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Travel Lesson #1: Expect the Unexpected

Bradenburg Gate, Berlin, Germany (Festival of Lights)
Photo: Berlin Festival of Lights (Brandenburg Gate)

Harry: We have to go there, now.

Hermione: What? We can’t do that! We’ve got to plan! We’ve got to figure it out…

Harry: Hermione! When have any of our plans ever actually worked? We plan, we get there, all hell breaks loose!

~Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II~

I always laugh at this quote because if you replace the names in this conversation, it could be an exchange between my husband and I about any number of our trips. I plan everything down to the tiniest little detail, and then something always comes along and screws it up somehow. As I sit writing this, I’m delayed on the tarmac at Newark Liberty International Airport—not an irregular experience for a frequent traveler, but it got me thinking about a lesson any traveler (seasoned or not) needs to quickly learn: always expect the unexpected. Like it or not, you have to adapt and be flexible; because all the planning in the world won’t account for a sudden airline strike in Portugal, the wind picking up in Mykonos delaying all ferry service off of the island, a tractor trailer overturning on the German autobahn, your hotel “misplacing” your reservation—even after you confirm twice, or in this case, 2 days of thunderstorms wreaking havoc on the airlines’ schedule and you missing your 45 min layover connection in Stuttgart, Germany before you've even departed.

However, the unexpected event can be a positive sometimes, too. I recently spent 2 months planning a trip to several parts of Europe, including Germany and Austria, and my favorite and most memorable parts of that trip were things that I knew nothing about ahead of time. They weren’t on my 50 page itinerary, they weren’t in a guide book, they weren’t part of a tour, and they most definitely weren’t expected.

Hitler's Eagle's Nest, Obersalzberg, Germany
Photo: View from Eagle's Nest

However, we quickly improvised. At the bus station, we met two young American girls who were headed in the same direction--and equally lost, so we agreed to share a taxi up to the site's ticket area. First, we stopped at the Nazi Documentation Center (a sobering but necessary reminder of the atrocities inflicted by this dictator) and explored some of the miles of bunkers built into the mountains. Then, it was time to use our ticket up to the main attraction. When our time slot was called, we boarded buses specially designed to climb the steep road, drove up hairpin turns, walked down a tunnel built into the mountains, and took the same elevator Hitler once did up through the mountain to the top. Our roundabout journey was worth the effort, the spectacular views from Eagle's Nest go on for miles and miles in every direction. However, while that was all wonderful, the next part was even more fun… well, maybe the start of it wasn’t.

Photo: View from Outside the Documentation Center

When we got back down the mountain to the ticket center, we planned to take the local bus back to the main bus station to get back to Salzburg. So, we waited for it… and waited… and waited some more (it just wasn’t our day with buses). Eventually, we ended up waiting with another American couple and their daughter. We got to talking, and they told us that they were staying in the town down below (Berchtesgaden) and that the city was having a huge festival. There were planning to head there next (if we ever got off this mountain), and we decided we might as well check it out, too. Around that time, a taxi (nonexistent up there) was dropping someone off. My husband chased it down--literally--and all 5 of us piled in.

Nothing could have prepared me for what we found in Berchtesgaden. It was like something out of a movie, only better. The entire town was one giant party. They were celebrating the 200th year of belonging to Bavaria; there were food tents, beer tents, bands, and handicrafts on display. Women paraded through the streets in their traditional best, and men marched with their instruments all dressed to the nines in their lederhosen. The Germans certainly know how to party. With our new American friends, we ate bratwurst and the best apple strudel of my life, drank liters of wheat beer, paraded through the streets with the locals, and made some new German friends. We also managed to miraculously get a bus back to Salzburg without any trouble when we were done—mission accomplished!

The other unexpected event we came upon during that trip was the Festival of Lights in Berlin. It occurs in October, and for several nights, they light up all of the famous city buildings, lanes, and monuments with colored lights. The atmosphere was electric (no pun intended). The city's major streets and squares were closed to traffic, and everyone was out strolling and taking in the sites. The beautiful changing colored lights on the famous monuments—especially the Brandenburg Gate—created a photographer’s dreamscape. We wandered from one sight to the next, taking it all in, and just enjoying being out and about with the people of the city and their famous landmarks. It was a great, unexpected way to cap off an amazing trip.

I could go on for pages and pages about all of the mishaps, schedule snafus, and changes to itinerary I’ve encountered along the way trying to carry out my carefully orchestrated travel plans, but I could also go on for pages about all of the amazing, unplanned events, sights, and friends I’ve encountered along the way. And you know what, sometimes even the worst things I’ve encountered usually have a way of working themselves out, even if not exactly the way I planned it. The Portuguese airline went back to work just in time, I finally got a ferry off of Mykonos—albeit 4 hours later than anticipated and after watching passengers disembark making the sign of the cross and wishing us good luck, I got through the traffic in Germany and sped the rest of the way along the good ole no speed limit autobahn making up lost time, and two connections and an extra 5 hours later, I finally arrived in Dusseldorf to a liter of Germany’s finest beer and a draft of my next travel article.

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