First Timer’s Guide to Europe

I arrived in Spain not too long ago and I’m having to re-learn all the lessons I learned when I was in Europe for the first time in the summer of 2014. When I arrived, everything seemed very unnecessarily complicated, but I realized that was probably due to the jet-lag I was feeling!

However, there are a few lessons that are important to remember upon arriving.

  1. Everything seems slightly more complicated you’re used to

You’re not in your home country anymore. You might say “duh, Nicole, that’s the point of traveling.” Yes, this is obvious, but you may not realize all the little things that are different about where you’re visiting. For example, the air conditioning in my AirBnb in Madrid has a little jug of water I have to dump out after using it. The grocery stores here in Spain seem to lean toward smaller stores of individual types (fruit, meat, bakeries) rather than one larger store where you can find anything. In Spain, the siesta closures can get in your way of running errands. There are lot less elevators and a lot more stairs. Overall, it’s nothing so crazily different that you have to adjust your worldview, but the little things can add up if you let them annoy you. If you give it some time, you adjust to all these new things quite well. Your home life would be equally complicated to somebody from here!

2. Everything is as large as it needs to be

To this you may say “Nicole, that’s the way it is in America!” but instead I would say that in America, things are instead as big as they can be. This is quite a large difference that speaks to a greater cultural difference. Bathrooms, showers, washing machines, apartments, cars, serving sizes, metro seats, sidewalks: everything is just as large as needed, with no extra or wasted space. This is quite different from the American standard of living where we enjoy things as large as we can get them and takes some getting used to. This is perhaps an easier adjustment if you’re from a city like San Francisco or New York, but land is cheap in Arizona and Phoenix is a sprawled out city.

3. Brands/Products won’t be the same or cost the same

This may also seem like a “duh” point but it can make finding your favorite shampoo or face cream an impossibility, especially if you have picky skin or hair. Thankfully my face washes are from Lush and they have stores here. However, if you’re committed to a favorite item, either lug it from home or be prepared to pay an arm and a leg (if you can even find it!). There are of course some larger brands that you can find here, but for niche products or things like peanut butter, be prepared to do some more looking than at home. I also found out today that razors are quite expensive here, which was a bummer after using Dollar Shave Club for the last year or so. A Spaniard needs to set up one of those here!

4. You will get lost 

It’s bound to happen. In America (especially newer cities) we favor the grid system, where intersections are regular and streets work quite simply. In Europe, it can be difficult to find a crosswalk, streets may turn suddenly into a different street, and street signs are tucked high up on walls rather than posted in the street. It definitely takes some getting used to, so don’t panic if you realize you don’t know where you are. Thankfully, in the larger cities there are usually maps posted near metro/bus stops, cultural centers or bike rental areas. An app that doesn’t rely on data is also worth a download. CityMaps2Go has saved me in England, Ireland, Scotland, Paris and now in Madrid! You download the map of the city in advance and I don’t know what magic it uses, but it lets you look and see where you are on the map, what direction you’re headed, and where points of interest are. You can’t map it out with directions like on Google Maps or use it in place of a Metro map, but it’s a little easier to hide than a huge city map in front of your face! Just be sure to keep a good grip on your phone in case somebody decides they want it!

A note on this: be sure to drop a star/pin at your lodging or where you’ve parked your car for the day AS SOON as you get there, that way you’ll always be able to find your way back.

5. On that note, something WILL go wrong.

There is always something that won’t go exactly as planned. Either your debit card won’t work, your phone won’t work as planned, you lost something, somebody stole your passport, whatever. There is no way for everything to always go perfectly, but that’s okay! There is always a solution to the problem, you just have to find it. Before my first trip abroad, we had an orientation at which one of the speakers showed us a graph of people’s feelings when they go abroad: at first, everything seems new and incredible, and then there’s always a low point where everything is stressful and you want to go home. After that, you even out to a plateau somewhere in the middle. There’s always going to be a point where everything sucks and you’re tired and nothing is going right– my advice is to just get some rest. The next day, everything will seem much less difficult and you’ll find your plateau soon enough.

6. You’re going to walk. A LOT. 

Each day I’ve been here I’ve well exceeded the 10,000 step guideline on my fitness tracker, and I almost doubled it the other day. Bring good shoes and wear clothes that you don’t always have to be fussing with. By foot is a great way to explore but not with blisters!

7. Grocery shop at the end of the day

Many stores will have fresh baked pastries  and bread in the beginning of the day, and by the end of the day they’re usually moved to a clearance section. You can get some great pastries and breads for so cheap if you can handle them being 8 hours older. I promise they still taste great!

8. Don’t let fear get the best of you

There are always horror stories people hear about travelers. Don’t let those stories take away from your experience! Europe is really such a safe place. There are of course bad neighborhoods in any place, but the same can be said for your hometown! Keep your wits about you and pay attention, but don’t let fear keep you from doing the things you want. You may choose to wear a money belt, though you can make do without one if you’re careful! People live in the cities you’re visiting and they don’t hide all their belongings inside their clothes– so it’s not always necessary! Don’t put your phone in your back pocket, don’t advertise yourself as a tourist (American flag gear, fanny packs and white tennis shoes are usually big giveaways), and always keep an eye (and sometimes hand!) on your bags and belongings and you should be fine.


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