Wednesday, May 14, 2008

European Reflections

On my last day in Madrid, it was raining. I usually don't mind the rain, but had planned to spend the day reading in the beautiful Parque del Retiro, so was a little disappointed. Instead, I spent an hour or so on my hostel bunk bed to finish up the book [I Know This Much Is True] that had captivated me during the trip. I can highly recommend it; it is a profound and beautifully told story. It was still raining when I was done, so I headed out to do some last minute souvenir shopping. Again, I was disappointed, much like during my previous shopping attempts during this trip. I had anticipated to be able to find unique and distinctive items, things I wouldn't normally come across on a shopping trip to the mall here in the U.S. But, all over Europe it was the same stuff! Nothing unique or specific to a particular country or region. I don't know if it is me imagining things, but this seems different from just four years ago when I went to Italy. Living in the States, you get used to big market commercialism with Walmarts and Targets ruling our lives of convenience. I had hoped to escape that to lose myself in small independent shops featuring a more local offering of interesting items. While the size of the shops were granted smaller and they were independently owned, the products were all the same everywhere and there was nothing unique that we can't find here in the U.S. It saddened me to see that big market commercialism has taken such a hold as this seems to be moving us toward a world ruled by large corporations where individuality and independence are lost.

Frustrated, I headed back to the hostel for a midday snack, which included half a box of sangria that thankfully made me sleepy enough to enjoy a brief siesta and temporarily put me out of my world capitalism worries. When I woke up, the rain had stopped and I headed off to the park. The ground was still wet from the morning rain, so couldn't really find a spot to sit in to read my new book, but I was able to wander about and enjoy the scenery. Luckily, I had saved some battery on my iTunes Shuffle and completely lost myself in thought while listening to some great tunes and taking in the stunning vistas. The park is huge and I meandered about for more than two and a half hours without making it from one end to the other.

It was wonderful to be able to end my journey in such a beautiful area while also having a chance to fully reflect on the trip I was fortunate enough to have enjoyed. Traveling around Europe was a fantastic experience, but it was not a expedition of exploring unchartered territory. In fact, if that morning had solidified anything, it was that the world is getting smaller and smaller and discovering unique cultural experiences will become more challenging as we grow increasingly interconnected via technological advances and commercialism.

However, people can and still will be what ultimately allow us to have life altering experiences. As I was traveling around, I was randomly struck by how little the things that I'm wrapped up in in my daily life in Chicago mattered. The thoughts and events that preoccupy me on a daily basis when I'm at home did not make a difference here. Certain personal relationships that affected me deeply and had me dwelling on things, making me doubt myself and question who I am were no longer important. They were a world away and had no bearing on anything. It was a very freeing feeling. I had a little epiphany that the people and experiences that we allow to make us feel bad about ourselves and who we are really do not matter. It simply comes down to how we feel about ourselves from within. Kirstie, lovely angel that she is, solidified this for me. She helped to restore my faith in myself and as I packed my bags that night, I felt like I had been blessed with that life altering journey after all.

To conclude the travelogue (although I will continue blogging), I'll include a few tips for those of you looking to go on your own European travel adventure:

-Always look up. The interesting architectural details are near the top of the buildings and not necessarily at ground level.
-Curry ice cream may sound gross, but try it, it's quite interesting and really not bad! Don't be afraid to try something new.
-Bring your flip flops. Showers in hostels can be, ahem how shall I put it politely....unhygienic.
-The Lonely Planet is overrated. Get a free map from the tourist information office/hostel/hotel. Do your research about sights to see online or ask the locals. Public transportation is almost idiot proof. No need to carry around a 5 lbs book with outdated information that you paid $27 for and barely ever used!
-Cheapest food and drink is found in the grocery stores (usually, but there are exceptions) and picnics make great meals and memories.
-Traveling alone may be intimidating at first, but opens the door to new people and experiences. Hostels are great for meeting fun, friendly, and adventurous people!
-Ask your hostel/hotel/tourist information office if there is a free walking tour in your city. The guides are usually knowledgeable and fun. It's a great way to orient yourself to a new city before heading out to explore on your own. But, the guides work on tips alone so be sure to tip your guide appropriately.
-Best exchange rates are either through the ATMs or using your credit card. Don't bring cash to exchange, but you may want to keep some emergency dollars on hand, just in case.
-Buses are cheaper than trains. Unless you are younger than 26, buying the Eurorail pass is not necessarily a bargain. But, if you do decide that you want to go the Eurorail route, buy it and have it delivered before you leave the U.S. It costs less for some reason.
-If traveling by RyanAir: Oy, so many things to say here, I'll limit it to the most important: checking a bag costs extra (currently 13 euros per bag), maximum weight to carry-on is 10 kg; 15 kg for checked bags (or you pay extra). You MUST be checked in 40 mins before the flight leaves or you are S-O-L. Get to the gate early and get in line, cuz there are no assigned seats; first come, first served....
-If traveling to an airport, check and double check how long it will take to get there. Sometimes, there's only a bus every 1.5 hrs, so even if you think you're early, you might miss your flight if you miss your bus by 5 mins...
-Bring less stuff than you think you'll need. If you do miss or need something, you'll be able to find it there. I hear shampoo is available worldwide these days. No, but seriously, it really is.
-If you have a student id, bring it. It can save you some good money. Ask the hostel/hotel/tourist info office or locals about free museum days. is invaluable for finding and reserving hostels anywhere quickly and easily.
-Check out before you leave if you are on a tight budget. It can also be a great back-up in case there are no hostel/hotel rooms to be found.
-If there is a free bathroom opportunity, take it! You never know when you'll find another public bathroom without some kind of charge until you get to your hostel/hotel
-If you are a TMobile customer, you can bring and use your phone in Europe, but you do have to activate the WorldClass service first (free) and then pay for roaming.
-You will need a converter for charging your digital camera or other electronic equipment.
-Post offices don't necessarily sell stamps. I don't know why that is really or WHY a post office would not sell stamps, but it does happen. I really do wonder why that is. Did I mention that I'm very curious as to why a post office would not sell stamps?
-Bring a small note book and a pen. You never know when you'll need to write down random information, booking numbers, e-mail addresses, hot guys' phone numbers, etc. It's nice to have it all in one place and not dig around for lose pieces of paper that inevitably get lost.
-If staying in hostels, be sure to bring a towel (needed in most hostels), a sheet (needed in some hostels), a lock (needed in a few hostels), soap, AND flip flops (needed in 99% of all hostels)!!!
-Remember that fear is temporary, regret is forever, and life is too friggin' short so go and book your trip now! If you're going to India, let me know cuz I want to go too...

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