This trip occurred during April 2011. I had a flight voucher from giving up my ticket during the busy Christmas season. I decided I would use the voucher to book flights to Europe to run the Rotterdam Marathon and do some sightseeing. I booked a ticket from Phoenix to Amsterdam, and returning 10 days later, Rome to Phoenix, all for a comical 41 dollars. Unfortunately, I had a stress fracture in my femur so the race was a no go. Instead, I would have to carry around one crutch to keep weight off the injured leg. I was disappointed and contemplated saving my vacation days for another time. But instead of feeling sorry for myself and in the spirit of adventure, I took the trip. Here is what happened:
I figured I should go ahead and put together a detailed Europe trip report so I don’t lose the memories.
I’m not a big Europe guy. What I mean is I have never really daydream about eating pizza in Italy or climbing the stairs to the top Eiffel Tower or marveling at 2000 year old structures or spending a day moseying through a museum with artifacts older than my country. I more so enjoy hiking through the mountains or floating down a river in a canoe but such an opportunity came up. I figured with an open mind I could have an adventure unlike any other. So I ended up on a plane to Amsterdam with a loosely defined itinerary and a return ticket out of Rome 10 days later…
I stood in line at the money changer in Philly airport to change 50 US dollars to Euros, enough to get me from the Amsterdam airport to the city center. I started talking to the girl behind me in line eager to share my excitement about the trip with someone. She was a beautiful girl with exotic bracelets and necklaces covering most of her exposed skin. She was Ugandan but studying university in London but currently on her way to see her brother in Milwaukee. We talked about our travels and what I should expect in Europe and Amsterdam in particular. I told her about Milwaukee and Arizona’s Grand Canyon and the splendor of all that she was missing in the American West. Then a moment later, I was boarding the plane and she would become nothing more than a recurring memory the rest of the trip.
I managed to book an exit row seat (thanks Diane) for the 6+ hour plane ride from Philadelphia to Amsterdam. I sneakily tried to board the plane, stow my crutch, and sit down in the exit row seat before the flight attendant would see me and undoubtedly ask about my ability to perform the duties required of an exit row seat. But my seat was literally the first one with the flight attendant standing right next to it. Therefore, as I entered the plane I was bombarded with questions about the crutch and leg. Logic would say that a person who has to use a crutch to assist himself would not be fit to assist others in the event of an emergency. Fortunately, the FAA doesn’t conform to logic and I was legally allowed to stay in the exit row despite using one crutch. Adequate legroom was a welcomed addition to my sweet dreams as I flew across the Atlantic.
The Netherlands from the air appeared beautiful. Vast and flat, the rich green fields and waterways consumed the landscape. It was a welcomed change to the barren, rugged brown hills of western Arizona. But I don’t think I would ever want to live anywhere flat. I’ve spent all my life running up and down the hills of southwestern Pennsylvania, Blacksburg, and most recently the Arizona high desert and I wouldn’t want to train or live anywhere else. Flat is boring…at least based on past experience.
Arriving in Amsterdam at 9am local time after an arduous 16 hours of travel meant that I had a long day ahead of me if I wanted to abide by the philosophy of “adapt to the local time no matter how tired you are”. Fortunately, I had someone to share the misery with. Justin Mock, a Colorado runner/writer/accountant whom I never met in person, arrived in Amsterdam a few hours before me. We met at the hotel then immediately headed into the bike ridden city Amsterdam to familiarize ourselves with the lay of the land. We had a map at one point with handwritten notes and highlights drawn on it from the hotel concierge, but comically the wind blew it out of Justin’s hand into a canal and we were left directionless. We decided to just do a bus/boat tour. Bus tour was weak, though we were pretty tired and not really paying attention. I enjoyed the boat tour as it offered a more unique perspective on the city. All in all Amsterdam is a beautiful city but 2.5 days was enough for me. I didn't plan to do any museums since I would get plenty of that in Rome and Paris.
I joined the bazillion bikers in Amsterdam on my second day to efficiently explore and experience the city. It sure beats using the crutch. I found myself wishing I could run and/or walk freely the entire trip so I could cover more ground and blow through a week’s worth of sightseeing in a day. People suggested I take my time and soak in the culture. I agree culture is important if you have a month of more to spend in one city. How much culture can you really take in during a one week trip? My trip goals were: Take as much in as possible, talk to locals and other travelers when possible, and just enjoy the adventure. I wasn’t too worried about eating the amazing European cuisine or drinking great Belgian beer because frankly the meals one could get in LA, San Fran, Phoenix, New York, or any major city in the USA would probably be just as good. (*Should note I probably had 1-2 exceptional meals in Italy and the Gelato is unrivaled, otherwise nothing worth flying to Europe for, unless I’m missing something?).
I left Amsterdam in the afternoon on my third day. It was more than enough for me. My next destination was determined by the hostels I could book from the lobby of the StayOK Hostel where I stayed for free on the couch in a supply closet because they overbooked the hostel. And that destination happened to be the Antwerp, Belgium.
I arrived at the stunning Antwerp Central station around dinnertime after a series of navigational mishaps. I was in awe of the station and rank it as nearly as spectacular as New York City’s Grand Central. But this was Europe after all, not the USA. I soon learned that everything in Europe is old, grand, and trumps any man made structure we have here in the USA.
I had an address written down but no direction on how to get to the hostel. I didn’t carry any smart phone or electronic device, relying on internet cafes. So I asked a policeman patrolling the train station. He didn’t know but thought I should take line #2. I hesitated briefly thinking it might be wise to be sure of where I was going. But train 2 quickly came and I hopped on just as the doors were closing. The train was packed with Belgians. Normally, I can maneuver my wiry frame between people but that proved difficult with a crutch and protruding backpack. I banged a young Belgian woman in the head with my backpack as I turned to look out the window. Her two friends laughed hysterically while I was apologizing. They realized I was “different” and looked confused so I handed them the crippled scrap piece of paper with the hostel address. Suddenly, I had a trio of tech savvy Belgian girls with smart phones trying to locate the stop for my hostel. It was smooth sailing from there.
The hostel was located on a pseudo island in the quite Antwerp Suburbs. It was peaceful, wooded and a welcomed contrast to the hustle and bustle of Amsterdam. I did plenty of reading in the courtyard until the sun went down. The book in hand was #Jon Krakauer’s “Where men win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman” which still ranks as one of my top 5 books.
I had only one roommate in the dingy 8 person room. He was an Italian guy, soccer fan, and didn’t speak any English. We tried to communicate a bit. We both could speak a little Spanish but it didn’t help at all. He sat up late at night watching movies on his computer. In the morning at breakfast, he watched movies on his computer. So I wondered what he was doing there. What was the goal of his trip? Why travel from Italy to Belgium to watch movies on your computer? But that is hostel life; you meet all kinds of people with different objectives and travel philosophy.
I left the hostel early in the morning with downtown Antwerp as my first stop. There was a beautiful catholic church that I went into. It happened to be a Sunday so I attended mass. I always try to attend some kind of church or religious service while travelling just to see how different cultures and people worship. I spent most of the time sitting in church marveling at the architecture and the light refracting its way through the colorful stained glass windows. I didn’t understand what the priest was saying but I quickly figured it out from the universal sit/stand/kneel sequence in catholic mass.
After mass, I made a much needed stop at an internet café in old Chinatown. The place was pretty dilapidated but for 1.20 Euros per 2 hours the price was right. I sent a few emails and booked my next two nights for $11 per night at the Snuffel Backpacker Hostel in Brugge.
I immediately liked Brugge as I stepped out train station. There is a nice green space immediately in front and just beyond you can see several medieval era towers protruding high above the city. The day was too beautiful and I was a little too confident in my abilities to navigate around Europe to pay for a taxi to the hostel. I was off, crutching my way over the cobblestone alleyways towards those high medieval towers in the distance. I wasn’t using a map but instead just looking up at the tall towers and heading in that general direction through tiny alleyways. I finally made it to the towers and the bustling plaza beneath them. I sat on next to a fountain people watching for the next hour.
I came to realize that the hostel was just a 5 minute walk north of the plaza so I made my way there. I was welcomed by a fellow with half dreads- part of his long brown hair was dreaded with 2 or 3 large locks and the other half was free flowing curly. The desk he was standing behind was next to the bar. The setup was straightforward: bar downstairs/hostel upstairs. The catch was that you have to walk downstairs through the bar to get to the showers. It wasn't uncommon to be sitting in the bar having a beer and see a girl with a towel wrapped around her head walk by.
I went upstairs only to be surprised at how clean the beds were and how many there were. My room was packed with 8 bunk beds (enough for 16 people). My first thought was that I would not be able to sleep at all. Fortunately I was wrong and I slept better here than anywhere else. Perhaps, sleeping with just one or two roommates is a bit scarier because that could do crazy things to you at night without anyone watching?
The first person I met in the room was a 23 year old from Oregon studying brewing science for 6 months as an intern in Germany. He was the only, ONLY person I have ever met is their 20’s that was 100% confident in his career choice. Living the “dream” as he repeatedly told me.
I then stuck up conversation with two girls about to head out the door for a few drinks, dancing and dinner. They invited me along. I typically would not agree to socialize or go dancing no matter how attractive the girls, but I had the excuse of being on crutches and Hey, When in Rome…Europe. The two fiery girls were named Nela and Tina both from Buenos Aires. Nela worked as a phone operator for an American credit card company that outsourced calls to Argentina. She said customers always asked her if she was in India, haha. Tina was studying to be a doctor with just her internship left to finish off.
The girls heard about a local bar that had live music with an event entitled “Blues in Brugge.” It turned out to be a bunch of older, white Belgians singing and dancing to American blues and classic rock. Nela and Tina with Latin dance moves and good looks were the envy of all the Belgian Guys there. I just sat their laughing with the pressure off me since I was on crutches. Guys were just drooling, standing there motionless like sloths watching the two spunky Argentinian girls with rhythm shake it. The music wasn’t really conducive to dancing but the girls did well to make it a fun time.
The next day in Brugge I hired a bike and took off towards the Ocean 30 km away. I biked through the beautiful countryside along canals and wooded bike paths. I stopped when I reached the ocean to relax. I uncorked a bottle of locally brewed cherry beer called kriek to wash down the cheese and bread I had for lunch. The Brugge section of the trip turned out to be my favorite part of the ten day trip.
I struck up conversion with a cute Turkish girl sitting across from me on the train from Brugge to Paris. We really hit it off. She was in Brugge sightseeing over the weekend while studying at a University in Antwerp for a Masters in Chemistry. She told me that Brugge was a bit dull compared to the castles in Turkey. Apparently, they are older, grander and more frequent in Turkey. And here I was marveling at I what I thought were the most amazing medieval structures on planet earth in Brugge. She also told me that the economy was really bad in Turkey so you need a master’s degree for the best shot at getting a job. We were so deep in conversation that her stop came up before I could get her information. I learned from earlier at the airport in Philly that you actually have to ask for something, like a girl’s phone number, if you want it. So in romantic fashion she exited the phone and stuck her phone up against the window so I could write down her email address. I fumbled around like a fool trying to find a pen and ended up spilling the contents of my backpack everywhere. When I finally located the pen and looked up, the black screen saver on the phone came on. I frantically signaled to her that the screensaver was on but she didn’t get the message and the train took off leaving me with a blank sheet of paper, my underwear on the floor, and the mere memory of our conversation.
Paris is a really big city with really nice people. I read somewhere that it is the most visited city in the world for tourists hence the French generally don’t like non-French speaking tourists. I couldn’t disagree more. The people were wonderful to me. Maybe it was because I was hobbling around on a crutch and hadn’t shaved in two weeks? At the train station, one guy gave me correct change to buy a ticket and another lady wrote directions to my hostel on a map for me. I didn’t say one word in French to them.
I had several hours to kill before Rob got to the hostel that night to meet me so I crutched around the streets of Paris. I noticed everyone, young and old, holding hands and deeply in love. The city and language of love I suppose. I took a load off in an urban park to watch some teen skateboarders. I drifted between reading “Where Men Win Glory” and watching the young punks do tricks on a stone fountain.
I slowly made my way back to the hostel lobby to wait for Rob to arrive. I chatted with Fey, a Chinese girl studying international relations in England. She was curious about the political landscape in America, race relations, abortion, and healthcare. Fey was an only child as a result of the one child rule in China unless you are wealthy enough to afford a second. She told me that the political system in China holds people back and that they will never be a superpower as I thought. The official religion, atheism, and the political system encourage people not to think. These types of conversations where I can learn something from someone from a place I have never been are the types of conversations I enjoy. So many of the travelers and young people at hostels are there to party or get high. It is refreshing to meet inquisitive and curious travelers.
Rob, the best man at my brother’s wedding arrived at the Blue Hostel in Paris as I was sitting with Fey. We opened the door to our room to the sound snoring. We never spoke to this guy. He just snored like a pig all day, then woke up every morning at 4am and left the hostel. We had no idea where he went or what he was doing. We lied in bed staring across at each other trying to fall asleep while Joseppi, as we affectionately called him, snorted away. I have yet to stay in a dirtier hostel. The shower was so filled with hairs and brown grime that neither of us even thought about showering during the 3 days we stayed there.
Despite the crappiness of the hostel, it did serve us well for sightseeing. Rob and I did all the typical touristy sites Paris: The Louvre, Notre Dame, and Eiffel Tower. All stunning. I have pictures to prove it. But we were ready to get out of that hostel and onto the next destination.
The Easyjet flight from Paris to Rome was funny. Rob’s backpack was obviously too big to fit as carry on but that didn’t stop him from trying. He spent 5 or 10 minutes, basically an eternity, trying to jam it into the luggage limit container to prove to the gate attendant that is would fit in. The guy behind the desk finally gave in and said he would let it go as checked for free. Rob saved a cool 25 euros on that one. We finally got to our seats, the plane fired all engines on. As we started moving a young kid behind us started screaming and kicking robs seat. He looked over at me blank faced but clearly was saying “this SUCKS.”
When it Rome. We decided to abide by the When in Rome philosophy and book a hotel to treat ourselves. It turned out cheaper than a hostel after splitting the costs. It was the best choice we made all week.
Rome absolutely wowed us. We got off at the Colosseo metro stop and just stood in awe at the sight in front of us. We decided to stop there and go no further. We sat at the overpriced café at outside the station soaking in the life list view. I can’t really fathom how they built the Colosseum or any of the thousand cathedrals in Europe but I admire them. We spent the rest of the day ticking off sites around the Colosseum like the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. We ate gelato, skipped lines at the Vatican because I was on crutches, and ate really good food. We met Rob’s friends living in Cyprus at the Spanish steps, ate some more gelato (3 times in one day!) The gelato was the tastiest food I had in Europe.
And then I was in a taxi to the Rome Airport. Just like that the trip was over but ended the same way it started, with an interrogation from airline security as to why I only had one small backpack for a 10 day trip.