The sound of an unidentifiable language assaulted our ears—we had expected English. We had planned on, been counting on and hoping for English. Wait—was that it? I thought I heard a word I recognized. If THIS is English, we’re screwed. If THIS is our first, “easy” country to start off the trip…we’re screwed. What is this? Gaelic? Thickly accented English? Some hodgepodge of both?
A touch of panic began to set in. My husband Scott and I had just conquered our first-ever flight on our own, including a cliche run through the airport (never book a short transfer through Heathrow). It was the first day of our first ever big trip, day one of 49. We had purposefully chosen to start with the English-speaking countries to ease into it all. And we were quickly beginning to realize how underprepared we really were for this trip.
Not understanding a word of what our fellow airport shuttle riders were saying, we hopped off in what we hoped was central Dublin. We headed straight for our hostel, forgetting about things like check-in time. We had been traveling for nearly 12 hours and didn’t think about it being 10AM in Dublin. We were turned away of course, and carried our backpacks out to a bench on the River Liffey.
We must have been a pitiful sight. Red-eyed backpackers trying to figure out why they could hardly understand their own language, sitting on a bench unsure of what to do with their enormous bags and themselves for the next four hours while they waited for their room to come available.
Over the next seven weeks, we would learn all the tricks. We would learn how to work the hostel luggage locks and when to trust the desk staff with your bags, we would learn to understand the accents, heck, we would learn that knowing the language actually doesn’t even matter that much.
We had no way of knowing just how much we would learn and grow in the next few weeks. We didn’t know that our “easy” countries would actually turn out to be the most difficult in some ways (the public transportation in non-English-speaking cities was usually much easier to use). We didn’t know that the first few hours in a new city are always the hardest and that it gets easier. We didn’t know that not knowing can be the greatest part about travel.
We didn’t know those things yet. So we sat there, quarreling over something trivial I can’t even remember now—I think it had to do with lunch (we would also learn to always travel with snacks). We were under the impression that travel was about experiencing gorgeous sights and delicious food, and we were currently missing both. We were also missing sleep.
I can picture Future Anna walking up to those pitiful two. I think I’d tell them two things. First: don’t do anything today, go get a cheap snack at the closest spot (seriously cheap guys, because by day 41 you are going to be BROKE), then go take a nap and settle in.
Second: embrace not knowing. You will never fully understand your surroundings for the next few weeks and that’s the point. If you knew exactly what to do and where to go, you might as well be at home. You aren’t missing anything, you ARE experiencing it. The cathedrals, the parks—they’re beautiful and memorable, but this: relaxing next to the river, listening to the foreign sounds of a language you thought you would understand, this is travel. What makes your trip unique is this bench you found and the new Irish scuff on your backpack.
Oh and dear self-conscious past self, yes, everybody can tell you’re new and confused backpackers. And that’s perfectly fine, because you are. You won’t always be. Embrace it.