Thursday, November 09, 2006

Night, lift up the shades

For those of you who don't know, I went to Europe alone this past October. I went alone because I really wanted a vacation and because there was something I needed to know, I couldn't wait until a friend was available to go with me. I did a lot of research ahead of time and I've been to Europe many times so I had no problem in terms of knowing how I'd get around and what it'd be like there. What I was uncompletely unprepared for was the kindess of strangers.

I met a lot of wonderful people while I was in Germany and Czech Republic. I remember people telling me before I went that they were afraid that I would get hurt -- not physically, but emotionally -- and that there would be no one to help me when/if that happened. After all, here at home where it's safe, I have an extensive support system and wonderful friends and family who would drop pretty much everything to give me a hand and a shoulder when/if I needed it. Over there, I'd be alone.

I won't lie and say that emotionally, it was all wine and roses. I had one bad day when honestly, I had no idea whether I was coming or going and whether I had made a horrible mistake in flying overseas in the first place. I was on a tram in Prague, it was dark, no one spoke English, and I was completely lost. That morning, I'd left Berlin and felt completely lost and emotional because I was in a train station by myself and feeling like a fool. And I did what I always do when I feel out of control: I cried.

Two bathroom attendants who don't speak English comforted me. They were so sweet and they didn't even take the full 80 cents from me (the charge to use the bathroom). They were just the first of many wonderful people I met. On the train to Prague, I shared a compartment with five women who were on their way to Dresden for vacation. They offered me some of their baked goods; I declined because I wasn't hungry, but I thought it was sweet. After Dresden, two Germans and an Austrian entered the compartment, and we had a nice conversation for the rest of the way. When I arrived in Prague, it was 4:30 in the afternoon. I got on the tram as directed and then I was lost.

I kept riding the tram with a wary eye towards the darkening sky. I asked someone if I was going the right way and he said no, I needed to get off and go the other way. So I did. And I realized that this too was not correct. So I asked another woman and she said I needed to get off at the next stop, take another tram to another stop and then walk to my hotel. She was sweet enough to get off with me at a stop a couple past her own and walk me to the platform before taking off. However, her directions didn't make sense to me. Finally, I just got a taxi and after some hijinks there, I got to my hotel a little after 7 pm in the evening.

In my vacation memory, this weepy, stressful Friday doesn't exist.

Saturday morning, I met a wonderful Indian family with a 21-month old daughter. They invited me to spend the day with them, even inviting me back to their rental apartment for dinner. They then walked me back to my hotel. It was a really nice day. The next day, I went on a guided tour and spent most of my time with a British couple who were just as into pashmina shopping as I was. On Monday, I met a Slovenian woman who was also alone and we ended up spending the day together. We had tea with an Irish mother and daughter and then lunch with a Bosnian woman. All in all, it was a very nice, international experience. And the best part of it is, the next time I visit Eastern Europe, I already have friends and places to stay.

So if anyone is planning to go on vacation and is scared to go alone, I say, go for it. I say go for it and have a good time. You're your own boss, you can make your own schedule, and you can do what you like. And what I discovered during my time in Prague, I was never alone. I met amazing people who were happy and generous to spend their time with me. If I had gone with friends, as I always do, I would have never met these people, and I would have been the poorer for it.

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