The long way home

The taxi was scheduled to take us to the airport at 4am on Sunday, February 26. We’d only been in Athens a day, but had seen plenty in our 10 or so hours of exploring and were ready to go home.

At least I was ready to go home.

I can’t speak for my friend, R, and how she was feeling about returning to work and grad school and life as usual back in Minnesota after joining me for a little over a week in Greece. But as for me, I felt tired. Road-weary. Saturated with experiences wild and mundane, grand and grating. I couldn’t wrap my head around doing anything more than getting to the airport, getting on a plane to London, getting to my hotel, and, the next day, getting on a plane to go home.

In retrospect, I should have expected my last full day of cross-continent travel wouldn’t be easy. Sure, I’d survived 147 days of buses, trains, planes, Ubers, taxis, metros, trams, and hiking, but when I arrived in London — an English-speaking country after so many months away from seeing or hearing English with any regularity — I let my guard down. I fumbled. Big time — repeatedly.

First, I should mention I was off my game in part because I was off balance. Literally. Due to the ever-fabulous world of budget flying, even though R’s backpack was completely within Air France’s carry-on limitations, they told her she’d have to check it, because they’d decided they were going to check everyone’s luggage that day. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but R had a tight turnaround time in Paris to catch her flight to Minneapolis, and were she to have to check her bag and reclaim it at baggage before heading through round two of security and customs, she wouldn’t make it.

We’d thought this might happen, and the night before had decided that if she wasn’t able to carry her backpack on, I would take it for her. It would only cost another $20 or so for my Ryanair flight to London from Athens and, for my flight home, it would be free: I would just check The Beast and carry R’s bag on with me. I was fine with the plan — her bag wasn’t nearly as heavy as mine and it would only be for a short time and a short distance of walking. Or so I thought.

Cue complication Number One. When I booked my flight home from Europe, I also booked a room at what I thought was the Hilton connected to Terminal 4 at Heathrow. Turns out, there are two Hilton Heathrow Hotels, one being the Hilton Garden Inn London Heathrow Airport, the other being the Hilton London Heathrow Airport Hotel. Both hotels advertise their proximity to Terminal 4, and both popped up on Expedia with deals. Turns out, I had clicked on the Garden Inn option, which is close to Terminal 4, but not connected to Terminal 4.

I didn’t realize this until I was on the bus from Stansted Airport to Heathrow at 9:45am on Sunday. I’d been awake since 3:30am Athens time (1:30am London time) and was feeling out of sorts for many reasons. I was going home the next day. I was exhausted. I had a third backpack with me. I’d just paid $35 for a one-and-a-half-hour bus ride between airports after growing accustomed to paying around $15 for six- to eight-hour bus rides that took me all over Croatia and Bosnia and Serbia. I hadn’t eaten breakfast. I smelled of sweat and exhaust fumes and dirt. And on top of all of that, I had a sinking feeling that the hotel I thought I was going to spend the night at wasn’t the one I had booked a night at.

All of this hit me at once and, without fully realizing what was happening until it was happening, I started quiet crying while looking out the window at the decidedly uninteresting landscape filling the space between the airports.

I let my mini pity party go on for a while, then blew my nose and forced myself into planning mode. I pulled up my Expedia email, confirmed that my sinking feeling had been correct, and started Googling to see how I could get to the Hilton Garden Inn now that my plan to just walk through a skyway was thwarted. After poking around Google Maps and the hotel’s website, I discovered that from Terminal 4 it was a two-stop tube ride to get near enough to the hotel to walk. Not ideal, but it was something. Done. Plan made.

The bus arrived at Terminal 4 and I heaved The Beast onto my back, clicked him into place, then fidgeted with the other two bags to try to find a comfortable way to carry them without losing circulation in my arms. After a few minutes of jostling and hoisting, I realized there was no ideal bag-to-arm ratio, and that I would just have to settle for the tried and true approach of “just make it work.” Off we went.

I waddled my way downstairs to the underground station, found the ticket machines, and was just about to buy a one-way ticket to Hatton Cross when a man appeared beside me and said, “There’s a free bus to Hatton Cross upstairs.” I should note that as I write this, fully rested and having just eaten breakfast and not lugging 40 pounds of gear around, I realize that this man was being helpful, was being kind. But at the time, all I could think about was the fact that he’d put a twist in my already broken and taped-together plan, and I was more annoyed than happy with his little tip. However, I’m not one to pass up free when the alternative is $6 for a two-minute ride, so I asked which bus it was, where I could catch it, said thank you, and made my way back upstairs.

The bus I needed pulled up to stall 6 just as I got my bearings outside the terminal. Running was out of the question at this point, so I fast-waddled my way toward the bus and silently (or maybe not — it’s hard to say what was in my head and what was out loud at this point of my travels) willed the driver to see me and have enough pity to wait for me. Whether he saw me and just didn’t care or just didn’t see me doesn’t matter, because not only did he not wait, but he pulled away just as I was close enough to yell, “Wait! Please!” at the closing doors. Too tired to be embarrassed, I threw what may qualify as a straight up hissy fit (no tears, stomping, dramatically dropping my bags and throwing my head back, and uttering a few choice words) before once again forcing my brain to try to think up yet another alternative-alternative plan.

I remembered the man downstairs saying two buses would go to Hatton Cross. The bus that had just ditched me was the 490; all I had to do was wait for the 482. He’d also said I could catch the buses at stalls 6 or 7. I’d just missed my option at stall 6 and saw a line forming at stall 7, so I headed that way and assumed it was what I needed.

One of my mom’s favorite things to say to me growing up was, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me.” My friends always got a kick out of it (probably because hearing my mom say “ass” was as shocking as when you discover in elementary school that your teachers actually have lives outside of the classroom), and it always annoyed me, but it also stuck with me and has proven solid advice in many situations — including my experience at stall 7 outside of Terminal 4 at Heathrow Airport.

Instead of asking the bus driver of bus 482 if he did, indeed, stop at Hatton Cross, when the bus arrived I simply squeezed myself through the doors, plopped onto a row of seats, and allowed myself to relax. That lasted approximately two minutes — then the sinking feeling that something wasn’t right crept back into my stomach. I pulled out my phone again, and again turned to Google Maps, and watched as the little blue dot drove away from Hatton Cross. We were taking the loop in the opposite direction. I was headed to Terminal 5 — where bus 482 terminated.

Fifteen minutes of riding and another 15 of waiting passed until I boarded the correct bus. Another 20 minutes of riding finally brought me to Hatton Cross. My hotel was only 500 meters away according to Google, but there was one last catch: Part of that 500 meter walk involved climbing two flights of stairs to cross a rickety bridge over the busy highway/roundabout keeping me from a hot shower and soft bed. It was raining and windy and cold, and those stairs looked more treacherous than any 16-mile walk I’d dragged myself through in the past five months.

If you’ve ever seen “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” this is the part of my life story where I become Steve Martin’s character after he discovers his rental car is not in its assigned parking spot, and he has to trudge through sleet and snow and across an interstate to get back to the counter, where he subsequently strings together an impressive amount of F-bombs and other profanity at the too-cheery redhead chirping “gobble, gobble!” to her sister on the phone. In short, I was not pleased.

But somehow my legs and arms made it up and over and down the bridge, across the street, and into the hotel lobby. And somehow my room was ready even though I was 30 minutes early for check-in. And somehow I found the strength to be polite with everyone I encountered — to shield them from the crazy I actually felt. And after eating, showering, changing, and getting everything in order for my flight home the next day, I got to collapse into bed and sleep for 12 hours.

I opted to take the overpriced shuttle from the hotel to Terminal 3 the next morning. Security went quickly, and after spending the rest of my British pounds on lunch, coffee, and a couple books, I did as I always to before flights: people watch and, an hour before boarding, wander. As I walked I tried to think about what it would be like to be back in Minnesota — to see my family and friends, to drive and visit my favorite places. But every time I tried to think about it, I drew a blank: I’d become so accustomed to adjusting to the new, the unknown, that to think about adjusting to “normal” was beyond me.

It’s been a month since I got home; a month since I landed at MSP, debated whether or not I wanted to turn my phone back on, went through customs with surprising speed considering my odd assortment of luggage and many passport stamps, and was welcomed by my mom, dad, and sister (and a text from my brother). It’s been a month, and I’m still adjusting. I don’t know what constitutes “normal” anymore, but I know that I’m getting closer to finding out how the things I learned and experiences I had abroad fit into my life and identity in Minnesota. I’m getting closer. I’m feeling more confident. I’m trying my best. It’s all I can do, and I’m becoming okay with that.


Hold on loosely

I don’t know how to dress myself anymore.

I thought after five months of wearing the same three sweaters, two pairs of jeans, black leggings, Patagonia zip-up, and one black “dressy” t-shirt I’d be sick of them all — ready to embrace my closet full of favorite dresses and blouses, sweaters and tops.

Instead, I stare at it all with bewilderment. Then, after a few minutes of standing and staring, I push aside the “new” items and reach for the same sweater I’ve worn countless times since October 4, the same pair of leggings that have seen me through eight-hour bus rides and miles-long hikes, and the same pair of boots that have walked, according to my Fitbit, over 500 miles.

It’s not that I don’t want to wear other clothes, to return to the way I used to dress, to feel the way I used to feel when wearing certain things. But it’s all too much. Too many options. Too many combinations. Too many things. My closet is a Sam’s Club of choices when I’ve grown accustomed to the farmers’ market stall down the road: Just tell me what’s in season and what’s fresh, and I’ll take it. Sold. Done.

Of course, this is about more than clothing. I knew coming back to Minnesota, to my life before five months of just me, my backpack, bus schedules, and Airbnb reservations, would be an adjustment. I knew it wouldn’t be the same, and that I shouldn’t expect it to be the same. In fact, I don’t want it to be the same: If I wanted everything and everyone (myself included) to be the same, I wouldn’t have left in the first place.

I just didn’t realize how much of an adjustment it would be, coming back home — coming back to “normal.” For as many uncertainties as there were to consider when it came to trekking across Europe for 150 days, those unknowns were okay with me. Expected. Exciting. But this — coming back to a place so familiar to me, being surrounded by the people, places, and things I love the most in the world — this is hard. It’s confusing. Challenging.

I keep noticing the little things that have changed since I’ve been away. Relationships that have ended and been replaced. Rearranged artwork on the walls of my parents’ house. New restaurants and shops breathing life into what were dismal stretches of streets. It’s these small updates (maybe not small to those to whom they’ve happened, but small in the larger scheme of things) that have hit me hardest. The big things — deaths, pregnancies, engagements, milestones — popped up in my Facebook and Instagram feeds. They were announced to me via email and messenger, text message and video chat. But the little things? They were just life. Just time passing. Nothing to report on or broadcast — nothing that should be of any concern to me as I packed, unpacked, repacked, and hauled The Beast from city to city, shouting out every now and again to people back home to assure everyone I was alive and well and enjoying the limitless freedom that comes with having no responsibilities aside from staying upright and safe.

Life went on without me here, just as I knew it would, just as it should. And, as it did, my life went on over there. Changes took place and decisions were made. Thoughts were developed and actions were taken. Time marched forward — in different time zones, perhaps, but onward nonetheless.

It’s been six days since I returned home. The jet lag is finally wearing off, my hair is back to the length and color I prefer it to be, and my calendar is filled with dates and times to reconnect with the people closest to my heart. I’m reacclimating to life in Minnesota, readjusting to life with a homebase instead of a temporary apartment.

I know that with more time things will feel more normal and less surprising. But just as I had to adjust to a life of solo travel through 43 cities in 15 countries, so, too, do I need to adjust to life back home. It’s a different sort of adjustment, with different difficulties and different rewards. And while it’s caught me off-guard and left me reeling a little more than I would like, ultimately I know it’s going to be okay: If the last five months have taught me anything, it’s to take life as it comes and, holding on loosely, to allow it to carry me along wherever it may choose to go.

Do you trust me?

“Hold out your hand and eat these — slowly — and tell me what four things is in them,” he said to me in a thick Greek accent.

He came up to my shoulders and had thick curly black hair. He was somewhere between 50 and 70 years old; smelled of olive oil, a t-shirt in need of washing, and wine; and had a knack for suddenly disappearing somewhere behind the counter of his self-service market in Fira, Santorini.

We’d played this game before, a few days earlier, the afternoon after my friend, R, and I had arrived in Fira. It was a Sunday and, being the off-season and Greece, almost all the stores were closed, including the closest grocery store.

We’d found an open restaurant for lunch, but wanted a few things to tide us over for that evening and following morning, and decided to see what the market across the street from our Airbnb was all about.


Fresh fruit and vegetables lined the tables in front of the door; stacks of bottled water, soda, empty glass bottles, and a pair of refrigerators filled the rest of the space. Two older men were sitting on a couple small stools; one man stood behind them. The trio was engaged in a lively conversation and didn’t seem to notice us as we squeezed through the narrow passage leading into the dark, somewhat damp store.

Giant barrels of olives, pickled vegetables, and pickled fish stood just inside the doorway on the right; to the left, the floor was covered with more bottled water, wine, and a random mix of boxes and crates housing anything from candy bars to dried fruit to canned fish. The aisles and shelves were crammed full from floor to ceiling; the items appeared to be randomly ordered, making it difficult to find whatever it was we were looking for. I’d gotten into a grocery rut during my months of solo traveling, and knew I wanted eggs, coffee, and oranges for the morning, as well as olives, dark chocolate, and red wine for an evening snack. Aside from that, I was happy to roam about, taking in the jumbled assortment of items.

R discovered the eggs first, buried behind cheeses, pates, and butter in a tiny open-faced refrigerator. I’d glanced at a few jars of olives but was put off by their high prices (“high” being defined in the context of the prices I’d grown accustomed to in Bosnia, Serbia, Kosovo, and Bulgaria), and the bars of chocolate I’d found all contained milk (no good since I’m lactose intolerant), so I’d taken over wine duty.

After browsing the shelves and getting a sense of the price range, I found a gathering of 1.5-liter plastic bottles of local wine, one red and one white. They were half the price of the glass-bottle options and seemed to be the go-to choice of the store (the same varieties were also being sold in 5-liter jugs, but that seemed a bit ambitious for two people for one week), so I grabbed one of each, found R, and headed to the counter.

It took a few minutes for Nick to realize we were ready to check out. (A few minutes and one of his friends yelling at him to stop talking and come inside to let us pay.) As he approached, he noticed me holding the bottle of red wine and R holding the bottle of white.

“Want to try it before buying?” he asked us. Confused, I looked around to see if there was an open bottle somewhere, designated for sampling. As I was scanning the counter, Nick grabbed the bottle I was holding and, before I could say that yes, I did want to sample it, he twisted open the cap and proceeded to pour the wine into it, like a tiny, make-shift communion service.

“Here, try,” he said, thrusting the full cap at me. Knowing there was no way I’d say I didn’t want the wine at this point (I still had my Minnesota-polite, don’t-make-a-fuss tendencies despite having spent nearly five months in cultures where people don’t waste their time with passivity), I took the cap, drank the wine, smiled, and said, “Perfect!”

Then Nick turned to R. She valiantly tried to assure him that she was fine with the wine without needing to sample it first, but Nick insisted and, taking the other groceries from her and putting them on the counter, snagged the bottle and proceeded to provide her with her own miniature communion service.

R, too, is a good Minnesotan and, immediately after sipping down the cap-full, smiled and agreed that it, too, was perfect.

If Nick saw through our facade (not that the wine wasn’t good — it was, but, like I said, the chances of us refusing it even if it hadn’t been good were slim to none) he didn’t seem to mind, and, replacing the cap to R’s bottle, set it down among the rest of the groceries.

Expecting this to be the end of the transaction, I began to get my wallet out. But Nick didn’t make his way behind the counter. Instead, he walked away from it, to the barrels of olives, vegetables, and fish.

“You try some of these, too?” he said. Even though he made it seem like a question, it clearly was not up for debate that we would, indeed, try some of his home-made goods. I knew R didn’t like olives, so I volunteered myself as the guinea pig for this part of the game.

“Is my own personal seasoning and oil blend,” Nick told me as he scooped a large black olive into my hand. I half-listened as he listed the different herbs he mixed with the oil. I caught a few of them, but eventually became distracted by the taste and texture of the olive. Juicy, rich, and just the right amount of bitter-saltiness, it was the best olive I’d had, possibly ever. Eagerly, I agreed to Nick’s offer to load up a plastic container with the green and black beauties, as well as some of the biggest capers I’d ever seen. Then it was on to the pickled vegetables — cauliflower, carrots, zucchini, onions, garlic, and a few mystery chunks — and fish. I passed on sampling the pickled fish in the store, but agreed to take a couple pieces home for us to try.

Our grocery list had now doubled in size, but Nick still wasn’t through with his tour of local cuisine. Ducking behind the counter, he disappeared for almost a minute. When he finally reemerged, he held in his hand a chunk of what looked like marbled cheese. Having seen how persistent he was, and how saying no to him was about as effective as telling rain to stop falling, I grew uneasy for the first time.

“No cheese,” I said as politely as possible. “I can’t eat cheese. I get sick.” I pointed to my stomach and made the kind of face you make to explain to a toddler what will happen if they eat the dirt in their hand, all while shaking my head.

“No cheese,” Nick said, proceeding to slice off a corner of the block.

“I can’t eat any dairy,” I continued, desperately. “No milk, no cream, no butter.”

“No dairy!” he said, clearly growing impatient with my distrust of him. “No cheese, no dairy!” He was holding the slices in his hand now, and reached across the counter to hand them to me and R.

“What is it?” I asked, still unconvinced that this cream-colored square wasn’t going to leave me bloated and in pain.

“Eat! No dairy! Eat!” Nick insisted. I knew I had no choice, so, looking at R and shrugging, I popped it into my mouth at the same time she did.

The texture of the dessert was unlike anything I’d ever tasted: a little crunchy, like a wafer, but also chewy like nougat. It was sweet, but not overpowering, and had a kind of nutty, toasty taste to it. I identified tahini as one of the flavors, but wasn’t sure of the rest.

As we were chewing, Nick finally told us what it was we were blind sampling. “Is tahini, ground sesame seed, and honey,” he proudly explained, clearly happy with himself for convincing two out-of-place tourists to eat this mystery treat. “Is called halva. Greek specialty. Made with all ingredients from the island.”

I’d gone from dreading this food to wanting to stuff my face with it, and was genuinely thrilled when Nick carved off a large slice and said he was giving it to us for free, as a welcome-to-Santorini gift.

As he loaded our odd assembly of groceries into a couple bags and calculated the total, I smiled. Here was a man proud of his shop and proud of his home. He was unfazed by our hesitation and so confident in his (accurate) calculations of what we would like that his surety had rubbed off and made me feel more at ease and willing to let my guard down, to trust.

It was something I’d been learning to do since I’d quit my full-time job in July 2016, embraced freelance life, and then took off for Europe with a backpack and laptop for five months of life on the fly — five months that would eventually add up to spending time in 43 cities in 15 countries; sleeping in dozens of hotels and Airbnbs; sitting for countless hours on buses, trains, planes, and ferries; and meeting so many gracious, unassuming people in so many circumstances that, had I insisted on stubbornly grasping on to a sense of pride or entitlement instead of admitting I knew nothing and needed help with everything, I would have missed out on some of the best experiences of my life.

That’s why, four days later, when Nick told me to hold out my hand and eat the little sesame-seed covered spheres he place in it, I didn’t ask questions. I didn’t get nervous. I didn’t insist that he tell me what I was about to pop into my mouth. Instead, I ate them slowly, like he told me to, and then started guessing at what the four ingredients were. I happily allowed him to roll his eyes at me and feign exasperation with each wrong guess, and, finally, after a couple minutes — and a couple more treats — I got the answer right: peanuts covered in a mixture of honey, ground bread crumbs, and sesame seeds.

After I’d guessed right, Nick went on to tell me about the honey — how sugar is too expensive to import to Santorini, so everyone who lives there year-round keeps bees and makes their own the honey. Nick’s beehive produces four to five kilograms a week, he told me proudly. “I use honey to mix with coffee and tea, and make sweets like the halva and the nuts,” he said, then rushed to correct himself. “Only honey with Nescafe coffee,” he explained. “For true Greek coffee, I use sugar. Real sugar.”

With that, he nodded, smiled, and began calculating what I owed him for my groceries. Once again he’d convinced me to buy almost twice as much as I’d originally planned for. And once again, I didn’t mind one bit.

Back in the Schengen again

After leaving the Schengen Area on December 30 to travel for all of January and most of February around Croatia (Zagreb, Sibenik, Split, Dubrovnik), Bosnia (Mostar, Sarajevo), Serbia (Belgrade), and Kosovo (Pristina, Peje, Decani, Mitrovica, Prizren), I’m back in the zone again, in Greece.

In five hours, I’ll reunite with one of my best friends and introduce her to life outside North America (it’s her first trip abroad). I’ll also begin to reacclimate to being around a familiar face and to voicing my thoughts again after staying silent among strangers for much of the last five months.

What better way to kill time and start the reassimilation process back to “real” life than to write a parody of the song Back in the Saddle Again?

“Back in the Schengen Again”

I’m back in the Schengen again
Out in a new foreign land
Where they stamp you every time
You cross a country line
Back in the Schengen again

Ridin’ a plane once more
Backpack is draggin’ on the floor
Where I perk up every time
An announcement comes on-line
Back in the Schengen again

Rain or sun or snow
From France to Greece I go
Back in the Schengen again
Bus or train or plane
I’ll find a way
Back in the Schengen again

There you have it. Maybe it came from getting too little sleep last night (my taxi came at 4:15am), maybe it came from working for a year and a half for Garrison Keillor, master of parodies. Whatever the reason, I think it’s entertaining. Perhaps you will, too.

As always, I’ll leave you with a few photos to peruse from recent weeks, this time from Kosovo and Sofia, Bulgaria:

My Fluffy Life

The longer I’m in the Balkans, the more aware I become of just how cushy my life is, and always has been.

Not that this is news to me. I’ve long known how fortunate I am to have grown up in an upper-middle class home in Minnesota, with two loving, supportive parents; a large, loving, supportive extended family; and all the educational and extra-curricular opportunities I could possibly want. My parents always made sure my siblings and I were aware of our privileges — not in a guilt-enforced kind of way, rather an eye-opening way: taking us to volunteer at homeless shelters and with programs like Meals on Wheels, reminding us that socioeconomic status matters far less than how you treat others, encouraging us to befriend those who didn’t have many friends, and to prioritize experiences and growth opportunities over material things and money.

But travel has a way of driving things home that everyday situations and familiar faces simply cannot. Part of that comes from the constant underlying feeling of being vulnerable, and of realizing that pride has no role when it comes to embracing situations in a new place, with new customs, surrounded by new faces. At home, I can get by on my own without needing strangers to aid me. I can speak the language, understand the culture, read the situations. Here (“here” being defined as “any place where none of the previously mentioned things apply”), I can’t.

I can’t understand how much a half-kilo of spinach costs at the market in Sarajevo because I don’t know my numbers in Bosnian. The best I can do is to reach out my hand to the vendor, offer up a variety of coins, and trust that she takes only the ones she needs.

I can’t intuitively understand the deep-rooted, complicated relationships between the Orthodox Christian, Jewish, and Muslim Bosnians, or between the Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, Kosovars, Albanians, Macedonians, and other Balkan nationalities. It’s not like back home, where Minnesotans and Wisconsinites play up a phony rivalry, taking jabs at each other over landscape, beer, politics, and sports. Here, blood has been shed over borders and religion, ethnicity and power. Families have been torn apart and exiled. Towns have been burned to the ground. Parents have watched as their teenage sons get pulled from a stream of people and shot dead just because they’re males and of a “fighting age.”

These are the stories I’ve been hearing from people who witnessed them first-hand. These are the events that shaped these countries, and that I can try to understand and put into context, but will never fully comprehend.

Spending time in Mostar, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and, now, Pristina and other cities in Kosovo, I’ve been given an opportunity to step outside my bubble and enter the world of people who have experienced things I never have, and hopefully never will. I’ve been given a chance to learn empathy from men and women who have chosen to forgive rather than seek revenge. I’ve been invited to be an observer and student of post-war life in countries full of beautiful people and complicated circumstances. I’ve been given the gift of being accepted without being asked for anything in return.

I am sitting at a table, looking out onto a courtyard illuminated by a winter-gray sky. I hear wild dogs barking in the distance and see university students speed-walking to class. My coffee has gone cold, and I need to take a shower, and I have dozens of thoughts and emotions that I desperately want to find the words to express, but know that I may never be able to. I am reaching the end of my time in Europe. I am tired. I feel incredibly fortunate.

[Photos from Belgrade and Kosovo]

It Takes Two

The air hung heavy with car exhaust, cigarette smoke, and soot from coal-fueled homes and businesses. From my perch above Sarajevo, sitting at a table set for four at a restaurant I’d hauled myself up a decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly street to have lunch at, I could make out the outline of the mountains and Miljacka River, the colorful houses and refurbished buildings, but none of the details that give a city its personality and life.

I’d never encountered air like this before — air that stings the nostrils and makes you hesitant to inhale — and I was tempted to ask my waiter if it was always like this in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I’d arrived a couple days earlier via bus from Mostar, a war-torn but charming city located near the Croatian border, and had anticipated that Sarajevo would be similar in character and feel. But whereas Mostar embraced its made-for-tourists sights — namely Stari Most, or “Old Bridge;” the turquoise-green waters of the Neretva River; and the UNESCO-protected streets and structures of Old City — while still maintaining its identity outside of them, Sarajevo seemed uncertain in how to strike this balance.

Encountering this atmosphere of misplaced identity and searching wasn’t entirely surprising. After all, Bosnia and Herzegovina just gained independence from Serbia and Croatia 22 years ago, after the Bosnian War: three bitter, brutal years (1992-95) of fighting, indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, and ethnic cleansing. Skeletons of bombed-out, shrapnel-scarred buildings still fill much of Mostar and Sarajevo. Government corruption and discord keeps the country from moving forward. It’s a beautiful place with endearing people, but it’s overlooked, forgotten, and passed over by travelers in favor of its better-known, better-advertised neighbors.

Fortunately, I avoided being one of those travelers thanks to advice from friends who had traveled to Bosnia or whose family is from Bosnia that I should try to include it in my travels outside the Schengen Area. Even more rewarding than getting to experience a place largely unaffected by the tourism industry was getting to experience it with a friend.

I’ve been on the go in Europe for 126 days now, and while I still savor the opportunity to immerse myself in new surroundings, my energy for research, exploration, and adventure isn’t what it was four-plus months ago. So when a good friend from college said he was going to take five days to hop over to my side of the continent from Amsterdam and tackle Sarajevo and Belgrade with me, I was thrilled.

Seeing these cities through the eyes of someone else reinvigorated me and reminded me that although this journey I’m on is my reality and not a vacation, it’s still special and unique, and I need to take a step back, look around, and soak it all in. With my temporary travel partner filling in for me as researcher and scheduler, I was able to simply enjoy Sarajevo and Belgrade — to relax and follow and allow the cities to reveal themselves to me — to us — and get lost in the moment. I was able to voice my observations and thoughts after months of silence; to laugh and joke and gossip and confide; to listen, question, challenge, be challenged, share, grow, and let my guard down.

I’m still an advocate for and fan of solo travel, but those five days of exploring with a like-minded seeker reminded me that there are benefits to sharing experiences that cannot be unlocked alone. From things as small as being able to try more food and drink by splitting orders and having someone to talk to on an eight-hour bus ride, to opportunities as large as using our different personalities to converse with locals on deeper levels, having another traveler by my side was the push I needed to finish my time abroad strong, keep my eyes open, and make my moments here count.

Not every experience turns into a revelation, and not every city resonates as a place to which I’d like to return. But every day carries with it the opportunity to learn something about myself, and if that’s the only lesson I take out of this five-month European adventure, then that’s more than enough.

[Photos of Mostar and Sarajevo]:

Pink Mountains, Turquoise Skies: Glimpses of Split

The mountains circling Split turn pink at a certain point during the evening, just after dusk, right before the sun fully sets. Not for long — only a few minutes — but when they do, they glow, setting the white-washed centuries-old skyline aglow with them.

Elderly men and women fill the benches lining the coast during the late morning hours. They wait until the sun has had time to warm up the air — until it is so bright you can’t be in it without squinting, with or without sunglasses — and then suddenly appear, as if they’ve been hiding in the shade of the palm trees all along, anticipating just the right moment to sit. They squeeze three or four to a bench, chatting amiably with their fellow white-hairs next to them, around them, behind them. The women chatter in sing-song voices, each word emphasized with a dramatic punch so as not to be lost among the swirling gossip. The men talk with their hands as much as their mouths, punching points as they laugh and jab at each other, chuckling at their jokes and winking at their women.

Down on the beach groups of men sit around flimsy plastic tables on not-quite sturdy chairs and play cards. They choose strategic corners in which to sit and play — out of the wind and direct line of the sun, but with enough warmth to stay for hours. Those looking to do more than shuffle and deal all day wander down to the water. Without so much as a blush they strip down to their Speedos and enter the clear blue water. It’s only 50 degrees, and a brisk wind pushes waves toward the kids building castles and tunnels on the clay-sand beach, but the chilly air doesn’t seem to bother them. They’re still leathery brown from summer, and it’s as if they’ve retained enough of the sun’s warmth from years of basking and wading to offset the winter’s cold.

Teenage boys show off on their bicycles, speeding through the crowded boardwalk and gaining enough speed to pop wheelies. They laugh at and with one another, their voices cracking, searching for the new octave that signals adulthood. Girls on roller blades and roller skates twirl past, pretending not to care whether anyone is watching, but tossing their hair and batting their eyes just in case.

Men of varying ages gather on the beach to play a condensed form of soccer: tiny goals, compact boundaries. Most wear nothing more than Speedos or short swim trunks; a few keep on a tank top or T-shirt. It looks odd, juvenile, for dozens of middle-age and elderly men to be leaping, kicking, yelling, and splashing on the water’s edge, chasing a light-weight ball and throwing themselves this way and that, but no one seems to care. There are two games taking place, each consisting of 10 to 12 men, none in particularly good shape. A few yards away, farther up the beach, a smaller group of young boys play the same game. It looks more normal, more natural, for them — six- and seven-year-olds; boys with bowl-cuts and baby faces, gangly limbs and unsure gaits. Looking back and forth between the groups, it’s easy to fast-forward decades and imagine the little boys as the older ones, no longer quite as cute or innocent, but still young, if only at heart.

Women in fur jackets and over-the-knee suede boots walk the sidewalks around and through the city, strolling in every sense of the word. They lean on their husband’s arms and strut. They link together in chains of three or four and gossip. They hide their eyes behind over-sized sunglasses and disguise their age with perfectly styled hair and makeup. They are beautiful, and they know it.

Fisherman cast for treasure from the rocky cliffs stretching out over the water. Some use rods, others simply toss in a line and pull it back in, slowly, with their hands. They whistle or hum to themselves, unaware of the passersby watching them. Buckets of bait rest at their feet. Hooks come back empty.

Young adults take over the outdoor patios and seaside stretches in groups that grow and shrink with unpredictable regularity. Lovers cling to each other’s hands and whisper, giggling between kisses. Friends shout and wave and leapfrog chairs to join other gatherings, pulling up benches and beckoning to waiters for more espresso and beer. Girls catch their reflections and tuck back a stray hair, retouch their lipstick. Boys practice looking nonchalant while vying for attention and the ever-elusive rank as temporary Alpha male. Hours pass, and the groups move with the sunshine, anticipating nightfall, hoping that their daytime daydreams become something more sometime soon.