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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?

Do's and Don'ts, South America

Travel fail day in Bogotá

December 12, 2015 • By

Arriving in Bogotá, Colombia after a mere six hour flight from New York City, I should have felt refreshed and ready to hit the streets but what ensued after Colombianos partied all night celebrating the feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe shows what happens when travelers visit a place unprepared.

In reality, I broke every rule in my self-proclaimed Travel 101 Guide.

1.) Blend in with the locals. It is obvious I have blonde hair and already stick out in most countries but I normally pack demure outfits as to not draw attention.  With colors blazing on my first day in Bogotá, I donned my purple vest and pink fleece to attract even more gawkers.  If that wasn’t enough, I let the sun scorch my face and now I am certainly not blending.

Fantasy Aisle

Soaring over Bogotá, Cerro de Montserrate

2.) Check for environmental limitations: When I was huffing and puffing up Cerro de Montserrate, I blamed lack of exercise the last few weeks but then my mouth begged for water and it dawned on me I was suffering from altitude. Ding ding..that would be the right answer as Bogota sits at 8,660 feet (2,640 meters). Oh and I am susceptible to altitude sickness.  No bueño!


Fantasy Aisle

Pint size Taxis in Bogotá

3.) Ask a local: When in doubt, ask a local they are typically keen to assist. What I did was plain wrong. I asked every local I passed by if it was safe to walk down this block. Even though many locals commented on my poor Spanish or prompted that I take the bus, I convinced myself the exercise seemed more important than my safety, which brings me to my next point.

4.) Safety: Former Colombianos living in the United States told me safety concerns were definitely exaggerated. Articles online referenced petty theft so I mentally prepared myself to be mugged (It’s a common thing for me). After spending a few hours walking around and dodging many of the roughly 8 million people who live here, I am now bracing to be killed at the hands of a daredevil motorcyclists or an everyday bicycler rather than a mugger but I am open to that as well.

5.) Vulgar language: A tourist should never raise her voice when talking to locals. It’s a sign of respect and privilege to be visiting another country. That lasted for all of 45 minutes once I missed two buses, toured four different blocks looking for another bus and returned to the hotel exasperated. I highly recommend having a breakdown in English when the hotel staff only speak Spanish.  They are convinced I am deranged.  I am confident my performance was effective.

6.) Hire a local guide: When my first attempt at public transportation and touring failed, I hired Gustavo, an English speaking driver who lived in NYC for 20 years. He promised me a three-hour scenic tour, which turned into five hours because we sat in traffic much of the loop.  If learning is a priority, book tours in advance or figure out an agency to visit right when you arrive.  I paid by the hour.


Fantasy Aisle

Juan Valdez does Coffee in Colombia

7.) Eat local: It’s early. I am in a new country and I see a Starbucks like a mirage in a desert. I pause and even go inside but I depart wiftly and walk to MY girl’s favorite neighbor Juan Valdez because 1.) Juan has a bathroom I desperately crave and 2.) this Starbucks is not selling my prized collector mugs.   I only ended up at Juan Valdez because my patience got the best of me and I abandoned dunkin donuts after a 10 minute wait (in fairness my seatmate told me their dulce de leche donuts called Arequipe.

8.) Shop ’til you drop: Markets and I are like salt and pepper or Baileys and coffee or maybe eggs and bacon. When the driver pointed out the gold and emerald jewelry shops, the skin on my arms stood alert and my heart started to beat a little faster but then he described how the area area used to be controlled by the cartel and the thought of being ripped off and finding myself followed by thieves curved my appetite.

9.) Don’t ask Stupid questions: I maintain I am very respectful of my host country but in this instance I claim utter stupidity. Bogotá is divided by a social class system, 1 being the very poor and 6 being rich, after about 2 hours with my driver I thought it would be a smart idea to ask him which class he considered himself.  He answered 4.  I thought that sounded pretty good until he pointed out typical 4 housing and I realized the middle class in Bogotá get by but nothing more.


Fantasy Aisle

Christmas Lights Plaza de Lourdes in Chapinero

10.) Trust yourself: My driver gave me a second cell phone and at first I thought it was strange but then I realized he cared for my safety and didn’t want me to get lost. I smiled. I felt welcomed and I confirmed this will be a great trip.

Up Next a Historical look at Bogotá

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