Some people, when asked to imagine someplace exotic, are prone to think of places in the South Pacific, where native girls wear coconuts, the bugs are as big as footballs, and the tropical rainforest seems like it will swallow up every instance of civilization if given the chance. However, for me, an exotic place is any place outside of my small little American existence. So, when I got to take a trip to Europe in the summer, it was not only exotic, but a life-changing experience. I learned that even though I consider myself relatively worldly and educated, there are so many things I need to learn about history, culture, and human psychology; fortunately, my trip was a fine crash course on each.
I took my trip to Europe with my older brother, making it a little easier and safer for me to enjoy it. I originally had plans to do the trip alone, fostering notions about backpacking through Europe and finding romance and adventure around every corner, but it took very little convincing to make me realize that going with him would be better for so many different reasons. He said we would be each other’s “battle buddy,” and that was good enough for me. After the long plane ride, on which I slept most of the way, we landed at Heathrow Airport. When I got off the plane, it surprised me a bit to see security guards walking around with machine guns, but I guess it is just something to get used to after September 11, 2001. Even with the ominous image of machine guns and reminders of terrorist violence, the feeling of being in a new country proved to powerful to ignore.
My brother and I took the London Underground from the airport to Victoria station, which was close to where our hostel was located. For only twenty British pounds a night apiece, my brother and I stayed at the Curzon House Hotel, sharing a room with two other young vacationers from Germany. They spoke English very well and were about my age, so we got along very well together, despite what seemed like a very cramped situation. I was not used to the communal living of the hostel, which included having to walk down the hallway to use the bathroom, but it definitely had a dorm-type feel to it, which I could relate, and we would not be spending very long in it. In just a couple days, we were to get on a train and travel across Europe all the way down to Italy.
After we got settled in a bit, we both decided to grab something to eat, and went out into London to find a burger and a beer. Being able to drink legally was one of the great perks of going to Europe. On the first night my brother and I just wanted to relax and rest from the trip, but ended up visiting at least three pubs, which was a great experience in itself. We met some really nice people, including two pretty girls from Shepherd’s Bush, and finally returned to the hotel around two in the morning. One of the things that I remember vaguely is actually getting a pizza from Pizza Hut that night, which was surprising to me, because I had no idea that we could get the same pizza we get back home. Unfortunately, I also remember the pizza not being as good as the kind back home, but it may have been the toppings my brother insisted upon.
The first full day in London was our tourist day. We chose took walk and take the Underground to hit all the tourist spots with our cameras, just so we could show everybody we had actually been to Europe. However, being far more interested in having fun than taking pictures, neither of us took very many pictures that day. And, somehow, we ended up drinking a lot of beer on our way around the city. I began to think that my brother wanted to visit every bar and pub in England, and we certainly did our best. Through it all, we did manage to see Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, and we even got to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. We thought we initially had little interest in very touristy things, but still found ourselves taken in by the history of the city. But, even though everything had such history to it, it still felt as modern or even more than a lot of American cities. The London Underground itself was a clean and efficient subway system, and it was a great way to get around the city, which is good, because it was strange to see people driving on the wrong side of the road. At the end of the second day we went to Notting Hill and got some food to bring back to the hotel, as well as for the train trip we would be taking out of London the next day. The main part of our trip was just about to begin.
There was a lot of debate with my brother when we were planning the trip about where to go and what to see. When he found out that some of his good friends were also going to be in Europe during the summer, we decided to hook up with them. This meant going to Italy by train. I wanted to either go to Amsterdam or Paris for a while, but as soon as I got on the train to Milan, I knew it would be good no matter where we went. The two days in London were fun, and England seemed like a good introduction to the European culture, if only because the people spoke the same language and everything seemed very similar to America, with McDonald’s, Burger King, and KFC around every corner. It was very hard to get homesick, but I also felt like we were missing some of the great things that made Europe special. On the other hand, I was thoroughly enjoying British pub life, but that also could have been just being able to enjoy any pub anywhere, considering back home I was not allowed to. Needless to say, getting up to catch the train was a little difficult the third day, but somehow we made it.
We got on the Eurostar train line early in the morning and went under the English Channel to get to France. The rolling green hills of England and then France were amazing. I really got a sense of the difference between Europe and America while sitting on the train looking out the window. Though America is supremely beautiful in parts, it seemed that every stretch of landscape I saw was so beautiful. There were immense fields of sunflowers, rolling hills spotted with little villages, and an overall feel to the land as if there was a perfect balance between nature and civilization. When we arrived in Paris, we went through the heart of the city and I saw the Eiffel Tower, The Arc de Triomphe, and the Notre Dame Cathedral from the train. It was such a tease to simply be passing through the city on the way to some place else, but we had tentative plans to stop back in Paris on the way back. So we continued on our train ride, which would take another seven hours through the most beautiful countryside vistas I had ever seen.
We finally arrived in Milan in the late afternoon, and met my brother’s friends at the station. We were staying at the Hotel Ibis, which was a nice, but thoroughly European hotel. I was beginning to realize that I took many things for granted in the United States, namely the extent we go to for personal privacy. In Europe, things like that seem secondary, and I simply went with the flow. We spent the first night in Milan going to a few clubs and drinking with my brother’s friends, who were both girls he went to college with. They promised to show us a good time the next day, and they certainly did. After breakfast at the hotel, we drove down to Venice, where we went by boat to the center of the city. I was completely blown away by Venice and the gondolas. I remember wondering how and why people built the city in the water and continued to live there, but it was such a beautiful place that there was little question why they endured the possibility of flood. We ended up visiting St. Mark’s Square, St. Mark’s Basilica, Sign’s and Rialto’s Bridges. Then we had lunch and went to a few shops before departing by boat for Murano Island and a great glass factory. Finally we continued to Torcello Island and to see a cathedral in the Venetian lagoon before making our way back to Milan, stopping to eat some amazing dinner along the way.
Over the next few days, we would go to Florence then Rome. Rome was like walking into a past that I was familiar with. While I had seen certain things in Venice and Paris on television and in books, walking around Rome I actually felt like I was walking through history. To see the giant aqueducts built by the ancient Romans and still standing was amazing. My brother, his friends, and I met with a tour guide and we took a tour of Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, and the Coliseum, along with all the monuments of the Eternal City. I wish we had stayed in Rome longer, but after only a day we were back on our way to Milan and back to London after that. However, we did spend a day in Tuscany before we went back on the train, and I cannot remember seeing a more beautiful area in my life, the way the villages are nestled away in the hills. After about a week in Italy, it was time to leave, and we had a final night of clubbing with my brother’s friends. While I am not a huge fan of dance clubs, there is an energy at European clubs that is absent in America, which is very hard to explain. Perhaps, in Europe it is all about having a good time, while in America it is all about hooking up. Either way, I had the best time I ever had in a dance club, even though I am no dancer.
After we left Italy, we spent a few days in Switzerland and Germany. The Alps have to be one of the most beautiful natural creations on the planet. In Lucerne, Switzerland we climbed Mt. Pilatus, and did things that were uniquely Swiss, including getting some chocolate. I had a strange feeling in Switzerland, almost like it was a ride at Epcot Center, but I think it was just because I could not fathom how beautiful and serene it would be. After Switzerland, we spent one day in Germany, and went to a few bars in Heidelberg. I wished we had more time, but we had to take the train back to London, and I still wanted to see Paris in detail. We finally began our trek back, and got to Paris in the late afternoon. We did not even have a whole day to see the city, as we were slated to go back to London the next morning, so we decided to make the most of the trip. We took a cab to the Louvre and saw the great works of art. Like the other parts of the trip that seemed surreal, seeing some of the world’s most famous works of art was an interesting experience. I saw the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, and only the next week here I was looking at the Mona Lisa. If anything, getting to see this part of human history made the trip completely worthwhile.
We were soon back on the train, under the Channel, and back in England. Though the trip was two weeks long, it went by far too fast. Italy was the most fun, perhaps because we spent most of our trip there and already had friends to show us around. However, we met so many amazing people from all over the world, and fortunately, most of them spoke English. My brother and I ate some amazing food, spent far too much money on pubs and discothèques, but had an experience that we would never forget. As I sat at Heathrow Airport waiting to board the plane home, I could not help but think I would be back to Europe soon, and hopefully with a lot more time to spend exploring its art, geography, and most of all, its people.