Tuesday, August 31, 2010

An innocent abroad

When it comes to travel, I'm definitely the black sheep in my family. No one else even has a passport and my parents often need reminding that it's not 3 p.m. in Istanbul when it's 3 p.m. in San Francisco, but that it is summer in both places at the same time. People often ask me how I caught the travel bug, and I honestly can't say. I do remember when my first serious case struck, though.

I was 23 years old and being laid off from my second job in less than a year. Instead of calling my mother, my best friend, or my boyfriend for a sympathetic ear, I picked up the phone and dialed a travel agent. I was planning my first trip to Europe, a visit with my then-boyfriend to see his family in England and Denmark, and with those pesky limits on vacation days suddenly a non-issue, I wanted more time. I had my passport, my Western Europe guidebook, my Eurorail pass, a kabillion rolls of film, and a borrowed backpack that was way too big for me. I was ready.

The extra two weeks I spent on my own were a blur of train stations, hostels, subway rides, museums, and park-bench picnics. In fine young American backpacker style, I managed to get from London to Brussels to Amsterdam to Munich to Berlin to Paris and back again, because why not see as much as you possibly can? This Europe place is a long way away and you might never get back there again, after all... I slept on a creaky metal bunk in a dingy Parisian suburb and in the boyfriend's parents' posh holiday apartment in Hampstead Heath. I got an actual appreciation of the Dutch Masters at the Rijksmuseum, but was probably more impressed by the graffiti in the East Side Gallery. I struggled over menus, afraid of accidentally ordering pork knuckles in Germany, and tasted Indonesian food for the first time in Amsterdam. I cried while visiting Dachau, and just because I was lonely, too shy to meet a soul the way all the guidebooks say you will effortlessly while traveling on your own.

Berlin, its skies dark with construction cranes and still rough at the edges, made a lasting impression, as did Paris, a place I only reluctantly put on my agenda because it was at the other end of the "Chunnel" from London. It was too cliche, too raved-about; it couldn't possibly be any good. It was. I ate crepes and read books while sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg, marveling at how everyone else was reading too, how people really were so much more intellectual in Europe! I bought bread and cheese and fruit and a bottle of wine that hardly cost more than a bottle of water and the French shopkeeper wasn't even mean to me. I spent hours at the Picasso and Rodin museums, amazed at how Picasso worked a theme in so many different variations and mediums and how a cold sculpture could be so expressive and warm.

After the two weeks were up, I gladly headed back to San Francisco, tired, homesick, footsore... and ready for more. I still am.

NOTE: Every experienced traveler starts with a first trip somewhere. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences venturing away from home or to a new destination for the first time at the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: First-Time Travels, hosted by Claire Algarme of (fittingly) First-Time Travels. What's your first-time travel story?


MaryAnne said...

In my RSS feed, this post gets cut off at 'I was 23 years old and being laid' and I just had to read the full version (I always do anyway, but this was an awesome intro!)

My travel-start was very similar- a non travelling family, 75% of them still living on the same island off the West Coast of Canada, where three (and now 4) generations had been born and raised. I was 19 and decided to go to Germany to visit a penpal I'd had in high school. I was a great nerd that way. I spent a month with her in Dresden then Berlin and my little island mind was blown. I kept going after that, on to Holland, then France (where the 28 year old from Edmonton that i shared a room with told me I HAD to go up the Eiffel tower because when would I ever get the chance to visit Paris again? [er, about a few dozen times over the next decade or so?]), then off to Ireland for a few months of pre-Couch Surfing couch surfing (it was 1994- the intarwebs hadn't really been invented/mass produced yet) and hitch hiking. It was awesome. I didn't want it to stop so...well, it hasn't stopped! Hello from Shanghai!

Schaufensterbabe said...

Nice post. And I can totally relate. I'm also the only traveler in my family and I did my first big Europe trip at around the same time and paid for it all by myself which made me proud. When you have the bug, you have the bug. :)

Jason said...

Nice post Jen.
It is always interesting to hear about how other travelers got their start.
(I'm still laughing at the comment here from Maryanne that describes where the RSS feed was cut off...a completely different kind of post)

The Turkish Life said...

Thanks, Jason! I've fixed the RSS feed now :)

The Turkish Life said...

And it's good to know I have company in catching the inexplicable travel bug! Great to hear MaryAnne and Schaufensterbabe's stories too.