Before deciding to “travel Europe”, one should always consider the other options available—working abroad, studying abroad or taking a study abroad opportunity, as I did, and turning it into a “traveling Europe” experience by taking advantage of every three-day weekend as much as possible, and by fully utilizing Ryanair, unreliable as they are. Regardless, the experience of being a vagabond across a continent of separate cultures is truly amazing, unique and enlightening. When I think of my favorite moments during my study abroad in Italy, most of them are in fact not in Italy—and so I have to say that traveling Europe is a must for someone who really wants to see the world.
I will assume that everyone reading this is traveling on a budget when I say use public transportation wherever you go (or rely on friends or people you meet along the way, which is really the best way to get to know a country). Don’t feel like you need to have a set schedule in mind—there’s almost always something amazing to do that you can find on your way to wherever it is you’re going. My best experiences in Ireland, Scotland, Greece and Barcelona (and even in Italy really) were entirely unplanned. If you’re staying somewhere for a while, go out and meet people the first night. Always try and speak their language. If you’re hostel-surfing, get to know your hostel-mates as soon as possible—hostel outings can be very fun. Don’t count on weather reports, and if you’re in the British Islands, realize that it will always rain. A lot of places—such as the Greek Islands—are really only open during the summer season, so make sure if you plan a schedule that you confirm that they are open on the day you want to partake in some activity. If you’re in Greece or Italy, always bargain—every eighty cents you save is another espresso, remember! Most importantly, try the food in every country you cross—the variety of tastes and recipes across so many small countries has been one of my favorite things about Europe, and it’s something which must be experienced by anyone wanting to traverse Europe.
One thing I love about having traveled Europe is what I will be bringing back. I’m not talking about cups or shot glasses or things like that—and I’m not just talking about memories and sentimental things, of which I have plenty. I’m taking back a pair of shoes which have hiked across I can’t even remember how many nations. I’m taking back recipes from inns, pubs, friends and people’s houses from across Europe. I’m taking back knowledge of so many different cultures, and so many different ways of thinking and living, that it’s difficult for me to recall them all even now. Europe is an entirely different experience than just any one nation, but to experience Europe you can’t just hop from city to city—that’s the worst thing you could do. Find a way to see the villages and towns, and even the smaller cities of Europe. Check out local parks and festivals, instead of just giant cathedrals and touristy bars. The best touristy experiences are oftentimes not touristy at all, and that’s a part of what makes them so great, and a part of what enables you to take so much away from Europe.
Inside Italy, don’t just stay in the north. The south is totally different and has amazing things to offer, although sadly I never went to Sicily! Some parts of Europe are dangerous, and of course, the south of Italy is perhaps the most notorious regions—but the people I met there (I’m not talking about the slums of Napoli when I say this) were some of the kindest I’ve met in Italy, and even when they waved their hand and told me I should have studied in Bari instead of Rome, it was with a smile and a laugh. Also, when navigating around Italy, keep in mind that directions are always tentative, and if there are four ways to reach a destination, you just need to ask four different people to hear all four different responses. It’s an exercise in improvisation, so you better have a good sense of direction and keep track of where you’re going! If you pick one city in Spain, do not make it Madrid. See Barcelona, known as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. See the south of France, or wine country if you’re more partial to that, not just Paris—and if you have to pick between the two, skip Paris! Don’t believe what people tell you about the French. I did meet some who were rude to me because I was American (most Europeans do have a grudge against America, just a head’s-up), but more often, I met people who evaluated me as an individual and not as an American. Even so, expect to be treated badly sometimes—if you speak other languages, it’s a good idea to pretend like you’re from another country! Oftentimes, it even gets you cheaper prices—this is true across Europe, and even moreso in Italy.
The art of traveling Europe is in the people and the history, the past and the present. You cannot expect to experience Europe without knowing Europe, but the best way to learn Europe is to learn it from the Europeans in Europe as you travel—that is how I ended up with a handful of experiences which I know will define my favorite memories of my time across the ocean. It’s not always something that someone tells you, as much as it lies in your own observations of how people live and conduct themselves day-to-day. Conversation is a huge part of it, of course, but if you find yourself ignoring the people around you – the people who grow up and die in the places you are visiting – you can never take away as much as you could from a European expedition. It doesn’t always mean talking and asking questions—perhaps more importantly, it’s just about listening and looking at what’s all around you.