My friend Steve made the comment a few days ago that he “thinks it’s amazing the way I’ve traveled alone during this odyssey just winging it at times.” I hadn’t thought of it in exactly those terms, but I guess he’s right.
On the first leg of my trip, I didn’t dare “wing” anything. I had to get to Prague. I had a job to do. (Two jobs, in fact.) So I planned that leg carefully, examining schedules and maps, making darn sure I knew where I was going and that I had enough time to get there. When I flew into Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, my one and only task was to get myself to Gare de l’Est train station, and I gave myself nine hours to do it. I had to change trains in Germany, so I gave myself an hour and a half to walk from one platform to another. Before I even got to Prague, I studied the map and identified where my apartment was in comparison to the train station, and I got information on exactly which mode of public transport, down to the tram number, would get me to my place. I d0tted every ‘i’ and crossed every ‘t’.
The journey after Prague, however, I left a little more slack in the gaps. I still made sure I had “connected the dots” with train reservations and hotels where necessary, but I didn’t study the maps quite so thoroughly. I made a few assumptions and I allowed a few important details to slip my mind. I still left enough time in between connections, though, and I figured I could figure anything out once I got there.
The first important detail that slipped my mind was, of course, which train station I was leaving Prague from. Looking back, I remember making the reservation and knowing that I was leaving from a different station than I arrived at. But since leaving wasn’t quite as “important” as getting there, that little detail never quite made it into long-term memory. I had also made an assumption (due to the fact that I can’t read Italian and it’s impossible to find a website about Italy that’s written in English!) that the train station in Milan that I arrived in would be called “Garibaldi”, and so I was confident that booking a hotel with the words “Garibaldi Station” in it would quickly yield my hotel upon arrival. It was therefore quite a shock to arrive at a train station called “Milano Centrale” and realize I had no idea where “Garibaldi” even was.
Returning to Paris on a train that terminated at a station called “Bercy” was yet another (albeit minor) surprise. It required finding a metro station and studying the map before I found my way to Gare du Nord, where I left my luggage, and then from there to Gare de l’Est, the station I was familiar with, the one from which I knew how to get back to the airport. Except by the time I left Paris, I had discovered how to get back to the airport from Gare du Nord, which made the transfer of luggage so much easier.
The biggest hole I’d left in my itinerary, though, where I made my biggest assumption (with the full knowledge that I might possibly be completely off), was in getting to my final night’s hotel at Charles De Gaulle Airport. Again, I assumed that a hotel with the words “Charles De Gaulle Airport” in the name would be relatively easy to get to, or at least have shuttle service. I had not studied a map, I had not printed anything out other than the address printed on my reservation. I assumed, with trepidation, that I would get to the airport and be able to figure out, or be able to inquire about, how to get to the hotel.
By the end of my trip I was feeling so comfortable with my knowledge of subways (they’re all the same, really, in every city) and trams and trains and asking for information and such, that I allowed a lot of time to pass as I meandered my way from Gare du Nord to Les Invalides, to the Eiffel Tower and down Rue Saint-Dominique, finishing a leisurely dinner around 9 pm before even starting out for the train that would take me to the airport. Even though I knew I didn’t know how I was going to get to my hotel once I got there. By this point it was a bit of a thrilling adventure. I had absolutely loved the intellectual puzzle of figuring my way around, and I wanted that to continue.
So, after having accidentally hopped on yet another wrong suburban train — an easy mistake, as each train took the same route until they reached a fork in the rails, (requiring me to get off the train halfway through the journey and wait for the one behind it, which allowed me a peek into a hopping Parisian suburban neighborhood at dusk, which was awesome!) — I landed on the doorstep of the Paris airport.
Which had three terminals to choose from. Which I hadn’t really considered when I’d decided to “wing it.” I had no idea which one my hotel might be closest to.
I picked one at random and got off the train, following fellow train passengers through the station, looking in vain for a booth called “information.” But the place was mostly deserted, and there were no attendants to be found. So I followed signs that basically said “shuttle transport to hotels,” and then stood on a curb and waited. For a shuttle that I had no idea whether it existed or not.
I never felt scared, or even all that worried, about any of this, at any point. I kind of had all the time in the world to figure everything out. I loved it. I was forced to think, to solve problems, to learn foreign words, to figure out what to do next. Even if I had by some act of stupidity ended up in Budapest, I don’t think I’d have been overly worried. A continent works just like a city. Lines connect points, and every route away simultaneously returns. An exchange of money and you’re back where you started, a little poorer and a whole lot wiser. And with an unexpected new experience under your belt to boot.