If I had to name this two-part blog post it would be: How to Make It In Eastern Europe Without Any Friends, A Little Money, and Five Changes of Clothes. After 8 long weeks of reading about King Arthur’s dwindling machismo and Winston Churchill’s drinking and its hand in saving international politics, I found myself six beautiful weeks of mindless vacation and an opportunity at empowerment. For almost four weeks I would travel to Eastern and Central Europe—places where few people I had spoken to had ever been. With a tight budget and an even slimmer knowledge of the languages of the region—I was fairly certain that being able to sing the entire repertoire of “The Sound Of Music” does not make me a German expert—I planned a hostel-jumping journey through five cities.
I thought that the best way to teach/warn/amuse the world would be a series of awkward anecdotes and photos; enjoy, because goodness knows I did!
1. Realize that traveling across Europe will NOT be like the Lizzie McGuire Movie.
As much fun as meeting an Italian pop idol and gaining international fame when you expose his scheming ways and terrible voice may be, this will not happen during your time in Eastern Europe. Product of the 1990s that we are, it may be appealing to dream of realizing our best friend is our great love while looking at the Trevi Fountain, the first step in planning your trip to this region is abandoning any kind of romantic notion about your travels. Your wardrobe will not be unlimited; your access to anything remotely resembling a washing machine will be imagined; and the closest you will come to a pop star is ogling a sign you cannot read while waiting for a train you pray is heading in the direction of your hostel. Consider your material needs while traveling through Eastern Europe in many ways like the experience of watching Crossroads, not the actual plot itself: so absurdly flawed and insufficient that it is both hilarious and almost appealing. I will warn you now that with such a limited budget, physical comforts will be few and far between during your travels, but that will only enrich your other memories. I can think of nothing that more perfectly captures the human condition than when I recall looking down at my bloodied heel in a Berlin train station after a day of learning about the Jewish cultural history of Germany. Humans rarely feel the joys, sorrows, and pains of life all in one day, but if you let yourself, you surely can on a collegiate budget.
2. Also, accept that you are staying in HOSTELS and not HOTELS for a reason.
Think of the ‘s’ that differentiates hotels from hostels as standing for ‘satisfactory’ or ‘sleeping-only.’ This isn’t to say that your hostels are necessarily so awful they should be the stuff of legends, but there is a considerable difference between the two experiences. For those used to traveling with parents abroad or even within the United States, forget the Hilton-experience you have come to love. Hostels are full of people passionate about ‘experiencing’ Europe, which is a term loosely used to encompass experiences like clubbing across Hungary or eating their way through Poland, not 50-somethings wanting to be tucked in bed by 10:00 p.m. Hostels at their best will be places where you can suss out the best local places to eat, drink, and explore. At their worst, they are the location that will witness your low moments of showering in the sink and crying over the deplorable treatment of European Jews (I speak from experience).
While you don’t need to make friends with the other people staying in your hostel bunks (goodness knows the poor woman sleeping in the bunk across from me at 9 p.m. in Vienna was not my greatest fan as I tried to plan out my trip with the lights on) you should at least deceive yourself into thinking it’s like freshman year room-sharing again. Also, if you are as paranoid as I am about safety and theft (I have seen way too many crime procedurals at this point; I am looking at and blaming you, Dick Wolf) then do the somewhat ridiculous thing that I did: sleep with your passport, ID, and other valuables tucked into your pillowcase so that you can fight off any would-be hostel thieves. While almost always safe and happy places, I advise any first-time solo travelers that instead of seeking comfort within the four walls of your hostel room, find your place of peace in a local café or an ice cream shop.
3. You do not need to pack anywhere near the kitchen sink to survive backpacking. In fact, the less you take, the more ingenious you feel.
Again, taking a backpack across Eastern Europe is not like packing for a chaperoned trip of Europe and thus requires far less material goods; forgoing a number of the following items will mean that when it’s your turn to carry a backpack across the Continent your back and legs will silently cry out in thanks to me. As ridiculous as it may sound to the object observer, I basically spent a month thinking of myself as the Bear Gryllis of world-travel, and I could not have been happier. Instead of packing the seemingly necessary goods of soap, shampoo, a towel, or more than one pair of pants, I embraced the dirty and thrifty nature of backpacking and I could not have been happier. A clean t-shirt serves as an almost equally sufficient way to dry off after your temperamental showers as an actual towel but takes up about a third of the space in your pack.
Additionally, since many non-Euro currencies are worth drastically less than an American dollar, waiting until you enter an Eastern European nation to purchase a bar of soap or shampoo will save you precious dollars. After a week of skimping off of hostel dispensed soap (trust me I am not proud of how cheap I am) I finally caved at the idea of buying a bar of soap only to find my spend-thrift concerns were unfounded because a bar of soap costs less than 30 cents in Poland. BE ADVISED: The same does not go for a toothbrush (you never know when you will need this and waiting to get to a drug store in Eastern Europe may not be the safest bet). The name of the game when traveling across Europe alone with a backpack should always be: how long can I survive on the bare minimum of goods to spare my poor feet and back. Realize that literally no one you know will judge your outfit, question the somewhat strange smell of your socks, or care that you have repeated an outfit over the course of a week. That is equal parts liberating, smelly, and gratifying all at the same time (trust me you will only understand this after wearing the same outfit for three days and noting just how little you care about other people’s opinions of you).
4. Learn at least five phrases in each language before you arrive in the country.
Aside from the horribly standard ‘Do you speak English?’ preferably these phrases would include statements about the location of the nearest embassy, bathroom, and pub, but I am not picky. While your accent will never be even remotely perfect nor will you understand the responses if they by some miracle confuse you for a native speaker, the people you are trusting your survival upon will appreciate the effort. Instead of being the obnoxious tourist who assumes everyone understands English if you yell it loud enough, be the person who tries to assimilate for once. As a single person traveling Europe you can’t always be pulling out your handy guidebook for the translation, nor looking to a travel buddy to help you out of a hairy situation. You need to take control of your own fate, which in this case means staring into a mirror as you repeat the phrase ‘Where is the nearest bathroom, please?’ over and over again until you confuse the phrase for your full name. I can say with confidence that while my wonderful experience learning Polish by trading compliments and jovially rubbing the belly of a 60-year-old tour guide may have paid off in spades later that night as I yelled at drunken men, there are better and more socially acceptable ways to learn the words for ‘if you do that again I will scream.’
5. Accept that out of loneliness you will begin thinking in Facebook statuses and realize that you are the only company that you need.
Without anyone else to talk to all day and almost no English to understand, a portion of your time will be devoted to crafting a way of translating your experiences into popular social media blasts. Personally, mine came in the form of Facebook statuses because I shun/cannot figure out how to use other forms of social media. Accept that your main companion is your online persona, instruct yourself to think about what to write when you eat dinner alone, and move on. Bonus points for people who entirely forgo social media during their travels (although I found that my family tends to like to hear that I am alive and have survived another day without a phone or other means of attaining assistance, even if that proof of life comes in a post about my absinthe-drinking adventures).
6. Throw caution to the wind on occasion and eat local foods from the tiny corner shops and food trucks.
If you listen closely enough to the free tours you will inevitably take, you will be told about the local delicacies. While I realize that at some point at least one adult advised you to avoid restaurants that parked outside a mall or shops that sell chocolate for almost free, in these situations I say, ‘What they don’t know won’t hurt them!’ After a day of recognisance in each city I visited, I found some local delicacies and stores to try my hand at tasting new food. Thanks largely to my inability to understand the ingredients in many of these dishes, this principle of trying everything led me to some of my favorite discoveries yet. Despite despising the concept of cheesecake (because honestly who hears that word for the first time without cringing at such a food union?), I ate a Hungarian snack consisting of a chilled chocolate bar stuffed with cottage cheese. My tour guide warned me that if we purchased one, we would eventually cave and buy a six-pack, the an idea I scoffed at up until the moment I had snuck into a local grocery store in the wee hours of the day to buy a 10-pack of these treats to ship back to America almost in violation of US Customs law. I also ate a treat called a tredulnik in Prague that can only be described as the ideal culinary love child between a curly fry and an Auntie Annie’s cinnamon pretzel from a random van parked outside of a church. The same can be said for taking advise on beer and other alcohol. The local tour guides, especially the younger ones, can give you the best advice on what to drink during your stay. I can safely say that they never steered me wrong. The best discovery was that over the course of my time I adopted the Krakow diet of eating a full lunch before eating ice-cream two hours later; while my figure may regret this decision one day, my stomach never did. Remember: diets are not meant for vacations not only because the entire concept of ‘experiencing a culture’ does not exclude eating, but also because you technically leave all the excess calories in the country when you board the plane (that is how that works right?).
7. People will feel guilty about you being alone and offer you free alcohol, food, or other precious goods. While you shouldn’t over-indulge, treat yourself!
My favorite indulgences honestly came during dinner because eating alone is an art that requires experience for perfection. Sitting in total silence while literally everybody else around you stares loving or angrily into their significant others’ eyes demands intense focus. Although the waiters should really pay closer attention to the English speaking couple arguing over the state of their marriage in a foreign restaurant where they believe no one else will understand them (trust me there is always one), inevitably the wait-staff will take pity on you when they realize that the lonely sweater draped across the chair across from yours is not saving a space for a date. Like any good friend, Eastern Europeans know exactly how to treat loneliness: alcohol and food. Similar things will happen when you reveal that you are traveling alone to tour guides; the extra attention will flow and you will eventually find yourself trapped in the middle of the front seat of a bus between two Polish men discussing the best way to keep mistresses because they want to shield you from seeing all of the couples that took the same tour as you.
List of free things I received while on holiday alone include:
- One shot of palinka (Hungary)
- One shot of lemon vodka (Poland)
- Free appetizer (Hungary)
- Free desert (Poland)
- Twenty-percent discounted meal (Austria)
- A large beer for the price of a small (Austria)
- A two-hour long discussion of Polish traditions, borderline sexist jokes, and advise about Polish men by two men who barely spoke English. (Poland)
- An iris freshly plucked from a table display (Hungary) **bonus points for style go to this waiter**
8. Be prepared for the awkwardness that is taking a free tour as a single person.
While I would never put the knock on any free tour in Europe since they have granted me access to so many different sites, I would like to pass on my advice, as learned through a series of mishaps, on how to optimize the experience. As a single person you will almost always be the outlier in any group, especially if you are a young woman. As such, I was subject to the flirtations and awkward conversations of many of my fellow foreigners. Step one: stay towards the middle of the pack. Doing this allows you to hear everything the tour guide is saying without placing yourself in close contact with the tour guide who is guaranteed the other most single person on the trip. Step two: identify the single 30-something male in your group. This guy, inevitably on a week-vacation from work or ‘in between jobs,’ will strike up a conversation with you that borders on uncomfortable, so quickly finding and avoiding this person will make for a better trip. Step three: integrate yourself with the awkward American family in the group, this way no one expects you to say anything, nor do issues of flirtation ever come up. Remember: you are not on the tour to make friends (although you can if you want and are not an introvert like me) so don’t feel embarrassed if you don’t feel like telling the random stranger who asked the name of your first pet. It’s none of their business so just keep staring at the beautiful city.
Other (smaller) pieces of advise:
- Learn Italian. While you may be traveling Eastern Europe, the sheer amount of Italian you hear will shock you. I not only ordered a meal in Germany in Italian, I listened to a series of interesting tours in various museums being given exclusively in Italian. Apparently, Italian people of all ages enjoy spending their free Wednesdays attending the Jewish museums of Cracow. Also I am not entirely sure that the Italian secret service has not hired a group of middle-aged Italian couples to follow me across Europe in order to prevent any more off-handed jokes about their politicians or calzones.
- Realize that every city you visit will seem like a romantic getaway, when really you are just conscious of the fact that you are alone. Do not throw your ice cream at the annoying young couple blocking your perfect photo opportunity of a sunset over the Danube; just wait, mutter, acknowledge that eating chocolate ice cream is better than spoiling puppy-love, and accept that the single life may afford you a free drink later in the evening.
- Have a ‘Jewish culture day’ everywhere you travel in Eastern and Central Europe. It will break your heart every time, but as a passionate Jewish Studies student and avid Fiddler on the Roof fan I firmly believe learning about pogroms and the Holocaust are critical to understanding the history of these nations.
- Do not wear black jeans for more than 2 days in a row. I thought that black jeans were the most respectful and tasteful outfit for visiting churches, Auschwitz, and other serious locations. The problem is that after about 2 days the dye begins to stain your legs. By the time you return to some of your friends who are boasting tans from their spring breaks, you will be rocking a decidedly grey-tint to your skin that will not be tamed.
- Reacquaint yourself with the art of showering in the sink. Your hair will thank me later.
This is part one of a two-part post.