We’re 11 weeks into our 20-week trip, so it seems like a good time for a bit more retrospection. Despite all the planning we put into this trip, there have been many surprises along the way. The point of this “journey of discovery” wasn’t just to check out a bunch of cool places we’d never visited before or to make our friends jealous, it’s also to expand our own horizons and perspectives. That has definitely happened. Here are the top lessons from the road, based on our trip, thus far.
We’re not sick of traveling or each other
Some of our friends joked that we, as a couple, would never last through this trip, because in our previous careers we’d never spent that much time together. Well, luckily that hasn’t happened. The rest of the trip sure would be very awkward if it did, wouldn’t it? 😉
Another concern was whether we’d get sick of living out of backpacks and being on the go every few days. We’re happy to say, that hasn’t happened either. Exploring new places and gaining new experiences has long been a passion for both of us, and this trip has just confirmed that. We also purposely try to spend at least 3-4 nights in most places, just to keep the pace manageable. It’s not enough time to get bored in a location, but gives us plenty of time to relax and really enjoy a spot.
We don’t miss our old lives
Do we miss work? No! See our post on why traveling is better than working in finance. Of course, there are aspects of our previous careers we both miss, but there were also a lot of negatives that eventually outweighed the positives. Now that we’re in a position where we answer to ourselves and have control over our lives again, it would be very difficult to ever go back to those careers. We’re always thinking about our next steps, but whatever they are, we’ll be taking those steps with a clearer perspective on what is important to us.
We need even less stuff than we thought
As we’ve mentioned previously, we each left on this trip with a carry-on sized backpack as our main luggage (see our packing list post). It was tough because we were packing for several different climates – Iceland, a British summer (i.e. cold and wet), Northern Europe, and also beach time on the Adriatic. Even though we reduced what we brought significantly from our previous backpacking trips to Spain/Portugal and Chile, we still brought more than we needed.
We got rid of a few of our warmer clothes mid-trip, but could probably pare things down even more. As we get sick of carrying weight on our back, we may be dropping a few more clothes into donation bins!
This attitude even extends to what we put into storage before we left on this trip. Part of us wishes we sold everything we had so we could have a fresh start when we get back. It is amazing how many material things we convince ourselves we need, when the vast majority are non-essential. As Tyler Durden once said “The things you own, end up owning you.”
Tourists are Everywhere
It’s been really obvious on this trip that European tourism has exploded over the last decade, driven in part by cheaper airfares, rising incomes in Asia, and retiring baby-boomers. In some places we’ve visited, we’ve been really surprised at the sheer size of the crowds. One example was our tour of Auschwitz. When Trevor first visited the museum back in 2007, only ~300,000 people visited per year. In 2016, visitors are expected to well exceed 2 million. Another example is hiking in Zakopane, Poland – the first, and hopefully last time, we felt claustrophobic while on hiking trails.
Yes, yes, we get the hypocrisy in complaining about tourism. But we just want to visit amazing, beautiful places, with all the tourist amenities, but none of the tourists photo-bombing our pictures, filling up restaurants we want to try, or pushing up prices for accommodations where we want to stay. Is that too much to ask? 😉
It’s clearly a good thing that budget airlines like Ryanair and Easyjet have made it so cheap to travel within Europe. And it’s amazing (at least to someone coming from the great expanse of Canada), that you can jump on a train in one European country and within a few hours be in a completely different country and culture. However, it is unfortunate that it can be easier to get a full English breakfast in southern Spain than it is in London, and for a Brit it can be cheaper to vacation in the Algarve than somewhere in the UK.
Bigger is not always better
At least when it comes to rental cars. Much has been said and written on the North American love for big cars and SUVs. They’re manageable when you have cheap gas, wide roads, and big parking spots.
But in Europe, where roads were designed with a horse and buggy in mind and gas prices can be 50-100% more than in North America, bigger is definitely not better. You can rent an SUV or full-size car, but good luck driving down a narrow road with cars parked on each side or squeezing into a parking spot. Over here, any engine over 1.6L is considered big and you rarely see 2.0L+, which is so common in Canada and the US. When we settle back in Canada, I think it’s very unlikely we’ll go for a bigger car again.
Wine Importer to Poland – Our Next Great Business Idea
It was almost impossible to find wine in Poland. Vodka, no problem (obviously). Beer, absolutely! Liqueurs with gold flakes, but of course. A nice New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc? Good luck with that.
Apparently wine is just starting to grow in popularity, but what is easily available tends to be cheap, low quality and semi-sweet. Christine was not impressed. She almost had to drink beer (thank goodness Radlers are everywhere here). The lack of good wine surprised us as we hadn’t had any problem in the Baltics or so far in the Balkans. So if anyone wants to partner with us to introduce the Poles to decent wine, let us know!
North Americans don’t seem to have discovered Eastern Europe
As we mentioned, tourists are everywhere, but very few of them seem to be from Canada or the USA. Maybe it’s a lack of direct flights from North America? Or maybe it’s due to a lack of interest? There’s much more to Europe than France and Italy!
Eastern Europe has the history, scenery, and food plus it’s A LOT cheaper than Western Europe. Whether it’s the Baltic countries or Poland, we would highly recommend any of them to anyone looking for a slightly different experience in Europe. And we’ll definitely be back to explore Belarus, Ukraine, Romania and Bulgaria.
Dining options were often…unexpected
Food is always a big part of the travel experience for us. We always look forward to trying local delicacies and the local drinks. Some traditional food is amazing. For our money, you can’t beat fried bread with garlic and cheese sauce, a traditional bar food we only found in Lithuania. Pierogies in Poland are well known, but the pierogi festival in Krakow showed us that pierogies are the perfect street food.
However, there were some surprises. Did you know there are sushi restaurants popping up all over Poland? The quality isn’t quite there yet, but it was a pleasant surprise and a nice change of pace. Latvia seems to have a large Turkish influence, at least if we judge by the number of kebab shops around Riga (Food Box was our favourite – we went twice). Even pub food in the UK is surprisingly good. We’d expected just basic pub fare, but many are turning into gastropubs without the pretense by serving cooked-to-order meals with fresh ingredients.
Whatever happened to Internet Cafes?
It used to be that internet cafes were all over the place. Now that everyone has a smartphone (and granted, we travel with an iphone, a blackberry, and a laptop), finding an internet cafe is almost impossible in most towns and cities. That’s fine, except a lot of travel companies still expect printed confirmations/vouchers/tickets/boarding passes. We’ve had to spend a surprising amount of time searching out printing facilities at times, and twice ended up convincing some local business to print off tickets for us.
Many of the other surprises have been smaller…
…but these are the differences that really make the experience of traveling so special. For example:
- Produce sections in grocery stores are generally terrible. We figure that’s because any town of a decent size has an open air food market. We’ve started buying much of our fresh food from these local vendors, where you get produce and fruit from a local producer that was picked when it was actually ripe. This is a lifestyle change we could get used to
- Brits love ginger. Dunno why, but it seems to be the case. Our newfound vice is chocolate-covered ginger cookies from Tesco. Better than…well, other types of cookies
- In the Baltics, no one respects queues, but heaven help you if you jaywalk
- Speaking of the Baltics, they had some amazing grocery stores. Very much the opposite of what we found in some other countries (cough cough Poland, cough cough Slovenia). Since we often self-cater, this was a very pleasant surprise
- Wow, people drive fast in Europe! Speed limits on the major highways in Croatia are 130kph, but locals regularly drive much faster than that. Makes Canada’s 100kph speed limits seem quaint in comparison
- Iceland is expensive! Like, “feels like you’re being gouged because you’re a tourist” expensive. It left somewhat of a bad taste in our mouths