When I first went to Europe, I was beyond excited. I had wanted to do this my whole life and it had taken me 25 years to get there. My friends from the continent always wondered why I loved their homeland so much, especially when the weather was nearly always grey, cold and raining. When I look back on the photos, they are grey, it was cold and it was often raining (though I always had a smile on my face). But there are a few things you must remember, when you think about an Australian visiting Europe by themselves for the first time in their life.
This was my first solo trip. I was doing it alone and I had that glorious feeling of freedom and independence. I could visit all the things I loved and nobody would stop me. I was living my dream. I saw musicals at the West End in London, I saw a show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, I did watercolour drawing classes at the Derwent Pencil Factory in England and I did cooking classes in Paris, where I learnt how to make croissants and French desserts. I visited endless castles and royal palaces, ate snails and frogs legs in France and drank copious amounts of cheap, but really good, local wine.
At the time, people said to me that it would be expensive to travel Europe. But in the end, it worked out a lot cheaper than I thought. Granted, the exchange rate was good at the time. But also, I took advantage of every discount and planned my trip well. As I was 25 and under (only just), I was able to get an International Youth Hostel card, which gave me discounts on accommodation. Hostels in Europe were far cheaper than Australia too, which was a bonus. I stayed with friends along the way and travelled largely on my Eurail pass. Also, things in Europe were generally cheaper, particularly the food and alcohol. You could buy a decent bottle of French wine from the supermarket for 2 Euros – it was like heaven!
But, perhaps the largest reason this trip to Europe was such a dream was due to my Australian heritage. When you have grown up in the countryside, on a large, isolated island continent in the Southern Hemisphere, where modern buildings and wide open landscapes are the norm and where there is only one national language, it’s hard to imagine real castles, elegant architecture and a different language on every border crossing.
European history is extraordinary. There is simply no way of comparing villages and cities that have been there for hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of years, to those in my home country, because the earliest cities in Australia were built by convicts in the late 1700s. So, to walk down cobbled laneways, drink beers in pubs from the 1400s (with ceilings so low that you touch your head on them) and to explore the history of the European continent, was both bewildering and fascinating. I could not soak up enough old buildings and churches. Everything is created with beauty in mind – mosaic floors and ceilings, painted murals, gold leaf decor, elegant furniture. It is all the stuff of storybooks.
When we were little, listening to fairy tales of witches and wizards trapped in castles and Kings and Queens in royal palaces, it was a complete world away. We were more likely to relate to gum nut babies in the forest, or stories about children running around on outback cattle stations. To think of a castle, warriors in shining armour, funny animals like badgers, deer and otters – these were just well-nurtured parts of our imagination, fed with literature from our British heritage. When you travel overseas for the first time and see that this stuff actually exists, it is incredibly beautiful, because it is like your imagination has suddenly spilled over into real life and now you can explore every part of it, for real.
Europe is brilliant because you can travel an hour in one direction and step over a border into a completely different country, full of unique customs and traditions and usually a new language. To have so much to explore on your very doorstep is wonderful. Australians have to cross oceans to get to these places. Europeans can just take a drive and they will be there in the matter of a few hours. Not just this, they can find work across the EU without having to get a working visa. If only they knew how lucky they were! But then, we are all lucky in our own ways.
When I returned to Australia, I realised the beauty of my own country. I had missed the clear air with a faint scent of Eucalyptus wafting on the breeze. I had missed the long, sandy beaches, the sunshine, the sound of our unique birds and wildlife, the wide open paddocks of grazing cattle and sheep. I had missed the peace and quiet of the nights, the starry skies and the friendly nature of the people. I even missed our accents and coinage! I knew now what home felt like and I spent the next few years living and travelling in various places all over Australia. But that does not mean my desire to leave the country again was extinguished. In fact, it was the complete opposite. My thirst for travel had been awakened and I was ready to explore as much of the world as possible!
What were your first experiences of travelling overseas? Feel free to share below!