1. More local cuisine, less pizza.
Pizza is the easy, cheap option where you don’t need to understand the local food lingo and can be sure of an edible meal at least. But sometimes you get so caught up with these things that you completely neglect local dishes. It’s the coward’s way out! Admittedly I’m a bit fussy about food and it’s often quite hard to find meals I’ll eat all of (why must everything be garnished with raw tomatoes and cucumber in any shape or form?!), but after my “What do you think I should try?” sass came up trumps in a Skopje cafe and they presented me with a delicious square of trileche cake, it seems I can always sample local puddings…
2. Try to learn at least a tiny bit of the local language.
It’s fine in Amsterdam and Berlin because everyone speaks English, but once you get to lesser visited countries, you’ll get more puzzled looks and shrugs. It’s also kind of rude to assume that everyone should cater to you by speaking your language. I’ve had some nice experiences overcoming the language barrier (having an attempt at a conversation with a Serbian man where neither of us spoke the other’s language, and we just ended up listing Serbian sportspeople because it was all we mutually understood), but it’s frustrating when you desperately need to convey information to someone. So by learning at least a few handy phrases, life should be made easier, right?
3. Stop preconceiving of lesser-known European countries as innately dangerous places to visit…
My friends and family thought I had gone crazy when I said I wanted to go around the Balkans by myself because it was so “dangerous”. Now I didn’t take any real chances with my safety, but at the same time I never felt threatened in any countries on my trip because, far from looking to rob and steal from tourists, the people in less touristy countries are far friendlier and more helpful to them. The people in Bulgaria I found particularly kind to strangers, which isn’t a trait you’d usually assign in your head to former Communist countries!
4. …And stop assuming better-known ones are safe
Number of attempted muggings on ‘dangerous’ Balkan trip (5 weeks): 0. Number of attempted muggings on ‘safe’ central European interrail (3 weeks): 1, in Berlin – the capital of one of the richest countries in Europe. Admittedly this was mostly down to personal naivety, but the point remains: just because you’re in a highly developed country doesn’t mean you’re automatically safe!
5. Chat more to (English-speaking) locals to find out interesting trivia or opinions that conflict with widely-held Western views
One of the most interesting things I found in the Balkans was that the people I spoke to still held Communism, and most of all President Tito, in high regard. For example, the woman who ran the Dubrovnik walking tour rued the days when everyone had a house and a job and told us that during Communist rule people travelled all over, whereas now they’re too poor to go abroad. This really opened my eyes to the fact that – while of course Communist rule in these countries also entailed bad things like press censorship and a lack of democracy – there’s a more balanced reality to Communist life than the picture of misery and suffering painted by History GCSE curricula and The Daily Mail. Similarly, Western travel blogs rave about Skopje’s transformation with its sparkling new buildings and hundreds of new statues built to give it more character and tourist appeal, but a woman at my hostel told me that many of the locals hate it because Macedonia is a poor country, yet it’s pumping money into statues instead of schools and hospitals. Moral of the story: there’s always a more nuanced reality to whatever you’re being asked to take as gospel!
6. Be less afraid to go a little bit off the beaten track in cities
This was most evident in Plovdiv, because had I not gone AWOL from the high street, I would never have found all the street art that features so prominently in my Street Art In The Balkans post, sample above. Sometimes you won’t see anything interesting, but it’s oh so worth it for the occasions when you do.
7. Never EVER forget insect repellent.
3 months later, my legs, arms, hands and feet still bear unsightly red blotches from bastard Balkan bugs. #firstworldproblems
8. STOP SPENDING SO MUCH MONEY AT HOME SO I CAN TRAVEL MORE!