Bonjour! Here it is finally, the much-awaited (by me, not my readers) write-up on my not-so-recent first visit to Europe! It has been on my mind since the day I landed in Paris, over two months ago. The original idea was to jot down everything I did/saw/learned at the end of every day there, but we all know that never works out unless you’re 70 years old and come back to your room by 7 pm.
So that plan never took off, the trip began and ended in the blink of an eye (or so it seems although the boarding passes confirm I was away for 10 days), and it has already been two months since the trip and I never got the time to write about it all this while. Besides, I didn’t know where to begin, or what to write. There’s no point of a detailed description of my travels because the web is overstuffed with articles gushing about the places I visited, and I might not have anything new to add to that. But I did come back with heaps of my own observations which I think are worth preserving. So here they are, in no particular order:
1. Everyone is beautiful: No seriously, Paris especially was like a sea of perfectly shaped legs and thin waists. Everywhere I looked I saw pretty women in great shape. I don’t think I saw any overweight person, in fact. Plus everyone was so tall, and most had blue eyes – damn! I got a major inferiority complex there, to be honest. In India I never felt like I needed to change anything, but in Europe I felt like a walking-talking paneer pakoda that had put on some make-up. This made me go into some serious introspection mode, about me and the Indian culture in general in which fitness is given no importance at all and it is perfectly fine for people to become chubby, especially post marriage. In Paris, though, even women with kids were in great shape. Heck, even middle aged women seemed to be fitter than me. Damn!
2. So much love in every corner: This point too is mostly Paris-specific. There were love-struck couples in every direction, and I never felt more #foreveralone in life. I can’t imagine the agony of my companion – a married girl traveling sans her husband.
3. There is art everywhere: No seriously, at first I was impressed with Parisian museums and buildings and bridges, then I was awe-struck, and finally it all started to look a little pretentious. No matter which way we turned, we saw beautiful sculptures. I was constantly at a loss for adjectives and could not stop clicking pictures, looking a lot like Mr. Bean from Mr. Bean’s Holiday. This taught me a valuable lesson…
4. You can’t capture everything: I was visiting Europe for the first time and was justifiably overwhelmed by the beauty, but after a point I began to question the habit of clicking endless pictures. It’s just not the same, seeing all the roads and buildings and rivers later on your laptop screen, so it’s better to take in the views when you’re actually there.
5. Disneyland is shit: This came as a shock to us; visiting Disneyland had always been a childhood dream and I was extremely thrilled to finally achieve that. Don’t get me wrong, the place is gorgeous, but where were the rides? Most of the landscape was dotted with souvenir shops that had very tempting products which were sadly unaffordable for me. And then there were various eateries selling roughly the same food. We walked for hours without seeing any major rides. There was a jungle-themed stage show that was delightful, but the overall experience was “meh”. At the end of the day, grossly underwhelmed and with aching, swollen feet, we almost wished we hadn’t visited it at all.
6. But the Palace of Versailles was worse: It’s magnificent, but the three hour-long queue outside in the scorching sun with no place to sit made the experience feel more like a punishment than a fun outing. We would have happily gone back to Paris if we hadn’t come all the way to Versailles in a cab. So while we were getting baked in the July heat, I couldn’t help thinking about all the other places we could have seen instead and it was not a happy thought. Which leads me to my next point…
7. Plans go awry: It doesn’t even take much; one small lapse of judgment and everything can get derailed. I had researched a LOT for this trip, made lists of all the must-visit places, and scanned the maps to see which attractions could be paired together to minimize the time spent commuting. But nothing prepared me for the crowds. All major attractions, all the good Disneyland rides, had serpentine queues and a lot of our time was just spent waiting. So in the end we missed out on two or three places that we would have liked to see and I still regret that (and blame Versailles) but the truth is nothing ever goes according to plan. If I had skipped Versailles for Père Lachaise and Sacré-Cœur I could still be regretting that today. The lesson here is that one can’t see everything, unless one goes on a really long vacation, and that’s OK. Traveling is not about ticking things off a list: I saw this, I did that, etc. It’s about unique experiences, and I think we had plenty of those in this trip.
8. Deviating from the plan may not always be a bad thing: As part of my thorough research, I had stumbled upon this divinely beautiful place called Giethoorn in the Netherlands and had instantly fallen in love with the idea of visiting it. I shared this idea with other people, some of whom booked day trips to the place immediately. My friend and I didn’t because we were staying in Rotterdam and we thought we would join our other friends (who were staying in Amsterdam) directly in Giethoorn. But on the morning of that trip we woke up to rainy weather and our hosts suggested it would be a bad idea to travel so far on a rainy day. Although it was disappointing at first, we utilized that day by visiting Delft, The Hague and Leiden instead – and believe me it was not a bad bargain at all. As a bonus we also got to visit a beach in The Hague (and I remember thinking we were looking at the Atlantic Ocean but it was the North Sea).
9. The Netherlands is the prettiest place on Earth: Ok maybe not the whole world, but among the places I visited in this trip, I was most impressed with the beauty and cleanliness of Dutch towns and cities. Actually, the Netherlands formed the major chunk of my visit: I visited Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Delft, The Hague and Leiden. Outside Netherlands I visited Paris and Bruges (Belgium), so maybe it’s an unfair comparison but that’s what I feel. And before you ask: yes, I saw many windmills but no, I didn’t visit any tulip fields because they are a seasonal thing.
10. I’m in love with Belgian chocolates: I had brought heaps of chocolates back but the stock didn’t last a long time and I still dream sometimes that I’m in Bruges, buying MORE chocolate.
11. Bruges felt like time travel: It looked like any normal city from the railway station but as we walked towards the old city it suddenly felt like we had stepped into the medieval era. Cobbled streets, medieval buildings (not exaggerating: some of the structures indeed dated back to the 16th and 17thcenturies, and the famous ones went as far back as the 11th century!) and bridges on the canals dating back hundreds of years: Bruges seemed to exist in a different era altogether. The old town there had few signs of modernity which preserved this ancient feel of the place. On top of that it was a gloriously sunny day, there were chocolate shops in every street, and we took a canal cruise, so it was a perfect day.
12. Thank God for Italian food: Pizza and pasta saved us from death by starvation, because the other local options were mostly just salads, croissants and ham sandwiches. In fact, I failed to understand how the people were in such great shape when their food is mostly made from maida. Think about it: all breads are maida, all desserts basically sugar and maida, and the meat is usually processed meat, and I believe all these are unhealthy. Our breakfast always comprised croissants, crepes, some fruit drowned in sugar syrup, flavored yoghurt, cold meat and coffee or tea. I actually started missing Indian food, especially vegetarian food because veg food in Europe basically means salad and I just can’t swallow that. Now I’m not saying all European food is like that, but we never had the money to go to a good restaurant so all our meals came from cafes and this is the food I encountered everywhere.
13. Delhi metro is truly world-class: I won’t explain this one, you can see for yourself. But I’m aware that the western world has had underground trains for decades so naturally their infrastructure is starting to look old and creaky now. But I miss the wonderfully complicated Paris Metro system! Studying the maps, asking for directions, not understanding any of the station names on the announcement because the pronunciation was so whacky (eg.: station name Saint Michel, pronounced sunshell) and hurtling back to our hotel in the most rickety train that felt like it would derail but it never did so it was always a fun ride (better than Disneyland)…all in all it was quite adventurous and exciting! But even more fun was the tram in Rotterdam because Dutch locality names are AWESOME. We would spend the entire ride debating how best to pronounce Vierambachtsstraat or Burgemeester van Walsumweg. So exotic!
14. You can’t go everywhere: “You’re going to Paris but not London?!” “You were in Europe but didn’t go to Switzerland??” “How could you miss Prague and Vienna?” These are some of the comments I got after the trip, and I was exasperated. Most people probably see Europe as a once in a lifetime trip and so they try to hit all the major capital cities in one long vacation, but that’s not how I like to travel. I had planned to cover only Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands in this trip and I did just that. The big idea behind this plan was to see the places at a leisurely pace instead of running from one country to another in a bid to cover all of Western and Southern Europe in one go. And I do believe I’ll get more foreign trips in life, so all those other beautiful places will be visited some day. So I was in no rush to cover it all, and I’m happy with that decision.
I’m running out of points now. I guess that’s all I wanted to say. Maybe this piece is giving the impression that I had a rotten time in Europe but that’s not true at all. Yes there were challenges – the language barriers, the food (though not always, mostly we could find a good meal), the homesickness, missing being able to afford drinking water etc. – but I must have had a great time nevertheless because I miss those places very much. It was only my second foreign trip, and first visit to Europe. Not everything went as planned, but we also got many pleasant surprises. It was extremely tiring, but even more rewarding. I felt proud of being able to gift myself this budget trip, and even prouder when I traveled from Rotterdam to Paris by bus on my own, found myself stranded at Bercy with three bags and a park full of shady-looking locals, and still managed to first track down a Metro station without GPS and then reach the airport without getting robbed. If a trip is rated for the stories it lets us tell later on, then this one was super-successful! I’m glad it happened, and I hope I get to travel more.