Lessons Learned During Six Weeks Abroad

Six weeks is a lot of time for self-reflection and lesson learning. Here are 10 things we learned during out adventure abroad!

1. Not planning and, most importantly, not setting expectations avoids disappointment.
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Planning is my jam, and for many years I’ve believed that planning for every possible scenario and situation keeps my anxiety at bay. But over-planning can stress other people out, and since I agreed to make compromises when I married my husband, I’ve been trying to be more go-with-the-flow the last couple years. Planning to not plan, in other words. And you know what? I love it! We don’t face disappointment of not getting to see something that we’d planned on and we don’t feel rushed to meet deadlines or appointments we made months in advance. Instead, by planning only the essentials (where we’re staying, how we’re getting there, money and communication), we give ourselves more freedom to enjoy our time in a new place, our time together, and I’m less anxious since I don’t have specific times I have to be somewhere. I did make the mistake of making a long list of things I wanted to show Justin in Paris, trying to plan out what we’d do each day, and we just didn’t have time, so I ended up disappointed that we missed out on certain sites. If I had just chilled out and not gotten so wrapped up in what we had to do, I would have been more relaxed.

2. English is more universal than I knew. But that doesn’t give us a right to expect it.
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I hate being that traveler who shows up not knowing a word of the language, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Adult brains are not as open to learning language as young minds so even if we wanted to try to learn enough language to get by, it would require a lot of studying and dedication. Fear not! Everyone in Europe seems to speak at least a few words of English. I was amazed at how many people not only spoke English but spoke it well. We bounced through five countries and never faced a language barrier. However, we didn’t barge into places shouting in English, expecting or demanding that everyone spoke to us in English. We always tried to be gracious about it, at least attempting a “hello” in the language of the country we were in and asking if they spoke English. Often, we didn’t even have to ask; our lack of foreign language skills apparent, they would speak to us in our native tongue or English menus would be handed to us.

3. The American service industry created unmatched high standards.
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Maybe it’s because American servers rely on tips or maybe because we went to Europe at peak tourist season and they were all just done, but European service leaves a lot to be desired. Waiting twenty minutes for our drink orders, rude servers, having to flag down a server to order a second drink… and why is it so difficult to get a LARGE CUP OF WATER? Do Europeans just not get thirsty? They always looked at me like I was crazy asking for a cup of tap water, and once I even got served in a shot glass! The thing that baffled us the most happened in Holland: we would sit  down at a table, the waiter would come over and stare at us expectantly, as if they were ready to take our order. We just sat down. We need a menu. Why not bring us a menu, right away? We had to ask for one 90% of the time. (Fun fact: we had the best service in Paris, so all of that BS about French being rude is just untrue.)

4. Walking is the best way to see a city.
We have come to the conclusion that, for many reasons, we are not tour people, the most notable reason being that we both like to be in control of the situation and have the freedom to stop and go as we choose. Walking affords that luxury in a way that organized tours do not. Walking also lets you see a city from a totally unique perspective, one you probably don’t experience often (unless you live in a walkable city). Riding bikes would have been faster and fun, but walking takes more time, which means you have more time to notice stuff. I like documenting the mundane details of a place just as much as I like capturing the big, awe-inspiring stuff, and walking allows you to stop and smell the streets.

5. Good shoes are a must.
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Seriously. I can’t emphasize this enough. We walked 17 miles in one day, I was wearing comfortable supportive shoes and still ended up with blisters from the sheer amount of time my feet were in them. Aside from the blistery day in Rotterdam, my feet were well taken care of and I have two new favorite pairs of shoes: These Merrell sandals and these Sketchers sneakers. (I just bought two more pairs of them. For real. That comfortable.)

6. You can survive not being constantly connected.
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Not having mobile data was a lot easier than I thought it would be for two reasons. First, GPS works without cellular data or wifi. Second, getting connected on wifi was easy. 90% of all establishments have free wifi; getting connected at some of them might be tricky, but for the most part getting online was not hard, and let us get information when we needed it and stay in touch with people back home. The rest of the time, walking around disconnected? It was kind of nice. And because we knew it was temporary, just until the next wifi connection, it did not result in withdrawals.

7. Packing and living light is a lot easier than it sounds.
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You can get by with a lot less than you think you need. We packed everything we needed for 43 days in two carry-on bags and two backpacks, and this included the five pairs of shoes I mentioned above. You don’t need to bring all of your toiletries with you; buy what you need along the way. I didn’t even end up wearing every item I brought with me and bought a few clothing items along the way. Our teeny, tiny electronics make packing light even easier since a smartphone acts as gameboy, flashlight, camera, calculator, internet browser, iPod, newspaper, and communicator all in one. We each had a Galaxy S6, a laptop, an external hard drive, a mouse, and I brought a Kindle. Das all.

8. Trust people but don’t drop your guard.
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Most of the people you meet along your travels will be perfectly nice and trustworthy, but there’s always going to be someone trying to scam you, whether it’s the hustlers in Montmartre or beggars near the old Cathedral. While you don’t need to assume every person is out to get you, maintaining situational awareness is key. We learned this the hard way on a lovely day in Budapest: we’d stumbled upon a music festival, eaten some delicious Hungarian food, had walked over ten miles already, and wanted to be a little lazy on our way back to our part of the city so we found a cab for the short (2 mile?) ride. We didn’t question the unusually high fare at the end of the ride (about 7000 HUF, more than what it cost to get from the airport to the city) and I wasn’t paying much attention when Justin handed cash to the driver. I thought he handed a 10,000 HUF bill to the driver, who I think switched it with a 1,000 HUF bill. “No, no. This is only 1,000.” So we gave him 6,000 more and got out of the car, completed stupefied by what had just happened. We both knew Justin handed him a 10,000 HUF bill, and then we realized how high the fare was; it should’ve been about 1/4 of what we were charged. But we hadn’t been paying attention and didn’t want to argue with the cab driver whose English was not the greatest. At the end of the day, the cab ride cost about 17,000 HUF (about $60) which is not the end of the world. We weren’t physically harmed but our pride was hurt and we became much more vigilant for the remaining weeks.

9. Alone time is hard to come by, so you must travel with someone who you can be “alone” with.
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 43 days with the same person, often with only that person, is a long time. Heck, two weeks with one person can be too much, even if you promised to love them until death do you part. So it’s important to carve out alone time, even if you can’t physically be alone. Our last night in Budapest, we were both exhausted with aching legs so instead of going out, we stocked up on snacks and wine, and hung out in our AirBNB; Justin worked on research for his fantasy football teams while I binged a show on Netflix. We had several nights like this (alone together) about once every 5-7 days over the course of our 6 weeks and we never got sick of one another.

10. Just go. 
Life is short. You never know when a day might be your last, or if you’ll have another opportunity, so just go. Money and time are usually the reasons people quote for not traveling. If only I have more money or if I had more time. You’re never going to have more time, and if you get creative about how you travel, money won’t be as big an obstacle. You don’t have to stay in $200/night hotels, or pay to check bags, or eat out every night during a trip. I can tell you that we are not “rolling in it,” are not independently wealthy (as one of our neighbors thought), and have a fair amount of debt between the two of us (mortgage, car payment, student loans, line of credit, credit cards). But debt doesn’t mean you can’t live. The key is cashflow and creative problem solving. Remember what Mark Twain said: “Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did so.” So just go! There’s no day but today.

Other small things learned along the way:
  • Trains are the best. Way comfier than planes, cheaper, more flexible, plus free wifi!
  • Europeans are obsessed with pizza, french fries and ice cream. Like, just so much bad food, how are they not all fat?! And I really need to know what the obsession with Italian restaurants is. It was unreal.
  • Location services work even when not connected to anything.
  • Holland is home to HUGE SPIDERS. And it’s difficult to find spider spray in any store.
  • I really hate crowds. As I get older, the more I want to NOT be around a lot of people but I didn’t realize until walking around Barcelona just how much crowds are not my thing.

Have you gone on a long journey? What lessons have you learned along the way? What one piece of travel advice would you give someone going abroad for the first time?

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