Thursday, June 14, 2012

This is why we go to work every day.

I'm baaaack! Phew! 9 days jam packed with adventures in transportation, language, maps, and eating lots of great food.  While we were eating our first meal abroad, soaking in the sights and sounds over a glass of wine, my friend Katie looked around and said, "so. This is why we go to work every day." I couldn't agree more. Rack up that vacation time, pinch your pennies, and get the heck out of Dodge, friends. Travel is exhilarating. I take a great deal of satisfaction from figuring a city out- learning how to navigate around, finding the best places to eat, shop, do things, and having spontaneous experiences along the way. This trip encompassed all that and more. I was a little tweaky about the entire experience, but only because I was so excited to be out of the country, exploring, on vacation.
I wanted to do it all!!
News flash: not possible. ESPECIALLY in Paris. We spent four days in Paris and I could go back three more times and not have a repeat experience. Not knowing much French was also frustrating - but now I'm pretty good at asking for the check!

For your reading pleasure: a short collections of tips, tricks, experiences and oddities that comprised my trip abroad - if you're wanting to travel to Europe, maybe this will inspire you!


* Pack light. Lay out all the things you'd like to take with you... then remove half of it. I did this and STILL could have left things at home. Streets in Europe are windy and cobblestoned, and if you're staying at a more reasonably priced hostel or hotel, you might have to walk a ways from the train station - which makes lugging a huge suitcase a pain... plus you look lame. I packed all my clothes into a Jansport rolling backpack, and brought a day bag with LOTS of pockets. It sounds lame, but the rolling backpack is great - you can pull it in airports and swing it on your back for the cobblestones. Also, it fits in the carryon section of the plane. Don't be scared - just bring a little container of laundry detergent and you can wash clothes if you need to. 
For 10 days, I took 5 pairs of underwear, 3 bras, 3 short sleeved shirts (rolled up), 2 sundresses (rolled up) 4 pairs of tights/leggins (rolled up), one pair of black ankle pants, 3 tunics, and 2 long sleeved shirts. Throw in a few accessories, 2 pairs of shoes and as long as your colors coordinate, you can mix and match for tons of different outfits. And if you're a dude... well, you're only packing 3 outfits anyway. Easy peasy. 

* Print things out. I had printed Google maps directions from each main train station to each hostel - transit directions with walking. This was super helpful and made transitioning from city to city easier.

* Smart phones are awesome. I used the MyMaps, SpeakEasy French, and Spotted by Locals apps while we were abroad, and Dana used MyTrip. The Maps app was able to pick up our location, which helped when we biked ourselves all the way over to the far eastern suburbs of Amsterdam by accident. And unless you're a really, REALLY big camera buff, leave the DSLR at home. The iPhone 4S camera worked well for my needs. It was much easier to retrieve for a quick picture, and wasn't nearly as heavy.

* Do your research - but be flexible.  I was SO excited about this trip, I did tons of research to prepare. I scoured HostelWorld for the best hotel/apartment deals (and we got to stay at some sweet places, including a boat hotel! Yep, a private boat.) I made a Pinterest board. I downloaded the Spotted by Locals guides for each city. I made lists and read books. Ultimately, though, there was so much to do in each city, it eventually bogged me down. I knew I wouldn't be able to experience everything (even though I tried convincing myself I could), and ended up getting a little pouty when I had to compromise or realized the truth. Once I let go of my expectations and enjoyed the present, I had a lot more fun.

* Take the trains! Using the public transportation in a new city can be intimidating, but it doesn't have to be. It saves a lot of walking in bigger cities and is a fun experience in and of itself. Paris' metro has a 3 day card you can buy with unlimited rides in the city. Paris has a metro (subway) and the RER - commuter rail lines. Also, pull the latch up to open the doors if they don't open automatically.
Brussels has trams and a small Metro line. The trains don't run at night, only the trams do. This means some of the trams (above ground) don't run during the day. We didn't figure this out for a good half an hour and were waiting like dummies for a tram that never came.
Amsterdam has above ground trams. They're very efficient and run every few minutes. At night only the door near the front of the tram opens. Again, we learned this the hard way.

* Brussels is totally underrated. We loved Brussels. It's not a place I would spend an entire week, but it is an extremely manageable city for a few days' visit. It's easy to navigate and fairly small. The locals are nice and will speak whatever language necessary to communicate - I'm pretty sure I haggled with a guy over some trinkets in a mixture of Spanish, French, and English. The architecture is BEAUTIFUL, there is a lot of history, and the food is yummy! Waffles, beer, fries... we even had some really excellent Indian food. I'd recommend Brussels (with a day trip to Brugge) for people who feel super overwhelmed in a huge city or are new to traveling.

* Sketching is fun! The last time I traveled to Europe was for an architecture study abroad program, and we sketched all sorts of landmarks during our travels across Scandinavia. Visually analyzing a space is helpful to understand it more completely... but you don't have to be an architecture student to keep a sketchbook/journal. I did at least one half-hour sketch a day - usually while we were eating or resting in a park or someplace pretty - and recorded our adventures every day. It's a tangible memory that I can look back on later. 

The biggest thing I realized on my journey across the ocean? I am capable. The pancake picture was taken at my "lowest" point on the trip - I had gotten seperated from Isaac in Amsterdam in the pouring rain without an umbrella or a way to directly contact him. It was a potentially scary sort of situation, but then I realized: I knew where I was and where I was going (we were headed back to a deli to buy some Curiousity Cola); I had money and a tram card; I knew how to get back and into the hotel; and I was certain Isaac would wait for me and we'd figure it out. So instead of freaking out, I celebrated - enjoying the quiet of the city in the rain. I bought myself a little pannekoek (like a crepe or blini) and recognized the moment.

If I can figure things out in a foreign city on my own, the challenges waiting for me back in Cincinnati are a piece of cake.

Check out the rest of the trip!

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Leaving and it feels so good.

If you've paid the slightest bit of attention to me this week you already know. I'm getting ready to go on a trip! Isaac and our friends Katie and Dana and myself are all gearing up to spend the next 10 days in Paris, Brussels, and Amsterdam. I've struggled a little bit with not wanting to gush and tell the whole world - that can get annoying. But for me, this isn't just some vacation.

This trip represents so much more. The last time I was out of the country was 2008. The last time I took a trip longer than 4 days was in 2010. This is my first vacation as an Adult with an A. I'm in a secure enough place financially, emotionally, and with my job that I've saved up enough cash and vacation days to go somewhere new with people I love.

I've been packed since Tuesday. I've researched everything from hostels and trains to bike rentals and places to eat cheap, local food. I've been practicing my French (my roomie wrote me out a cheat sheet, and there are some apps that are helpful.) The only thing left to do is leave.

Maybe it's humblebragging. Maybe it's annoying. But honestly? I don't care. I've worked my butt off for the last 2 years to get to this moment. I hope ya'all can celebrate this with me.

Au revoir!