Life Lessons Abroad: Euro Trip 2015

11 Apr

I’m back! Sorry it took me so long to post about my trip abroad, dear readers, I have been so busy but now here, on this slightly-sorta-not-really hungover Saturday afternoon I finally have time to tell you alllll about it. Are you ready?

First of all, let me say it was in no way a ‘typical vacation’. Typical vacations are relaxing & relatively slow-paced, right? Mine was a non-stop adventure that tested my emotional AND physical limits! I laughed harder & cried longer on those 10 days of traveling more so than I have in months. Whoa, right? I mean you knew it just wouldn’t be a normal trip because,

Jessi + alcohol + old friends + new friends + tax refunds + cheap countries + ex-boyfriend + ex-city + caves = one crazy time!

But being me, I must take a poetic look at my time abroad, & while I would love to just write a travel blog post listing all the things I did, what is more important for you to know is what each experience taught me. Because each of the 3 countries I visited were so different, & they each presented a different life lesson. 

First Stop–>Turkey. Life Lesson: Female/Human Rights Abroad

(Above: Mike & I at the Hagia Sophia Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey)

Every time I book a trip I always strive to be a thrifty traveler. I would rather have long layovers in a plane, or rough it in a hostel so I can save money for spending during the trip. Turkish Airways has some of the lowest prices of any airline, & I totally recommend them! Cheap prices, EXCELLENT food, comfy seats, & a ton of free swag! However, one of the knocks of Turkish Airways are their infamous long layovers. Typically midway through arriving/departing your destination. These layovers can range from 5 (the WORST) to 23 hours, mine was 17.

For me, long layovers are fun because it’s like a free pass to explore a new city. I had a 22hour layover last year in Dublin, Ireland, when I was moving home from Prague. It was a blast! I got a good night’s sleep, a hot shower & a meal (and an AWESOME night at the pub) in between a long traveling journey! This is a traveling tip I recommend, if you’re up for it.

Anyway, I was excited for my 17 hours in Istanbul, Turkey, because thanks to my global network of friendships, I know someone living there who is basically my brother from another mother. I met Mike when we both got our TEFLs in Prague. Now he has been living & working in Istanbul for almost 2 years. During my long layover he was gracious enough to not only let me sleep on his couch, but actually be my tour guide! He’s the best! We explored the Blue Mosque, Hagia Sophia & Old Town area. Then we chowed down on an AMAZING dinner.

(Above: Turkish food is delicious! I got the kebab sampler aka: beef, chicken & lamb with veggies, yogurt sauce, rice & that thing on top is ‘Turkish pizza’)

I was really excited about visiting Istanbul. It was the most ‘exotic’ place I have ever traveled & I knew things would be very different. And I was so right. First of all, let me say, this is my opinion based on the few areas I unbiasedly saw in a short amount of time, but what I did see was kind of disappointing. First of all, I didn’t realize how MASSIVE the city is (nearly twice the population of NYC?! NYC pop. = 8.4mill, Istanbul pop. = 14.2 mill!) this would explain how filthy it is. Trash was all over the place, stray dogs & cats roamed freely rummaging through it & the Romany population is overwhelming.

It’s no secret that the Romany people (or “gypsies” according to the ethnic slur) are all over Europe. They swindle, steal & scam; a troublesome minority that a clueless tourist is sure to attract. While I am always sympathetic yet cautious towards Romany people when I travel, in Istanbul the population was so overwhelming it really affected me. I heard that Turkish Romany, like in parts of India, will frequently maim their children in order to get more money/sympathy from tourists (remember Slumdog Millionaire?). It’s a sick & sad practice. During my time in Istanbul, maimed children were everywhere & it broke my heart. So much so that I actually let my walls down & gave them money.

There comes a time when you realize that regardless of what the Romany child/homeless person will use your money for, they are still a person. They are just as human as you are. In Istanbul the most touching moment of this realization was when Mike & I were getting on the tram & there were two boys by the station. They were not begging, they were not pick-pocketing, they were both sitting down, barefoot & shirtless (it was about 50 degrees out & the sun was setting), covering themselves with a single jacket. They chattered away in their language. To me, I saw my two younger brothers.

So I walked over & gave them each the same amount of money (no clue how much it was but Mike said it was enough for them to buy some candy or chips), & their eyes completely lit up. They both smiled widely & thanked me in Turkish to which I replied, “In English, we say ‘thank you’” & I made them each repeat me (once a teacher, always a teacher!), afterwards they said “bye-bye!” to me & as I walked away I could hear the excited tones in their voice, the same tone you would get when your grandparent slipped you $5 when you were 6 years old.

(Above: Just nomming on some corn on the cob outside a giant mosque, sticking out like a sore thumb!)

While this exchange was one of my favorite moments in Istanbul, I have to admit there were a few other things that happened which changed my mood. Most memorably, Mike & I were walking around the shops of Old Town, browsing the beautiful souvenirs (in the broad daylight), when I was discretely harassed.

Let me be clear: I know I stick out in Europe. I have blonde hair, blue eyes & am not stick-thin like everyone else. In Italy I get hissed at, in Paris I get fondled walking on the street & sitting on the metro & in other countries I have been on the receiving end of awful comments from men who are extremely aggressive.

This used to really scare me. It made me nervous & worried & to this day I avoid the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris. However, since moving back to Boston I have become a strong feminist. I have confronted my cat-callers & stood up for myself. But while I was in Istanbul I sank right back into my terrified little shell. 

Maybe it’s because you think you’re safe in certain areas, you think you’re okay in the daylight, you think at the very least no one will try anything when your male friend is right next to you. But this wasn’t the case in Istanbul. Because I was walking alongside Mike in a crowded tourist area at 4:00pm & I feel somebody smack my butt. At first I was shocked & thought maybe someone just bumped into me because it was so crowded. But then it happened again followed by laughter. I immediately spun around to confront my assaulter & there was 4 of them. Four boys my age.

I wanted to throw something at them, I wanted to violently attacked them, but I didn’t do anything. I glared & turned around & they continued snickering in the opposite direction. What do you do in a situation like this? And from then on, my trip changed. I was nervous when it got darker & was constantly looking over my shoulder. The damage was done. 

The next day, at 6:00am, I take the metro 4 stops to the airport alone. Men watch me struggle with my luggage like I am a circus creature. They do not just stare at me on the subway, they leer at me. They see I am uncomfortable about being watched (something they seem to find funny) & still refuse to turn away. People on escalators ahead of me actually turn around to watch me. I wanted to scream out at them to f**k off, but I am honestly nervous of what will happen as a result.

Every woman I come across (most in hijab & fully shrouded in black) cling close to their husbands & keep their eyes to the ground. I left Istanbul with a bad taste in my month, & while I love you, Mike, & I had fun, I can honestly say I don’t think I’ll be back :/

Second Stop–> Czech Republic. Life Lesson: Fact is Stronger Than Nostalgia 

Next I flew to Prague. And this was THE FIRST time I have been back since I moved back home last June. It has almost been one year that I have been away from my old city & I had no idea how much I missed it. It’s always such a strange feeling to be back in a place with so many memories. Some people have come & gone, some things have changed, but overall nothing really has. My neighborhood (Jiriho Z Podebrad for lifeee) was still the same, Charles Bridge was still packed with tourists, the same people were still working at Gillian & I’s favorite pub, Svichkova was just as delicious as I remembered & all my friends were still just as awesome as when I left.

(Above: The Jiriho z Podebrad neighborhood is not traditionally beautiful, but the distinct church & perfectly hideous Zizkov TV Tower were wonderful landmarks in my old Prague neighborhood)

I’m not going to lie, I was pretty nervous about coming back to Prague. I just had such mixed feelings, mostly because this was the first time I would be re-united with the city, my friends who still resided there & the ex-love of my life, Filip. As you may remember, Filip & I ended our relationship back in December when the long distance became too much with our hectic schedules. It was a break-up technically, but I guess for me it was just pressing pause on things until we could re-unite. Sure, I tried to move on with other people, but the effort was so half-hearted & I always found myself hoping we could somehow get back together. Filip’s sent me very mixed signals prior to my trip, but promised to host me.

He picked me up at the airport & everything was like old times again. It was just as I had hoped. We got lunch & I was reunited with the delicious Svichkova & finally drank my beloved Kozel Cerny! But something felt off. Talking to Filip more & more, I realized just how different he was. Long painful story short, after more discussion I realized my greatest fear: we were not at all on the same page & he was completely over me. It was done, officially over & there was no more hope 😦

I know you probably have no sympathy for me, because it’s like, ‘Well you did break up, Jessi, of course he will move on’, but let me just say, this was the greatest relationship of my life. This person was not only my best friend & greatest love they helped me survive. They were my biggest support system through so much when I was so alone & the relationship ended simply because of distance. Sometimes I wish something dramatic would have happened, I wish someone cheated or lied or backstabbed so I could just dismiss it & hate him forever. But it ended with me still so in love with him. And even though you know circumstances are impossible, it still hurts so much to watch someone you’re still in love with move on from you. It hurts to think about them being with someone new. It hurts to feel them forget you. 

It also hurts to travel 3,000 miles to be reunited face-to-face for the first time in 4 months in a city where everything reminds you of them only for them to pat you on the back as you sob, saying ‘Don’t worry, you’ll find someone else’.

Yeah, it hurts like hell. But it was also something I really needed. Because that little sliver of hope locked deep within my heart was holding me back. It was making me closed off to anyone new, it was keeping me in one place. And now that it’s shattered–I am free. I can actually move on to new things. 

I realize this now, but in the moment, between the jet lag & dehydration, it was all too much for me to handle.

I knew I needed to get out of there. 

I thanked Filip for his offer to host me, but there was no way I could stay with him that week, I needed some distance in order to maintain sanity. So, like Prague always has, it continued to shelter & protect me with the help of two of my closest friends.

I met Brandi when I got my TEFL in Prague, but even before we arrived I knew we were one of the same. Weeks leading up to the course we excitedly messaged on Facebook from different coastlines of the country about the life-changing experience. Brandi is from Seattle & is one hell of a strong woman. During her time in Prague she began a new life, now living with her awesome boyfriend Honza (who I drunkenly introduced her to one night 😉 ) & even flew her two cats to Prague to live with her. Brandi has always been a great shoulder to cry on. She’s compassionate & nurturing, & even though she’s only a few years older than me, she served as a second mother to me in Prague. 

She was the first person I messaged after my fight with Filip. I stood in a nearby cafe to steal fuzzy wifi pleading with her to let me spend the night while bawling my eyes out. And like a true friend for life she said to come right over. I quickly packed an overnight bag (too shaken up to take all my luggage) & commuted 40mins across the city to her apartment.

(Brandi & I during a way too wild TEFL party in August 2013…)

(…And just last week. I love this girl for life!)

I ended up spending the whole 5 days I was in Prague sleeping on her comfy couch, cuddling her two cats & having much needed girl time. The thing I love about Brandi so much is how nurturing she is. Instead of lecturing me, she listened as I fell apart for the next two days & cried actual gallons of tears. It is exactly what I needed & Brandi, I can never thank you enough for always being & continuing to be such a good friend to me. Love you, girl!

As for Filip & I, we were able to end it on decent terms. After I had a good cry, I realized this was the closure I needed. Everyone hopes to be friends after a break-up, but it’s not always easy, especially when it’s with someone who you were never actually friends with. We met at a bar, spent the weekend together & I promptly fell in love. But I do not look back on things with any sort of ill-will, he was there for me when I needed him in my life & now it’s time to move on.

After I was done going through this emotional roller coaster, I realized that this was my vacation. And I wasn’t about to spend it moping around, dammit! So the next day I had some ME time. I walked around the city all day, visiting landmarks, exploring new streets, buying souvenirs & just being so happy to be alive. So invigorated in the moment & environment. It was great!

That day Brandi & I took a day trip to Kutna Hora, a village about 1 hour outside of the city. For someone who lived in Prague for almost a full year, it’s embarrassing how little ‘tourist things’ I’ve done. One of those things being visiting Kutna Hora’s infamous bone church!

(Above: The eerie Bone Church in Kutna Hora is about 1 hour outside of Prague. Made with 40,000 skeletons it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site)

Although the church took us a whole 10 minutes to explore, Brandi & I had a great time hanging out in a nearby pub. Pub life is one of the biggest things I miss about Prague. I can’t explain it to you if you don’t understand it, because it doesn’t sound that great. You sit in a no-frills restaurant, drowning in second-hand smoke, sipping massive beers, eating super filling food as people/dogs/babies/children sit around you. And it’s awesome. Pubs are a big part of Czech culture & I have yet to find something to mirror this in the U.S. A place where I can drink 5+ extremely cheap beers without judgement, & have philosophical or political discussions speaking at normal Jessi volume (aka: LOUD). Please let me know if something like this exists in Boston, okay?

The next day I spent some more time walking around the city exploring, but the best part of the day was my reunion with the one & only Gillian!

If you have been following this blog for a while then you understand the awesomeness that is Gillian Bradford. She is this cool punk rock Californian who used to be my assistant boss (for a short period of time) at that hell hole of a school I used to work at in Prague. She was the one who lectured me about life & served as an unwavering source of support. I could always count on Gillian to give it to me straight but at the same time always have my back. She truly is the cooler older sister I never had. 

Meeting up with Gillian was so much more exciting because we were going to be meeting up at OUR PUB.

Originally when I started working at Keytone Preschool I obviously had no idea wtf I was doing. My boss was insane & provided no guidance or support for me. One day Gillian (who just happened to live the next street over from me) asked to meet me at this nearby pub for a “work meeting”. The meeting was her warning me to step it up or I would get fired. In actuality my boss was just insane because I’m a great teacher & Gillian & I promptly got drunk discussing her insanity. And a beautiful friendship was born. 

(Above: Gillian models our ‘receipt’ in the our pub. All those tallies are our beers. Needless to say, it was a good night)

During my time in Prague, even after Gillian epically told our boss off & quit her job, we still remained very close. We still had weekly ‘work meetings’ at the same pub & those were probably some of my best memories of living in the city. Gillian is smart, fearless & has lived all over the world. Gillian is the woman I want to become. And she has mentored me through all my life obstacles & is one of the main reasons I grew so much during my time abroad.

So it was so wonderful to be reunited! Like most of our adventures, we say it will be ‘an early night’, which is code for I won’t get home until 3am. Obviously this happened & in the course of the THREE pubs/bars we visited that night, we had so many adventures. Multiple acquaintances, a ton of dogs in the pub, one non-stop/strip club/slot machine venue, one gay club piano bar & a few new friends. I had the hangover of my life the next day, but this night spent with Gillian was emotionally healing. From Filip, from personal obstacles, from all the disconnect I have felt since moving back home, I feel so much better.

Thank you, Gillian! You are, & continue to be, one of the most fantastic people I have ever met in my life.

And so Prague ended on a high note! Even though it started pretty low, I left the city realizing just how much I absolutely love it there. Upon leaving last summer, everyone asked me why. At that time I felt like I had my fill of Prague & the Czech attitude & the impossible job situation, but now I feel like I could very easily move back someday. I went through all the growing pains & am now in a great place with the city where I know how life works there & if I spoke more Czech feel like I have a real shot at happiness. So who knows what the future holds  😉

Third Stop —> Budapest. Life Lesson: Being Alone Is Not So Bad

The next day, after saying all my good-byes to Prague & vowing to return soon, I hopped on an 8 hour bus ride to Budapest alone. Yes, EIGHT hours. Like I left at 10:30am & arrived at 6:30pm. This may sound draining or daunting, but for me it wasn’t so bad!

First off, buses are always cheaper than planes or trains, like significantly cheaper. So yes, I could have taken a $200 1 hour flight or a $100 4 hour train ride, but instead I took a $30 8 hour bus ride. But I was prepared, I booked Student Agency! They are the best bus line in all of Europe. I have taken their competitor Eurolines in the past ( 10 hours from Paris to Amsterdam with NO BATHROOM) & will never go back. Student Agency hooks you up, not only do you get a bathroom, you get a tv screen in the seat in front of you, & a complimentary newspaper/beverage (aka: the BEST hot chocolate!). Plus you get a break midway to stretch your legs. So honestly my journey wasn’t that bad!

I was journeying down to Budapest because I had heard great things about the city. Hungary may not be on anyone’s initial dream destination list, but it’s cheap, has great architecture & yes, fantastic food. I was headed alone only because my friend Alex, who is currently teaching in Barcelona, wasn’t able to come with me last minute. While I was sad that she couldn’t go, & apprehensive about spending Easter alone, I wasn’t too worried.

Because solo travel is awesome.

To some this sounds crazy. I can remember when I was studying abroad, I would meet people in my hostel who had been traveling alone for months. “But aren’t you lonely?!” I asked, “Don’t you want someone to share these memories with!?” But it wasn’t until I was forced to travel by myself that I found these answers.

You are never alone in the world. 

When in Prague I had to take a solo 24 hour trip to Vienna in order to apply for my visa. I was a bit nervous about going alone, & of course my mom was straight up panicking, but I had a great time! The beauty of solo travel is you have the most flexible schedule. You can literally do whatever you want! And from past experiences with stressful overwhelming travel companions, I can honestly say having the freedom to choose is liberating. 

(Above: Fall 2013, my solo trip to Vienna lead me to the beautiful Schonbrunn Palace, which was 10 mins from where I got my visa!)

I booked a hostel with great reviews, knowing that I am a social person & would meet new friends. And then after visiting the consulate, I spent the rest of my time in Austria walking around the mesmerizing Schonbrunn Palace Gardens taking it all in! Short but sweet!

I knew my time in Budapest would be similar, I just had to prepare. I booked 3 nights at the Home Plus Hostel, which has very high reviews on the always trusty HostelWorld.com, & then knew I had to plan another unique excursion to distract me from any loneliness I might feel on Easter. I consulted the wonderful Trip Advisor (I know, PR plugs left & right, but I’m being legit here), for a different sort of adventure then just visiting tourist sights or seeing the bathhouses.

I came across Caving Under Budapest which was a very different kind of city tour to say the least. From reading the reviews I gathered that for just $40, I could spend 2.5 hours exploring the underground caves with a guide & a small spelunking team. I am not an adrenaline junkie by any means but this was one of those once in a lifetime travel moments so I apprehensively booked the tour!

My time in Budapest was so fun. My hostel was perfect & I met SO MANY NEW FRIENDS on their pub crawl (although Prague Pub Crawl is obviously better, but hey, I’m biased). I tried new foods, explored the picturesque Buda Castle, Chain Bridge & Hungarian Parliament Building areas & my Easter dinner consisted of a traditional 3-course Hungarian meal for only $9.

(Above: Windy selfies at the Hungarian Parliament building!)

(Above: Buda Castle is a total CAN’T-MISS)

While I was enjoying my time in Budapest, I was a little nervous about my upcoming caving adventure. I had scheduled it for my last full day in Europe, hoping it would serve as a sort of grand finale for the trip. The day of I was so worried! I couldn’t eat anything & was this close to backing out. I found one of the downsides of solo travel: when you sign up for things alone, you are the only one motivating yourself to follow-through with them! That day I wished I had a friend who was relying on me to accompany them in the caves, but nope, it was all me.

And the reasons why I was freaking out so much was not the typical ones. I was not worried about my safety, was not questioning my claustrophobia, no, I was panicking about caving so much because I was 100% convinced I would get stuck. I was worried I was too big, my hips were too wide & I was not athletic enough to complete the tour. And it sounds absolutely ridiculous now typing it out & admitting it. I knew people who completed the caving experience but they were petite & athletic & for them it was a challenge. 

One of the things my super adventurous 76-year-old-going-on-16 Grampy always says is, “If someone else can do it, so can I!” While my rationale is not as positive, I did have to fully consider the fact that I had already told everyone I was going to do this, yes, so it would be embarrassing if I chickened out, but more so I would be totally letting myself down & would regret passing on a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

So, after this mini soul searching pep talk, I grabbed my things & was off.

(Above: More terrified than I look, but there was no turning back now!)

I arrived at the meeting spot where we were greeted by our caving tour guide. He was a cheerful awesome Hungarian man. He took us on two different buses until we were in the outskirts of the city. We were divided into 3 groups of 10 & suited up in our jumpsuits & helmets. I began to relax & pictured how much fun I would be having. 

Soon we were in the caves, for a split second it’s overwhelming. You realize it’s pitch black & you’re trapped inside, but then you just have to breathe & keep going. At the beginning of the tour you climb down this rickety metal ladder about 30 feet into the mouth of the cave. At that moment there is truly no turning back. For the next 2.5 hours I got the workout of my life. We climbed over rocks, slid down tunnels, army crawled underneath rocks & then in the toughest spots shimmied through crevices. It was exhausting. Even though it’s chilly because you’re so far underground, you are sweating like maniac. Your elbows & knees & legs get bruised. You hit your head numerous times & are covered in dirt (good thing for the caving gear!).

After each set of obstacles our guide would give us a breather & tell us some history about the caves. It was fascinating. He was funny & so positive, he really helped motivate me through the whole thing. There were a few times where the words “I can’t” escaped my lips. They were met by an extended hand from my guide, a push upwards from a fellow caver behind me & kind words of encouragement from the others. This was more than a tour, it was a bonding experience. 

(Above: Headed straight down in a tight tunnel)

(Above: Taking a breather with our guide while the rest of group completes the climb)

I am not going to lie, there was one time during this experience when that viscous little voice returned. It was during the tightest descent in the whole tour. We went one-by-one down the tunnel, our guide telling us to lay sideways & use both legs & arms to propel our bodies. It started fine, but then the space got tighter & tighter & soon my wide ‘child-bearing’ hips were completely stuck. And the voice whispered to me that this was it, I was stuck, I was too fat to do this & I was holding the group back.

But before I could be affected, my guide came to the rescue. In the calmest, most cheerful voice imaginable, he silenced the cruel words & instructed me to wiggle my hips & use my hands to push off while he literally grabbed my legs & pulled me through. And in an instant it was over. I had made it through the most challenging part of the cave. I could have hugged him. Because overcoming that simple obstacle was a massive victory for my self-esteem. The rest of the trek was easy & soon it was over.

Afterwards I was sweaty, dusty & staving. Me & some fellow cavers ventured back into the city for dinner. We found an awesome restaurant & spent the next few hours laughing & sharing stories.

(Above: New friends from all corners of the world share a great meal together. This is why I travel!)

There was a couple from England & 3 friends from Singapore. Since we had all survived the caves, it was like we were already old friends! This was the perfect last night of my vacation because it was a culmination of why I travel! The couple will hopefully visit me in Boston this summer, too!

So there you have it, dear readers! I told you, it was one heck of an adventure, right? I feel like it was just what I needed. I found closure, re-connected with old friends, visited old places & some new ones & made so many great new friends who I will hopefully have future adventures with! Thank you to everyone reading this who made my trip so special! Please know that you are always welcome to come visit me!

And while it may seem like my adventures are over for now, you know that the CzechItOut Blog will still live on! I am a world citizen with insatiable wanderlust & I am already planning my next trip!

So until then, stay tuned for all the exciting things that lie ahead! Cheers 🙂

JG

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One Response to “Life Lessons Abroad: Euro Trip 2015”

  1. Grampy April 19, 2015 at 1:19 am #

    Didn’t I tell you, ” If someone else can do it so can you.’ Never give up the free spirit God I wish I could have done half the things you have done. Luv ya.

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