Ever since childhood, I can remember having a strong desire to learn about other countries and cultures. I relished my “It’s a Small World” record and seeing the pictures of different children dressed in their native garb. As an older child, I would spin around my globe, blindly landing my finger at a random place, to see where I would have to travel. I grabbed my parents’ World Almanac off the shelf and would absorb key facts about different countries: their GDP, major economic activities, life span, and so on. I think the desire to travel is innate for many people.
As a child, my father, who “emigrated” from Washington State to Texas (it is indeed “A Whole Other Country”), traveled extensively for his job. He spent multiple years living in different parts of Africa, as well as living in Mexico. When your dad travels a lot for work, it doesn’t seem weird or different; it is just your reality. I think I inherited his love of adventure and travel.
Recently my husband and I have discussed the possibility of moving abroad for a few years as part of a potential opportunity in his career field. As part of the process, we have to put down our preferences in order, with choices spanning from South America to Europe and beyond. My first choice, of course, is Switzerland. Who doesn’t want to live in Switzerland, eat Swiss chocolate and cheese and enjoy après-ski activities at the base of the Swiss Alps?
However, if Switzerland doesn’t come to fruition, how do I possibly narrow down multiple countries to a few? Simplicity of learning the language, schooling options and amenability to two big dogs are some factors we are using to evaluate potential choices. Thailand would be amazing, but can I really talk Thai? French or Spanish seem more our speed.
All of this brainstorming and daydreaming about future years spent in lavender-infused Provence or sangria-drenched Spain have me naturally recalling some of my past travel adventures. I am not the most well-traveled person out there, but I have had my share of experiences, especially when I studied abroad in London and Paris. I feel fortunate that I had these opportunities during my college and younger adult years, because as we all know it gets a heck of a lot harder to skip out on your responsibilities for a few months (let alone a few weeks) to backpack through Europe or the Andes as a thirty something.
My past travel experiences have been filled with highs and lows, feelings of elation and feelings of hesitation. I will never forget my first trip to Europe, as a college student participating in an overseas program focusing on international business and marketing. The small group of us was to spend five weeks studying at a university in Paris. As an added bonus, I had studied French in college, and while I was by no means fluent, I felt I could hold my own in France.
I remember flying into Paris’s Charles Le Gaulle airport, excited and nervous about the prospect of living in a foreign country. After landing and deboarding the large jet, I collected my overstuffed suitcase and realized I had no idea what to do next. Was I supposed to figure out how to take a train or the Metro to the dorm, or would someone be meeting me at the airport? As a slightly irresponsible and head in the clouds 21-year-old, it hit me that I had failed to bring the directions with me for what to do after landing at the huge Paris airport. I then felt a slight shock of panic. After an internal debate, I decided to stay put, and fortunately the program director found me near the baggage claim, along with a few other newly arrived and dazed students.
The feeling of being utterly lost would reemerge a few days later in the City of Lights when I decided it would be a smart idea to take a jog in the morning before taking two separate metro trains to the university. My body didn’t know what time it was, so I easily woke in the pre-dawn hours and ventured out to take in beautiful Paris. I jogged all the way to a nearby park and admired its spontaneous placement, lush foliage and postcard good looks. I then realized I was completely off-course. Nothing strikes fear into one’s heart like realizing they are lost in one of the world’s largest cities in a residential area with nary an English speaker.
I approached a friendly-looking woman and tried in my best French to ask how to get back to my new neighborhood. She could not understand my French, at all, which was pretty disheartening after several years of college level French. I realized that my American accent was completely screwing up my attempts at the local language. I felt totally helpless. I managed to backtrack and by the grace of God found my way back to the dorm. At that moment, my Texas classmates were streaming out of the building to head to the Metro for our first day of class. I ran inside, threw on some different clothes, and took my sweaty and unfed self to the Metro for the hour commute to class. There would be no more morning jogs for me in Paris, at least not until I knew the lay of the (very large) land.
Other things that stand out in my memory about Paris are going to McDonald’s with my best friend Chrissy to get a Royale with Cheese, which we couldn’t help but smirk about as we imagined John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson discussing this particular menu item in Pulp Fiction (a high school movie staple of ours). Paris was so expensive that even their version of a quarter pounder with cheese meal cost nearly ten dollars. We knew we could walk away feeling full from a McDonald’s meal, which wasn’t always the case at other restaurants.
I remember seeing a Smart Car (in 1999) parallel parked snugly on a tree-lined street and taking photos of it, marveling at its small size. I recall how an iceless, small soda cost more than a glass of wine (better order the wine then!). I remember going to the top of the Eiffel Tower and getting pelted with cold rain and wind to snap that iconic shot before descending back to earth again.
And finally, I remember our misguided attempt to visit the Louvre Museum in two hours, a museum that would better be enjoyed over the course of two weeks. (The Mona Lisa? Check. The Venus de Milo? Check.) If and when I return to Paris, I will put the Louvre on my list of must-see attractions.
While in Paris, we took advantage of our proximity to other cities and countries and traveled most weekends and for two weeks straight following the school term. We rode the train to Normandy one weekend day and took in the beaches and the sandy terrain still marked from battle. It was an indescribable feeling to stand in a place where so many brave men had given their lives.
I will never forget Amsterdam, browsing the local “coffee shops” and walking through the Red Light District and seeing the silhouettes of ladies in the windows whose services were for sale. We headed to a restaurant, and shortly into our meal, an altercation broke out in the front of the restaurant with several people arguing. Little did I know that while we were all focused on the apparent argument, two other people were walking around the restaurant, snatching purses. Yes, my purse was stolen, and I had to go to an old-fashioned phone booth outside after dinner to call back home to get assistance with canceling all of my credit cards.
At that point I vowed never to step foot in The Netherlands again, but I have since forgiven Amsterdam for its petty crime. During future travels I wore a travel wallet suspended from my neck tucked into the waistband of my pants. If someone tried to steal my money, I would know! The restaurant heist was a valuable lesson, as pickpockets tend to frequent the areas that tourists like.
Dining al fresco on a beautiful afternoon at the Hard Rock Café was a high point of Amsterdam. These days I would dismiss a Hard Rock as an overpriced tourist trap, but I cannot tell you how heavenly the ice-filled large Diet Coke (with free refills!) tasted. Just when you are used to tepid sodas devoid of ice in the smallest possible glass, the Hard Rock was like an oasis in a caffeine desert. Thank you for catering to my unhealthy American taste for 32-ounce diet soda.
Other memories of my two trips to Europe include:
- Getting into an argument with a German subway conductor when I was traveling with the wrong ticket. All of the subway kiosks were in German, so I couldn’t read them. We argued in French. I thought I would end up in a German jail. The Germans follow rules. I think he finally decided I was crazy and gave up.
- Drinking an ice cold Guinness beer at the top of the Guinness Brewery with panoramic views of Dublin. After this and a Delirium Tremens consumed in Belgium, I could no longer drink light domestic beer upon returning home.
- Arriving in Italy after spending five weeks in Paris and finally feeling full after eating a hearty Italian dinner. I never felt completely satiated in Paris, even though they are known for their world-class cuisine. I was a poor college student and could not afford the Michelin-starred restaurants, and French portions are smaller than our idea of a normal portion size.
- Driving around Rome in a non-air conditioned taxi in the dead heat of the summer, glimpsing historic sites from the Roman Empire while Lenny Kravitz’s “American Woman” blasted on the radio. I always think of Rome when I hear this song. Incidentally, I much preferred Florence to Rome.
- I remember our somber visit to Dachau in Germany, the site of a well-known concentration camp and museum about the Holocaust. In a surreal encounter I ran into a sorority sister on these grounds. We fought to hold back tears (or not) as we toured the area and museum. It’s one thing to read about mass genocide in a history book; it’s quite another to walk on the soil where these atrocities took place.
- In contrast to our somber visit, the Hofbrauhaus in Munich, which dates back to the 16th century, was the liveliest beer hall I have ever frequented, a place that once you enter you never want to leave. We even saw some Aggies there.
- We took the train out to the Champagne region of France and toured two champagne producers, including Moet & Chandon. As a recent 21-year-old, I felt so grown up buying a bottle of champagne.
- Wrongly approaching a T-bar ski lift in Kaprun, Austria and getting dragged by the leg for about 15 to 20 feet before the ski employees shut it down. I’m pretty sure they were making fun of me in German as I dragged along. My leg was covered in bruises for days, I could hardly walk, and skiing was out of the question. I’m just thankful it did not pull my leg off.
- Sitting in an Austrian restaurant in December when a group of men dressed up as scary devil-like creatures entered the restaurant to look for misbehaving patrons and children to pretend spank with brooms and sticks. Apparently this is an annual tradition called Krampusnacht (“Krampus Night”) where Krampus is basically the opposite of St. Nicholas. Instead of giving gifts to good children, Krampus punishes the bad ones. (Luckily I was spared.)
- Getting kicked out of a restaurant in Bruges, Belgium because my friend wanted to order only soup instead of an entire entrée. Actually the irate waiter used the soup as a pretext to give us the boot, but the real reason was because we were Americans, and much of Europe was opposed to us declaring war on Iraq, marked by many protests during my time in London. The U.S. declared war the spring after I left London. I was offended at the time that someone would assume everyone in the U.S. shared the same political ideology.
- Getting short-changed in change while buying a drink at a bar in Scotland. The bar owner insisted on counting the “till” at the end of the evening (i.e., likely 2:00 a.m.) to see if there was a discrepancy in the amount of money in the register and the amount of alcohol sold. I lectured him on customer service for an hour. I’m sure he found me quite obnoxious. At the end of the night he had to concede I was right and gave me my fifteen dollars in change.
- Visiting Interlaken, Switzerland, a beautiful town descended into an eerie quiet after a group of young adult tourists had died the previous week engaged in a popular outdoor activity called canyoneering. We hiked and took in the beautiful scenery. The mood was subdued and respectful.
- Having to borrow money to feed the shower at the youth hostel in Interlaken; when the money was used up, the water turned as cold as the Swiss Alps!
It’s always a little scary to travel to a foreign country, especially to live there for an extended period of time. I’ve never heard of anyone having regrets about getting out of their comfort zone and taking that leap of faith. If the opportunity presents itself to live abroad again, I’m ready for the challenges, new experiences and memories to come. And a tasty croque-monsieur with a glass of Cotes du Rhone wine would be nice too.
Do you have any memorable travel stories? Did you study or live abroad? Which country would you choose to live in and learn its language if you had the opportunity?