First things first: English is not the universal language. In America we grow up with this notion that the rest of the world speaks English. This is a lie.
Food should not be stressful. Taking a coffee in Europe is a sacred ritual and almost always accompanied by some type of buttery bread or sweet treat. Don’t overthink it. It’s okay to eat a mystery cheese filled croissant for breakfast, lunch, and anywhere in between. Life is about experience.
No map can replace a pair of eyes and common sense. I had the best paella from a hole in the wall south of Madrid, and was shown better hospitality from a hostel owner in midtown Porto than a five star hotel in SF. Some of the best places don’t have Yelp reviews. Sometimes it’s best to go with the flow and get to know the city without the help of technology. Besides, it can be pretty awkward when you’re looking at your phone, asking for directions while standing in front of your destination.
Locals do not always know their way around the city. I’m from San Francisco, and I’ll admit times where I’ve given accidental wrong directions to a confused tourist. “Local knowledge” will confuse you – they know the city in a different way and recognize streets and landmarks more casually than someone experiencing the city for the first time. These subtleties lead to an adventure through a shanti town on your way to finding central square.
Wi-Fi is an undependable luxury. Cafes and hostels will advertise Wi-Fi to attract tourists and locals alike. They don’t, however, advertise if the Wi-Fi is working. For every location that had that beautiful Wi-Fi symbol, only about half of those had a functioning router. If you are lucky enough to score an Internet connection, you’ll definitely need a password. If you don’t speak the language, this means you have the daunting task of trying to figure out the spelling, spacing, and capitalization of the password. If you get crafty and ask the waiter or attendant to write the password down you may find yourself stuck uncovering the hieroglyphics that is the normal European handwriting. I’ll give you a hint for cipher: the “i” is probably an “l,” or maybe an “a” an “e.”
Always carry bug spray. Even if you don’t think you need it, bug spray is a way better purchase than the itch cream and lotion you’ll need if you’re attacked by the crazy large mosquitos common in Southern Europe.
Homesickness is like any a cold. It’s temporary. You feel it coming on, you fall into it, you let it run its course, and then it’s gone. Wait through it.
You will learn more about a country’s culture by going to bars, not museums. Museums are awesome and should be appreciated and explored. They are also full of tourists, elementary school field trips, and more tourists. When traveling, balance out your museum adventures with afternoon tapas or bar wanderings. The people you meet will show you a unique view of their home and you’ll experience the city the way they know it, which is exactly what art is.
Embrace the wrong train. There’s nothing you can do once you realize it, if you realize it at all. Here’s my advice for when this happens: don’t exit the next station. Wait until panic subsides and ask a local for the name of the next major city. Rewrite that day’s adventure. There are two reasons for this. If you exit the train in some tiny village, it might be hours before another train arrives or it might not connect to the city you’re trying to get to. Waiting it out and getting off at a larger city means more options for travelling out of it and connecting you to where you’re trying to go. It could also be a pretty cool detour. Trust me, if you end up in Lucerne instead of Zurich you won’t be too upset.
If a train has an eye symbol on it then you have a 20% chance they will actually check for a ticket. Here’s an interesting concept. Trains in Europe only collect tickets when they have people working. Tickets are required, but they are only checked fifty percent of the time. What’s more is that you can buy a ticket on the train if you don’t have one. This means don’t buy train tickets. If they ask for one, play the tourist card and buy one on the spot. If they don’t have anyone working, you just scored a free train.
You will end up in places you didn’t plan on going. You may find yourself in Dijon instead of Paris, or having a beer in a small pub on a tiny island instead of at a raging bar in London. You could end up in a fishing village where no one speaks English, or some mining town where the streets go dark at sundown. Explore those places.
Getting around is easier when you aren’t afraid of getting lost. Being afraid of getting lost only makes you look at your map way more times than you need and second guess yourself way too often. Keeping your eyes on a map almost guarantees missing something new and beautiful and makes it more difficult to find the place you’re looking for. Explore boldly.
Barter for your last minute hotel. European hostels operate a bit differently than they do in the states. If you’re in a new city and don’t have a hotel booked, don’t hesitate to walk in and ask if there are any open rooms. If it’s a last minute stay, talk down the price. The owners want to have as many people stay as possible, and they’ll discount anything available if it’s the night of. You might even get breakfast included.
CityMaps is the best app for getting around a city. Let me tell you about this app. You download it in advance and it uses Wikipedia as a reference for activities, accommodations, and tourism. You can search places offline and it uses the gps in your phone to orient you around the map to your destination. It even has summaries of important places.
It’s easier to communication without a phone in your hand. Even if the intentions are good, like opening up Google Translate or a map, it’s best to give your full attention. Even if you don’t speak the language, you’ll be blown away by how much you understand through undistracted, nonverbal cues. These less appreciated forms of interacting sharpen your intuition and make life abroad easier. More importantly than that, it’s respectful.
Pay attention when you’re walking. Cobblestoned alleyways have been known to take down even the savviest traveler, and I’ve watched city locals shout foreign obscenities after stepping in a pile of dog poop on the side of the road. Always look down. You don’t want to be the unlucky person who encounters both of those misfortunes simultaneously.
Talk to strangers. They will show you the best bars to watch football, the tastiest coffee, and shortcuts through interesting and lesser-known parts of town. Anyone can read a map and follow signs, but it’s a whole new experience to form relationships, practice the language, and experience a new country through a different perspective. It’s pretty easy to find things in common. Start with a question. They’ll tell you all you want to know.
And finally, home is not a place.