I finally found myself abroad at the start of this month, a long-desired but not concretely planned goal of mine ever since I started wandering around a few years back. It was something I had felt an upwelling of anxiety and curiosity about for a long time, but felt just out of reach, mostly as a financial wall. Well, I finally felt stable enough in my employment to afford the travel without going AWOL, and had some good pushes to go, that made me pull the trigger on short notice.
For the last few months, I’ve been working at a great development job for a small tech publishing company, BWW Media Group. This is the sort of work I’ve sought for most of my career, so I’m generally excited to remain in their employ. Having grounded myself in my work this year, I’ve explored the option to bounce and go do my own thing again. However, I feel like that door has generally been one-way in my professional life, and that I’ve pushed my luck on coming back from the brink, thus it’s not worth it currently. So, a shorter trip was appropriate, and an opportunity abroad was open to me.
From the Appalachian Trail, I knew “Prefix-Paul”, of Bristol, England. We’ve kept in touch over the years, and while he hadn’t been back to the states since, he had extended the invitation to come do some adventures in Europe. So I chose one week on his home turf, after a week in Paris, France. I had planned to spend the time in Paris hosted by another friend, but that unfortunately fell through shortly after booking. I’m pretty stubborn, so I followed through with the flight anyway and did my own thing, lodging in hostels and winging it on stuff to do. Not like it’s really much different from what I did last year, I just had a new language to learn.
So on August 1, I found myself in France after an overnight flight out of Newark. With a foreign SIM pre-purchased and carried along, I had little difficulty in navigating the public transit options to arrive at my first hostel in the Montmartre area of the city. And later, I’d be in Belleville. Though language would be a large hurdle to overcome, my street smarts as a New Yorker helped immensely in smoothing it over and finding a degree of comfort padding and pedaling my way about.
I found myself pretty in to Parisian life. Everywhere with dining had outdoor seating, often arranged outward for people watching. Any busy thoroughfare would have those seats fulls of individuals or couples passing time with espressos, beers or cigarettes. I dug my time at these spots, even if I struggled in any sort of conversation. I always asked in French if we could converse in English and felt like people were generally affable towards me. As a speaker who trends towards being overly literate, it was an amusing challenge to consciously simplify my way of speaking in order to talk with folks who were less fluent.
Getting around everywhere was a cinch with Paris’s bikeshare, Vèlib. Coming from a bike-everywhere modus operandi in NYC, would you expect anything less of me here? I found it to be pretty functional and a good value for getting around, but actual Paris cycling to be somewhat scary, with many sharp turns into alleys, biking often legal opposite the flow of traffic, and many more mopeds than at home threading through traffic like me. I went different places every day and only used the metro for moving around with my luggage. Paris, geographically, didn’t feel that large, so I was able to reach any of my destinations within the 30 minute time limit of Vèlib and avoid additional charges.
I’m still vegan, now closing in on a year strong, and found it initially to be very challenging in Paris. My first meal, under the influence of jet-lag, was unfortunately a baguette. However, I got determined to eat well the rest of my stay, and Google Maps was the crutch I relied on for finding veggie-friendly places. A lot of people thought being vegan in France would be miserable, but I carved myself a solid niche, biking out to one or two of a few dozen options in the city confines each day as I did my rounds. It definitely took more work than I’d like, so I’d say they have significant work ahead.
Some of the premier sites I saw were the Sacré-Cœur Basilica, The Louvre, Les Invalides, and Musée d’Orsay. Most of my photographs are from those spots. Every other day I went to a climbing gym, which is kind of my life back home at the moment and also a fun way to meet locals while maintaining my fitness. I’m pretty sure I went drinking every night in Paris, which I honestly do little of back home, especially going out alone to do so. I was lucky to find a video gaming bar to duel the French in Super Smash Bros and shred on Rock Band.
Bristol, however, is where I felt like the trip really came together. The relief I felt at being back to speaking English again was palpable, even if half the words are upside-down there. I empathize a lot more now with people working on English as a second language. After a week I’d declare as challenging, but fruitful in Paris, I was ready to relax. Of course, crashing with a friend helps, and Paul was a great host to me.
Bristol itself felt like a paradise. The smaller size of it, with many pleasant walking paths and beautiful, pastoral hills as a backdrop were a joy to behold. Paul was a big walker, so we got around everywhere on foot. With blackberries and apples in season this was a pretty sweet deal. It turned out to be quite cool and rainy, which left me regretting not bringing a coat. I got mocked for going on an “English Holiday” where it turned out to rain almost every day for my week there.
Now, what I really dug about Bristol and generally about England was its vegan friendliness. It seemed everywhere I went had great food options for me, from omnivorous restaurants to grocery stores (with standardized labeling for vegetarians!). Even the fast food had options. England really felt like the place where it’s easy to be vegan affordably, and I’m excited to go back soon just for that. I think America will get there, and I’m optimistic for a vegetarian friendly future.
Of course, there was also great bits of nature to take in. Having a ticket out of the city helped me explore a bit of the countryside, with a bike trip to the small town of Bath, and a hike around some of its hills. With Paul’s friend, Jake, we had wheels and were able to drive to a couple climbing spots at the local quarries, where I got to do my first lead pitches on sport climbing, and a quick exploration of the impressive Cheddar Gorge. The constant rain did provide a bit of a downer on our ability to really get climbing. I hope to see Paul again soon on either side of the Atlantic and continue a friendship founded in the wild.
I left Paul’s in Bristol with two days before my flight on a bus to London. I thought it would be odd to just be in England and not visit its largest city for a little bit. Alas, it was probably my least favorite part of the trip. The bikeshare there was unfortunately a little shoddy and its roads did not feel safe to ride, so I resorted to walking. I did use the tube once though to check it off the bucket list. I suppose I just found myself settled in a mood of killing time before my 7 AM flight back home, and once that notion settles in it’s hard to look past it. London deserves another go with a little more intention next time.
Some last general thoughts on Europe and my time there are appropriate. What first comes to mind culturally is how consumer friendly it felt. Taxes are included in all prices. Stores list prices as 1$ instead of 0.99$. Most transactions were encouraged to be cashless, and a wireless reader is presented at your table. Tipping is factored into restaurant salaries, rather than being an onus on the customer to come up with. And those are just the smallest conveniences that were visible to me. They really do add up.
I also had some real discussions on politics. What came up most often was our lack of a public healthcare system and lust for guns (The massacres at El Paso and Dayton unfortunately occurred while I was abroad). I think they are our two most visible problems as a populace to address. It’s a bit of a disservice to each issue to thread them together, but to a European, they just are confounded on how we get by with that as normal. Avoiding treatment or care while sick to avoid hospital bills is a regular thing, as is going bankrupt after treatment. The sickening drumbeat of mass shootings and gun violence is frightening to behold. Europeans just don’t worry about either.
I dunno if it’s just walking through these neighborhoods full of wonders dating hundreds of years, but I felt a real sense of belonging there. I read a lot of truisms about being able to experience other cultures, but I mean, having a mixed European ancestry and all, I definitely felt a connection. I do want to return soon, but I’d either have to lean into it like I did in the US last year for months on end, or have a very specific goal in mind. Two weeks just feels too short to justify general sightseeing. I look forward to figuring out the right way to return; undoubtedly, it will be an adventure.