and a good 20 km/h over the speed limit.

We reach Malmö in time, and even find the station with a good fifteen minutes to spare. I say goodbye to D (illegally parked in a bus lane, which I am terribly ashamed of), try and fail to find a public toilet, and distract myself by eating Pringles until the bus arrives. Once it does, people crowd around the driver, and I experience a good ten minutes of shame when I discover everyone had their luggage put away and only then started showing their tickets while I still have my backpack. Fortunately, the driver is nice and doesn’t even give me an angry look when he reopens the hatch to put my backpack in with the others once everyone else is on the bus. I gratefully slip in and find a seat on the upper floor.

The bus makes its way into Denmark without noticeable complications. Some of the other passengers seem to be long-distance travellers like me, but most do not – there’s a family speaking Arabic up front, all dressed up with handbags only, and a few other people not equipped for a longer journey. When we stop at Copenhagen, almost everyone from my floor gets off. I use the opportunity to switch to the front row for a better view and immediately regret it when a German family (in crass breach of my inner etiquette) promptly fills the other three seats in the front row instead of sitting down literally anywhere else on the (still pretty empty) bus.
Also, I’ve been keeping an eye on the glowing red “WC” on the display up front for an opportunity to use the toilet, but I guess that’s gone now.

I sleep my way through some more travel and finally gather enough courage to excuse myself to go look for the toilet at some point. Downstairs, I am briefly confused before I tentatively pull and then push the handle on what looks like another luggage compartment to discover the tiniest toilet I’ve ever seen in my life, small enough that my knees touch the opposite wall when I sit down. (I’m really, really glad I got over my childhood fear of locking myself into toilets, or I’d be panicking now.)

The bus stops for a whole 40 minutes to wait for the ferry from Denmark to Germany. It’s uncomfortably warm and stuffy inside, and some people choose to spend the duration outside, either using the facilities there or just hanging around, but I’d have to excuse myself again to do so (and then once more when I get back), so I eat some bread with chocolate spread instead (realizing that I forgot some stuff in the fridge while I’m at it). There’s free wifi from the ferry company (or the harbour – I’m not sure), so I don’t get bored either.

Eventually, the ferry arrives, heralded by screaming seagulls. I watch from my front row seat as the giant white ship docks and cars start to move towards it. There are two separate parking spaces on the ferry, with four lanes each, and once our bus is parked the driver lets us know that passengers are not allowed to be on the parking deck during the journey for safety reasons. I gather my laptop bag (also for safety reasons, albeit of a different kind) and follow the rest of the passengers off the bus and into a narrow staircase leading to the other decks.

There’s a large seating area, some shops, toilets, a restaurant area up front, and probably even more than that on deck 2. Despite the space, I feel cramped: too many people milling about, too much noise, too much containment. I debate finding a good spot in front of a window for a bit, but walk on hoping to find a way outside (and to find the way back to the bus later) and get lucky.

The fresh air is a blessing after the hours spent on the bus. Seagulls zip around overhead, and there’s wind coming from the open water to my right. I turn towards it and walk to the back of the ferry, away from where cars are still boarding the ship. Banks of puffy clouds cover the sky, a few filtered rays of sunlight edging through in some places, and the waves beneath are restless in the wind, whitecaps appearing and disappearing so quickly it’s like playing a purely visual version of Whack-A-Mole.

There’s a seating area here as well, and I briefly sit down in one of the plastic chairs, but I don’t like the way my field of vision gets dissected by the railing that way, so I get up again and lean against the railing instead. Seagulls zip and swoop excitedly around the ferry. I watch as one lands on the car deck below for a moment or two and wonder what they’re so excited about.

Other people soon find the same nice spot on deck, but by then I’m distracted by our departure: the ship beneath my feet has come to life, the water in front begins to boil, and then the whole ferry moves (promptly setting off a few car alarms below). Wind whips my open red vest around me as we edge out of the harbour and start to turn. I move from my spot in the back to the side of the ship and watch the water fan out around the bow.

I expected to stand there for a bit and then sit down again (in a new seat, because mine’s been taken), but the waves are too mesmerizing: just enough visual stimulation for me to want to stay and watch for a bit longer, no matter how long I stand, because they’re constantly changing. I don’t get cold either – it’s just warm enough for me to be comfortable despite the wind.

I watch the waves and the seagulls while someone invites us via loudspeaker to use the shops and the restaurant. I listen to music as the coast behind us grows smaller and smaller and eventually disappears. The seagulls keep following us for another long while, the flock getting a bit smaller every now and then. I wonder if they expect food – I’d throw them some of my remaining pringles, but I don’t think the ferry company would be very happy, and the seagulls might not dare take them with all the people around anyway. Maybe they’re happy just hunting for fish in the trail the ferry leaves behind.

During the whole hour and a half trip, I only sit down for about ten minutes to have some more Pringles, and I’m still somewhat disappointed when the coast grows closer and closer and the ferry maneuvers into a bay. Two seagulls chase a smaller, darker bird along the shore, screaming bloody murder, and passengers of other boats and ships passing the ferry occasionally wave to us (I wave back every time, even if just a little).
Eventually, everyone else on deck starts to move, and I follow the herd back to the car deck. The bus is still uncomfortably warm and stifling. I already miss the wind outside.

We drive off and are promptly flagged down by police at the first roundabout we get to. They check everybody’s passports and call in about one of the other passengers (guess the passenger’s ethnicity for extra points – but at least they checked everyone’s passports this time, last year they only bothered with the PoC in the first place). Fortunately, the passenger’s name and DOB don’t raise any particular flags, and we’re on our way again quickly enough.

The bus ends at Berlin, where I’ll have an hour and a half of waiting time before getting on the next one at half past eight. The terminal smells of the food sold at a few stands and cigarette smoke around most of the people (it’s an outside terminal).

Most of the few benches are occupied, so I try sitting down on a fence, a little out of the way of most of the smoke. It’s comfortably warm, and though it’s still light, it’s noticeably less so than in Sweden at this hour – I’m getting closer to home. (The signs are all in German, too.)

The fence is uncomfortably thin, and I don’t feel like standing anymore. What the hell, the ground is good enough for me – it’s not like I won’t wash these pants tomorrow anyway.

I browse using the terminal’s wifi and have some more of my food, and then a stranger starts to talk to me. He seems nice enough that I’m not immediately terrified (about my age, decent English with an accent, physically keeps his distance), but spontaneous conversations have never been my forte, and trying to come across as friendly and open to conversation when I have no idea what to say is hard. I must be doing something right, because he keeps talking to me every now and then until the bus arrives, but probably not everything, because while I sort of awkwardly keep an eye on him throughout the hassle of getting our luggage loaded and showing our tickets, he takes a seat beside someone else. (I thought about asking him if he wanted to sit together while we waited for the luggage to get loaded, but I wasn’t actually sure I wanted to subject myself to socializing through the night, so I didn’t.)

I sit through another round of needing to go to the bathroom and not daring to excuse myself, this time with the added discomfort of knee pain because the long periods spent sitting with hardly any leg room are taking their toll on my joints. Once, just when I’ve gathered up my courage, the guy beside me leans his head against the rest and closes his eyes, apparently going to sleep. (Damn.) About an hour later, he moves again, though, and this time I manage.
Stretching my legs is heaven. (And so is pooping.)

Night falls, the world outside the windows hiding behind the reflected inside of the bus except for the endless progression of headlights on the highways and streetlights in the city. The French stranger (his name is Artur, which I know because I took a peek at his ticket, not because I was bold enough to ask) has found a more enthusiastic conversation partner than me, their voices the only ones in the otherwise quiet space. Most people are either asleep or trying to be. I’ve plugged my ipod into the conveniently located outlet right in front of my seat when it threatened to run out of battery and drift in and out of sleep depending on the music and the world outside, but the bus is much less comfortable than the trains I’m used to, and deep sleep eludes me.

At 00:59, my phone vibrates with an automated text message welcoming me to the Czech Republic and informing me about roaming tarifs. I feel half-asleep even when I’m awake, my mind wandering slowly and dream-like from thought to thought, painting the confined, brightly-lit space of the bus around me travelling through the darkness with an air of surreality.

The world outside returns to reality somewhere between four and five with dawn. I take in the villages we travel through, trying to guess what country we’re in – I won’t get a text message for coming back home, so I can’t be sure whether I’m still in the Czech Republic or back in Austria unless I see some written sign, which I don’t. It feels like home, but that’s meaningless: it’s not as if grass and trees changed from country to country, only from climate to climate. (Nothing drives home how abstract the idea of countries and borders really is like this uncertainty.)

Eventually, we pass signs including a few distinctly non-Czech place names. Really back home, then, and just in time for multiple sunrises – I catch the first glimpse of the golden-red disc only to watch it disappear again as the bus rolls behind a gentle hill, and then some houses, and then suddenly the sun is halfway up and I don’t know whether it’s due to the time passed or more unnoticeably gentle slopes. Even sunrises are relative.

I have some chewing gum for breakfast to banish the horrible taste from my mouth, and a tiny sip of water because I’m almost out again. Outside the window, the place names become more familiar, and then even the houses, and at 6:25 the bus turns into a familiar terminal. (Relatively. I’ve been here exactly once before – I usually travel by train, after all.)

I get off, greasy and gross and relieved, grab my backpack (the luggage tag is almost ripped off – so much for that), and head right on towards the subway to go home for good. There’s a line in front of the ticket machine. I use the time to get rid of my meanwhile tasteless chewing gum and use a wet wipe on my face to feel at least a little better, and then I buy my ticket and get on the almost empty subway. (Every time I’m up this early, I think I should get up early more often, or maybe shift my sleep schedule to night altogether. The former never works, the latter I’ve never really tried – somehow, the inconvenience of a schedule contrary to everybody else’s, or maybe just the shackles of lifelong tradition, always scares me off.)

I finish my Pringles and my water on the train, walk fifteen minutes home from the subway station (meeting a few cute dogs along the way and stopping once to tie my shoelaces), and arrive to the sound of barking from R’s room. I unpack. I clean the bathroom and sweep and wash the floors (both of which have amassed three weeks’ worth of dirt), and then I shower and wash my hair with warm water and put on fresh clothes and do my laundry.

I’m back.


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