When you’re 17 and heading off to Europe for the first time, you’ll end up in one of the stereotypical first-time-to-Europe cities, like Paris. Rome will also work for this scenario. You might also make this journey as part of a student ambassador group, which sounds important but actually just means you get to hang out with a bunch of kids your age from California. You will bond with this group of people each day during your bus rides around the city. Sometimes you will all be sleeping (particularly that morning when the guides make you wake up at 5am to “beat the Paris traffic” — don’t try to get the better of anything or anyone in France, ever).
Sometimes you will use this bus as a changing room after you’re all caught in a torrential downpour in a cemetery. But no matter what else happens, one thing is guaranteed: Your first foray into the world of European bus rides will be documented for years to come in a video you made by simply holding the camera up to the bus window and pressing record; a video that consists of absolutely nothing except three straight minutes of quaint little storefronts passing by as the bus slowly makes its way out to Versailles.
This is the fancy tour bus portion of the saga. This bus is large, comfortable, expensive, and air-conditioned — unbeknownst to you, this bus is already more impressive than most of the apartments you will inhabit through college and beyond… possibly ever. The driver, one of the first and most adorable Italian people you have ever seen, handles all of the luggage and gives each lady a hand as she descends the steep bus steps.
He handles the windy Italian roads with more grace than you thought existed in a single human, and when the roads become too narrow for multiple vehicles, he hops out into the street and directs traffic as if that’s a normal thing to do when you’re on your way to the Vatican. This bus seems almost too large for the little Italian roads you travel, almost too large for anywhere.
Your next experience with buses takes you back to the days of elementary school field trips. You are studying art on the French Riviera, and twice a week your class makes an excursion to one of the many museums scattered along the Mediterranean coast. These bus rides take you along the ocean, through little city streets, and up into the hills where it almost seems like cars should be forbidden.
The views are panoramic and gorgeous to a level that is almost unfair — you become suspicious about the possibility of photoshopping things in real life. These bus rides have soundtracks, songs that you listen to on your headphones while you count the number of topless people you see on the beach, playlists that you will avoid upon returning home because listening to them will make you cry in a way that is both pathetic and understandable.
The first time you board a bus in Hungary, you will be instructed not to pay the bus fare, because “they almost never check.” Your next experience on the bus is legal but traumatizing: It is 2am, you and your companions are lost, and you are not sure whether you need to take the bus north or south. When a bus appears, you and your sister board to ask for directions. The bus driver glances at you, doesn’t offer any help, and drives away.
Your boyfriend is left standing alone on a dark road that none of you can even locate on a map. You are calm at first, trying to loosen the door handle, but the driver refuses to open the doors, let alone stop for a second to let you out. You start shrieking hysterically, grabbing at the doors and turning around to see if anyone on the bus is willing to help you, but they all just stare as if you’re absolutely insane, and you suddenly realize that you are the insane person they think you are. And you’re American, which somehow makes you feel even worse.
The bus tour for the Scottish Highlands leaves the hostel at about 6:15am, and you and your fellow interns are all regretting the drinks you’d finished about five hours earlier. You try to keep each other alert, jotting down notes and taking a few pictures every now and then. There is a Scottish host who speaks for most of the 9-10 hour ride, and you are interested in everything that he says (as well as his kilt) but you’re certain you’ll only be able to remember about an eighth of it.
It rains every five minutes or so, just what you’d expect in Scotland. You pay special attention to talk of the clans and some guy who was undefeatable but then got a cut on his finger and died of blood poisoning or something (why didn’t you write his name down, you idiot?). There will be a stop for whiskey along the way, as well as a stop for a famous cow named Hamish, and the scenery will be the eeriest, greenest, most perfect version of Scotland you could have ever imagined.
You’ve always seen those bright red Hop-On, Hop-Off sightseeing buses, and you’ve always considered them to be super touristy and a waste of money that could be spent on other things, like boats in Gibraltar. But then, one day, you arrive in Dublin and your feet are so blistered and you are so tired and you feel so lonely that you actually physically cannot walk around. You buy a ticket for one of these buses and ride it around Dublin for almost a whole day, over and over again, all the way around the same circle, until you’ve almost memorized the English commentary and translated some of the French.
You stop off at one point to duck into a bookstore to grab a copy of Ulysses and a coffee, and then you spend much of the next day reading on the bus. On this bus you see so many of the tourists you try to avoid: the loud ones, the clueless ones, the ones whose faces you can’t even see because they’re buried so deep in a guidebook. But you also see travelers to whom you can more easily relate: people who are quieter, eager, genuinely interested in the city and so clearly excited to explore. This gives you time to think about the traveler, not so much the traveling. You see only parts of Dublin, but you see more types of people than you have ever come across at any other point in your life.
Portugal / Spain
You will watch three of your fellow hostel mates prepare food for this bus ride as if it were the apocalypse. You, on the other hand, are still in the not-spending-money-on-unimportant-things-like-food phase of this Eurotrip, and so you pack only a banana. The banana will get smeared over everything in your bag as well as, somewhat mysteriously, your only pair of pants. As the four of you share some of the four-course meal the others packed, you argue about how long this trip is supposed to take. Four hours, five hours, six hours, seven. The trip takes just over three.
For some reason you decide it is safe to show your awful passport picture to these “friends,” and the picture becomes a joke that they will tease you about for the remainder of the time that you know them. You will teach them all that game from Inglourious Basterds, and you’ll all get Katy Perry stuck in your head for the rest of the day, as at least five of her songs come up on the bus’s playlist. This is one of the first times you’ve wanted to pay more attention to the people inside the bus with you than the scenery outside the bus windows — and, note to self: You’ll wish you had taken at least one picture of them.
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Jackie is a freelance writer from Los Angeles currently living in Chicago. To date she has served as a student ambassador in England and France, a volunteer in Mexico, an art student on the Riviera, a travel writing intern in Scotland, and a backpacker in various European countries. She works as a travel consultant for part of the year, spends a good deal of time on her orange velvet couch, and maintains her personal blog at http://www.jackietravels.com, all the while trying to save her pennies for her next great adventure overseas.