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September 14, 2016

I lasted two months in the US before I boarded a plane to fly across the ocean again. This time, I wasn’t alone, and this time it was easier to say “goodbye” as my sister, Erin, and I would be away for just one month. We had a family trip to Ireland planned for early August, Erin hadn’t ever been overseas, and since this was her last summer before graduating and entering the real world, we figured it was the perfect opportunity to travel together.

We settled on one month. Three weeks traipsing around mainland Europe before meeting the rest of our family in Ireland. We had no real plans until we got on our plane from Frankfurt to Copenhagen, but I had an idea of where we wanted to go thanks to all the knowledgeable Europeans I’d met in Asia. Italy and Spain were deemed too hot in July by my Swedish friends, Romania too far, Norway too expensive. France, Germany, and the Netherlands – perfect that time of year. Eastern Europe – always perfect. Scandinavia – especially perfect in July, but expensive, as always. We got a taste of all the places that seemed wonderful to visit in July, and got to meet up with friends in nearly every country we went to. First stop: Copenhagen.

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I was amazed at how short our travel time to Copenhagen seemed. I hadn’t been to Europe in five years, and every other overseas flight I’ve taken since then has been at least a 25-hour journey. The eight hour flight from Chicago to Frankfurt was absolute bliss. That said, we were unbelievably jet-lagged when we finally arrived at our hostel in Copenhagen at 7 a.m. I immediately fell asleep on a giant bean bag in our hostel’s common room for three hours before we were finally able to check in. We rented bikes and sleepily set out to make the most of our two quick days in Copenhagen. I promptly brought Erin through some European rites of passage with lunch at a Turkish Kabob spot, a late afternoon crepe, and road beers (there’s so much joy involved with drinking a beer as you walk down the street). We rented bikes and navigated Copenhagen’s stressful biking lanes, went on a canal tour, climbed a giant church for some beautiful views of the city from above, and ended our night by taking advantage of our hostel’s happy hour and by befriending other guests.

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On our second day in Copenhagen, we slept in after a sleepless night. We had a hard time adjusting to the time change, which is unusual for me. We made the most of that day, though; starting with a tour of the immigrant neighborhood our hostel was in with refugees from Iraq and Eritrea. It was fascinating hearing their stories and learning about how Denmark is dealing with the refugee crisis (long story short – like everywhere, it could be better). That afternoon we went to Tivoli, one of the world’s oldest amusement parks, with our Australian friend, Liam, and Janne, from Belgium. We enjoyed people watching for most of the day. Never have I ever seen more beautiful people than in Copenhagen. Everyone was dressed perfectly and seemingly effortlessly.

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After a few days in beautiful Copenhagen, we set out for Sweden to visit Johanna, who I had traveled with for a month in Vietnam earlier this year. We met her in Malmö, just a 30-minute train ride under the ocean and over a bridge from Copenhagen, where Johanna’s brother lived. We spent two days in Malmö, hanging out, eating delicious food, drinking beer, and shopping (Swedish clothes will forever be my favorite).

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After our time in Malmö, we set out for Johanna’s parents’ house, where she was living at the time, on the coast. She grew up in one of the quaintest, most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and her family’s house is basically a Swedish dream, with beautiful furnishings, a lovely garden and front yard, and the cutest dog in the world – Tuva. This, for me, was the highlight of our trip.

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We spent our time on the coast relaxing and enjoying time away from the city. We ate lots of cheese, spent time on the beach, and went on some small hikes. It was such a treat seeing where Johanna lived, and getting a taste of Swedish summer and Swedish life, in general. After a few days of relaxation, Erin and I hopped on a plane for our next stop: Nuremberg, where we met with my friend André, who I’d studied with nearly five years ago in Ireland. Nuremberg was quaint and filled with incredible history. We had an amazing time exploring museums, and spent a lot of time eating Schnitzel and potatoes and more cheese (there wasn’t ever a time that we didn’t eat cheese in Europe, really), and learning so much about Germany with André and his friends.

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Originally, Erin and I had planned to spend a lot of time in Germany, but at the last minute we changed course and jumped on a bus to Prague, because Erin really wanted to see it. Prague was the first city I ever visited in Europe in 2011, and it was really lovely returning to a city and exploring it with new eyes. Our first day there, we made friends with a Californian named Ryan, and spent the next few days hanging with him and exploring places I’d seen and loved, and finding plenty of new things to love.

Erin experienced her first club in Europe, which is always an adventure, we took a walking tour of Prague, ate street sausages and drank beer that’s cheaper than water, and climbed to the highest point in Prague for some sweeping views of the city (and a glass of wine, obviously). One of my favorite moments was finding a lovely little antique shop that I’d stumbled upon years earlier and never forgotten. We thrifted through old postcards written during World War II, photos of people with no names, and magazines and newspapers from the Soviet era. We did our three days in Prague right, and were ready for what lay ahead when we made our next journey back to Germany to explore Berlin.

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Berlin has been on my mind since I first backpacked through Eastern Europe and was told by so many people about how underrated and amazing it is. This trip, I finally made it and it was everything I hoped for and more. Summed up, Berlin is beautiful, diverse, and gritty, with  a rich dining culture, and a “come as you are” vibe that permeates everything. We balanced our few days there with equal parts history and good food. We spent time at the remains of the Berlin Wall and learned so much about World War II and the Soviet Era from walking tours and some top-notch museums. We also met up with my friend Anja, who I’d traveled with through Myanamar earlier this year, and Judith, who we’d spent a few days with in Thailand. Thanks to Anja, we enjoyed the food at some amazing restaurants and food markets, and spent a lot of time sipping beers and eating meat and cheese in parks. Berlin is certainly special, and our time there was way too short.

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Somehow, after two and a half weeks of travel, we were nearing the end of our jaunt on mainland Europe before heading to Ireland. From Berlin, we made our way to Rotterdam and Amsterdam, in the Netherlands, with a quick stop in Delft, one of the quaintest little towns I’ve ever seen. We spent our last three days in what might be the cutest Airbnb in the world in Amsterdam. I’ll admit that I didn’t have high hopes about Amsterdam, but our time there was just perfect. I most enjoyed our time spent at the Rijksmueum, the Van Gough Museum, and hanging out in Vondelpark. We learned all about the fascinating history of Amsterdam on a walking tour, and got onto the water with a canal tour. Amsterdam had a “come as you are” vibe similar to Berlin’s that was contagious, and Erin and I found Dutch people to be much friendlier than a lot of German people we’d met. Put simply, we loved the Netherlands, and I want nothing more than to go back.

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Europe left me exhausted, sunburned, and hankering for vegetable soup green hills. Next stop: Ireland.

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