With the idea in mind that this might be my only year living abroad, I made it my mission to travel as much as possible. Luckily, my best friend from college Marissa was willing to help me kickstart this adventure with a backpacking trip. Less fun, were all my breaks at summer camp spent in a dingy computer lab booking busses and hostels, and standing on top of the hill trying to get phone service to text Marissa. In the end, the amount of sightseeing and activities we ended up fitting into a few short days is actually quite unbelievable and I couldn’t have asked for a more willing travel partner.
We had to book separate flights to Glasgow (mine stopped over in Iceland, giving me my first taste of the inadequate size of the Reykjavik airport), so Marissa was waiting for me with a cup of coffee when I finally landed in Scotland. We took a black cab (our first mistake, we would quickly learn), to drop off my suitcases containing everything I brought with me to move across the ocean at my friends house and headed straight to Glasgow Central to hop on a train to the North of England.
Despite how tired we were, our train journey was incredibly pleasant, rolling down through the Lake District and beautiful English countryside.
This was my first time, and certainly not my last, booking with AirBnb, and how pleasant a time it was.
Our host Kate (who we still talk about to this day), welcomed us with tea and an invite to karaoke. Unfortunately we weary travelers could only think of food and sleep, so we popped into the first kebab shop we could find and fought down mysterious meat sandwiches. After zonking out for a few hours, we woke up unenthusiastically to get ready for the Leeds Music Festival. We stopped at cafe / pub along the water, which made us late for our bus, but I will never regret an english breakfast.
Leeds was exactly like every photo you see online of an English music festival: a soggy shit show. Oh, and everyone ever got the wellies memo except for us, ... goodbye to one of two pairs of shoes I had packed for our trip. Philadelphia local band Modern Baseball was unable to make the festival, but I still sported a rare screen printed Modern Baseball / Misfits t-shirt which attracted the condolences of some other sad fans. I refrained from telling them how many times I’ve seen Modern Baseball in a basement.
When arranging this trip, Marissa and I had made one of those young, ambitious pacts to save as much money as possible by doing the inconvenient or uncomfortable to save a few dollars. I’m assuming we thought this might add to the sense of adventure (in a way it did), so when we were deciding how to get from the United Kingdom to Belgium, we found a Megabus! Who could pass up a round trip for eleven pounds? (More on that in a bit). The catch was that we had to wait twelve hours in London until we could get our bus. Twelve hours in London? No problem!
We skipped out of Victoria Station and down past Buckingham Palace, took a stroll through the park to admire the Queens censused Swans, wandered into Westminster and made our way across the Thames to the London Eye, and along the river for what was still one of the loveliest urban strolls of my life. It's also quite easy to see all the mainstays of London in one day if you take this route. We passed the Globe Theater, St. Pauls Cathedral, Millenium Bridge minus the Dementors, and then somehow mustered up the willpower to walk to Kings Cross Station, or the famous departure gate for the Hogwarts Express. It is the best day I've ever had in London.
The amount of people interested in taking a bus from London to Brussels was at first, very shocking to me. Marissa and I managed to snag two of the last seats, which to our instant dismay were behind a man who smelled so vile I cannot possibly describe it, and across from two very drunk women who seemed to be unaware that the rest of the bus might like to catch a few winks on their overnight journey. Not long after leaving London we arrived at the English Channel where the bus merged onto a Ferry. After living in the UK for sometime, I learned that you are typically supposed to be allowed to get off of the bus and enjoy the main ferry cabin, but for some hellish reason we were instructed to stay near the bus. After the channel came the first border control. We all climbed off the bus and made our way through a passport center in the middle of the night. This happened more than once.
When we arrived in Brussels at 7am I was too exhausted to be relieved, and where the prospects of a new city typically excite me, I was confused and frustrated. We eventually found our hostel (HI Brussels, part of the HI chain) and set our bags down. Now we only had six hours to kill before we could be given access to our beds. In that spirit, we mustered whatever energy was not left back on that dreadful Megabus and made our way into town. We found Brussels to be an absolute dream. It was full of tasty little chocolates, waffles and Delirium (beer but also state of mind). We only had one full day in Brussels and wanted to see as much as possible, so we took the easy way out and bought tickets for the City Tour Bus. Coincidentally, I did end up falling asleep on the top of the bus.
After a quick nap and much needed showers, we made our way out to celebrate my twenty-third birthday. I’ve tried to establish a pattern of spending my birthday in a new place every year since that night sipping beer in the Grand Place with some Albanians. Blame it on the delirium, or on Brussels seemingly patternless and gridless stress, we got lost at a most inconvenient hour.
We ended up in a neighborhood that looked unfamiliar and felt unsafe. We were also the only females about, so sticking with our guts we jumped into a fast food chain and got just enough wifi to order an Uber. It had turned out we weren’t far from the hostel, but sometimes it’s better to be safe than sorry.
On September First, the day of my birth, we woke up to head to the place we had been most excited to experience all along - Amsterdam! I rose out of a deep slumber on our morning bus ride somewhere in Rotterdam. Soon we were in the countryside, passing windmills and peaceful green fields. The moment we stepped out of Amsterdam Central station we were both in love, and a little lost. Buses and bicycles were crisscrossing in every direction and the cold temperature shocked us (it had been quite hot on our journey thus far). We finally found our hostel, The Flying Pig (Downtown), and threw our bags into the locker next to our … bed. We had apparently booked a double bed on a top bunk, over a very romantic couple. Luckily, we weren’t planning on spending much time in the hostel. Of all the hostels I’ve stayed in, I would probably recommend this one the least.
We threw on our jackets and scarves and headed out to explore. We spent hours wandering the canals, passed the Anne Frank Haus, which was sadly a bit too busy for our short stay, and then we came across the mecca of our afternoon munchie dreams - the Danish Cheese Museum! Not only is there a tiny museum about cheese, but you can taste test up to fifty different cheeses. How lucky can one get to stumble upon this place by accident? I cannot express how blissful it is to explore this city on foot, but we also alternatively spent about an hour or so on a boat tour. This was another incredible way to see the canals and get up close to all of the eccentric and cozy boat houses. Apparently Amsterdam is one of the toughest places in the world to find real estate, on both land and water. I could see why.
On Day two we had plans to stay in an Airbnb just outside of Amsterdam, so thinking we would be able to get back into town quite easily, we hopped on the metro in the afternoon in an attempt to find our home for the night. We had really been looking forward to this place, as it was a yurt in a private garden. However, we really had to work to get there.
We had no map and only a vague set of directions. The sun was beating down on us and my REI backpack hip strap had conveniently broken. I should mention that without thinking, the week before this trip I got a tattoo on my left shoulder and nexplanon inserted into my right arm, causing my entire upper arm to bruise. We walked for what felt like an eternity through the countryside. Without packs it would have been a pleasant walk as it passes a network of tiny houses on tiny canals, windmills and a giant park. At one point we had walked so far that we were about to give up, but luckily someone spotted us and had figured out where we were going. After she disappeared out of sight on her bicycle, we didn’t see a single person at our AirBnb again.
While it was a challenge to get to, the garden we stumbled into was pure magic. There were giant animals (including elephants) made of twisted wood, little ponds, a tree house with a hammock, fairies, countless flowers, and then rising up in the right corner, our big beautiful yurt. Climbing up the stairs and stepping inside was like stepping into a dream. There were more patterns than you could wrap your head around, big fur rugs on the floor, and huge circular bed in the middle. To two tired travelers, it was paradise.
Until it hit us…. We were so far from the city and had nothing to eat for dinner. So we decided to see if there was anything nearvy. We felt light without our packs but unfortunately our panic for food once again inhibited our ability to fully enjoy the countryside. We spotted a hotel in the distance and practically made a run for it. Unfortunately, our bright printed leggings, wide eyes and smell did not lend so well in such a nice establishment and we were not able to dine at their very fancy restaurant. We did however, buy a handful of candy bars from the concierge. Nothing like snacking on a lackluster candy bar made fifteen minutes away from your home in America in another country. Our last idea was to head to the campsite we had passed earlier. We found a store that was about to close in five minutes and grabbed a few more assorted bags of crisps and made our way back to our yurt to munch on our exotic dinner.
After another day exploring the city, we made our way back to our second dreaded Megabus. A handful of passengers were standing outside of the bus finishing all of their legal products before they would soon become illegal again. The driver gave a lengthy, scolding speech about consuming them on the bus. This was followed by a much more peaceful and quiet ride back to London, for obvious reasons.
Up to this point I had only flown through Heathrow, so I hadn’t imagined that an airport with London in front of the name could be so far from London (turns out most of them are, e.g. Gatwick is closer to the sea than the city). Our bus ride took a good hour and a half and we were crunched for time. Once at the airport I got into my standard argument with a Ryanair employee and then we had to most literally sprint to our gate. I would later learn that this is regular operation procedure at Stansted - they show your flight gate right before it boards and then you have to immediately break into a brisk walk to get their in time. To this day it is my least favorite airport on earth.
After a long week of adventures, we finally made it back to my new home in Glasgow. Sticking with our “keep it cheap” morals, we skipped the cab and took a very long bus, getting us very lost. We climbed off the bus at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and stumbled into a coffee shop to ask a nice young Scottish man for directions. Little did I know I would end up spending hours in that exact coffee shop, Urban Brew, and that the young man would make me many 2.60 cappuccinos.
That evening we had burgers in my new neighborhood, Finnieston and I was able to show Marissa around Glasgow as best as I could remember from my few days there. We fit so much into one week and there was no one I would have rather done it with. Sleep seems less important when you’re in a new place, and inconveniences can easily be solved with the right attitude. This trip was a huge learning curve for me. I learned that sometimes it’s better to spend a little more money for much more comfort and that traveling is not always what you see on Instagram.
When Marissa finally left, I remember standing on sidewalk and thinking “shit, I have to make friends now.” That’s when it really hit me that I was alone in a new country and the adventure was just beginning.