I went to Europe.
It doesn’t sound like much to you, but for the average third world passport holder, that’s an achievement. Europe is the continent I grew up reading about in books and the only time I heard about someone going anywhere in Europe was if they were… rich. For years I would have these kind of conversations:
Me: I just got back from Indonesia/Malaysia/Zambia/China and it was incredible!
Others: Why did you go there? Why don’t you to Italy/France/Spain/Switzerland?
People always thought if you could travel, you were super wealthy and thus, could afford to go anywhere. However, we all know that is SOOO far from the truth!
So I finally went to Europe and now I’m in a position to answer an all important question-
Is it really worth the hassle of getting a visa?
If you have a privileged passport then you may not know- visa restrictions serve to keep people from certain nationalities out of certain countries and European countries are notorious for this obstacle. The Schengen visa is a real nightmare for most people, starting with the 60EUR fee and moving on to the pile of paperwork that needs to be submitted in person along with a pound of flesh and litre of blood. So here are three observations I made while in Europe to answer that very question:
1. Every country is different
People often think of Europe as one big body of land exuding opportunity, order and beauty. I mean they KNOW that Europe is divided into oh so many countries, there is still this misconception that the countries are similar and that the people look the same.
THIS ISNT TRUE.
Although I didn’t spend much time in Germany, I flew in and out of Munich airport. The honest truth is that when Bee and I crossed over the German border into Czech Republic, I didn’t need a sign to tell me that we were in a different country. EVERYTHING differs from country to country in Europe from the landscape to the people to the language to the food. So if you were planning to just visit one place thinking, “everything is the same anyway’- IT ISN’T. Not even close. From the quaint farmsteads in Germany to the lake houses in Austria to the castles in Czech Republic… every landscape was different and breathtaking in its own special way.
2. Europe is about more than snow and beers.
If I have to hear another person tell me about how their plan is to go to Prague so they can get drunk on cheap beer I am going to tape their mouth shut. Europe is about MUCH more than what you see on TV. There is more to Europe than gondola rides in Venice, busty waitresses at Oktoberfest, those cheesy pictures under the Eiffel Towers, putting lock of love on every available bridge and skiing in the Alps.
During my trip I tried not to follow any guide on the internet; Bee and I just hopped in the car, made our way onto the autobahn and drove wherever we felt like, crossing borders and crashing on the couches of her family and friends. This often meant we spent time in small villages way off the beaten path so I didn’t experience Europe the way that others did- I saw it through the eyes of a local and it was incredible!
From the most incredibly jaw dropping architecture on offer to the turquoise blue lakes with kids splashing about in the afternoon; to driving through villages and buying ice cream to support a family business to running around stunning castles; to the old guy playing accordion outside the restaurant to the full jazz band playing in the city square- there’s something for everyone to enjoy.
And yes, if you like to drink beer and wine then you’re in luck- you can drink in the park. You can drink on the street. In some places you can drink on public transport. That’s because, mostly, everyone behaves themselves. Don’t be the tourist who gives your country a bad name as you throw you up in the metro.
3. You don’t need to be afraid if you aren’t white.
One of the most common questions I got asked upon my return from Europe was, “Aren’t you scared?” People around the world are reading stories of people being banned from wearing headscarves and burkinis so as a result, there is an air of fear around traveling to Europe (if you aren’t white). That is why I was exceptionally interested, before my trip to Europe, what people’s reactions would be to a brown girl in a predominantly white region. Keep in mind that I mostly stayed out of cosmopolitan, multi-ethnic cities like London, Paris, Rome (and others), and opted to visit cities and towns with smaller minority populations and rural areas where they are not used to seeing a person of colour.
While in the countryside of both Germany and Czech I encountered a LOT of stares, especially in the more rural regions but it seemed more out of surprise or curiosity rather than outright hostility. A small number of people did seem kind of suspicious about me until they heard me speak English (I assume this proved that I wasn’t a gypsy) but no one was outwardly rude to me.
One of the things I really noticed in Europe is that everyone – black, white, brown, old, young, families, singles, hipsters, nerds – tends to hang out together, gathering in piazzas and plazas, drinking in bars and eating in restaurants. There’s a strong “going out” culture which breeds a safe, friendly atmosphere. I saw people in abayas, ladies in hijab and men in kippot… everyone was enjoying their holidays and so was I!
Some people complained to me about the crime and warned me to be careful especially after living in the Middle East where there is virtually no crime. But with a few simple precautions like zipping up your bag and not keeping a wallet in your back pocket, your travels should be hassle free, even in formerly dodgy cities like Prague. Or hey maybe I wasn’t white enough to a victim of crime? That works for me thank you very much!
In conclusion- YES.
YES it is worth the hassle. If you can afford a trip and are ready to see why their borders are so tightly controlled- DO IT. Their cities are living, breathing remnants of times long past filled with fascinating stories just waiting to be heard. Your eyes will be awed by jaw-dropping views and spine-tingling vistas. Even the urban scenery has its own unique charm!
When I close my eyes, I recall the little things which made my first time to Europe an unforgettable trip: the buzz-buzz of the trams at all times of night and day; police and ambulances with a very different and piercing sound; and family chatter and exuberant laughter around the dining room table that somehow spills out into the streets. Those narrow streets in old European cities, wide-open windows in summer (with no air conditioning), and the never ending greenery of the lush forests. European cities and towns are alive, vibrant and pulsating with real people who live, eat, sleep, shop and work there – as they have done for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. It is worth it. Oh so worth it.
I went for a walk in a town whose name I couldn’t pronounce. I had no map and my phone had no connection. I had my camera, but only in my bag, not slung round my neck. But definitely no guidebook. I walked until I found a place that told me to sit down – a park, a square, a cafe, a church- it didn’t matter. It was a place whose name was unfamiliar to me, despite the hours I spent poring over travel websites. I did not know its history. Then I sat there. And I watched. In particular, I watched the very old and the very young, for whom this place had special meaning. I stayed there for a long time. I always took a photo when I left, but it was just to remind me of the experience I had, not a substitute for that experience. Afterwards, I read about this place on a website. Maybe it was famous for some reason. Maybe it was not. But that doesn’t matter one little bit.