As the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve, I stood outside in Antwerp’s freezing cold. Clutching an icy beer in my hand, I hugged my two dear friends, Tom and Marij. I couldn’t sense it then, but 2017 would be a year of soaring highs and crushing lows; a year of intense contrasts.
January was a blur, the cold Belgian winter an excuse to sit inside by day and drink all night. I visited Gent, Bruges and Lille, but Antwerp was the first home I’d had since leaving New Zealand. My travel-bug had died months before, perishing as I shuffled along a Macedonian highway at dusk, utterly defeated and hopelessly lost. Unfortunately, my lifestyle of all-night parties, crushing hangovers and random trysts could not last. Europe kicked me out as my Schengen visa expired, forcing me to leave Belgium.
This is why I ended up in London’s Victoria station on Valentine’s Day. My backpack overflowed with the winter clothes I’d collected in Romania and Antwerp, as well as Belgian beer and chocolate. I rode the crammed tube and emerged at Canada Water station into the start of a blissful two months of staying with Byul.
We walked the White Cliffs of Dover, drank regularly at the oldest pub on the Thames, and spent too many nights stumbling around Shoreditch. Meanwhile, I visited almost every museum in London, gorging myself on its art galleries and architecture.
In May I moved to Ian’s flat in Dalston. Ian was busy at work, so I took this chance to see Oxford, Cardiff and Northern Ireland. Smoggy London seemed far away as I stood on Giant’s Causeway, the waves crashing at my feet. However, this didn’t stop me feeling bitterly sad in late May when boarding my plane for Tallinn, Estonia. The Cure’s song “The Last Day of Summer” played in my ears, ironic since summer hadn’t begun. The message was clear though — I felt melancholic about leaving London and unsure about what lay ahead.
This feeling pervaded, which is why I wasn’t enraptured by the Baltic states, despite their obvious charms. I sailed to Helsinki, gazed at Russia from Estonia’s Narva Castle and walked through the opulent Rundāle Palace in Latvia. But a spark was missing.
By the time I arrived in Lithuania, I was completely bored of travelling. I wanted to visit Ukraine, but the visa was too expensive. I desired somewhere completely new, but I also needed to meet Ian and Byul in Greece in early August. What was the best way to do this?
Belarus was not the answer, but it was part of the equation. I never imagined I’d visit what some locals call the “last Soviet state in the world”. Standing outside the KGB headquarters, witnessing the monolithic Brest war memorial and observing life in Europe’s last dictatorship was a bizarre but mesmerising experience.
However, it was merely a stopover on my path to somewhere different from Eastern Europe: Yerevan, the capital of little-known Armenia.