I was a sweating mess—my phone no longer worked (I opted to not sign up for international roaming), I have not spoken French on a continuous basis for years, and I couldn’t take everything in. Six hours ago, I was in JFK, pacing, fidgeting, and making mental plans of what I have to do in case I take the wrong train out of the airport and end up anywhere but the city center of Brussels, where a good friend I met in New York is supposed to pick me up.
I was at the Brussels Airport, on the month of October, around 9AM. The first overseas country I’ve gone to by myself.
I’ve prided myself on being a meticulous planner. Although I don’t get to hour-by-hour breakdowns of a vacation, you can be sure that if I was the one who’s supposed to be on top of things, that I’ll make sure everything’s accounted for, every possible tourist spot visited, and the local savoir-faire explored.
Curiously, on the trip where I am given the pass to be extra-OCD is the trip where I decided to eff things and just go with the flow—to an extent. I asked myself that worst that could happen, and said that it most likely won’t.
(If it did, I’m pretty sure it would make for a great break-the-ice story.)
I walked up to a Metro ticket agent, spoke in what I considered to be unintelligible Franglish, and got myself a second-class ticket to Bruxelles-Central.
When I erroneously sat in the first-class train, I let out a hearty laugh (to the embarrassment of the train conductor) and said to myself, “This is the beginning of a fun trip.” And it did. So much so that to this day, I still romance that ultra-memorable fifteen-day journey through five countries in Europe.
I’ve since gone to one more overseas trip since, but the trip wisdom—if you can call it wisdom—stayed with me. And I intend on following it as I strike off more destinations on my guidebook.
Lesson number one: Plan only the most basic of needs. Six months before I was to leave for Europe, I made sure that my Visa, passport, and travel insurance are up-to-date and valid. Nothing ruins a trip quite like being denied entry to your final destination because you’re missing one—or several—important pieces of documentation.
Besides this, have a place to stay and the means to get there, for at least two days after arriving. Yes, with the popularity of AirBnB and student-friendly motels, you are most likely never going to be without a warm bed to sleep in, but if you consider the time that you would waste calling to see if there are vacancies, then having made reservations before you even board the plane comes out to being a very smart choice.
Also, if you plan on hitting up a must-see destination, pay Google a visit beforehand. Find out how long queues are, the best times in the week to visit, and if they have special hours on the days you are there. This way, you won’t waste time waiting in a line that snakes all the way to the next block, only to find out that it clears up two hours later.
It helps to learn the local dialect. Yes, English is spoken and to some degree understood by a significant amount of the population, but that’s never enough excuse not to try and communicate in the language spoken by the citizens on a daily basis. No one’s asking you to be fluent—just learn enough politeness to be able to have the waitstaff seat you, get a drink from the bartender, find your way to a train stop, and ask for help if you’re in a bind. If you can, learn a few conversation starters, before saying that that’s as much as you can speak. People you meet will appreciate the effort, and would warm up to you faster compared to stopping them in the middle of the street with a terse “Do you speak English?” For what it’s worth, my speaking in French in Montréal won me a few friends who were more than happy to invite me to join them at a house party they were having.
I’m a recent transplant to the United States, but it didn’t take long before I realized that we experience a deluge of choice every single day. Burgers are made from the flesh of five different beasts; the buns are white, whole-wheat, or non-existent; and if you happen to buy your beverage from a restaurant with Coke’s Freestyle Machine, you have one-hundred-twenty-seven drink possibilities.
One of the things I love to hate about America is how utterly conditioned we are to always have it our way. If we want to drink a reduced-calorie, caffeine-free, vanilla-syrup-infused soda with two slices of lemons cut one-eighths of an inch thick, we can. If we want our steak cooked well-done, we are within our power to do so.
Unfortunately, this attitude can be detrimental towards our enjoyment of another country’s culture. When you are not in your “territory,” go ahead and surrender choice. Go with what the citizens do instead of stomping your ground with what you are used to back in your home country. If the Italians do not drink cappuccino past a certain hour—and they do—don’t insist that you be served it. You’re in their home turf—the last thing you want is to come across as very rude and entitled.
Unless it’s something that would land you on the ER, eat your steak rare; drink regular Coca-Cola (or better: have your bistro server pop open that table wine—it’s inexpensive and would go with your meal just fine); and have a few bites of cheese at the end.
At the end of it all, you’re only human—at some point in the trip, even if you have been getting enough rest and not falling asleep drunk every night, fatigue will catch up on you. Expect that you won’t be able to see all of the places you wanted to see. Even locals, who have been living there for more than a week, most likely took months before they were able to cross off all the tourist spots from their book (assuming they actually want to).
At any metropolitan city, aim to visit three spots each day, but realistically expect that you’ll only see two. You’re going to want to eat, too—on top of sleep. It was my last day in Montréal, but I haven’t scaled Mont-Royal yet because I was saving it until I was about to go home. On the day of, it rained. Even worse, my calves started burning up—numerous days of constant walking finally took its toll on them. My trip’s over, I thought to myself. I got my things, went home, and rested until I had to head to the airport the next day.
The second we reach cruising altitude on the plane, I pull out my notebook, write down the places I didn’t get to visit. Once I’m back in the US, I’d refer to the list every now and then, using that as motivation to go back as soon as possible.