The First Lesson: Just Go

My first trip abroad was backpacking through Western Europe with my best friend, Nina, at the age of 26. We visited eight cities in six countries (technically, one was a city-state) in two and a half weeks.  It was madness. It was fun. It was life changing. It was the trip that started it all.

I’ve had a hard time sitting still ever since.

Nina and me, in front of the Arc de Triomphe in Paris.

We started in Dublin, flew to London, took the Chunnel train to Paris, an overnight train to Madrid, from there to Barcelona, two more trains to Venice, then on to Florence and Rome (+ Vatican City), before flying home.

I learned some important lessons from this trip:
1. Just Go
2. Slow Down
3. Roll with It

Just Go
It took me a long time to work up the nerve to travel abroad. I didn’t grow up in a family that traveled much. I’d thought about applying to study abroad several times as an undergraduate, but I always talked myself out of it. I knew I wanted to see the world, but I was scared of the unknown, like so many of us are.

I don’t remember when or why we started talking about traveling to Europe together, but once we got started talking about it, the plans seemed to take on a life of their own. It became something we had to do. And now, I am a passionate proponent of seeing the world, of getting out of your comfort zone.

Through traveling, I feel that I have both developed a deeper appreciation for home as well as the ability to critically reflect on my home culture. I have been fascinated both by the differences in culture I have experienced, as well as the striking similarities of the human experience in seemingly disparate parts of the world.

Slow Down
Our itinerary was, admittedly, ambitious. When you’re taking your first trip abroad, you may think it’s your only chance. I sure felt that way, and that made me want to see everything. So, we crammed in as much as we could. Now, when I look back at my travel diary from that summer, nearly every entry ends with something along the lines of, “I wish we didn’t have to leave so soon…” Simply put, we were moving too fast. I’ve never travelled so quickly since.

It’s important to take the time to really experience the places you’re visiting. And, if you don’t have a lot of time, just limit your number of locations. There will be other trips.

A few times I’ve taken the slow down lesson to the extreme and lived abroad. Living in another country really makes it possible to see and experience things on an entirely different level than just being a tourist. I realize not everyone has the luxury of being an expat, but if you can figure out a way to do it, it can be a great experience.

Roll with It
I love planning. I planned our Europe trip, from start to finish (with input from Nina, of course). I booked flights and hotel rooms, pored over train schedules, looked up must-see tourist attractions in each location. We had a plan. And then we got to Barcelona.

After arriving from Madrid, we waited in line at the train station to ask about tickets to Venice two days later. We were presented with two options. We could either leave Barcelona on the day we initially intended and spend 22 hours on trains to Venice, thereby cutting our time in Venice short by a day, or we could leave Barcelona the same day we arrived. The second option would leave us with six hours to explore Barcelona.

We went with option number two, stashed our bags in lockers at the train station, and rushed to La Sagrada Familia, the massive church designed by architect Antoni Gaudi. Construction began in 1882, and it is still incomplete. From the towers of the church we were able to see much of the city of Barcelona, as well as the sea and mountains beyond. We followed this with a stop at the Museu de la Xocolata (Chocolate Museum) and a stroll up and down Las Ramblas, a pedestrian street lined with shops and restaurants, before heading back to the train station.

When we arrived in Venice, we went to our hotel and found that it was completely booked up (we were, after all, there a day early). The hotel owner helped us find another hotel for that first night. We fell in love with Venice and appreciated the extra day we were able to spend wandering along the canals. And, in a nod to the lesson to slow down, we appreciated being able to relax a bit.

All this to say even the best laid plans will go flying out the window on occasion, and that’s okay. By all means, you should do some planning before you take off on your adventure. Know, roughly at least, where you want to go and the sights you don’t want to miss. But, you need to be okay with the fact that you may not have read the train schedule correctly. Take advantage of alternative opportunities that may come your way. You just might find yourself with an extra day in one of your favorite locations on your trip, or meeting a couple of awesome fellow travelers on the train you weren’t originally planning to take.

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