One of the greatest perks of studying abroad in Europe is how easy it is to travel the continent. Low-budget airlines, fast trains, hostels, and Airbnb (my new favorite travel tool) make things easy. So far this semester, I’ve visited Florence, which is only an hour from Siena; Cinque Terre, the five dreamy villages on the Italian Riviera; and Madrid and Barcelona this past weekend. I have many, many pictures to share but the photo uploading system is currently under repair. Trust me when I say that I’ll put photos up as soon as possible!
Visiting Spain this weekend was a dream. Siena has been fairly gray and wet, and the mid-seventies sunny weather in Madrid was a welcome sight. But before I continue, this post isn’t just supposed to be a chunk of text raving about how beautiful Spain is…I actually want to share how hard traveling has been at times. Hopping from bus to train, train to plane, and country to country in Europe is certainly convenient, but it does have its downfalls, of which I now have first-hand experience.
My boyfriend and I were supposed to catch a fast train to Barcelona the second day we were in Madrid. We arrived a half hour before the train was scheduled to leave, but nothing could have prepared us for the sheer size of the Atocha train station. (After the ordeal, we discovered that some signs in the station corresponded to metro trains and others to regional trains, but at the time we had no idea what was what.) We tried to get onto the metro platforms, were given wrong directions by a security guard in the airport, and discovered that we had to go through security (which was surprising to me because security has been lax to nil in Italian train stations). We arrived at the gate three minutes before the train was set to depart, but the woman working the desk at the gate shook her head when we asked her to let us down onto the platform. We went from asking politely to downright pleading, but she only shook her head and pointed us to the help desk as the key for the platform door swung from her neck.
From there we went through an hour and a half of trying to shimmy our way into another train that day. The train after ours was canceled because of a strike that ended up not happening. Apparently, a train strike was planned for our day of travel, but at the last minute it was called off. The memo wasn’t communicated clearly to every worker, and the result was a shortage of staff and an inability to run the 2 pm train. A train’s worth of desperate people joined our realm of panic. We learned a little bit later that all the other trains that day were booked completely full because the previous day several trains to Barcelona had collapsed. Apparently, someone had cut wiring on the track (this part is vague. I’m no train track engineer) to steal copper, and had ended up destroying the entire thing (again, vague. I’m sorry). The point is that plenty of people from the previous day were desperate to get to Barcelona as well, so the chances of getting on a train that day were slimmer than slim. Being a fairly emotional person, the reality of not being able to make it to Barcelona to see my boyfriend’s parents and be a part of the plans they had for us was enough to reduce me to a living Bambi – eyes big, all tearful. We hit a stroke of luck when the Renfe customer service manager took pity on us and got us onto handicap seats on a later train via some sweet-talking to the conductor of the train. The conductor doted on us and gave us chocolate on the ride there. My boyfriend and I have concluded that we probably looked younger than our age, and somehow incited empathy, which ended up carrying us to Barcelona.
We were plain lucky. We somehow managed to surpass language barriers, chock-full trains due to canceled strikes, and vandalism…but boy was it stressful.
The night before we left Spain, I contracted a bout of food poisoning. I had an early flight scheduled to take off at 6:15 from the airport, which meant that I needed to be in a cab headed to the airport at 4 am. At about 1 am, the food poisoning hit me hard, and I decided to pass on two flights, a long layover, and a bus ride through the countryside while my body was still struggling to rid itself of the poison. My boyfriend still had his flight at 8 am that morning, which left me alone in the big big city of Madrid, trying to figure out where I would stay for one more night while I recuperated. Thinking back now, my situation doesn’t sound bad. My current Airbnb was willing to let me stay for a little longer in the day because their next tenant was arriving in the evening, and all I had to do was book a flight, a place to stay, and get myself to the airport after. However, at the time, I was a mess. I felt sicker than I did when I had a marathon with mono earlier this year, I had no way of asking my absent Airbnb hosts for help, I didn’t have a local phone, and I had to get myself home to Italy…which was close, but seemed incredibly far away. With my mom’s help from miles away, I finally found a place to stay and a new flight the next morning. I made it to Siena in one piece (with a tummy still unhappy about the whole experience), and I’m incredibly thankful for that.
It’s hard to be in a new, big city on your own. I’m not good at making plans on the fly, and this past weekend forced me to do so.
End conclusion? Traveling is hard, and it doesn’t always come up roses, but I feel more prepared for my next excursions. I’m hitting Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Warsaw, Geneva, and Lausanne next, so bring it on travel. Hit me!