This is a 10-minute read about learning to travel my way. During a two-month backpacking trip across western Europe, I re-learned how to travel without the notorious “Fear Of Missing Out” and turned my worst trip ever into one of my most memorable.
Part 1: Germany
It was the summer of 2018, and I had just started my two-month backpacking trip across western Europe. My first stop was Berlin, where I spent five days exploring famous sites around the city, such as the Berliner Dom, the Alte Nationalgalerie, the East Side Gallery, New Synagogue, the Bode Museum, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial and the Berlin Wall Memorial and Museum. I did less-touristy things, too, like walking along the Spree River, picnicking at Großer Tiergarten, and wandering aimlessly through historic neighborhoods filled with elegant old buildings. I even rented one of those on-demand bikes for the first time!
On my last night in Berlin, I reconnected with with an old friend, Pauline. I first met her in India, where we lived together for several months. She had since returned to Germany to study at a university in the capital. Dressed in combat boots and a dress, with her thick eyeliner and tousled bob, Pauline embodied the counterculture of a rebellious German youth.
We enjoyed a picnic in Treptower Park, with the sunset reflecting off the glossy black waters of the Spree River. I don’t remember much of our conversation, but I do remember Pauline asking, “So, what have you done in Berlin so far?” I remember the way her face darkened in dismay as I began to list the famous, touristy sites that I had visited. I paused mid-sentence: “What’s wrong?”
“But did you go to any bars, any cafes? Did you meet any locals, see the places they visit?” No, I realized, I hadn’t. In India, we had always pushed ourselves to dig deeper, to really connect with the places and the people that we visited. But after less than a week in Europe, I seemed to have forgotten all this. I’d been swept up in the all-to-familiar “checklist” mentality, just as I’d been swept up by a tour group of retired, khaki-clad Americans at the East Side Gallery. I’d forgotten why I travel – not to see how many sites can I “tick off” in a day, but how much I can learn, see, and experience, how many people I can meet, what new perspectives I can gain.
In that moment, my mindset shifted. For the rest of this trip, I would travel intentionally. Not with the intention of mapping out my agenda, of planning where to visit and what to do. Rather, I would be intentional in my spontaneity, in going with the flow and seeing where my travels might take me. To focus on new connections and new perspectives, instead of worrying about missing out on “important” places. In short, traveling without the FOMO.
Part 2: The Hostel Hippie
On my first day in Paris, I woke up to horrible news: a volcano had erupted just outside the town where I had lived in Guatemala, killing my former host father Juan Fernando Galindo. He was a member of National Coordinator for Disasters Reduction, and he died attempting to rescue people during the eruption. I spent the entire day crying in my hostel, talking to my host family, raising money to support them, and calling my own family.
I remember sitting in the hostel’s common room, tears on my face, working on a Facebook fundraising post. A stereotypical, white, 20-something solo traveler sat next to me with his lunch. Completely oblivious to my still-damp tears and the images flashing across my computer screen, he tried to engage me in conversation. “How long are you traveling for?” he asked. “Two months in western Europe,” I responded bluntly, without lifting my eyes from the computer.
“That seems like kind of a long time to spend in such a small area.”
“Well, not really” I answered. “I mean, I spend four or five days in each city and visit a couple of cities in each country.”
“Four days in the same city?!” he blurted out incredulously. “Don’t you get bored?!”
Caught by surprise, I finally looked up from my computer and stared at him with a mixture of shock and frustration. “Are you serious? Four days is nothing! I could spend months in most cities and still not see everything.” Shaking my head in exasperation, I turned my attention back to my computer.
This guy was your quintessential traveling hippie, sporting long, blonde dreads and innumerable travel-themed tattoos. As for his shoes? Well, he didn’t have any. Fitting neatly into the stereotype, he was also hopelessly oblivious to the situation and unable to take a hint. “So… how many countries have you been to?”
Was this guy a joke?! The last of my patience had officially evaporated, and I no longer had the emotional energy to deal with this man. I locked eyes with him and spoke slowly and deliberately to ensure he got the full meaning of every word.
“I do not know how many countries I’ve been to. I don’t keep track, and frankly, I don’t care. That’s not why I travel. In fact, I think that is the absolute worst reason for anyone to travel. And, it’s a horrible misuse of the privilege to be able to travel in the first place.”
This time it was the hippie-dude’s turn to stare at me. Frozen in astonishment, he didn’t say a word as I packed up my belongings and walked out of the room.
Part 3: Paris
On my second day in Paris, I decided that I needed to get out of my hostel, both for my sanity and to avoid wasting my precious five (now four) days in the city.
To be completely honest, I was never drawn to Paris. It has a reputation for prestige and luxury; two things that, frankly, don’t interest me much. But like many people, I felt compelled to visit this famous city. As if, somehow, I couldn’t be a true traveler if I hadn’t seen Paris.
Several of my friends had previously lived in Paris, and they offered to send me itineraries. But since I was still waiting for these to materialize, I decided to start with some of Paris’ most famous sites. In the Notre Dame Cathedral, I lit candles for my host father and tried to collect my thoughts. Next, I spent several hours in line to ascend the Eiffel Tower – it was peak tourist season, after all.
Surprisingly, I really don’t mind waiting in long lines; it’s my love of people-watching, I suppose. But unfortunately, I couldn’t say the same of the tourists around me, and their incessant complaining certainly put a damper on my already-dampened mood.
The tickets for the lift were, of course, exorbitant. So were the snacks I bought to ward of that special type of “hangriness” that materializes only when you’re hungry and being suffocated by a crowd of hot and infuriated tourists. The packed (and numerous) elevator rides, crowded terraces, and my quickly-emptying wallet did not help to lift my spirits. The views of the city were splendid. Well, as long as your camera wasn’t knocked out of your hand by tourists shoving through the crowd for a photo opt, selfie stick in hand. Two thoughts continued to pop into my mind that afternoon:
“Did I really waste half of a day coming up here?” And,
“Wow, this is really just a brown, rusty-looking metal tower. It’s pretty ugly up close.”
Even the Louvre was a bit of a disappointment. There were many wonderful works, to be sure. But they were spread out over a vast labyrinth of tunnels and hallways, scattered throughout galleries which were otherwise significantly less interesting. And it certainly didn’t help that I’m terrible with directions. And lost my map. Twice.
I did have the Mona Lisa all to myself, which was pretty cool. I suppose that’s what happens when you stay until closing time (because you’re too lost to find the exit!)
When I returned to my hostel, the first itinerary had come through from a friend. “Don’t go up the Eiffel Tower – you’ll hate it” she had written at the top of the email in big, bold letters. Too late to be useful, but accurate nonetheless. Suddenly, insight hit me liked a baguette bashing me over the head.
I didn’t spend all of this money just to be miserable. I didn’t come all this way to visit sites that I found uninteresting (at best), just because that’s “what you do.” I had been living, quite literally, by the quip, “did you even go to Paris if you didn’t see the Eiffel Tower?” But what was the point if it didn’t make me happy, if I didn’t enjoy my trip? What did it matter if people didn’t think my trip “counted?” What does that even mean, anyway? And what does it matter? I certainly didn’t travel to count countries, so why should I count famous landmarks either?
In that moment, I made a decision. I would travel true to the words I’d spoken to the hostel hippie, true to what Pauline had told me, true to the way I had once traveled in India, and Guatemala, and so many other places. I would see the sites I wanted to visit in Paris, regardless of how famous, historical, or Instagram-worthy they were.
Part 4: The Real Paris
And just like that, my trip to Paris was suddenly transformed from one of my worst trips to one of my best. I admired the architecture of the Grande Mosque, which looked as if it had been lifted straight out of Morocco. At the Arab World Institute, I marveled at ancient artifacts from pre-Islamic Arabia, strolled through a contemporary calligraphy exhibit, and browsed handmade Palestinian crafts for sale.
But the best part was my last night in Paris…
My plan was to watch the sunset and the sparkling lights of the Eiffel Tour from the steps Esplanade du Trocadéro. I thought it would make a fitting finale for my time in Paris – but without too many tourists.
I paused at a little corner shop to buy some things to cook dinner back at the hostel. As always, I tried to make conversation with the shop owner as I paid (in my non-existent French). An alluring aroma wafted from the back of the store, so I tried to ask the man what he was cooking. “Qu’est-ce que ç’est *sniff sniff*?” Since I had none of the proper vocabulary, it turned into a game of charades. When I still couldn’t understand the man, he brought me into the back room of his shop and showed me what he was cooking.
A couple of plastic stools encircled the hotplate on the floor, on which lay a frying pan of eggs, tomatoes, and several other ingredients I couldn’t pick out. The man asked if I wanted to taste it, but I politely declined. I didn’t want to impose, after all. But he insisted, saying that he was about to break his fast for Ramadan and would love the company. Realizing that he was Muslim (and noting his peculiar French accent), I asked where he was from. I couldn’t believe my luck when his response was Morocco!
Switching to Arabic, we were finally able to communicate with relative ease. He was astonished that an American girl not only spoke Arabic, but studied it at an American university! The man, named Mahmood, called over his friend and co-owner of the store. Chattering excitedly in French, Mahmood explained who I was and introduced us. The friend was named Hamza, and had emigrated to France from Bangladesh. क्या आप हिंदी बोलते हैं? (Do you speak Hindi?) I asked.
Bangla (also called Bengali) is Bangladesh’s official language, not Hindi. And indeed, even in neighboring India, only a minority of people speak Hindi. But as luck would have it, Hamza did speak Hindi, or at least as much as I did!
And so it was that an unlikely band of new friends sat down to eat Iftar together, in Paris, using three different languages to communicate.
I never did see the world-famous stained glass of Sainte-Chappelle, or cruise down the Seine River, or even roam the city’s impressive catacombs. But I did visit incredible places, sites that made me gasp in awe, even if they are not popular with the average tourist.
And, most importantly, I met wonderful people and gained new perspectives. Not only did I learn about Parisian culture, and histories of “back home,” but I also experienced the beauty of a new culture. This proud and unique amalgam of places past, weaving together, pushing their way up through the dusty old cobblestones of Europe.
Want to read more tales from travels past? Check out similar pieces under the Travel Journal section of my blog, such as the time I was deported from Spain. And while you’re at it, take a peek at other countries mentioned in this post, such as my trips to Guatemala, Morocco and India! Or, you can find all of my other blog posts about Europe by clicking here.