In June 2015, I came to the realization that there wasn’t really anything keeping me home, aside from personal relationships and my dog. Don’t get me wrong, I love my dog to tidbits. We play hide and seek and he follows me everywhere. But I still needed a change of scenery. As far back as my poor memory goes, I’ve felt a strange attraction to Germany. Perhaps it stemmed from the fact that a good portion of my heritage is Germanic, but maybe I just thought the name sounded cool when I was young. That logic was how I chose Germany as the location for my first solo backpacking trip.
After months of stalking flight prices like a desperate tween following her middle school crush, I bought a ticket to Berlin and spent three weeks wandering the country. From Berlin I went to Prague, Munich, Nuremberg, Köln, Bergen op Zoom, Amsterdam, and flew home from Frankfurt. When I got back, I was almost exclusively asked by friends and family things like,
Where did you go?
What did you do?
What was your favorite city?
However, one friend challenged me with this: What are three things you learned?
Caught off guard, I wasn’t sure how to answer right away. This was a question I needed time to think about. Not only what I learned, but how to narrow it down to only three things! I mumbled out a satisfactory response, enough to get past the question and move on.
Later on, I thought about the question on my own and dissected how I could better reiterate my answer. So, in more depth, here are 3 things I learned in 3 weeks. All qualities I feel I had to an extent, but these specific experiences helped me grow in them.
I’ve always considered myself a patient person. However, I was thrust into a whole new experience where I had to learn how to deal with situations as they arose. When it came to the more stressful circumstances, like finding a place to stay, I would find myself growing frustrated at times. While it was exciting to have new and unique problems to solve, sometimes I was just too exhausted from lugging my backpack around all day to feel like dealing with the situation. The temptation to just buy a room at the closest place available and flop down on a soft bed, crossed my mind a few times, but I never gave in.
On my last night in Nuremberg, I didn’t have a host. The night before, I stayed in a hostel where I almost had to share a bed. It was the only one available in the city, and it wasn’t worth the price. I had found a potential host on CouchSurfing, but I always meet in public first for obvious safety reasons. In this case, it was a good thing, because the guy turned out to be a complete creep. I should have figured that out as soon as he said he hated dogs. That night, I ended up sleeping at the train station – or rather, taking a glorified nap.
I found an unoccupied corner and obsessively tangled myself around and through my backpack. My biggest fear of sleeping in public was someone running off with my stuff while I was KO. Maybe I was slightly paranoid or overthinking, but it had already been a less than desirable night, and at that point I felt like anything could happen. It was surprisingly easy to pass out on the hard tiled floor, but it didn’t last long. Security would come around every hour or so and wake everyone up. They didn’t make us leave – but they wouldn’t let us sleep.
The next day, I caught a rideshare to Köln. I was fatigued, but glad to be able to catch up on sleep during the ride. For Köln, I had also sent out dozens of personalized requests with no fish biting. When I arrived, I met up with someone using CouchSurfing hangouts, just to see a (hopefully) friendly face and boost my spirits a bit.
This time, the guy I met, Salvo, was good-natured, easygoing, and he liked dogs. He invited me to a sit down concert he was playing at later on in the city. Between the creepy guy from the night before and getting very little sleep at the train station, it sounded like exactly what I needed to take my mind off the stresses of waiting to receive a positive request from a host.
Going to that concert turned out to be one of the best decisions of my trip. It was there, through Salvo, that I met a local college student named Felix who heard about my need for a couch. Felix immediately offered me a place to stay before even being introduced. After getting to know him quickly, it turned out he had done his share of backpacking as well and understood my situation. To Felix, it didn’t seem like a big deal. To me, he was essentially my friendly German guardian angel.
Felix and his friend, Philip, were kind enough to invite Salvo and me to an underground rave in the middle of the forest. We stayed there dancing until 5 a.m., charged by the surrounding nature and people. The forest was lit up with strings of lights and welcoming vibes. It was exactly what I needed to let go of the negativity from the night before, and entirely cherish the company I was fortunate enough to meet.
If not for my time of desperation the night before, where would I have ended up? Would I have appreciated it as much? What if I had chosen the security of a hostel over spontaneity?
That whole journey, going from losing optimism to receiving such a huge act of human kindness, helped to cement me into a more patient mindset with a controlled attitude. It was a whole snowball effect that led me to one of the best nights and learning experiences of my life so far.
Home in the United States, alcohol is a big deal. You turn 21 and go a little crazy, perhaps binge and drink excessively, because you can now! Admittedly, I got sucked in at first too (sorry mom). Eventually, I calmed down like everyone else, but drinking was still the focal point and main contributor of most social interactions.
Now I’m not condemning drinking, and I’m not implying I was anywhere near alcoholism before this trip. I will always love sampling new beers. But being in Germany was such a different atmosphere. For a country where drinking in public is legal in many cities, I never noticed anyone drunk.
At the aforementioned rave in the forest, everyone was dancing and having a great time. Beer was available, but it wasn’t a predominant prop. That night was a big deal for me, because I do not dance. I feel uncomfortable, and I never know what to do with myself so I usually end up looking just as awkward as I feel. Grooving to electronic music without anything to help me loosen up was new territory. Yet I was able to break out of my comfort zone due to being surrounded by incredible people.
In Amsterdam, I went to a CouchSurfing meetup at a bar. A small group of us ended up breaking off doing a bit of bar-hopping of our own, and still, none of us got drunk. Yet we were having a blast dancing like our limbs were noodles and photobombing every photo possible. For the second time, I was able to let loose without the aid of “liquid courage.”
Coming home, I found myself naturally drinking significantly less, and noticeably so. Normally if alcohol was present, I would gladly accept a few glasses. Now if I find myself at a brewery, I’ll usually take over an hour to finish one beer. Where I used to always have alcohol on hand in my room, I’m trying to get rid of my stash through other people because I rarely touch it. It has been easier and even liberating to turn down a drink after fully learning to appreciate life completely sober.
And I feel great in the mornings.
One day in Amsterdam, I found a park on google maps that looked interesting, so I walked to it. For the most part, it was a pretty average walk. I was on the outskirts where there were mostly suburbs. On the way back, I took a different route which was mostly industrial. Yet it was all still exciting to me for the simple fact that I was in a different country seeing something I never had before.
Coming home from a new adventure means that the post-travel depression can set in. Everything seems less interesting, there’s nothing around that’s as exciting as where you were, and you have to readjust to your usual routine. But I decided to take a different route this time. Returning after all I’d gone through only inspired me to keep the adventure going.
I started by keeping up my daily walking. Simple enough, right? I took to a trail by my house that I’d never gone up entirely. With new and curious eyes, I took in the sights of the path (which was mostly desert) and found new secluded places that I’d never been. I’ve lived in this city for over 10 years and I had taken it for granted. I knew the usual spots I liked to go, and I never changed it up much. If I ever sink into comfortability, I ask myself: If this was a different country, how would I explore this city?
Another way I’ve maintained the travel mentality at home is to find fellow Couchsurfers and travelers in the area. All of the best people I’ve met while exploring were Surfers, so I figured I should find some locally. Unfortunately, I live in a non-touristic city so it can be more challenging. Nonetheless, I messaged a few people and got one response from Seiji, who was more than happy to oblige to my request. Seiji and I met up for tea a few weeks later – he was certainly a distinctive and interesting individual, as most CSers are, and it was stimulating being able to have a conversation with someone of a similar mindset about travel. Halfway through he stopped and asked, “You wanna draw?” He busted out a notepad and a bunch of colored sharpies and we sat there doodling for an hour in artistic silence. It was unique from the usual routine hangouts, and it was awesome.
Between the nights spent in train stations and the unexpected experiences that crept up on me like hidden fees on a flight ticket, I can whole-heartedly say that I’m thankful for the trip going exactly how it did. I’m excited to apply these learning experiences to future endeavors, all the while gaining more insight and increasing my comfort zone. Not to mention, I’m looking forward to expanding on my new, and embarrassing, dancing skills.