Five years ago, in my senior year of high school, I travelled around Europe with a couple of my closest friends, hitting up eight different countries in the span of about two weeks. We had gone with EF Tours, focusing on countries with a great deal of history surrounding World War I and II; however, in between our visits to and from significant monuments, buildings, and other historical sites, we had tons of free time to explore the cities that we were visiting.
In that time, we unintentionally got lost in nearly every single city. When your cell phone data is turned off due to roaming charges, this only makes navigation (and communication with your travel group) that much more difficult — and consequently, that much more exciting.
Beginning in Paris while exploring the Louvre museum, we decided that we needed to find les toilettes and that separating from our group to do so would be a perfectly fine idea. It would have been, if the museum were the size of the Royal Ontario Museum in our hometown of Toronto. In case you don’t know, the Louvre is massive. Like, ridiculously so. A single washroom break means being separated from your group and potentially not finding them again in the labyrinth of multiple stories, hallways, and stairwells. In the several hours that we were lost, I managed to see many of the art pieces I would otherwise have not been able to see on the tour – paintings by Vigée-LeBrun and Botticelli, Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss, and countless other beautiful artifacts. Not to mention, we still managed to find our way to seeing the infamous Mona Lisa’s smile all before looping around and bumping into our group again.
After having our own solo adventure of sorts, we felt like we were pretty invincible. This led to a slew of other attempted escapades, each time ending with us getting completely lost in a brand new city and praying that someone spoke English (or could understand my mediocre French, punctuated with Italian every now and then when a word is lost to me).
Just outside of Brussels in Belgium, we went exploring far beyond our hotel and happened upon a little street fair where we spent the night hopping from ride to ride, acquiring Belgian chocolates and candies to snack on in between. When we realized we were too lost to ever find our way back to the hotel before the teachers’ room checks, we rushed around stuttering the words “aidez-nous à trouver notre hotel, s’il vous plait?” and flashing the business card of our hotel to whoever seemed willing to help. Eventually, we made our way back to our rooms before the 10:00 p.m. curfew and our teachers were none the wiser that we had been totally lost mere minutes before.
It became a country-by-country tradition. Amsterdam, if you have ever been there (or even looked at pictures), all looks so similar to a foreigner. The canals, the streets, the tall and narrow townhouses -– they all appear so indistinct. One fearful jaunt away from an aggressive cyclist without paying attention to where you’re heading, and you’re utterly lost. Thankfully, we were lost in a place with a lot of shopping, lovely people, and beautiful scenery. Again, we were able to see so many streets and places that we would not have been able to if we had obeyed the rules and followed the group. We circled back to the destination we were intended to meet at in Dam Square well before the designated time. This left plenty of time to explore an old and solemn synagogue, talk to the extraverted street performers, and feed the pigeons.
Berlin however, brought to us the panic of disorientation in one of the most diverse zoos in the world, when we accidentally led ourselves out to the wrong street. Still, we used our impaired map-reading skills to somehow make our way back to the group’s meeting point in front of Zoologischer Garten only three minutes late (Nutella-slathered crêpes were gathered along the way, since I quite reasonably had no self-control when it came to European Nutella or any of their sweets, for that matter). Dresden directed our wanderings to being lost in a castle (the Residenzschloss), in which we had lunch under the blooming pink flowers of the trees in the courtyard, and then to a little café that doubled as an antique shop. By the time we realized where we were, we were standing at the meeting spot with five minutes to spare. Talk about good timing, and now I have a little antique stopwatch from that café that reminds me of my time there every time I wear it.
Prague was its own venture. The few days we spent in this architecturally stunning city were rainy ones, and we managed to lose ourselves in the splendour of it each day. From winding up in little shops on the other side of town that sold hand painted Venetian masks, to shops in the heart of Old Town’s main square selling Bavarian crystal jewelry, to expensive restaurants near the Charles Bridge where we could only afford half a cob of corn and some blueberry dumplings, our time spent in Prague is one that I will remember for the rest of my life.
In Kraków, I got lost on my own. I had wandered off to buy a pastel drawing of a ballerina outside of the breathtaking Sukiennice. Unfortunately, my friends wandered off and I was left alone. Instead of staying in one place until they came back, I took off on my own and got a McFlurry (Polish McDonald’s is delicious! I don’t know if it’s all in my head, but it tasted so much better than in Canada), an antique book of maps, and some pins of my favourite bands. By the time I regrouped with my friends, I had been pretty satiated by the Polish culture around me and was no longer annoyed at the separation.
When we reached the final destination of our trip – Hungary – we knew that we had to lose ourselves in a European city one last time. It had become an amazing tradition. This time, we intentionally wandered Budapest street by street, exploring not by any pre-planned guidelines, but solely by what drew us to each new place. Being an avid antique collector, I found Budapest the best place to do my shopping for these things. Another friend of ours had joined us and the three of us gallivanted about the city together shopping, eating, and drinking up the culture.
Looking back on this time in my life now, I’m so glad that the rule-abiding girl that I was in high school decidedly got lost with little regard for the tour group’s rules. For the first time in my life, I fully immersed myself in a new culture and relied on myself (and my semi ineffective communication skills) to learn about the cities I was exploring, the people in them, and about the lovely places I would have otherwise never had a chance to see.
What are you waiting for? It’s time for you to do the same. Go travel, go get lost, and see a new place in a whole new light.