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Reality bites: living and traveling in Europe

Reality bites: living and traveling in Europe

Dreaming of living and traveling in Europe? A Filipina expat discovered that her European dream is a little different than how she imagined it to be.

I read somewhere that a crush or infatuation are just different terms for lack of information. We might obsess over things or people we only saw, read, or heard about from afar. Actually meeting the person or experiencing the thing for ourselves is a different world altogether.

I learned this first-hand when I finally fulfilled my life-long dream of living in Europe and traveling to those destinations I only read about in travel magazines or saw on a celebrity’s splashy Instagram feeds.

Since moving to the Netherlands in January 2023, I tick off bucket list destinations every chance I get. My Instagram profile has successfully become the feed
of my dreams: peppered with curated photos from every “dream” European destination with images of myself having the time of my life. You can say #livingthelife.

The reality is, not everything is Instagram-worthy. Here are some moments when
I realized that my dream destinations are not all rainbows and butterflies.

Live in Europe, Face the Indifference

On my 16th day in the Netherlands, I left my phone and my residence permit on the bus on my way to Zurich, Switzerland. I landed in Zurich while my phone found its way to Munich, Germany. Upon discovering that I lost my phone, I was quickly overcome with a tsunami of emotions:

“No residence card and I’m crossing international borders!”

“How about my access to my online banks?”

“My one and only Philippine sim card!”

“My photos!!!”

In an attempt to find my phone, I first approached the Belgian bus driver of the same bus company where I left my phone. I asked if he could radio the driver who left just 10 seconds ago. To appeal to his emotions, I added that I could not lose my phone because it had everything I needed, and I had not settled in the Netherlands yet.

While initially calm, my composure quickly turned to disbelief and panic when the driver told me matter-of-factly that it was not his job to get in touch with the other driver. And even if he had his contact details, it would be illegal to share it with me. With a dismissive wave of his hand, he directed me to their website then sped off.

I was shocked.

I remember being fascinated that Filipino bus drivers could find ways to chat or connect despite sitting on different buses! It could be as simple as an exchange of friendly honks with a quick salute, or a full chat between traffic stops.

In Zurich, I went to the closest police station to report my lost phone. I wanted a record of the loss or perhaps a police blotter. The policeman very calmly told me that there was no crime, and that I should try to visit the Zurich Lost and Found office first. There was neither small talk nor words of encouragement, only a quick and dry recitation of protocol.

Have they no empathy?

I was also constantly trying to reach the bus company’s Dutch customer service office. I called them but to no avail. Their website’s automated response asked me to file my details and concerns, and wait. No information about the driver or the bus was given to me because that would be violative of the European General Data Protection Regulation, the most stringent privacy laws in the world.

“I soon realized that the systems I used to admire and celebrate about first-world countries only work if the enforcement is devoid of human emotions and relations. Their protocols are firm, strict, and impenetrable. Do I only appreciate systems so long as I am benefiting from them or if they remain distant theories, and not when I am adversely affected?”

I was an emotional Filipina who just lost her only phone. There was no way I would wait up to a month and not lose my sanity in the process.

I soon realized that the systems I used to admire and celebrate about first-world countries only work if the enforcement is devoid of human emotions and relations. Their protocols are firm, strict, and impenetrable. 

On my way back to Zurich, after successfully retrieving my phone from a German parking lot, I was torn between reaffirming my veneration of effective European systems and appreciating instead the innately Filipino nature that always accommodates emotions.

While a Filipino bus driver, policeman, or customer service representative may not solve your problem at a given point, you are certain that at the very least, they will hear you out, sympathize, and if they can, circumvent the rules just a little to solve the matter at hand.

Do I only appreciate systems so long as I am benefiting from them or if they remain distant theories, and not when I am adversely affected?

Systems, like emotions and personal connections, could be double-edged swords, it appears; and the very things I strongly disapproved of about the Philippines like emotions, small talk, personal relations, are the same things I now absolutely miss.

Paris is the city of expensive water

If you are a basic millennial tita, you might have also swooned over the Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big reconciliation scene shot in Paris. After my last mis- adventure, I decided to go to Paris next.

On our first day, my friend and I decided to have lunch at the penthouse restaurant Kong, a la Sex and the City. They had meals that we could afford as long as we only ate once a day the rest of that four-day trip.

I had been living in expensive Europe for a month then, so to save money, I made sure to totally eliminate unnecessary expenses, like paying for water in a restaurant.

Traveling in Europe Galeries Lafayette  instagram vs reality

The restaurant looked expensive. I had been there a few seconds and I could already imagine the captions for my new Instagram photos. However, albeit booking a couple of weeks ahead, we were seated at the far back of the restaurant right across the toilets and with close to zero view of the city. The seats were so cramped that my friend and I had to prevent ourselves from eavesdropping at the couple next table.

I had been living in expensive Europe for a month then, so to save money, I made sure to totally eliminate unnecessary expenses, like paying for water in a restaurant. Since January 2022, food and beverage establishments are required to visibly indicate on their menu that consumers may request free drinking water. Drinking fountains are also mandated to be available in Parisian buildings.

Hence, midway through my meal, I confidently called the waiter and asked for water.

“Sparkling or regular?” he asked.

I thought, regular water is normal, right? Normal is free, right?

“Just regular water, please,” I answered.

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The water arrived in the form of a 500ml bottle of Evian. Do we send it back? Is this… free?

We decided to keep it. My friend and I thought that maybe first-world countries simply do it differently. Maybe luxury water for us in the Philippines is regular water here. Maybe it would not be that expensive even if it were not free.

The small bottle of water cost us €8, which was literally 4x my monthly water bill in Metro Manila!

The reality was, Paris is the City of Free Regular Tap Water (only if specifically requested by the customer, and if needed, reconfirmed by the waiter).

You Will Not See Aurora Borealis. Your Camera Will!

Seeing the Northern Lights or the aurora borealis is perhaps in every traveler’s bucket list. In mine too! So I went to Iceland to do just that!

When I joined the northern lights hunting activity, the tour guide reminded us that we signed up for a hunting activity. There was no guarantee that we would see it. They are unpredictable and elusive.

So there we were, tourists holding a cup of hot chocolates, standing in a dark and empty parking lot an hour away from Reykjavik, in a -5 degree temperature, craning our necks to the skies, waiting. After 20 minutes outside, the sky was still empty, and the chocolate was no longer hot. At that point, I was okay with not seeing it. I tried, and that’s enough. I went back to the bus.

“Such reality, while sometimes far from my projection on Instagram, is not always bad. In fact, there are moments whose sheer glory can neither be put into words nor captured by my camera.

Then I heard an energetic buzz outside and people started holding their cell phone cameras up. I rushed outside and excitedly looked up. I was ready to see the most dazzling display of colors from green to purple, as seen on Instagram. To my dismay, the sky looked… normal. Aside from some strands of white which could be anything (i.e., a passing airplane), the sky did not look dazzling.

Is that it? I took my cell phone and pointed my camera up. Only then did I see a splash of faint green. Not exactly life- changing. Without my camera, I would not have seen it. With my bare eyes, the scene was funny: some 50 people in the dark, looking up at a dark sky with their phones up. But the image in my phone was some 50 people against a backdrop of stars and shades of green.

My eyes did not see the aurora borealis, my camera did. I experienced it only through the lens of technology. When I posted it on Instagram though, my friends flooded the comments section with different variations of “wow” and “congratulations”. I did not want to burst everyone’s bubble so I did not explain that without my camera, there was actually nothing up there.

My caption read, “Another item off my bucket list!” *stars emoji*

Since then, I have traveled to other destinations with new stories for another day. I have continued to reflect on and absorb the experiences with both utmost gratitude and critical analysis because I cannot separate being a traveler from being a Filipina first.

“Bucket list gone real” intends to share a glimpse of my reality traveling. Such reality, while sometimes far from my projection on Instagram, is not always bad. In fact, there are moments whose sheer glory can neither be put into words nor captured by my camera.

The bucket list is long, and we travel on.

This article was first published in the 2023 Summer Issue of TFEM with the original title Bucket List Gone Real.
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