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Do's and Don'ts, Europe, General travel

My First Trip to Europe

September 1, 2017 • By

Right now, I am in Spain.

The last time I visited Spain it was 1996.  I was 22-years-old and a recent college graduate.  I didn’t have a job lined up and I informed my parents that a job could wait but my trip to Europe could not. College proved a rough four years and study abroad was not the norm during the dark days of the 90s.  I wanted to seize the day.

Fantasy Aisle, before my first trip to Europe, Graduation Day at Michigan State University with my parents

Graduation Day at Michigan State University with my parents

After a drunken debacle at Rick’s (or maybe Crunchy’s) on Michigan State University campus weeks before graduation, a friend hatched an idea to backpack through Europe.  I thought it sounded fun and agreed to join the adventurers.

We decided our first stop would be Paris and armed ourselves with a two-week Eurorail pass and an international student discount card.  We would depart in July with no itinerary.  Dr. Seuss’ book, The Places You Will Go echoed in my head.  Happy graduation to me!

Our group of bold travelers consisted of a few Spartan alums, all connected through one particular woman and her friends.  I flew to Paris with Amy, a fellow MSU graduate who I did not know.  After an eight-hour plane ride, we were fast friends.  We landed in Paris, groggy and disoriented, but somehow found our way to the hostel.  I had already determined the backpacking thing was going to cause problems, and I made a mental note of what to send home.

Once we unloaded our belongings, my new friend Amy and I headed out for lunch.  We picked a pizza place near our hostel.  It’s an American first-time traveler thing:  Go to the familiar, the safe.  New to the international scene, I did not know Parisians considered meals a leisurely experience.  We were starving, wondering when and if our food might arrive.  It eventually materialized, and the waiter placed a heart shaped pizza on the table.  My eyes rolled.  We ate it.  I assumed the pizza contributed to my overnight diarrhea–or maybe it stemmed from the highly aromatic smell of urine on the streets–but either way Paris did not leave me with the best first impression. (And that would not change until 2006.)

If you guessed I over-packed for my inaugural backpacking trip, you would be correct.  It’s a common mistake and one I regretted.  I shipped home $100 worth of clothing and hours later wished I had shipped the entire bag.

I did not take to backpacking. It was 1996 and designers had yet to style affordable wheelies and light weight ergonomic bags. (I am old but did not walk through the snow like my parents).

Fantasy Aisle, my first trip to Europe, Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

Eiffel Tower in Paris, France

After the obligatory visit to the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and Musée d’Orsay and several tastings of street vendor baguettes, Amy and I rendezvoused with the rest of the group for a wild night on the town.  Traveling with a large mix of people can be challenging, and I learned quickly that I’m a person who does not adapt well to others.  I want to do what I want when I want to do it.

That has not changed.

Amy and I were not pleased with the perceived rudeness and inconsideration of the French people, and when our travel companions opted for partying rather than sightseeing, we planned to take our American snootiness and dollars elsewhere.

I realized it was time to go when Amy shouted to a Parisian, “Do you speak the International language?” Hint: it involves a finger.

Consulting our Let’s Go Europe guide book, we decided to head to Spain.  We boarded a train from Paris to Madrid with a change in Bordeaux.  It was an overnight train.  Back then, people smoked openly on trains and we didn’t have the luxury of a private sleeper car.  I remember standing on the platform in Bordeaux around midnight, exhausted, trying to stay awake ,thinking we’d acted a bit irrationally.

If my memory serves me, the trip–with smoke-filled cabins and upright seats–to Madrid took about 12 or 13 hours.  The journey left us battered but excited for our adventure and with a new stamp in our passport.  We exchanged our money (this was when each country in Europe had its own currency and also prior to the universal ATM) and found our hostel.  Amy and I both spoke high school Spanish and we delighted in trying to communicate with the locals.  The Spanish people smiled and packed entire plazas, eating and drinking.  I loved it.  It would be an entire day, two meals, and an onion-filled Spanish omelet before we resorted to a meal at McDonald’s.  We told ourselves we could eat at McDonald’s because the facilities provided free bathrooms.

I can still remember savoring that bite of my cheeseburger.  We failed the European immersion course.

Amy and I tackled Madrid and Barcelona together before heading to southern France. I lost track of her in Germany when I met another friend and she moved on to Prague, where I heard a man robbed her.

I often think of our first European experience and laugh at our innocence.  We got lost, overpaid for everything, misunderstood the language and learned a little about life in a foreign land.  I have no idea where Amy is now and, while I possess a few Kodak moments to preserve the memories of the trip, it’s the pictures ingrained in my mind that I treasure.

What I remember from Spain 21 years ago holds true today:

  • Catholic Churches – there are lots of them
  • Picasso is a big deal
  • Women sunbathe topless
  • Spaniards eat lunch at 2:00PM and dinner late like really late.  Think 10:00PM
  • There is a real thing called siesta
  • Stores shut down from 2:00PM – 7:00PM, with most businesses like banks and government offices only open from 9:00AM – 2:00PM
  • McDonald’s is still prevalent although Burger King and Starbucks have joined the fray

 

Where did you go on your first trip to Europe? Was your adventure like mine? Or if you haven’t gone yet, where do you think you will go?


General travel, North America, Travel Tips

A Sample Alaskan Itinerary

August 28, 2017 • By

Alaska Travel Recommendations

These are my Alaska travel recommendations if you plan on visiting the state. This sample itinerary will give you an idea of where to stay, where to eat, who to consult for tour info, what to see, and where to go in this rugged paradise.

Alaskan Guide Extraordinaire:  Brooke Edwards, Wild World Wanderings

Girwood/Mt.Alyeska

Distance from Anchorage: 45 minutes by car

StayMt. Alyeska Resort

Eat: Seven Glaciers Restaurant, Jack Sprat

Do: Summer – Hike Mt. Alyeska (In Winter – Downhill ski, cross country, snowmobile), Kayak or Surf Turnagain Arm

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Sea Lion Sightseeing with Kenai Fjord Tours

Sea Lion Sightseeing with Kenai Fjord Tours

Seward

Distance from Anchorage: 2 hours 40 minutes by car

Stay: Airbnb

Eat: Cookery, Chinooks, Safeway (yes, the grocery store)

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, The Halibut did not disappoint the Cookery in Seward

The Halibut did not disappoint the Cookery in Seward

Do: Kenai Fjord Tour, Hike nearby Exit Glacier/(Harding Icefield), Fish, Kayak, Sealife CenterAlaska Railroad

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Rafting on the Kenai River at Cooper Landing

Rafting on the Kenai River at Cooper Landing

Cooper Landing

Distance from Anchorage: 2 hours

Eat & Stay: Kingfisher Roadhouse

Do: Hike Russian River Falls, Rafting & Fishing

Soldotna

Distance from Anchorage: 3 hours by car – Good half way between Anchorage and Seward. A good spot to buy groceries and supplies.

Stay: Sterling Needle Bed & Breakfast

Eat: Mykels,  Buckets Sports Grill

Do: Kenai River Salmon Fishing

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Sockeye Salmon, a specialty at Little Mermaid in Homer

Sockeye Salmon, a specialty at Little Mermaid in Homer

Homer

Distance from Anchorage: 4 hour 30 minutes by car

Stay: Airbnb

Eat (give up the diet): Fat Olives, Little MermaidTwo Sisters Bakery, La Baleine Café, Wasabi’s Restaurant, Captain Pattie’s,  Saltry at Halibut Cove

Bar: Salty Dawg Saloon – Buy a beer and T-shirt to prove you were there

Do: Hike surrounding trails – Grewingk GlacierSaldovia, Halibut Cove, Kayak, Fish – Book a year in advance

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, My favorite restaurant in Alaska, The Wildflower Cafe

My favorite restaurant in Alaska, The Wildflower Cafe

Talkeetna

Distance from Anchorage: 2 hours 15 minutes by car

Stay: Airbnb, Roadhouse

EatWildflower Cafe – my favorite spot in Alaska, Roadhouse – breakfast & cinnamon buns

Do: Flightsee/Fly over Mt. Denali/Glacier Hike, River rafting

Fantasy Aisle, Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Denali Visitor's Bus only way to see Denali National Park

Denali Visitor’s Bus only way to see Denali National Park

Denali

Distance from Anchorage: 4 hours by car

Stay:  RV, Camping, Tonglen Lake Lodge – Luxury spot, Grand Denali Lodge – great location, shuttle bus, rooms need renovations but are clean

Eat: 229 Parks, Prospectors Pizza

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Prospector's Pizza at Denali National Park

Prospector’s Pizza at Denali National Park

Do: Hike park trails, take tourist bus to view wildlife and glimpse park offerings, Dog Kennels, Eilson Visitor Center, Rafting Nenana

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Wild Scoops in Anchorage, Alaska fun flavors like cardamon

Wild Scoops in Anchorage, Alaska fun flavors like cardamon

Anchorage

(Kelly’s note: Please do not waste any of your valuable time in Alaska in Anchorage)

Stay: Clarion Suites, Sheraton, Hilton, Captain Cook

Eat: Simon & Seaforts, Bridge Seafood – only open for dinner, Wild Scoops Ice Cream

Do:  Walk or bike Tony Knowles Coastal Trail, Anchorage Museum, Alaska Native Heritage Center

Fantasy Aisle, alaska travel recommendations, Anchorage, Cook Inlet from the Coastal Walk

Anchorage, Cook Inlet from the Coastal Walk

Did you enjoy my Alaska travel recommendations? Would you consider visiting the state? Or, if you have, do you have any recommendations of your own? I would love to know. Comment and leave some of your favorite places to visit or things to do in the 49th State.