Things I Learned From Running Around Europe All Summer
Pictured above: mojitos and a dip in the Mediterranean during a train layover in the Franco-Spanish border town of Port Bou.
I think I'm officially getting to that point in my college semester that just fucking sucks. It's November. November is stressful and it sucks outside. And so every so often I'll think about this summer, when I ran around Europe by myself for two months. I think my daily itinerary was something along the lines of, 1) Wake, lazy coffee. 2) Take as long of a walk as possible. 3) Museum. 4) Meet up with friends for dinner and drinks, rinse and repeat. It was, as you can imagine, glorious.
I obviously learned a lot of big, sweeping, Bittersweet Coming of Age things while I was there. I knew I would - a lot of my friends have studied abroad. But there were also a lot of little, weirdly specific things I learned that I never really had the chance to share, because it never comes up IRL that you shouldn't walk on ledges near Lake Como, because that's how you end up with a huge scar on your leg. Or that it's completely acceptable to stop at a McDonald's in the Netherlands because listen, the McKrocket will change. your. LIFE.
So in the interest of procrastination and also in the interest of sharing some of the wisdom I know you're all just dying to hear, this is what, after three months of reflection, I find it important to have learned.
1) The Only Working Outlet in the Barcelona Train Station is the Women's Bathroom by Gate 32
Write it down. Trust me.
2) When in Doubt, Follow the German Boy Scouts
I encourage you to take a moment to consider all the positive stereotypes you know about Germans. Now consider all the positive stereotypes you know about Boy Scouts. Got it? Okay, so, one of my most retrospectively hilarious memories is being on the train from Hamburg to Copenhagen and just being, like, done. I'd been at a party up until an hour before I got on the train in Cologne. I woke up in Hamburg experiencing not so much a hangover as my body's sudden awareness of all the physical and emotional shit I'd put it through in the past month and a half. It was bad, and I was on an overbooked train that didn't assign seats, so I was stuck standing with a caravan of backpackers, praying for death. When the train pulled into the ferry to Denmark, I missed the announcements, so I had no idea what was going on - just that we all had to get off. I was so sure that I was going to just die, right there, surrounded by people who were definitely not sober enough to resuscitate me. I started to cry, right there on the train.
It was then that I saw the German Boy Scouts. This is something that I can genuinely, honestly only determine to be an Act of God. There I was, hungover and confused and crying in a blazer like a latter-day Don Draper. Suddenly, here were these people navigating Europe with topographic maps, and compasses, and incredibly detailed itineraries written on graph paper, and they were, I shit you not, singing a harmonious tune. It was as though a ray of light had descended upon them. I knew these were the people I had to follow, and follow I did. We never spoke and I don't know if they ever noticed that they'd adopted a confused baby duckling, but I can't imagine how inconspicuous I must have been standing 5 feet away from them at all times.
I followed them up to the deck of the ferry, and then back downstairs where they found us an empty car with actual seats. And then, this is where it gets weird, by pure coincidence I ended up following them off the train in Copenhagen and onto my next train to Sweden, where by some miracle our pre-assigned seats were right next to each other in an otherwise empty car. I watched them play wholesome card games and draw the progress of the route on our map, and I didn't even get irritated when the kid next to me chewed his homemade wax-paper wrapped sandwich annoyingly loudly. These people, they were keeping me alive with their unfailing perfection. Our motley little crew stayed together Nykopping, where I bid their freshly-pressed khaki short ensembles auf wiedersehen.
Follow the German Boy Scouts, my friends, they will never lead you astray - and they always know where the bathrooms are.
3) Parisians are Pretty Great
So, I don't know. There is, as you probably know, a myth among Americans that Parisians are all hella rude. And we all also know that I'm a huge Francophile, so maybe you think you can't trust my opinion. But really, this one is very dear to my heart. Hear me out here.
There is definitely a certain polite distance in France that doesn't exist so much in the US. You always greet the shopkeeper. Monsieur/Madame/Mademoiselle are used constantly. In the US, there's more of a casual openness - and I think people kind of take Paris' lack of that as coldness, but it's not.
Maybe that polite distance in Paris is just that - polite distance. And maybe it helps a lot that I speak French. But on a surface level, I cannot recall a single negative experience in a month in Paris. Not once asking for directions, or making a purchase, or ordering a meal. Not once on a train or waiting in line for a bathroom. I experienced a level of not just politeness, but genuine kindness and patience that I see much more rarely in New York.
First, of all I'm not implying that New Yorkers are rude, because we're really not. I have witnessed people literally fight to give the best directions to a tourist. Still, I think living in New York helps my view of Paris a lot, because New Yorkers can often be much more distant compared to the rest of the country. For example, I'm honestly shocked if the cashier at Duane Reade smiles at me. That wasn't my experience there, but I know that a lot of my fellow Americans experience a little culture shock at that distance.
My experience in Paris is basically this: I'd go to parties and meet people who are, at first, quite distant compared to Americans my age. There's no superficially over-excited greeting. When it comes to making female friends, once you get past that, there's a kindness that I see so much more rarely in New York. Maybe it's just because I was the "vulnerable foreigner," but I never once felt anything approaching "on my own." These are the kind of girls who know your French isn't perfect but seek to make you feel confident, not self-conscious. They'll make sure you're included in the conversation, getting the background of the jokes, and will help you find the friend you came with. French guys are the same. They're the type to make sure the guacamole bowl gets passed in your direction. My heart may burst.
This isn't about some sense of entitlement, that "people should help me!" It's really more that I feel like so often in New York, we kiss each other's asses, but it means nothing. In Paris, you have to actually earn people's respect, but once you do, people are really cool.
4) You Won't Realize You've Discovered Something Wonderful Until It's Too Late
I know this probably sounds like it's about a tragically romantic summer love, but it's actually not. It's about goat cheese flavored potato chips. On one of my last days in Paris, I went grocery shopping and picked up a few snacks to take with me on the train ride to Eindhoven. I think it's pretty clear that I'm a dedicated fried potato product enthusiast as well as a pungent cheese enthusiast, and I saw these, and I figured worse case I wouldn't eat them. I stuck them in my travel bag and forgot about them entirely until I settled into the train, all comfortable, and open my chips, and FUCK. I spent a lot of time in the Netherlands thinking about them, fantasizing about them, dreaming of them, but none of my remaining stopovers in Paris afforded me the chance to go to the only épicerie off of Rue de Maine that I'd seen them. On my list of reasons to go back to Paris, it's literally like, 1) Revisiting my favorite city on the planet, 2) Reunion with goat cheese chips.
5) The Very Best Friendships are the Sometimes the Shortest Ones
Shout outs to: the bartender in Valencia that comped my meal while I tried to find a hotel room; the two sixteen year old Danish boys in said bar whose English skills are frankly an embarrassment to my own; the baker in Narbonne (P.S, best sandwhich ever, I'm coming back for you, I promise); unfairly beautiful Swedish girls in line with us at the club in Stockholm that I vaguely remember playing charades with (?); the French philosophy professor on the TGV who knew my freshman year history professor (!); and countless other people that I'm going to remember fondly for the rest of my life.
This is in no way a slight to the longer, more sustained friendships I made while there; and particularly my hosts. I couldn't be more eternally grateful to the people who put me up this summer. You guys, fuck, it was magical. I'm not going to get ridiculously schmaltzy. But sometimes I think about sitting in an apartment in Crown Heights on a warm August night a year ago. I remember that night really clearly - who I was and how I felt about life. I couldn't have imagined then how much amazingly different my life would be in a year - and that it would be thanks to two of the people at that party.
Hey also, Matilda, can I come back to Sweden and start an ice cream business with you?
6) Buy the Comme des Garçons jacket.
Because when you think of Milan several months from now, you will think of strolling through the city, warm nights on the terrace, getting lost in the towns surrounding the Lago Maggiore, and the dizzy drunkenness of wine and risotto and romance; the soft play of moonlight on the water as you drive through the mountains, full with food and music and summer air.
But mostly, you will be thinking about that jacket.
IT WAS LIKE 95% OFF, DAMNIT.