By James Campbell
Neither of us were by any means experienced travellers, in fact we both rarely left the state of Victoria before undertaking the challenge of backpacking through another continent on the other side of the world.
Last year my good friend Jordan and I flew into Milan, Italy, which was the starting point of a six week journey through Central and Western Europe.
We hopped off the plane at about 10.30 in the morning, and Jordan cruised along with his usual carefree nonchalance, I on the other hand was feeling slightly out of my depth.
We walked into a chemist where Jordan could get his phone set up with an overseas SIM card and I decided that it would be a good time to try out the few phrases I knew in Italian.
The first thing I learnt whilst travelling through a foreign nation with a foreign language is that there most certainly is a language barrier.
It did not go down well at all; I fumbled around a SIM card pamphlet speaking bullshit Italian, all the while feeling the build up of nerves brought on by the awkward situation.
This farce came to a humiliating climax when a beautiful Italian woman entered the chemist whilst Jordan and I stood waiting for him to receive his phone from the chemist’s assistant.
The woman came up to the counter and began freely discussing a matter with the same assistant Jordan and I had been struggling with.
They quickly finished their discussion and the beautiful young customer turned our way, picking us for backpackers straight away.
I felt inclined to say something to this lady, not because she was beautiful or anything, but because she was staring at us from two metres away, inside an empty chemist.
I looked her straight in the eye, and with slight confidence regained, managed to blurt out an incredibly smooth ‘grazie’.
‘Fuck I just said thank you to that woman!’ I said to Jordan, who was busy rummaging through his bag. ‘Yeah man chill out,’ he replied.
The woman stared at me even more confused than before, collected her things and quickly left the store.
It was, by all means, incredibly embarrassing. Naturally I felt like a dickhead.
Then when Jordan and I were in Milan we went to the McDonalds in Milano Centrale railway station where I ordered what I thought was a ‘latte’. I sat down and started drinking the incredibly weak coffee, confused, before finding out that in Italian the word ‘latte’ means ‘milk’, and is not a variation of coffee. You have to order a ‘café latte’ if you want anything containing caffeine.
As soon as we gave up on constantly trying to pretend we weren’t tourists, we settled in quite quickly; we learnt how to navigate our way around the various languages. You just have to ask people if they speak English, and you will find that many people do. But if it turns out they don’t, just point at shit.
Another thing travellers quickly realise is how physically punishing the experience of european backpacking can be. Depending on how long you’re there for, and what you do with your time, this can vary, but I guarantee there will be at least one point where you suddenly pass out from exhaustion.
You’ll spend days on end getting up at a (reasonably) early hour in order to take in everything a particular town or city has to offer, and as a result you’ll do a lot of walking, especially if you find yourself not bothering with any form of public transport.
And if, as you are on holiday, you wish to indulge in a countries local alcoholic beverages and take in their bar culture there is a chance that your already exhausted body will also be struggling with a rather incessant hangover, which obviously makes matters a lot worse.
Do not underestimated how much this can take out of you; the combination of lack of sleep, constant walking and alcohol is enough to send even the healthiest person into a near zombie-like state.
I don’t actually have any remedies for this inevitability (aside from perhaps plenty of water); all I can say is that you must be prepared to get comfortable in any situation. At some stage your body will decide it needs sleep at the most inconvenient time.
I once passed out on the ground of Paris’s Gare Du Nord railway station waiting in a line of about 30 people to buy tickets for our next international destination. Even though it was about two in the afternoon, my body didn’t care, and I woke up to Jordan taking extreme close up photos of my drooling mug.
Before departing you may have people telling you about the dangers of backpacking. How you need to watch your back for pickpockets and how you should steer clear of this particular part of London, etc. but I would say that with a little common sense you should be fine when encountering these ‘problems’.
There is a likelihood you will encounter Romani people (otherwise known as gypsies) on your travels, who may ask you to sign something and then hand them five Euros. They may even try to pickpocket you, so basically, don’t sign shit.
This is, apparently, a ploy for them to acquire your signature in order to pickpocket your credit card and make purchases in your name.
Upon emerging from the Paris metro one day Jordan was stopped by a young Romani girl who feigned deafness in order to get his signature and a donation from him. He must’ve been sleeping when we were told about this common scheme.
He signed a petition and then opened his wallet in order to find five Euros, though once she decided to snatch at a twenty, Jordan had to quickly retract his wallet from the girl whilst saying ‘no, no, no.’
This can be an unfortunate occurrence when travelling around Europe, but it is only unfortunate if you let it be. After all, travel is about stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing cultural differences that may seem alienating at first. However, I’m not saying you should embrace a Romani person; you might lose your wallet.
People can cause you grief wherever you go of course, just keep your wits about and if something seems a little bit off trust your instinct and do what’s necessary to avoid any risky situations, other than that you should be fine.
Even though the idea of travelling through a foreign land can be daunting. There is really nothing to be deterred from, it’s an awesome thing to get out and do if you get the chance, just don’t be an idiot about it.