A little more than a month after arriving in Paris, I hopped on the 2h15 Eurostar train to London, where I spent a long weekend exploring and visiting with some family. Two days after getting back, I headed back to the train station, this time for an almost 14 hour night train ride to Berlin.
For me, these travels were the first time I had truly traveled alone – all by myself on the way there and back, figuring out where I was staying all by myself, where and how I was going to feed myself, what I was going to see, etc. I was worried before leaving that I might be lonely or that I might not have fun being all by myself. And, it certainly was a little nerve wracking to sit on the train on the way over to London thinking about staying at a couch surfer’s house (a guy that I had never met before) and it really wasn’t fun at all to arrive in Berlin and get absolutely soaked in the rain about 30 minutes after arriving (at least it would have been more bearable if I had been with someone else!).
But, overall, both trips were fantastic. I came away feeling like my eyes had been opened. Paris has been one experience, but it is not all of Europe. And, it’s one thing to hear about how life is different elsewhere, and another to experience it. I learned that I am totally capable of taking care of myself in a foreign city, and that one of the benefits of traveling alone is that you have the complete freedom to do exactly what you want, when you want, without compromising with other people. For me, that meant fitting lots of things into the very few days I had in each city. But, in both cases, I came away feeling like I had gotten a breath of fresh air.
Two months into Paris, as much as I love the beauty of the city and the amazing opportunities it provides, I find it can be cold, exhausting, and more than anything else, conformist. I hope that these are only my initial impressions, but my travels gave me a welcome break from these experiences of Paris and a reminder that other cultures and ways of life exist only a few hundred kilometers away.
The people I met in both London and Berlin were so friendly – from the tour bus guides that I asked directions from, to the sales people that I discussed the New York/Boston commute with, there was an openness and an ease that I have yet to discover in Paris. In Berlin, especially, I got the distinct feeling of it being a young city, one in which people still feel that they have the liberty to experiment with their physical representation of their identity and one in which its residents feel that they have the power to shape their city.
Part of my very positive experiences in both cities were thanks to my couch surfing hosts. London was my very first couch surfing experience, and a wonderful, wonderful introduction to the community. As Jonathan, my London host described to me, in so much as it is a leap of faith, couch surfing helps restore faith in other humans and is a welcome change to the “stranger danger” mantra we so often hear. Within 20 minutes of meeting Jonathan, he had given me keys to his wonderful flat in Canary Warf. Sophie, my host in Berlin, took her entire Sunday afternoon and evening to show me around the city. In both cases, couch surfing allowed me to connect with somebody in a way that wouldn’t have been possible unless I already knew someone in the city. It was a guaranteed connection into the life of someone who lives there, with very few expectations put on the relationship.
At this point, I am excited to be in Paris and to “profiter” as much as I can from what is here. But, more than anything, I am excited to be in a new continent in a place with easy access to many countries, cities and people and to be at a time in my life when I can take the time to travel.