A Birthday in Europe.
It was the loneliest birthday I can remember. I got on a flight the day prior and had three shitty layovers – Montreal, Heathrow, Munich or something like that – before arriving in Vienna, Austria sometime the following morning. I felt tired and sour, ripe with overseas residue. The bitter, wet Austrian winter air blasted my face as I stepped outside for the first time in 30-plus hours.
I met up with two friends I’d be travelling with (Phil and Carlo) in the arrivals lounge. Carlo had family in Vienna that were lending us a Volkswagen to drive into the mountains. So, we took the transit to some deep suburbs where we met Carlo’s grandmother for a swig of tea and chew of cake before overloading the Volkswagen with all of our gear and blindly navigating ourselves onto to highway with an outdated German road map.
I sat alone in the backseat as the out-of-season European countryside rolled by, wondering if my life was any different now that I was 26. It wasn’t. It was late in the day when we pulled into a guesthouse for a plate of schnitzel and pint of Austrian brew. We should have stayed the night there, but we were fresh transplants from North America and stinking of arrogant confidence. So on we went, trying to get into the heart of the Jubilee Alps in Slovenia.
Our first attempt took us across the southeast Austrian border not long before dark. About an hour later we hit a blizzard that felt like a glass-water stream abruptly merging into a hurricane around the corner. Within minutes the snow was up to the Volkswagen doors and we found ourselves at the bottom of a single-lane switchback hill worthy of stairs and a railing. There was no hope, so we turned back.
The second attempt took us back into Austria with a straight attack to the south. Like scenario number one, we crossed the border only to pick a fight with the opposing end of the same snowstorm. Plus, ran into to a sign notifying us that the mountain pass we were on was closed for the entire winter, and worthy of a ladder rather than stairs. We turned back, again.
The third attempt took us on a bypass route into Italy. It was long past dark when we crossed our sixth border of the day and decided to stop for pizza because, well, we were in Italy. It was at this point that I told my fellow travel companions it was my birthday, as I realized it was doubtful that we’d make it to our destination and meet up with the rest of our group so I could party my face off at some extravagantly filthy European discotheque.
As a compromise, we devoured a glutinous tabletop of pizza and slugged back several rounds of cheap Italian ale before the proprietor of the pizzeria suggested that we retire upstairs in a spare room and stay out of the snowstorm until morning. We complied, and ordered another round in the empty, and otherwise silent, pizzeria – where we truly had a blast.
And that was my birthday in Europe. I sat in a Volkswagen all day long, crossing the border six times as we did a bunch of circles around central Europe, only to make one stop where I filled myself with so much pizza and beer that I had to share a stranger’s bedroom upstairs with two of my friends in the middle of nowhere. It was awesome.
Doing what we do, we’re fortunate for all the places we get to go and adventures we take, whether good or bad, successful or not. Journeys are often grueling and not smooth, but we always get to where we’re going…eventually. A few days after this memorable birthday I would fill the Volkswagen with diesel, knowing full well it was a gas engine, but that’s a whole other story.