Travel Tale: It All Began with a Free Passport
|"...no one in my working-class Appalachian family had ever gone overseas, except during wartime."|
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I introduced myself to you at the Mediterranean Cruise Ports class you gave last week. You asked me to send you an email about my first trip to Europe. I was one of the winners of the Facebook Pay for My Passport challenge.
I live in Edmonds and I've attended many of your classes and spent many hours researching Europe in your travel store library. I finished school (a graduate program to teach English as a Second Language) and was invited to Europe by a college friend who had moved to Paris. I didn't know how I could afford it with fuel prices skyrocketing, but I got lucky and found a ticket to Barcelona for under $600.00! I had four months to prepare. I watched many of your videos on hulu.com. I purchased several of your guide books and most of your gear. I followed your packing guide — I planned a budget vacation and knew that your rolling bag and a PacSafe tote bag would be all I needed. Everyone in my circle thought I couldn't pack enough in one bag for a 16 day trip through three countries — but I had faith in your system. I had a budget of $2,500, rode the train system and stayed in hostels like a true "Backdoor" convert.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I went to the airport TI for information about money exchange and metro passes. I was glad I had purchased a Euro debit card at Seatac Airport because my American debit card didn't work in the automated machines (as your guidebook stated.) At some of the train ticket booths, the attendants only took cash. I had taken two years of Spanish in school years ago, so I took refresher courses on BBC languages online called Spanish Steps and Mi Vida Loca! I'm so happy that I did. I needed to ask for directions and other help many times in Spanish and kept thinking, "No, Rick Steves, not everyone in Europe speaks English!" Spain was full of European tourists in October. The weather was beautiful and it felt like I had Europe all to myself. Most Americans I met were going on tours or cruises. I saw an American couple in a Spanish train station having a meltdown because no one spoke English. I was embarrassed of these ugly Americans and I thought, a two-week vacation in Spain and you couldn't be bothered to learn any Spanish? They also were wearing jean shorts, white sneakers and ball caps! I was proud of how well I blended in — there were many Spaniards who asked me for directions! I also had no trouble with con artists — because I was conservatively dressed, I think (but I wore your money belt, just in case.)
My friend in Paris said I had a very ambitious itinerary, but I got about 90% of it done. I spent four nights in Barcelona and took a day trip to Figueres to see the Salvador Dali museum. I took the AVE train to Madrid, spent three nights, and took a day trip to Toledo. I saw your guidebook often in Toledo. I took your staff's advice and flew from Madrid to Paris on Vueling, a good discount airline. As you know and I discovered, the train system is world-class, the airlines are competitive and it's so easy to get around.
About Madrid: the security is maddening! At the Prado, they made me check the corkscrew from your picnic set, but wouldn't let me check my tote bag because it was too small! In the Palacio Real, the guards yelled at me, "No foto!" (I wasn't using a flash and was taking a picture of a hallway without art.) The Palace opened an hour later and was a few euros more than stated in your guidebook. Austerity measures, I suppose. At the Madrid airport, they confiscated the TSA-approved corkscrew and I flew to Paris without it. Ironically, I had no problems at the Puerta de Atocha train station (which I expected, considering the terrorist bombing.)
Each new city, I learned a new Metro system. In Paris, I struggled with French, which I don't know as well as Spanish. I stayed there four nights and took a day trip to Versailles. Glorious! In France, I was very frustrated with the lack of clean, working toilets that charged for admission (Hello, McDonalds!) and lack of working phones (landlines, pay phones and cells.) Then I took the Eurostar to London (hey, why not?) and had to learn the pound and to look the opposite way at the crosswalks. I was so confused by then!
Protests were everywhere, but I wasn't bothered. In Madrid, 300,000 indignados marched down Calle de Atocha as I was taking a rest break in the McDonald's there (your great advice — always clean and free toilets). I watched the march in awe and took many pictures. In Paris, the Musee d'Orsay was closed — the workers decided to strike instead of letting the museum open after the year-long renovation. I was disappointed, but I understood. In London, the occupiers were sitting near their tents in front of Westminster Abbey and the Tories were protesting Cameron's EU referendum vote in Parliament. I was witnessing history. Many of the tube lines were under construction for next year's Olympics, so I reduced my itinerary. My swollen feet thanked me! By the way, I lost six pounds walking and eating like a European!
I have dreamed of Europe since I was a teenager studying history and art, but no one in my working class Appalachian family had ever gone overseas except during wartime. Everything clicked at once and I felt it was meant to be. I finished school; you paid for my passport; my friend in Paris invited me; I found several inexpensive plane and train tickets; I stayed in a few inexpensive and adequate hostels; I saw 1,000-year-old buildings and art of my dreams; I ate exquisitely prepared, delicious food; and I came back with memories of a lifetime and some money left in my budget!
I flew back to the States on two flights, next to Americans who asked me the same question: Where do you want to go next? After the jet lag, swollen feet, and my brain full of languages, metric system and money exchanges — I can think of many more European countries and cities I want to see. I'm proud of myself for organizing such a big trip and going alone for most of it. Since I've returned, those same people who didn't think I could do this trip, told me I inspired them to go to Europe and maybe, go alone, too. But next time, I go to Europe, I'm going to let your team plan my trip! Maybe a "Europe My Way" tour...
Thanks for inspiring me.
— Tracey in Edmonds, WA
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