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Travel

Looking at Europe and finding one's self

By KATE WILSON
Published September 10, 2006


It was 2½ months ago that my boyfriend, Jason, and I strapped our monstrous travel packs to our backs and kissed our mamas goodbye. We set off for a journey across Europe, and we've reached the halfway point of our five-month adventure.

So far, we've soaked up life in England, Poland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

In England we sat in the garden of my sister's mother-in-law and sipped tea and ate clotted cream and scones. We went off-roading in the green English countryside as the sun was setting, and we witnessed the hoopla at Buckingham Palace during the changing of the guards.

We shed tears at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland and drank too much vodka on a pig farm.

In Antwerp, Belgium, we weaved through cobblestone streets on bicycles in the rain, at midnight, after drinking schnapps with a group of local friends.

We gawked at scantily clad women leaning in red-glowing windows in Amsterdam, Netherlands, and climbed the tiny, steep steps into Anne Frank's WWII hideaway.

We watched the sun rise over Frankfurt, and we wandered through the Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, where Martin Luther translated the New Testament into German from the original Greek text. We marinated bratwursts in beer before grilling them and smothering them in German mustard, and we walked along the once menacing border that divided East and West Germany during the Cold War.

We tried to sleep on an overnight bus, and we had picnics on trains rattling through the countryside. We paid 80 euro cents to take a six-minute, lukewarm shower at a campsite, and we lived for days on nothing but salami, rolls and Nutella.

We had heated conversations about American politics with people from every country we've been to and shared music with the same folks.

In many ways, we slipped past the limitations of "normal tourist traveling" and saw Europe - and its people - on a much more intimate level.

Of course, we're also getting to know ourselves better, which isn't always easy. While we're lugging our belongings on our backs, popping on and off planes, trains and, yes, automobiles, we're also carrying the question of what will happen next in our lives. We're just trying to get the puzzle pieces of who we are to fall into some sort of order, and to be the best people we can be while we're at it.

And let it be known that I'm also working hard to become less neurotic and high-maintenance. I won't say that I've made a complete transition, but I did dye my hair in Antwerp using products I bought in a box at a grocery store. I was terrified, but I made it through, and I never whined once. It's an improvement.

Here's our official halfway report on what has most struck our fancy, and sometimes vice versa:

Best beer: Kstritzir Schwarz Bier, enjoyed in Dresden.

Most tasty local food: German sausages with Born mustard made in Erfurt, Germany.

Best overall atmosphere: Antwerp is a city where old meets new in a lively, classy way, and where the people are generally laid-back and friendly.

Best spot in nature: Morskie Oko, or "Eye of the Sea," in Zakopane, Poland.

Prettiest countryside: Germany.

Cheapest place to travel: Poland. We got an entire cart of groceries for about $30.

Scariest driving: Poland takes this one too. It has been two months, and I'm still shaking.

Most important survival techniques while traveling: Flexibility, bravery to speak to strangers, often in a foreign language you're no good at, and the ability to sleep in lots of different places (which I have not mastered).

Favorite means of travel in Europe: Bicycles and Ryan Air.

Our next port of call is Austria, where we'll stay with friends in Vienna and Innsbruck. As for now, dinner's being served here in Germany, and I smell sausage.

Kate Wilson of St. Petersburg is writing periodically about her European travels during her five months abroad. Read more on her blog, www.travelblog.org/Bloggers/Jason-and-Kate.

[Last modified September 8, 2006, 11:36:06]


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