Most of the best adventures are spontaneous; ideas that catch up to you in the middle of the night, hold on tight and refuse to let you go. From these seeds of ideas, if you dare follow them, the best and most daring adventures grow.
Such was the root of my latest adventure – an offhand comment made by an old friend, suggesting a road trip to anywhere or even nowhere, just so long as we took off together. Though such ideas are often smiled over amicably and promised to take place, more often than not, they do tend to be swept away by more pressing matters in life. But somehow, the idea stuck, and that was how, not even a month after the tantalizing words "road trip" had first been mentioned, I found myself on the passenger seat of my friend's bright red car, heading west.
Anyone who has spent a longer period of time in a car knows that there are a few things that can change an exhausting, long stretch of unchanging asphalt into a real, toe-tingling adventure. By a stroke of luck, combined with thoughtful planning, we had it all: snacks (salty, sweet and fresh), drinks (though what I had thought to be lemonade turned out to be ginger iced tea, it still was good enough), good music (with alternating playlists and fortunate similarities in taste), good conversation (provided by both sides) and a dash of childish curiosity (to make even the most bland landscape seem new and exciting). Something about this combination put us both at ease enough to jump from topic to topic lightly, joking and sharing memories. We passed cities and towns that merged seamlessly with wide fields and wooded lands, every detail blurring together into a happily jumbled splash of color.
And then, after three and a half hours on the road, we arrived in Groningen, the Netherlands.
There's no knowing where you might be swept off to
The looming presence of a white windmill. The sweet fragrance of purple buddleia. The soft evening glow settling across the garden. And there, nestled into the back, a perfect caravan, plucked straight out of a fairy tale. Our eyes widened with wonder; we grinned at each other with uncontainable excitement. It is seldom that a place seems so absolutely idyllic, but as soon as we set foot on the premises, we felt inexplicably at home. True, a caravan is not a very large accommodation, and might not be what comes to mind when most people imagine the height of luxury. But I guess that, in a way — and despite the somewhat frightening fact that we are no longer considered children by most — both of us still are enamored by possibilities of magical lights and secret hideouts. And somehow, led by fate or luck or whatever god one might believe in, we had wound up in exactly the kind of rare place where such miracles seem just about possible.
So we let the wonders encompass us. We built a bonfire in the bronze fire bowl, and wove teasing stories of dragons and true loves. We roasted marshmallows provided by our welcoming hosts, turning them on long sticks until they reached a point of perfect, caramelized gooeyness. We allowed ourselves play pretend in a world that seems so set on being defined by perfection, and in that backyard, in the shadow of a windmill, it seemed as though anything might be possible.
Setting your foot out your front door
As we entered downtown on our borrowed bikes, I found myself continually comparing Groningen to other European cities. A marketplace reminded me of Copenhagen, the canal that winds its leisure way around the town transported me right back to Amsterdam. Still, the deeper we delved into the streets, the more I realized: Groningen is a small city that has no illusions of being more grand than it is. Groningen is narrow streets and crowded shops, it is students hard at work and the smell of coffee on every corner. And this modesty is precisely what makes it so appealing.
Having made no plans, being so absolutely and blissfully free of obligations, we began to wander the streets as we wished. We circled and explored, ended up in side-streets and alleyways more than once, laughing whenever we took a wrong turn and managed to end up in the right place anyway. We quickly browsed through overcrowded shops, only to end up staying in different bookstores for hours.
At lunchtime, we collapsed thankfully onto a bench by the canal, ready to enjoy a picnic by the waterside. The sky hung grey and low over us, threatening to drench us in a shower, but this couldn’t stop us from settling outside any more than it could stop the majority of the town from venturing out on their bikes, or, alternatively, in canoes and kayaks on the canal’s murky waters. Everyone who passed us seemed somehow pleased, but that was probably just a projection of my own quiet happiness. It was the kind of happiness that radiates from the inside out, the kind that is unfazed by everyday maladies, the kind that only appears when you feel at peace with the world around you.
I think that this happiness, more than anything, is what I’ll remember when I think back to Groningen.
It’s a dangerous thing?
Our trip to Groningen started as a spontaneous idea, so it was only fitting that it should end on a lucky mistake. Searching for a grocery store, we headed into a building that was tall by city standards. Signs pointed upwards, but as we took escalator after escalator, all we found were yet-to-be-renovated floors. Still, the signs had promised food, so we continued to the top.
Once we arrived, it was immediately obvious that we wouldn't find a grocery store. The promised food was just a food court, and we were no better off than we had been before. Still, we were determined not to let a mistake dampen our moods, so we did the next best thing to do when you're on top of a building: we pushed open the doors leading to outdoor seating, hoping to catch a glimpse of the city from above.
It had begun to rain by then, and little glistening droplets clung to our hair in seconds, but we wandered to edge anyway. The city spread out below us, rooftops and church spires peaking out through the grey. It wasn't spectacular, it wasn't perfect – but it was as though the city were presenting itself to us one last time, and that was enough. We said goodbye to Groningen from our vantage point, drizzling rain and all, but the feeling of content followed us all the way home.
Maybe you’ll never know where you’ll end up, but it’s definitely worthwhile to let yourself be swept up every once in a while. After all, the unknown is not always a fearful thing — you might end up through the looking glass, or in a fantastical land unbeknownst to humans. Or you might end up in Groningen. And that’s pretty darn good as well.
The quotes used throughout the text are, in fact, the work of the master of adventure himself, JRR Tolkien. I hold no claim over his work, only great admiration for his works of fiction, and gratitude for the inspiration they provide to this day.