When I was a sophomore in college, I met my first-ever girlfriend, a much older German woman who was studying English at my school for a semester. When her course was finished, she returned to Hamburg to resume her life. I didn’t realize it when she first left, but I soon missed her terribly. After spring semester finished, I decided on a whim one day to surprise her with a visit in Germany. It was the summer of 1993, I was 19 years old, and I sold everything I owned, which at that time consisted of a four-year-old Pontiac and a stereo, in my bid to make the trip happen.
The only trouble was I’d never been outside of the United States before. Perhaps that ignorance worked in my favor, as I was able to get my ticket from JFK to Frankfurt, my passport and everything I thought I needed for that trip in less than 24 hours. It took a bit of cutting at the passport office and a sprint through the airport terminal, but I made it on that plane. The seasoned traveler that I am today looks back in wonderment at that remarkable accomplishment.
I arrived in Frankfurt and figured out I had to take the high-speed train, the ICE, up to Hamburg. I had limited funds and was shocked to learn how expensive everything was in Europe. By the time I’d gotten from the airport to the train station and purchased a ticket, a good chunk of my vacation savings had been blown. No worries, I thought, I’d be staying with my girlfriend in Hamburg for the month; there was nothing to worry about.
Even though I didn’t speak a word of German, I got myself to my girlfriend’s door and rang the bell, fully expecting a romantic reunion and a month of bliss. What I got was an expression that was part puzzlement and part scorn. “What are you doing here,” she asked in her thick accent. I immediately knew I’d made a mistake.
She tolerated me for the weekend. But after that, it was very clear that I had to go. So even though I was soon to be in real financial trouble, I blew some more money on an ICE ticket to Berlin, where I spent some time with other friends I’d met in college. Then I took the slow train first to Prague, then back into Germany to Munich, then down through Switzerland and into Italy to Venice via Innsbruck. I figured I could live on the cheap in Italy and visit some friends while waiting to get my flight back to New York.
Italy was the most enjoyable part of that trip, even though it was completely unplanned. The food was amazing– and cheap, especially in Bologna, where nary an American tourist was to be found. I may have lost a girlfriend on that ill-advised adventure of mine in the summer of ’93, but I gained friends I still keep in touch with to this day. The only down side was that by the last couple of weeks, I was pretty much completely broke. I even spent a night in Rome’s Termini Station, which was quite an adventure, but not a completely pleasant one. You can only explain to the roving police officers how you’re waiting for that next train to so-and-so so many times before they give you the unceremonious boot.
My advice to others contemplating such spontaneous surprise visits is this– don’t do it! Make sure you’ve got a place to stay for the entire time you’ve booked your trip, or else you may just end up sleeping in train stations and having a miserable time.