Monday, 28 July 2014

Final Reflections

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.

I guess I've been putting off this last post for a while, number one because I'm lazy and number two because it's another weird transition for me—I actually managed to keep this blog (for the most part) updated throughout my year, and it's just one more goodbye that I have to do for this year. This last weekend I was in Decorah for Nordic Fest, eating lefse and lingonberry ice cream, repping my I Love Sweden shirt and hanging out with friends and seeing people I haven't seen in a year. It was a great weekend, but so hard and just so weird. After living abroad for a year and everything that I've done and seen in all my travels, the transition into my senior year of college is already more difficult than I could ever imagine.

This year has been, without a doubt, the year of all my dreams. I got to spend an entire year with my people in the country I love most, seeing the places I've only ever dreamed of and growing so much as a person throughout all of my (mostly solo) travels. I know it sounds cliché, but this has been the best year of my life, and I will never forget it. Not only was I able to fully immerse myself in British life and culture, I had amazing opportunities to travel around England, fully indulging in my love of history to the maximum point possible. I also had incredible opportunities to travel all over the world, meeting different types of people and experiencing different cultures—and seeing how everywhere the world is both absolutely different and completely similar.

Since I really enjoy lists, I thought it would be best to sum up my year abroad with a couple lists that exemplify the extent of my travels this year:

Places in England I Visited:
-Nottingham (duh)
-Peak District (Haddon Hall and Chatsworth House)
-London (9 times) (!!!!!!!!)
-Middle of fucking nowhere to go to Hardwick Hall
-Peak District (Eyam and Crich)
-Kenilworth Castle and Coventry
-Bosworth Battlefield
-Land's End
-Dartmoor National Park
-Random ass village I walked through to get to Leeds Castle
-Bury St. Edmunds
-Tutbury (for Tutbury Castle)
-Peterborough (twice)
-Leicester for Oadby Library and Alison Weir
-Hadrian's Wall
-Manchester (technically twice for Taco Bell trips)
-Hever (for Hever Castle)
-Southwell (for the Workhouse and the cathedral)
-Leicester again (unfortunately)
-Winchcombe (Cotswolds for Sudeley Castle/Hailes Abbey)
-Blenheim Palace/Bladon

Countries I Visited:
-Ireland (twice)
-Czech Republic

So…I guess I went a fair amount of places! Shit. Not gonna lie, I think these lists are pretty impressive. During my year, I finished my (primary) Cathedral List, got halfway through my "50 Tudor Places to See in England" list, and visited every country that was on my main list. With all the places I've been, I have a great idea for the countries I can't wait to go back to (Ireland and Croatia are at the top!!!), and countries that I feel like I can skip now that I've been there. On a smaller scale, I now know the places in England I never intend to set foot in again (Leicester, "where people go to die") and the places I will dream of going back to every night until my return (Peterborough, London, okay not even going to try to do this list).

And even though I feel like I've done and seen and experienced so much, I still have so much more I want to do. There are so many things in England I have yet to see (mainly my Secondary Cathedral List), so many more countries to visit in Europe, and my god I want to see the whole world and travel to literally every single country and every single corner. I've already started formulating my next dream (1-2 month trip across Eastern Europe, from the Baltics down to the Balkans and hitting up everywhere inbetween), as well as planning out more trips across northern England (and Scotland) (and Wales)… once the travel bug hits you, I don't think it ever ends. The world will always be calling.

Most importantly, I feel like I have grown so much as a person through all these amazing opportunities. I hope it's obvious to anyone reading just how grateful I am to have been able to have these experiences, but it's still worth saying. My entire life and my entire perspective on life have shifted and changed completely—I have learned so much. About myself, about people, about the world. I think most importantly to me, this year was a complete and total validation of something I've always known: I belong in England. Very rarely do I talk about "fate" or "destiny," but after watching all my dreams come true, I think it was too amazing to say it was all just coincidence.

So I'd like to make one last list to finish up this blog before I (inevitably) break it out for the next big adventure. This list is one of the things I've discovered and learned in my time living abroad and traveling extensively. I don't really want it to read like an advice book, but at the same time… no one should be getting charged $67 to check a bag at the gate (still not over it EasyJet, still not over it). So if I had to sum it all up…

Most Important Things I've Learned:
-Be brave, be fearless. "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Up there with FDR, I'd like to include my good friend and flatmate John's quote to me before I went to Latvia and I told him I was scared: "Either you're going to go and have a great time, or you'll die." Never, ever, let your fear stop you from doing something.
-Listen to your gut instinct. There is a reason this exists. And you should listen to it. There is a fine line between brave and stupid. I spent a fair amount of my year walking this line. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't right. Always put yourself and your own personal safety and wellbeing first.
-Everyone should try traveling alone, at least once. You might decide it's not for you, or you could be like me, and realize that you are absolutely 100% in love with traveling by yourself. Seeing the things you want to see, doing the things you want to do, napping when you want to nap, eating when you want to eat, etc. Seriously what could be better? And if you decide it's not for you, well then you can say you've done it once and you won't have to do it again!
-The key to traveling alone is all about common sense and street smarts. Seriously, once you travel alone enough, you realize that all new places are basically the same. Having the ability to navigate one new city is a transferable skill that will easily shift as you get to the next new city. And the main thing I learned as a woman traveling alone:  that confidence and planning can make anything possible. Walk like you know where you're going (even if you don't) and avoid looking like a vulnerable tourist when you're alone. Know where you're going when you're walking (aka get a map and also learn how to read it) and avoid situations that make you look particularly vulnerable (ex. Asking a stranger for directions alone at night). And always, always, choose to be safe rather than sorry!
-Making new friends can be suprisingly easy. As an introvert, traveling has completely transformed me socially. Most notably after my first trip with Sigrid, when I learned how to talk to people I don't know. This trip, with so much solo travel, I learned how to be friends with people I don't know. The easiest thing to do is say a quick "hi" to the new person checking into your hostel room and ask where they're from.* I have met some of the most interesting people and made some truly amazing friends through my travels this year. I wouldn't have gotten to know any of them if I was too shy to say hello and chat. They, too, have helped transform me into a different person. I can't imagine my year without them.
*This is assuming that you want to make friends. We've all had those times when all you want to do is shower and go the fuck to sleep since you only have one night to actually rest and you're leaving at 5:30 the next morning. I feel you.
-How to pack, and how to pack only a carryon. Literally, I think I brought 3 shirts on a 2-week trip to Russia. Bring nothing. If you want to pack light, give up on the dream of all those "cute" travel pictures, where you're wearing the cutest outfit, with the cutest shoes, and your purse is the trendiest thing ever. Pack practically—bring a couple shirts, a couple bottoms (leggings—especially my amazing underarmour ones—are highly recommended as they can double as sleepwear!), one cute dress/outfit/nice shirt, and one outfit for going out. I also recommend packing enough socks/underwear to last you about a week. I also recommend packing an obscene amount of socks if you are traveling around England, since your socks will get wet. And as someone who traveled for a month in only a carryon backpack, my tips for flying: make sure your bag is within the carryon restriction (usually 55cm x 40cm x 20cm, or at least that’s what Ryanair is), know your carryon very well (just how much it can expand), and if your bag doesn’t fit in the sizer, here are two tricks: take your jacket/coat off and carry it (always carry it on the plane instead of packing it!), and take tons of shit out of your bag and stuff it in your jacket pockets. (Fuck you, AirBaltic bitch leaving Russia.) Also, something that will work on most airlines: carry a plastic bag of stuff and say it is airport shopping. This is how my fur hat and purse came home with me from Russia. Certain airlines (or airports) may require a sealed Duty-Free Shopping bag and/or receipt, so it might not always work. But having a plastic bag of shopping or snacks can usually get through.
-Travel essentials. For me, this included my watch, my water bottle cause ain't nobody got money to pay for water everywhere (unless you're in Russia/somewhere you can't drink tap water) (also RIP to my water bottle that I threw away in the St. Petersburg airport, I miss you), a padlock for lockers and keeping stuff safe in hostels (also some hostels will rent locks out and ain't nobody got money fo dat), and sandwich bags. This final one is clutch, because first of all you will need plastic bags for all kinds of shit, but mainly because sandwich bags can (and SHOULD!) be used for stealing food from the hostel breakfast and eating it for lunch. I've done this at literally every single hostel I stayed at that offered a free breakfast. This means free lunch. Free breakfast+free lunch=2 free meals. My mad skillz in Paris and the amazing breakfast my hostel offered meant that I'm pretty sure I spent about $15 on food the entire 3 days I was there (and about $5 of that was on this fucking amazing peanut butter pastry thing). This will save you a TON of money! Literally never go on a trip without these things.
-How to walk literally everywhere. I say this as the girl who took the Metro twice in Paris. I spent the year honing my map/directional skillz to the point where I didn't have to use my map the last two times I was in London. Learn how to read a map, and learn how to walk. You will see so much more of a city if you walk it, as opposed to spending all your time underground or on a tram or on a bus (etc). You might have to get up a little earlier to get to your destination, but it will be worth it. Enjoy the walk. Enjoy the location. Experience it fully.
-Time management. Never have I been more proud of my time management than this year. Remember how I was supposed to be "studying" abroad? I had to pretend to do school all year—this meant figuring out when exactly I would have to write that 10-page essay, when I could skip a class to have a long weekend trip, when I needed to spend all day in the library. I also learned how to schedule all my own trips—I had a 21 day period where I was in Notts for 5 days. It was a lot of travel, but then I spent 12 days at home working on an essay and catching up. I also took 3 short trips during a 2-week exam period. Squeeze as much in as you can do, and be careful of running yourself ragged. Also picking the places to go—I'm still disappointed that I didn't get to do another weekend in Scotland (see Glasgow and Stirling), but I chose to spend 5 days falling in love with Croatia after my spring break instead.
-Planning trips in general. I have a routine for every time I plan a trip. This will be much easier once you have The Book. No, not the Bible, but the latest edition of a travel guide book for Europe (I highly recommend my Europe on a Shoestring by Lonely Planet. And Lonely Planet in general. Rick Steves has way more money than I can spend). I figure out the things I want to do in a city and how many days I'd like to have there (including day trips). Find a flight/train/bus that will get me there and back. Based on transportation, I might have to adjust my ideal trip time (go back a day earlier since there's a cheaper train, stay two days longer in Croatia because there's a 20€ flight on Friday, etc). Find a hostel in The Book for various cities (check it out online, see the location, check out pictures to make sure it doesn't have rats, etc.) and book accordingly for the number of nights needed. Figure out your transfers to/from the airport/train or bus station. Make a list of the things you want to make sure you see/do in each city. And then go and do it. (Note: This is obviously making it sound way easier than it actually is. But once you plan one trip, you can plan a million.)
-BUDGETING. I essentially had a lump sum in my bank account for this year and had to make it last until I started working again this summer. Budget out a trip—think about money for food, money for souviners, money for everything and anything. I gave myself a budget for my spring break and (for the most part) stayed on track enough to not feel bad about going to Croatia 4 days later. Find out what works best for you, find out your priorities for spending money. I will always choose castles over food, which is why I ate a lot of kebabs and sandwiches and saw a fucking shit ton of castles. And most importantly, always have more money accessible than you will need to spend (an extra $100 in your checking account, a credit card for emergencies, whatever works). You never want to be stuck in a situation where you don't have the ability to get yourself out. This is especially important if you're traveling alone! Rather be safe than sorry. (And if you're an impulse buyer, make a list of what constitutes an "emergency" and stick to it.)
-Doner kebab is the same in every language. Seriously, I'm not kidding. As long as you can hold up one finger and say "doner kebab," you can literally eat in any city anywhere in the world. (Off topic, but I'm also seriously considering writing a book on why kebabs are the best traveling food ever. EVER. #allaboutthekebabs #datyungkebablife #stillmissingmyboyinWrocław #bestkebabsinEurope)
-Being comfortable in your own skin. My relationship with myself has changed drastically this year as well, although it might not be the most noticeable. I have learned to accept the days where you sleep on a bus and can't shower, you look gross and you smell bad, you had to wake up at 4:30am to get to the airport and ain't nobody got time to put on makeup that early. I've learned to accept all of it and embrace it as part of the traveling life. Actually, I basically stopped wearing makeup this year. I've learned to feel the most beautiful when my face is clean and fresh. (Although, of course, if you feel most beautiful in makeup it is entirely your choice to use it!) I've also learned that some of the times I felt the most beautiful was when I probably didn't look the most beautiful on the outside—those times when I would wake up early and spend an hour hiking to a castle and not wear makeup and show up sweaty and panting and wearing the same shirt I've been wearing for 5 days straight. But I'd feel like a badass, and I'd feel smart, and I'd feel confident, and for me, that's what makes me feel beautiful. Travel will push you to your limits, and teach you things you didn't know were important. Accepting yourself for the person you are, and embracing that person, is one of the most valuable lessons you can learn in life.
-The world is so big. You are a tiny speck on the radar. There are so many new people you haven't met yet, so many cities you haven't visited, so many countries you haven't explored. The possibilities are endless, the list of things to experience stretch to infinity and back again, the vastness never ceases to amaze me. You are only one person out of 7.178 BILLION people on this earth (according to Wikipedia). Accept that you inhabit a tiny, miniscule niche of humankind, and enjoy the ride.
-People are wonderful. Although the song "I Hate Everyone" is my theme song, in general life I have to admit people are good and one person can make a difference. The kindness of strangers has influenced my year more than I could ever imagine. I was walked to a train station when I was lost, given directions for the correct bus stop I needed (multiple times), taken care of when I was sick, had my suitcase carried up a flight of stairs… this list could go on and on. I remember all these small acts of kindness, and I remember the people who made them. People who went out of their way to help me and to be kind to me, for no reason and for no other reward rather than a quite relieved "thank you!" and a grateful smile from me. The wonderful people I have met just in this year helped remind me that there's still good in this world, and that it's worth fighting for. (And if you didn't understand that quote, no. Just no.) I can only try to repay the small acts of kindness I've received by small acts of kindness for strangers myself. And I know this is impossible since probably none of these strangers will ever read this blog, but to all these people I've encountered: THANK YOU!

Okay, this blog post is officially getting too long. Save the best for last, right?! I thought I'd end it with a quote from a song that was constantly my badass traveling jam. In an effort to recap the last year, I'll just say: it was the year that all my dreams came true. Thank you to everyone who supported me and helped make it possible! The memories will stay with me forever. Here's to the next dream and the next adventure!

 I’ve been a long time gone now 
Maybe someday, someday I'm gonna settle down
If you ever want to find me I can still be found

Taking the long way
Taking the long way around
Taking the long way
Taking the long way around

Until next time. Cheers! :)

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