Thursday, June 7, 2012

My First Trip to Europe (Spain, France)

My First Trip to Europe (Part 1) Belgium, Switzerland, and The UK

What almost stopped me from continuing on my trip was the fatigue I'd felt after getting little to no sleep for weeks, and by the time I’d arrived in Barcelona, Spain, I was badly in need of some R&R. Unfortunately … or fortunately, depending on how you look at it … Barcelona isn’t a city where one can or should rest. Full of culture and vibrancy, it was one of the liveliest cities I’ve been to.
Thankfully, I found a lovely little hostel close to the center, Hostal Windsor, and after dropping my bags off, I was off to see Barcelona.

One of the great thing about traveling is that the more you do it, the more you realize how small the world really is. I’d met a couple, Karen and Joel, on the train from Geneva, who were on their honeymoon.  We had a brief conversation and parted ways when we’d arrived in Barcelona. I knew that because they'd lived in New York and I'd lived in Houston at the time, there was a slim chance that I’d ever see them again … boy, was I wrong. I not only ran into them in various places in Barcelona but amazingly, without exchanging any information, I ran into them again in Paris a week later … on the street, mind you! Of course, once I saw them again in Paris, we were like old friends, but even in Barcelona, it was really nice to see … unexpectedly … a familiar face in a completely foreign city.

That’s the true beauty of traveling. Being able to meet wonderful people in unfamiliar places. Aside from the magnificent sites, world-class museums, and unforgettable meals, what has always made my travel experience truly special is encountering extraordinary kindnesses, having great conversations with people who started out as strangers, and forming unexpected friendships with them.

And Barcelona was a perfect town for meeting great people from all over the world. Embodying the European bohemian culture, until the late 90’s, it was known as an ideal location for backpackers. It offered a laid-back atmosphere in the midst of world-class sites and museums such as the Cathedral, the Picasso Museum, Fundació Joan Miró (the Joan Miró Foundation), and the Sagrada Familia …  including all the works of Antoni Gaudi.

Suffice to say, I didn’t get much rest or sleep in Barcelona. However, I had a great time and met some wonderful people. Then, I was on my way to Madrid, the regal capital of Spain.
As soon as I’d arrived in Madrid I found a small dive at the train station, where I had tasty breakfast and the best café con leche I’ve ever had … I knew I was going to like Madrid.

Seeing the Prado was unbelievable, and to this day, it is one of my favorite and the most grand museums I’ve seen.

On the other hand, one of the most frustrating aspect of traveling in Spain, or in Europe for that matter, was dealing with the public officials. Whether it was in the museums, which are run by the government in Spain, at the post office, or on a train, I would encounter employees who were indifferent, unsympathetic, and at times, downright belligerent to a point where it seemed that they enjoyed giving tourists a hard time.

Of course, it didn’t helped that I barely spoke Spanish, and I was at the mercy of whoever that was checking my ticket, but it came as surprise how downright rude these public officials can be.

Anyhow, no matter. I was on my way to my final destination, Paris, France, and I wasn't going to let anything spoil my trip ... well, almost anything.
Unfortunately, on the overnight train from Madrid to Paris, my wallet was stolen. To make the long story short, a creepy guy came into my train compartment. Creepy guy wanted to have a conversation but didn’t speak English and continued to blab although I had explained to him that I didn't speak Spanish ... only god knows what he was talking about. I became uncomfortable with his presence and left the cart for some fresh air… stupidly, leaving my backpack including my purse in the compartment. Then, when I arrived in Paris, I realized that my wallet was missing.

As always, my first stop was to find a hotel. As I was walking through the neighborhood outside Gare d'Austerlitz leading to the Latin Quarter on the left bank, I was BLOWN AWAY by its beauty, and my life-long lover affair and addiction to Paris began.

Surprisingly, in spite of all the negative stereotypes and media coverages dubbing Parisians as being the rudest people in the world, my first encounter with them was absolutely wonderful. Even when I’d walked into a swanky but charming hotel in the Latin Quarter, Hotel de l'Universite and explained to the lady at the front desk that I needed the room for few nights but didn’t have any credit card or money to secure the reservation as my wallet was stolen, she just looked at me kindly and gave me a key to a room. Looking back, I can’t believe I’d experienced such kindness in Paris … and I never have since that first trip.

The entire stay in city of light was absolutely magical and enchanting! Seeing the Monet’s ‘Water Lilies’ in Musée de l'Orangerie, sitting underneath the Eiffel Tower, walking along the Champs-Élysées, and seeing the great masterpieces in Musée D’Orsay. I could have sat in Jardin de Luxembourg all day … and I think I did.

Then, as I was watching the sunset over Paris from the top of Montmartre outside the Sacre Coeur, the city twinkling with lights as the night fell, I knew I had to come back soon. And I did several times, before eventually moving to Paris in the summer of ’97.

During my first trip, as I was strolling through beautiful streets of Paris, I’d wondered whether the Parisians were aware of all the beauty that surrounded them. I found out that they did, and indeed it was a dream come true to be able to live there and wake up to it every morning!

However, I had to wait 3 more years before moving to Paris, and as my trip came to an end, I was terribly saddened by the thought of leaving. I remember I’d actually postponed my train ride back to arrive in Gatwick literally minutes before my flight, and as the train passed the Eiffel tower, I felt as if I was parting from or leaving a good friend. Then again, I always had a propensity to fall in love with a city, and Paris would be the first of my many loves.

My first trip to Europe forever changed my life, activating a permanent, insatiable wanderlust, and it hasn’t been the same ever since. On the flight back from London, as I was listening to all the tourists telling each other how glad they were to be returning home, I was planning my next trip, making a list of places that I wanted to go next: Bruges, Gent, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Bern, Zurich, Luzern, Lausanne, Bordeaux, Tours, Istanbul. Happy to say, I’ve seen them all.

Also, the experiences was the cornerstone of growth and a catalyst to becoming my ideal self.  It changed my perception of what is important in life, and has helped me to constantly seek and follow things that I’m passionate about. My aspiration is to embolden myself to view everyday life as a journey and travel as an ongoing state of mind, and even as a mother of a 4 year old, I nurture and honor my inner nomad by taking my little boy to the places that I loved and by discovering new places together.

10 Valuable travel tips I’d learned on my first trip to Europe:
  1. Traveler’s checks are useless and cumbersome to cash.
  2. Always bring 2 credit cards and keep them separately.
  3. Always keep a copy of your passport in a safe place.
  4. Even with a Euro Rail Pass, reservations are always recommended.
  5. You always have to change trains at the border of every country. Therefore, if you’re planning to take an overnight train, don’t count on sleeping through the night.
  6. Take subways, metros, and undergrounds and avoid taking taxis. Not only are they a cheaper mode of transportation but most often the fastest.
  7. In London, check out the lovely hotels on Ebury Street.
  8. Outdoor markets are wonderful places to experience the local culture, sample local cuisine, and shop for goods that are made by local artisans. Check with the front desk or the concierge at the hotel to see where the markets are in the city you're visiting and date(s) and time they're opened.
  9. To this day, some of the best meals I’ve had in Europe were street food or food from the supermarket.
  10. Many tourist attractions and museums in Europe offer student discounts.

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