Happy 4th of July! For today’s post, I’m going to be extremely patriotic and discuss my experiences in other countries. But I’ll do it while eating a hot dog and drinking beer. Because, you know…..’Merica.
I’ve been fortunate enough in the past 5 years to have done a lot of traveling. Since I left the country for the first time when I was 18, I have gone on four trips that have allowed me to go to 12 different countries outside the United States.
When thinking about what I would write for our Travel Stories theme week, I had trouble thinking of just one story or location to focus on. I decided to go through my journals of my trips for inspiration, and I noticed that there was one theme that was pervasive through all my trips: I get lost. A lot. I get lost in other countries, both when I speak the language and, more often, when I don’t. I also get lost driving around the town I have lived in for almost 24 years, but that’s another story. So for this blog, I am going to talk about some the cities and countries that I have gotten lost in (in chronological order), and what I learned from that experience.*
The first time I left the country was the summer before my sophomore year of college, about a month before I turned 19. My college soccer team took a trip to Europe. Even though I got hurt on that trip, screwing up my sophomore season and ultimately leading me to quit the team, it was still a great experience. We went to Italy, Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. The only place I got lost was in Munich, and it was one of the scariest and coolest experiences of my life.
As I said, I had hurt my knee pretty badly a couple days before we were in Munich, while playing on the most beautiful soccer field I have ever played on in Austria. We had a scheduled bike tour in Munich, and I made the mistake of thinking I would be able to do it. Now, I’m shaky on a bike as it is, never mind being injured and trying to ride one. I tried to get up one hill, and was like “screw this” and turned around and went back. I gave the bike back to the tour company, and then I was on my own.
So, what did I do? At first I just walked around, making sure I knew how to get back to the bike place so I could find my team when they got back. Then I started to get braver, and went into little shops and cafes and a cool little German bookstore. Sure, I missed the team bonding of the bike ride, but what I got is something that is uniquely my own. My camera had broken in Austria too (apparently a lot of things get ruined in Austria…), so I didn’t even have that to hide behind. I was really, truly experiencing a beautiful city, all on my own.
The best part? This sweet middle-aged Austrian couple actually approached me to ask for directions, thinking I lived there. When I answered them in English, they were delighted and talked to me for about 10 minutes (in English), not caring that I couldn’t help them get where they needed to go. It was the first time I realized how fascinating it is to talk to people from other cultures, but it wasn’t the last.
In the fall of 2009, I spent the first semester of my junior year studying in London. It was, hands down, the best 3+ months of my life. This isn’t about one specific time I got lost because it happened on an almost daily basis. We got lost on the tube. We got lost on buses. Sometimes we got lost on purpose just to discover new areas of the city. And even though we had the world’s most ancient cell phones, we rarely ever actually used them. We were on our own.
London is not like Manhattan, the city I was always most familiar with. It’s essentially impossible to get lost in Manhattan, assuming you know how to count (and you aren’t trying to conquer the subway system). But London is a different animal. Have you ever heard of The Knowledge? It’s this insane test that London cab drivers have to take before they can get certified. They don’t use a GPS when they drive. They use their brains. And for anyone who has ever walked through that city, you can appreciate how incredible that is.
Getting lost in London is how I became familiar with the tube system. It’s how I realized that I am pretty resourceful. Sure, it takes some time and it can get overwhelming. But, you know what? It is also really empowering. Because after my time in London, I now know that I don’t have to be afraid of any city. When I finally get to the point in my life when I can move out, I now have the confidence to know that I can handle it.
Kaely (who also did the London semester) and I decided to spend the first part of our fall break in Barcelona with our friends Cara and Erica, who met us there later. Our bus from the airport dropped us off at around 11 pm (we also didn’t realize there was an hour time difference between Barcelona and London until we got there. Oops.) We had booked a hostel, and we had to find it. We had the address, but we couldn’t seem to find the building. All we could find at that location was something called a “Hong Kong Import/Export.” We even tried to call our professor back in London from a pay phone because we started to get really nervous. The call never went through, so we wandered around the city, dragging our luggage with us. We asked what I think was a policewoman, but she was unhelpful.
Finally we just walked into a grocery store, and the man working there sent some kid to show us where it was. Turns out that it was right down the street from where we were…directly above the Hong Kong Import/Export. We had to buzz up so the kid working the night shift at the front desk could let us in ( he was an adorable Australian boy who only slightly judged us a few days later when he had to let four drunk Americans in at about 5 am). There was no sign for the hostel. It actually turned out to be one of the best hostels I’ve stayed in, but finding it was nearly impossible. Cara and Erica also had some trouble finding it, so it wasn’t just Kaely and me.
So what did I learn from this experience? Being lost in a foreign city during the day can either be inconvenient, exciting, or nerve-racking. Being lost in a foreign city in the middle of the night is kind of terrifying. Oh, and the first thing we did the next morning was buy a map, and we didn’t get lost again once for the rest of the trip.
For the rest of our fall break, Kaely and I, along with our friends Matt and Jess, went to Dublin. Matt met us there later, so Kaely, Jess, and I were on our own for the majority of the first day. This time, we didn’t even write down the address of our hostel. Not one of us. Brilliant. So we ended up going to an internet café to look up the address. We then wandered around aimlessly until we found the hostel. This particular story isn’t that exciting, but it did teach me an important lesson about traveling: you can’t prepare for everything, but you sure can prepare for some things…like knowing the address of the place you’re staying. Or that you shouldn’t wear rubber flip flops while running across slippery stone streets in the pouring rain in Dublin, no matter how excited you are to drink Guinness at a real Irish pub for breakfast.
Kaely, Liz, and I spent two full days in Paris during our semester abroad. And I’m not kidding when I tell you that the vast majority of that time was spent being totally lost. We got off the train in the morning, then could not find the hostel. This time we had an address too, but Paris is probably just as confusing as London, only everything’s in French. So after asking someone for help and finding the world’s worst hostel where were staying, we took off in search of the Eiffel Tower. Instead of paying attention to where we were going, we followed the very tip of the tower, which we could see over the buildings. So we just kept wandering down random streets, turning wherever we felt seemed right.
This wasn’t a problem on the way there, as we got to the Eiffel Tower and spent a lovely day on a bus tour through Paris. No, it became a problem when we tried to get back to the hostel that night. We had no clue how to recreate the route we had taken. All we had with us was a baguette, some cheese, and a map that was incredibly hard to read at night. We kept stopping under street lights to look at it. I don’t care what anyone says about the French hating Americans, but we were clearly lost and two kind Parisian strangers both tried to help us. We eventually got back and ended up having one of the most memorable nights of my life with our New Zealand hostel-mates, but that’s a story for another day.
This experience taught me that people from other countries are often very kind, and you shouldn’t let stereotypes cloud your perspective. I also learned that in some cities, using the public transportation is actually easier than walking.
I didn’t get much of a chance to get lost in Israel since I was on a Birthright trip and we were rarely on our own. However, we got one free night in Jerusalem, and after drinking and being out all night on Ben Yehuda Street, Brett, Mitch, and I decided we wanted some old fashion American food. We had heard rumors of a place called Burger Bar, and we went on a mission to find it. We walked around for a long time, but couldn’t find it anywhere. We ended up asking some people for help, but they tried to talk about our trip (and also maybe about pot), but we didn’t have the patience for it. We were on a hamburger mission. And it was one of the biggest disappointments of my life that we didn’t find it that night…only made worse by the fact that the boys decided McDonald’s would be a good substitute.
I’m happy to report that we did end up eating at Burger Bar on our last day in Israel, and it was just as good as we had hoped, maybe even better because of the anticipation. The moral of this story? Misadventures often make great memories and great friends. Also, hamburgers are delicious.
*For the sake of length, I left out some stories (most notably, my experiences in Edinburgh, Scotland and Copenhagen, Denmark). I could probably write a book based on these getting lost adventures alone. Hey, that’s actually not a bad idea…
As Allyssa said in her post about Venice, it is important to get lost in whatever country you are staying in. Traveling in another country, especially when you don’t speak the language, can be overwhelming, but it is important to allow yourself to go with the flow. You will discover so much more about the country you are in, the people you are with, and yourself.
My advice for getting lost? Don’t panic. As you can see from my stories, people are generally very kind and willing to help. And before you go, try to learn at least a little bit of the language of the country you are going to. At least learn how to say “thank you” and to ask for directions to the street that your hostel/hotel is on.
And for God’s sake, learn how to read a damn map.