In October of 1999, I got an e-mail about an airfare sale. It was from a company specializing in travel for folks under 26 years of age and at the time I was 23. My desire to study abroad in college was shot down long ago, but here I saw an opportunity. I wanted to get back to Europe and here was a message from above telling me the time was right. My seasonal Park Ranger job was up at the end of December. So I booked a flight for $318 flying into Paris in January of the year 2000 and out of Rome four weeks later.
I had decided to fly into Paris because I knew how to speak French. Most of you are saying, “Um…isn’t English your first language? Why not go with that?” Well, because I’m me. English speaking countries? I wanted something a little more adventurous. So France it was. I had spent six weeks in Switzerland one summer during high school and knew I wanted to visit my host family, so I added that to my list. And I’d always wanted to see Italy. I figured four weeks was long enough for a trip by myself, and wanted enough time to see each place on my list thoroughly so I ended in Italy, picking Rome as my point of return.
When researching my trip, I got completely overwhelmed by all the internet information, so I just stopped doing research for a while. Then, I went to the bookstore, got Michelin Guides for each country (long, thin, compact – therefore easy for traveling) and went with those. I had a hostel booked in Paris and one in Rome, but in between those two places my plans were open. I had hostel information with me, but didn’t want to commit to any specific days. (Those of you that know me are not at all surprised by this lack of commitment thing!)
I arrived in Paris and promptly got lost. I was hauling around my entirely-too-heavy backpack feeling jet-lagged and could not find my hostel. Whether you’re speaking English or French doesn’t matter – people around the globe unanimously give you bad directions. Finally, I arrived at the hostel only to find that though I could leave my bags there I wasn’t allowed in my room til 4pm. It was maybe 10AM. So I got something to eat and headed to the Musee D’Orsay. I bought an audio guide, fell in love with sculpture, and when I nearly fell asleep sitting on a bench in the museum decided to head back to the hostel. Thankfully, by the time I got there I could get into my room and go to bed. I awoke a few hours later and met my roommates who tried to convince me that I should just stay up to get over the jet lag. I wasn’t sure about this, but upon their invitation to see the Champs D’Elysees all lit up at night, I dragged myself out of bed.
Turns out my two roommates were on the “Paris-in-a-Day” plan. The next morning, when they explained that they were going to try to do the Louvre and two other sites by dinner, I opted not to join them. I was on the “I’m here to relax and enjoy the city” plan.
The nice thing about staying in a hostel is that you can find people to do something with every morning at breakfast. You go down to the community room, start chatting with folks at your table, see who’s doing what, and decide who you want to join – if anyone. I went to Versailles with a couple Australians, my two roommates (who decided to give Versailles a whole day), and an American teaching English in Asia who was on his break. He explained that it’s so cheap to live in Asia and he gets paid so well that it’s easy to come to Europe every year for a few weeks. Oh the possibilities life holds! I thought. But still, it was a little lonely to be in a country where you knew no one. So the next day I decided three weeks was going to be enough and went to a travel office to change my flights.
After Paris, I headed to a little town called Troyes where a religious order that has brought some fabulous women into my life was started. I spent a couple hours in the museum for the order with a sweet nun who spoke not a word of English. I wandered the streets and then headed off to Switzerland.
My host sister decided we should ski the Alps. I can count on one hand how many times I’d been on skis prior to that day. We got to the top of mountain and when I looked out, it looked like you skied a few hundred feet and then went off a cliff. I tried it, but at one point told her I was just going to take off my skis and walk down the mountain. I snowplowed instead. And that was the last time I went skiing.
In Italy I loved Venice and so stayed a few extra days. At the Doge’s Palace, I was on a self-guided tour behind an American father-son pair. Their repartee back and forth was hilarious and at the end of the tour I said something about how much I enjoyed their commentary. They looked at me like I had three heads and said, “You speak English?!” “Um…yeah,” I responded. They said I was dressed like a European and they thought for sure I was Italian. I explained how I’d read that all Americans in Europe are easily identifiable by their backpacks, jeans, and baseball caps so I tried not to use any of those in my day-to-day travels. I was in black stretch pants, black boots, and carrying a shoulder bag. We laughed over it all and they invited me to lunch. Then, the son and I walked up to the top of St. Mark’s Cathedral together. They were off then to visit friends in northern Italy. I was jealous – I wanted locals to visit! I would get my chance – six years later on a return trip, but that’s another story.
By the time I got to Florence, I was done with churches and museums for a bit. I found an English book shop, bought a book, and sat in a piazza for hours reading. It was splendid. At the end of the day, I turned around and took a picture of my spot. I still have that picture.
I didn’t much care for Florence. The hostel there was run by some mean folks, so I saw the David and took off. On the other hand, my hostel in Rome was the best ever. The Beehive was owned by an American couple from California. She was pregnant and talked about some of the nervousness of having a baby in a foreign country. She also set me up on a phenomenal walking tour. But what made Italy my all time favorite country? Gelato. Every day. Sometimes twice a day. Because honestly – what’s the way you really know you’re an adult? You can eat ice cream whenever you want. You think that’s cool? Try replacing the ice cream with gelato. Heaven on earth.
Upon my return, I was in quite a state of culture shock. I just came back from my most amazing trip to date, and here I sat: living with my parents, no job, college life over and no gelato. I felt quite depressed. But something I did prior to leaving for Europe – something I did just as an aside, never thinking it’d be needed – would lead me to my next adventure.