American! American!

Have you ever traveled with someone who looks really American? I have. Matt’s looks definitely scream American. He is tall and has blonde hair and blue eyes. When my Spanish friend from Georgetown saw a picture of Matt for the first time, she duly noted that he looked very American (the picture she saw of him was Matt wearing his letterman jacket from high school so I guess it was even more stereotypical than usual). Fortunately Matt isn’t loud, obnoxious, and self absorbed like people expect citizens of the USA to be.

 

When you travel, it does matter how you look. It has a direct effect on how you are treated. Matt and I experienced that while we were abroad together, specifically in Paris. Matt’s American look made us an immediate target for street vendors and con artists. It is helpful that I don’t look too American. I’m short, have brown hair and eyes, and my face looks more European in general. They often specifically harassed Matt while I was frustrated by their attitude towards him. While it can be annoying to be bothered for the way you look, it can also result in some amusing stories. Here’s one:

 

Paris was beautiful in the snow.

Paris was beautiful in the snow.

 

Matt and I were in Montmartre in Paris. That’s where our cute but slightly run down hostel was and we were enjoying exploring the immediate area. (Matt and I were thrilled to find a bakery right around the corner with the most awesome fresh baguettes.) I had been to Montmartre in the past and warned Matt that there would be some “vendors” around who would want to “show him something” and then would make a bracelet on his wrist and force him to pay for it. In reality Matt probably wouldn’t have any issue with getting out of a situation like that (his size is quite intimidating even though he is the nicest guy ever) and wouldn’t mind paying for it but I extremely dislike when people try to pull one over on you. So Matt and I were walking along happily and then, out of no where, a group of about five men come running towards us from behind screaming “American! American!” and pointing at Matt. They immediately began to bother Matt to let them “show him something.” Boy was I irritated! I forcefully told them multiple times in both French and English that we weren’t interested and then dragged Matt away. He was curious about the situation and wanted to stick around. Matt goes with the flow and, like I said, wouldn’t really have any trouble with the situation. So I explained that they were trying to pull one over on him and that I refused to let either of us pay for that. We carried on.

 
In the moment, I was extremely irritated that those men thought they could get money out of us with a stupid trick just because we were American. If they didn’t put on a ruse and were more honest about it, Matt and I would have most likely stuck around. But they were right. Matt is American. And it gave us a great story to tell in the future. The situation was so comedic and felt like something that would happen on TV, not in real life. I assure you, it happened in real life to us. We immediately laughed about it afterwards but it made me think. The situation told me that the way you look does have a direct impact on how you are treated in other cultures. Traveling can reveal that to you really quick. Sometimes it is worth it to blend in.

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Split the Plan

I am a firm believer that it is entirely possible to plan a whole trip on your own. I am also a firm believer that you should take help when you can get it. Going on this trip with Matt is awesome for many reasons. I like to think about all the cute stuff that comes with traveling with my boyfriend but I am also be practical. Matt helps immensely in planning this whole thing. That means less work and stress for me and I am perfectly fine with it.

 

Here are some gems on sharing the planning load on a big trip like this:

 

1. Play to each other’s strengths. Thanks to his criminal justice degree and stereotypical male instincts, Matt was all over the legal aspects and transportation between countries. And me? I am all over the hostels and places to visit. The minutia of both of those topics fits my museum collections background perfectly. You’ve already seen my hostel spreadsheet in my last post so you know what I’m talking about.

 

2. Planning gets you excited. Don’t get me wrong, planning can be stressful but it mostly makes you super giddy about the journey you’re about the embark on. I get to share that excitement with Matt which is great. He has things to tell me and I have excessive amounts of stuff to tell him. Let’s face it, he’s the one who is going to want to listen to all of that stuff because he is the most invested.

 

3. You each run on your own time. Deal with it. Matt and I each run at our own speeds. We each do what we want when we want. This can be frustrating for both parties if one person isn’t moving at the speed the other would like (whether that means slower or faster). At the same time, sharing the planning of an important trip makes both of you more accountable than you would be by yourself. Things may actually get done a bit faster or more effectively if you’re trying to keep up with the other person or not disappoint them.

 

4. Plan some things together. You can’t completely get away from doing some work together. Matt and I sat down together and planned the exact travel route and the ideal amount of days we would like to spend in each location. Why wasn’t this task left to some person? There are just some things that you both want to have input on. It wasn’t just basic research that we then shared with each other. We make solid final decisions together. Booking the first ticket to Glasgow? Yeah, we both were all over that.

 

5. Keep each other sane. In reality Matt is keeping me sane. He is really mellow in the first place so I don’t have the same keeping him sane responsibility except for the whole not driving him crazy with my obsessive need to get things done asap. Matt helps me to swim away from the deep end by reassuring me that if I don’t have the time to get everything done right away, things will still come together in the end. Moral support is always helpful. It’s not like you’re planning a tiny getaway either so there will be times when it feels overwhelming.

 

6. Be organized. Matt and I both show each other our research findings frequently. It helps to keep track of it in some way. I have spreadsheets. Matt has his memory filing cabinet. Do it in your own way but make sure it is effective.

 

7. Two brains are better than one. That goes for sets of eyes too. We cover more research ground. He thinks of things I wouldn’t. I obsessive over things he’s too chill to care about. So I suppose it also comes down to the whole balancing each other which has been the underlying theme of this whole post. And with that achieved balance comes epic backpacking planning brilliance!

 

Before we really got into planning this trip, I thought that I might like planning this whole thing on my own but I’m glad that I didn’t and don’t have to. I’m already learning a lot about myself and my relationship with Matt before we have even left. I learned that I can actually let go of control of things and be okay with it. This realization has dawned slowly over the past couple of years as I recover from the stress of group projects throughout school and my undergraduate education (you can probably guess that I was the kid who did all the work to ensure that it got done and to a high standard). As far as our relationship goes, I place a lot of trust in Matt. I see this in our planning process because I am essentially entrusting him to do good by my dream that I’ve had for years. He’s not disappointing me. Matt is an awesome partner to plan a trip with, particularly for me because he understands my quirks and tendencies. The other reason he’s the best, this is his dream too and he’s just as invested in it as I am. With two people passionate about the trip, I think we’re doing quite alright with this whole planning thing.

 

The Non-Negotiables of Hostels

In all of the planning that Matt and I have done, my biggest task has been figuring out the hostel situation. As you know, Matt and I love to research. I decided to create a spreadsheet with at least three (but that wasn’t always the case) but no more than eight potential hostels for each location. Google Drive has been my savior. Check out the screenshot of my hostel spreadsheet below.

 

Google Drive is an awesome travel organizational tool!

Google Drive is an awesome travel organizational tool!

 

I’m not going to lie, I’m pretty proud of the way I organized all of that information. We haven’t finalized any plans yet but I feel confident that we’ll have all the options that we could possibly need when we decide to book. Matt and I are booking our hostels about a month out for each. The only one we reserved in advance is for Oktoberfest which books fast and can get really expensive. When August 1st rolls around, we’ll start booking the other locations.

 

So how the heck did I go about picking all of these hostels? It can be a lot of information to work through. I used Hostelworld.com to research all of our lodging. Matt and I used this website when we visited London and Paris. We had a great experience with it as it centralizes all of the information and breaks it all down for you from rates to directions to amenities to everything in between. Next, I decided on some non-negotiable aspects of the hostels: 1) linen included, 2) lockers, 3) free WiFi. It’s a simple but effective list that helps cut down our options and you can have a lot of options depending on the city. As far as “linen included” goes, we don’t want to have to lug around extra sheets and blankets. Not happening. The lockers are necessary to keep our valuables safe; it is the most supreme on the non-negotiables. And free WiFi because I want to blog and have contact with my family.

 

Four other factors had major influences on how we narrowed down the hostels. The first is the rating that the place has on Hostelworld. Anything lower than a 70% rating is unacceptable. Preferably there will be lots of ratings on the hostel so that I feel it is more accurate. Next, the price. Matt did a quick budget for us before we really started to get into planning and produced a list of average costs of hostels in each city. I tried to match that number or find a lower one. Typically, I got a lower cost. Money saved on housing means more opportunities for fun stuff. Also, the dorms had to be mixed. While I have stayed in hostels and felt perfectly safe, the majority of that feeling came from the fact that Matt was in the same room as me. He is basically my bodyguard. If the hostel only provided dorms that were separated by sex, it was a no go. Finally, the location has to be prime. I want us to be able to easily access transportation and be near major attractions in order to cut down on local transportation costs.
Matt and I still need to go through all of the hostels in order to select our preferences. That will make the process even easier for us when we start to book the hostels. At the end of the day, we’ll have spent a lot of time researching and booking hostels. It’s important to me that we have nice places to stay. It will definitely affect how much we enjoy our trip as well as our trip budget and the money we have left upon our return. A lot of the hostels are quirky and interesting. I’m definitely looking forward to all the changes of scenery that I’ll experience and the people that we’ll meet.

The Dilemma of a Traveling Book Lover

I cannot go on an epic backpacking adventure through Europe without reading along the way. When Matt and I traveled to London and Paris during our study abroad adventure in Ireland, some of my happiest and most content memories were from reading while traveling. The trip was short so two books sufficed (and I had room in my pack to compulsively pick up a couple more at used book stores along the way). In London, Matt and I visited at a nice little cafe while we waited to check in at our hostel. I read Austen and drank a mocha for the first time. (Before that, I refused to drink any espresso or coffee. When I told Matt to surprise me with what he bought for me that day, he took a chance with the mocha as I was so tired and love chocolate so much.) With those memories of contentment, I now get all nostalgic about having a book in hand while drinking a latte at a coffee shop. In Paris, Matt and I stayed at a hostel in Montmartre. My bed was right in front of a window looking out into the neighborhood. One morning, I woke up to see a lovely snowfall outside. Matt was still sleeping so I grabbed my book to pass some time so Matt could get more sleep. In that moment I felt extremely content and happy. I was on a wonderful trip in a gorgeous city with a beautiful light snow falling while reading a classic novel. Not to mention that I had my best friend/awesome boyfriend with me to enjoy everything. I was so content in that moment that I never wanted to forget it. I have a picture of that window with snow falling outside of it but that image is pretty much ingrained in my memory.

 

Shakespeare and Company, Paris, December 2010. I'm in my element.

Shakespeare and Company, Paris, December 2010. I’m in my element.

 

Traveling and reading are the perfect combination for me. Maybe it’s because reading is done in all the usual comfortable places when one is at home. When I travel, I have fleeting opportunities to do one of my favorite activities in a completely new setting. It somehow makes me feel more alive.Traveling does that to me any way so it’s like I’m twice alive in that moment by experiencing my own life and then the one happening in the novel. One of the early thoughts I had about my backpacking trip was how I would be able to bring books with me. I figured that I could bring a few hardcopies in my bag. The only thing is that I wouldn’t want to offload the books when I finished them because I would want to keep them as part of my collection. Additionally, I know that I would be picking up more books along the way. I came to the conclusion that it would be most realistic to get a Kindle. Now, this isn’t an easy decision for me. Anyone who is close to me knows that my books are like my children. People have pets who are like their kids; I have books. I worry about their well being (I don’t like it when they get damaged) and I get very attached to them (it greatly bothers me that the majority of my collection is in storage now so I try not to think about it). Getting a Kindle feels kind of like betraying the physical manifestation of books but I’m slowly getting over it. I know that it will lighten my load and allow me to read more books on the road if I want to. I can always buy my favorites in hard copy later or only read books that I don’t want to own in hard copy. I do like the idea of having a electronic device solely dedicated to books. I’m officially on the Kindle bandwagon. I’ll let you know how it works out.

 

19 Cities, 15 Countries, 3 Months, 2 People

Matt and I have been working on our travel route for about a month. Basically, we decided to do a loop through Europe, landing and departing from the very west of the continent in order to make our flights across the Atlantic cheaper. It will take us roughly three months. We’re starting in the northern areas and then traveling through the south so we don’t have to pack a really wide range of clothing. Some of the places were randomly selected while others were chosen for very specific reasons. Matt and I are currently working on a calendar of how long we will be spending in each place. At least we have our route for now.

 

Now presenting, the path we will be taking through Europe (with occasional reasons as to why we selected a particular place):

 

1. Glasgow, United Kingdom (Monique’s Reason: The Four – aka Art Nouveau in Scotland)

2. Edinburgh, United Kingdom (Due to a recommendation from a friend)

3. Brussels, Belgium

4. Amsterdam, The Netherlands

5. Oslo, Norway

6. Stockholm, Sweden

7. Helsinki, Finland (Where Matt’s ancestors are from)

8. Munich, Germany (Oktoberfest!!!!)

9. Berlin, Germany

10. Krakow, Poland

11. Prague, Czech Republic

12. Budapest, Hungary

13. Vienna, Austria

14. Rome, Italy

15. Venice, Italy (Because we weren’t able to go due to price last time we were in Europe.)

16. Nice, France

17. Barcelona, Spain (One time we got to Barcelona’s airport… that wasn’t enough.)

18. Dublin, Ireland

19. Galway, Ireland (Nostalgia for Matt’s and my study abroad adventure.)

 

Deciding to Take the Epic Trip of My Dreams

I’ve always wanted to travel.  Fortunately, Matt is completely okay with my inherent need to go places and see things. That’s an important quality because I’ll be this way for the rest of my life. As I am coming upon a three month trip around Europe with Matt (I will post an itinerary at a later date), I started to think about how I came to the decision to take an extended trip. Making the decision to travel can be difficult and complicated mainly because life gets in the way. Here’s my story of how I decided to make my dream of backpacking Europe become a reality:

How I almost never got to go backpacking:

I decided I wanted to go on an epic trip through Europe back during my sophomore year at Georgetown University. That feeling strengthened even more after coming back from studying abroad in Ireland during my junior year. By the end of college, I pushed that idea aside for a couple of reasons. The first: I was off to graduate school for Museum Studies. The second: Matt focused on getting a job and starting his career. I often talked to Matt about going on an extended trip but he said that it probably wouldn’t be possible for quite a while. At the end of my first year of grad school, I still wanted to figure out how to travel and I needed to find a partner. Traveling alone wouldn’t be fun for me. Not wanting to give up on my dream, I asked my sister Sarah if she could go with me. I did a quick estimate of a budget and let Sarah know the price. A trip like this is expensive and Sarah said she couldn’t afford it at this point, especially because she needs time and money to apply to medical school which is understandably her top priority at this point. Going into my second and final year of my Masters program, I completely pushed the idea of a lengthy trip out of my mind and resigned myself to the idea of having occasional one week vacations because it was realistic and I guessed I could live with that.

Matt and Monique in Ireland during Fall 2010.

Matt and Monique in Ireland during Fall 2010.

How plans changed:

The reason I’m going to be taking a three month trip through Europe is because of Matt. About a month ago, Matt came to me and suggested that we go. Just being out of grad school, I’m having difficulty finding a job (it really is a tough economy). Matt suggested it was a perfect time to go because I’m in limbo with my career and he wants to reset his career direction. Matt figured he could just take some time off in between his current job and his future career. In terms of jobs (or lack of), Matt and I are in the perfect place. Plus, we both currently have enough money saved up to do this trip while paying the bills we are leaving behind and still having a bit of money to start on when we come back. Is this trip fiscally responsible? Well, our bank accounts are going to take huge hits but they would do so at any time for an adventure like this. Is it worth it? Yes. Matt and I love to travel and we love each other. We have been apart for so long (Matt and I did six years of long distance during our undergraduate schooling and my graduate program) that this will be ultimate quality time. Plus, as Matt says, this trip will be something that we remember for the rest of our lives. And our dreams will be fulfilled through making this journey.

When Matt seriously asked me if I wanted to go on this trip, it took me less than a minute to think it through and say yes. Was I nervous? Hell yes. I thought through all the scenarios of how this could go wrong or negatively affect my future. But I know that I may never get this opportunity again where all the stars perfectly align to make something this big and important happen. I want and need to take the opportunity before it is gone and may never come again. That was the ultimate deciding factor when I decided to pursue this backpacking journey. I’m sure that Matt would say the same.

Making a decision to take a trip like this is a big one. It can affect your career and it will definitely affect you financially. When trying to decide to travel, my advice is to look at it in terms of whether or not you will get the opportunity again. And also how happy it will make you. Of course you  will need to consider money and career issues but if you can afford to not really worry about those things, don’t worry about them. Or just take the risk. It may be worth it in the end because, realistically, we can’t lose sight of the fact that we only have one life. With the United States’ focus on work, this can be difficult to acknowledge at times but it is something that we should never forget.

_ _ _ _ _

Matt and I will be leaving for Glasgow on Sunday, August 31st. Until we leave, I’ll be updating the blog with tips on planning a trip like this. When our adventure begins, it will switch to more traveling advice that we learn as we go. Matt and I are both backpacking novices so hopefully this will provide you with inspiration that a trip like this can be done as well as give you some useful information. I’ll be posting our travel route by this time next week.