A Whirlwind Adventure

As a young girl, I often dreamt of wandering the world with little more than a vintage suitcase and a sense of adventure. It seemed only natural, then, that I would spend seven weeks—accompanied by a friend—backpacking through two continents, twelve countries, and more than twenty-three cities.

While this trip was more exhausting than I could have imagined, the whirlwind nature of it allowed me to experience the various peoples, languages, cultures, landscapes, and arts in a uniquely comparative way. And my heart is now full of so much goodness and wonder.

Given the vastness of this adventure, I have chosen to share only the highlights with you for now. In the coming months, I will expound on the moments that have shaped me.

••• The Highlights •••

Week No. 1

In Ljubljana, Slovenia, I fell in love with the gentleness and humor of the people. Being here made my spirit yearn to explore more of Eastern Europe.

In Vienna, Austria, my inner child and outer explorer was mesmerized by the collection of terrestrial, celestial, tellurium, and planetarium globes at the Globe Museum. My peacemaker self was intrigued by the museum dedicated to the universal language of Esperanto. And then there were the crosswalk signals illuminated with the image of two figures holding hands and a heart emerging between them—a daily reminder to be more loving.

In Prague, Czech Republic, I was swept away by the endless Art Nouveau typefaces and architectural details, the fresco-painting clouds that overwhelmed the sky, and the way the crosswalk signals tick-tocked like an old grandfather clock. The romantic and whimsical energy of this city made me want to sit in a café and write for hours on end.

Week No. 2

In Berlin, Germany, my quirky and curious self was awakened by the funky vibe and creative culture. And dinner with an old friend from Berlin personalized the city and made me feel at home.

In Amsterdam, Netherlands, I decided I’d like to live on a tiny houseboat someday. I’d also like a vintage bicycle with a front wicker basket to transport my groceries. And I’d like my home to be filled with the quaint elegance of Dutch style.

In Bruges, Belgium, we bought mystery postcards written in Flemish with the plan to translate them later. Mine read, “In de fleur, van je leven,” which means, “In the blossoming time of your life.” This couldn’t be more true.

In Paris, France, we happened upon a bread festival, where I bought a too-big loaf for my too-little willpower. And we later stumbled upon a flea market miles long, where I was tempted to buy an itty bitty brass tea kettle fit for a mouse. In the Orsay Museum, I fell in love with the work of Henri-Edmond Cross and discovered that, while I’m not particularly a fan of Impressionism, I’m absolutely a fan of Neo-Impressionism and its meditatively perfect dots. There is something I enjoy about the sophistication of developing my taste in art.

Week No. 3

In Bilbao, Spain, my friend bought a gift for someone in a stationery shop and the owner, who insisted on wrapping it, said, “Before it was just an object, now it is a gift.” What a lovely sentiment. In the Guggenheim Museum, it occurred to me that abstract and contemporary art seem to be judged more holistically and harshly than other art periods. Rather than allow individual works to move us, we criticize the whole based on the pieces that challenge us, dissatisfy us, or upset us. And we criticize their sometimes superficial simplicity, forgetting the internal process of making art. The more open I become in my appreciation of art, the more I find meaning in its abstraction and minimalism. Here, I fell in love with the work of Ad Reinhardt.

In Coimbra, Portugal, my bibliophile self beamed at the sight of the Joanina Library, a place I’d longed to visit since Rick Steves talked about it on his PBS travel show around 2004. Some tidbits worth sharing: Bats are kept in the library to eat insects that would otherwise ruin the antique books. And there is an old two-cell prison in the basement that was used into the 1800s for students who committed disciplinary offenses.

In Lisbon, Portugal, I was captivated by the magic of the Sintra-Cascais National Park. After a tour of the Pena Palace, we got intentionally lost in the surrounding forest, discovering forgotten reflection pools and fountains, moss-covered benches carved into concrete walls, and mysterious passageways where fairies must live. When it unexpectedly rained, and then poured, it felt like a blessing from above. Drenched, we made our way to Quinta de Regaleria, where we found protection in underground tunnels lined with strings of white lights. Here, we explored two inverted wells—one finished and the other not—with staircases of worn stone that wrapped around the center.

Week No. 4

In Seville, Spain, it felt as though I was returning to a place I’d once lived. Something about it was both comforting and enriching. And late on weeknights—even Mondays—the open-air bars are filled with people laughing, talking, dreaming. It seems absurd, upon seeing this, to wait until the weekend to live fully.

In Malaga, Spain, my already-tired body was cradled by the peacefulness of the beach town. It was the first time I’d called home since embarking on this adventure, and there was something inherently sweet and delightful about hearing the voice of a loved one after feeling the miles. In my family, we are more practical than vocal lovers. But as the call came to an end, I told my mother that I loved her, because I missed her and I felt like I did as a girl away at summer camp.

In Tangier, Morocco, all of my senses and emotions were tapped. As a Taurus, I am naturally stubborn. But I am no match for a Moroccan salesman and, while I resisted fiercely, Samir was relentless in his recommendation that he be our guide for the day. And somehow he was endearing. Maybe it was the way he showed us his birth city with such pride. Or the way he escorted us, diligently, with his hands clasped behind his back. Maybe it was the way his jeans were so perfectly pressed and his white linen button-down so crisp, yet many of his teeth were missing and there was a tiny tear in his shirt that needed mending. At some point during the day, as I looked down from the balcony of the US Legation Museum, I watched Samir sitting on the curb, patiently waiting for us. He seemed to be thinking; quietly, humbly. I wish I knew what about. Later on, my friend asked him what his favorite place in Tangier was, and Samir responded, thoughtfully: “My home.”

In Madrid, Spain, we explored art + craft markets, enjoyed the nostalgia of a cereal bar, and giggled at the country’s apparent obsession with doodling bum holes in their street art. And interestingly, we encountered fewer people in Madrid who spoke English compared to the smaller cities.

Week No. 5

In Barcelona, Spain, my vegan taste buds rejoiced in the sweet and savory flavors at Flax + Kale. I started with a creamy cashew kale soup topped with crunchy kale chips, followed by a roasted carrot and avocado salad and a fresh chai-spiced coconut milk that was like “om” in a glass. The low-light ambience of the rooftop dining area felt rustic chic with its countless flowers and hanging greenery.

In Figueres, Spain, I met up with an animal activist friend I met through my former blog on animal advocacy art. My travel friend and I had a lovely vegan dinner at her home, along with her husband and another friend. The energized conversation was everything my passionate heart needed.

In Lyon, France, our Airbnb host, Pierre, returned home from work just as we were settling into bed. Our door still open, he appeared in the entryway singing, “Hellooo, American people!” This was our first time meeting him, and it was absolutely delightful. A broad smile on his face, he invited us to come lounge in his living room, have a drink, and listen to music (which turned out to be some pretty rad electronica). It seemed he really liked us, because at some point he pulled out his near-empty $600 bottle of Hibiki whiskey from a trip to Tokyo. As we talked about life and travel, Pierre imparted some collected wisdom from his own journeys: “Are we human beings having a spiritual experience, or spiritual beings having a human experience?” And, “We always question whether there is life after death, but the real question is, is there life before death?”

In Zurich, Switzerland, my under-budget streak was totally busted. But I did have dinner at Hiltl, established in 1898 and the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant. Also, I received a fairly lengthy show from a male exhibitionist staying in the hotel across the street.

Week No. 6

In Interlaken, Switzerland, we stayed in a tent village surrounded by breathtaking views. The mountains were towering, and the hills lush and rolling. The lake was a turquoise blue, and the tap water as pure and crisp as it gets. Every time I got lost in the landscape, I couldn’t help but think of the Great Valley paradise in “The Land Before Time.” And our journey to Jungfrau early in the morning was incredibly majestic and pleasantly quiet. The sharp edges of the mountains, the endless valleys, and the blankets of white snow made my heart yearn for a trek into the wilderness. Up until this point, our backpacking adventure had seen lots of cities, and it was refreshing to be so enveloped by nature. It also reminded me how small humans are compared to Mother Nature, and of the reverence and respect she so deserves.

In Regensburg, Germany, we were joined by my sister—who is stationed in Italy with the military—and a close friend from her previous duty station. Something I love most about Europe, and Germany in particular, is the commitment to local, handmade goods and the shops focused on specific needs, like all things brushes. One of the nights, we hung out in a biergarten and did blind contour line drawings of each other, wrote haikus based on random prompts, did a timed writing of what we’d like our eulogies to say, and went in a circle saying warm and fuzzy things about each other. There were two women at the table next to us, the one in my line of vision clearly watching and enjoying our simple fun. When she left, she smiled at me and waved goodbye. Some things in life are universal and require no words.

Week No. 7

In Cinque Terre, Italy, we relaxed on the beach in Levanto and sipped white wine as I collected pretty pebbles and nibbled on fresh coconut meat for the first time. The next morning, we hiked along the cliffs from Vernazza to Corniglia, the same trail I traveled with my grandfather last fall. The views were as stunning as I’d remembered. The sun beating down on us, we decided to stop in a little café tucked into the cliff for some fresh orange juice and watermelon. Most who know me are aware of my strange aversion to watermelon. But travel encourages us to try new things with an open mind, so for the first time since childhood, I voluntarily ate a small cube of watermelon and wondered why my aversion had been so strong before.

In Vicenza, Italy, my days were slow and rejuvenating. While my travel friend adventured alone in Florence, I spent time with my sister and prepared for my three-month voyage back home in the United States. At the invitation of her small-town mechanic, she and I went to a weekly event downtown where Italians gather to drink wine and practice their English together. When the woman to my right put ice cubes in her white wine, the sommelier at the table raised his perfectly groomed brows. She laughed and told us, “It is not the right thing to do, but it is the right thing to drink.”

In Venice, Italy, I fell in love with the port city and its weaving passageways and canals for the fourth time. The owners of our hotel granted me honorary citizenship for all I knew about Venice. Even they had not heard of Cantina do Mori, a legendary cicchetti bar from 1462. That night, my friend and I toasted to our last dinner abroad together. As much as my independent, introvert self loves to travel alone, there is community to be had in traveling together. And there is truth in the words of Christopher McCandless: “Happiness is only real once shared.”

••• The Cost •••

All of these memories and more for $6,000 (plus airfare to + from Europe). And it proved surprisingly easy to remain within this budget. On average, I spent $120 per day, including:

  • $28 on lodging
  • $36 on transportation
  • $30 on food
  • $10 on activities
  • $16 on stationery + keepsakes

From what I understand, this is pretty standard. But if I did a trip like this again and were more careful with my spending, I think I could save a little on lodging, a lot on food, and some on souvenirs.

Many have wondered how I am financially able to travel as I do, and the answer is simple: because I find it immensely valuable and prioritize my spending around it. While I’m a minimalist and conscious consumer for a host of reasons, travel is a pretty irresistible one.

At some point, I was lucky enough to have a writing job that allowed me the freedom to roam as I pleased. Since then, I have worked temporary jobs in between my travels. And eventually, the dream is to make an income as a freelance writer, artist, and coach (so stay tuned).

••• Reasons to Travel •••

In all my gallivanting and nomadic living, I have found there is something to love and appreciate about nearly everywhere (and everyone). As we wander, there are also places that resonate with us, that inspire us, that change us. And there are moments—sometimes beautifully and honestly simple—that remind us what it means to be human and teach us how to be a better one.

After all, to travel is to explore both sameness and difference, perception and reality, grandeur and simplicity. It is to dive into the unknown, the uncomfortable, the unexpected. It is to become more curious, compassionate, humbled. And, ultimately, it is to understand who you are and discover who you want to become.

To me, these are some of the most captivating and gratifying reasons to travel.

Why do you travel?

6 comments

  1. I travel for many reasons and no matter where I go, I research the history of the area so I can immerse myself [no matter how briefly] in the local culture. I enjoy the learning, then the experience of each new place…drinking in the colors, the sounds, and the people. Your Samir reminds me of a man I met in St. Thomas; everyone said NOT to wander around by myself and NEVER get in a gypsy cab so of course, I had to do both and I was blessed to be taken to hard-to-find honey holes of history!

    1. Like you, I love to immerse myself when I travel. Even on short trips. Sometimes it’s just about slowing down and finding a place tucked away from the busy, touristy spots. Though, those can make for fun people-watching too!

      I love your gypsy cab story! Something I’ve found from traveling is that it’s unquestionably important to travel and see with your own eyes how others live and to hear with your own heart the stories of the people. I fully believe the world would be a more compassionate and peaceful place if more people traveled.

    1. I miss you too! And I’m glad you enjoy my travel reflections. Someday there will be one for Bemidji. ☺️

  2. I love all the stories and thoughts from your trip! It was a privilege to join you for the Regensburg and Cinque Terre parts! I also never get tired of the Pierre stories haha! Because of you I have added Tangier to my list of places to travel for sure, and maybe the Interlaken in Switzerland.
    I travel to find more beautiful scenes, mostly natural. As you know I have what some might call an over-appreciation for natural beauty. It’s good to hear that was one of the highlights of your trip, the natural beauty. That is for sure why I liked the Cinque Terre myself. It was cool to journey along a path where many before have gone, where natural beauty of the coastline meets the colorful buildings of the towns along the way. The Alps were breathtaking too!
    Your quote about traveling to understand who we are and who we want to become was a prompt I used to journal about that trip overall. It’s true, when you travel you learn more about yourself, sometimes things you didn’t really like… but you can also see who you want to become! Also, beauty in other people, cultures and languages.

    1. Pierre was certainly one of the funnest (and funniest) memories! 😂

      I’m so happy you were able to join us on some of our adventures. Your enthusiasm and wonder are contagious, so don’t change that. Also, I’m thrilled that my travel narrative has encouraged you to visit some new places. You know who to call when the planning time comes!

      Now that I’ve done a backpacking trip of bigger cities, I’d love to focus some future trips on nature and the country. Maybe even tent camping!

      Wow, I’m so flattered that you used one of my travel quotes as inspiration for your travel journal! I’d love to hear some of your reflections.

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