The (1st) Trip to Europe

We've all seen the movies. There's four types of them.

  1. American goes overseas, falls in love with a local, they end up being together forever, and it's happily ever after. Oh and then there's always a free-spirited 3rd wheel friend and something about a motorcycle with a sidecar. 
  2. American goes overseas and is kidnapped, never to return home ever again until by some miraculous feat they are rescued. 
  3. The classic American Eurotrip-based movie where a bunch of friends go overseas, nothing goes as planned, but it's still the most wild time of their lives.
  4. Typical action movie with car chases, spies, and saving the world.
Now heading to Europe for the first time I would have settled for any number of those outcomes because, quite frankly, at the end of the day they all would have made for a pretty great story upon my return to the States. Unfortunately, #1 hasn't quite happened (at least not yet anyway), #2 my father is not Liam Neeson, #3 is highly unrealistic, and #4...well...I must admit, I am no spy.

Europe. Full of history, full of character, and full of cultures intermingling with one another. If you haven't been yet, I highly recommend going at least once in your life. Human beings are given the amazing gifts of being able to interact from, learn from, and enjoy each other's company, so why not take full advantage of this? No matter your world views, as long as you can maintain a sense of open-mindedness, going to a country other than your own can be a truly enlightening experience.

My trip to Europe this past July didn't exactly fall into any particular movie type, but what it did do was fall into a place so deep in my heart that it has sparked this new outlook on my future desires, including this blog. If you have read The Roaming Colt's first post, Let the Adventures Begin, then you have some prior knowledge on how my first trip to Europe came about and if not, then let me explain.

This past summer, upon completion of my undergraduate degree, I was blessed enough to earn a summer internship in South Dakota which I happily accepted. My tendency to become restless wherever I'm at quickly set in even before I arrived to the Black Hills though. Prior to graduation I applied for a fall internship in Dallas, Texas. Knowing the selection process would take many weeks, I proceeded to South Dakota for the summer. To prepare for the possibility of moving down to Dallas after my summer internship ended I knew I would have to generate some extra income during the summer so I got a second job as a swim instructor. 

Long story short, I ended up not getting the Texas internship, so I had this extra money just burning a hole in my pocket. The new question became: "what to do with it?" I've always had a love to travel and explore new things, so there was an endless list of possibilities. Keep in mind this summer "paid" internship I currently had was paying me less than minimum wage, so I very well could have just used the extra money to better my living conditions, but I was committed. I knew what I was going to do: fly to Europe.

Having a couple of friends overseas definitely sparked this newfound fascination with Europe, but I was also taking this trip for a few other reasons too. 
  1. Explore! I wanted to be places I hadn't been before, see things I've only read about, and most importantly, get uncomfortable. If you never leave your comfort zone how can you ever really broaden your horizons and expand your way of thinking?
  2. Experience! I wanted to be exposed to new people, their languages, their culture, their style and fashion, the way they live, the way they interact, and perhaps most appealing, their FOOD.
  3. Proof! I hadn't flown on a plane in almost 5 years. I had never flown anywhere by myself, and my last series of flights made me somewhat nervous of air travel in general. I had never booked a flight on my own nor had I even had to find my way through an airport solo for that matter. I knew nothing. Aside from playing some college basketball games in Canada, I had never experienced another country before. I wanted to know I could go places where English wasn't the first language and actually make it. I wanted to be challenged, I wanted to be uncomfortable, and I wanted to be scared. If I could go on this trip all alone, I could prove to myself that I am capable of so much more than I had once perceived. As selfish as it may sound, this trip was for me.
Now you may find yourself asking the question, "why would you want to go alone?" Again, there are a lot of reasons for that. Like previously stated, I wanted to prove to myself that I could be completely independent. I needed to know what I was capable of. Sink or swim right? Also it is so very convenient traveling alone. I had decided and left for my trip all in the span of 10 days (with the trip itself being 10 days from start to finish). Had I tried to find a friend to accompany me on this excursion I knew it would require more than roughly two weeks notice and that it would also reduce on what I will call traveler flexibility. If I wanted to sleep on a bench, I could do it. If I wanted to eat at Restaurant A, I didn't have to feel bad that my counterpart wanted to eat at Restaurant B. I was literally free to do exactly as I pleased. This is not to say that I am against traveling with others because it's quite the opposite: the more the merrier, but taking this trip alone allowed me to minimize some of the stresses of traveling to new places even if it did maximize the stress of being alone. 


Next stop: Europe! (July 2016)
The Flight(s) - Sometimes the biggest question is where to start? Well for me I knew where I wanted to go: Warsaw, Poland. Naturally I just typed into Google "Denver to Warsaw" as I already knew it would be most cost effective to fly from the closest major metropolitan area which for me at the time was the Mile High City. At first I found a flight for roughly $1,300 (round trip) and being a first time world traveler I didn't think much of it. I knew it'd be expensive, and I figured that was just typical. This is where I was wrong. I have an older sister who's boyfriend is quite the savvy and experienced traveler, so in a matter of 10 minutes he found me a cheaper way to Warsaw saving me roughly $500. While saving me a huge chunk of change he also got me to triple the amount of places I would be going. What I hadn't considered was my route. Just because I wanted to go from Denver to Warsaw, didn't mean that was the only route I should search for. Using a couple of sites I had never heard of before he was able to find me a flight to Stockholm, Sweden for about $700 with a layover in Frankfurt, Germany. Add a $125 flight (round trip) from Stockholm to Warsaw and this trip, which was already going to break this poor college graduate's bank, just became a tad bit more doable. 

My attempt at packing light (July 2016)
Packing - I'm the type of person that wants to be prepared for everything. This isn't the most helpful characteristic when spontaneously going to Europe for a week. The one thing I knew was that I did not want to bring a checked bag. The idea was to be flexible. I wanted to try my best not to stick out like a sore thumb once I got there. Borrowing my roommate's carry-on suitcase, I still found myself about 4 pounds over the carry-on weight limit. Call it stubbornness or stupidity, I refused to only take 2 pairs of shoes, so that 3rd pair did me in and I now had a carry-on sized checked bag. My fear of losing my luggage became an even more realistic possibility because of a pair of shoes I didn't even end up wearing. Lucky for me though, I had no problems with luggage or timing when I was moving from country to country (although it is so much nicer just having your luggage with you at all times and not having to wait for upwards of an hour for the checked bags to make their way around the carousel as was the case in Denver upon my return).

Paper - I knew my passport was up to date so there were no concerns there. Knowing very little about international travel, I checked to see if any type of visas would be required for where I would be going. I was in the clear there as well. The other paper, money, was the only thing I wanted to be sure I would have no issues with while I would be thousands of miles from my own bank. I contacted my banker to discuss international fees with using debit/credit cards and ATMs. If your some of your cards are like mine, it is also a fantastic idea to inform your institution that you will be traveling to certain places so that there are no holds or blocks to your cards because of "suspicious" usage.

Place to Stay - Again with the help of my sister's boyfriend, I found the wonderful world of hostels. To me the concept of hostels would be much more enjoyable if you're traveling with friends, so I opted for a private room + bathroom hostel room that rounded out to about $35 per night. Worth. Every. Penny. Along with the recommendation from a local, I found a fantastic place to stay in Warsaw, booked the room prior to leaving the U.S. with only a 10% deposit due, and I was all set for Europe!

Planning - Time after time when I would mention to someone I was going to Europe, the first question they asked me was: "Well what are you doing there?" My answer for them was simple: I didn't know. Personally, I thought it would be best to not plan a single thing in terms of sites to see or places to go because by not picking certain things beforehand I was eliminating the possibility of it not working out, not having enough money, or not having enough time to do everything on my list. I eliminated disappointment by eliminating expectations. Going into a place with no expectations allows you to have an experience all your own that you can come back home with cherishing it for reasons all true to yourself.

I was finally all ready for my first European experience!

The Trip

It was July. I left for Denver International Airport on a Saturday. Nothing like a nice 6 hour road trip through some of America's most beautifully underrated country to start off my amazing adventure. After one stop in the middle of nowhere (some would just call it Wyoming), I found my way to the terminal waiting for my flight. 
Slightly nervous for my first flight in over 4 years (Denver International Airport, CO [July 2016])
As I was standing in line I met a man from Romania who was in town for business. His advice for me was that my sleep schedule would be destroyed and how I would be completely useless my first day and a half there due to the time changes. Lucky for me, that posed as no such issue because I had began altering my sleep schedule prior to traveling, not to mention sleeping on the flights, so that I could hit the ground running as soon as I landed.

Landing at Frankfurt Airport (July 2016)
After a surprisingly pleasant flight (smooth sailing, decent food, and adequate legroom) I found myself in Frankfurt, Germany. Much to my surprise, looking out of the 747's window, Germany looked a lot like back home to me. It wasn't this magical looking place I had painted in my mind, but it felt like it. I had done it. This small town kid made it to another country. After finding my luggage and going through customs, I only had about 5 hours until I headed out for Stockholm, so unfortunately I didn't stray from the airport, but there I was in Germany. I spent my time thoroughly exploring the airport as well as catching up on some very valuable sleep time. 

Next stop: Sweden.

A much shorter flight this time, I was especially excited to land in Stockholm for two reasons: 1. I had about 12 hours there..plenty of time to get away from the airport and do some exploring & 2. they were in the middle of what's called Midnight Sun where for a majority of their 24-hour day it is light out! As I was flying in, I immediately noticed that Sweden was definitely giving me that foreign feel to it. The land was covered by endless forests with the only things breaking them apart were roadways that appeared as though they were the veins of a bigger body. Aside from the trees I could see bodies of water one after the next. From the sky this new place to me just gave off such a feeling of mystery and wonder just waiting to be explored. Coming into Stockholm around 7:00 pm I would have ample time to take in some of the sights. Lucky for me I was able to check my bag early so I would be going into town with just my backpack. Not knowing the first thing about public transportation, I asked an airline employee what the best way to the city center was. All aboard the Arlanda Express! Within 20 minutes I had made it to Stockholm City...with little to no idea what I could/should do. As I was exiting the train I overheard that the final train back to the airport would be leaving in 70 minutes, so in a panic I just started walking. I had no idea where I was going, but I knew I wanted to see as much as I possibly could in the short time I thought I had. Although brief, I was able to witness enough of Stockholm to know that I would be returning at some point in the future.

Government building - Stockholm (July 2016)
Stockholm (July 2016)

Stockholm (July 2016)

Hurrying back to the train station for what I thought was the last train for the night, I then found out that it was the last one for the hour, not the day, but I figured I had seen plenty for the time being and decided to get back to the airport and find a cozy spot to bed down for the rest of the night. Travelling alone enabled me to choose when and where I slept, a benefit not always doable with groups. My home for the night: a wooden bench at the airport. After perhaps the worst sleep of my life, I had a nice little "bathroom shower" and was good to go! I got through security around 4:30 AM and had some time to grab some breakfast before my flight to Warsaw. Being my first time in Europe, I made sure to stay aware of the drinking culture in the places I found myself. It was an interesting change to see alcohol served at most restaurants and the airport dining services were no different. Although they were offered for sale at the time I bought breakfast, this American mindset of mind thought 'no no, it isn't acceptable to have an adult beverage at least before noon.' I was wrong. By the time I sat down for breakfast and looked around, quite a number of people had alcoholic drinks accompanying their meal. I opted for a raspberry juice, something I had never heard of here in the States.

Breakfast at Stockholm Arlanda Airport (July 2016)
In terms of dining, my travelling food philosophy was to kiss my taste preferences out the window and say goodbye to my tendencies to dislike certain foods (like tomatoes, mushrooms, etc.). I wanted to experience the food wherever I was for all it is. After my belly was filled, I was growing more and more eager to get to Poland.

Next stop: Warsaw.

No amount of words can express to you how exactly my time in Warsaw has impacted me It would be an injustice to the city itself if I tried to describe it, but what I can say is that this is one place I never thought I would have traveled to and I am so thankful for every second I was fortunate enough to spend there. The people are incredible, the food is amazing, the sites are one-of-a-kind, and there really is something there for everyone. Perhaps it was my extraordinary "guides" I was lucky enough to spend time with, but I will never forget all that I saw and did and learned while in Warszawa.

Warsaw National Stadium (July 2016)

Brunch at Mr. Pancake (July 2016)

View from The Palace of Culture and Science (July 2016)

I realize that this particular post has turned out to be quite a bit lengthier than I had anticipated, but in due time I will learn to condense my articles without sacrificing content. Perhaps you will see later on more posts about my first time spent overseas, but until then I'd like to wrap this one up with a lead into the next entry you will find.

Going to Europe was so much more to me than taking a vacation. For me, our entire lives should be one giant vacation. Enjoy every second, cherish each experience, and never stop exploring. I knew my trip was going to be the highlight of my summer, but what I hadn't anticipated was that it was going to alter my immediate future so drastically that I would plan my life around the very concept of finding new things to get me out of my comfort zone. I now had a goal, a desire, or perhaps a dream that I was going to go after and fulfill. I still wasn't sure what I wanted to do for a career, but upon my return from Europe I knew there was something I wanted to spend my immediate future doing: traveling. Until next time..

Just wing it.