lessons from europe

Lessons from Europe




On June 27th at 6pm, my father dropped my friends Joyce, Sarah, and I off at Pearson International Airport. The three of us were off to Reykjavik, Iceland for the start of a month of backpacking around Europe. It’s the type of trip I’ve been aspiring to go on since I went through my parents’ photo albums of their own trips nearly thirty years ago.

With my backpack weighing down my hips and my passport secured in my day-pack (I triple checked), I waved goodbye to my father after one last “Safety first!” reminder. Our itinerary spans eight countries and fourteen cities in thirty-two days, and for the first time in my life, I have only myself (and two comrades) to rely on.
There’s a lot to learn while travelling, and I’ve never backed down from learning. The following is a short list of some things to keep in mind if you’re ever planning to traipse across the globe.

1. Don’t book a plane ticket for a Saturday night from your country’s biggest airport. If your travels pan out that way, arrive early and expect long lines.

The night of our flight was the busiest I had ever seen Pearson Airport. We got caught with all the other summer travelers, and waited in lines for over two hours. It is not much fun standing in line with a 12kg pack on.

2. Be prepared for all sorts of weather.

Icelanders joke,”if you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes.” The slogan is in every souvenir shop. On the island, the weather is quite unpredictable. It was cloudy, rained lightly, rained heavily, and the sun shone bright all in one afternoon. I couldn’t decide between wearing my sweater or carrying it half the time. I brought enough options for Icelandic weather, and the complete opposite, Freiburg weather for our adventures in Germany (it went up to 41° Celsius one day).

3. Expect to pay for attractions and local foods.

We only stayed in Reykjavik for two nights. In our short time there, we took a full day tour to the South coast of the island; we saw a glacier, a black sand beach, a folk museum, and two waterfalls. I hate to use the “you only live once” line, but as I am not likely to ever return to these places again, I chucked up the krona for the day tour. Spectacular rainbows and waterfalls awaited, and we even saw puffins flying around the windy shores. In Iceland, we also tried licorice candies, lamb hot dogs, dried fish, and a restaurant’s Catch of the Day. We decided to skip the rotten shark,…we had to draw the line somewhere.

4. Good footwear is a must.


In Aberdeen, Scotland, Sarah’s cousin took us on an afternoon trip to Aberdeenshire, – first to the beach in Balmedie, then to the Bullers of Buchan. We took the local buses out to the countryside, then walked about 20 minutes to our destinations. Without running shoes or sturdy sandals, my feet wouldn’t have made it through sand dunes and along gravel roads.

5. Take breaks. Balance the days. Be flexible.


On our second day in Amsterdam, the weather was rainy and we didn’t have any plans. After walking around the city in the morning, we headed back to the apartment for a snack. We ended up watching four movies on Netflix and playing a trivia game for hours. Some days, you just miss the simple joys of staying at home, where you don’t have to pay to use the toilet.

6. Take breaks from each other too.

After so many days together, we know when we each get cranky. In such moments, we keep in touch with friends back home so we have someone to vent to when disagreements occur. We also try to take walks and listen to music, and have some time alone from the craziness of traveling.

7. Go on free walking tours.

A lot of the best things in life are free. These types of tours work on a pay-what-you-can model (or pay what you think the tour guide deserves) so the guides are usually great and friendly. They know the best places to see and eat, and the tours are filled with history that you wouldn’t generally come across. Did you know that the Brussels town hall isn’t symmetrical? It’s shorter on one side because the city didn’t want to cut off trade to their main square.

8. It’s okay to be a tourist. Take photos.
As funny as it is to watch other people take photos where they’re holding up the Eiffel Tower or imitating statues, sometimes it’s fun to be a true tourist and take photos too (we stay away from golden feet though). We’ll never do this again, and we want to remember the royal palaces and winding rivers we’ve passed over. We’ll also have the stories like Sarah doing a scorpion pose and falling off a wooden block in front of the Louvre to laugh about. So make funny faces and bend over in crazy poses once in a while, even if it makes you cringe.

9. Befriend other travelers.

In Basel, Switzerland, we stayed in our first hostel. The kitchen became our hangout (we had the wrong converter, and only one in the kitchen fit our chargers), and there we had some memorable conversations with other travellers. Rosie was an art history student from Glasgow, who booked a plane ticket to Basel on a whim three nights beforehand. Michelle was a seasoned traveller to Europe; she was also from Canada, and takes trips across the world each time she considers a career change. Not only were their stories refreshing and new, they inspired us to continue our journeys through Europe, and maybe even consider travelling alone.

10. Do what the locals do.
Basel was really hot. It was almost 35° Celsius one day, much too hot to walk around the city for a full afternoon. Instead, we grabbed our towels and changed into swimsuits to join hundreds of locals floating down the Rhine. Locals usually put their valuables and clothes in “fish,” waterproof bags that they take with them down the river so they can exit wherever they wish to. We took turns watching our backpacks. Despite having to take turns on guard duty, the experience was totally worth it. The Rhine was a gorgeous place to enjoy Basel and experience something new.

11. Write.

It’s been a long time since I’ve written anything for fun, and even longer that I’ve written for myself. We each brought a travel journal with us to record our days. There’s no rush to write about anything that night, but sometimes we get an hour or two waiting for the train to jot down some memories. It helps remember the names of everything we’ve seen, and it makes our memories last longer.

I’ve still got 11 days left in Europe and I plan to make the best of them.

Jackie Ho ([email protected]) is making her way through Europe – eating, writing, and waiting in lines.