Expat Facts: Little Epiphanies on Spring Break

After hugging my friends goodbye, I walked into the Alicante airport at 5:45 p.m. with plenty of time to spare before my 7:50 flight to Berlin.

I had no idea.

At first, I actually thought I was screwed. I walked into the airport and straight into one of the longest lines I’ve ever seen, leading straight to the Ryanair counter. My airline. Fantastic.

After talking to some friendly British people who were in front of me, I found out that an unprecedented amount of flights had been canceled for that evening, including all Ryanair flights except two. As it turns out, my flight was one of the lucky two – if you call a four-hour delay and finally stumbling into Berlin Schonefeld airport half-asleep at 2:30 a.m. “lucky.”

Suffice it to say that if I never see the inside of the Alicante airport again, it will be too soon.

As it turns out, an airport strike in France meant that no planes could enter or leave the country, and even flying through French airspace was forbidden. Most of the Ryanair flights leaving Alicante that evening were UK-bound, leaving the poor Brits who had explained the situation to me stranded in Spain for the time being. My plane, as well as the flight coming from Germany immediately before it (hence the delay), had to be rerouted away from the small part of France that we would otherwise be flying over.

It was just the start of a weeklong spring break adventure that, at the risk of beating a dead horse, taught me a lot about the world and about myself, both as a person and as a traveler. I know that’s a trope everyone hasn’t heard enough about: middle-class American girl goes to Europe and “finds herself,” and although I roll my eyes just as much as the rest of you, on some levels it’s absolutely true. I’ve written before about how living in Spain has helped me to realize that I’m actually an extrovert. (I’ll wait for the laughter from those who know me to die down.)

After spending the initial pre-airport-arrival day in Alicante, my spring break trip took me to Berlin, Prague, Vienna, and Bratislava, with a quick day trip to Murcia, Spain thrown in there on the way home. This is what I realized over the course of that week.

Germany is my favorite country.

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I started off in Berlin, which I’ve considered to be my favorite city ever since I first visited while studying abroad in nearby Leipzig in 2013. (“Why is Berlin your favorite city, Lindsey?”) How much time do you have? To sum it up, it’s just really amazing to me how the entire city has risen from the ashes (both literally and figuratively) after a tumultuous 20th century to become one of the most modern and respectable cities in the world over such a short period of time (not much longer than my own lifetime). One of these days, I’ll write a city guide to share all my favorite things about Berlin and post it here.

Since that initial study abroad trip, I’ve visited Germany a handful of times, including this trip to Berlin and a long holiday weekend in Munich and Nuremberg back in December. Maybe it’s nostalgia due to the fact that it was the first foreign country I ever visited, but I’ve come to realize that it’s my favorite. As much as I absolutely love Spain with all my heart and have no intention of leaving for the time being, I think my personality vibes better with the German lifestyle: punctuality! efficiency! things actually happening at the time they are supposed to happen and not 10-15 minutes later at the earliest! an entire bus full of people not being held up for half an hour because we’re waiting on one person (that actually happened when I was in Seville)! I’m very type-A, so my beloved Spain can make me very impatient at times.

Nuremberg, Germany, December 2015
Nuremberg, Germany, December 2015

While thinking about places I’d like to visit in the future, I’ve realized that a lot of them are actually in Germany. I still haven’t visited Neuschwanstein Castle. I’d love to visit Heidelberg, Cologne, and Hamburg. One of the things near the top of my travel list is to visit a winery in the Mosel Valley and sample freshly made Riesling (living the dream). You haven’t seen the last of me yet, Deutschland!

I am not a bare-bones budget traveler.

I can be diligent when I have to be. For several weeks leading up to the trip, I put aside a set amount of the money I earn each week teaching private classes and used that to pay for my travels. I did a pretty good job of sticking to my budget, and only had to withdraw extra money once in Prague (although that was mostly because of the fact that they don’t use the euro there and I was lacking in koruna).

5 euros ($5.70) compared to 5 Czech koruna that I forgot to exchange while turning my money back into Euros. No great loss: worth about 20 cents.
5 euros ($5.70) compared to 5 Czech koruna that I forgot to exchange while turning my money back into Euros. No great loss: worth about 20 cents.

Overall, I think my trip was a happy medium between spending and saving. Yes, there are things I could have done differently to save money: I could have couchsurfed for free instead of staying in hostels, but sleeping in a stranger’s home isn’t my style (if you’re down for that, more power to you) and I’d rather pay for the security of a hostel.

Another part of travel that’s really important to me is food (because duh). Could I have saved a few euros by buying food at local supermarkets and cooking it in the hostel kitchens? Yes (and I did do that two or three times), but indulging in the local cuisine is part of what makes visiting a new place fun for me, so I made sure to budget accordingly and include enough money for a few meals out in each city.

One of my biggest splurges came in Vienna in the form of the best apple strudel in town with a melange coffee on the side. About $10, which I guess is not much more than a coffee and pastry at Starbucks - and this is much better quality.
One of my biggest splurges came in Vienna in the form of the best apple strudel in town with a melange coffee on the side. About $10, which I guess is not much more than a coffee and pastry at Starbucks – and this is much better quality.

I will treat myself while still going out of my way to be healthy.

Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovakia – what kind of food comes to mind when you think of these places? If you’re guessing a lot of sausage and bread with the occasional potato, you’re right. Central and Eastern European cuisine is nice and hearty, without much in the way of fresh produce – a far cry from the Mediterranean diet I’ve been half-assedly trying to follow in Spain.

"Let's go eat some Slovak food" said no one ever. Unfortunately. Because it's deliciously underrated. Halusky (dumplings with sheep milk cheese and bacon), pierogies, and a house-brewed beer at the Slovak Pub all for about $7.
“Let’s go eat some Slovak food” said no one ever. Unfortunately. Because it’s deliciously underrated. Halusky (dumplings with sheep milk cheese and bacon), pierogies, and a house-brewed beer at the Slovak Pub all for about $7.

I fully enjoyed my culinary experiences in each country, but after a day or two of not eating any fresh fruit (something I do regularly at home), I actually found myself starting to crave it. Luckily, this was a great way to get to know each city on a more local, less touristy level. From crisp apples at Markthalle Neun in Berlin to juicy strawberries at the Naschmarkt in Vienna, finding nutritious items to balance out the local gastronomic options gave me a great excuse to see more of each city in addition to making me feel healthier.

Cute European cafes in the pedestrian-only city center of Vienna.
Cute European cafes in the pedestrian-only city center of Vienna.

I can wing it when I have to.

The last post I wrote before leaving dealt with the privilege we have as English speakers both at home and abroad, and I saw that play out firsthand on my trip. English is the lingua franca for just about everyone, regardless of whether or not it’s someone’s first language. Several times throughout the trip, I was approached by other travelers seeking directions – always in English, even if the person asking me was from a non-English-speaking country. (One girl in Berlin asked first if I speak English and then if I knew how to get to a certain place on the metro, then as she walked away with her friends I heard them speaking Spanish. I could have helped you en español, mujer!) I witnessed a Slovak bus driver giving directions to two Portuguese women – in English. While checking into every single hostel, I was greeted by the reception staff in English before I could even open my mouth. As I struggled through ordering a chocolate trdlink in Prague, the vendor helpfully switched to English for me by default.

But every single situation doesn’t warrant a “sorry, I don’t speak [insert local language here].” Did the gentleman assigned to the seat beside me on the Prague-Vienna bus need to know that I don’t speak Czech when he greeted me with a friendly dobry den? Absolutely not. In those situations, you can fake it ’til you make it.

Just because I’m type-A doesn’t mean I have to be so type-A.

I love schedules, itineraries, and knowing when and where things are going to happen. (Remember when I said I love the German lifestyle?) The word spontaneity makes me cringe a little bit. I surprised myself when I decided to go on a semi-last-minute trip to Bratislava, Slovakia, a city I didn’t know much about except for what a friend who lived there last summer had told me (hi Jess!). But when I became aware of the opportunity to take a day trip there from Vienna (fun fact: Vienna and Bratislava are the two geographically closest international capitals), I decided to go for it.

I’m so glad I took the 50-minute bus trip east of the Austrian border. Out of all the cities I visited, Bratislava is the place that surprised me the most (in a good way). It’s small enough that seeing all the major sights was possible in just a few hours, but it has a special and unique little charm all its own.

Perfect pastel buildings in Bratislava's city center.
Perfect pastel buildings in Bratislava’s city center.

The #eurotrip travel style isn’t for me.

By the end of my trip, I was exhausted. Chilly temperatures had given me a pretty bad cold, and my body was sore from all the walking I’d been doing. I’m incredibly thankful that I visited each of these places, but I think the biggest takeaway from this trip is that I’m not the type of person cut out for hopping on a bus every other day to head off to a new place. I don’t like wearing one of the same three outfits for eight days straight. I get cold really easily and turn into a wimp (actually, I already knew that about myself).

Even though I’ll probably adapt a slower-paced travel style in the future, I’m proud of myself for doing what I did. I made my own plan and budgeted diligently to help achieve my travel goals. I met incredible people – both local residents of each city and fellow Spain language assistants – who made the trip memorable. I learned not to be so hard on myself, like the night in Prague when I really started feeling under the weather and went to bed early (at first I was mad at myself for “not taking advantage of my time in Prague,” but when I woke up the next day feeling much better, I realized that was what I’d needed). I took responsibility for myself, returned to the city that stole my heart three years ago and fell in love with each brand new place I visited – and, travel burnout aside, had a great time doing it.

At least I caught this great view from Prague Castle.
At least I caught this great view from Prague Castle.

 

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