September 11th, 2002 – I went abroad by myself for the first time. With almost no money. I was hooked.
When you think about travel do you believe that you need to have serious amounts of money in the bank or that you need to factor in endless living expenses?
I often think that way when I’m considering trips to places that I might not get to re-visit. Not getting to see that famous art gallery, or eat that famous local delicacy, or visit that famous endangered animal in its natural habitat, can make your trip there seem unfulfilled – like you didn’t accomplish what you set out to achieve. That’s absolutely fine if you do travel with such aims in mind but this 2002 trip is one that I just needed to do. The trip itself was the focus, not what would be happening once I got there.
I went into the now long-defunct branch of STA Travel on Old Brompton Road with the original purpose of seeing whether I could afford to get return flights to New York with my meagre funds. As soon as I sat down with the advisor I knew that’s not what I wanted. A year earlier the terrorist attacks on the US East Coast shocked the world and it suddenly occurred to me that I didn’t want to fly on the one year anniversary partly because it would be quite anxious, but mainly because the solemn atmosphere in The Big Apple might not be what I wanted to associate with my first solo travel. I wanted to relax, and that’s about it.
I came away from the nice STA lady with return flights to Barcelona with a stop off on the way in Zurich, and a stop off in Amsterdam on the way home. These three cities would be explored in a total of 11 days. Excellent! I’d been to Barcelona before, in 1999, and I loved it. The only problem was that as an 18 year-old barman I didn’t have much money at all back then. I’d spent a significant sum on these flights and the accommodation the STA lady suggested so I now had to wing it.
I wasn’t worried about this though. I set off on my little adventure with head held high and a surprisingly small level of anxiety. I was a nervous youth back then and stress tended to bring out eczema, the prickling sensation of its onset had appeared but by and large I was ok.
On arrival in Zurich city centre I exited the station and looked around. I can still remember the feeling, it was wonderful. Trams and taxis surrounded me and the sun was giving everything a bit of life. So, I had a quick look at my Rough Guide to Europe, and walked in completely the wrong direction for a mile or so. I still don’t know how that happened…
I wandered up a very working class road past little workshops and doorways where dubious-looking women loitered. I realised that there was supposed to be a river here and turned around.
Back at the station I found the bridge and the huge river I’d somehow missed and eventually found the Zic Zac Rock Hotel where it was supposed to be. The moment I was shown to my room I sat down and just thought ‘Yes, this is what it’s all about’.
In Zurich I lived on hotdogs, Oreos, and snacks from the local supermarket. The city was, and probably still is, extraordinarily expensive so I didn’t have any beer. I did visit the Kunsthaus. I remember drinking one coffee in a cake shop and I had one meal in the hotel. I dined alone and I spent the day wandering along the waterfront with my book and my thoughts. It was exactly what I needed.
I arrived in Barcelona and did much the same. I explored the back streets. Walked the same circuits over and over, or I sat on the harbour to read a bit more, just soaking up the feel of the place and getting to know exactly where and how things were. I stayed at, and greatly enjoyed, what is now called the Equity Point Gothic hostel in the Barrio Gotico area of the city but I didn’t even attempt to meet other backpackers here. I went to a local bar one evening and met another solo traveller by chance. We chatted aimlessly til late while I nursed just a couple of beers.
In Amsterdam yet more watercourses attracted me and I explored as much as I could. Although I was followed for a mile by a shady character offering to find me a place to stay I eventually lost him and raced to the scrupulously clean Stadsdoelen hostel. My money was almost completely gone by now and I did have to miss a couple of meals, but I didn’t mind. I listened to my minidisk player and I read my books wherever I chose.
On my final day of this trip I spent a couple of hours drinking coffee with a free newspaper, to spend the final few Euros I had. I downed about four cups and it hit me with a buzz that felt as if I might vibrate a hole in the cafe floor. When I left the canals looked more vivid than usual in my heightened state. I didn’t rush about as a caffeine buzz might make you on a normal working day. I just walked slowly and enjoyed it.
The feeling of not having to do anything at all was liberating. I had discovered that money made me busy, it made me need to rush between attractions so that I could pay to get in and see all these wondrous artworks. It clouded my getting to know the city itself because I was too focused on reaching whichever shiny object I needed to see next, to add to my collection of ‘seen things’. These things are not the city. They are not even close to being what makes a city. That cannot be uncovered in a museum, it has to be learned by doing and seeing. Travel, without a plan, and without excess money, lets you discover in this way.
While I wouldn’t ever advocate that all the time, I would say that whenever you convince yourself that you can’t have that weekend away because you can’t afford to get into half a dozen attractions just stop. Remember what it means to explore a new place and reassess whether you need that much money after all.