By Stacey Stein
“You’re all alone? Aren’t you scared? What do your parents think?” As a young woman backpacking alone through Europe last summer, I frequently encountered this reaction. Yes, I was alone. No, I wasn’t scared. And my parents were thrilled I was going to spend three months immersing myself in the art, culture and history of foreign countries.
While Europe was an enriching experience, I wasn’t always prepared for the peculiarities of each country.
First stop: Great Britain. I loved England, Scotland and Ireland — the verdant landscapes, the temperamental weather, the pubs. Ah yes, the pubs. If you’re not a hard-core drinker before visiting these countries, you will be by the time you leave. Alcohol consumption is deeply embedded in British culture, much like the monarchy, the tabloids and tea-time. Before I learned this, I made the mistake of ordering pop (or even worse, water) when dining out. At first, I didn’t understand the curious looks I received from those around me. I quickly discovered this is simply not done, unless of course you want to be pegged as a social deviant by the locals. And if you can drink a few pints of Guinness without uttering the typical tourist complaints (“It’s too dark/think/bitter”) you’ll immediately win the admiration of everyone around you.
By the time I finally mastered the British lingo (words like “loo” and “queue”), it was time to move on. I crossed the English channel and headed for Paris. Since I speak French, I felt fairly confident on my own. My command of the “language of love” proved to be a greater advantage than I originally thought. Not only did it endear me to the dreaded service industry employees, it also enabled me to pick up stray French men in train station (although I wouldn’t recommend doing this). Upon my arrival in Paris’ Gare the Lyon (train station), a young man approached me. After helping me with directions, he asked for my phone number. I gave it to him, thinking I’d never hear from him again. (But four hours after my arrival back in Toronto, the phone rang. And guess who?)
I knew I had arrived in Amsterdam when I walked into a “restaurant,” asked for a menu, and received instead a comprehensive list of the marijuana and hashish for sale. When I asked for a “real” menu (one with food), the waitress looked at me as if I made the most outrageous request in the world. “We don’t serve food,” she said. Silly me.
Yes kiddies, all the rumours are true. For every tourist in this city, there are about 10 “coffeeshops.” And these coffeeshops don’t just sell coffee. Culinary treats range from space cake (brownies laced with hash) to “grass” tea. If you’re in Amsterdam and plan to do some shopping, a special tip is in order. Abandon all thoughts of buying what may appear to be a seemingly “exotic potpourri” of packaged grass as gifts for family and friends.
I also quickly discovered that a night-time stroll in the red light district is a not-so-bright idea for women on their own. Once it’s dark, this area is overrun with horny, slimy men. For females in this area, one of two assumptions will be made: either you’re looking to sell sex, or looking to buy it. While eating ice cream, I received unsavoury sexual comments, and you don’t even have to use your imagination.
Having survived the craziness that is Amsterdam, I made my way to Germany. On my first night at a hostel in Nuremberg, I was startled awake by an announcement in German at seven in the morning. I found out that this meant breakfast was to be served in half an hour. Although the wake-up times vary from city to city, the announcements were always the same.
Nevertheless, Germany was awe-inspiring. I was only in southern Germany, commonly referred to as Bavaria. Bavaria tends to think of itself as separate from the rest of the country and Bavarian men often express their uniqueness by wearing the traditional Bavarian uniform — knickers, felt hats and suspenders. In Munich, statues of lions (a regional symbol) are everywhere, as is the blue and white checkered Bavarian flag. Beer is another favourite Bavarian pastime. After all, the country is home to some of the world’s top breweries and Munich is the site of Oktoberfest. But even veteran barflies may find the litre-mugs a bit daunting. Yes, they drink beer by the litre. This results in very drunk gatherings. I had a two-hour conversation with an inebriated man. He only spoke German and I had no idea what he was saying. But since he had already had about five litres of beer, this was of little consequence.
I left the beer gardens of Germany for the Renaissance villas of Italy. Even though I was perpetually weary and haggard-looking in the 100 degree weather, the Italian men were undeterred. Apparently, the whole feminist movement has yet to catch on in Italy. Single women (even sweaty, worn-out backpackers) will occasionally be greeted by cries of “bella, bella.” This is harmless and not at all insulting. At first, my feminist perspective told me that I should be offended. Then I realized that a bunch of men were telling me I’m beautiful, which was not exactly a bad thing.
I quickly learned that in Italy the train system is so primitive and disorganized that even the Italians joke about it. If you’re relying on trains to get around, goo luck. In Bologna, I was waiting on the correct platform for my train, due in five minutes. Five minutes later, I watched as the train on the other side of the tracks left for Florence. This was the train I was supposed to be on. The platform number was changed at the last minute, and of course, everyone was expected to somehow magically know this. Even at some of the more organized train stations, a last-minute announcement might be made in Italian (useless to most travellers). I learned that it is foolish to book a connecting train and actually expect to make it on time.
This brings me to the end of my little travelogue. Of course, this is only a brief survey of my first-time European experience. Discovering each country’s quirks was, at times, even more fun than visiting the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum.
I’m also glad I did the trip alone. But next time I travel, I don’t think I’ll be so quick to hand out by number to strange French men. My little Parisian friend won’t seem to give up on me — he still calls me every week.