The Problem With Spontaneity: In Which I Am Not Nellie Bly

I’m writing this from Berlin, where I’m happily settled in a pleasant hostel, freshly-showered and about to fall asleep in a surprisingly comfortable bunk bed. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the start of my trip, as Saturday night found me at the end of a full day of travelling, huddled beneath a towel in the warmest spot I could find in the Brussels train station, trying desperately to fall asleep.

It wasn’t supposed to be like that. At first, I had everything neatly organized in planners and Google docs. I had a rail pass on my desk and a list of train times, the whole trip carefully mapped out. And then I went to the train station.

“Sorry, only full price tickets left.”

I couldn’t believe it. I had the man at the desk check again; I had him try a day later. Still, my train from Paris to Amsterdam—the very first leg of my trip—was totally booked for travelers with rail passes. Same for Brussels and Antwerp. To deal with the number of tourists, I was told, the French national railway company (SNCF) has limited the number of pass-holders per train. Elsewhere in Europe, I would be able to buy my ticket just before departure, but in France, I needed to reserve a spot two to three months in advance.

Oddly enough, it was the SNCF’s apparent lack of regard for spontaneity that made me change my plans at the last minute. If I had to buy a full-price ticket out of France anyway, I might as well leave before my rail pass was active. I had been torn between stopping in Belgium and spending a second day in Berlin anyway; if I left a day early, I could do both. Because I wouldn’t be getting an extra discount on my train ticket, it made more sense to take a cheap overnight bus to Paris and then a train from there, which meant that a trip that was going to start on Sunday morning would actually start on Friday evening.

I decided all of this on Wednesday; I had already booked tickets to spend Friday in Marseille, with my return train getting back just a few hours before my bus to Paris was scheduled to leave. Thursday, then, was spent packing and writing a final paper about Nellie Bly, one of the first investigative journalists and the first person to complete the journey laid out in Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days (though it took her only 72). When she set out from New York with only two days’ notice in 1889, she had little more than the clothes on her back and a small bag of toiletries.

Nellie Bly in a publicity photo, 1889.

With Nellie Bly on my sleep-deprived mind, I unpacked two of the five outfits I had in my bag (travelling light!) and headed to bed to catch a few hours of rest before my early train. In the back of my mind was the fact that I had yet to book any hostels for my trip—the one starting in less than 24 hours—but I pushed the worries aside. I hadn’t decided yet whether I wanted to stay in Brussels or Antwerp, and in any case, I would surely have time to do it later. If Nellie could go around the world with so little notice, surely I could manage to get to the next country over. Spontaneity is fun, right? Right!

Of course, there are a few differences between me and Nellie Bly. Crucially, she had financial backing and the attention of the global media, whereas I have a rapidly dwindling savings account and a blog that gets about six readers on a good day. I did have the advantage of a smartphone, but even so I didn’t manage to get online to book a hostel until I was in Antwerp, drinking Belgian hot chocolate in a perfectly-hipster café.

I’m sure that, by now, you can imagine where this is going. My searches grew steadily more frantic as I went from website to website, plugging in the date and looking for a bed, any bed, in Brussels or Antwerp. I sent out a last-minute Couchsurfing request and headed back to Brussels to get my bag.

In the hours it took me to get online again, I got lost at least once before managing to get to one of the hostels listed in my travel guide. They were, it was confirmed, full. So was every other hostel in the city. I had gotten a message on Couchsurfing, but it was so late by the time I was able to reply that nothing came of it. I trudged down to McDonald’s for a late dinner and free wifi, but no solutions miraculously presented themselves. There was no way around it: I had nowhere to go.

I booked my Amsterdam hostel from the McDonald’s, but in doing so I missed the last metro back to the train station. With the help of a friendly stranger named Lucky, I eventually managed to walk there and settled in for the night. I slept, if you can really call it sleeping, curled in a ball next to the locker bay, as far from the open doors as I could get.

I survived the night, of course, though I arrived in Amsterdam the next morning rather worse for the wear. Despite its rough start, my trip has gone smoothly since I left Belgium. I’ve learned my lesson, though—I’m booking my hostels in advance from now on, not leaving my sleeping arrangements to change. Spontaneity can be fun sometimes, but there are definitely some things that require a bit of planning.

We can’t all be Nellie Bly, I suppose.


This piece is cross-posted on the Georgetown Study Abroad Blog, where you can read about the experiences of Georgetown students studying across the globe.

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