Last April, I received news that I was accepted into a French language program which consisted of one month of intensive French courses in Grenoble, France. I’ve had the travel bug since I was old enough to understand basic geography, and thus the thought of another adventure made me so excited I was tapping my foot and smiling like an idiot. Before settling in Grenoble I decided to backpack around, then meet my best friends for an adventure through Italy. I’ve been to France before, I’ve traveled to Guatemala and volunteered in Mexico, I’ve gone across Canada and lived in the USA, but I have never traveled without the comfort of my parents or a student organization nearby. For the first time in my life, I was going on a trip that was entirely in my own hands.
So far, every memory has been conveniently camouflaged as a lesson learned, and these are my favourites:
1. You packed too much. Pack light. I mean it. When you find out your hostel is on the top of a hill (read: mountain) and you have to heave your things up a ninety-degree angle, you will curse yourself for packing twenty t-shirts “just in case”. You do not need three different long sleeved floral T’s.
2. Bring comfortable shoes. Your braided leather flip flops are really cute and match with nearly every outfit you have pre-coordinated for this trip, but they are not sufficient shoe wear if you plan on actually walking, which you will. My advice? Invest in a pair of Birkenstocks. I spent a majority of my time in Lyon, France and Geneva, Switzerland walking (read: crawling) from shoe store to shoe store in an attempt to find a pair of comfortable walking shoes. That being said, if you’re coming from North America, Birkenstocks in Europe are much cheaper!
3. When you purchase transportation tickets, check the time and date… at least twice. There’s something to be said about showing up at a train station where you are pretending to be fluent in their spoken language and having the man tell you in broken English to have a great trip the following day. What we thought was a train ticket for July 27th at 6:19pm was actually a train ticket for July 28th at 6:19am. Luckily, the man working the ticket counter was somewhat charmed by our tourist-y antics and switched the times for us, but I’m not sure everyone would be so lucky.
4. Don’t take pictures of everything you see. I am the worst with this. Last night, I took a picture with a neat looking truck, a giant pencil and a fancy fence within four minutes. I get nervous that I won’t remember every single detail of my trip, that I end up spending a large majority of time sight-seeing through the unfulfilling glaze of a camera lens. Remember that no picture will ever justify the actual memory of the moment, so if you aren’t enjoying it as you stand right there, it will be less then convincing when you attempt to relive your trip to your friends and family despite your folders of photographs.
5. On the note of photographs, don’t take pictures of men with guns. Self-explanatory. They will not like it and they are holding guns. Resist the urge.
6. Make friends. I could write pages, fill notebooks and rant for hours on the importance of making friends while traveling or studying abroad. These people will be your lifelines, your translators, and your confidants despite the conventional regulations that dictate the time progression of friendships. Also, it helps to have someone you can share a perplexed look with when a local speaks forty-five words a minute and you’re like uh, quoi?
7. Learn to laugh at yourself. Let’s get this out of the way, shall we? You will embarrass yourself. A lot. Probably once or twice a day. You will run through train stations with a backpack on both your front and back, looking entirely bewildered and knocking over poor, innocent children on your expedition to find a train that’s as easy to locate as platform 9 and ¾ (read: it was invisible). You will also say things in French like “Puis-je toucher votre chien?” which roughly translates to “Can I touch your dog?” which loosely translates to you being considered a weird, possibly dangerous foreigner. Laugh at these moments; the best memories come from those that are spontaneous.
8. In Europe, everything is a road. Oh, did you think that was a sidewalk? Ha, you must be from North America. I’ve crossed the street in Europe to realize I’m standing in the middle of another street, conveniently disguised as a walkway for pedestrians. Rule of thumb: scale buildings, it is the only way to guarantee safety.
9. Speak the language, even if you aren’t fluent. Wherever you go, your best bet to gain respect from the locals is to at least attempt to speak their language. The worst that can happen is you mistakenly use an inappropriate word and get a sideways glance from someone as they slowly back away. Actually, that hasn’t happened to me (yet). In my time in France, the locals have been more than accommodating to my heavy English accent and constant pausing as I attempt to gather my thoughts. It’s also great practice to actually becoming fluent.
10. If you’re under 25, stamp it on your forehead. Carry your ISIC card around like it’s your lifeline, because if you’re on a student budget, it will be. Being a student practically guarantees cheaper prices for transportation, meals and any other activities you partake in.
11. Write things down. I am of the firm belief that writing down your experiences, even if it’s only in choppy or scattered sentences, will help you reflect on everything you’ve seen. Traveling can be overwhelming, especially when you’re trying to visit an entire city within a couple of days. Keep ticket stubs, write on the back your favourite exhibit, give synopsis’s of comical, priceless moments, blog about it, draw stickmen, whatever you do, writing things down (at least for me) can be a method of giving yourself more time to process what you’re seeing.
12. Value the freedom that comes with being mostly disconnected from technology. For the first few days, laugh at the fact that you’ve developed some sort of twenty-first century twitch that develops as a reflex panic mode to thinking you’ve lost your cell phone. Then, begin to accept that you have detached yourself from the nuisance of constantly being available. When you don’t answer someone’s call at home, it’s like what else could they possibly be doing? When you’re traveling, it is expected, more so understood, that it may take days to respond to e-mails or wall posts. Take time to think without interruption.
13. Break the law. Let me preface this by saying I am a law-abiding citizen. I’m always the girl who is the voice of reason in any remotely sketchy activity (“Guys, I don’t think this is a good idea… no this is not a good idea. Guys?”). So when I found myself at a century-old church on top of a breathtaking mountain in the heart of old Lyon and someone suggested jumping the fence, my reflex response of “hell no” came out before my brain could even register the proposal. I did it though. I jumped the fence and explored a church that held more character and history in the middle of the night than one I’d ever visited during the day. There is no better time or place to feel the rush of doing something wrong, to stray askew from your normal path, than thousands of miles away from your home.
14. Carry something from home with you. Whether it’s a favourite song, a bracelet from your mom, a card wishing you good travels from your best friends, or a teddy bear named Whisky. I don’t get homesick.As someone who grew up in a military family, my home has never been concretely attached to a particular city or house. There are nights though where I think of my friends and my family, and holding on to something tangible makes me realize how absolutely blessed I am, it makes me feel like they’re experiencing this with me.
15. YOLO. Just kidding. Kind of. While I resent utilizing “You Only Live Once” as a mantra to justify ridiculously stupid lapses of judgment, I have to say that this trip has been my personal opportunity to challenge myself. The opportunities you will be presented with on your trips are the kinds that come around once in a lifetime, so even when you’re exhausted and annoyed and homesick, don’t let yourself waste even a minute.
Have you ever gone backpacking or on any trip that changed your perspective on your life and the world at large? Leave a comment and share your stories with me! I’ll be in France for the next few months, so you can expect more life lessons and travel diaries soon to come.
Written by Nikki Gladstone
Follow her on Twitter, @nikkigladstone!