About 3 weeks ago I returned from my two-month trip to Spain. My time spent abroad was amazing and looking over pictures now, I still can’t believe I was there. It was a luxury, it was a gift. Arriving back in the states I feel like a different person completely. My thoughts and views are expanded, I feel alive. Something awakened inside of me that I can’t quite articulate yet. As my cousin Robert stated “The first time I came home from an international trip I felt I was looking through someone else’s eyes. I couldn’t find the words to describe what I had experienced to my friends and family. I felt my mind had been expanded and was working like a sponge to pick up every little bit of culture and understanding that it could.” While I do have fond memories, I feel that the experiences that challenged me are the one’s that I remember most or got the biggest take away’s from.
While living in Spain I also was given the opportunity to travel to Switzerland, Italy and Germany. During this time I learned a lot about traveling and what I would and wouldn’t do on my next travel adventure. In interviewing a few people that I know who have traveled abroad extensively, I wanted to know if their experiences were similar. Below is a list of what I learned.
First destination likes/experiences:
My very first trip abroad was to Spain. It was interesting to observe a different way of living. Everyone seemed relaxed and happy, even with very little. The food was good especially the olive oil and green olives! I learned that when you order fish, you get just that, a whole fish, eyes, scales and all. While I tried to get away from America, the American influence was everywhere. MacDonald’s and Burger King were heavily frequented. They were clean inside, and it felt like fine dinning. In Faro Portugal there were hamburger joints with “California Burger” on the menu. Avocado and bacon with cheese. Yet the bacon was not crisp. That was interesting. Food is a commonality a mainstay. It helps us to feel comfortable in unknown places. In Germany, I stepped into a Starbucks to get a cup of tea and wait out a rainstorm. I felt a little thankful in that moment that it was there.
Before arriving to Spain I was under the assumption that only Spanish people spoke their native language in Spain, German in Germany etc. However, there is just as much diversity in the language abroad as in the states. The first time I saw an Asian speaking Spanish and an Indian speaking German I had to take a second look. I never felt so small as when I went to a local beer house in Germany. I couldn’t read the menu, everyone was speaking German and I couldn’t communicate. Or when I went shopping for the first time and I couldn’t figure out how to navigate the grocery store. So instead on that day I stopped and just observed and learned by watching, while my heart was racing. As my friend put it so eloquently; “ One can feel small, so insignificant, so hidden in a country where one can’t communicate. Yet doing the simple things like buying groceries, or tickets can be overwhelming.”
Research your destination BEFORE you leave: I know this may sound like a no-brainer but doing this simple thing could save you a lot of time. When my fiancé and I were planning our trip to Italy, Switzerland and Germany we researched the areas we wanted to go like museums, landmarks, looked at transportation options. If you happen to travel buy train I suggest you purchase a rail pass. We didn’t, and ended up spending more money.
Pack light: I bought a small backpack (see photo below) for my two-week trip. Packing light is your best option. As my cousin Robert says, “you don’t need an outfit for everyday and less is more!” He was right! I packed 4 t-shirts, one pair of pants (that converted into shorts), 5 pairs of underwear, one bra, one sports bra, tennis shoes, sandals (not flip-flops), a light sweatshirt and toiletries. Even this felt like a lot. While traveling we didn’t have access to a washer or dryer so we washed our clothes in the shower. We became very comfortable with being uncomfortable. Leave room in your pack for the clothes you may purchase or any souvenirs. And most important, read up on what the local climate is like. Even though my tennis shoes added a bit more weight, I was thankful to have them when it was raining in Germany.
Stay with locals: I will definitely do this next time. We stayed mostly in hotels and sometimes found ourselves lost or were craving a new place to eat. Staying with locals has much more to offer. They know the great places to eat and drink or undiscovered territory where the tourists don’t frequent. We stopped into a bar for a bite in Zermatt, Switzerland. We became friends with the bartender and asked about her favorite spots to eat. She gave us a few great suggestions.
Always bring Kleenex: You never know when you could sit down to use the facilities and realize there isn’t an ounce of toilet paper left. Enough said.
Observe your surroundings and always have your phone on you: Pay attention to where you are. Look for guideposts like a shop store front, fountain, or the train station. When my fiancé and I were on our way to The Rock of Gibraltar, we stopped into a little rest stop. We could see Africa in the distance. It was very cool to be that close. While he went inside to grab a coffee I went to the restroom. There was no handle on the door just a latch with a button. Pushing the button unlocked the door and illuminated the light inside. Upon getting inside there was no button to unlock the latch on the inside. I didn’t discover this until after the door shut and locked me in. I freaked out! Luckily, I had my cell phone on me. I called my fiancé and I was able to get out.
Selfie Stick is your friend: Now that I have one I realize I could have bought one earlier in my trip. I bought one in a tiny store in Puerto, Spain just before hoping on a train to Seville. Makes taking pictures of you and friends so much easier.
The Missing Hotel: Just because you book a hotel on line doesn’t always mean it still is in business. Before we left for Rome we booked a hotel near the Vatican. We searched, hiked all over and never found it. We found a building that was similar but it was all boarded up.
My biggest take a-ways from traveling and living in Europe:
I have to go back. There was so much that I didn’t see or have yet to experience. I’ve been bitten by the bug.
Having more compassion for others and having patience.
Less is more.
Find the joy in all of it. Even when it’s sweltering hot, your feet hurt from walking and you’re thirsty.
We are all connected despite the barrier of language.
Treasure your adventures and don’t think you can explain the experiences in enough detail and color to those who’ve never traveled abroad.
Lastly, expect to feel the pull coming over you and the culmination of a trip. Luring you back to the person you used to be. Know that a change has occurred in you, a different person has emerged. And that makes all the experiences worth it.