Whether it’s the two weeks each summer my parents spent dragging my sister and me around the country on quintessentially American road trips or a need to correct my very Midwestern mostly monolingual sense of smallness and provincialism and general inadequacy among the wider world or just that I read too many books—whatever the reason, I have a serious thing for travel. Now, as a salaried, property-owning, tax-paying adult, I still try to leave the country twice a year. And it all started when I was finishing up college with only a studio apartment and a non-benefit-providing barista job to my name and I decided to ignore the indignity of becoming a cliché and backpack through Europe for as long as my savings would last.
That wound up being six weeks. To tell the whole story would be dull to you, and maybe to me, too, but a good portion of it can be explained like this.
Claire wakes up in a terrible hostel in an incredibly beautiful ancient city. Claire orders coffee and says thank you in the native language, but if asked any questions or made any conversation with must say: “I don’t speak _____. Do you speak English?” also in the native language but with less confidence and worse pronunciation. Claire wanders around the city with her head craned looking at things that are so staggeringly old and famous that she literally cannot believe, at certain moments, that what she is seeing is real and not a movie set. Claire buys apples and cheese and bread and chocolate and eats lunch in a park and/or overlooking a river and thinks how amazingly lucky she is and also how strange this all is, that almost no one in the world even knows where she is and no one here knows who she is and the possibilities for life are just endless. Claire wanders more, visits a church or a museum, and as the trip wears on they all start to look awfully similar, but she continues to go because she may never get this opportunity again. Claire sits in a café and reads a book and people-watches until her feet throb a little less. Claire pays too much for dinner at a tourist restaurant with outdoor tables on a plaza because it feels less weird to eat alone there. Claire gets back to the hostel about the time everyone else is leaving because she would rather stab herself in the eye than go drinking with the girls she’s bunking with. Claire lies in bed, knowing she’s wasting an opportunity for something here but feeling too lonely and anxious, not just for this night but about life in general, real life, the bit that’s waiting back at home, to do anything but cry for a minute and then fall asleep.
That’s the bulk of the trip in a nutshell. I did learn some other individual lessons along the way that have served me well.
Paris, August: Real gypsies look more like TV gypsies than you’d imagine. You will still feel bad yelling at their children.
Berlin: Staying with locals means you see 50 percent fewer monuments and have 100 percent more fun.
Vienna: If you are a Euro-looking person sitting quietly by yourself in a Euro-looking country, a group of Japanese tourists might descend suddenly and begin posing with you for pictures.
Prague: Beer is good.
Budapest: When you get the flu and you’re all alone in a strange country where you don’t speak the language and you’re dehydrated and disoriented and you think you’re going to die—you probably aren’t.
Florence: Do not agree to tour museums with an Australian girl who would rather be getting picked up by greasy fellow expats at an ersatz Irish pub.
Rome: Do not agree to room with the world’s peskiest and dumbest Australian girl when she tags along to the next city on your itinerary.
Riomaggiore: When you’re at a seaside resort where they don’t allow cars, and a heavy storm rolls in, and then there’s a train strike so no one can go in or out, it feels more like an Agatha Christie story than is comfortable.
Paris again, October: Off-season travel is the way to go.
Plane to Chicago: This internal dialogue will never end: I can’t wait to get home. I can’t wait to go back. What am I going to do now? Where am I going to go next?