Most of what I’ve written about Brexit has centred around what the UK government is doing and how the process is moving along (or not moving along, as it were). Today, I want to write about some of the best moments I’ve had in Europe over the years, as a quiet reminder of how much such close proximity to other countries, languages and cultures can do for us. I have been visiting Europe since I was a tiny baby, and every year since. I love Europe. It should hopefully still be easy to travel in the EU, but there will be no more freedom of movement, which means that it will be infinitely more difficult to move to Tuscany and become a freelance wine reviewer on a whim, which, I’m sure we can all agree, is the real tragedy of Brexit.
Okay, fine, I guess that the potentially devastating effect on the economy, the loss of a number of skilled staff living in the UK who are originally from the other countries and the generally anti-progressive move to close ourselves off from other parts of the world are also not things to be thrilled about. Here’s a taste of all the greatness to be found in Europe:
We have some wonderful Italian friends, who have lived, worked and studied in both the UK and Italy over the years because the open borders within the EU allowed them to do so without issue. We visited Naples as a family during the summer of 2013 and then met up with our friends to spend a week on the island of Panarea. One night, we headed over to the neighbouring island of Stromboli, where there is, um, an ACTIVE VOLCANO. We hiked up it as the sun went down.
It was awesome. We started climbing around six in the evening in order to reach the summit spitting lava around midnight. We sat around the open crater, watching the lava and looking out over the island. It was pretty magical. We then stormed down the mountain through huge dunes of volcanic ash (we had to wear googles and mouth covers). It was basically running through clouds of ash for an hour. It was weird, we coughed a lot, but it was extremely fun. We then got a boat back to Panarea at three in the morning, the wake of which threw bioluminescent jellyfish into the air, a detail I’ve never forgotten because it was so incredibly cool.
That trip also reminded me of how Italians drive (dangerously), make pizza (decadently) and unload a moderately sized ferry (with more disorganisation than I’ve ever seen in my life). I love Italy.
I will always have fond memories of the eight days I spent in Berlin in July 2014, as it’s the first trip I planned in its entirety. It was a huge success and I was thrilled.
I went with my first boyfriend; we stayed in a very clean, fun, abstract-cat themed hostel (don’t ask). We visited the Checkpoint Charlie Museum (which I love, but is the definition of information overload), the Topography of Terror Museum (Germany has some cheery history) and the Jewish Museum, which is one of my favourite museums in the world.
We went out to Wannsee to visit the actual room where Hitler and the rest of the Nazi cabinet agreed on the final solution in 1942. After that, we got an ice cream and swam in the lake, which was slightly jarring after the heavy dose of fascist history we’d had the rest of the week. We played cards, drank beer (I hate beer but I tried) and ate sausages. We watched my first and only football game at the Brandenburg Gate with hundreds of Germans and a few Brazilians, where Germany beat Brazil 7-1 and everyone went crazy. Sadly, I can’t find any photos at all, but rest assured it was a great trip.
Kate and I had been planning to go to Russia together. We had a vision of playing poker in a casino in Moscow (something that is both totally rogue and still something I desperately want to do), drinking vodka and visiting the Kremlin. But it turns out that Russian visas are expensive, hard to get and involve trips to the Russian embassy (as do most visas, though it’s easy to forget this when you mainly travel in Europe with an EU passport. No, really, IT’S FINE) so we changed the plan. We spent five days in Budapest instead and it was truly wonderful.
We visited the Hungarian National Museum and were surprised by how blasé the displays were about Hungary’s fascist history. We visited the city’s biggest synagogue and were shocked to learn how it is only so well preserved now, despite most of the city having been bombed during WW2, because the Nazis made it a Gestapo base as it was close to the Jewish quarter. We also visited the Jewish Museum, which was beautiful and sobering. We went on an amazing walking tour about Hungary’s Communist history and learned all about ‘goulash communism’ or ‘happy communism’, which was the brand of communism that promised the people of Hungary cars and trips abroad even though it was economically unviable. For years, the government haemorrhaged money and the people were none the wiser. It did not end well.
We visited the world famous thermal baths and had the most fun, relaxing day. We ate great goulash, many boxes of sweet potato fries from the late-night burger place near our hostel and found an artisanal marzipan stall at a street market that I visited at least three times and am still obsessed with. I had the world’s strongest Mai Tai at a Ruin bar and a Tequila Sunrise cocktail so strong that we renamed it the Tequila Sunstroke. We went to a Liszt concert at the Palace of Arts, planning to grab a quick bite nearby beforehand. It turned out that there was only one restaurant there and it was eye-wateringly expensive, so we split a bowl of soup and got an elaborate cocktail each because we were twenty and on holiday. We went to a Jazz club and a hummus bar and ate a lot of Lebekuchen.
We wandered around listening to the same song at the same time, agreeing that life is better with a soundtrack. The whole trip was perfect. I can’t wait to go back.
Most people head to Croatia for the gorgeous villages and amazing coastline. We went for a rowing competition.
I went to race in the pair (a rowing boat containing two people) with my friend Imogen and in the eight with other girls from the squad, for the European University Championships. Guys, this was so exciting. I was only twenty and absolutely thrilled that I got to race abroad because our boat was performing so well. We’d already picked up medals in the UK (including winning the elite lightweight pair category at Henley Women’s Regatta, which was pretty cool) and were now able to race our boat on a bigger stage. We were lightweights but there were so few people that we ended up racing in the openweight pair category, against people who were a lot bigger and stronger than us. We didn’t care though. I was so happy to be there.
It wasn’t the most competitive race, in that there were only a few entries. It was also blisteringly hot, around 37C, which can be pretty cloying when you’re doing strenuous exercise. But we did our sessions and got ready to race. We ended up winning a bronze medal and it was awesome (the eight didn’t race because we got disqualified for an administrative error, which ended up being a huge drama). We missed the medal ceremony because we were rushing to the airport to catch the first of three planes to China for the next set of racing (though that’s a story for another time).
I can’t say I saw much of Croatia in that trip. I saw a lot of Zagreb’s rowing lake, which is, unsurprisingly, not the most picturesque part of the city. We didn’t have time to visit the Museum of Broken Relationships, which I now kick myself for not making a priority. I did eat about a thousand King ice creams (Croatian Magnums) in order to rank the flavours, which still seemed like worthwhile tourism. One day I will hopefully go back, though the whole trip was so exciting that even in its limitedness, I felt like I’d seen everything I wanted.
I love Spain generally and have definitely not spent enough time there. Barcelona is one of my favourite cities and I can’t wait to go back in May of this year for a few days. I love tapas and sangria and churros and Gaudí.
But aside from the more well-known cities, I have also spent a good few weeks in Banyoles, home to… a rowing lake. Yes, this is another rowing memory. Every January the whole squad would take a trip to Spain to focus on our training and team bonding. It was fun, sure, but we put in a lot of mileage on the water and by the end of the ten days tensions were running high. Being selected for crews is always intense, as is living in rooms with five or six of your teammates for days on end.
I remember eating copious amount of bread and olive oil alongside the insane portions the hostel would provide for us. We would wander into town for Haribos and frozen yoghurt in the evenings. We went to Girona for gelato and took a trip to the beach to break up the training, and one morning Iona and I ran around chasing the gorgeous sunrise with our bowls of breakfast cereal before our early training session.
It really wasn’t all team bonding and frozen yoghurt though. Elite teams can be surprisingly dysfunctional and we argued, cried and had to make a lot of tough decisions. My first year on the camp still felt a bit like a dream, but by the time my second trip came around and I was the leader of the group, it felt like a lot of tough conversations, emotional management and burnout. Even so, overall, both trips feel like great moments in Europe. It felt so special to have this opportunity and to be working toward what felt like such a big goal. It was great to get to know a place I otherwise would never have visited and to do it with my friends. I love trips that come out of unique or unexpected circumstances, and spending two New Year’s Eves in Spain with my crew was something I could never have expected when starting university.
One of my friends is still rowing seriously (on the GB Rowing Team) and Brexit might affect their ability to train and race abroad, as transporting boats might be much harder with the new rules. While this isn’t the greatest Brexit concern, it is yet another thing that shows how a lack of community and freedom between the UK and mainland Europe is going to give us far more frustrations than before, for people of numerous professions and situations.
I’ve written a decent amount about our short trip to Vilnius on this blog. It was particularly special to me as it was the first weekend break I’d planned and pulled off and it was to an unusual place. I loved the confused look on everyone’s faces as we said we were going to Lithuania in January.
Because it’s there. Because we can. Because I’m curious.
We had the most fun weekend wandering around Vilnius in the snow, eating amazing Eastern European food (potatoes, mainly), marvelling at the unusual architecture and exploring Užupis. It is such a hugely cool thing to be able to hop on a quick flight and spend a weekend poking around somewhere new that most people will likely never visit. I look back on this trip so fondly.
While I went to Poland with Jake’s family in December, it wasn’t the first time I’d visited. My first trip to Poland was in 2012, for a wedding. After the festivities and before we headed on to Berlin, we spent a day at Auschwitz and Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi concentration and death camps, respectively.
My dad is a professor of International Relations and, given his research at the time, this was partly for his work. Nevertheless, my parents have always prioritised history when we travel and never shy away from painful or difficult subjects.
I can’t do justice to these places with just a few words and my limited memories. We took no photographs. I remember my mum crying as we walked through the camp and feeling panic as we walked through the gas chambers as a family. Most clearly, I remember the train tracks leading into Auschwitz-Birkenau, an image I will probably always remember.
Travel isn’t all new foods and fun. It can be the best way to confront humanity’s history, especially the brutal and painful parts, of which Europe has many. That kind of first hand exposure to history is difficult to replicate with a textbook. I hope we all continue learning, at home and abroad, and keep becoming more thoughtful, empathetic and kind people.
In January of this year, we headed up to the Arctic Circle. It was fucking awesome. The sun was up for only a few hours each day and the landscape was all snow, trees and a constant sunrise/sunset through the daylight hours. We didn’t seen the Aurora but we did see the lunar eclipse, the full moon and the most stunning natural scenery.
It was cold, that far north. The temperature dipped to -35C. My dad got a little bit of frostbite, which he was very pleased with when he realised that his cheek wasn’t going to fall apart. I learned a lot about what it really means to wrap up warm. We ate a lot of soup, amazing fresh fish and I discovered cloudberries. It was very, very beautiful up there.
More than that, it was so different to life at home. Staying in your bubble makes it hard to imagine exactly what life is like in places that are fundamentally different to your own, culturally, climatically or otherwise. Life in Ivalo is, obviously, nothing like life in London and it was wonderful to get to see that first-hand.
Nothing about our time in Bansko was particularly deep. It’s a ski town up near the mountains, where the main activities and snow sports and clubbing. We didn’t go to Bansko to learn about Bulgarian culture. We went to have fun – and, guys, it was so fun.
We had the best week skiing and learning to snowboard in Bulgaria, for prices that were significantly lower than any of the well-known resorts in Western Europe. The scenery was insanely stunning and the crowds limited. It was a blast.
Having essentially unfettered access to Europe gives us access to climates, nature and opportunities you just can’t find in the UK or you can only find a few examples of. Yes, you can ski in Scotland, but it’s nothing like some of the mountain ranges you’ll find across mainland Europe. You can dive in Lime Regis or Cornwall, but the underwater scenery will be nothing like Greece or Malta. You can hike in Snowdonia or the Lake District, but if you never venture afield you’ll miss the incredible sights in the Romanian mountains, the Dolomites or Corsica (all places I’ve never been, but have Googled enough times that I know I want see them at some point). Europe is full of incredible sights and scenes. How can having access to all of that amazing culture and nature not be one of the coolest, luckiest things about living in Europe?
I love visiting France. I love speaking French, eating pastries and macarons and visiting the amazing art, markets and famous sights. I have been to France many, many times – I mean, you can get the train from London. Compared to most travel, it is so convenient and easy and has Paris at the end.
Last summer, we went to Southern France with my family and lots of our family friends, twenty-six people in all, for a week of food, swimming, games and noise. One day, during a particularly aggressive game of water rugby, Jake managed to catch his leg on a sharp rock and give himself a really, really deep cut, down to the bone. Oops.
Everyone did try to help, but in practice that meant seven people each bringing a first-aid kit. Jake was almost passing out on the stairs but at least he could see a first-aid wherever he looked. We bandaged up his leg, bundled him into the car and drove to the nearest hospital.
Now, I love speaking French. I’m decently good at it and have way more enthusiasm than anyone should have when learning the phrase for dissolvable stitches (sutures soluble).
We later found out the doctor spoke perfect English though she conducted most of the appointment in French, which I was loving. Jake was more invested in double-checking that I’d understood her correctly, given she was about to stick a needle and thread through his leg, but I was relaxed. “I know what she’s saying!”
Fortunately, I did know, and Jake’s leg is fine. We asked if he could swim. The doctor shrugged. “I mean, you probably shouldn’t, but you’re on holiday, so…”
We got some special film to cover the wound for seven euros and he was back in the pool that afternoon. Again, his leg is fine. We then got some ice cream and pastries to recover from our afternoon at the hospital.
Of course, I’m joking, because there was very little to recover from. We waited for a little while, as you do everywhere, before being called through to see a lovely, capable doctor. She stitched up Jake’s leg while teaching me French at the same time. Then, when the stitches were done, we handed over Jake’s EHIC card at reception and walked away without paying a cent, because that magical little card – which we only have as we are EU citizens and will not be valid after we leave – gives us access to free healthcare in Europe in almost all situations. It makes travel in Europe that bit easier to know that if there is a problem, we can walk in almost anywhere and be treated for free. That’ll be gone soon. Better check your travel insurance.
This list only scratches the surface of all the amazing experiences I’ve had in Europe. My point is that access to other countries and cultures and strengthening our international relationships should be seen as important and valuable rather than something to limit. It pains me that we have made a choice that makes our world smaller and less open. But I have no doubt that those of us who want to keep exploring Europe will be able to and will be met with open arms – after all, the EU has been a bigger supporter of keeping the UK’s economy stable than our own government. Here’s to more amazing moments in Europe, Brexit be damned.