What I Learned Backpacking Through Europe
A Lesson From a Determined Adventurer
In 2013, I devised “the daily first” project: an incentive to encourage new (and overdue) experiences for 365 days, from (finally) graduating college to (finally) coming out to my parents. It motivated this Millennial with a renewed sense of purpose to take risks and do things I have always said I would do. Backpacking across Europe, for instance.
(No substances were abused in the making of this “first.” I’ll accept my medal now, please.)
Before I left for the trip of a lifetime, I pored over anything I could get my hands on to be prepared for every situation in every city because, naturally, I expected myself to be very good at traveling. Without ever having traveled, of course.
Start a Dance Party on a Pub Crawl
[with the assistance of your #1 fun-time Sally.]
I listened carefully to words of personal advice like doctor’s orders and made documenting my experience a religion while abroad.
Rock Climb on the Atlantic Coast
[with a wicked hangover and barely any sleep.]
Before I left, people said they couldn’t wait to hear my stories, that stories were what made travel – not passport stamps or packaged souvenirs, not postcards or photographs – so enriching.
Have a Pint at the Guinness Storehouse
[and another. And another. And another.]
As a result, I mined each moment for their retrospective value mid-memory & consciously curated a daily register of first time encounters on the road to chronicle my year of adventure-seeking.
Tour the Globe Theatre
[and cry your little thespian heart out!]
See a Show (Midsummer!) at the Globe
[as a motherf***ing groundling, no less.]
Still, the moment that carries the most weight from this journey is one I least expected – isn’t that always the way?
Enjoy a “Proper” Tea for Two
[and remind everyone how American you are with each improper sound uttered.]
After four weeks of traveling, with unexpected doctor visits, unconventional lodging arrangements, and hustling to check off as many sites as physically possible, I met up with my old friend Francesca on the last leg of my journey.
(Tied with randomly meeting up with a friend in London, but, you know, Stonehenge.
I bathed in her beautiful Italian home and cozied into comfortable conversation of observations from my trip thus far while we, essentially, did nothing.*
*Side Note: I am perhaps more grateful for this than some of the great sites I visited. When you only have so much time, some things are worth not experiencing in order to savor what you have experienced.
Have a Religious Experience
[which, if it would happen anywhere, would happen at St. Paul’s Cathedral.]
I recalled the many incidents and phrases and rituals I archived along the way but wanted to examine further, one being an absurd graduation tradition I witnessed in Venice.
“Sleep” in an Airport
[and be properly unprepared, unlike the band of gypsies to your left, camping in the middle of Baggage Claim.]
While happily wandering around the labyrinthine tourist-y city, I heard a raucous celebration a few twists and turns away. As a child would, I hurried over foot bridges and cobbled streets, right into the middle of a small party. Or an old-fashioned public shaming. I couldn’t be sure.
Party in Berlin ‘til Sunrise
[with something like walking pneumonia. Party Hard, Bitches. *sniffle*]
On an open street in the middle of a summer afternoon, a family had arranged a tribute to their newest university graduate, whooping and singing in unison. Innocent enough, right?
Touch the Berlin Wall
[or what’s left of it.]
Uninvited, I stretched on my tip toes to get a better look at what all the commotion was about. Barely visible through the fence of family, I found her, the newly awarded scholar, in her skivvies drenched in every condiment known to man in front of her parents, siblings, and presumably twenty of her closest cousins.
Smoke in Amsterdam
(or, See the future. (It is good.))
I might have vomited at the sight of mayonnaise gobs and ketchup blobs in her hair and ears if my morbid curiosity didn’t get the better of me.
Meet a Lover in Another Country — The Netherlands
(Marijuana is the new dozen roses.)
With the modest language skills of an enthusiastic second grader, I immediately prodded what turned out to be the uncle of the gooey graduate for answers. He, of course, had no idea why I was so confused (until the eventual embarrassing admission “I’m American!” spilled out – as if he couldn’t guess).
Go to a Hospital in Another Country — Belgium
(Yes, there was chocolate involved. No, 14 & 15 are completely unrelated.
Generously, he averted his attention from the fiasco to help me piece together the event, two mimes working to crack the case until I understood. Sort of.
Eat a Belgian Waffle
[with one eye closed!]
In Italy, it was a family tradition to humiliate the graduate by getting her as drunk as possible while reading a dirty poem created by none other than her folks. (Hawthorne-style debauchery it is!)
Throw a Coin into the Trevi Fountain
(which, theoretically, means return, right? Right?!)
In front of family and passersby, she was to recite the words from the poem, which ranged from silly, naughty verse to actual details from her sex life. Every time our poor, educated heroine misread the lovingly-crafted (if a bit bizarrely-executed) text, the family – from the oldest grandparent to the youngest child – would burst into a cheerful song, chanting gleefully as the victim took a swig of a suspicious looking cocktail of their own devising, finishing with a catchy “oom-pah-pah” flourish.
Tour the Colosseum
[with one eye closed! Now while devising potential pirate nicknames!]
They might as well have been singing “Happy Birthday” slightly out of tune at an Applebee’s in the suburbs they seemed so well-versed in this ritual. Don’t ask me how the condiments and undressing came into play. I didn’t get that far.
Get Blessed by the Pope
[and get magically healed of temporary blindness.]
When I told Francesca what I witnessed and asked what they were singing, she said that it essentially translated to “go fuck yourself.” Oh!
See Fireworks in Florence
[which is what actually cured the vision problems.]
The literal translation of “dottore, dottore, dottore del buso del cul, vaffancul, vaffancul” is something along the lines of “doctor, doctor, you’re still just an asshole, go fuck off, go fuck off.” As obscene as the whole tradition may seem at such a significant milestone, it is a playful reminder to stay grounded.
Bel far Niente nell’Italia, or The Beauty of Doing Nothing in Italy
[but really, it was sitting around drinking wine out of the bottle in an empty square at night.]
Instead of “The World is Your Oyster” or “Go Get ‘em, Kid,” this graduation tradition is rooted in the self-aware with “You’re Not There Yet. No Matter How Hard You’ve Worked So Far and How Hard You Will Work, No One Will Take You Seriously Until You’re Thirty-Five. At Least.”
Catch the Sunset from Piazzale Michelangelo
[while listening to covers of “What a Wonderful World” in different languages.]
Dizzy with comparison of economies and expectations, or simply flu-ish from the day’s sun poisoning, I liked to think I related more closely to the Original Amateur Hour intonation “Round and Round She Goes, Where She Stops, Nobody Knows” than either the American or Italian higher education sentence.
Get Lost in Venice
(in other words, Be in Venice.)
A conclusion we both agreed on was that at the end of the day, a degree is only a piece of paper.
Sneak onto a Gondola
[when the gondoliers are at lunch.]
And that’s exactly the message of the ritual I had observed: a proclamation for all to hear that all of that hard work was over and yet nothing had changed for this person and how silly it all seemed.
Reunite with an International Friend
[across two continents and four years.]
Because now that graduate needs to get a job. But they don’t have any experience. So they go back to school to become a better candidate. But they still don’t have any experience. And they’ll just keep reading books. So it goes.*
*Additional Side Note: This is particularly ironic to me now as I received my college diploma (seven years in the making) upon returning back to the states. And nothing is different because of it. I may not have received any kind of credit for going on a trip for “no reason,” but everything is different now because of it. And that counts for something — more than firsts and certainly more than pomp & circumstance.
Spend a Day at the Beach
(Look! The only living Long Island girl without a tan!)
While politely interrogating the uncle of the sloppy girl covered in condiments why exactly they were doing this, he managed that she was done reading about how to be a doctor and could now learn what it meant to be a doctor by going and doing it for herself.
[for breakfast, no less.]
With a journal, a camera, a handful of ziplock bags, and a mission, I had plunged headfirst into dutiful exploration and in the end, I came out with this:
(or, Sleep for 12 Hours Straight.)
No amount of preparation enables you to know an experience except letting go of all expectations and experiencing it for yourself.
Backpack through Europe
[and live to tell the tale.]