We snuck into an empty sleeper compartment after downing a few beers in the dining car of a night train. His name was Mike, or maybe it was Matt, and we met a couple of hours earlier on the platform of the Duisburg train station. He had dark brown hair and clear blue eyes, and smelled like sweat and weed — the trademark scent of an American backpacker in the sweltering June heat.
Matt (or Mike) pulled me close with a ferocious passion as he kissed me and, after we climbed up to the top bunk, lifted off the bright blue “Venezia” T-shirt I bought on the Rialto Bridge two weeks earlier after spilling a ton of gelato all over myself. He kissed my neck and my chest with urgency, and despite the fact that this was the first time a guy was seeing my breasts, I didn’t feel nervous. I had spent the past month bathing in public showers with groups of strangers at hostels across Europe, so being naked around a man was a cakewalk at this point.
I asked if he had a condom. He smiled and climbed down to grab one from his ratty backpack. Well, this is it, I thought to myself as he got back on top of me. Virgin no more.
I was 18 and on the last leg of a backpacking trip across Europe that I had embarked on just one week after graduating from high school in rural South Carolina. This was my first taste of independence and adventure after an adolescence spent with my head in a book. I moved to the South from Canada shortly before high school and never really felt at home with Southern culture. And so I spent my high school years with an almost Tracy Flick-like dedication to avoiding my classmates and getting into college far, far away.
I’d dream of attending an Ivy in New England, or hopping over the pond to study in Paris, and I skipped parties and dances to focus on getting the best grades and joining all the right academic clubs. By the middle of my senior year, I had a near perfect record and was at peace with the fact that I hadn’t tried pot or had sex, because it’d all be worth it once my acceptance letters from prestigious colleges began rolling in.
One thing I hadn’t considered, though, was the fact that my hard-working middle class parents couldn’t shell out hundreds of thousands of dollars for me to go to school in New York or Boston. Instead, they had been counting on me using my stellar grades to get a scholarship to an in-state school. I ended up choosing a less expensive school that offered me a nearly full ride, and it slowly dawned on me that I had squandered my teenage years for nothing. I missed out on the youthful transgressions my less-uptight peers got to experience, and I’d clearly be labeled as a pariah at college when it became apparent that I didn’t know how to operate a keg or even hook up with a guy.
I pondered my predicament in my bedroom at home while watching an episode of Gilmore Girls. “I am just like Rory, minus Yale,” I thought to myself. Rory spent high school as a bookworm but went off to college seemingly normal after spending a summer abroad (albeit with her mom), and I realized that I could do the same. To my 18-year-old brain, going abroad could be my chance to experience everything I had missed out on, and I’d no longer have to worry about looking like a freak at my first keg party. I had a friend who was planning on spending the summer with relatives in Europe, and she offered to take a few weeks away from her family to join me on my travels. Perfect. With my plan set, I just needed funding, so I spent my last few months of high school serving oversized portions of chicken parmesan at a local Carrabba’s Italian Grill franchise.
I arrived in Europe just days after removing my cap and gown, and it took me a while to ease into the idea of youthful recklessness. I spent a lot of time at museums and sitting in cafes, writing in my journal and exploring used book shops. The first time I went out to a Stockholm club, my friend and I showed up promptly as it opened at 11pm. The first to arrive, we received coat check numbers one and two and sipped cosmopolitans — which Sex and the City taught me was the drink of choice for sophisticated women — until the rest of the club-goers started to arrive nearly an hour later.
It was in Prague that I finally had the confidence to let go. We met some older travelers at our hostel, and with their help, I got my first taste of absinthe and danced the night away in a five-story club. (In retrospect, that was four stories too many.) I was too caught up in the beauty of my surroundings to do anything wild in Venice, though I happily gorged on pasta and wine served on restaurant patios at every opportunity. We met a rich socialite in Munich who offered to let us crash at his palatial apartment for a few days, but one morning my friend and I woke up to him hovering over the bed we were sharing, stroking our hair, so we bolted when he stepped out to get us breakfast. In Paris, we read at the Palais du Luxembourg and attempted to speak French with locals at quaint bars, until we ran out of cash and lived on baguettes and brie and our parents had to wire us some money. I finally tried weed in Amsterdam, and spent a few days in a haze while walking around the canals.
By the time I met Matt (or Mike) at the end of my trip, I had finally experienced what it was like to be young and reckless. But when we struck up a conversation on the Duisburg train platform, waiting for our ride to Hamburg, I experienced something new — a spark. There was more excitement in talking to a handsome, funny guy experiencing the same adventure as me than there was in getting drunk or high. We swapped stories about our nights spent on trains, and the crazy people we’d encountered at hostels across the continents, and realized we’d visited the same small towns and gone to the same obscure galleries.
What I had been missing out on during my high school years wasn’t the parties or football games, I realized — it was the connections with people my age, going through the same things as me. And so he became my last life-changing experience on the trip. Before this, I refused to put myself in any compromising position that might possibly distract me from my goals. But giving into the passion of the evening was so thrilling, I hardly noticed the pain of having sex for the first time. Instead, all I felt was exhilaration of allowing myself to be truly free and rebellious on that train.
When I went off to college a few weeks later, I no longer worried about being perfect all the time. I allowed myself to have fun and make mistakes, and I stopped tying my self worth to my GPA and my ambition. I went to parties, made out with the wrong guys and skipped class from time to time — and I didn’t even care that I still didn’t know how to properly work a keg.
Image via Shutterstock.
Lisa Ryan is a writer in Brooklyn. She likes Tim Hortons and aspires to brunch with Amal Clooney. Follow her on twitter: @lisarya.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s new travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.