What I learned from backpacking through Europe

Last April, on the day following my official release from the shackles of Ryerson’s exam season, I boarded a transatlantic flight, by myself, with only a hulking purple backpack and an unwavering sense of assurance in tow.  After a particularly hectic year of attempting to maintain the ever elusive work, school, and social life balance, I wanted nothing more than to escape Toronto. But before I continue, allow me to further rewind.

Growing up, I was aware that I possessed an insatiable longing to explore. The nomadic upbringing I had experienced by frequent moves left me with a sense of detachment from my surroundings.

Remaining true to my naturally impulsive disposition, I booked a plane ticket to Europe on a whim. I had been before. Once, to Portugal, the birthplace of my mother, and other times, to Paris and Spain, the birthplaces of my unfaltering love affairs with cheese and sangria.

But this time around, I wanted to go alone and travel by train to get a sense of the truly distinct cultures of various European countries. Despite all the research I did prior to embarking, no amount of mental preparation could have prepared me for the plethora of hurdles that I was about to come face to face with. Similarly, no amount of self-certainty I previously possessed could have stopped me from remaining open to learning the multitude of lessons I was soon to be taught.

Alannah Kavanagh enjoying macarons in Paris. (Courtesy of Alannah Kavanagh)

Alannah Kavanagh enjoying macarons in Paris. (Courtesy of Alannah Kavanagh)

Immediately after landing, my phone decided to stop working while comfortably nestled in my coat pocket. At another point, the flight that was set to transport me from an island in the middle of the Atlantic to the United Kingdom was cancelled due to an airline strike. Later, on a train from Switzerland to the Netherlands, I was kicked off in a tiny town due to yet another strike. In some countries, my credit card even refused to work. Furthermore, the joy I felt when I finally fixed my phone was fleeting, as it shortly cracked open and broke again.

And although we all deeply care for our friends and family, the freedom that comes with being surrounded by others who don’t know your story is refreshing.

Back in Toronto, I had always cherished my days off, as they allowed me to truly unwind in a quiet space to reflect on my week and truly relax.

But with hostel beds that were at best, lumpy, and at worst, possibly bug infested, staying in the room was not an attractive option. Plus, there was so much culture to experience outside, so much history to educate myself on, and so much foreign food to delight my taste buds. So I woke up early each day eager to explore whichever city I was in. Roaming through streets with no knowledge of directions, I often found myself disregarding my timidity and asking people for help finding places. When you’re away, you learn to discount any feelings of embarrassment when seeking help from others. Looking back,  the cities in which I had the greatest experiences were the ones where I was surrounded by fellow travellers I’d met from all across the globe.

Whether I was reuniting with old friends in London and Paris, diving into the ocean on the French Riviera past midnight with other Canadians, or laughing at a rooftop bar in Berlin with a group of Australian travellers with whom I felt completely at ease, the greatest moments of my time abroad were spent connecting with other like-minded individuals.

The times when I was alone, however, were the moments of my trip when I experienced the most personal growth. Switzerland had been at the top of my must-see list from the moment I knew I was headed to Europe. When I arrived at my hostel that was situated in a lush and wondrous waterfall lined valley, however, I quickly learned that my accommodations were dissimilar from the other places I had previously stayed.

Unfortunately, none of my roommates spoke English, and were all quite older, leaving me with nobody to share my Alpine experience with. On my first full day in the valley, I hiked for seven hours with two Canadian girls I had met the day I arrived, but unfortunately, they were staying in another city so our time together was short-lived.

The following days I spent in Switzerland were plagued with aching muscles that prevented me from venturing off to the other trails, and a pesky cold that had me feeling less than ideal. As I was unable to locate any other travellers to converse with, the loneliness I began experiencing became overwhelming. For the first time since my feet had touched European soil, I was deeply missing the comforts of home.

However, when I messaged my friends about my desolate disposition, they were able to remind me that everything back home remained exactly how I left it. I quickly realized that I could not allow feelings of homesickness to wash away the brilliance of the Swiss Alps.

Alannah Kavanagh standing on a trail in view of the Swiss Alps.

Alannah Kavanagh standing on a trail in view of the Swiss Alps. (Courtesy Alannah Kavanagh)

So instead, I chose to look within myself for contentment. I wrote in my journal constantly about my feelings towards the space in time I was existing in, and I realized there was no greater place to focus on introspection than cozied up in the mountains, an ocean’s length away from everyone you love.

When I think of my time in Switzerland, I honestly laugh to myself, because moments I perceived as so jarring and emotional at the time ended up being four nights where I was able to experience a sense of peace I had never been able to grasp back home in the city.

That’s the thing about backpacking: It’s not easy on anyone. At some point, every traveller will get thrown head first into the deep end and be forced to swim to the surface without their support systems present to cheer them on. Due to this, travelling can really force you to deal with any problems you’ve been avoiding, and help to instill a sense of resilience within you.

I’m in my final year of school, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t anxious about  what my next step will be. But if I’ve learned anything from all the wild twists and turns of my month abroad, it’s to trust in the process. In my eyes, fear of the unknown isn’t something to shy away from.

Call me senseless, but when I feel the pang of nervousness hit, I view my body’s response as validation that I am about to experience something that will not only challenge me, but also serve my greater growth.

The many lessons I learned while backpacking are still relevant to my life to this day. I was gifted with this extremely rare space to truly explore myself and my interests without any social or work obligations  wearing me down. Plus, after doing so much soul searching while I was away, I had only one question when I boarded the plane back home: Where to next?

This article was published in the print edition of The Ryersonian on Nov. 4, 2015.

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