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Things I Learned Wandering Around Europe for 7 Months

11/17/2013 03:34 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

These things, traveling taught.

After five years a slave in the consulting world, I booked a oneway ticket to Iceland, and negotiated a seven-month sabbatical. Yes, in that order.

It's common to wonder: What did you learn? How did you change? What impacted you the most?

These are a few of the things that traveling taught me -- about the universe, about the world, and about myself.

1. How to make friends anywhere.

Smile, be humble, learn a couple words or phrases in the native tongue, and genuinely care about the person you're talking to. Ask about their life, their culture, and their language. You'll walk into a bar knowing no one and walk out with a handful of friends.

2. A simple 'Thank You' goes a long way.

It's amazing how people become instantly more friendly and helpful the moment you care enough to mutter out a simple 'Thank You' in their native tongue.

3. Saying 'Thank You' will instantly set you apart from 90 percent of travelers that have come before you.

In Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Iceland, Serbia, and most other places off the typical tourist track (and even those on the tourist track), people literally laughed at me when I would say 'Thank You' in their native language. They didn't laugh because I sounded like an idiot (okay, maybe); they laughed because they were floored that I knew how to say it.

4. When faced with endless options, it matters less WHAT you choose; it's just imperative that you CHOOSE.

With an open map, it's easy to get overwhelmed with choice. Upon leaving Munich, my next stop was somewhere in the Balkans. I stared at a map for two days trying to make a decision.

Don't get paralysis from analysis, in travel and in life. Just pick something and go on your merry way. You can always correct course later.

5. It's perfectly normal to be social AND introverted.

After reading Susan Cain's Quiet, I realizedthat while I'm social, I'm also naturally introverted. I love meeting new people and places, but I get exhausted if I'm around too many new things without recharging my introvert and spending time alone.

6. There's great power in solitude.

I learned how rare it is to be completely alone. I don't mean alone in your room for an afternoon -- I'm talking completely separated from anyone you know for a very long period of time. Most people have never experienced this. I didn't realize it until I was alone myself and countless people admitted to me they've never actually been alone before. When in solitude, I achieved moments of extreme clarity and connection with myself I had never experienced in my previous twenty-seven years of life.

7. There's a difference between being alone and being lonely.

I experienced both. I enjoy being alone; I don't enjoy being lonely. But experiencing loneliness taught me so much about my true nature, exposed my deepest demons, and reminded me to be thankful for the loving people in my life.

8. Americans can come off as insincerely friendly.

At least in the Baltic and Nordic countries we do. Americans tend to smile a lot and ask "How are you?" It's just our nature to greet people this way.

9. "How are you?" is vastly misunderstood.

One Estonian girl challenged me: "Why do you ask me how I am when you don't really care to know the answer?"

Of course, in the U.S. we ask "How are you?" as a type of greeting, and the response "Fine" or "Well" is somewhat of a formality. This is confusing to many Europeans I met. When they ask the question, they sincerely mean it. And the response is just as honest. "How are you?" to a Lithuanian may prompt an honest ten-minute spiel about how shitty his day is going.

10. Foreign accents are a big turn on.

A girl with an accent is automatically a few notches more attractive just because she has an accent. Don't shoot the messenger -- I'm just speaking the truth. My favorites are Spanish (sexy), Italian (musical), Icelandic (elfishly cute), UK English (sophisticated and reminds me of Victoria Beckham) and Serbian (confident).

11. Australians are everywhere.

Australia must be empty because Australians are walkabouting around every other damn country on Earth.

12. Nikola Tesla and Novak Djokovic are Serbian.

And Serbs are quick to let you know.

13. Žydrūnas Ilgauskas and Rūta Meilutytė are Lithuanian.

And Lithuanians are quick to let you know.

14. Pope John Paul II, Chopin, and Nicolaus Copernicus are Polish.

And Poles are quick to let you know.

15. Hans Christian Andersen and Niels Bohr are Danish.

And Danes are quick to let you know.

16. Alfred Nobel, ABBA, and Ace of Base are Swedish.

And Swedes are quick to let you know. Well, not so much with Ace of Base. I had to dig hard to find that one out.

17. I'm a terrible spectator.

I didn't pay attention to American sports while I was gone. Guess what? They still went on without me, winning and losing. The only difference was that I was indifferent to the winning and the losing -- it had no influence on my mood. While I love the way sports can unite and inspire people, it was liberating not to let something I have no control over control my emotions. Maybe I just hate spectating and would rather be in the arena.

18. The need to accept the things I cannot change.

If I miss a bus, take a wrong turn, or approach a stranger poorly, I can't do anything to change that. There's no sense in getting angry or beating myself up over it. But I can take stock in my mistake and learn from it.

"Grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference." --St. Francis

19. If you're bored, you're not curious enough.

Although I had no responsibilities or specific 'things to do' while I traveled, I was never bored. How could I be? With millions of books to be read, people to meet, places to see, and things to learn, there's no excuse for being bored. If you're bored, you're not curious enough.

20. Every person needs to travel outside their own country.

I realize that everyone is in different life and financial situations, and those can be reasons for postponing travel. But I do believe we each have a duty to humanity to move our ass out into the world and experience some perspective. Television and the Internet are nothing like the real thing. We need firsthand experience. The world would be a much better place for it.

21. Americans don't travel enough.

Many times I was told I was the first American people had ever met. This blew my mind. Let's go out and explore the world, 'Merica! Maybe we just need more travelers (and less tourists) out here.

22. There's a difference between a tourist and a traveler.

Travelers are my favorite.

"The traveler was active, he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him." -- Daniel Boorstin

"The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see."
-- G.K. Chesterton

23. It's the best and easiest time in the history of the world to be a traveler.

With couchsurfing.org, Airbnb.com, hundreds of new hostels popping up on hostelworld.com, and social networks like Facebook and Twitter, the Internet has made the world infinitely smaller. Let's just remember to use the Internet to get off the Internet.

24. Running is the best way to explore a new place.

All you need is a pair of running shoes, shorts, and a t-shirt. I ran in almost every city I visited. These were among my favorite and most vivid memories.

25. Life is often more complicated and cluttered than it needs to be.

For 7 months, all of my possessions fit into one large backpack and one small daypack. While liberating, it was also scary -- with no possessions to hide behind, I was forced to confront my stripped-down self. I learned that once I become honest with my true self, I became liberated even more.

26. In the long run, new experiences make us happier than new objects do.

When you buy a new gadget, object, or thing, the happiest moment is likely when you bring the item home--from there, your joy begins to diminish. With new experiences, the opposite is true. Not only do you experience happiness in the moment, but you also experience happiness when you reminisce about the experience. Sometimes even bad experiences can make us happy. After all, Comedy = Tragedy + Time, right?

27. The worst case scenario isn't so bad.

I sometimes referred to my long-term trip as Practicing Poverty. I proved to myself that I could live off only the bare necessities. If I lost everything and was forced to confront the worst case scenario of having nothing, I know I can do it. I did it. In fact, it may have been the happiest time of my life.

28. The happiest moments are often the simplest.

My happiest moments while traveling were all quite simple. They're moments that most of us have access to as a living, breathing human being: A walk under a warm sun. A run at sunset in a new city. Marveling at a natural wonder. The anticipation of a new adventure. Laughing with old friends. Getting to know new friends. Deeply connecting with a stranger. Spending the night next to a beautiful woman. Showing someone love. Receiving someone's love. Giving freely. Listening to someone's story. Sharing your own.

29. Freedom is a happiness multiplier.

My most vivid and happiest moments had one thing in common: Freedom. I was experiencing these moments with complete and total freedom.

30. I'm inherently creative (and so are you).

I believe we're born to create -- especially to create things that are bigger than ourselves. If you don't feel it, it's probably just dormant, buried deep beneath the handed-down roles and responsibilities that have been piling on top of us since we were born.

31. Selfishness is the root of most problems.

Sometimes we need to forget our ego and remember that in the end, we're all on the same team.

32. Hospitality has a new definition.

Lithuanian chefs invited me into their restaurant kitchens. English friends let me crash in their spare bedroom. Estonians took me to hidden vantage points of their city. Serbians treated me to a four-day slava celebration in their rural hometown. Icelanders cooked me dinner and insisted on driving me outside Reykjavik to see the Northern Lights. Everywhere I went, people consistently carved out time in their day for me, a complete stranger.

It caused me to reflect -- do I treat visitors this way? I'm not so sure. Southern Hospitality and the Midwest Mentality are great, but they pale in comparison to the genuine hospitality I was shown.

33. People with the least are often the most giving.

The average income in Serbia is less than $10,000/year, yet I had to beg to pay for anything when with my Serbian friends.

34. Little acts of giving go a long way.

With no set agenda, I was able to spend my time as I pleased. I tried to remind myself to practice small acts of intentional kindness -- lending a listening and caring ear; showing love and respect as a fellow human being; giving unprovoked gifts. These moments made me feel most alive.

35. Momentary happiness is found by appreciating and enjoying the present moment.

I was happiest when I was appreciating everything around me.

36. Long-term fulfillment is found through creation.

Appreciating the present moment brings momentary happiness, but in order to sustain that feeling, I needed to be working toward something that extended beyond myself. This is why sharing my journey on GiveLiveExplore.com became so important.

37. Personal transformation and growth is found by confronting fears.

Addressing fears allows you to break through invisible and inhibiting prisons and level-up as a human being. I found this to be true as I filmed Being Bold in Zadar, Croatia.

38. The two most productive types of thoughts are: 1)Thoughts of gratitude and 2) Thoughts of how you want the future to unfold (dreaming).

Most other thoughts are counterproductive and wasteful.

39. Travel is a love story and destinations are lovers.

No matter how far and wide we search, there's probably no Shangri-La; there's no place that's perfect in every way. Just like there's no person that's 100% a perfect fit. But if you look at travel (and love) as a journey, you'll never be disappointed, regardless of where you end up.

40. Everyone wants to feel loved.

Show love and you'll receive it back.

41. There's a great difference between making a discovery and understanding it.

I made many discoveries on this journey, but I only understand a handful of them. It may take days, weeks, or years before we fully understand why certain things happen to us, why life unfolds the way that it does. But I find comfort knowing that things eventually make sense in the end.

42. I learned what real intuition feels like.

It feels like a combination of 1) knowing something as fact, 2) feeling compelled with all your being, and 3) falling in love.

I learned this, at least, by my experiment.

44. All of these lessons were waiting for me back home.

But I had to leave, walk through my doors and into the world to discover them on my own.

Matthew Trinetti is a traveler, writer, speaker, and founder of GiveLiveExplore. This piece first appeared on Medium.