The Tao Of Backpacking
Sometimes doing the same shit in a different place is really enlightening. Other times it’s just the same shit in a different place.
In 2007 I decided to do some backpacking around Europe. The first part of the adventure was Oktoberfest in Munich with my good mate Alex and a couple other friends from Perth. After close to a week of perpetual liver abuse, I had to figure out where to head next.
Alex was using a mob called Busabout to make his way around the continent. He was following a clockwise route that hit all the major northern European cities. Using a service like Busabout offered incredible flexibility. A new bus would arrive at each stop at least once every two days, and it was up to you whether you jumped on or not. Plus it was cheap as chips, so I bought myself a ticket for the season.
The next stop on the route after Munich was Stuttgart. I knew Stuttgart had a football team, but apart from that I didn’t know shit about the city.
“Wanna give Stutty a crack? Or should we maybe head to Paris?” Alex asked me.
“Germany’s been fun so far,” I said. “I’m down to try Stuttgart.”
We said goodbye to our other mates in Munich then got on the bus. The drive was only a few hours and we rolled into town at around lunchtime. After the absolute caning we had subjected ourselves to at the Fest, the plan was to take it easy for a few days. Both myself and Alex were on liquid shits and regaining temporary control of our bodies was an exciting prospect. Sleepy little Stutty seemed like a good place to chill before Paris.
It turned out that Stuttgart had a beer festival of its own that was just about to kick off. This meant all the hostels were completely booked up.
Just when we were thinking that we should’ve probably stayed on the bus to Paris, we stumbled across a quaint little hotel in the downtown district. It was small, about 5 storeys high, and pretty vines covered the front facade of the building. The place had somewhat of a Fawlty Towers vibe about it.
The receptionist was a tall blonde woman who was a bit Aspergers-y.
“The last Australians we had here were funny,” she said. “One of them kept singing ‘99 Luftballons’, but he replaced certain words with fast food restaurants, like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken.”
“That’s great,” I said. “Do you have any spare rooms?”
We got crazy lucky. The hotel had one room left with two double beds. It was way out of our budget, but we had no other choice.
Just as we were paying another Aussie straggler called Laura stumbled into the lobby. She was desperately trying to find a room too, so we offered her one of our beds. This meant we would have to share a double, but Laura chipped in 50% for the room so we were stoked.
The three of us got settled in. I don’t remember too much about Laura. We only saw her a few times during our stay. She was a few years older than us, she was from the eastern States, and she liked Graham Coxon of Blur fame. It’s weird the shit that your memory chooses to hang onto.
That afternoon me and Alex went for a stroll around the hood. We were struck by the beauty of the city. It was littered with cobble-stoned roads and immaculate parks. The place still came across as a big traditional German village but managed to function seamlessly as a modern metropolis.
We had a low-key dinner at the kebab place right across the road from our hotel. The idea was to grub early then crash.
“You wanna grab a six-pack to share in the room?” Alex asked me as he finished the last bite of his doner.
“Sure. Why not?”
Even though I was still reeling from the Oktoberfest binge, it didn’t seem right going to bed without enjoying at least a couple ales. I was in Holiday mode and needed to keep my wheels greased. But in addition to low level alcoholism, there was a deeper pang that made us buy six Stellas from the nearest bottle shop.
One of the main struggles of being a backpacker is dealing with the perennial question that looms over everything; “How much money do I have left?” Both myself and Alex were planning to stay on the road for as long as possible, then return to London and find jobs when our cash ran out. Big-ticket items like flights, festival passes or hotel rooms would feed this anxiety. But spending a few Euros on some beer to enjoy whilst watching German TV seemed 100% necessary. The reality was that the trip was going to end at some point, so we made a point of celebrating the little moments too.
The next day we woke up rested and went to check out some museum. I can’t tell you what the museum’s called, or what type of art it contains, but I can tell you that whilst wandering through its halls, myself and Alex came up with the game Spot The Smiling German.
It’s a simple game. Just observe Germans in their natural habitat and try to catch one cracking a smile, a very rare sight indeed. I found the Germans to be incredibly friendly and helpful, their English was amazing, but they weren’t too bothered about showing any form of mirth or merriment.
After the museum we ate lunch on the run and went to a Tourism office to see what else there was to do in Stuttgart. At this office Alex found a local gig guide and we discovered that the band Rooney of The OC fame were playing a show that night. I’d thrashed their debut album after seeing them on the show and at the time I was a big fan of their Weezer/Beach Boys-inspired tunes. We jumped onto a computer to confirm that it was indeed the Rooney we were thinking of, and not the footballer Wayne Rooney doing some solo slam poetry. Then we went back to the hotel to pregame.
It was a strange night. The venue was outside the middle of the city, it took us 20 minutes to get there on the metro, and it really resembled The Bait Shop from The OC, hammering home the California connection. The sound was way too quiet, and the gig felt underwhelming, kind of like a late night talk show performance. Me and Alex drank way too many overpriced Heinekens, and were the most boisterous attendees by a country mile. On stage Rooney didn’t look like real people; they looked like caricature band members from that video game “Rock Band”, especially the bass player with his bopping neck and dark shades.
On the train back to the hotel we came across three girls who had been at the gig. According to them, the show was really good. I drunkenly told the girls that the bass player wore glasses because “he’s legally blind, like Stevie Wonder blind”, and by the end of the ride one of them was half-convinced.
Me and Alex were pretty hung the next day, and we wasted away the entire morning and a fair portion of the arvo. But it was our last night in Stutty, so we fired up and hatched a plan for some evening entertainment. The night at The German Bait Shop had awakened our thirst for live music, so we consulted the gig guide once more. There was a show with some local bands happening at a bar right near us. After another quick and dirty kebab dinner, we wandered over to the venue on foot.
As soon as I saw the place I knew it was going to be a belter of a night. The joint was small, packed and grimy.
“Holy shit dude,” Alex said. “We found New Amps.”
‘Amps’ was the widely used nickname for the best music venue in Perth, Amplifier Bar. Before my Euro trip I’d been intrigued by the phenomenon of explorers naming newly discovered places after old shit e.g. New Zealand, New South Wales, New Caledonia. It just seemed like such a basic bitch move. But dropping a cheeky ‘New’ suddenly made perfect sense. Sometimes there’s such a cosmic connection between two places it’d be rude not to.
A few bands played that night but I only recall the last, a 3-piece called The Jerks who sounded a bit like Bloc Party. By the second song all three members of the band were shirtless, and the crowd were going apeshit, singing along to every word. There was plenty of crowd-surfing and lots of cheap stage antics. The music wasn’t my cup of tea but it was fun as shit to be in the middle of a raucous live gig. Me and Alex necked countless steins and proceeded to get hammered.
At some point we met Hans, a local who’d spent a summer surfing in Australia, evidenced by nasally English. Hans loved Australia and was overjoyed that a couple Aussies were partying in his hometown.
The band finished and I went to buy another round of drinks.
“Fuck,” Hans said. “This sucks. I wanna stay and drink with you guys. But I have to leave now otherwise I miss my train.”
“Fuck that!” I screamed. “If you’re okay sleeping on the floor you can stay in our hotel.”
Hans agreed to stay. We kept smashing drinks, and even had a brief chat with a couple members of The Jerks who were still shirtless. The bell rang for last orders and soon bouncers were escorting us out onto the street.
Me and Alex were totally trolleyed and had a strong difference of opinion about how to get back to our hotel. Alex was convinced that it was one way, and I was certain we needed to go in the opposite direction. It was only a fifteen minute walk, but I didn’t feel like getting lost in the middle of the night.
Hans was caught in the middle like a child of divorce. He looked at me, then over at Alex, sizing us up, trying to decide which drunken moron had the best chance of finding his way home.
“I’m going to go with you,” he said, pointing at me.
Me and Hans set off, and Alex bolted in the opposite direction. The race was on.
I made a few wrong turns, but Hans eventually figured out the general location of our hotel and helped me course correct. It took us just over 20 minutes to get back.
The eccentric blonde receptionist greeted us.
“Where’s your friend?” she asked me.
“Fuck yes! We beat him!” I high-fived Hans. “He’s walking home now, he’ll be here any minute.”
“Are you sure? I’m leaving in an hour and locking the front door. After 3 he won’t be able to get back til 6.”
I looked at my watch. It was just after 2.
“Yeah, that’s no problem. He just went a different way, he’ll definitely be back way before 3.”
Me and Hans tiptoed quietly into the room, trying our best not to disturb Laura. I set Hans up with some pillows on the floor then crashed down onto the bed.
A noise woke me up. Muffled yelling. And then some loud banging in the distance. I opened my eyes. More yelling and banging. It took me a few moments, but I eventually realized that it was someone screaming from the street. I went over to the window and stuck my head between the curtains. I looked down and saw Alex smashing his fist against the front door of the hotel.
I groggily checked my watch. It was 4:30am.
“What a dumb cunt,” I thought to myself. “Someone’s been on a walkabout!”
I stumbled into the hall wearing only my underpants. For some unknown reason, instead of taking the elevator, I stupidly pushed open the door for the staircase, and a fire alarm started to screech.
The panic me made sober up in a second. I desperately tried to figure out how to turn off the alarm, but there was no button or console to be found. Confused middle-aged Germans started to stream into the hall. I yelled “it was just an accident”, but the noise was deafening and no one could hear a word I was saying. I’d woken up everyone on the floor, including Laura, who was furiously rubbing her eyes. Eventually a dude came over, closed the door to the fire escape and the sound stopped.
Several disappointed sets of eyes looked my way. Once again, there was not a single smiling German to be found. I blurted out “I’m sorry” then sheepishly stepped into the elevator.
Alex punched the air when he saw me. I let him in the building.
“Oh dude, I completely fucked up,” he said. “At one point I’m pretty sure I was walking up a mountain!”
“I just let off the fire alarm and woke up the entire building.”
We laughed like hyenas in the elevator back up to the room. The icing on the cake was that Alex trampled on Hans on his way to the bed and the poor guy groaned like he’d just copped a killer kidney shot.
The next morning Laura and Hans were nowhere to be found when we woke up. Me and Alex checked out then got on the bus to Paris.
When I think about my backpacking adventures, I remember the good times. I don’t need to remember the bad times, because they luckily weren’t that bad.
I learnt a few lessons on the road during this particular Euro trip. But other lessons are much harder to master, and I’m still trying to figure out most of those today.
Stuttgart’s great. But if a couple pissed-up Aussies suggest you crash on their hotel room floor, the correct answer is no.