It’s both comforting and intimidating to come across so many online travel networks nowadays. Websites about every type of travel abound directed towards every type of traveler. Forums teem with conversation about the best places to visit, where to find the cheapest beer, or where tourists should go to get away from all those damn tourists. And now that anyone can get a blog, almost everyone has one, including anyone who’s ever taken a trip great or small. Overwhelming, perhaps, but it’s a wonderful reminder that travel is a good thing. Luckily, I was able to discover this first-hand.

When I started college, I shared the same dream as all my friends: to backpack across Europe. It was the thing to do, the initiation into adulthood. Once you did that, you could settle down, get married, own matching furniture, have children, and reflect on your now-complete life. But it didn’t happen that way for me. In a way, I got luckier than those who took the backpacking route.

I studied German as a way to impress a girl, but it backfired.A few semesters into my college career, I studied German as a way to impress a girl, but it backfired, and I fell in love with the language instead. After finishing my fourth German course, I was given the chance to study abroad, and I spent the following year living in a dorm and attending classes in Germany.

Living in a foreign town was rewarding in and of itself, but it also taught me the value of knowing a language beyond a few survival phrases. I was able to make stronger connections with the locals, make friends with students who didn’t speak English, and survive on a daily basis in a culture that was, at least initially, way outside my comfort level.

Of course, the best part was that living in Germany allowed me to travel around Europe like any backpacker, only more conveniently. Instead of carrying everything on my back, I only needed to pack for a trip at a time. And living a half-hour from a large city with a train station gave me access to a number of destinations that were only a night train ride away, like Paris, Prague, and Budapest. Weekend jaunts were common, and being centrally located eliminated the need (although not the desire) to see several cities in one fell swoop. Longer trips were possible with the two-month semester break, and I spent March visiting Turkey, Austria and Italy and April in England, Scotland, and Ireland.

But places on a map were just some of the rewards of my time abroad. I also met a number of people from all over the world. I bonded with many fellow students who became my travel partners. I traveled to Prague, Munich, and Turkey with two girls I met through classmates and who I still talk to. I met people in hostels who eventually became a second family to me. I met students on trains and swapped stories of where we’ve been, where we’re going, and where to go to meet other tourists. Some relationships lasted only as long as the train ride; others became permanent.

Germany train

I met people in hostels who eventually became a second family to me.But my relationships didn’t stop with the people. I quickly learned that if you picked up a few words in someone else’s language, you could make them smile. If you knew 20 words, they might buy you a drink. Fifty words might get you an invitation to sleep on their couch. And even just knowing how to say “thank you” can earn you the compliment of speaking their language fluently. By knowing a little bit of various languages, I was able to wonder off the main streets and negotiate the routes infrequently seen by the majority of tourists. I had extensive conversations with people I never could have gotten to know otherwise. And occasionally I was able to use a language for sheer survival on a daily basis. (Of course, there’s a wonderful advantage to not knowing how to ask for directions, but there are times when being lost and wandering around aimlessly can work against you.)

When I returned home, I earned bragging rights for my experiences: the places I saw, the people I met, the languages I butchered. But in addition, I developed a comfort as well as an obsession with travel which exists to this day. Thirteen years and four trips to Europe later, and I have no desire to stop seeing the world.

So as I plan my next big trip, it’s nice to see that there are other people who share my feelings. People who inspire me to travel more, people who remind me of the exhilaration of stepping on foreign soil, people who insist on making travel part of their daily lives.

People like you.

Your thoughts on "The birth of a traveler"

  • I can TOTALLY relate to the travel bug! I first started traveling way back in 1976 when I was 16 years old, and haven't stopped yet!

    Now that we've got kids, we are traveling with them - our boys have been in something 13 or 14 countries and they are only ten years old!! We are about to take off to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina with them - it'll be wonderful to experience the world from the seat of a bicycle AND through the eyes of our children!

    You can follow along with us at www.familyonbikes.org

    on May 23, 2008 at 9:53 pm Reply
  • I can TOTALLY relate to the travel bug! I first started traveling way back in 1976 when I was 16 years old, and haven't stopped yet! Now that we've got kids, we are traveling with them - our boys have been in something 13 or 14 countries and they are only ten years old!! We are about to take off to ride our bikes from Alaska to Argentina with them - it'll be wonderful to experience the world from the seat of a bicycle AND through the eyes of our children! You can follow along with us at www.familyonbikes.org

    on May 24, 2008 at 5:53 am Reply

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