The Incredible Journey

I never expected to say these words, but the fact that I went to Amsterdam, Paris and London all within 8 days is something I never in my wildest dreams expected I would get to say.

It was not my initial plan for spring break however. A friend and I were going to go to Jamaica for just under a week, which would have been fantastic because you can’t go wrong with warm weather and a beachfront resort. Unfortunately he was not able to get time off of work, so I was left with three options: Work on-campus, go back and spend a week with my mom, or find something else to do.

EF College Break, a website I found a couple months ago, came to mind, and with the money I had on hand that was going to go towards the Jamaica trip, I decided to put it towards something more adventurous. It was either that or work on-campus, and as I haven’t done anything for spring break since 2009, I decided I was long overdue for an adventure.

This was a major step for me, as I’ve never traveled outside of the US before, much less by myself. My first solo trip was last summer in June on a week-long voyage to Alabama, but this was entirely new territory. Yet, I was ready. I love traveling. I love seeing new places. And this is exactly what I was going to get.

The morning of my big departure, I was fifty shades of excited. I had minimal sleep, there wasn’t a lot of packing I had to do, I wishfully hoped to be able to get some sleep on the plane to Amsterdam, but I knew my chances were slim. After double-checking my things, I called an Uber and made my way to the bus station, then to Grand Rapids, followed by another Uber trip. This guy was extremely friendly, and even offered to make a stop at a Subway store on the way to the airport, which was perfect because I was simply expecting to grab Quiznos once I made it there. After checking in my luggage, eating my sub, and making it through security, it was only an hour and a half wait until I boarded my first flight and headed to Chicago.

The size of O’Hare will never cease to amaze me. There’s virtually no comparison between O’Hare and GRR. It’s big. And it can definitely be a hike. I made it over to one end of the terminal to find an outlet to power up when I got a snapchat message from one of my old roommates, Drew, who saw my snap story of me passing through a colorful tunnel in the airport on the way to the terminal I was in. He told me he was at the airport too, all the way on the opposite side. I decided a brief interaction with him was much better than sitting alone by myself, so I walked all the way to meet up with him for a couple minutes, which was pretty nice, and then it was the big hike back to my gate where I met up with one of the people who was on the same trip as me.

After boarding the flight, I was prepared for the long, winding road to Amsterdam. Make no mistake, an 8-hour flight is a long time to stay awake, and despite my attempts to get some rest, it just didn’t happen. I’m only glad I was smart enough to bring my portable charger and my flight through United offered in-app entertainment and movies.

I arrived in Amsterdam Saturday morning just past nine in the morning. Being six hours ahead of the time-zone I’m most predominantly used to was not quite as big of a change as I was expecting, and I was much less exhausted than I expected to be. During the flight, my contacts began messing up, a sure-fire sign I had them in for too long, but after I got off the plane, they were fine. After a brief stop through customs (“Where are you coming from?” “What are you going to be doing here?”) and grabbing my luggage, my trip compatriot and I exited through the ‘Nothing to declare’ section and, after a brief search, met up with our tour director, Paola. Born in Italy and native to Barcelona, she was full of passion and spirit and a fun level of energy, and I got the immediate impression that she would be a fantastic person to get to know and hang out with.

We then met up with a few other people who had come in before us, and then collectively made our way to our hostel. I didn’t notice until a little while later, but we had additional company in the form of a woman who I guessed was older than the 28 age limit the company has. I didn’t find out until a day or two later that she was actually the company’s president, and was accompanying us on our trip for photo-taking, some hands-on observations of how the trips functioned, and things like that, which I actually thought was pretty cool that she was not only experiencing the trip with us, but evaluating Paola as well.

After dropping off our things, we received information on the local transportation system, which was a series of electric trams that ran throughout the city. We got a 48-hour pass for the two days we would be there. The hardest part was figuring out which tram goes where at first, although we received a list of where certain locations were and what tram would take us there. Perhaps the only tricky part was locating the correct stops for the tram we wanted to take. After getting our tickets, a group of us took a trip to Dam Square, which, given that it was about noon, was pretty active. We spent a few minutes walking around, snapping pictures, doing typical touristy things, and eventually stopped at an outdoor cafe for a beer (Heineken being the local specialty). Afterward, more walking and exploring, and eventually made our way back to the hostel.

About two hours afterward, we had a meeting to go to which was chock-full of wonderful tidbits of info like safety, being on time to certain things, exchanging money, and so on, followed by a run-down of our itinerary for the trip. Afterward, we made our way by local tram to a spot downtown for our welcome mixer event, featuring a few drinks and some appetizers, which were really good. Future reference: French fries in mayonnaise is amazing. My clumsiness was also on full display here, knocking over a bottle of Heineken all over the phone of the same girl I met in O’Hare. I was too relieved her phone still worked. Afterward, we spent some time getting to know each other. The group was primarily a bunch of girls, alongside me and five other guys. Six girls came as a friend duo each, and two other people came as a couple. The rest of us were flying completely solo. A few people told me I had guts to go on a trip solo, and it’s honestly something I didn’t really concern myself about. Sure, I was going from Grand Rapids to Amsterdam by myself, but I was with a group of people, so I wasn’t entirely solo.

The following morning was, I think for most of the group, our first experience with a European breakfast. They are by and large not known for big breakfasts like sausage, hasbrowns, and things like that, instead opting for lighter options like cereal, bread, juice, and slices of ham and cheese to turn into a sandwich. I, of course, didn’t realize this initially, and after finishing my…slice of ham and piece of bread, I went back and made an actual sandwich. The food though is not horrible by any means, and it’s a wonderful thing when daily breakfasts are included and we don’t have to pay anything extra.

Then, it was off to our first big itinerary item: The Anne Frank House. Notoriously known for housing Anne and her family for two years during the Holocaust, her father, the only survivor of the war, had elected to turn it into a museum a few decades ago. Even by 10am, there was a pretty reasonable-sized line waiting to get in, but fortunately as part of the price of the trip, tickets into the house were part of the bargain, so we were able to skip the line and get into the museum without too much waiting.

Sometime in 7th or 8th grade, I took a trip with my church’s youth group to Washington D.C., and one of the items on our to-do list while there was to pay a visit to the National Holocaust Museum, which was a very powerful experience. There was a segment of the museum where thousands of pairs of shoes were arranged on display in several containers, representing the thousands of Jews killed during the war. I didn’t think it could get stronger than that, but the house proved me wrong. Picturing the fact that a family had to stay hidden in a house for two years, make very minimal noise during the day, and essentially live in fear of what could happen is horrible. It’s also an extremely symbolic representation of what is happening in politics today in regards to Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims and having them have some sort of identification system, eerily similar to the stars worn by Jews in order to identify them. The similarities are there. What happened in the 1930s and 1940s can very well happen again, and people have far more power than they realize.

After the Anne Frank house, it was time for a walking tour with a local guide, which proved to be very informative. One of the more interesting highlights, we stopped outside a store called to Condomerie, a store that sold a variety of different condoms. If you want one shaped like a frog, that’s the place to go. We also ventured down the Red Light District, which featured a Prostitution Information Center designed to break the stereotypes associated with prostitution. The thing that surprised me the most was that there are people committed to protecting the women on display in the windows, because anyone passing by is prohibited from taking pictures of them. Our guide and his wife, even, operate a store in the area and have periodically chased away tourists who try to photograph them. It’s really something.

After the tour ended, we had free time to explore the city for a couple hours until a canal cruise we had scheduled for later that afternoon. A couple of us decided to stop at a local spot for lunch (the waiters thankfully spoke English) and then headed to the Van Gogh museum. I’m not a massive art nerd, but there were a wide assortment of truly beautiful paintings. When we reached the gift shop, I splurged on a t-shirt imprinted with one of his paintings (which so many people have complimented me on), two shot glasses, and two bookmarks.

A few hours later, the majority of us met up for the canal cruise, featuring some drinks and a plate of appetizers. Our driver gave us plenty of information as we proceeded down the river, much of which was covered in the walking tour we did earlier. But it was still wonderful to be able to say that I went on a canal cruise, even if it was a bit chilly.

After the cruise, Paola elected to go to a nearby Thai restaurant, saying it was purely optional for us to come if we wanted, and nearly everyone decided to tag along. This was my first experience with Thai food, and it was better than I anticipated.

Shortly after this, some of us headed back to the hostel. For the first time, I was alone in our room, which was set up with three bunk beds for the five of us. It wasn’t massive, but the hostel did provide sheets and towels, so it was definitely manageable. I laid in bed for a few minutes, trying to think of something worth doing. I certainly didn’t pay thousands of dollars just to sit in a room by myself, even to rest for a few minutes. I could do plenty of that at my apartment. But a moment later, two of the other guys came back, and we decided to head downstairs to the bar. After a drink, two other girls in our group came back, and we collectively decided to head out and check out the town, stopping at an Irish bar for a couple drinks. I elected for a Bailey’s mixed with hot chocolate, and really, you can’t go wrong either way. On the way back, a couple of us stopped in a store to buy some sweets, and I had to pick up four macaroons, which were better than I expected.

The following morning was another early wake-up, and immediately after breakfast at 9, we got on a tour bus and heading to Paris, stopping in Brussels around noon for two hours to eat and do some sightseeing. Brussels is a massive city. We split off into different groups to get something to eat, and a number of us immediately searched for the nearest vendor for the legendary Belgium waffles, which, added with Nutella, are to die for. We did a bit more walking and found ourselves in the center of a square with some of the biggest buildings I have ever seen in my life. The pictures I took no longer exist (more on that in a bit), but believe me, they were gigantic. Not far from here was the infamous Mannekin Pis statue, filled with a good assortment of other touristy people.

I didn’t mention this before, but being around people who speak another language is not something I’m 100% accustomed to. The dining hall I work at does feature a large number of Indian workers who often talk in their native tongue to each other, so in that sense, it’s not too uncommon for me, but in Brussels, I’m like a pigeon in a flock of anteaters. I have zero understanding of what anyone else is saying. At all. On one hand, it’s slightly frustrating. On the other, they’re people I will never see again, just distant car lights flying past me in the grand highway of life.

As Belgium is also largely known for its chocolate, it was only fitting that I bought some. Twelve boxes worth, to be exact, and after sampling some when I returned, it was unbelievably worth it. I also bought a nice red scarf that I absolutely love. After dropping into a local restaurant for sandwiches, we went back to the bus and continued our trek to Paris. We were later given a sheet with useful sayings in French, a number of which came in handy, though not to me in particular. We also engaged in one of those fun ‘get to know you’ activities, where each of us wrote down three facts about us and the rest of the people had to guess who it was about. There were some interesting tales, including one of someone in the group being afraid of penguins.

And then, Paris. A brief stop at our new home for the next three nights, paper-thin ticket strips to the subway system, and breakfast vouchers for the next two mornings. We then headed to the subway system en route for the Eiffel Tower and an evening cruise on the Seine River.

After walking back into the evening air and turning the corner past a large building looming over our heads, we saw it.

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I took French for three years in high school, and in that moment, it struck me how many of the lessons and stories I heard from that class were things I was actually living, breathing, and experiencing in real life. One of the most iconic structures in the world was directly in my eyesight. It was incredible.

We walked down some steps to a ledge overlooking the lawn and tower and joined other tourists in the art of picture-taking. Not long after, white sparkles of light flickered all over the tower, something that I believe is an occurrence at the top of every hour at night. It was beautiful.

We then set off on a cruise around the Seine River. It was nice to get a riverside view of Paris, and we even spotted the Notre Dame cathedral at one point in the distance. Post-cruise, we received tickets to the second floor of the tower and made our way over.

The view from the second floor is amazing, but many of us in the group knew there was a much better view at the top, so we decided to pay the extra 6 euros and take another elevator up to the summit.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is something I have no words for. I wish my pictures had saved, but it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life. And the true beauty of this city is that it feels so ancient, and so familiar. It’s a weirdly nostalgic feeling like I almost grew up on these streets, which I know is factually untrue, but it certainly gave me that impression.

We spent a couple minutes taking pictures and admiring the view before descending down the elevator back to earth, and back to our hostel. Still hungry, a few of us tried to scope out nearby restaurants, eventually settling o na fast-food burger place not far from where we were staying. We made jokes about coming all this way to Paris just to eat a burger and fries, but in all fairness, neither were too awful.

The following morning, it was another classic foreign breakfast! Slices of ham and cheese, orange juice, and bread were all we had to go on. Afterward, it was time for our sightseeing tour of Paris, courtesy of a local guide as well as a tour bus. At one point, we passed by the Bataclan Theater, and that’s when it hit me that this was the very place where the terrorist attack happened mere months ago.

For a moment, it took me my surprise, and, I’m presuming, others too as the bus virtually fell silent. Everything about Paris felt so unchanged from the picture painted by the media months ago. Not to suggest that the media gave an inaccurate representation or anything, but I suppose the old saying is true that time does heal wounds. In some cases, not heal perfectly, but at least make them bearable. The people of Paris carried on with their days as if nothing had happened, and granted it’s a bit harder to get a true feel for the atmosphere when I can’t even understand most of what they’re saying, if anything. People still deliver flowers daily outside of the theater, so it’s evident that not all the wounds are healed, and the people are prepared for the next possible attack, which hopefully will never happen.

We eventually made a trek down the infamous Champs-Élysées boulevard, lined with pedestrians and stores as far as the eye could stretch. And not long after, we made a stop in front of another iconic landmark of the world, the Arc de Triomphe. Built above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, like the entrance to the Bataclan, still receiving flowers o na regular basis, the massive arc looms in the central island surrounded by a constant rotation of cars and diversionary roads split in twelve different directions. With no traffic lights leading the way to the central island, getting a true up-close view is essentially a suicide mission, but fortunately there’s a curb of open space available for people to snap their variety of photos. Selfie sticks again proved to be a frequent companion to many travelers.

After a couple minutes, we again boarded the bus and continued on our tour, passing by the golden flame above the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, driving past the pyramid-like structure below which the Louvre Museum was constructed, and getting a closer glimpse of the Notre Dame cathedral, which we were slated to pay a visit to the following day. Eventually, we were dropped off next to the Eiffel Tower, and being a partly cloudy day, it again proved to be a great day for photographs of the infamous tower.

We then boarded the subway, bound for the Palace of Versailles. Beforehand, we made a brief stop to grab lunch. Surprisingly enough, places like Chipotle and KFC were as plentiful overseas as they were in America. Most of us instead opted to stop by a restaurant featuring a wide variety of crepes, all of which were wonderfully delicious. We then rounded the corner and made our way u the cobblestone steps to the palace.

The rooms inside were massive. Our tour guide, Alan, led us through the different rooms, giving us a good chunk of history in the process. We passed by a roped-off entrance to the beautiful chapel inside. We walked down the legendary Hall of Mirrors. We stopped by a gift shop near the end, where I bought a pen that I sadly later lost. We even took some time to walk through the back gardens, which were gloriously massive. I felt like I was living in the 1800s.

We then exited the palace and made the trip back to the hostel, having some free time before 8pm when we had a traditional French dinner to attend to, which virtually everyone signed up for. It was a bit weird being in a different time zone and being 6 hours ahead of the time I’m typically used to. It didn’t truly affect me as much as I thought it would, possibly due to the fact I managed to get a couple hours of sleep a night at least, and for that I was thankful.

A couple of us elected to take a train to the nearby district on Montmartre, an artistic area of town dominated by a large hill, upon which sits the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, which translates into English as the Sacred Heart. Along the way, we bought (surprise) a crepe from a street vendor, which turned out to be pretty good (cheers to the delicious combo of nutella and banana), and then made our way up the walkway toward the series of stairs leading to the top.

Along the way, we had our very first run-in with pickpockets, which in this case were predominantly a group of black men who looked to be in their early 20s, blocking the way up and seeking to cause trouble to anyone and everyone that desired to pass by. Myself and the two other girls I was with managed to get through the group with no problem. One of them grabbed my arm, seemingly trying to snatch my crepe away from me, but I thankfully pulled free. The other guy that was with us was not quite as fortunate, ending up in a confrontation with a few of them and then managing to walk past moments later. One of the men came up to me and began asking me my name and where I was from, and attempted to hang me a bracelet. Remembering the wise words of the pre-travel tips posted to our Facebook group, I declined to give any info and refused the bracelet. I initially didn’t understand the big deal about it, but I later found out that these people put these bracelets on you and then refuse to let go until you pay them. A cheap way to get a couple Euros, but certainly not something I was interested in.

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We ascended the staircase and took in the beautiful view above of the glorious city of Paris. It was incredible. We didn’t go inside the basilica this time around, but it was completely worth the near-mugging experience and short hike up a couple of stairs.

We then decided to head back to the main road and walk up the street to come upon the entrance to one of the most legendary musicals in existence, Moulin Rouge. Unfortunately tickets were around 120 euros, with 180 being the price to include dinner, but it was still nice to at least witness the entrance.

The two girls we were with elected to do some more wandering down the main road, and the guy I was with and I collectively decided to head back to the hostel and wait until 8 for the dinner we had that night.

And what a dinner it was. Featuring plenty of wine, three main courses, and an enormously cheerful guitar player who amped up the party with such tunes as I Gotta Feeling, Yellow Submarine, and so on, it was a wonderfully eventful evening. The dishes weren’t bad either. I decided to have prawns, chicken and mushrooms, and an apple caramel cheesecake for dessert. It was wonderful.

The following day, Wednesday, featured me missing out on breakfast. Sharing a room with four other guys presents its small list of challenges, least of which is the use of a singular shower and bathroom. I was unlucky enough to be the last one to use it, and by the time I got downstairs, we were already set to go. Today also featured our trips to the Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre museum. We arrived to the cathedral around 11:30 and had about an hour and a half to fully explore the cathedral before we would move on to the museum. I decided to tag along with two of the girls from the previous day, and as we were taking pictures in the square outside the entrance, a gypsy woman walked up to us and asked us if we wanted to sign a paper. We said no, and she decided to continually pester me. Rather than put my hand in my pockets, I simply ignored her. I felt my coat move a bit, suspecting it was one of the girls I was with, and I heard her mumble something as she walked away. A moment later, I reached into my pocket to find my phone was missing. Asking one of the girls if she had it, I then approached the woman asking if she took it, to which she said no. One of the girls then phoned our tour director, who had left to buy our group tickets into the Louvre, and panic began to set in as my chest began to constrict and I panicked about what to do. Paola then arrived a few moments later and I gave her a brief summary of what had happened. The woman was fortunately still in the square, asking people to sign the same paper. Paola instructed me to head across the street to the police. Me, being confused on where to go, simply wandered around the square before she came back, saying the woman had ran off, certainly not for lack of her trying to chase her down.

I was stunned. I could not get over how simple it would’ve been for me to simply keep my hand in my pocket and prevent it from happening. In the past few years since I’ve been fortunate to have a phone, it was the first time I had been without it, and it felt bizarre. Perhaps most disappointing to me was the fact that there were plenty of photo ops that I would miss out on, all because I was too stupid to keep guard over my belongings.

Nevertheless, life moved on. I called T-Mobile to at least have them block the phone, and began figuring out what my next move would be. I initially believed I hadn’t purchased travel insurance, which would put me in a difficult spot as far as replacing the phone went, but I then tried to figure out if it were possible for me to buy a new phone while in London and still be able to enjoy the rest of the trip. As fate had it, there was a T-Mobile store not far from the hotel we would be staying at in London, so my spirits rose a bit at the possibility of managing to make it back in one piece.

Afterward, we rejoined the group and headed to the Louvre museum. There were plenty of riveting sights to behold, but none more so than the legendary Mona Lisa. Set up in a separate chamber and being a touch smaller than I remember, it was still nonetheless impressive to observe one of, if not, the most iconic paintings in history. What was only slightly unsettling throughout the museum were the periodic warnings of pickpockets. Being available to children for free, apparently many kids saw it as prime space to perform their nasty tactics of obtaining wallets, cell phones, and other valuables. I had learned my lesson, electing to keep my wallet in the front pocket of my pants.

After some brief exploring, we went to the nearby underground mall, which was massive. I again met up with my tour director, and together we headed to the nearest police station so I could file a report. Not long after, I met up with a couple people at a restaurant located on Champs-Élysées. We then proceeded back to Montmartre, avoiding the pickpockets and making our way into the basilica. The interior was stunning. There was a slightly roped off section around the central area for anyone willing to come in and pray, and there were a handful of souvenirs available for purchase around the perimeter.

We then exited and proceeded into the artsy section of the district. I largely became distracted with my attempts to call T-Mobile and Apple to discover the likelihood of being able to buy a phone in the UK and bring home to America. Still, it was a nice area of town to wander around in. We then made another pit stop outside the entrance to Moulin Rouge, and then decided to head back to Champs-Élysées for one last dinner in Paris, stopping by an H&M store, another view of the Arc de Triomphe, and, to round out the evening, one final trip to the Eiffel Tower, brilliantly illuminated against the night sky like a beacon. After some more pics, we trekked back to the hostel for one final night of sleeping.

The next morning, I discovered, from the previous night, that there was a separate bathroom set up on our floor with four additional showers and toilets, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. I was also greeted with news from Paola saying I had, in fact, purchased travel insurance, and they would be able to reimburse me for about $200-300, which wasn’t stellar given the cost of iPhones, but was still better than nothing.

We then boarded a tour bus for a quick trip around the block and were dropped off at the train station, set on a majestic, high-speed Eurostar train bound for London. I can’t recall the last time I was on a train. It had certainly been a while. But it was nice talking to one of the girls in my group, Taylor, and learning about the long list of things she and her best friend, Presley, were aiming to do once we got there. It was nice having some interaction for a while. In place of breakfast, we were instead given breakfast bags with a sandwich and a bottle of water, the sandwich turning out to be pretty decent.

And then, boom. King’s Cross station. London. It felt like I was stepping off the Hogwarts Express, ready for my first day of classes. Instead of heading to a castle, we headed to another tour bus, accompanied by our local guide, Joel, who came packaged with the signature British accent. He proved to be an immensely entertaining fellow, giving us a couple pointers on traditional Cockney language, which is based off of a rhyming scheme. For example, if you were to compliment someone’s hat, you would tell them, “You have a nice titfor (pronounced titfer),” which is tit for tat, which rhymes with hat. If someone didn’t have any idea what was happening, then they do’t have a Scooby Doo what’s going on (rhymes with clue). If someone’s in a bit of a Barney, Barney Rubble rhymes with trouble. It’s a bit unclear as to the origins of these sayings and how more, if any, are created and crop up, but nevertheless, they exist. One of the many fascinating points of London.

Our first stop was the front entrance to the legendary Buckingham Palace. We learned that although it is the Queen’s official residence, it is not her preferring place to call home, instead opting for Windsor Castle a couple miles away. Her flag was also on display above the palace, signaling that she was at home. Interesting fact: Once you become ruler of England, you’re in the game for life. Literally. Until you kick the bucket, you rule the country.

After taking some time for pictures, we made our way back to the bus amidst a buzz of excitement, as the Queen had just left the palace mere moments after we had all headed off. Still, the tour had to move on. We passed other iconic buildings like the British Museum, Big Ben, and the houses of Parliament. It turns out there really is a Ministry of Magic in London as well. We had another opportunity to get out and snap pictures of one of the massive bridges before we ended the tour at our new hotel. This one proved to be the snazziest by far, and even featured a TV inside the room. I ended up being with two other guys, which wasn’t a big deal. Not a lot of time was spent in our rooms to begin with anyway.

A few of us took a brief walk around the building to a fish and chips restaurant nearby, which turned out to be completely worth it. Much of the group then headed off to the Westminster Abbey, the same church that played host to the historic wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Walking down the same aisle that was broadcasted on television for millions of people across the world was an absolutely surreal experience.

We then headed back into the tube system, the gifted name for the underground subway system in London, and headed to Piccadilly Circus, bearing a close resemblance to Times Square in New York City. Bright, flashy billboards, street performers. It had an energy to it that was unlike anything I experienced on the tour so far.

We spent some time walking down the street, stopping at a tea shop to buy some things. I picked up two cans of ‘luxury’ hot chocolate mix, which I can only presume is certainly worth it, and we continued onward, stopping at a massive Nike store on the way, followed by a brief trip into a fro-yo shop, which is one of my favorite things ever. Not long after, we decided we had our fair dose of London for a day, so we called it a night.

Friday was another mostly free day to do whatever. A few of us headed to the Borough Market, an outdoor market filled to the brim with vendors selling everything from freshly skinned animals, to freshly-squeezed juice, blocks of cheese, you name it. We took some time wandering around before settling on a nearby Italian restaurant with actual, authentic Italian food, which was delicious. We then proceeded to the Tower of London for a glimpse at the crown jewels and the guards, which was a bit entertaining. We then made it back to the hotel for a bit of rest before that evening’s activity, a Pub Crawl! It was perhaps the most fun I had all tour, getting an opportunity to go on a crawl not only with people from our group, but a couple locals as well.

Saturday was our final full day in London, as most of us were being transported to the Heathrow airport early the next morning. We had to squeeze out as much goodness from the beautiful city as possible, the first stop of which was the small Platform 9 and 3/4 exhibit at the King’s Cross station. A trolley with luggage on it pushed into the wall, symbolizing the point at which one passes through to board the Hogwarts Express, featured a line of people waiting to pose by the trolley, armed with one of four provided house scarves and a wand. We then headed int the nearby Harry Potter store, where I picked up the fifth book (I had an 8-hour flight the next morning. I was taking whatever I could get) and a Slytherin pen. We then proceeded back to Borough Market for a while, wandered over to the British Museum, another trip to the Borough Market, and then back to the hotel to meet up for our transfer information to the airport tomorrow morning, along with two group pictures, one taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, the other taken in front of the Louvre. We then left for our farewell dinner, which, as per the tradition at this point, was pretty good, and then it was back to the hotel for a bunch of hugs goodbye before heading off to bed one final time.

Mere hours after at 4:30 in the morning, it was time to head to the airport. Not long after arriving and making it through security, I realized I could’ve easily asked to go along on the 7am transfer, as my flight didn’t leave until 9:20. Still, it was nice to be early. The only downside here was that I was without my phone, which I conveniently used for my mobile passport. It was something I discovered last year in June when I make my first solo flight, and was something I don’t believe was available the last time I was on a plane before then in 2010. That, or I wasn’t aware of it. But as I had the United app, corresponding with the airline of the same brand with which I was flying home on, I had used it to check in to my flight before leaving Grand Rapids, and simply had to scan the barcode at the security checkpoint and at the gate. No need to worry about paper passes. More importantly, my plan of calling an Uber back to my apartment after arriving in Kalamazoo was kaput, as you could only get an Uber by using the app, and while I could’ve asked someone to use their phone, I didn’t want to take the chance.

An 8-hour flight later, a brief trip through customs and security, a quick strawberry banana smoothie at McDonald’s and making it to my gate mere moments before boarding began, I was on a quick half-hour flight back to Grand Rapids, greeted by request by my mom, who served as my transport from the airport to the bus station. To my disappointment, she was unable to take me back to Kalamazoo directly, so I elected to arrange for a taxi to pick me up. The woman who answered was…less than pleasant. Customer service? Certainly not. Even worse, she didn’t arrive at the bus station, so I decided to walk the 3.5 miles back to my apartment, suitcase in hand (thankfully it had wheels). And then, once I finally reached my apartment, it was all over.

If there is any part of you that is dying to go out and see the world, my honest recommendation is to do it! Traveling alone can be a terrifying experience, but in this instance, the only solo part you really have is to and from the trip. It’s not quite as scary of a thing as you may imagine. There are plenty of people available to help.

Needless to say, there’s plenty of things you should keep in mind, from one first-time traveler to, perhaps, another:

– Who you decide to book a trip with. There are sites like Expedia and Travelocity that let you buy package deals to various destinations, whether you just need flights and hotels, flights, hotels, and cars, or just flights. It all depends on where you want to go and what you’re interested in. Expedia and Travelocity will automatically book and confirm you with the airline you select, and while I haven’t booked a trip with a hotel yet, I imagine they would place the same reservation with the hotel you choose as well, so that way you just need to get to your flight on time and find out how to get to the hotel, many of which likely offer transportation to or from the airport you arrive in.

If you’re more interested in a trip like this to places like Italy, Rome, Barcelona, and so on, one of the people in my group calculated the price of airline tickets from Amsterdam to the United States, and the cost was more than the total price we paid for the trip. So while the trip prices with EF may appear to be high, in reality, you’re saving money compared to if you booked a trip like this on your own. They include flights, daily breakfast, entrance tickets to various things like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and transportation to the hostels and hotels and between cities. The only extras you pay for are souvenirs, your own meals throughout the day that aren’t included on the itinerary (typically anything apart from the welcome mixer and farewell dinner), and so on. You can decide to book your own flights and opt for a “land-only” trip if it saves you money, and especially if you have frequent flyer miles racked up, that’ll save you a lot. Do some research, look through the EF website or wherever you’re interested in, and figure out what you want to do from there. There’s also payment plans available if you book a trip well in advance, and you can cancel up to 99 days before the trip starts.

– Bring photocopies of your passport. This is enormously useful in the event you happen to lose your passport. It’s not very big, so it’s understandably easy to lose track of it. If you do lose it, you’ll at least have a photocopy to get between countries and back to America, and someone can put you in contact with the US Embassy overseas if an emergency does come up. It’s also helpful to bring a lockable suitcase too if you’re worried about anyone stealing your goods. All of the hostels and hotels feature lockable rooms, but extra security is never a bad thing.

– BUY TRIP INSURANCE. I probably cannot stress this one enough. With EF, it’s an extra $150 on top of your trip cost, but is completely worth it, because life happens. You might get sick on tour and need to come home, something of yours might get stolen. Anything is a possibility, and especially with traveling, it’s a very safe bet to not leave these possibilities up in the air. It also works to your advantage to have original copies of whatever valuable you have, like your phone. The trip insurance company through EF will typically reimburse you up to $300 for something like a phone and up to $100 for a lost or stolen passport. You may be able to find more comprehensive insurance elsewhere, so again, do some digging online and see what you find. You’re not penalized at all for not buying the insurance through EF.

– Dieting? Nope. If you’re expecting to hang on to your diet of three slices of lettuce, a wedge of cheese, and six grapes while traveling, reality check: It’s not going to happen. This is partially due to the fact that, because you’ll be in unfamiliar territory, you may not be able to know where the nearest restaurant, food vendor, and so on is, so when you’re hungry and stumble across a restaurant, it’s not the worst idea to stop in and grab something to eat. Also, who counts calories on a trip? Sure, you can bring your fitbit watches and track your steps and all that wonderful stuff if you decide to, but believe me, it’s far more rewarding to fully immerse yourself in the experience and really let go. Try some new food. Don’t worry about the calories. Do it for the experience.

With EF in particular (as I’m sure with other travel companies), they work around any dietary restrictions you have, so while you may not exactly be able to keep up an all-liquid diet, you can at least be assured you won’t have contact with anything with nuts if you happen to be allergic to them.

– Walking? Yep. Walking is, as humans, our primary mode of transportation, so if you elect to go on a trip like this, you should expect to be doing plenty of walking. Anywhere from 5-10 miles is a good bet, occasionally more based on what the day involves. It may be exhausting, but remember where you’re at. It’s totally worth it. It helps to bring comfortable shoes with you. I got around mostly on a pair of reliable tennis shoes and didn’t have an issue.

– Pack light. Some of the longer trips may require a couple extra clothes, so it really comes down to what you decide to bring, how much, and so on. You won’t be spending a lot of time in your room, that’s for sure, so take that into account, along with whether you need a blow dryer or can simply share with someone else, for example. All three of the places we stayed at had sheets, so bringing my own wasn’t a necessity (and more room for souvenirs). As noted on the website, some places don’t have elevators, so the lighter you pack, the better off you’ll be.

In addition to that, it’s to your advantage to buy a converter (I purchased this one before I left, and it worked wonderfully). All of the plugs are different than they are in the US. A few hotels, like the Generator in Paris, also feature USB plugs in the bed, but not all hotels will feature this luxury, so if you want to stay connected and charged, make sure to buy one before you leave.

– Don’t be afraid to travel alone. This is something I didn’t even think twice about when I booked the trip. I simply wanted something to do over spring break. But don’t let the fact that you may be going alone be a deterring factor in whether or not you decide to go in the first place. If you want to go with a friend, they’ll need to make their own purchase (the total cost of the trip is per person), but like I said before, you’ll have just as much of a good time alone as you would with a friend, and it gives you a better opportunity to meet other people from across the world too.

For whatever you decide to do, traveling is enormously worth it. To me, this trip was enormously worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat (and, of course, not let my phone get stolen). Do some research. If you think it’s too expensive, look into their payment plans, talk to friends and family who may be willing to donate. Even book your own plane tickets if you figure out they’ll shave some dollars off the cost of your trip.

This trip, for me, made me realize that there is a big, glamorous world outside of the one I know, far bigger and better than anything I could ever dream of. It’s a symbolic representation of all the craziest desires you’ve ever wanted directly in front of you, and it feels amazing. I ended up in a massive emotional slump right before I left, and this turned out to be the motivational push I needed to figure my life out and know that, as hopeless as things may seem, nothing really is the end of the world. And everything is just the beginning.

Listening to other people talk about their spring breaks made me realize how incredibly fortunate I was to even go on this trip in the first place. Some people worked over spring break. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. These things don’t happen to ordinary people like me, and I never would’ve imagined they would be even remotely possible. It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience, something not too many people out there can say they’ve done. And I’m able to say that. And that alone is amazing.

For wherever the rest of my life leads me, I certainly hope it leads me back to beautiful places like these, because I’ll never forget them for the rest of my life.

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