Biker Camp

Day 5 – Saturday 29th of June – Budapest (0km)

Biker Camp is, as the name says, a campsite for bikers and cyclists in the center of Budapest.

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It was founded by Zsolt Vertessy, a biker himself, who sadly died in an accident in 2004. The place has been run by his widow ever since, and offers a space to camp, toilets and showers, a washing machine, cooking facilities, wifi, tools, a self-service bar and the chance to meet fellow bikers. It is six underground stops from the city centre and is a great place to spend a few days.

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I got here at about half past six in the evening and was shown into the camping space by the owner. There is room for about ten or twelve tents plus the bikes, but there was only another tent, which belonged to a Norwegian family who are on a cycling holiday.

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I chatted with them over breakfast today and they told me they flew all their gear to Venice and are cycling back home from there, doing from 50 to 60 kilometres a day… with two kids! The youngest is only seven years old. When I think that most people back in Spain say that you can practically do nothing once you have had children…

After breakfast I took the underground, which is a couple of streets from the camp and went to explore Budapest.

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The city is as beautiful as I expected from the tales of all the people I know who have been here before me, and today the weather was wonderful, which meant that I was a bit too hot at times!

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I spent the whole morning walking around the city, exploring the most popular places and taking lots of pictures, and by lunchtime I went a bit off the tourist trail in search of a good place to eat. I found a small pub where I had a full traditional Hungarian meal for only 11€ – A very spicy paprika sauce to spread on bread, goulash soup, paprika chicken with cream, salad, coffee, traditional Hungarian bread, an enormous apple pie, and a pint of local beer. Delicous! The climb to the citadel was quite hard after that…

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I was thinking that there were very few tourists in the city, until I reached the top of the hill and ran into an army of Japanese sun-allergic  tourists hiding under their umbrellas and huddling together near their respective guides, seemingly afraid of getting very lost if they wandered too far on their own.

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After spending some time there and taking some more pictures, I went back down into the centre and decided to explore the non touristy neighbourhoods between the centre and the place where I was staying. Not far from where most tourists were, the streets changed quickly and I was in an area of run down buildings with a very high proportion of drunkards, homeless people and very dodgy looking characters.

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I put the camera back into its bad, as it was the only thing giving me away as a tourist, as my clothes are quite simple (I can’t really carry much) and the cropped hair and growing beard seemed to blend in quite well. I stopped at a small fruit shop to get some oranges and apples and then got the underground for the last three stops, because my feet were killing me. I was glad to have spent the day walking for a change, but I would not know what is more tiring…

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This has been a shorter post than the previous ones, I will let the pictures do the talking here. By the way, since this is a blog, and not a photo album, I will be posting extra pictures on the Facebook page, so if you are interested, you can see them there.

Here’s a selection:

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Three countries in one day

Day 4 – Friday 28th of June – Smrjene to Budapest (532km)

What a day! One of the things you hear about trips like this is that it is when you start having problems that the real adventure begins. Well, it must sound like some kind of twisted logic, but it is true – I had my first fall today, and despite this, it has been another wonderful day.

The fall was not serious, but it was quite embarrassing… I had just left Smrjene and went back into the city to cross it and get on the road to the border following the instructions on the GPS. The traffic was quite heavy again, it was the morning rush hour and I was stopped at a red light behind a panel van that blocked most of my view forward. The light changed and traffic started moving when suddenly the van slammed the brakes and so did I to avoid running into its back. I was just starting to move, so the bike was leaning slightly to one side, not having gained enough speed to stand upright by itself, so when I braked it leaned to far to one side and past that angle, the fall was inevitable. It crashed onto its side in the middle of a fully crowded main street in the city center. I got up, made sure I was OK (I was) and quickly tried to lift the bike to get out of the way, but soon discovered it was too heavy fully loaded to be able to lift it myself.  Fortunately, a young guy ran across the street and through the traffic and helped me pick it up. I started it and moved to a bus stop to check for damage. It had landed on the BarkBusters, which did their job very well and protected the clutch handle and on the left pannier, which had a very small scratch. The outer bottle holder had broken free from its lower bolt, but that seemed to be all the damage. I restarted the bike and went on.

I have been told that on such long trips, you need some time to get into the rhythm of the whole thing, and I started to find that to be true today. I had a long way to go again, but this time I was not worried about wasting time if I stopped to take a picture of something I liked or took a rest more often. I knew I had all day to get there, and I had to enjoy the road.

With this new mindset, I stopped for the first time shortly after leaving the city, and discovered that the left pannier was not closed properly. On closer inspection, I saw that the fall had pushed it into the frame, bending it enough for the shape of the opening to be deformed, so it did not line with the lid any more.

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It was quite cloudy and Franci had checked the weather forecast in the morning and told me there was a possibility of rain in Hungary, so I was worried about water getting into my luggage, especially as that pannier contained my camping and sleeping gear. I decided to try to find a repair shop and see if they could bend it back into shape. I got back on the road keeping an eye open and soon spotted what looked like a garage. I rode up to it and when I got off the bike and into it I saw it was a kind of MoT station. As I was already there, I decided to ask where I could find a place to get it fixed, so I approached a man who has coming out with his car documents on his hands. He listened to me and had a looked at the pannier and immediately took his mobile phone out and called a friend who had a body repair shop. Unfortunately, he was not able to reach him, so he took me next door, where there was a car wash.

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The guy at the car wash called his colleague, who had a small workshop behind the building, and he came and gestured me to remove the pannier from the bike and give it to him. I did, and ten minutes later he came back with it, straight enough for the lid to fit and close properly. I thanked them profusely and went on. A couple of hours later I found an old workshop by the road that had these photogenic relics outside and I stopped to take some pictures.

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The roads were great again, and I was wondering whether petrol would be cheaper in Hungary or in Slovenia when suddenly, coming out of a corner and going up a very steep hill, I came upon a sign that took me by surprise.

You can unexpectedly run into people, into trouble, into a lamppost if you are not paying attention, but this was the first time in my life I had run into a country. I had, apparently, come across Austria.

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When I checked on the map, there seemed to be a fairly straight line from Ljubljana to Budapest, but my GPS had apparently decided that I would like the scenic route better, and I did. It had taken me north, to Graz, and then east over the Orségi Nemzeti natural park and into Hungary. I really enjoyed spending some kilometers in Austria and I took the chance to get yet another sticker and fill the bike up, as petrol was cheaper than even Spain. So much for the biking holiday I someday wanted to take in Italy… at those prices I would much rather tour central Europe! The landscape is better, too. Once I crossed the border everything changed.

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The road was still narrow, but in quite bad condition, and everything had an air less taken care of. I stopped at a petrol station right after the border to change some money for the first time and get yet another sticker.

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It had been slightly overcast all day, perfect conditions for riding, no rain, not too hot… but in the afternoon the weather deteriorated and it seemed as if it was going to rain. I kept thinking I should stop and put the waterproof layers on the jacket, but that meant unstrapping the rack pack and my optimistic me kept seeing that the sky was clearer ahead. I had to change from summer to winter gloves, though, because it was getting colder.

In the end I made it to Budapest dry and found the place I am going to be staying at for the next couple of nights without problems. If you come to Budapest by motorbike or bicycle, this is the place to stay! I set up camp, borrowed a set of three precision tools (also known as hammers) and spent the afternoon banging the pannier back into shape.  But more on that tomorrow, it has been a long ride today, about ten hours, and it is getting very late.

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Ljubljana and Mikkeller

Day 3 – Thursday 27th of June – Brogliano to Smrjene (555km)

Unlike the first two days, in which I spent the morning on great B-roads and then had to take the motorway in the afternoon to make it on time, with all the boredom and fatigue that means, today has been the other way round. I got up after a great night’s sleep and had breakfast with Danilo (Mattia had already left for work), trying to have a meaningful conversation in my very poor Italian. He gave me some directions to get the most scenic route to Slovenia, I loaded the bike and went off.

The first part of the route took me through even more industrial parks and thick, slow moving traffic, but I was able to make good progress thanks to Italian drivers. I must now withdraw my previous comments on Italian drivers, as today they were absolutely wonderful – the moment they saw me coming on their mirrors they moved to the right, making way for me to overtake them without having to move over to the other lane, which meant that I could pass cars anywhere. There’s some road manners Spaniards could learn!

Shortly after the road became one of the most beautiful I have ever ridden. All the way no just to Slovenia, but to the very capital, Ljubljana, it was a narrow, winding road with smooth tarmac and beautiful views. I had set off with three (out of five) bars left on the fuel gauge and after seeing how expensive petrol was in Italy I was hoping I could make it to the border and fill up in Slovenia. If I had to, I was even going to use the fuel in the jerrycan. I got near the border at about lunchtime and stopped at a village called Gradisca D’Isonzo for lunch. I found a nice park with a memorial to those who had died in WWI and WWII and sat down to prepare a sandwich. As I was eating there, with those names carved in stone in front of me, it occurred to me what a simplistic view we often get of such conflicts. We tend to think of the war as something with clearly defined sides, the good and the evil, the ‘you are with us or you are against us’ kind of thing some Americans love so much. However, those names belonged to young people from a small village who probably knew nothing about the people they were sent to fight against or the reasons the whole thing had started, they were just told to go there and die for their country. A country. What is that? Riding from one to another, crossing borders the concept becomes blurred, artificial. It is just a random line on a map and it becomes clear that we are all exactly the same, with the same hopes and fears, pastimes, worries, and all those little things that make up moments of happiness in our lives. I shared the last cherries from the box I had bought in France with a homeless guy at the park and headed for the border, the fuel light flashing.

I stopped at the first petrol station on the other side and was pleased to see that fuel was much cheaper and they had stickers. I filled up and rode into biker’s paradise. Slovenia is a hilly country and it seems that practically all roads are interesting.

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When I was planning the trip I sat down at the computer and tried to plan the most scenic routes possible on the software that came with the GPS, BaseCamp. I quickly remembered why I prefer to use good old paper maps. As is often the case with case when there are computers involved, the bloody thing had no logic at all and even though I marked waypoints along the route I wanted to follow, it went back and forth, doubling back and sending me round and round to places I did not want to go. In the end I decide to just get the coordinates for the places I want to finish the day at, set it to avoid toll roads and let it guide me. And boy it works! Yesterday’s route could not have been better if I had plotted it myself on a map – the roads were amazing all the way to Ljubljana.

I got there a bit later than I expected and ran into the afternoon rush hour traffic. I had to cross the whole city, as my host’s house was on a hill on the outskirts on the other side. I discovered that it is not a good idea to get into heavy traffic in an unknown city tired after a long day’s ride. Fortunately I made it to the other side without problems and were greeted by my hosts, Metka and Franci, fellow bikers  who were delighted to see me and the motorbike.

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We started talking about it right on the front door, and Franci commented that I should use a CrampBuster, a plastic thingy that allows you to hold the throttle open without having to grip the handle all the time, so you can rest on long motorway trips. I tried to find one in Barcelona just before leaving, but nobody sold them and it was too late to get one online. He then made a quick phone call to a friend to see if it was possible to get one in the city that day and then gave me his own as a present!

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They took some pictures and showed me my room, which would make a five-star hotel room pale in comparison. Franci works as a translator, but he studied electrical engineering and he really is into domotics. He and Metka bought their house half finished and then he designed a fully intelligent and environmentally friendly house (and wrote the software that controls it himself). It would take pages to describe what the house can do, suffice to say it is mind-blowing.

I had a shower, got changed and jumped into the car with Metka, who had already called a friend of hers who spoke some Spanish and was glad to have a chance to practice a bit. On the way to the centre we discovered that we are both beer fans and while we were waiting for her friend Maja to come she took me to a small beer shop that had an amazing selection of beers for connoisseurs. We bought a few for dinner (which she refused to let me pay) and then went for a drink with Maja at one of the terraces by the river. Back at the house, Franci, who had finished work, prepared some traditional pasta and then we had some beers with a couple of their friends, also bikers, who dropped by to say hi. It was such an enjoyable evening, telling travel stories and anecdotes that I totally forgot to write.

Oh, and Ljubljana is a beautiful city, by the way.

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My quest for a sticker

Day 2 – Wednesday 26th of June – Vizille to Brogliano (580km)

I want to get a sticker from each country I visit. You know, one of those with the initial of the country and/or the flag, to stick at the back of your car. It seems quite an easy thing to find, when you think of how many cars drive around with one or more stuck on their tailgates. Well, it is not, I even had difficulties trying to get my own country’s! I tried petrol stations, car accessories shops, stationer’s, souvenir’s shops… everybody knew exactly what I was talking about, nobody sold them. In the end I was given one bought at a bookshop. It was the same story in France. All across France. I am now in Italy and have left France without being able to get one. Well, at least I am riding through the country again on my way back, I will try again then.

Stickers or no stickers aside, today has been a great day. I got up at about 7am, packed everything away and went for breakfast at the campsite’s café. I did not prepare my own breakfast (as is the plan when I camp) for two reasons – one, I still had money left from yesterday’s budget, so I thought I would have a complete breakfast; two – I had forgotten to fill the jerrycan at every single petrol station I had stopped, so I had nothing to cook with. Yes, really clever.

With my stomach full and having stopped at a supermarket to get a few things I was missing (mints, bread and extra batteries) and see if I could find a sticker, I started to climb the road that led up to the Col du Lautaret. There was very little traffic aside from some cyclists (quite a lot of them, actually) but they were no problem to pass on the bike. The road wound its way up to the col along deep glacial valleys covered in thick forest and soon I was high enough to start catching some glimpses of snow covered peaks between corners.

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As the road climbed higher, the views became more and more breathtaking, and I was busy trying to take it all in and enjoying the road, which was one of the best I have ever ridden. No wonder there were so many other bikers!

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I stopped at the top of the col to see if they had stickers at the souvenir shops there, but no luck. Going back to the bike I spotted a trio of German bikers on naked Yamahas and went by to have a chat. They were from Frankfurt, and told me they came to the region regularly and had also been to Spain. I asked one of them to take a picture of me and told them about the trip, they were a bit jealous.

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On the way down I stopped to fill up, and this time I remembered to fill the jerrycan even though today I had a sandwich for lunch and I was spending the night at the house of a couple that I had met through couchsurfing. And I asked about the sticker. No luck again.

I rode though Briançon, where they had no stickers either and then into Italy. I had spent all morning in the Alps, a lot longer than I was expecting to, but it was worth every moment; if I wanted to make it to Vicenza at a reasonable time now, I had to take the motorway. And believe me, that is a decision I regret… It was hours of sheer boredom. There was practically no landscape to talk about, only a vast expanse of concrete that took me on a tour of industrial Northern Italy, with hundreds of crazy Italian drivers to keep me entertained, automated toll booths that refused to give you a receipt even if you wanted one and did not display the price and a couple of traffic jams where I had the chance to compare French courtesy to motorbikes – they make room for you to filter through when there is a jam – to the Italian one – basically non-existent, they either can not be bothered to move out of your way or simply swerve onto your path to block you, because if they are not zooming down the motorway, neither should you, damn it. And to cap it all, petrol is a lot more expensive than in France. Well, at least they sold stickers at the first place I asked.

By the time I turned off the motorway I only had 20km to go and had paid way more than I had expected, effectively destroying my budget for the day. I made it to Brogliano, where I was staying, in good time, but at a high price. I will have to stick to B-roads all the way to Ljubljana tomorrow and hope the tank lasts to the border.

On the plus side, the landscape once I left the motorway was amazing, the sun shining low through the trees on the Northern Italian countryside that I had always imagined: undulating fields of green and gold between low hills, quaint villages and winding roads. And some more crazy drivers.

I followed the GPS instructions into the small village of Brogliano, into streets that became narrower and steeper until I came to a point at the end of a steep ramp that looked as if the street split in three driveways and ended there. The GPS, however, insisted that I had to turn left and keep going for about 150m more. Not wanting to ride into anybody’s front garden, I started to maneuver the bike in the narrow space, thinking how ridiculous it would be if my first fall was on a backstreet in rural Italy. When I had managed a quarter of a turn, an old man, who had probably heard the engine revving and was used to finding lost strangers behind his house, waved at me from a window and pointed at the driveway on my left. It turned out it was a street that opened into a bigger one, where I found Mattia, my host, waiting for me.

He helped me put the bike in their garage and then introduced me to his couple, Danilo, who was preparing a mouth-watering risotto for dinner. Taking the chance of having some space to work on, I greased the chain and topped the oil and then had a shower and sat down for dinner with them. They were great hosts, and Danilo is an excellent cook – the antipasti, the risotto and the cheese, as well as the home-made red pepper jam made by Mattia were delicious.  They told me a bit about their trips and themselves and I showed them the route on an atlas.

I borrowed their internet connection to update the blog and get in touch with my next host and went to bed, exhausted but happy. And with a new sticker on my bike.

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The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

Day 1 – Tuesday 25th of June – Tiana to Vizille (718 km)

I do not really know whether the answer is there or not, but I have had plenty of time to listen to it (the wind, not the answer). I have set off at eight o’clock this morning, thinking how a few months back I was afraid of being slowly baked on the motorbike wearing the riding gear and how different it has turned out to be. The sky was overcast and it was even a bit chilly. Not enough to justify putting on the thermal lining on the jacket or even wearing anything else than a T-shirt underneath, but cool enough to require a scarf and having the hands a bit cold (I was wearing summer gloves). I had decided that if I was going to stick to my daily budget, I could not afford to pay tolls all the way to Grenoble, so I had planned to take A-roads and B-roads to Montpellier and then, depending on how much time I had left, get on the motorway for the last 300km to get to the campsite I had found before reception closed at 20:30. The motorway from Barcelona follows the coast, but I have not got near the sea until the border with France, and there is where the wind has started.

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I know the Mediterranean coast along the north of Catalonia and the south of France is usually very windy, so I was expecting this. What I was not expecting was the wind to still be there once I turned inland, and I was definitely not expecting it to be so strong. I have been told that it gets quite bad on the open spaces of Kazakhstan and Mongolia, so I guess that today has been good training. I thought the only problem today was going to be boredom and fatigue, as it is the longest day of all (720km), but the wind has made it so much harder. It blew constantly and from all directions, creating turbulences all over the screen and the helmet that have almost driven me crazy. I am still wondering how I have not ended up with a splitting headache. Not only that, it was strong and unpredictable enough to throw me off course, and more than once today I have been close to flying off the side of the road, being blown into the path of oncoming vehicles or being blown against the cars to my left on the motorway. But the wind, despite having spent the whole day trying to kill me, has not been the worst part.

Pulling out onto the street from the car park and looking back to say goodbye one last time to Nat has been the hardest thing to do. I have taken some long(ish) trips on the bike, some of them for more than a few days, but there was always someone to go back to at the end. At that moment I have finally realized that I’m going to be riding away from home for a long time before turning back.

I teach languages, and that means that I spend most of the day talking and listening to people. Very often, just as someone who spends the whole day in front of a computer at work does not want to check his inbox to see that hilarious video you have sent them, when I get home, the last thing I want to do is talk, so I thought that spending some time on my own would be great. Well, it is, and I like it, when I know that at the end of the day I will have someone to tell how great it has been, so today, by lunchtime, I have found myself looking forward to my first couchsurf tomorrow, much more than I thought!

I do not mean this as a negative comment about travelling on my own, quite the opposite. I am glad to have realized I feel this way, as I am quite a shy person and I was a bit worried about that getting in the way of the experience, but I see now that I am going to be even more open to meeting new people and sharing the experience.

This morning, about an hour after setting off, an elderly man has approached me as I was fuelling the bike in a small town near Olot and made a comment about how much stuff was on the bike. That has quickly turned into an enjoyable conversation about the trip, and the guy working at the petrol station has also joined in. In the afternoon, already well into France, I have stopped to buy some fruit and the same kind of conversation has taken place again with the couple who were selling their stuff by the road.

This is a great way of travelling, so different from jumping on a plain and suddenly being in another place. I knew what the French villages on the Pyrenees look like, I knew how the coast of Brittany looked like, I also knew how Paris looked like, but I had no idea what the country really looked like. I had only seen a few parts of it. There is no way we can say ‘yeah, I know Germany, I’ve been in Berlin a few times’ for example. I had driven all across France six times, but even that was on the motorway, 12 hours, non-stop. Today I have seen a completely different country for the first time, and if a country I thought I knew has been such a nice experience, I wonder how the rest is going to be like.

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I am now typing this on a laptop lying in my tent, in Vizille, near Grenoble. I seem to have found a lovely campsite – in the forest, with great facilities, really cheap, quiet… that is missing the two things I needed the most today: beer and the internet. I have got here relatively early, so I have decided to set up camp, go for a shower, have dinner and then go to the reception bar for a beer and write this post while I drank it seeing the sun set behind the mountains. Wrong timing. This is not a Spanish campsite on the coast. The bar was closed. And a quick expedition into town has been equally fruitless, so I have decided to call it an early night and take the chance to write a good long post about the first day.

Good night.

And now, the time has come…

It’s ten minutes to eleven and I’m sitting in a garden in Tiana, 20 minutes away from my flat, which I have already emptied and left this morning, trying to relax and to get some much needed rest before setting off tomorrow morning at seven.

This is it, I realize. I have spent so much time these last weeks lost away in preparations that I had not realised how nervous I was, and it all has hit me today, as I was saying my goodbyes to my flatmate, my parents, my sister, her boyfriend, my grandmother… I am leaving and not coming back for two months. I’ll spend most of my time on the road. I feel sad leaving so many loved people behind, but at the same time I am really excited, looking forward to all the places I will see, people I will meet, problems I will have, experiences I will live.

Before hitting the road tomorrow morning, I would like to thank all the people that has been near me this last year. Thank you all for your support, advice, interest, inspiration, help, for patiently listening to me rambling on and on about this trip and for following me on this blog.

I will see you on the road.

Last minute man

“Nothing would ever get done if it weren’t for the last minute” read a poster a friend of mine had in his studio. An it could not be more right. I am indeed a last minute man. Less than a week to go and at the beginning of this week I still did not have my international driving permit, the insurance green card nor the motorbike’s registration documents.

Fortunately, I got them all on Tuesday morning, and today I went shopping for the few last things I needed to get, that is some oil, chain lube, bulbs and fuses and a long chain to attach the bike to trees or lamposts when I park it overnight in dodgy places.

This weekend is going to be a bit stressful: I’m trying to arrange for a friend to take care of my car while I’m away, emptying my bedroom because I am trying to rent it out while I am away, spending time with the loved ones, goodbye party, finals week at the school…

It is only now that the fact that I am going away starts to sink in, but I still feel strangely calm.