A European Adventure

I went to Europe. That is a true statement and I still can’t quite wrap my head around it. The trip was incredible! It was also difficult. Flying to a different country by myself, changing environments every few days, and not having a true plan was a real test for my anxiety. I’m really proud of myself for doing it. There were moments in the weeks leading up to the trip where I was starting to want to back out. But, I didn’t and I’m so glad I didn’t let my anxiety hold me back. Also a PSA: this post will definitely be longer than my others because I have so much to talk about, so make sure you are comfortable.

The flight was the first big test. I’ve flown by myself before, but only short flights to other places in the U.S. This was a nine and a half hour journey to a different country. Sleep escaped me on my plane ride, but I made it through. I navigated out of the airport in Brussels and took a taxi to our hotel on my own without too much trouble. My anxiety was a little worse than usual that day most likely because I was exhausted. I got 12 hours of sleep that first night in Belgium. I have no idea when the last time I had that many hours of rest was, but man, did it feel great.

Belgium is a great country! Amazing food (frites and waffles, I’m looking at you), incredible beer, and beautiful buildings. We spent our first full day in Brussels and really made the most of our time. We went to an amazing cafe called Askum Coffee Shop, where we ate fresh quiche and crescents. I also got an iced latte that came cold but without the ice that melts and just waters it down. Truly genius! We got the city pass so that we could go to a bunch of museums. We went to Mini Europe, a display of miniature versions of all the biggest landmarks in each European country. Next up was the Comic Strip Museum showing how the Smurfs and TinTin got started in Belgium (who knew!), followed by a chocolate museum. It is important to note that Belgium LOVED audio tours. Almost every museum we went to had an audio component where the people doing the voices got incredibly in character while talking about facts. There were storylines woven throughout. It was truly something special. A little cheesy, but honestly made the whole experience more enjoyable. We ended our Brussels day with pizza and beer (a classic combo).

The next two days were both day trips to other cities in Belgium: Bruges and Ghent. These days were filled with boat tours and wandering around. Bruges was by far my favorite place we visited in Belgium. We had amazing pancakes at a cafe called Cafune, embraced our love of fries at the Frite museum, and walked through a flea market. We also took a brewery tour that ended with a free house beer and introduced me to strawberry beer; a true delight to the taste buds. We got another audio tour in the books at Gravensteen castle in Ghent, which was the best one by far. The voice actor really committed to the role. Half of the tour was spent making eye contact with my friend and rolling our eyes/laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. My favorite part of Ghent was the street covered in street art all the way through. It was cool to see all of that creativity and artistic expression in one place. If you are ever in Belgium, these two cities are a must!

Our last night in Belgium was spent at Delirium, a bar holding the World Record for most beers offered at 2,004. We had to give it a try and boy was it worth it. You tell the bartender the kinds of things you usually like, and they tell you what to order. A great place for someone who is often indecisive, such as myself. The next morning we took one last walk through the main square and said goodbye to that incredible country. My anxiety in Belgium was higher than it usually is on a day to day here, which was expected since I was in unfamiliar territory. We didn’t have any real plans so there was always uncertainty; something that I don’t deal well with. I’m extremely proud of myself for going with the flow throughout the trip. All of these feelings carried over to our next stop as well.

We spent less time in Cologne, Germany than the other two legs on our trip, but it was just as fun! We got a city card just like in Brussels and were able to see the chocolate museum (yes another one) where they made Lindt chocolates, the Ludwig art museum where I questioned whether or not I could be a contemporary artist (one of the pieces was a rectangle of Post-It notes cut in half), Rheinpark (voted the most beautiful park in Germany) after riding a cable car to get to it, and the lock bridge that holds so many locks that there is literally no space left. After that jam-packed day, we relaxed for a while and ate ice cream by the Rhine River. Quiet moments like that were when the idea of actually being in Europe felt particularly surreal. The next day, we took a walking tour around the city with a really funny guide. We learned all about the history of the city and took in all of the amazing architecture. We ate doner for lunch (a delicious kebab sandwich) and went to a local restaurant for dinner where I drank Cologne’s prized type of beer, Kolsch. They just keep bringing them to you until you put your coaster on top of your glass to signal that you don’t want anymore. It was fun to embrace the culture in each city we went to.

Cologne was also my first hostel experience. We were in a mixed 4 person room. The nice thing was that there were curtains on your beds so you could make your bed area private at the end of the night. The facilities were really nice and the people were really helpful with suggestions of places to go and places to eat. It felt safe as well, which was important for me. It had no air conditioning (like most places in Europe) which was a little difficult because it was unusually hot, but I was still able to get to sleep, which is really all I needed. If you ever go to Cologne, I would definitely recommend staying here: Die Wohngenmeinschaft. I found that a hostel added another level of uncertainty that caused me to feel a little more anxious. My anxiety was worse at night because I had time to think while I was trying to fall asleep. I found myself feeling anxious and wanting to go home some nights, but in the morning I would try to refocus on enjoying myself. That is something that I was really proud of on this trip. I didn’t let my anxiety take over and hold me back. I got out each day, tried new things, and had impactful experiences that I wouldn’t have had if I listened to the anxious voices in my head.

Our last stop was in Amsterdam. It was my personal favorite place that we traveled. On our first day there we actually saw some of my mom’s side of the family who happened to be there on the same day to start their cruise (wild!) and ate a late lunch with them. The rest of the day was spent wandering the streets of Amsterdam and getting caught in the rain. That first night in the hostel, we talked to a girl from England traveling by herself for two months. While I really enjoyed my trip, I could never do that. I was seriously impressed. She gave us a lot of suggestions for things to do before taking off on her next adventure in the morning. The first full day there we got…wait for it…a city card! Every museum we went to in Amsterdam was extremely high quality. We went to the big art museum there: the Rijksmuseum, the Nemo museum (a giant hands-on science museum) where we got to see a three floor Rube Goldberg machine, the Van Gogh museum, and the Moco Museum which had a really cool Banksy exhibit. By the end of the day, we were pretty tired, but it was one of my favorite days on our entire trip.

The next two days were less packed full, but we still saw a lot! We rented bikes from our hostel and rode them to the Pancake Bakery for brunch where we tried poffertjes (essentially pancake bites with powdered sugar) which were delicious. It was in a beautiful area of Amsterdam called Jordaan with breathtaking canals and really interesting architecture. I bought some art from a few street artists in this area and it was some of my favorite art I’d seen from any of the places we’d been to. While the morning was great, my anxiety was getting ready to throw a major wrench in our plans. I found out that riding a bike on the streets of Amsterdam is so anxiety-inducing that my chest immediately got tight and I was struggling to breathe as we walked back to our bikes to head to our next location. I knew at that moment that if even the idea of getting on the bike again was making me feel that way, I needed to not ride it anymore. Once I was finally back to the hostel where I could drop the bike back off, I had to sit in our room and take deep breaths for a long time to calm myself back down. This was also a moment I was particularly proud of because I didn’t let my anxiety pin me to the room for the rest of the day. I picked myself up and did a couple more things that night. A canal ride was one and going to the Amsterdam Ice Bar was the second. The Ice Bar was my favorite thing of the whole trip. It is a bar made completely of ice where alcohol is served in ice glasses. It is 15 degrees in the Ice Bar and as a person who is always hot, I was in heaven. If that was a bar in Nashville, I would get over my aversion to going to bars and go to it all the time. Ending the night with my favorite thing of the trip really turned my day around.

Our last day was spent wandering the streets again. We didn’t have set destinations and we walked all over the city just admiring the fact that we were there. We went to vintage shops, a floating flower market, and a couple cafes. It was a nice and relaxing way to end our trip. Our hostel was really nice in Amsterdam as well. We were in a six-bed female room with the bathroom in the room itself, which was really nice. It was really clean, the staff was friendly, and I slept great. If you are ever traveling to Amsterdam, Stayokay Vondelpark is the place to be.

The flight back was the last hurdle to jump over in order to get back to familiar territory and hopefully ease some of the anxieties I experienced on my trip. Figuring out how to get through a foreign airport is stressful, but I made it to my gate. This was after a stop at the McDonalds in the airport, which was way nicer than the Mcdonalds in America. My flight got delayed and we had heavy turbulence in our descent, but I made it back in one piece. This experience is something I will never forget. I really enjoyed learning about other places and cultures. I definitely want to travel more in the future. I am extremely proud of myself for hopping outside of my comfort zone and refusing to let my anxiety hold me back. Hopefully hearing about this experience, will inspire some of you to step out of your comfort zone as well. I can now say from experience, that it is definitely worth it!

Rachel (:

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