I was in my mid-30s feeling sort of restless, non-adventurous and boring. I reacted by going on a 10-day, 10,000-mile journey from Denver to London to Paris to Brussels to Amsterdam to London and back to Denver. I was accompanied by my girlfriend after initially being okay with going alone. We departed Denver with only round-trip plane tickets and a place to stay on our first night in London. The remaining trip was to be a nomadic, fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants journey. To call it an adventure would be an understatement. I felt like I lived a lifetime in those 10 days.
We landed at Heathrow Airport midday after an overnight flight from Denver. As a lifetime lover of airplanes and airports, flying on a Boeing 747-400—The Queen of the Skies—shortly before its retirement was an absolute blessing. Additionally, Heathrow is one of the Seven Wonders of the World for aviation enthusiasts, as it’s one of the most internationally connected airports in the world. I already had a fondness for Heathrow and London from novels and movies. They’re often the setting for big international crime stories and are highpoint locations for movers and shakers.
After getting off the train near Tower Bridge and making our way south towards our Airbnb, I experienced the first major observation: wayfinding is difficult! This theme rang true in London, Paris, and Brussels. It was a little easier in Amsterdam. Streets are not grids; they wind all over the place. What looked easy enough on a map found us lost, heading the wrong direction, and ending up on streets we didn’t even see on the map. The walking routes on our phones told us to turn left in 200 feet, turn right in 50 feet, turn left in 175 feet, all without street names. The routes cut through alleys, parks, and little walkways between buildings. We ended up ditching specific walking routes and just weaved towards the general direction of places, asking locals for directions when we got close.
After not really sleeping from the fast-forwarding flight east, the Conor McGregor vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov fight card was to begin at 3:00 AM (seven hours ahead of Denver), with the main event on somewhere between 5:30 AM and 6:00 AM. I would have skipped this fight but it was the Super Bowl of MMA. I wasn’t missing it. We found a bar called Number 1 London showing it near Tower Bridge that was open until 6:00 AM. What’s crazy is this bar’s regular hours were till 6 AM on Saturday nights. None of these European cities slept. The crowd was raucous and it was packed until the end. The Brits we met were fun, loud and animated. Out on the street attempting to get home, there were still people everywhere. We hailed a cab and headed towards our place under the morning sunrise.
The Airbnb we stayed at was in an apartment building in a student housing area. Jose was the guest. He was a flamboyant young man from Brazil who spoke with a heavy Portuguese accent. We stayed in the room for two nights but were only there to lay our heads for a few hours. Since it was within walking distance of the River Thames and had Wi-Fi, it checked our boxes.
We did the site seeing thing next. It wasn’t a priority on this trip, but always necessary. We saw Tower Bridge, Tower of London castle, the central business district, Shakespeare’s Globe, The Eye, Big Ben, Piccadilly Circus (which felt like a combination of the Las Vegas Strip and Rodeo Drive), and ate an uber-authentic Chinese restaurant in Chinatown. This place, seriously, 100% Chinese people inside, Chinese-only menu, and the host encouraged us to go somewhere else, saying in barely recognizable English that we don’t have teriyaki chicken or beef and broccoli. Fuck you, give us a table!
All in all, I loved London. I was inspired to tweet the following: “London is the livest city I’ve ever been to. The history, architecture, diversity and culture are an overload on the senses. It feels like the capital of the world.” A common theme throughout this trip, and with traveling to big cities in general, is that you could spend months in them and not see everything. That holds true here, but it was on to Paris.
Another first, we rode on a high-speed train! The Eurostar train from London to Paris glides under the English Channel and achieves top speeds of 186 miles per hour. It’s almost impossible to focus your eyes on nearby scenery whizzing by that swiftly. The ride was quiet and smooth and we arrived at Gare de Nord station in the center of Paris. You walk out from this station and immediately into a bustling street scene surrounded by Paris’s signature mid-rise, block-sized beige buildings.
Second major observation: there are a lot of black people in these European cities. I obviously knew black people lived in London and Paris, but I was surprised by how many I saw. It felt like a New York or Los Angeles or Atlanta in this regard. And the larger international theme is present as well, with many different groups of Indians, Africans, Arabs, and Asians mixed in. I did confirm via Wikipedia that only 60% of London’s population is white. I would assume similar numbers exist for Paris and Brussels. Amsterdam felt whiter.
First thing we had to do was locate a place to stay for the night. Tensions were always running a little high until we booked places. We posted up at, ironically, an American-themed restaurant (only because it had readily available Wi-Fi) and began looking for Airbnb’s on the map. We had to leave the city center somewhat to find reasonable prices because they are astronomical in the heart of the action. We located a cute place a few miles south in the 13th arrondissement and booked it for two nights.
Third major observation: transit in Europe is amazing! There are trains, subways, light rail, and buses everywhere that run often and around the clock. Any location only requires a three-block walk to some stairs that go down into a subway system, and then upon arrival, you walk up some stairs and are within a few blocks of your destination. It’s so easy to get around without a car.
We reached the Airbnb and met a lady named Nathaly who owned a beautiful flat with big French windows that opened to up to a lush green park with the sound of kids playing. Nathaly had one of those envy-inducing lives: spoke four or five languages, owned a beautiful flat in Paris, and traveled extensively due to her occupation as a travel writer. Get out of here! Anyways, she was sweet and personable and gave us some valuable site seeing tips.
We kept it local that night and went down to the local café to grab a drink. We began a conversation with a similar-aged local girl named Marine who was entertaining as hell. Dusting off her English, she told us about life in Paris and her travels around the world, always with an ill-placed “shit” or “fuck” laced in for effect. She was like a Parisian version of Gina and she joked about seeing the drunky girl in her, as she was one herself. During this conversation, Gina was told to go back to her country by a women walking by, after Gina mistakenly thought she was asking us for money in French – but I digress. Marine suggested we walk a few blocks up the way to an area with a lot of bars and cafes. This little area was known as Butte-Aux-Cailles and was one of the highlights of our trip. We strolled up there on Monday night at 9 or 10 PM and it was an absolute gem: completely local, no tourists, and it was vibrant with the hum of patio conversations, everybody drinking and smoking. Bartenders barely knew English. One had to have “ten” translated to English for us.
Hanging out on the dim-lit cobblestone streets seemingly secluded from the world, Gina struck up a conversation with a memorable duo. Lauren, the pediatrician, and JB, some sort of real estate professional, were so cool to us. The opposite of snooty Parisians, these two embraced meeting us and were happy to practice their rudimentary English with heavy French accents. They made us feel warm and welcome and I felt like I saw the light in terms of why people like to travel and meet locals. We laughed and drank for a couple of hours and I’ll always remember them when I reminisce about this trip.
The next day it was time for the touristy thing again. We rode the tube into the central area and saw Notre Dame, the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe, Sacre-Coeur, and ate dinner in touristy Montmartre, which was an old-world, postcard-picturesque area with steep, narrow cobblestone streets. Random aside: the new electric scooters that have infiltrated all the major US cities are prevalent in Paris. They were a perfect mobility option for site seeing, and riding two-on-one blended in with the chaotic, anything-goes feeling of getting around in Paris.
The next night we drank with our local counterparts in the Latin Quarter area and talked about life in our respective countries. Fourth major observation: people are people. Not that I didn’t know this, but traveling only reaffirms it. We have different languages and customs but we have the same common goals of being happy or getting by. Many of the people I meant could easily be good friends if I lived there.
Later that night (ok, early morning) we were wandering towards some form of transportation to get home when we heard the sound of people hanging out down a random street. As we veered around the corner we saw a typical looking café that was still bustling with people. We went inside at 2:30ish AM and asked the bartender if they were still open. He gave us almost a confused look and said yeah, open till 5 AM. This was a Tuesday night! And in the middle of a neighborhood, not some party district. We ended up sitting at a table with a guy from Canada, who lives in Paris, and two Parisians. As it approached 5 AM the place was still decently crowded. Fifth major observation: Europeans don’t sleep! I’ve heard of 4 AM closing times in New York, but 5, 6 AM seems pretty routine in London and Paris.
I loved Paris. All of the clichés about the romantic atmosphere, beautiful boulevards and architecture, art, food and culture exist for a reason. You can still see the ghost of Ernest Hemingway having cocktails in the 1920s. The place just has an energy to it.
I experienced my traveling-can-be-difficult moment on the journey from Paris to Brussels. I had received warnings that Parisians can be snooty towards Americans, but we hadn’t experienced anything like that (outside of Gina being told to go back to her country, as previously mentioned). But at the Gare du Nord train station we got a little taste. It wasn’t blatant, but more just an indifference to our plight. As we tried to get train tickets at a kiosk with my credit card, the machine notified me of an error, but it wasn’t in English. The train was departing in 15 minutes, this machine would not take my card, and we couldn’t interpret what the problem was. It eventually displayed a longer message across the screen and froze up. Attempts at asking people around us failed, as they just shrugged and reiterated the obvious, that my card didn’t work. Time was running out and staff at the help desks just kept passing the buck. “Go up the stairs to the left.” Staff up there said “go around the corner and go back downstairs.” It was frustrating! This fucking train leaves in 7 minutes, just help! As Gina waited in line at a larger, more official customer service office, I tried my debit card at another kiosk and it worked. Sweet! But of course the tickets print out in French only, so we couldn’t tell what the hell the pertinent details were. And it printed out 2 tickets each, meaning we had to connect in another city. But the first thing we had to do was find which platform our train departed from. We were running through the train station at this point asking random people. We finally made it to the train and were able to get on after being presented with disapproving looks by security.
Unlike London to Paris, or Brussels to Amsterdam, the train from Paris to Brussels was not concerned with English. Of course people were in our seats and didn’t know a word of English. We just sat in different seats. None of the train announcements were in English. We had to connect trains in Arras, but we didn’t know what was being said or which stops were what. That was that feeling, like damn, this is real! We are traveling through foreign countries! After seeing numerous security personnel with automatic rifles, and being warned in broken English by a local to watch for pick pockets, we arrived in Brussels at the Midi train station. After the beautiful Gare du Nord in the heart of Paris, we thought you could just walk out of any of these train stations and right into the action. Wrong! We walked out of Midi and just chose a direction to walk. We pretty quickly realized this wasn’t the best idea. First of all, we were unknowingly walking away from the central area. The street we were on looked kind of like a Colfax Avenue and there were a bunch of Arabs that were giving us peculiar stares as we walked around with our giant packs on. We decided to look at a map and come up with an actual plan. For a while we wondered where the hell we were. It wasn’t very inviting. We even joked about just getting back on a train and going somewhere else. But as we kept walking towards the central area it started to shift, cafes and bars began to appear. Ok, maybe this isn’t so bad. We stopped at a bar to get some Wi-Fi and what Belgium is known for became apparent. So many yummy dark beers with names I couldn’t pronounce, some as high as 12% alcohol, all relatively inexpensive. We made it! But we didn’t yet have a place to stay and it was getting late—Gina freaked out.
After listening to us have a public whisper-yelling fight, the guy next to us chimed in with some pointers and advice. He was cool, way laid back. But dammit, he led us on by telling us that we could possibly stay at his girlfriend’s apartment—he’d ask her when she arrived after work. Well, she showed up and was not a fan of that idea. We were still on our own. But we continued with some good conversation about life in different areas and he gave us bar recommendations. A common European thing, he spoke five languages.
We get to the central area, which is awesome. I like Brussels. A lot of graffiti and artsy grittiness contrasted with ritzy shopping districts and immaculate buildings. The languages are all over the place because Belgium doesn’t have a unifying culture. It’s uber international. You’ll hear mostly French and Dutch, but Finnish and German are also common. And there are many Arabs and Africans who speak in their native tongues. At this point in the trip it was difficult to even distinguish what languages were being spoken. The savior was that nearly everybody spoke a little English, which seems true in most of Western Europe. That’s the sixth major observation: everybody speaks a little English. A funny aside, most people attempted to speak to us first in Spanish, saying “hola!” We sort of wore that as a badge of honor: it meant we weren’t walking around with “I’m American” billboards on our foreheads.
So, time for the low part of the trip. We start to look for places to stay. There are barely any Airbnb’s, hotels are outrageously priced. The few hotels we went into had no vacancy at all. Hostels had no vacancies. This is a joke, right? The only hotel rooms available were $300 and up. Dammit! A lady at one of the front desks notified us that a big convention was in town. Yep, it was European Week of Regions and Cities, a week-long conference with over 6,000 participants. Again, here’s where not planning or doing any research goes wrong. This was so crazy it kind of just became a joke. It was dark, 10:00 PM, and we were really looking up potential parks to sleep in. I joked that I was going to say I’ve experienced homelessness before. But it was a surreal experience: nobody you know to help you, nobody around cared. We looked homeless with our giant packs and disheveled clothes, sitting on a stoop. It almost felt natural to ask people for money at this juncture. The good news, after more research and with help from my sister back in the states, we did find a hotel about a mile away that was fairly reasonably priced. Homelessness averted!
The next night we got an Airbnb out of the central area in more of a neighborhood. Not touristy at all, we got to observe how the locals lived. There was still a strong café culture, which I love. I wish we had more of that in the U.S. For dinner we ate at an authentic African restaurant that was unique and quite good. We both got chicken, mine was with a peanut sauce and Gina’s was with an onion concoction. The recognizable touristy thing we did was visit Grand Place, which is easily the most popular image on postcards from Brussels. That night we hung out in a little bar district and met a funny ass bartender that kept landing jokes on us. When Gina went to the restroom I remember him saying that Spain was the place, his dream—women and parties every night! A thunderstorm randomly swept through at 1:00 AM and lit up the sky. Apparently their weather is similar to Colorado’s with rapid seasonal changes.
Overall, I’m glad we included Brussels as a destination. It doesn’t have the glamor of a London or Paris or Amsterdam, but I enjoyed the contrast. Our Airbnb host in Amsterdam later said he didn’t like Brussels and said it was a working city. But that’s exactly why I’m glad we visited. Many people before our trip suggested Bruges, about an hour away by train, which is beautiful from pictures I’ve seen, but we heard from our buddy earlier that Bruges was just a postcard with no real culture or nightlife. I’d much prefer a gritty, real city, especially with our limited time abroad. Brussels succeeded in giving me that completely-out-of-comfort-zone travel experience that’s supposed to make you grow as a person, as they say. Thank you, Brussels.
Have you ever heard anybody say they don’t like Amsterdam? I’m not sure if that’s ever been muttered. Amsterdam is one of those places that you know you’ll like before you get there. It’s Amsterdam! You’ve got legal everything, Red Light District, bikes everywhere; it’s beautiful. We experienced in Amsterdam a reversion to the nice central train station thing. You walk out to a beautiful open plaza surrounded by the quirky Dutch row buildings and picturesque waterfront canals. It’s easy to hop on a light rail or bus or water taxi and get where you need to go. We arrived on Saturday evening so there were people everywhere. Once again, we needed to locate a place to stay and it would be somewhat tense until we did. Amsterdam is expensive. We were lucky to find a reasonably-priced Airbnb that was only available due to a last minute cancellation. After entering the main hall, I learned something about Amsterdam: the stairs are so steep they look like ladders. You almost feel like you have to get on all fours to climb them.
Our host was a happy-go-lucky Dutchman named Diogo. It also worked out because he prided himself on being an unofficial travel guide and was in the process of creating a website on the topic. So we had plenty of recommendations. We walked out of his apartment and almost got run over by a bike. One thing you learn really quickly in Amsterdam is that bicycles are king. There are uninterrupted bike highways on every street and the residents cruise them as though it’s their God-given right not to be impeded. You’ll be made to feel as though you kicked a puppy if you wade out into the bike lane without paying attention; it’s blasphemy in Amsterdam. Ding! Ding! Ding! They’ll ring you and make a comment or audibly sigh so loud it can be heard for miles.
So, we didn’t waste any time the first night: to the Red Light District we go! Wow, what a sight: loosely clad Playboy Bunny-looking women posturing in windows, waiting for the curious adventure seeker to knock. The weed cafes aren’t a big deal to us Coloradoans, as it’s been legal here for years, but the open and legal prostitution, actually paraded in storefronts, is a shock. The whole area had a crowded, touristy feel, similar to the Vegas Strip or Bourbon Street. People come here to party. A lot of Brits, as it’s only a 45-minute flight away.
We settled on a bar to grab a drink and a complete showstopper occurred. Gina causally mentions to me that a person outside may be a celebrity or something, due to the crowds. Oh cool, I think, and turn to look out the window. It’s Floyd freakin’ Mayweather Jr. just walking down the street! Holy shit! He’s one of the most famous people in the world. Boxing is global. The guy earned $275 million for one fight with Conor McGregor. So, that was kind of neat.
The next day we did the touristy daytime stuff: walked the canals, saw a Banksy exhibit, and took pictures at the Iamsterdam sign, which is cross-off item number one on the touristy list. Café life in Amsterdam is also something serious and you will be sitting next to someone who is smoking. Major and obvious observation 7: Europeans drink and smoke a lot! It seems like they just chain smoke all day and night. This was true in all four countries we visited. It’s engrained into how they socialize.
As light turned to dark, coffee turns to booze and spliffs burn more rapidly—being out and about is a requirement, especially during the unseasonably warm weather they were experiencing. We stopped to observe a dancing drunk in the street and struck up a conversation with some locals. On an aside, Amsterdam, of all the cities we visited, felt closest to being pretentious. I didn’t experience anything negative, but the groups of people felt less approachable. I think Amsterdam is diverse on a larger scale, but the central area is so expensive—think Manhattan or San Francisco—that the diversity gets washed out. Most people we encountered at the bars and cafes looked like they were from an Ivy League frat or sorority, tall and blonde and dressed in business-like clothes. Amsterdam was the only city in which I felt self-conscious about my appearance. Nonetheless, the people we spoke to while watching the dancing drunk were a little more of the roughneck local variety, and were very entertaining. We got on the topic of blasting Donald Trump. And major observation 8: outside of one guy in Paris who was wishy washy, everybody we encountered in Europe hated Trump with a passion. He is not a popular figure over there, which also isn’t surprising. We finished the night at a hip dance bar with a bunch of young people. As I waited for the inevitable Drake or Migos song to play (as would occur in America), it never came. Instead, people danced their hearts out to 70s Earth, Wind & Fire and 90s Blackstreet like it was the latest and hottest stuff out. Good times.
The biggest pain in the ass from doing the no-plan, nomadic travel itinerary was getting back to Heathrow Airport for our flight back home to Denver. All I’ve ever heard was how easy and cheap it is to fly in Europe. Not! This does not apply for waiting till the last second to buy plane tickets from Amsterdam to London on a Sunday night/Monday morning. Heathrow was basically sold out or $400 and up, which again, was for a 45-minute flight. The only real option was overpriced tickets to Gatwick Airport, which is 35 miles from Heathrow. This turned into logistical planning fun! Do we fly into Gatwick and head straight to Heathrow to find a hotel, or do we stay at a hotel near Gatwick and head to Heathrow in the morning—bus, train, uber, fly?
After some deliberation we decided to stay near Gatwick for the night and head to Heathrow by bus in the morning. A fun little unforeseen curveball was the difficulty in getting a hotel room right outside of the airport. This was a random Sunday night in October, dark and rainy and not many people anywhere. The first hotel we walked to, Premier Inn, notified us that they didn’t have any vacancy after the front desk lady told us she had to talk to her manager. Huh? Zero vacancy? The place was like ten stories tall. Sure. We then walked next door to the Sofitel hotel, which was a little nicer. Again, the front desk lady checks her computer, goes in the back to talk to her manager, and comes back to tell us they also have no vacancy. Such bullshit. It occurred to me what was going on. We were being discriminated against as dirty backpack travelers, no doubt. We looked slightly disheveled, wearing sweats, and had huge backpacks on. The few guests sprinkled around the hotel bars were nicely dressed, sipping on martinis. These hotels had empty rooms. What they were saying was that “we don’t want your kind here.” I could be wrong but I doubt it. There were for sure 500+ hotel rooms between those two places. And again, this was a dead Sunday night in October. It was a surreal experience.
The good news is that this snafu led us to a budget place about a mile away that was an experience in its own right. The Gatwick Belmont Hotel had a rural, homely hospitality and the attendant spoke with such a deep British accent that we almost needed an interpreter to understand her. It felt like we were in the English countryside. After a night of grocery store beer, sushi, and a Michael Jackson documentary, we awoke the next morning to eat an English breakfast and hop on the bus to Heathrow airport. Everything on this leg of the journey went smoothly for a change and we were back on the Queen of the Skies in route to Denver. A memorable trip for sure!
I appreciate this trip for a number of reasons. For one, it feels like a monkey off my back. Many people I know have traveled extensively, and traveling is a common conversational topic among new acquaintances and at social gatherings. I finally feel like I have a seat at the table, can contribute something. I’m cultured, too! Additionally, I pride myself on being well-read, intrigued by different cultures, and am drawn to the cosmopolitan flair. All of this is sort of undermined without having traveled overseas (Mexico and Jamaica feel more domestic). I don’t feel like such a poser anymore.
I’ve heard it said about education that no one can take it away from you. Traveling is similar. Twenty years from now it’s still a cool story. In fact, it only gets cooler and more nostalgic with technological and cultural changes through time. It becomes a time capsule. I always think it’s awesome when older people talk about being in Paris in the 70s or Tokyo in the 80s. It conjures up the backdrop of a classic movie, gives me the old-times-were-more-fun kind of envy. So, there it is. My attempt to tackle some mid-30s restlessness was a success. I always wanted to travel, enjoyed traveling, and I hope this is just the beginning of my adventures.