When I was sixteen years old, my Latin teacher organized a summer trip to Europe. I really, really wanted to go. I suppose I didn’t think too much about the fact that we were pretty poor. Divorced, underemployed mom and four teenage kids? Yep, poor.
I’m still grateful that my mom took out a small loan from the bank to send me. For two weeks in June, I’d tour seventy-five European countries and principalities.
That trip was a turning point in my life. Here’s what I learned:
A suitcase on wheels is the greatest invention of the last century.
I used my mother’s set of American Tourister luggage she used on an around-the-world trip in the 60’s. It was very good-quality luggage (she still uses it!), but it was the classic rectangle-on-a-handle suitcase. I’d overpacked, so by the end of the trip my right arm was a full three inches longer than my left. This makes it difficult to buy sweaters.
When in Rome, dress like a Roman.
My trip was almost postponed due to terrorist activities. Our group had been instructed not to look too “American”. I learned it is so much more comfortable to travel in a casual skirt than in jeans. When I did wear my Levi’s 501s, I did notice more attention. I still use this approach when I travel. A few years ago in England, a tourist from Kansas approached me for directions. Like I know where to find Platform 9 and 3/4.
America is the land of the free…toilets.
That lady in the restroom? You pay her, or you don’t go. Always have small change, because you have to have a penny to spend a penny.
Be an adventurous eater.
Our breakfasts were at our hotel, and dinners were arranged for us, but lunches were on our own. I only remember going to a European McDonald’s once in Brussels. The rest of the time my small group tried small local cafes. I’m not sure of everything I ate, but it was all good. Whatever cuisses de grenouilles were, they tasted like chicken.
And also wooden shoes, because you are totally going to wear those a bunch. Still, climbing to the top of some tower in Pisa is a pretty cool memory, too.
Travel in a group.
We were under the strictest orders to use the double buddy system—at least four girls together. Still, sometimes that just didn’t work out. Once I lingered a bit behind the group in an open-air market in Paris. I thought I was haggling over a small handbag, but by the end I was yanking my hand free from a vendor named François and declining his charming offer to “do the love.”
Even with a power converter, your electronics might not work.
I learned this the hard way with a curling iron. The converter just makes the plug fit. You need a transformer to adapt to the different voltage. Eventually, my bangs did grow back.
Understand local politics, but don’t talk local politics.
Educate yourself enough to know that you shouldn’t wear orange on the third Tuesday in Genovia. Also, no one cares about your opinion on Genovia. (I’m totally pro-Genovia.)
Learn a few key phrases in the language.
Start out with the local greetings before asking if someone speaks English. They probably speak English better than you, but it’s insulting to assume. Also, some level of local literacy keeps you from eating cuisses de grenouilles against your will.
Make room in your suitcase.
Travel light to begin with and leave things behind as you go. Better to throw all your panties away on the last day of your trip than to lack room for your new collection of ironic Russian nesting dolls. Please note that this does not count as a tip for housekeeping.
Although our tour practically went through West Germany and Portugal on the same day, I had a wonderful experience in Europe. For a young girl from Tennessee who’d only been in an elevator twice, it was a transformative experience. I’ll always have my memories, and a small handbag from Paris. Thanks, François!
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