Stepping off the plane in Athens to begin my two-month journey through Europe, I was full of nerves. Supported by the Newman Exploration Travel Fund (NEXT) program, it was my first time outside the country, and I knew that no matter how much planning I did, I couldn’t prepare for every obstacle that would come my way. But nine weeks later, I can confidently say that I’m thankful for every hiccup, mistake, and surprise that I experienced. Each one, in their own way, pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me connect to those around me. And each obstacle contributed to creating a unique and unforgettable trip that I’ll cherish for a lifetime.
Greece was so different from anywhere I had been before. I loved walking through the cat-filled streets, seeing the laundry hanging outside, and watching families spend time on their balconies. I especially loved the Monastiraki square, which featured a never-ending bustling market and incredible fruit. But my real motivation for visiting—the ancient ruins—did not disappoint. There were so many incredible sites to visit, like the large ancient Roman Agora, the birthplace of democracy, and the Karameikos archeological site, the ancient cemetery in Athens. And of course, I’ll never forget visiting the Acropolis. Seeing the Parthenon in person made it feel real, and standing in a place with so much history was amazing. The temple itself surprised me with how it truly dominated the landscape and city, and knowing the amount of detail put into every inch of the building–especially the pediment sculptures–made it that much more awe-striking.
After my stay in Athens, I went to stay with my TA and wonderful travel mentor Sophia, who I met last semester. She was staying in a town near Volos, Greece, and I was super excited to experience Greece outside of a major city. But on my first day there, on a run through a smaller village in the mountains, I was chased and bitten by a pack of wild dogs. Very lucky for me, I had Sophia as an emergency contact to drive me to a hospital in Volos.
Honestly, even writing about it now makes me laugh. And while the situation was terrifying then, experiencing the culture of a Greek hospital is something I’ll remember forever. I watched as grown men with very small injuries ran up to the counter to perform over-the-top dramatics–all in order to be seen first. And the most comical thing about it all was that it actually worked; there was next to no order in who was treated. So, since I didn’t complain much in the wheelchair, it took quite a long time before the wounds were taken care of. But I am truly so lucky and thankful to leave with only a few scars, all thanks to Sophia who became a mini-doctor for me while my wounds healed.
Rome was a major change in pace from Greece, especially when it came to clothing. My shorts and tank tops didn’t exactly fly in the Catholic churches, and while it was hot, that never seemed to stop Italians from making a major fashion statement. So, I made sure to dress up when exploring the wonders of Rome, like the Colosseum, Vatican City, the Sistine Chapel, Trajan’s Column, and attending mass service at St. Peter’s Basilica. I was truly in awe of the strong contrasts between the ancient ruins and the modern buildings they shared space with. While lots of the ancient sites in Athens were roped off and protected, there were simply so many ruins spread throughout Rome that they felt like more of a casual, integrated part of the city. I also loved the number of small parks nestled within neighborhoods that families would visit for hours during the evenings. There was a greater effort to be outdoors and with loved ones than I think is seen in America, and it was something I really appreciated about the culture.
While in Rome, I decided to stay in a room at a couple’s apartment through Airbnb. While walking around the Colosseum, I got a phone call from the owner that the pair had broken up, and since she didn’t want to speak to him, or stay in the apartment, I’d need to find a new place to stay that night. The whole thing was quite dramatic, and packing my bags, I felt like I was stuck in the middle of a soap opera. But I was proud of myself for going with the flow and also managing not to laugh at the insanity of it all (at least in the apartment). This trip has absolutely helped me adjust and deal with unexpected switched plans.
My next stop was Venice, which has always been an absolute dream of mine to visit. I was surprised by the sheer number of bridges and canals on the island. While I had imagined there would be many, I didn’t expect water at every turn–but I totally loved it. The city was beautiful, and I loved taking the ferry to explore the nearby islands of Murano and Burano.
With Venice being my longest stay in Europe, I had time to take some amazing day trips and become really familiar with Italian public transport. I was surprised by how easy it was to visit different cities nearby within a day, and loved how accessible places in Europe were by train. I visited Verona, the setting for Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and Padua, which houses Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel (a total bucket-list place!).
Next up was Paris: an unsurprisingly easy city to fall in love with. I especially loved spending the day in Versailles. The singing gardens were a definite highlight, and I was overwhelmed by the extravagance and size of them. The interior rooms of the palace were dripping with luxury and beauty, and it was amazing to see the rooms where the royal women lived and got ready each morning. I also enjoyed visiting the Dior Gallery, which felt so connected to Paris and Renaissance-era fashion. I couldn’t have prepared for the incredibly vast collections at the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay and had a blast seeing so many of the artworks I’d studied for the first time.
My last stop was Rouen, France, which was a great home base to explore the Normandy region. I made sure to spend a day at Monet’s house and gardens, which were incredibly beautiful. I also explored Rouen itself, which is known as the city of 100 bell towers because of all its beautiful, decorative, and tall churches.
I couldn’t be more grateful for this experience and all it has taught me. I had met so many wonderful people from all over the world, and been able to see places I had only dreamed of. The NEXT scholarship has helped me expand my worldview so much farther than I thought possible, and I will remember this summer forever. Thank you, thank you, thank you!