Thursday's Child: Backpacking in Europe

Thursday, May 24, 2012

So far this month, I’ve described my experiences living with a French family and travelling with a Contiki tour group.  Over the next two weeks, I’ll be sharing some of my memories as a backpacker in Europe.

The summer before I went to grad school, I spent ten weeks in Europe.  You might ask how I could afford to do that.  One answer is that I saved money with a passion while I worked, but the other answer is that I spent very little money as I travelled.  Contiki tours are inexpensive, but the part of the trip where I really pinched pennies was as a backpacker.

While I was staying in London, I switched youth hostels partway through to save £3 a night.  I took the bus to the airport in London rather than the train – even though it was less convenient – to save £1.6.  Breakfasts came free with a night at a hostel, and I became an expert on where to buy cheap food in every city I visited.

Sometimes I relied on the knowledge of my fellow travellers to come up with money-saving hints. If I hadn’t met Kevin from Montreal, I never would have known about the free beer given out at the end of the Heineken factory tour.  Nor would I have known the exact place in the room to stand to ensure we were in the first group to be escorted to the pub, thereby maximizing our drinking time.  I had just met two lovely Australian girls, Tracey and Robyn, and between us we had 5 or 6 free beers.  Kevin from Montreal had nine.  Unsurprisingly, he lost steam shortly thereafter and didn’t reappear until the following day.
Laurenskerk, Rotterdam.  Photo used courtesy of Localities
The number of free concerts I attended was staggering.  These concerts ran the gamut from an organ recital in Rotterdam’s spectacular Grote of Saint Laurenskerk, to a string quartet in the garden of an art museum, to a truly exceptional concert I attended in the main square in Brussels.  The group was called Urban Sax, and it began with a few saxophonists playing in the balconies of the town hall and museum.  A cloud of green smoke rose at the back of the square, then another group of performers wearing air masks and spaceman suits, also playing their saxes, ran through the crowd from the back to the stage.  Stephanie (from Chicago) and I somehow ended up in the second row and watched the spacemen climb to the top of the stage, still playing their saxes, amid a great deal of coloured gas, chanting and light effects. 
Urban Sax: a truly mediocre photo of a truly amazing concert.
And it’s unbelievable to read about the things I did, that a tourist wouldn’t need to do today.  My journal is full of details like using a pay phone to call home, standing in line to exchange Travellers’ Cheques, and buying USA Today to follow my beloved Toronto Blue Jays.  And does anyone still use Poste Restante?  This general post office address allowed friends and family to send mail to travellers who had no fixed address.  I was stunned at the number of cards and letters I got while I was travelling.  And even more impressed by the number of postcards I sent while I was on the road.  Between my journals and my postcards, I feel as if I was a blogger-in-training that year.

25 comments:

Becki's Whole Life said...

See, I think part of the fun travelling like that would be the challenge of finding all of that free stuff. Sounds like so much fun, and yes, it is funny to read about the things that are outdated now - like Traveller's Checks. I remember my parents getting some anytime we went on vacation.

Jess said...

I bet Kevin from Montreal woke up with a headache :) So cool that you found all that neat stuff to do for free~ I love hearing about your adventures! And pay phones...do they still even have pay phones??? :)

Barbara said...

It always amazes me the number of freebies there are around. Just takes some investigating. When you don't have the money, you work harder to find them I remember just walking around Venice, there was a singing group (probably on tour) sitting on church steps, singing beautifully, just for fun.

Kayte said...

What fun to read all of this...my word, you look exactly the same now as you did then!!! Somehow I never have ever pictured you as the 5-6 beer gal...lol! I think still waters must run deep over there. ;-)

Claire Davis said...

I think that is an awesome way to travel. Think of all the places you saw and found that others would have missed had they traveled the easy route!

Julie said...

This is something I always have wished I had done. My son was able to do it before he started grad school as well. Great memories.

Carol said...

You really saw Europe in such a memorable way. I am enjoying your travel adventures!

Janet Johnson said...

Sounds like you saw it in the best way possible. Sometimes having money limits you when it comes to travel and experiencing the culture like a native.

gobakeyourself said...

You have had the most memorable travelling history ever my friend :D
Thanks for sharing!

Cheers
Choc Chip Uru

Belinda said...

Gosh - when hostels were 2 pounds...what great memories - this is definitely living up - I can imagine the excitement and romance of hearing concerts where you can, meeting folks from everywhere...adventure doesn't always require a lot of money - just an open spirit!

Beth said...

Kayte, I promise I didn't have all 6 beers myself! I think that's what Tracey, Robyn and I drank in total. And Jess, when Kevin from Montreal emerged, he looked none worse for the wear.

Annmarie Pipa said...

you are so lucky to have a record of your travels!!! my husband and I toured Europe for a summer, right before he went to law school...we too look back at those times of backpacking and hostels and free concerts with much fondness..
fun to remember!

Claudia said...

Oh you made me smile. I studied in Austria and traveled - on $5/day. Absolute. Bought nothing - lived on bread and cheese and it was the best experience. I remember the Herald-Tribune being a major expense. What sweet times you evoke.

Valerie said...

You should make a mini-series about all your experiences traveling! :)

It's kind of sad to think that we rely so much on the convenience of technology today...it takes away some of that wanderlust-adventure. There is something incredibly charming about receiving a hand-written letter from someone abroad.

And who'd have guessed that you could put away that much beer!? Go Beth! :D

lisa is cooking said...

It's amazing how much easier traveling is these days when you can look things up on a smartphone in an instant. But, finding good deals and free samples is still an art! The free concerts sound amazing.

Elaine said...

I was just thinking as I was reading your post that what a fantastic memory you have because I can't remember some of the things I did after graduating from high school and then you mention your journal. It must be so much fun reading through your entries and I am enjoying your memories of your time spent in Europe.

yummychunklet said...

What a great memory post!

profiterolesandponytails said...

This goes to show you that where there's a will there's a way. Good for you for being so focused on your goal of travelling and making it happen by being careful with your money.

LDH said...

Such an adventurous spirit and an ability to find lots of fun and good times on a tight budget :) I know these memories must bring such joy and smiles as you think on these exciting moments in your life. You daughters must get such a kick reading your journals too as they think of their future adventures.

Mary said...

Nine beers? That is priceless and the perfect example of random vacation fun. (not that two wouldn't have me passing out!) That cathedral is breathtaking. I love that you kept journals that you can now share this way. What fantastic memories.

Jemi Fraser said...

Sounds like Kevin had a little bit of practice at the factory! :)

It's amazing how those little savings add up - best way to go :)

D..J. Kirkby said...

Wow, you had some amazing experiences! It was funny to hear you mention the Blue Jays (I grew up in Canada) because my Grammie K adores the Blue Jays and was just telling me all about them doing our Skype conversation this evening. Apparently they are struggling to play well at the moment...

Neesie said...

What wonderful memories Beth.
It's brilliant that you have all the details in a journal...I wished I'd done that with all my travelling over the years.
I did write home to my Mum every few days and she left me all of those letters tied up with a ribbon, but it'll take me years to read through them all and unfortunately there aren't any photos. Well I have the photos but again ~ masses to sort through.
You look exactly the same in the photo as you do today! What's your secret? ;D

Beth said...

Thanks, Denise! You're very kind - and I think sometimes photographs can be quite forgiving!

Jen Laceda | Tartine and Apron Strings said...

Beth, this post is hilarious! I mean that in a nice way! I just had flashbacks of my own backpacking trip in '96, after I graduated University. I, too, worked hard to save the money. I worked 2 jobs - one at Second Cup and night shift at Royal Bank processing centre. When I cobbled enough money for a European backpacking trip, you betcha that I was on the first plane to Paris! I spent 2 months in Europe, and these were some of the happiest times of my life. Like you, I was penny-pinching, but that was part of the fun! It's too bad that most of my "analog" photos are now lost...if only we had digital technology then...and yes, I do remember those things called traveller's cheques!!! LOL!

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