Everyone’s gotta start somewhere. Before I became an internet authority on travel, I got my traveling start on a two-week trip around Europe. I had just graduated from grad school and in lieu of attending my own graduation, my best friend Lauren and I valiantly set off on a European adventure. Looking back on it now, I made a lot of rookie mistakes my first time traveling abroad but good times were had nonetheless.
Our itinerary, like many people’s first trip to Europe, included some of the most photographed and visited cities of the continent: London, Paris, Amsterdam, Munich, and Prague. It’s like the Tour de Basic Bitch, and yes, it was five countries in two weeks. I suppose if we had never again traveled abroad, we would have made the best of it. But if 33-year-old me had the chance to speak to 24-year-old me, well… I probably would have still let her learn the hard way how exhausting and stupid that is.
This was back in the time when travel blogs didn’t exist and all we knew about travel came from Frommer’s, a book Lauren brought along on the trip. Imagine getting all your travel tips from a book that had been published five years prior… but what other choice did we have? We brought locks (hot pink ones) for all our bags, as if thieves were going to pounce on us the second we got off the plane. I also bought one of those idiotic under-the-clothes money belts. There’s nothing that makes you look more like you’re someone easy to rob than having to dig around under your shirt for two euros to pay for a croissant.
Perhaps the stupidest thing I did in planning for this trip was to order several hundred dollars in euro from my US bank before flying out. Not only was this money useless in England and the Czech Republic, neither of which use the euro, it was also a stupid amount of cash to have on us while we took trains and stayed in hostels.
I would say the only successful aspect of planning that trip was that we used a map and intelligently chose a route that wouldn’t waste too much of our time in transit or that would require us to backtrack in order to fly home. We flew into London and traveled east before flying home from Prague.
We arrived in London in the morning after a full night of flying, during which I barely slept a wink. I just listened to Adele on repeat and wished I was dead. I still feel that way when I fly, but that first time is a special kind of horrible. But when you’re in your early 20s, you can just hop off the plane and sightsee for 14 hours straight without missing a beat.
London was delightful. We stayed at an easyHotel, which has bright orange rooms that are the exact size of a double bed and not one centimeter bigger. Compared to some of the shitholes we stayed in after that, our orange cube was one of the favorites. After dumping all our stuff at the hotel, we had a day and a half to see London. We took the tube, giggling every time the Cockfosters station was announced (I still think that name is funny), and we had truly terrible meat pies at pubs around town.
During our entire stay, we didn’t spend a cent on attractions because we didn’t do anything that wasn’t free. That’s how you travel when you’ve already spent almost two grand on flights, trains, and hotels and you’re $100,000 in student loan debt. Luckily, many museums in town are free to visit, and all the iconic sights of London – Big Ben, the Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace – you just have to walk by. Of course, we watched the Changing of the Guard, Europe’s most overrated attraction. I’m pretty sure I loved it the first time because I was young, stupid, and had no travel experience. It sucks.
Before we knew it, we were on a train to Paris because we were pretty sure train is how you had to travel in Europe. We probably could have taken a 45 minute flight for $20 bucks but whatever, you live you learn. I instantly hated Paris. We were staying in a landfill of a hotel with rooms that looked like jail cells and shared bathrooms in the 11th Arrondissement. We were harassed all over town by gangs of obnoxious teenagers that pretend they’re deaf and try to scam fake donations out of you. I was disappointed that Montmartre was not nearly as cute as the movie Amelie had led me to believe – it actually felt kind of unsafe. I instantly put one of those hot pink locks on my bag.
Still, getting off the Trocadero metro and turning around to see the Eiffel Tower in person for the first time was one of the most memorable moments of that trip. We bought a Nutella crepe as we made our way to it – despite having taken four years of French, I was too shy to use it to order. We continued to be cheap asses and decided to walk up the Eiffel Tower instead of taking the elevator to save some money on the entrance and skip the longer line. 674 steps later, I realized the view from the Eiffel Tower isn’t as good as any view with the Eiffel Tower in it.
We went to the Louvre, and feeling like we had enough time in the afternoon, we took the train to Versailles – all on the same day. After two grueling walking days in London and one already busy day in Paris, we barely had any energy to walk around the grounds of Versailles though I’m sure Marie Antoinette’s cottage is lovely.
One of the most surprising things about visiting Europe as two people from Miami was how late the sun set. We decided to treat ourselves to a nice French meal that night, and it was only midway through it that we realized it was almost 10 pm and it was still light out. On our way back to our shitty jail cell hotel, we caught sight of the Eiffel Tower sparkling, something I didn’t even know to expect. It wasn’t until many trips later that I understood the romantic allure of the city, but the intense tourist circuit is not it.
After an intense start in London and Paris, we were exhausted. So we spent three days in Amsterdam doing absolutely nothing. We had a short list of places to see, like the Heineken Experience and the Van Gogh Museum, but instead we just did what most travelers do in Amsterdam: get high. I’m not an experienced drug user, but I did find the weed there kind of weak, probably because it’s mixed with tobacco. Even in a “space cake,” it was just potent enough to get us to sit around and get some much needed rest.
The best part of getting high in Amsterdam is that you can satisfy your munchies with gouda all over the fucking place. We just walked around the canals and took free cheese samples from every shop, wandered around Vondelpark and went into every McDonald’s to use the WiFi. Even though a live sex show would have probably spiced up our Amsterdam stop, Lauren was hesitant to wander into the Red Light District. Compared to some of the seedy and disgusting neighborhoods in Paris, Amsterdam’s Red Light District is like Disneyland, but I wouldn’t find that out until I returned to Amsterdam several years later.
I’m not sure if it was from Amsterdam to Munich or Munich to Prague that we shared a train car with a group of school boys that we were pretty sure were drinking travel-sized bottles of booze. Neither would be surprising. If you’ve never been to Germany, Munich is the kind of city that makes you feel like you’re living in a life-size cuckoo clock. Every meal, we had at a beer garden, the less festive versions of their Oktoberfest selves. It was here that I discovered radler, beer mixed with lemonade. After having climbed to the bell tower of the main local churches and seen the central square, we visited the Deutsches Museum of science and technology, I guess because we were at a loss of things to do. There’s only so much time you can spend knocking back 1 liter beers, even when you’re 24.
Though I’ve been living here for four years, I wasn’t terribly impressed with Prague my first time traveling abroad. We were staying a few minutes’ walk from Namesti Miru – an area that I would kill to live in now, but that I thought was kind of a dump at the time. When we arrived on the train starving, we went to the first restaurant nearby we could find. It was a Simpsons themed restaurant with no English menu (it still doesn’t have an English menu). We felt brave and pointed at a random thing on the menu and each got a chicken breast with a slice of ham, white cheese, and half a pear on top. Disgusting.
We spent our time in Prague doing stuff I’ve never done again like go up to the top of the Old Town Hall where at the time, a trumpeter dressed like a jester used to play a horn at the top of the hour. We tried absinthe, which was gross instead of magical and not unlike the 151 we used to drink all the time in college, just more herbal. We took a walking tour, of which the only thing I remember is that there is a church in town where a thief’s arm is hanging as a warning to others. I have no idea where it is. We did also shamefully pay to see the Sex Machines Museum…. rookie travel mistake.
At some point in Amsterdam, like the American assholes we are, we realized that we could ride public transportation for free because you don’t need a ticket to ride and no one ever checks. It was on our last day in Prague on the way to the airport that we finally got caught. We had to pay a nasty fine, which knowing these metro inspector pricks, was probably inflated. I suppose we deserved it, and I’ve never done it again.
Prague also sent Lauren home with a parting gift – food poisoning. She and I have gotten into plenty of misadventures around the world since then, but I think her spending the entire flight home shitting her pants is one of my favorites.