Europe: the big wrapup
My departure from London marks the end of my time here in Europe. It's been short, compared to my long stint in Latin America that was the "big boy" of this world trip. And it's been wildly different: modern, sophisticated, cultured, and pricey. But no world trip would truly be complete without a visit to Europe. It's the quintessential backpacker's destination. What's more, it's still wildly popular with tourists from all corners of the world, and in every level of the glamour spectrum from backpacker to millionaire. I've mainly confined myself to Western (and Southern) Europe; but even in that relatively small geographical area, there's an awful lot for me to wrap up. So here goes.
Everyone I spoke to asked me: "why are you going to Europe in winter? It will be cold!" And they were right. Winter is most definitely the low season in Europe, and with good reason. In most of the continent, the weather at this time of year positively sucks. But then again, I did spend all of November down in Sicily, which is one of the warmest places in Europe, and which is mild and temperate year-round. Plus, the cold weather did provide some distinct advantages. Firstly, it meant that I could go skiing: my week in Kitzbühel (in Austria) was a blast; and skiing in Europe is something that I've dreamed of doing for many years. Secondly, along with the cold weather came some amazing European Christmas spirit: and there's no doubt that Europe know how to celebrate Christmas better than anybody else.
Despite it being "low season", and despite it being quite cold in many places, I still found most of Europe's tourist hotspots to be as busy as ever. Clearly, few people are deterred by the winter weather: when I arrived here, I was initially a bit worried that I'd be alone, and that I'd have a hard time finding fellow travellers to hang out with; this fear proved to be completely unfounded. Anyway, if you're doing the regular backpacker thing, then keeping warm in Europe is quite easy anyway, as long as you follow a few simple rules: wear a nice warm coat; enjoy the heating on the trains, in all the buildings, and anywhere underground; and be sure to drink plenty of alcohol, so you can't feel the cold anyway.
Really, really f$#%ing expensive. That's Europe for you: always has been, always will be. Despite the abundance of budget backpacker hostels, accommodation remains the biggest expense in Europe. And despite the joy of Eurail and the wonder of no-frills airlines, transport will still cut a big hole in your wallet as well. As for all the things that you take for granted when travelling in the developing world — fancy restaurants, extreme adventure tours, and exotic beverages by the tray-load — well, you can forget about all of them. In Europe, backpackers are forced to live on doner kebabs, to shirk even on the most un-adventurous but still-pricey museum tours, and to confine their beverage-drinking to cheap beer in cheap venues.
If you look at the plain, numerical prices of things in Europe, then you can see that they're actually fairly reasonable. It's the unreasonably high value of the Euro (and of most of the other remaining Western European currencies, such as the British Pound, the Swiss Franc, and the Swedish Krone), that makes it all so expensive for visitors. In reverse to the situation with developing countries, visitors to Europe from other Western countries (e.g. Australia, NZ, USA, Canada, Japan and Korea) are faced with multiplying prices, and are forced to count every penny two or three times. That's really the worst thing about it: when travelling in Europe, you can't help but constantly worry about how much you're spending. When I buy a bar of chocolate around here, I can't help but think to myself: "this is 2 restaurant-quality meals in Peru." I want to stop thinking that and to just enjoy myself, but it's a constant challenge.
The difference is basically this: when you travel in the developing world, you're the "king of $#%"; and when you travel in Europe, you're the "s$#% of kings". In Latin America, gringo backpackers (despite being backpackers) are actually given special and (by local standards) expensive treatment: "gringo hostels" are usually nicer (and pricier) than the shoddy guesthouses that the locals stay in; taxis can take you anywhere for less than the cost of a bus back home; and you can receive personal expert guidance on extreme sports, that would cost you a fortune to do all by yourself in your home country. But here in Europe, backpackers really are "the bottom of the food chain". Hostels really are the cheapest and dodgiest places in town. Public transport is the only viable transport. And anything that involves personal service is simply out of your league.
Culture and history
These two things are everywhere in Europe — and that face is very cool, there's no denying it. It seems that literally everywhere that you go is very old, and very historically significant: as an Australian, this is quite daunting, and I find it very special. In every city on the continent, you can find a mind-boggling variety of museums, of art galleries, and of live entertainment venues. And most incredible of all: so many places in Europe are so famous — to see them for the first time, after having heard so much about them for your entire life, is an experience you can't find everywhere.
All too often, travelling in Europe is about travelling between cities. I've tried to escape this where possible: but for a good chunk of my time here, I admit that I've found the trap to be unavoidable. Everywhere else I've been on this trip, cities have merely been a means to an end — and the end has always been a much more exciting attraction near to a city, such as an adventure sport, a set of ancient ruins, or a sight of natural beauty. But here in Europe, the cities are "the end": you don't go to the cities as a gateway to something better nearby; you go to see the cities themselves. Now, I have no problem with seeing the odd city or two now and then, as a sight in itself: but much of my time in Europe (and much of all travellers' times in Europe) has been no more than an endless string of cities; and after you've seen the first few, they start to all look the same.
Going from one famous city to the next is highly overrated. There's only so much exploring of city streets, only so much visiting of famous museums, and (even) only so much drinking and partying you can do, before it all gets boring and repetitive. The fact that I'm not much of a church or a museum person myself, only makes it all the more worse: I can definitely understand the old "ABC" (Another Bloody Church) saying, after having visited Europe for myself. For city-dwellers in particular, travelling is not about visiting other cities. Travelling is about getting away from the regular urban world, and seeing something a bit more different and unique.
There are numerous factors that make Europe a much more convenient place to travel, than other less-developed destinations with their many hurdles and gotchas. Transport is great in Europe: it's quick, it's reliable, it comes in every variety, and it can take you everywhere. The language situation is good, too: in most countries, speaking English can get you by, as most of the locals are educated in English at least to high-school level. Health is an enormous convenience: Europe has no icky diseases to watch out for, the local hospitals and medical services are tip-top, and the tap water is drinkable and the food always safe. Navigation is easy: European cities are well-signposted (most even have special signs for tourists), everything's laid-out in an orderly and well-documented fashion, and maps are widely (and often freely) available. Finally (and not to be underestimated), truth makes European travel very convenient: in most of Western Europe, you can actually trust what people say (and what prices they quote), and accurate and reliable information is easy to find and easy to interpret.
When I say that there's "no adventure" to travelling in Europe, I refer to two separate things. First of all, I refer to the fact that, as a casual tourist, partaking in adventure sports in Europe is much more difficult than it is in the developing world. For most European adventure sports, expense is the main barrier: skiing in Austria was one of the most costly activities I did while here; and other adventure sports, such as white-water rafting (best in Switzerland, or so I hear), are much pricier around here than they are in the developing world. Some adventure activities are less expensive, but are simply too out-of-the-way to be accessible to most people: the cycling trip around Sicily that I did would be an example of this.
Apart from literal "adventure", I also refer to something more abstract and much more painful when I say that there's "no adventure" for the European traveller. I hate to put it so bluntly: but at the end of the day, there simply is no spontaneity whatsoever in Europe. I tried it, but largely failed. Modern Europe is a place where on-the-spot decisions are not feasible, and are not expected anywhere: everything, from accommodation to transport to activities, needs to be reserved and planned well in advance; and if you neglect to do this, then things get booked out and they become unavailable. This is killing backpacking in Europe, which (according to stories that I've heard from past generations) used to be just like it is today in South America: that is, you could rock up at hostels, hop on-and-off trains, and crash regular activities; and all at a moment's notice. If you can't travel like that, then where's the fun? If everything needs to be planned ahead in the minutest of details, then where's that all-important element of uncertainty, and of not knowing quite what the future holds?
Just like everyone else
In Europe, nobody is special. When you visit Europe, you're not a foreigner. You're not a gringo. You're just another dude walking the streets: you don't stand out, you don't get special treatment, and you don't get hassled simply on account of the colour of your skin. Overall, I think that this is more of a good thing than a bad thing. Europe lets you be an average and an anonymous traveller. Europe takes you off that artificially high pedestal that the developing world can so easily raise you to: it brings you back down to reality, and it gives you a much more balanced perspective on the world around you. Being "just like everyone else" also has another dimension in Europe: it's the fact that, for fellow Westerners at least, you have a certain basic set of shared values with all the locals around you. It's nice to travel in a place where the local folks share your mindset, share your ideals, and more-or-less share the lifestyle that you enjoy back in your own country.
It's been quite rewarding, visiting a continent where I have so many connections, in so many different ways. After my travels in South America, I have connections in the way of friends whom I've met during this trip, and whom I had the chance to subsequently visit in their home countries. I also have family connections: most importantly my aunt and uncle in Switzerland, but also other relatives in England, France, and elsewhere. I also have a connection because both of my parents travelled in Europe once upon a time — much as I have now done — and because I've heard their travel stories for my whole life, and I've now retraced their steps in many of the places that I've been to. Even more distantly, I have ancestral links to Europe, because much of my family originally came from here: particularly from England, and from Poland. All these connections make travelling much more meaningful, much more personal, and much more purposeful.
A place to live
It seems to me that modern Europe isn't particularly well-suited as a place where you'd go for an extended travelling vacation. It seems much more attractive as a place to live and to base yourself permanently, than as a place to travel and to get away from things temporarily. It's less expensive if you live here. The convenience can only really be taken advantage of if you live here. The plethora of cities are better to live in than to visit. And the ease of travel within the continent means that living here permanently, and travelling to nearby countries on short vacations, is much more appealing than living elsewhere permanently, and travelling all the way here temporarily.
Not what it used to be
Thirty years ago, Europe was the backpacker destination. It was the first, and back then "the only" place where you could do the hostel thing, live out of a backpack, and hop around easily on public transport. Today, a Euro-trip isn't such an adventure, and it isn't such a rite of passage: it's expensive, it's inflexible, and it's not living up to the competition. The world backpacker hotspots today are all elsewhere: Central America, South America, South-East Asia and India all offer much more excitement than does Europe, and all at a fraction of the cost. And unlike thirty years ago, these days they all offer enough services and infrastructure for anyone to travel them easily.
For this trip, I only had time to see the overpriced and over-explored Western Europe. The rest of Europe is meant to be vastly different, much better value, and a whole lot more fun. My exploration of Europe has only just begun: next time, my Euro-trip will no doubt be a different kettle of fish entirely. Eastern Europe, Scandinavia, Greece, the rest of the UK: these are just some of the places that I have yet to discover. So don't worry: despite the hurdles, and despite other places in the world having a stronger allure, I will be back in Europe one day. This is only the beginning.