10/22/2014 10:08 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

7 Things I Learned By Traveling to Europe

I am obsessed with 16th century windmills in Spain. Yes, this fascination is peculiar and not the normal one for a 17-year-old girl in high school (sorry One Direction), but most of my current interests stem from my extensive travels in Europe. My parents, one from Kenya and one from the United States, are polar opposites, at least in ethnic terms. I am one of only a handful of "white" Patels in the world (my father is Indian and my mother is German). However, it is because of their distinct heritages that I turned out to be such a curious, open-minded and eclectic person today.

Traveling to Europe multiple times in my young life has broadened my world perspective in ways that I am only beginning to fully appreciate. The first two-week European trip that I remember was back in 2007 (I was a wee 10 year-old), and I kick myself now because I did not truly value what I was seeing. The Eiffel Tower? The Louvre Museum? The vineyards of Neustadt an der Weinstraße in Germany? To me, they were just interesting places with delicious food, quirky people and narrow, medieval streets.

Fast forward to 2011 when I was a shy 14-year-old just about to enter the dungeons of high school. This time, my parents brought my sister and me to Italy, the land of wine, the birthplace of numerous art movements and one of the origins of Western civilization. The Italian culture was simply divine, and I drank up every moment I could (i.e. seeing "David" in Florence and being one of the only people in St. Peter's Square at night). I was old enough to appreciate everything that I saw, and what I learned in two weeks abroad was more than two years at school could have taught me. Sure, it's not like I learned how to do the derivative in Pisa or calculate velocities in Rome, but I did learn practical information like how to find my way around the underground when my family was packed in a subway car like sardines and how to avoid getting pick-pocketed in the dense crowds surrounding the Colosseum.

Useful information aside, for the first time I began to see how other people interacted, their ways of life and just how different their perspectives were from mine. In the United States, many people work an unhealthy amount of hours just to make more money than they really need. The concept of a tight-knit family and instilling children with "good values"? Those old fashioned views are now pushed aside for wealth. However, in Italy and several other European countries, adults take mini siestas during the brutal heat, take time to catch up with family and friends and genuinely enjoy the food that is passing through their mouths, savoring the moment in a way I've never seen before. Plus, seeing the Sistine Chapel is nothing a textbook or Google Earth image can simulate.


My sister, mother and I in front of the Colosseum in Rome.

My last, and perhaps most culturally enriching trip was to Spain in the summer of 2013. By this time, I was a more aware (a.k.a. less incompetent and juvenile) teenager that could actually understand the value of "Las Meninas" by Velázquez, the Aqueducts of Segovia and the fascinating religious history of Toledo. Europe had so much to offer this time around because I was willing to absorb every little detail of my vacation. Nothing was mundane or could not be enjoyed. Staying at a hotel with no air conditioning because it was the last one available? Sure, why not. When else am I going to be able to see the theatrical Dali Museum in Figueres, Spain?

I don't know what it is about Europe, maybe the museums, the culture, the winding streets, the zest for renewable energy or simply the mystique surrounding the word "European," but I could live there for an infinite amount of lifetimes and never tire of her astounding treasures. Here are a few more tidbits I learned from one of my favorite continents:


The Dali Theater Museum in Figueres, Spain.

1. Europe taught me to be an observer. Every single person I passed, whether they were walking their dog with a glass of wine in their hand or talking rapidly in French into their cell phones, had a story.

2. Bring your camera EVERYWHERE. You never know when you might see something snapshot-worthy. If it wasn't for the digital age, I would never have gotten a picture of a hunched over elderly man singing Andrea Bocelli karaoke in the Piazza Navona.

3. Events in high school are completely insignificant compared to the mind-blowing wonders in Europe. How can a petty breakup with a boy/girl you've dated for two weeks seem important when compared to the Duomo in Florence?

4. Public transportation is convenient in Europe, especially the underground system.

5. Go to the restaurants that don't have the menus in English. English = cheap, touristy foods that attempt to waylay homesick foreigners. Be an adventurous foodie; you never know, that haggis in the Scotland might be your favorite dish of all time.

6. Don't just visit museums to take pictures and to say "been there, done that." The works of Goya, Velázquez, Monet, Rembrandt or any other great master are not meant to be cheesy photo ops.

7. Don't sweat the small things. At the end of the day, you're in EUROPE and that is all that matters. No vacation goes as smooth as a freshly opened jar of Nutella; soak in everything you can without going insane with wanderlust.

I count myself lucky to be so young yet to have had the opportunity to travel abroad with my family. We save for two years, go to Europe, save for another two years, etc. What I gained from my experiences was definitely worth not going out to dinner for a few months to pay for plane tickets.

Read my other articles about my adventures in Europe here. Scroll down to the "Traveling" heading.