Miserable Bastard In Europe
I practice self-care, or attempt to, in Hamburg. On the train from Bremen I teared up, thinking about home and how much I longed for it, thinking of Grandad and how I would never see him again. I dump my luggage in the hotel room and take my phone into the lobby, calling my girlfriend who is awake at midnight in Mernda, Victoria. I cry when I hear her voice.
That night Amy – my best friend and travel partner – and I eat alone in an Indian and Vietnamese restaurant. I am confused by the pairing of Indian and Vietnamese, but more confused by the lack of people in this part of town. It’s a Saturday night and everything is closed. Where are all the people? We’re the only customers and we eat with stolen glances at each other, grinning at the strangeness. No music plays. It feels apocalyptic.
I fill the bath with hot water and an excessive amount of liquid soap, wanting the bubbles to hide my naked body. I step into the bath. The water is hot and comforting, a drastic change from the chill outside. Germany is the coldest country I have ever been to, but the locals say it has been a warm winter so far with no snow, not even frost. Back home, Australia is burning. This heat, this warming of the globe, is everywhere, including my bath.
I put my headphones on and listen to the Bruce Springsteen playlist my girlfriend made for me. I had never listened to much of his music before but now train rides across Europe are complemented with the sounds of ‘Born To Run’, ‘Dancing In The Dark’, ‘The River’. I told her that if we ever broke up, I would never be able to listen to Springsteen again. This turned out to be an exaggeration on my part. When we break up four months later and I inevitably hear ‘Born In The U.S.A.’ play on the radio, I do not fall apart.
The walls sweat. My face, too, and as I run the back of my hand across my forehead, I notice the increase in my heart rate. When I pause the music, the sound of my pulse fills my ears. This doesn’t worry me as much as it should, and I sit in the bath for a little longer, until the heat becomes unbearable.
I ease myself out of the tub and grab the white towel beside the sink. As I bring it to my face, my body begins to collapse.
A piercing ring shrieks in my ears. My head swirls and I let go of the towel, shaking too profusely to even wrap it around my body. When my vision starts to blur, I panic. This, I think, is how I will die. Naked and wet on the bathroom floor, in a Hamburg hotel room, taken out by a fucking bath.
Slowly, I sit down on the edge of the tub and shakily fill a cup with cold water from the sink. I can barely see anything. Through the ringing in my ears, I hear Amy laugh in the next room.
If I die here, what would I have made of my life?
I feel the desire to come home by two weeks. Our Contiki tour ends in London and most of our fellow travellers – who have been in Europe for a month, whereas Amy and I had only joined the tour in its last week – are talking about returning home. A girl from New Zealand tells me she can’t wait to go home and I envy her, wish I could squeeze into her suitcase and come with her. New Zealand isn’t home but it would be close enough.
On our first morning in London, I flood the bathroom. Not being familiar with shower/bath hybrids, I place the shower curtain outside the bathtub. Water spills onto the floor for the next four minutes, until I turn off the tap and pull the curtain aside. There’s at least half a centimetre of water covering the entire floor.
I gather as many towels as I can find and try to mop the floor in vain. Once it’s as dry as I can make it, I emerge from the bathroom and meet Amy’s eye.
‘So, I may have flooded the bathroom.’
She bursts out laughing. ‘What the fuck is with you and basic household items?’ It’s true – I almost killed a toaster and coffee machine in Italy.
We visit the British Museum but I am too tired, too sick, to appreciate where I am and the artefacts in front of me. The museum overwhelms my brain, and I don’t take the time to read exhibit labels. My eyes skim over items, impressed by some, indifferent to others, and I feel a sense of shame for not appreciating where I am. As a history graduate, this should thrill me. But my mind, my sick, sick mind, cannot grasp any pleasure or wonder.
On the third morning Amy and I wake up feeling worse than ever. My chest is full of phlegm and I pine for Australia. We drag ourselves out of bed and walk to the supermarket, load up on pastries and medicine. Amy goes back to the hotel to rest and I explore the city by myself for the day. I am, admittedly, glad to be alone for a few hours.
In Hyde Park I pull out my notebook and write a poem.
Miserable bastard in London
wondering why she ever left the shores
of Australia Felix
to return to the colonial motherland
where all she feels like doing is
drawing the sheets over her head
and turning off the lights,
hope that she will be home soon
in the warmth, with magpies singing
on the back fence
and a girl with soft arms in her bed
saying ‘I swear travelling is greater than this’
but is it?
I feel ungrateful for wanting to go home so desperately. It’s not that I’m having a bad time, it’s just that I miss everything in my life. I have never felt the pull to home so strongly.
Before she died, I promised Nanna that I would visit Scotland. She had never been herself, but still felt deeply connected to the country and its culture, her parents and older siblings having been born there. Every year, Nanna would watch the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo, filmed at Edinburgh Castle where her father was stationed during World War I.
I was flicking through a travel guide included in the Herald Sun, sitting opposite Nanna in her nursing home. The pages were filled with beautiful shots of glistening water and beaches, of resorts in Thailand, Vietnam, Fiji. I was in my final year of high school and playing with the idea of a gap year.
‘Where should I go, Nanna?’
Her immediate response dismissed the destinations that were carefully laid out in the travel guide. ‘Scotland.’
When we arrive in Edinburgh, a fundamental part of me that is so connected to Nanna’s memory feels like I’ve returned home. As soon as Amy and I haul our luggage into our hostel room, we walk up the street to Edinburgh Castle. I make Amy take photos of me so I can send them to my family. The wind is strong and blows hair into my face. I wrap my scarf around my head and pull my jacket’s hood up to protect my ears.
In the photos you can only see my eyes and nose, but it’s obvious that I can’t stop grinning.
8 Dec. 2019 at 7:54AM (GMT) 6:54PM (AEDT)
Ok so dad just casually hinted that he has bad news to tell me but will save it until I get home and now I’m like ok but I have to know now is it Grandad is he ok and Dad has left me on read so now I am very nervous and think that my grandad is not ok annnnnnnnd I wish someone would just answer me but hmmmmmm I gotta go to the station now and yeah this isn’t ideal
Amy and I wake up early on the day we leave Edinburgh for Paris. I’m glad to finally get out of this tiny hostel room, with its dirty shower and toilet that takes multiple attempts to properly flush. We don’t need to leave as early as we do, the train station being directly across from our building, but I am keen to get out of these claustrophobic walls.
While Amy finishes packing, I sit on the bed and message my dad on Facebook. I notice that his tone is slightly off, and when he hints at having news to tell me when I get home, my stomach tightens. My first instinct takes hold and I type ‘is Grandad okay?’
Half an hour later I’m standing on a platform at Edinburgh Waverly hearing the news over the phone, openly crying as my parents tell me how Grandad died overnight in hospital. It was an unexpected death, resulting in complications following a common procedure. I imagine my family at home sitting in the lounge room, Dad holding the phone with me on speaker. They didn’t want to tell me over the phone, but I know that I’d rather hear the news now and process it in my last week overseas than have the information dumped on me when I return.
After I hang up, I find Amy, who is sitting with our suitcases and drinking a hot chocolate while she waits for me. She meets my eye expectantly. ‘Grandad died last night.’ Amy immediately expresses her sympathy and I lean into her for comfort, but my mind is elsewhere and I am in neither Australia nor Scotland, I am neither home nor the train station. I feel myself fall into a pit of grief that is entirely detached from the world around me.
For all I cared, arriving in Paris Gare du Nord on a Sunday evening, this city could get fucked. Amy and I had already passed through on a Contiki tour for two nights – in which we rapidly consumed the Louvre, ate snails, drank champagne beside the Eiffel Tower, and attended the Moulin Rouge – and I originally hoped to have seen more. Upon our second visit, though, my view of the city changed dramatically, and it had nothing to do with the city itself.
I detested Paris.
Phone in my left hand and suitcase in my right, I stormed out of the international train station with Amy quietly in tow. My emotions were a mess and I was overwhelmed with anger, frustration, grief and exhaustion. I wasn’t thinking properly, couldn’t read Google Maps as well as I had become adjusted to, and led Amy up and down the wrong side of a street in an attempt to find our hotel. It was dark, we hadn’t eaten, and all I wanted to do was sit on the ground and cry.
Amy eventually grabbed my phone, looked at the map, and informed me of our (my) error. We crossed the road and checked into the hotel.
On our first morning, I stay in bed until noon. Amy does the same, but showers before me. During our trip I’ve managed to get out of bed at reasonable hours, aiming for earlier mornings so that we could take advantage of a full day. This is our first and only day of remaining in a hotel room all morning. We stay in so late that we have to awkwardly tell the cleaner that we don’t want our room serviced that day.
I drag myself out of bed at 12:30 and take my time getting showered and dressed. My period has arrived, which isn’t a huge deal but accompanied with my cold and current state of mental health, I feel like the world is collapsing onto me.
For lunch I have a salad. We walk around aimlessly afterwards, in a region of Paris that’s cheap but not exactly safe or romantic, and with nowhere to go I quickly become fed up and make my way back to the hotel, Amy following me with no argument. I change my bloody pad, take some cough medicine, and return to bed. Amy watches videos on her phone in the single bed beside mine, and with my back to her, I curl into the foetal position and silently weep.
There is only one more week until we fly home, spent in our final destination: Germany. I had been looking forward to exploring the country, meeting with an old friend, visiting Christmas night markets – but I wished circumstances were different.
Time moves differently in the northern hemisphere. A week can be so, so long.
Months after his death, I dream of Grandad. He is lying underneath a white sheet in hospital, and I stare at the top of his head that peeks out. And then he is sitting upright, facing me, his left eye missing. He talks to me, asks why he can’t see properly, and the doctor whispers into my ear, ‘Don’t tell him he’s dead.’ I ask them why he can still speak and recognise me if he’s dead, and they tell me that it is a physical reaction before the body ultimately shuts down. But he looks alive to me and continues to engage in conversation, though I don’t understand why his eye is gone.
When I tell Dad about my dream he says I probably dreamt it because I never saw Grandad when he died, I was away from the situation entirely, dissociated from it. Perhaps to me Grandad will always be in this limbo state of life and death.
I don’t want to die in a bathroom in Hamburg because it is too far away from home. I don’t want to die at all because there has already been a death in the family, because I know that it would absolutely break my dad. My mum and brother too, perhaps equally, but I do not want to let my father go through another sense of loss, I don’t want him to have to deal with the death of his daughter so soon after the death of his father. He would blame himself for letting me go to Europe, for not having locked me in my room where nothing could harm me, except my own mind.
And I am so close to leaving, only a few days. It would be unfair for something to happen when I have been waiting for my flight home so desperately. In the minutes where my senses are fucked from the heat of the bath I think of my family and girlfriend, and how it is of the highest importance that I return to them in one piece.
I sit on the edge of the bath. I drink a glass of cool water slowly, patiently. I focus on my breathing and ground myself. I can’t remember what stops first: the ringing in my ears, the blurry vision, the dizziness, the shaking, or the rapid beating of my heart. But at some point my body restores order, returns to its usual state of rest.
Once I regain my senses, I cautiously stand up. Wait for a minute. When nothing happens after the minute, I dry myself and walk out of the bathroom. Amy is lying on her bed, eyes glued to her phone, headphones on, a smile plastered on her face – a smile I am well acquainted with, it is a smile that sits there in anticipation of the next laugh. She is blissfully unaware of my near-death experience.
(Maybe it’s dramatic to call it a near-death experience. I really only would have fainted. But if I had hit my head too hard on the way down? It could have marked the end. But maybe I was fine all along.)
Amy takes off her headphones. ‘How was your bath?’
‘I almost died!’
She listens to my exaggerated retelling of the event, and we both conclude that what I had experienced was most likely caused by the bath water being too hot for my overworked body – unwell, menstruating, and mourning.
Before I fall asleep I worry I might die overnight, thinking the bath incident was an indication of something more serious. Could I have a brain tumour, or a concussion? I am a little bit of a hypochondriac, just like my dad, just like my grandparents. A few times when dropping my dad off at primary school, Nanna would tell him, ‘I might not be here to pick you up after school, but don’t worry, Louise will come get you.’ Nanna worried about dying, although she lived to the age of eighty-seven. Her body kept her going until it could do no more, same with Grandad’s.
My dad would spend the day thinking about his mother’s words and become anxious over never seeing her again. But of course, there she was at the end of the school day. And of course, on a cool December morning in Hamburg, I wake up.
Danielle Scrimshaw is a writer, historian and lighthouse enthusiast. She has been published in Voiceworks, Overland, Scum Mag and Archer Magazine. Her first book, ‘She and Her Pretty Friend’, will be published in May 2023 by Ultimo Press.