Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

Rail and Sail: Dublin Bound

And so I found myself getting up at some ungodly hour of the morning (by my standards, at least) with not nearly enough sleep (even by my standards, which really says something) to get back to Euston train station. I was heading across the Irish sea, and while I had originally thought it would be easy to get a cheap flight across, I soon learned that with Ryanair the baggage I would be carrying would double the price of the ticket to the point that it simply wasn’t worth it – especially not after the traumatic experience I had had trying to fly with them last time. During my scouring the internet for travel options I discovered a deal called the ‘Rail and Sail’ offered by Irish Ferries, which was a package deal that included a train ticket from London to Holyhead, a small port town in Wales, and a ticket for the ferry from Holyhead to Dublin. It was roughly 4 hours on the train and 6 hours on the ferry, as opposed to a flight from London that took an hour at most, but I had heard so many complaints about getting to the various airports in and around London – as well as the endless Ryanair horror stories – that I decided that trying to organise a flight for such a short distance was just not worth the hassle. I was in no rush, so I was more than happy to take a full day out to make the trip. It was cheaper than the flight, there were no extra baggage costs or restrictions, and I rather enjoyed the last trip I had made via ferry, so I thought it would be something nice to do again.

In the end it was the train ride that proved to be a little hair-raising. At one point the tracks travelled along the ground at such an angle that I could feel the slight pull of gravity dragging me towards the window. It was a brief terrifying moment, but other than that the ride went along smoothly and without much other excitement. When we finally arrived at Holyhead, the passengers disembarked and headed down the platform and towards the ferry port. I think it was almost a unanimous migration – aside from the ferry port there didn’t really seem to be much other reason to visit a town like Holyhead. I know that a lot of people said that same thing about Ancona, but at least I knew that in Italy there was sunshine and beaches to be found – the coast of Wales was as gloomy as I would ever have imagined it that morning, and in no way did I feel compelled to hang around, even if I’d had the choice. When I’d booked the ticket it had said that there was a bit of a wait between the arrival of my train and the departure of the ferry, but in reality it was just enough time to wait in the long queue with the rest of the mob, have my ticket and baggage checked, and board the vessel that would carry me across the Irish Sea.

The boat was similar to the one I had caught from Helsinki to Stockholm, except this time it was a shorter trip so I didn’t have a cabin, or any kind of personal quarters. The ship did have a huge variety of rooms and activities though, including a bar, restaurants, duty free shops, games rooms and theatres for the kids, as well as plenty of lounging spaces to sit around and enjoy the views of the open seas. To get in the mood for my arrival on the Emerald Isle, I tucked into a hot steak and Guinness pie from one of the cafeterias, and after a quick walk around to see the rest of the ship, I curled up on one of the lounges in the main area and tried to doze off and have a nap, given that I was running on very little sleep due to my late last night out in London. There were a lot of families travelling that day though, with some particularly noisy children, so in the end I really only managed to shut my eyes and rest my physical body. The mind would have to endure until Dublin, although being able to stretch out and have my own personal space to relax in was definitely a highlight of travelling via ferry rather than a plane. The Rail and Sail option was an experience a thousand times better than anything I would likely have received from Ryanair, and if you have the time to take the day trip and are travelling between Ireland and Great Britain then I would definitely recommend it.

When the ship finally pulled into port early that evening, I gathered my things and made my way off the ship to collect my checked baggage. When I got to immigration, I was a little confused as to where to go. There were basic directions to the exits, but rather than queues and individual gates and passport checks, everyone just seemed to be walking through a main gate with very little resistance. I assumed it was just for returning EU citizens, so I approached one of the desks to the side.
“Hi,” I said to them as I set my bag down.
“Hello there! Well, what can do for yer?” one of the two gentleman said to me with a friendly smile.
“Ahh… Is this where you stamp my passport?” I’d never seen security personnel being so relaxed around the new arrivals – welcome to Ireland, I suppose?
“Why, do yer need one?” The other man said.
“Um… I think… ah, I probably do?” I held up my Australian passport, seriously confused at this point.
“Oooh, yes! Yes.” Obviously they had just assumed I was another Irishman returning home. “Alright, here we go,” they said as they briefly checked my passport before stamping it and handing it back. I was a little dumbfounded as I walked out of the terminal and over to the bus stop. I’d thought the security at Southend airport in London had been pretty lax, but Dublin Port had well and truly usurped that title. I chuckled to myself, realising that all I’d heard about the carefree Irish nature was turning out to be remarkably, incredibly accurate.

The bus into the main city of Dublin was rather uneventful, but the whole time I was still riddled with anxiety. During my last days in London I had been searching for Couchsurfing hosts in Dublin – I had been living at Giles’ for so long that I’d all but forgotten the very real need to search for accommodation, or the very ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ style in which I had been doing it. Unfortunately, all my searching had come up with nothing, but in my desperate hanging on for a potential, miraculous breakthrough, I had put off booking any hostels either. Eventually I alighted from the bus in the centre of the city, and hacked into some free wifi at the bus station to search for a nearby hostel. There was one around the corner, so I lugged myself over there and was overjoyed to learn that they had some availability. I enquired about the room prices, and the helpful guy at the front desk told me everything I needed to know.
“But I’m gonna give you a little bit of a discount,” he said with a little smile, without even lifting his eyes away from his computer screen to look at me. “Our little secret.” I was genuinely stunned – was he flirting with me? He didn’t seem like he was flirting with me? Not even a cheeky wink. But hey, I wasn’t going to argue with a price reduction. He gave me my key and directed me to the stairs towards my room, and I don’t think I even saw him again during my stay at the hostel, but it turns out his little gesture would be the first of a few rather unexpected surprises during my time in Dublin.