I didn’t know what my journey would look like when I started. I was 24, living in Ottawa and working part-time as a cashier at a grocery store while I completed my master’s degree. I graduated in June 2014, and remained at the grocery store while I applied for serious Big Girl jobs. Living in Ottawa was fun, but I wanted more. I had given myself a deadline. I would work for no more than one year at the grocery store before I “did something cool with my life.” Either I’d find a job or I’d travel with my small pile of savings.
In October, through distant family connections, an opportunity seemed to land in my lap to live and work in Paris for three months as something like an Au Pair. What?!
Even when you think you have a perfect plan, everything can change in a second.
I could barely contain my excitement at the possibilities. I spoke with the family over Skype to get to know each other. Would it be a good fit? The perks were obvious: accommodation, food, cell phone, and transit pass all covered, plus a small monthly stipend. My nanny duties would take place in the mornings and evenings and I would have my days free to explore Paris and the surrounding areas. I had major plans to become fluent in French, with a new found knowledge of French cuisine. My friends thought I would return a wine snob. I was going to have three months to soak in Parisienne culture, and I couldn’t wait.
The nanny job offered me a way to travel without depleting my savings, all while getting an intimate look at the daily life of a French family. All I had to do was book my flight.
This whole thing seemed to fall into my lap at exactly the right time. It was perfect. Having never been out of Canada on my own, I was a little terrified. I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But the thought of being out there on the journey and figuring it all out – that’s what I live for.
I left Canada on December 1, 2014. The flight was around 7 hours, and after adding in the time change, I was utterly exhausted when I arrived. But this would be my first time meeting the family in person, so I tried to appear alert and personable. I had about an hour to unpack my things, and then it was straight to work. I hadn’t expected that, but I just rolled with it.
As it turned out, things were not what I had expected at all. When we first spoke over Skype, I understood that the first week would be about me learning the routine. I thought the mother would be accompanying me for the first week when taking the kids to school and daycare and show me how she does things. By the second day, I realized this wasn’t the case. They wanted me to hit the ground running, as if I had arrived by umbrella by the will of the winds, instead of by plane.
After less than one week, the parents decided that “It wasn’t working”. I took this as a personal failure for a very long time, before I realized it was probably more a case of miscommunication and unstated expectations. They wanted me to be like them, like someone they could immediately relate to. They got a quiet, shy, Canadian girl, when they wanted an outgoing, outspoken Mary Poppins type.
Even when you think you have a perfect plan, everything can change in a second.
I had booked a return flight three months from when I landed. I could have moved my flight, but I was in Europe! I couldn’t leave yet. The Journey had just begun. I had barely experienced anything!
The family said I could stay and try again if it was something I really wanted and I initially said that, yes, I wanted to stay. But after ten minutes of them tearing me down, I changed my mind. I worried about what my family would think – that I failed, that I gave up, that it was my fault and I should fix it. But how could I stay in Paris after knowing what my “employers” thought of me?
So I did what anyone would have done. I called my mom on Skype and took to Google. I wasn’t about to drag my giant suitcase around with me, but it turns out it would have been crazy expensive to pay to store my luggage or have it shipped home. Luckily, my sister put me on touch with her classmate who has family in Germany, who said I could keep it there. It was the only reasonable option, so I jumped at it. At this point, I was still in the room my former employers had secured for me, so my next step was to find a new place ASAP.
I was wary of depleting my savings too early on in the journey before I knew how much I would really need, but even hostels and Airbnb seemed expensive. I found couchsurfing online and quickly made a profile. I didn’t have a plan yet, so I decided to look for a host in Paris and finish seeing what I wanted to see before I left – like Versailles and the Café des Chats. I had doubts that anyone would take me in with a brand new profile and no reviews, but luckily, someone did.
I could never have imagined that my first solo journey would take such a turn, but I was determined to make the most of it. It didn’t matter if it was horrible, it would be an experience.
My first stop after Paris was to be a small German town called Pforzheim, which lies somewhere in between Stuttgart and Karlsruhe. This would be where I stashed my luggage. But first, I had to get there, and I had to buy a backpacking bag to take its place with me on my travels. I found a store in Paris called Decathlon, and added this as a stop on one of my day excursions. I shelled out about 75 euros for a bag, and then prepared myself to make my way through Europe.
Back in Canada, I had used carpooling to get between Toronto and Ottawa, and I figured Europe would have something similar. I spent about half a day researching, setting up a profile, and requesting rides through a website called BlaBlaCar. Luckily I had bought a local SIM card, because I needed a phone to verify my profile.
I left Paris on December 12, 2014. My 25th birthday. This was my first birthday without my family, and it was bittersweet. My carpool driver and his other passenger sang me happy birthday, and it was more special than I could have imagined. A song from strangers, in a car from Paris to Stuttgart. I still keep in touch with them on Facebook.
When I eventually found my way to Pforzheim on the train, I had trouble getting in touch with the people I was supposed to stay with. A stranger who didn’t speak English, but understood “Facebook,” let me use his phone to try and get in touch with someone (to no avail). I ended up finding a last minute couchsurfing host using the (awful)internet cafe in the train station.
When I woke up the next morning, my host was gone, but he had left a spread of breakfast for me. It was delicious and beautiful and convinced me that I hadn’t made a mistake by choosing this over staying in Paris. Despite all the mess in getting here, this was going to be incredible.
I eventually managed to get in touch with the family I was meant to stay with, and was able to rest for a couple days before stashing my luggage and taking off on the next stage of my adventure. At the time, it hadn’t seemed like it had started yet. It seemed like I was still preparing, from my arrival in Paris until my departure from Pforzheim. Looking back, it’s clear that it started the minute I set foot on the Air France plane from Toronto.
From Pforzheim, I made my way to Berlin, followed by journey to Warsaw, Krakow, Prague, Vienna, Salzburg, back to Vienna, Budapest, Zagreb, Venice, Milan, Basel, Zurich, Munich, Vienna (again), Munich (again), then back to Pforzheim for my luggage, and back to Paris (my sister and her husband actually came to visit me in Paris).
I never planned more than a few days in advance. I occasionally spent hours in Starbucks to use the WiFi so I could secure a couch to surf on, or a carpool to my next destination. I stretched my savings by rarely eating in restaurants, and instead, frequented the local grocery stores.
As a shy, introverted person, I was surprised by how easily I connected with people. Using couchsurfing and carpooling forced me to open up more than I ever thought I could.
One of my favourite memories began on a carpool ride from Krakow to Prague. My driver was a polite Polish man, around my age, on the way back to Prague, where he lived and worked, from visiting his family in Lipinki. It was an instant connection. We laughed and joked as if we were childhood friends, reunited. I napped on the ride and felt completely safe. He didn’t mind, and we laughed about it later.
After saying our goodbyes, I soon learned that I didn’t love my couchsurfing arrangement. I was still in touch with my carpool driver, and he invited me to stay with him. Since he was somewhat new to Prague, we explored the city together, and brought in the new year at a “hidden,” local spot. The sounds of fireworks in the streets throughout the night were incredible and shocking. I had never heard such loud, intense celebrations before. Coming from Canada, fireworks in the streets are generally illegal, so I was used to planned/controlled fireworks shows.
There are other people I met that I kept going back to. I was alone in Europe, and clinged to any connection that came easily.
In Vienna, my host took me in on short notice, and it was another easy connection. I ended up staying in Vienna for a total of two weeks, over multiple visits, feeling a sense of home and a chance to recharge.
On this Journey, I got closer to becoming the kind of person I had always wanted to be
By the end of my journey, I was exhausted. My energy was sapped from constantly meeting and getting to know new people. My introverted self finally caught up with me. Despite my earlier resistance to changing my flight, I bumped up my flight by a week to fly home from Paris with my sister and her husband (and surprise my mom!). Even though I left slightly early, I have zero regrets.
I fell in love with places, tastes, people, and feelings. I fell in love with myself.
I learned how much I love the train and being with a group of strangers “in between” places and states of mind.
I discovered a love for the German language, and I’ve been learning since my return to Canada. I’m currently at level B1.2.
Perhaps most importantly, I got closer to becoming the kind of person I had always wanted to be – the kind who does what they say they will do, and who goes after what they want, instead of making excuses. I decided I wanted to know German, so I started learning. I decided I wanted to be a travel writer, so I started really focusing on my travel blog. I feel a sense of calm certainty that I will accomplish what I set my mind to. We may not always know the “how,” but it’s enough to keep trying, and eventually, we’ll figure it out.
About the Author
Melissa began travel blogging in 2014 as a way to keep a log of her first “big” journey to Europe. After returning home to Canada, she knew she wanted to keep writing and developing her blog into something bigger.
She rebranded in 2016, taking the plunge into a self-hosted site. Melissa loves photography, tea, pastry, staying fit, and learning German. When she’s not travelling, Melissa can be found working in Toronto, working towards the remote life, doting on her cat, planning for travel and tattoos, and frequenting bakeries.