Some replay in the mind like home movies, others are snapshots of cherished times and even more may never again be recalled. The truth is, Brielle and I have forgotten more in the past two-and-a-half months than many will ever see.
Sure, we spent our life savings on a dream, and yes, it would have made a fine down payment on a home. There are plenty of more sensible things worthy of our time and attention, but countless intangible gains were made along the way. Among those is a bolstered confidence and renewed self-assurance. In traveling, we learned a lot about ourselves and each other, we made friends (some who's friendship will hopefully last a lifetime), increased our global awareness and returned with a sense of accomplishment.
Life on the road wasn't easy. It forces travelers to adopt a certain amount of fluidity in exchange for the daily routine. On a Grand Tour, as it is called, there is no routine and change is the only constant. Every two or three days entails the packing of all one's belongings and lugging them across borders and through towns until you can find another place to lay your head for the night.
Between the rigors of travel though, the romanticized adventure of Europe still exists. Long journeys by train with green landscapes passing by make the weary traveler forget about the headache of previous connections or the trek to be made between the platform and the hotel. Likewise, the exploration of each new city and town is exhilarating and fills the senses with brand new sights, sounds and smells.
Beyond the monuments and the museums lies another treasure, waiting to be found in each destination. Experiences unrelated to buildings and statues are ingrained on our minds far more vividly than Mona Lisa's smile or a crooked tower in Italy. Forever present in our memories will be seeing the Pope and the British Royal Family in a single trip, traveling to the Holy Land on a whim and trekking alone through the Swiss Alps.
Whether attempting to travel the globe or just explore your own backyard, you'll be sure to learn a few things along the way. Here's a few of the things we either did and were thankful for, or didn't do and learned from the mistake.
1. Be Smart, Plan Ahead. Journeys of any size, distance or duration deserve appropriate planning. Research your destination, brush up on a foreign language and know what you want to see or do. What we learned is to learn from others, talk to fellow travelers you meet along the way. If they've been somewhere you've been, pick their brain, find out their favorite spots, where to find cheap food and what they would avoid.
2. Leave Room for Improvement. Maybe it's because we're young, maybe we're just odd, but there's a lot of adventure in arriving in a new place with no place to stay. If you're traveling in peak summer months, forget it, book trains, planes and hotels far in advance. If not, take a chance and ask tourist information for a place to stay when you get there, visit a place you've never heard of and eat what you can't pronounce. By doing this through the month of April and most of May, we saved some money, stayed with some lovely people and played a prolonged game of charades with an old Italian woman in Monterosso.
3. Pack Light. If you're planning to traverse a continent, take good shoes but also be sure to pack accordingly, not exceedingly. Europeans are use to dirty, wrinkled Americans, whether they like it or not. Two-and-a-half months of traveling will teach you a thing or two about materialism. We carried all we needed on our backs and had way too much. Take the bare minimum and wash clothes (regularly) -- in the sink when necessary.
4. Do Not Fear. Fear can cripple a Grand Tour, or any trip to foreign lands. Even after summoning the courage to leave their home, travelers let fear keep them from trying new things, talking to locals or venturing past commercial tourist shops. Be courageous. I insisted on trying the local cuisine (even when it's haggis). Ask questions; it's amazing how many people speak English. Just ask and odds are, you'll get an answer. Above all, don't let fear paralyze your sense of adventure.
5. Take All Precautions. I'll be honest, we had a blessed trip. We were never robbed, we never lost important documents, we were never swindled and we never felt truly threatened, but we did hear the horror stories. It's true, many travelers fall prey to pickpockets or scam artists throughout Europe, don't let this happen to you -- be prepared. Wear a security wallet where debit or credit cards, passports and extra cash can stay hidden next to your skin. Make copies of all documents and debit or credit cards, leave one copy with family at home and keep the other in a safe location. Last of all, double up on electronic currency. ATMs are everywhere, but when using debit cards, be sure to have two cards from two banking institutions for added security.
After all is said and done, just go with it. Whether it's Europe, Australia or the good ole' USA, don't look back. Enter each new place with renewed curiosity and leave your stereotypes at home. With the right attitude, anywhere can be an adventure and joy can be found in the worst situations.
Despite the culture, grandeur and history we found so intriguing throughout Europe, there is no place like home. Welcomed by friends and family, thrust back into the humid Georgia air, we quickly and easily remembered why north Georgia holds such an esteemed place in our hearts. For us, travel not only opened our eyes to the value and wonders of foreign culture, it also made us appreciate the sense of community found in our own hometown.
Matt Shinall is the business reporter for The Daily Tribune News.