Europe and the British Isles are beautiful places to visit if one ever has the opportunity. As a young adult, I traveled to Europe and/or the British Isles twice. On the first occasion, I studied in Poland for the summer prior to my last semester in college. When I returned two or three years later, I spent six weeks traveling to as many countries as I could to drink in the people, places, and cultures of each nation. Overall, I had a wonderful experience on both occasions, and I am so thankful that I was able to travel at the time that I did because I have not had the opportunity to return since then – that was more than 25 years ago.
I have included a prior post about Poland, studying in Poland, and visiting with my Polish relatives on this blog site, but will provide some additional information here. Traveling out of JFK Airport in New York City to Warsaw, Poland, and then, by van to Krakow, I spent a summer studying abroad in Poland. I had a wonderful time learning intensive Polish language at Jagiellonian University in Krakow with several of my classmates from the University at Buffalo, as well as a few other students from around the world. We had two instructors – one lady who was fluent in Polish and English, and another lady who was fluent in Polish and German. Luckily, when the latter lady taught the class, one student from California was fluent in English and German, and she was kind enough to translate for the class. It definitely made for an even more interesting experience learning a language that I had only previously known a few words from that my mother, aunt, and grandmother had spoken.
By the third week or so of learning Polish, I wrote a postcard in Polish to my relatives in Kielce, and the following weekend, much to my joy, several of them arrived – unannounced – at my dormitory building and we spent the day together, sight-seeing at the beautiful Wieliczka Salt Mines. I also visited them and met even more of my relatives in Kielce when I traveled to my great aunt’s home by train a couple of weeks later. I had been tasked with items to gift to them by my family, and so, it was a must that I visited with them. I stayed for that weekend with my great aunt, Marianna, ate a family-reunion style dinner with my relatives, and attended church with Great Aunt Marianna before traveling back to Krakow.
During the time that I studied in Poland, I spent a day with my study abroad group in Czestochowa, Poland, visiting the Jasna Gora Monastery and viewing the icon of the Black Madonna. I also took time on several weekends to do my own traveling. On one weekend, I went to Berlin, Germany, and took in as much culture there as I could. I remember at the hostel where I stayed, a fellow traveler let me know that many Europeans did not particularly like Americans since we were viewed as “partiers,” and that they preferred Canadians. So, for the rest of my travels in Europe, if I did not have to show my passport, I became an “honorary Canadian.” On my weekend in Berlin, I enjoyed experiencing its history, particularly different historical monuments such as the Brandenburg Gate. I also walked from the old West Berlin to the old East Berlin, noticing the obvious differences in the “life” or lack thereof of the two sections of the city. I actually asked a passerby on my walk, in German while using my translator book, why there was such a stark contrast in the appearance of the city, and he told me that I had entered the former Communist side of Berlin. That explained everything. It was a very eye-opening experience simply to walk from one side of the city to the other.
I also traveled with a friend, Jen, to both Prague, in the former Czechoslovakia, as well as Vienna, Austria. She and I were both interested in traveling while we studied in Poland, and so we were a good match to travel together and watch each other’s backs. I will always remember the greedy train conductor who got more money out of Jen and I on our train ride to Vienna. He obviously thought we were “Rich Americans,” and had the power to tell us that we had not paid enough for our tickets and that we needed to fork over some more cash. Neither Jen, nor I understood what he was saying, however the Italian man sitting across from us told us in English what he wanted. He said that if we didn’t give him some money, he could throw us off the train. It was a good thing we both had some money on us because we gave him some and he was satisfied and left. What a crook! We had paid in full for our tickets and were sitting in the correct seats, and there was nothing else we could do about it. When you don’t know the language and you are a young American woman traveling in a foreign country, there are these kinds of vulnerabilities that you must deal with. I’m glad it wasn’t any worse than that. At any rate, both Prague and Vienna were absolutely stunning, though Vienna was crazy expensive. Prague was even prettier than Vienna due to the historic architecture that had not been destroyed by World War II.
I wish I could have visited more places while I studied in Poland during that summer, but there is only so much time to do everything on one’s agenda. So, I promised myself that I would return and visit more of Europe in the future, and I did that a couple of years later. I was intent on returning, and not receiving any handouts from my parents, I cashed in some investments that I had and spent a summer traveling in Europe and the British Isles. Really, I had convinced my mom to travel with me to the British Isles, and we visited London, England; Edinburgh, Scotland; and Dublin, Ireland over the course of two weeks before I spent the next five weeks on my own. Mom and I visited castles, museums, parks, and pubs, and saw many a crown jewel that was out of this world! Pictures don’t do those jewels justice – you have to see them in person; they are absolutely incredible. The people were all very friendly, especially those in the pubs who were happy to encourage us to try ginger beer, which was actually very tasty. I have to say that it is probably my favorite beer! Dublin was very nice and had that bubbly, happy feel that the Irish gave it. Mom and I also saw the Aurora Borealis while we were in Dublin – it was really beautiful!
After two weeks touring the British Isles, I saw my mom off at Heathrow Airport to head back home through Toronto, Canada, and then, to Buffalo, New York. It was nice to have her company, most of the time, but I wanted to do things, independently, as well. So, for the next four weeks, I had my opportunity. I traveled throughout Europe on my own with two small luggage bags. I traveled very lightly, washing my clothes as I went along, and did not buy but only a few small mementos to take back home with me during my trip. Thankfully, my parents had told me they did not need or want anything, so the pressure was off for having to buy them anything. I did find a few small things to take back home for them, however.
I started out my five weeks by taking a ferry from England to Brussels, Belgium. I stayed in a youth hostel there – as I did in many of the places that I visited – for several days while I toured the city. Brussels is full of culture, as well as some cuteness, particularly with the statue of the little boy urinating. In short, the story about it is that there was a young boy who got lost and separated from his mother, and when he was located, he was seen urinating in the street. There is a statue of him in Brussels to commemorate this momentous occasion, and it is quite the tourist attraction!
Other places in Europe that I visited during my second trip there included Geneva, Switzerland; Lucerne, Switzerland; Engelberg, Switzerland; Luxembourg City, Luxembourg; Rome, Italy; Florence, Italy; Vatican City; Nice, France; and Paris, France. I took the train with a Eurail pass when traveling to different cities, and when I was within a city, I took subways where I could or went on foot. In Switzerland, American money did not go very far as everything was very expensive. However, Switzerland was beautiful to visit because of the mountains and amazing landscapes. One place I visited was Mount Titlis and the glacier on that mountain, near Engelberg. I remember traveling there on a bus along a very windy, narrow road that the bus could’ve gone off of and over the side of the mountain at any moment. Thankfully, the bus driver was an expert at handling those winding curves because I actually wondered if I would make it back down the mountain alive!
Luxembourg City did not have much to offer, but I did buy some music from there. Rome, Florence, and the Vatican were lovely and very cultural. I enjoyed the many sites, statues, and fountains in Rome, particularly the Trevi Fountain and the Colosseum. I also achieved a life goal of visiting St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, and was in awe of this beautiful, holy church. I was disappointed, however, at being unable to see the Sistine Chapel. I asked a nun in the basilica, in Italian, if the chapel was open to visitors, and she told me it was closed in her sad, miserable way – I felt sorry for her and prayed for her, wondering why she was so ugly. Perhaps just being a nun was enough.
Prior to heading to France toward the end of my trip, I went back and spent some more time in Brussels. I enjoyed Brussels and it was relatively inexpensive on my budget, so I took in some more of the castles, museums, and parks there. Eventually, I did have to go to France, and I stopped in Nice first to enjoy the beach. Following that, I traveled to Paris where I toured around and saw some major sites. Of course, I went up the Eiffel Tower, saw the Arc de Triomphe, and toured the Louvre, which was absolutely huge and astounding. I remember seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and thinking about how much smaller it was than I expected it to be. Paris was extremely expensive, and I had little money left by that time, so I spent and ate frugally. When it was time to return home, I nearly missed my flight out of Paris because I had not allowed quite enough time. I had not expected the Charles de Gaulle Airport to be so huge, and I thought I knew my French better than I did. Thankfully, a woman who spoke fluent English helped me while I was on a shuttle bus traveling between different gates, and she put me in the right direction. Had she told me incorrectly and had I listened, I really would have missed my flight home! Sometimes, God has a way of placing good people in our lives who help us when we most need it!
So, that pretty much sums up my travels in Europe and the British Isles. I think that summarizes all of the places I visited. I no longer have my “prized possession” passport from that time that reflected all of the country stamps since it was trashed by my former spouse, however I hold onto many wonderful memories of my travels. Also, as a young adult, I traveled on my own several times in the United States, along the East Coast and South, and in Canada, including Niagara Falls, Toronto, Algonquin Park, and Montreal. Canada has that down-to-earth feel with good family values, and I always enjoy traveling in and visiting Canada, though many years have passed since I was last there. While I was traveling in Europe, the United Kingdom, and Canada, I generally felt safer than whenever I traveled alone in the United States. Hopefully, someday, I will be able to return to Europe or the British Isles. It would be great to take my son to visit and tour some of the beautiful sites with him!