I was a backpacker after my graduation, before becoming a 9 to 5 office worker. My greatest interest for many years was to see what it was really like outside Australia. I guess that travelling from a very young age with my parents was the foundation of my wandering.
We always travelled with organised tours. Dad said it took the hassle out of travel for him. He could just sit back and relax with his family. Mum said she felt so much safer travelling with a tour guide. She could enjoy the sightseeing much more.
All of that was true but I’d been there and done that. I wanted to do something different. I wanted to meet the local people, stay in their homes, see what they did, eat what they ate, learn what they thought.
Staying in hotels, all one sees are the hotel foyer, heavily made up receptionists behind the desk, marble floors, gigantic flower arrangements, uniformed staff with fixed smiles and tightly tucked in bed sheets. No matter which country one was in, the hotels looked pretty much the same.
I saved my money by working a few jobs here and there. Plus, for the past few years, at my request, my parents and grandparents had been giving me cash on my birthday and at Christmas instead of presents. I was pretty pleased with myself when I carried my backpack onto the train in France.
* * *
My first stop was Paris, a city I had visited when I was much younger. It had been my favourite city since I walked on the Champs Elysees, the 70 metre wide, 1910 metre long, beautiful avenue. It was the same as I remembered.
Paris was beautiful with the historical buildings. Vegetables and fruit were much fresher than in Australia. My tastebuds were over indulged.
French people were indeed smaller and slimmer. Even the rooms, seats and food servings were small, but not the bills.
Women took greater pride in themselves. Their hair looked healthier and better cared for. Could it be something to do with their water?
Unfortunately, rubbish was present everywhere. Dirty windows, dog droppings, cigarette butts, over hanging wires were all over the place.
Trains were very dirty but it was a very good transport system for tourists like me.
The countryside was pretty, towns were neat, nice and clean. It looked like residents loved the place. You didn’t see any junk yards like in an Australian country town.
I travelled from France to Germany by rail and bus with some hitchhiking. Once I reached Germany I could see people were environmentally conscientious. There were forests everywhere, with much greener places outside the big cities.
Germany was a much cleaner country too. The toilet systems in the country towns were smart with water usage controlled by the user and the seat cleaning system was the best I’ve seen.
The road system was well organised. Some stretches of road had no speed limit. Some cars drove past like an airplane flying past. It was so fast and so scary. At that speed, no one could survive if an accident should happen.
Road signs were good and thoughtful.
Bed and breakfast places were everywhere. One could find a place to stay without a booking. Their breakfast every day consisted of cold processed meats, hard boiled eggs, cheese, bread, butter, jams, fruit juice, coffee or tea. Really heavy stuff. That’s why they are so much taller and larger than their neighbours.
Although people were solemn, houses were colourful, the outside painted in all kinds of bright colours.
City dwellers could rent a small garden space to do gardening and visit it whenever they wanted.
Berlin was pretty much like Paris, dirty and messy. After a quick sightseeing trip, I wanted to leave as soon as I could.
If France and Germany were two ladies, to me, France would be a pretty blonde, Germany would be a sophisticated brunette.
* * *
The Netherlands, also commonly called Holland, was famous for its painters, clogs and notoriously flat lands.
It was known for its liberal mentality. Amsterdam, the world’s top destination for gay and lesbian travellers, was like New York in being an internationally renowned gay-friendly community. It was a city that leads the world in openness and tolerance.
There weren’t many countries with so much water and wind or so many boats, sails, windmills, canals and bridges.
I stayed on a houseboat, pedalled a canal bike, drank on a terrace overlooking the water, dined on a floating restaurant. Water’s divine calming nature provided Amsterdam with a relaxed atmosphere.
I had heard about the red light district well before my visit. The quality of the prostitutes behind the windows or glass doors, typically illuminated with red lights, was much lower than I had expected. Maybe I was too young to appreciate the whole district.
I caught a bus from Amsterdam to Volendam, a popular tourist attraction in the Netherlands and a well-known place for fishing boats, yachts and tourist boats to gather.
On the way there, I saw a brown skinned young man drive a car onto the freeway. There were many cars on the road. He kept changing lanes. There were three lanes going in that direction. He changed from the first lane to the second lane, then to the third lane and then back to the second lane and the first lane again. It all happened in a few seconds. He flicked his headlights at every car in his way. I could not believe my eyes. I guess that irresponsible people are everywhere, including Holland.
I booked into a bed and breakfast place, about 3 minute walk to the water. The stairs were a bit narrow so it was not easy to carry the bags in but the price was good so I was pretty satisfied.
It was late in the afternoon. I walked into a ‘bruin café’ facing the water, set on a sunny spot. The heavy use of wood in the interior and the nicotine stained walls brought a dim feeling into the atmosphere.
A man in his thirties with a strong Aussie accent walked up to me and asked, “Aussie?”
“Yeah, you too?”
“I am Peter, from North Shore in Sydney. This is Richard, he’s from Essendon in Melbourne.”
Richard, who was in his forties, stood behind Peter.
“I’m Justin from Balwyn.”
“Sydney?” Richard asked.
“In Melbourne,” Peter answered.
I was surprised he had never heard of Balwyn and he was from Essendon?
They sat down next to me. Peter told me that he had been living in Germany for the past two years. He had been to Holland many times. He loved the world’s biggest flower auction in Aalsmeer, a small town on the fringe of Amsterdam. Each day, more than 20 million flowers from around the world were auctioned in a building that ranked as one of the largest in the world.
Richard was a traveller like me. He had been to Europe twice before. This was his first time in Volendam.
Peter and Richard had met two hours before, on the Volendam waterfront.
“If you like Dutch pub style cafés, don’t miss Justin De Pieper, near Leidseplein. Dating back to the 17th century, it’s one of Amsterdam’s oldest pubs.”
“I may try it in the next day or two.”
“Have you tried Dutch raw herring served with chopped onions? You have got to try it at least once.”
“Kibbeling is chunks of deep fried fish. It is a must try.”
“Dutch apple pie and pancake too.”
“I like the veal croquettes. The spicy noodle croquette is good.”
I could see they were really having a good time in Holland.
With about 200 different nationalities living in the city, Amsterdam had a very diverse culinary scene. There was no shortage of food varieties.
I tried a chip when Richard put the open packet in front of me. “Wow, this is nice.”
“You can get that in Australia.”
“It’s my favourite. I have it all the time. You can get it in the supermarket. Costs a lot to buy it here.”
“Have you tried ‘jenever’ yet?”
“I don’t think so, what is it?”
“An alcoholic drink like gin, but better. I’ll get you one.”
It was strong and not my kind of drink. Richard patted my shoulder and said, “You’ll be fine.”
“Have some ‘bitterballen’, it will help wash down the hard stuff. Don’t be put off by their appearance, those meat and potato balls are much tastier than they look.”
It was Holland’s trademark spirit, I learnt later.
By the time I reached Amsterdam, I had been away from home for more than two months. Europe has 50 sovereign states and dependent territories. I didn’t think I could explore any further so I planned to make Holland my last stop. I’d come back in the future to continue my adventure.
I was tired of travelling. I missed my own bed, weekend golf with Dad and Sunday nights with all my clean socks and underpants in the drawer and pressed shirts in the cupboard hung by Mum. A 22 year old young man still not used to staying away from home too long.
Travelling on my own was fine for a while but by the time I met Peter and Richard, I was glad to have some company. Spending time with people who spoke with the same accent as me and had the same sense of humour as me was relaxing and enjoyable.
They invited me to join them the next day, to hire a bike and head for the country. I gladly agreed.
Exploring the countryside near Volendam on a bike would be a leisurely experience and the scenery was beautiful.
Peter was a man with a reddish complexion and muscular build. Truly an outdoor person. He had an insatiable appetite for fun and activity. Having a good time came very easily for him. He was witty, blessed with a razor sharp mind and knowledgeable on a wide variety of topics.
Richard was a pale, thin man, with a prominent bony structure. His slender body didn’t look very strong but his excitable and enthusiastic personality more than made up for his physical weakness. He was aware of everything going on around us. With him beside us, we wouldn’t miss anything that was happening.
The following day we went to Amsterdam and hired a boat to cruise down the canal. I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience with them. They were both keen travellers and pleasant to be with.
After a more than satisfying three days together, we had got to know each other quite well.
We were in a small café next to the Volendam water, a few doors away from the pub where we had first met, having a last dinner together before Peter headed back to Germany.
“Mud in your eye.” Peter raised his beer glass.
“To the time we spent together,” Richard said.
“The best three days of my trip,” I said. “I think I am pretty lucky to have met you both.”
“You took the words right out of my mouth.” Richard gave us his business cards. “Give me a call if you are in the area. I’d love to catch up in the future.”
“Let’s enjoy the present, shall we?” Peter said. “The future is too far away. The moment is what we can grasp now. Tomorrow is another day. To some, there will be no tomorrow.”
I was taken aback by what Peter had said. I looked at him. He didn’t look any different, still the same happy go lucky guy I had known for the past three days.
“Quite right, Peter! I’ve always wanted to travel, ever since I was a child. I wanted to go everywhere and I have. Now there’s only Norway’s ‘Atlantic Road’ left. I’d like to experience the sharp turns and wild nature.”
“The Atlantic Road is only a 30 minute drive through the Atlantic Ocean Tunnel. Little more than eight kilometres long. It was chosen as ‘Norway’s construction of the century’ in 2005. It has been awarded the status ‘national tourist route’ because of the architecture of the road and the bridges and the incredible coastline it passes through. Go while you’re thinking of it.”
“You are absolutely right. Once I’ve had that experience, I can say I’ve done everything I wanted to do. How about you Justin? Will you keep going for a while?”
“Strangely enough, I want to go home. I’ll leave further travelling for later on.”
“Do what your instinct tells you to do. Sometime it’s better that way,” Peter said.
“You’re probably only a few years older than me but often you sound like my father or even my grandfather.”
“Things that I’ve seen make me sound like an old man. Believe me, I don’t really like to see what I’ve seen.”
“What do you see right now?”
“I see people refusing to accept facts, hanging onto something they have no control over. The human mind is powerful; it can do unbelievable things.”
“Why don’t you like what you see?”
“I can see the facts as they are. I know what is happening but I can’t turn it around to make it positive instead of negative. If I could, I wouldn’t mind seeing what I see at all.”
“Why do you want to change things?”
“I have no power to change facts so I would not dream of changing them. I just don’t like to see the actions that are caused by the facts.”
“Can you choose not to see it?”
“It is not by choice. I’ve had the ability since birth. I have no say in it.”
“So it’s a gift.”
“A gift that I’d rather not have.”
“How do you handle it?”
“I try to help those who are grasping on the edge to have the best time they can.”
“Good on you Peter, let’s drink to that.”
I didn’t know what Peter was talking about, neither did Richard. We were there in Volendam for a good time, not to search for the meaning of life, so we dropped the subject and had a merry night.
* * *
I woke up in hospital. I had no idea how I had got there. What had happened to make me end up here?
The last thing I could remember was having drinks with Peter and Richard at Volendam the night before. How could I be lying on a hospital bed in Melbourne the next day?
“I called your parents, they’ll be here soon. Your mother has been sitting on that chair for the past three months, waiting for you to wake up,” the nurse told me while she did a routine check.
I was confused and tried to figure out what was going on. Before I came to my senses, the nurse was gone.
What did she mean by the past three months? I had been travelling in Europe, how could my body be here? Was I in a dream? Wake up, Justin, wake up. You had been missing home so much, your mind wanted to be home so you woke up and took your bag and went home. Stop dreaming!
“Hello Justin, I am Dr. Roger. How are you feeling?”
“That’s alright. You’ve been in a coma for almost 100 days. There will be some readjustment. Don’t rush yourself, call the nurse to help you. Tell me, what do you remember?”
“I was having drinks after dinner in Volendam before I woke up.”
“Do you remember what you had for dinner?”
I didn’t tell her what I had for dinner. I could tell she didn’t believe I had been in Volendam. She thought I was dreaming.
“Why am I here?”
“Do you remember anything?”
“No, not a thing.”
“You were in an accident. A car hit your bike, knocked you unconscious. You had some cuts and bruises but no major injuries. Can you move your right arm for me?”
Dr. Roger did some routine checks on me. I realised something unusual had happened to me. Until I figured out what was really going on, I wouldn’t reveal anything to anyone. So I bit my tongue.
I didn’t want to say anything to the doctor nor the nurse. That would keep me in the hospital longer than I wished.
* * *
The doctors were surprised that I got back on my feet so quickly. They all credited it to my young age and love of sports all my life. Whatever. I kept quiet.
Back home, sleeping in my own bedroom, lying on my own bed, somehow I couldn’t get any rest. My mind was tangled with thoughts. I wanted to find out what had really happened. I was unable to relax.
Thoughts were occupying my mind. Did I travel in Europe or did I dream while lying in the hospital bed that I had been travelling? No. I had not been dreaming, I knew that much.
I had walked on the pavement in Paris, I had touched part of the Berlin wall in Berlin, I had crossed many bridges in Holland.
I could still remember the taste of the French pastries, the best I’d ever had. German bratwurst was too salty for my liking. The black forest cake could not compare to the ones mum used to buy. What I ate in the last few days in Volendam with Peter and Richard may not have been the best meals I had but the taste was still on the tip of my tongue. I couldn’t have dreamt all of that.
I put on my favourite jacket. I wanted to go to the nearby shop to get some of the chips that Richard liked so much.
“Where are you going?” Mum was a bit nervous to see me go out.
“To get some chips.”
“When did you start to eat chips?”
I didn’t reply. Dad offered to drive me to the supermarket.
There was a bit of a chill in the air. I put my hands in my pockets to keep warm while Dad reversed the car out of the garage.
My right hand felt some things in the pocket. I took them out to have a look. They were Richard and Peter’s business cards.
I was glad to see them. Now I definitely had proof that it had not been a dream. Without any hesitation, I told Dad about my trip to Europe and how I had spent the last three days with Richard and Peter.
As I thought, Dad took it in quite well. He asked me to keep it from Mum for a bit longer, to see if we could get hold of Richard who only lived about a 45 minute drive from us. We could go over to see him one day when we were supposed to be playing golf.
“What do you reckon Dad?”
“I guess that you were so looking forward to the trip before the accident that after your body fell into a coma, your mind wouldn’t accept the fact that you couldn’t take the trip so your mind took off as you had planned anyway, without your physical body.”
“Do you believe something like that can happen?”
“I don’t know, Justin, maybe there’s another explanation. Let me think about it for a day or two, see if I can come up with a better explanation.”
After talking to Dad, I felt much better, like a heavy load had been lifted from my shoulders.
* * *
I called Richard’s mobile number but only got a recorded message that the phone was out of reach or switched off.
So I called Richard’s office to arrange a time to visit him.
The receptionist wasn’t very helpful. She told me he was not available then hung up the phone.
I made a second call. The same receptionist answered the call again.
“This is the second time I’ve called. Please don’t hang up on me again.”
“What can I do for you?”
“I would like to speak to Richard. If he is too busy to speak to me, maybe you can arrange an appointment for me. Do you think you could do that?”
“Would you like to see someone else about the matter? Paul may be able to help you.”
“I don’t want to see Paul; I want to see Richard.”
“Please hold. I’ll be back with you shortly.”
The receptionist put me on hold for five minutes, then came back to me.
“Sorry to keep you waiting. Richard left the company four weeks ago.”
“Can you give me his home number? I tried his mobile but it was not working.”
“We’re not allowed to give private numbers away.”
“Look, I met Richard in Holland while we were travelling. He asked me to call when I am in town.”
“I’ll get into trouble if I give you his private number.”
“Alright, I don’t want you to get into trouble. How about I give you my number and you pass my number and message to him. Let him call me. It is very important to me, please help me out here.”
“Please hold again, I’ll be back with you shortly.”
What was so difficult? All I wanted was to get in touch with Richard.
The receptionist came back a few minutes later. She gave me Richard’s home number.
I got myself a can of Coke. After the struggle with the receptionist, I needed something to moisten my throat. Then I called Richard’s home number.
A female’s voice answered on the speaker phone. I asked for Richard.
“May I ask what it’s regarding?”
“I met Richard in Volendam. It would be nice to catch up with him.”
“Where did you say you met Richard?”
“Volendam. It is in Holland.”
“When did you meet him?”
“About two months ago.”
“What do you want?”
What had happened to everybody? Why was everyone so uncooperative?
“We were travelling together in Volendam. Why don’t you ask Richard if he wants to speak to me or not?”
“Go to hell,” she yelled.
“Richard died two months ago,” another voice said.
No, how could it be?
“Please don’t hang up on me. I am not asking for anything. I have a situation which needs to be cleared up. Maybe you can help me. All I ask is that you listen, can you do that?”
There was no answer on the line so I continued.
“Two months ago I woke up in hospital. I was told that I had been in a coma for the past three months. But I knew very well that I had been travelling in Europe for those three months. That’s when I met Richard. My last memory in Europe was of Richard, Peter and I having dinner in a café in Volendam. That’s where and when Richard and Peter gave me their business cards. I couldn’t explain that to my family. I thought I would get some help from Richard before I made this call.”
“That’s enough. Good luck and goodbye.”
They hung up the phone. I was back to square one.
* * *
I had lost any hope of getting help from Richard so I tried Peter. Although Peter was in Germany, he was only as far away as an email.
How are you going?
Just came out of the hospital a couple weeks ago, found that Richard had died two months ago.
Thank you for your companionship while in Volendam.
* * *
Dad took it very well. At least he didn’t show that he thought I was not quite right.
“I know how hard it must be on you. I would like to help you but I don’t have the skills. If you would like to talk to someone, I will pay whatever it costs.”
Mum thought everything was back to normal. She was pleased that I didn’t mention anything about moving out.
My mobile phone rang after my parents went to work the next morning.
“Justin?” A female’s voice. I recognised it as belonging to one of the ladies who had spoken on the phone when I called Richard’s home number.
“This is Ann, Richard’s widow. I found your phone number on a piece of paper in one of Richard’s pockets. He hadn’t worn that jacket for at least a few months before he died. I couldn’t work out what was going on but I thought I owed you an apology.”
“That’s quite alright. I understand how you felt. I couldn’t even tell my own mother about my experience.”
“Maybe you would like to know what happened to Richard…”
“Please, tell me.”
“Richard had skin cancer for a few years. We thought it was all under control. Who knew it would spread to his brain and cause multiple malignant brain tumours.
Towards the end, he was in and out of hospital for two months, then in a coma for a week before he died.”
I was so sad, I didn’t know what to say so I just blurted out, “He liked the blue packet Natural Sea Salt chips!”
“Poor thing, I wouldn’t let him have them after he was hospitalised. I should have let him have whatever he liked.”
“Don’t feel sad. He had them every day in Volendam.”
“Was he happy?”
“We were all happy. We ate, drank, sang, rode and laughed for three days. Then I woke up in a Melbourne hospital.”
“And Richard died with a smile on his face.”
I thought that was a positive phone conversation. Ann felt good finding out that Richard had had a good time before he went, instead of remembering that he suffered in pain. I felt good that Ann found my mobile number in Richard’s pocket, support that I would like to have had.
I checked my emails. Within an hour after I had sent the email to Peter the night before, I had received Peter’s reply:
Really glad that you pulled through. Sorry to hear that Richard didn’t make it.
Thank you for your email, it’s not often I receive an email like yours. It is truly nice to hear from you and know you are well.
Take care and enjoy your life.
I couldn’t wait until Dad was home. I forwarded Peter’s reply to Dad.