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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?


First day in Iceland

July 3, 2015 • By

How did I get to Iceland?  I flew of course because the Queen Mary didn’t seem like a great option for eight days of travel. My journey took me from Chicago O’Hare to New York LaGuardia and then by bus to JFK where I patiently waited for a delayed Delta flight to whisk me to Reykjavik, Iceland a short five hour flight.

Fantasy Aisle

My incredible spot for 3 nights

A 13,000K taxi later (or $98USD), I arrived at my Airbnb apartment.  My gracious host Daiva greeted me at the door with a warm hug and delivered me to a gorgeous, sparkling clean living quarters equipped with a full kitchen, spacious living room and darling bedroom mere steps from the hustle and bustle of downtown Reykjavik.  As this was my first Airbnb experience, I was very nervous but Daiva spared no detail. She stocked the refrigerator with some goodies and the counter with fruits and chocolates (I of course opted for the sweets) and she even supplied the bathroom with fun toiletries.  We walked through the basics and I was out the door for a half day of sightseeing.

Fantasy Aisle

Solfar Sun Voyager – by Jon Gunnar Arnason which may resemble a Viking ship, but is in fact a dream boat and ode to the sun.

My first stop:  The Atlantic Ocean just a 10 minute walk from my apartment.  The crisp and fresh Icelandic air greeted my skin and awakened my senses.  The sun shined brightly but the clouds loomed over the mountains and ocean.  From my understanding, changing weather patterns rain, sun, wind, and repeat is an everyday occurrence in Iceland.  The country is sandwiched between the North Atlantic Ocean and the Arctic Ocean and has a population of about 330,000 people.  Reykjavik is the capital and also the largest city in Iceland.  I’m basing myself in Reykjavik for a few days before heading to the countryside.

After a brisk walk along the coast, I decided to get a sense of the city by jumping on the hop on hop off bus.  It seemed like a relatively good idea at the time but taking into account I slept for only a few hours here and there the warm seats and sun beaming in through the windows my body said otherwise and I nodded off a portion of the 45 minute loop.  Back on the streets, I wandered the downtown shops and eyed a few purchases for later when I have my whits about me. It’s not surprising but the stores are peddling Nordic sweaters, jewelry and some very interesting designer clothes along with lots of warm weather gear, which I suspect is very necessary here.  I didn’t want to exhaust myself further because I had a big night ahead of me so I retreated to my cozy Airbnb abode and napped.

Beautiful Reykjavik scenery

Beautiful Reykjavik scenery

Tonight, I celebrated the July 4 holiday in Nordic style at a local museum.  As a guest of the American Ambassador to Iceland, Robert Barner, I joined about 1,000 people also celebrating American independence.  I dressed in my American blue dress (a Brooks Brother special accented with black block patterns and a black cashmere sweater) and sparkled in red beads (my friend Megan added my skin is pale enough to constitute white) and technically my hair is red.  It was a beautiful event filled with flags representing each state and fiery chili from Texas, American burgers, chocolate cake and red and white wine with nothing other than Sam Adams beer (the Ambassador is from Boston).

Fantasy Aisle

Feasting on chili and burgers at the American July 4 party in Iceland

I met a few locals and talked about whales and the weather and an Embassy staff person shared with me her job and what it’s like working for the State Department abroad.  She focuses on economic development and I really enjoyed hearing about her work.  It’s very important that we continue to have strong partnerships abroad.

Fantasy Aisle

Cocktail party at the July 4 celebration with Ambassador Barber

Finally, I ended the night with a 3-course surprise food and wine pairing at Fridrik 5.  My New York friends Cary and Charlie recommended as their favorite go to Reykjavik restaurant so I ventured there on my first night.  The flavors in their food dance and sing on a hungry person’s tongue.  The sweet taste of the tomato and applesauce soup, the buttery yogurt for bread, lobster “coffee” shot, cod chips, shepherd’s pie, lanka fish (like cod), rhubarb jam and brown gravy.  The last course included a variety of sweets like chocolate mouse cake, strawberries, and mouthwatering bites of sauces and chocolate squares.  Fedrik 5 is a must eat.  The food is delicious and made even more enjoyable but the kind serving staff.

Fantasy Aisle

Fridrik V – Surprise 3-5 tasting meal. Delicious