Originally appeared in BND’s Lipstik Magazine in August of 2013.

Backpacking across Europe is something many students do in their college years, before entering the “real world.” So at the age of 34, with a full-time job, two small children and a husband who works in Iowa, Mandy Lewis wasn’t planning on embarking on an adventure to another continent any time soon.  But when the opportunity was handed to her, she refused to let it pass her by.

“I found out in July that I had a pretty big airline credit from a cancelled flight that would expire September first,” said Lewis, of Dupo.  “I didn’t have a lot of vacation time or money to spend on hotels, but I couldn’t just let it go to waste.”

paintingInstead, she mapped out a plan to fly First Class to Europe and spend three hours in each of five different countries. She would take just two vacation days, spend money only on ground transportation, one hotel night, food and water, and she would take a single backpack with snacks, yoga pants, tank tops, a pair of flip flops and an international cell phone.  Her brother and mom would watch the kids, for which she was grateful.

“Since my husband works out of town, I was ready for the ‘me’ time,” said Lewis. “I wasn’t nervous at all – just excited.”

paris2On a Thursday afternoon in early August, she boarded a plane and landed in London on Friday morning. She ate breakfast and explored the city via subway, then flew to Paris where she hired a cab driver to show her famous sites such as the Eifel Tower and the Louvre.  Next, she flew to Barcelona where a guide took her to the Mediterranean Sea, then on Saturday morning flew to Venice and took a gondola ride through the canals. Her last flight was to Amsterdam where she stopped in a pub to chat with locals, watched a parade and then finally checked into a tiny hotel room and slept.

“Some people have asked if I felt rushed, but it was just the opposite,” said Lewis. “It was kind of liberating knowing I had to choose one or two things I wanted to do or see and just go for them and not get distracted by thoughts of ‘well maybe I should do this or that’. And being alone meant I didn’t have to ask what someone else wanted to do.”

gondolasInstead of taking time to sit down for fancy meals or shop in boutiques, she watched people and observed their culture. She discovered that riding on a gondola is fun, but having to use water for everyday transportation wouldn’t be so glamorous. She also realized that she sounds really spoiled when she complains about being hot in America, since most places in Europe don’t have air conditioning. And she found that, despite what we see on TV, the rest of the world doesn’t actually hate Americans.

Lewis enjoyed seeing and photographing the famous sites of Europe, but most of the highlights of her trip were things she can’t fit into a picture frame. During her flight home on Sunday morning, she made a list of some of the important things she wanted to remember and might want to pass along to others:

  1. Love, joy, and sadness know no language. Neither do high-fives.
  2. Language barriers can be overcome with hand gestures and body language ALMOST every time.
  3. Sometimes, it’s okay to talk to strangers; you can meet amazing people with even more amazing stories.
  4. Put as many flags in your map as you can. It doesn’t matter if it’s across the globe or town. Go somewhere you haven’t been. Often.
  5. Always pack lightly and pack clothes that you don’t mind tossing in an airport trash can when your bag becomes too heavy (she threw away the jeans and sneakers she wore on her flight from St. Louis).
  6. Everyone should be the square peg in a world of round holes every once in a while.
  7. Go someplace where you know no one for a few days, and go by yourself. For three days don’t be Mom, Dad, Brother, Sister, Employee, Husband, or Wife. For three days, be you.