Written by Brad McLeod
It took me a while to get back to Europe.
Born and raised in the quiet suburbs of Vancouver, Canada, I paid my first visit to the old world back in 2003 when I was 10 years old. My family and I started in London and camped across the continent with stops in France, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, and (a single day) Germany.
It was an amazing experience and hooked me on travelling early. After that, we made several trips across Canada, through the United States, and even spent a few weeks in Costa Rica. I always expected that it wouldn’t take long after I graduated high school to see the world on my own but I was wrong.
In university, I became obsessed with working for the student newspaper and went to school all through the summer for four years to keep working on it. My editor jobs there took me to journalism conferences in Toronto, Edmonton and Los Angeles, but it wasn’t quite the globetrotting that I had once dreamed of.
After university, a friend and I jumped in his old car and toured across America for a month, seeing everything that country had to offer, from a Bigfoot truther museum in California, to Area 51, the George W. Bush Presidential Library in Dallas, Texas, the Denver Airport, and a gas station in Oklahoma that sold Pepsi Crystal.
But I got so anxious about not having a career that I did interviews on the road, moved back to British Columbia and immediately started a two-year stint as a sports reporter in the little town of Cranbrook at the end of the month.
That job eventually took me back to the Lower Mainland of Vancouver, where I worked at my Alma Mater Simon Fraser University. With a healthier salary than I had ever had before, I planned to travel the next summer, targeting a return to Europe. But throughout the year, I unexpectedly made a great friend from South Korea and instead chose to spend two weeks travelling with him in his home country and Japan.
Again, I felt that spark I did when I was ten years old. This time I didn’t let it fester. I took another vacation, on a whim. Thinking it over for no more than a weekend, I jetted off to London to get another taste of Europe.
I had never travelled all by myself and I’ve always been a naturally shy and anxious person. But I was determined to be up for anything and live life to the fullest. I was going to say ‘yes’ and I was going to live, make friends, see sights and have fun.
This is a great attitude for travel.
But I learned a huge lesson within the first 24 hours of this trip: you still have to sleep. And alcohol definitely doesn’t replace sleep.
Here’s what happened. In my overconfidence, I booked my stay at a notorious party hotel on a Saturday night. I had learned that I could deal with bunk beds in crowded rooms while in Asia, but 24 people in triple-decker beds turned out to be excessive.
I took an overnight flight, couldn’t sleep and arrived in the middle of the day in London. Wanting to be a new man in Europe, I decided to try out the complimentary hotel pub crawl. I could have waited until the second night, but no, I was going to make this the best trip ever, and I was going to do it now.
It started out alright, I met some nice people from Australia, Russia, and Kazakhstan. I was excited to see some authentic London pubs, have a few beers, a few laughs, watch a footy game, maybe play snooker or darts or whatever they do, and then sleep in until the late afternoon.
I was staying right in the heart of London, surely there had to be a bunch of great pubs just around the block. I should have bailed as soon as we got on the Tube.
Kicking off at the boring chain pub at our hostel, we travelled for over half-an-hour on the train, before arriving at our first pub: the exact same chain pub in a different location. From there we drank many shots of coloured water, went to a trendy martini bar, an empty dance bar which only played MTV and only had plastic cups, before ending up at a nightclub.
Not really what I had in mind for an Authentic English experience.
But I drank enough to make it tolerable, had a few interesting conversations, and kept my positive, social mindset for hours. As the night became morning, I was honestly bored more than anything else. I could just go back to my hostel any time and call it a successful first night, still plenty of days to find more culture in London.
But then I checked my phone to see what time it actually was. My phone was dead. And I didn’t have a charger.
My only hope was to make sure I stayed with somebody from my pub crawl group. But they had dwindled. Most had the sense to get out even before the club. I was in a sea of strangers except for two people. My all my hopes on having a team to find the way back with, on the shoulders of two young Australian girls.
Trying desperately not to lose them, I was ultimately left to find my own way home after they were both ‘picked up by blokes’ and I was abandoned. I still don’t understand how I was able to find my way back to the hostel without a map, although I remember twice getting off at the wrong station, but when I got back in the clock read 4:30.
Kept up even later by a (not so romantic) rendez-vous in the bunk above mine during the wee hours, I was left feeling hopeless about being able to survive abroad.
Thankfully my fortunes eventually did improve and I had some amazing experiences, which included making some good friends at a hostel in Edinburgh. The sober walking tour turned out to be a lot better way to get acclimatized with a city and meet people.
Sometimes you have to get lost in a strange city in the middle of the night to learn a valuable lesson like that. I enjoyed the rest of my trip so much that I soon ended up spending six months living in Europe.
Well worth the wait.