For the past month and a half, I have been wandering around Europe via ferries, cars, buses, trains, planes, and bikes with nothing but a rucksack and a passport. Here are five important things I learned while living as a nomad.
1. I am capable of more than I thought.
I’m Canadian, so I’m used to getting places by driving there myself, as massive countries aren’t really conducive to useful public transportation systems. Until I arrived in London five months ago, I’d barely been on a train before, and the thought of trusting such a contraption to get me to my destination was terrifying. When my plane touched down in Paris though, I was forced to navigate the Paris metro alone. I had no idea where to buy a ticket, how to find the line, where my hostel was in relation to the metro stop, or even what my hostel looked like. Yet somehow I arrived without anything remotely bad happening (even though a terrorist was caught at my airport just a few hours before I landed). I’ve never been good at navigating (translation: I have a reputation for being so directionally challenged that I’m pretty sure my best friend thinks I’m liable to get lost in my own back garden) so when I accidentally got off the Krakow airport bus at the wrong stop – alone in a strange, non-English speaking city still three hours from my final destination – it was pretty much my worst nightmare. The thought of sleeping in an alleyway was enough motivation for me to find an English speaker, get directions to the main bus station, walk for forty-five minutes, and find a bus bound for Opole. See? No big deal.
2. Most people are not axe murderers.
Some people are creeps. Like, when I’m wandering alone through Krakow, I don’t need strange guys telling me I’m pretty and then immediately afterward asking if I’m alone. Some people are weird. During my first hostel experience, I was horrified to discover that some men think trousers are optional in hostel dorms, and in Heidelberg, I had a long conversation with someone about his unfair prison sentence and the things the voices tell him. But most people are not actually dangerous. In fact, most people will give you directions if you ask, try to speak your language if they can, and help you buy bus tickets from confusing machines. A fellow Scot might even share his M&Ms with you on the train (yes, I literally took candy from a stranger).
3. Humanity is a pretty cool species
I think one of the best parts about my wanderings was getting to know friends better and meeting more. (Fellow St. Andreans: thank you so much for free places to stay. You made my European travels so much more exciting). Most people are a lot more interesting than you’d give them credit for—like the man in Scalloway who managed to salvage some witch ashes for his museum before an ancient site was ploughed over, or the woman in Haarlem who was born in a concentration camp and now works at the Corrie ten Boom house telling the story of a war survivor, or my great uncles and aunts in Zeeland who told tales about my great-grandfather smuggling weapons to the Dutch underground during WWII by hiding them under a live goat in his bicycle basket. Everyone has a story to tell.
4. Learning other languages is important.
After traveling through five non-English speaking countries, I realized that we English-speakers can be rather lazy when it comes to learning other languages, mainly because other countries are so accommodating. However, there were cases when my very basic knowledge of French, Dutch and Spanish came in useful. I managed to befriend a girl from Venezuela in Germany by speaking broken Spanish, understand a woman who gave me directions in French, and interject relevant English comments into Dutch conversations, but in most cases I just hoped that speaking English really slowly would magically translate in some way. I am now inspired to learn other languages.
5. History is far-reaching and continuous.
Seeing so much of Europe at one time made me realize how far movements like the Renaissance and Reformation spread and how devastating the World Wars were. From abandoned WWII bunkers in Shetland to Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, both World Wars have left ghosts behind. I also realized, as I walked the streets of Paris surrounded by crowds carrying “je suis Charlie” signs, that history is still happening. It isn’t just a series of stories in the past. It is the ongoing story of the world that continues to unfold and we are all a part of it.