#TandJLeaveUSA: One Year Later

On September 11, 2015, I sat in the backseat of my car, phone in one hand and resume in the other. I'd called into a phone interview with a law firm in DC, making the case for why I'd be the perfect fit for their new Digital Media Strategist position. My credentials measured up, and the interview went smoothly. We ended the call, and I immediately received a thank you email and an offer to proceed to the next phase.

There was only one problem.

Sharing the backseat with me was two backpacks, and my best friend Tiona rode shotgun while Derrick drove us to BWI airport. We had one-way tickets to Europe, and no concrete return date scheduled. I knew that once I landed in Amsterdam, our first stop, that the furthest thing on my mind would be pulling my laptop out to write essays on why I'd want this office job--the same type of job I'd quit just two months prior. So, I emailed the interviewer and thanked her for the opportunity, but I had to pass. To be honest, I was willing to take the job if it were a right fit. I was willing to move to DC to nurture my relationship with Derrick, be closer to friends, and enjoy the city life I was already missing in NYC. But during the interview, I asked all the questions that would give me an idea of the work culture, and I realized that it wasn't enticing enough to hop back into the 9-5 life. So, I closed the door on that opportunity, kissed Derrick goodbye, and boarded my flight to Iceland. 

The rest is history.

On the anniversary of my iconic backpacking trip, I've been in a very reflective state, thinking about my trip, what it meant, and how I've grown from it. Most of all, though, I get emotional (surprise, surprise) when I think about the support system we had as we left our loved ones on edge and embarked on this journey. 

What I appreciate most is Derrick's dedication to me and our relationship, despite not understanding why I had to leave or why I was so okay with picking up and embarking on a journey with no real end date. It was difficult for him to fathom this idea of me loving him, wanting to be with him, but also wanting to travel to another continent to see what life had in store for me. In all honesty, it really had nothing to do with our relationship, but more to do with me having a lifelong dream, and seeing no time but the present to make it a reality. Since childhood, Tiona and I had talked about backpacking through Europe before we even knew it was a "thing." I was hating my job, wanting a change, and wanted to do something adventurous after so many years of routine. 

Though it was difficult, Derrick released me to embark on this journey, understood that it was necessary for my own growth and welcomed me with open arms when I returned, confident that the growth I experienced wasn't just going to benefit me, but us. I'll always appreciate him for being in my corner, no matter how difficult it was.

Difficulties and missing my boyfriend aside, our trip was magical. We kicked off our first week in Amsterdam with my cousin, exploring the neighborhoods, coffee shops, and parks on our own during the day, and hitting the town and local bars by night. Unlike us, my cousin couldn't just ditch work and explore all day, so while he was working hard, we were playing hard. 

Then came Berlin. Still getting used to Europe, we were lucky enough to have my cousin hook us up with a wonderful, sweet girl who lived there. We spent the days that followed in her beautiful flat that opened up to an incredible view of the sunset. Lucky for us, she was in the hospital getting a boob job, so she gave us free reign of her apartment while she was away. Food, drinks, whatever...it was all ours! We decided to spend our first evening in the house, watching Ray Donovan on Netflix and making our first home-cooked meal. Our host, Julia, sent hospital post-op selfies and checked in to make sure we hadn't gotten lost in her neighborhood, and her only request was that we stayed open to changing her bandages when she got home in a few days. Deal. On our last night, she had friends over for a BBQ, but because we'd gotten so terribly lost on the trains, we made it for the tail end.  

Next up was Prague, the first city we'd stay in where we had no idea who our host was. We'd met him on the Couchsurfing app, and hoped for the best. From our interesting first-night conversation about race to our adventures in the city with a group of Slovakian men on a surprise bachelor party trip, we weren't let down. 

Vienna was my personal highlight, not just because of how beautiful the city is, but because of our beautiful and incredible host. Our night taking over a jazz club after hours, her fresh tea concoction to try and cure my weeks-long illness, and bread with her mom's homemade jam gave things that special touch. (We actually met up in New Orleans Thanksgiving weekend, when it was her turn to backpack across the US. I was overjoyed to show her a taste of the things I love about the states.) Tiona guest blogged that week, and did a pretty great job, if I do say so myself. 

After hitching a ride with a guy traveling from Poland using this cool app BlaBlaCar (ballsy, I know), we made it to Venice around 11:30pm, 6 hours after leaving Vienna. This is where the trip unraveled. I was sicker than ever, we dodged buses on the highway in search of the nearest hostel, and after spending the entire day in the rain, Tiona was catching my bug. The city itself was beautiful (but expensive), and we were essentially homeless the majority of our stay. It was here that we thought maybe it's time to go home. 

But not without seeing Rome.

We got the bright idea to catch an overnight bus ride to Rome, which would cover our lodging for the night (genius, right?) When we arrived, we quickly figured out the transit system (thanks to my experience with the complicated NYC subway system), and made it to the apartment of our host, a group of college students who'd moved to Rome not too long before we arrived. It was during our days here that we explored the city, pigged out on pasta and gelato (of course), and had authentic meals cooked by our hosts and their friends. They treated us like family, with a full 3 courses before we all hit the town on our last full night in the city. I loved our time here so much that when I remember the greatness that is Rome, I hardly even think of my backpack being stolen while we rode a bus. 

To round out our trip (I mean, I had no clothes, laptop, or anything!) we took a 32-hour bus ride back to Amsterdam for a few days before catching a flight back home. This time, we stayed with our 4th host from the Couchsurfing app, and we had the most amazing few days to round out our trip. He was quite the daredevil who convinced us to try and sneak up to the top of the BOTEL rooms to see their amazing structures by day, and we drowned our sorrows in beers (well mine--I was still mourning the loss of my backpack) while spending hours doing karaoke until our voices left us. Tiona became the superstar of the whole karaoke spot, and our host had the time of his life singing Enrique Iglesias songs for his first time trying karaoke. We didn't leave until 4am, and we sang through the streets of Amsterdam until we made it back to his flat. 

Leaving was so bittersweet, though we were secretly so ready to get back home. After spending a few weeks taking "ho baths" and quick wash offs in tiny bathrooms, we needed real showers. I so desperately needed to wash my tennis shoes (we were both embarrassed by how badly they smelled by the end of the trip), and I couldn't wait to wash my hair, shave my legs, and sleep without pants for the first time since the start of our trip. Immediately after landing, the cold I had the ENTIRE trip cleared, which is so petty of my immune system. I was in Derrick's arms again, and was excited to snuggle up for the first time in a month (Tiona's weird about cuddling).

My sweet mom set up a prayer group while we were away, and I immediately thanked them for their prayers and let them know we were safe and sound. Everyone stopped holding their breath. I couldn't believe the adventure was over, and even to this day, part of me wishes I could get back on that plane and do it all again today. And while my days of living out of a backpack are over, I'd love to go back to the European cities I fell in love with (and so many more), and show Derrick why I had to do what I did. I know he'd love it just as much as I did. 

For now, though, I'll relive our adventures a million times over in my head. I can't believe it's been a year.


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