Are We Out Of The Closet (Woods) Yet?

Since it’s National Coming Out Day, I felt motivated to share my story, and what better place than on a space that’s all my own?

I did not come to full terms with my sexuality until the later part of high school. Early on, I had a period where I believed I was bisexual, and it’s kind of humorous for me to look back and remember that, at the time, that was the biggest secret I had. With my anti-socialness, I felt enormously uncomfortable admitting to anyone who I really was, out of fear that I would be bullied. My high school was not unpleasant, by any means, but I felt like I would be putting myself in a vulnerable position for taunts, threats, and so on, and I wanted to get through high school intact, if possible. There were a handful of guys I had crushes on, but nothing ever came of it. I eventually told one of my friends via Facebook that I was bi, and for a while, she was the only one who knew. A few other people gradually caught on, but for the most part, I kept it a secret. I would periodically fill out the infamous Facebook notes where you answer a bunch of random questions, and every time it reached the “what’s your biggest secret?”, I would answer truthfully, tag the same handful of friends, and then delete it about 10 seconds later.

Eventually this burden carried me to my freshman year of college in the 2012-2013 period. I got roommate matched to live with a guy I’d never met before. We got along really well, and for a short while, it felt like I was slowly starting to get my life back on track. My blog posts at the time reflected as much. I opened up to him about my family dynamics, and he didn’t judge me at all. We continued becoming good friends, and got to become friends with other people on our floor. He, to no surprise, thrived, where I, still trapped in my anxiety and social awkwardness, tried to survive. He switched rooms in the spring semester, but we remained friends. Some advice I gave him helped him get a girlfriend, I helped him write a handful of papers here and there, I even helped him fill out a financial aid appeal form, which ended up allowing him to continue receiving financial aid and stay in college.

The final day of the semester, the two of us were sitting in his room, and I said to him, “I feel like I can tell you anything. I could tell you that I’m gay, and you wouldn’t care.” After sitting there and nodding in silence, I added, “…because I’m gay, actually.” His response was simple. “Calvin, you know I love you man. Come here.” And he got up and gave me a hug, and that moment meant the world to me, not because I thought he was homophobic, but because I didn’t know what to expect. Believe me, my heart was racing. But that moment was pivotal for me, because it gave me the courage to know that some people truly don’t care one way or the other. Sure, he randomly decided he didn’t want to talk to me ever again a week and a half later, which I struggled to come to terms with that whole summer and still, to this day, do not know what exactly happened, but it still gave me the motivation to open up to people more.

The following semester, that circle of acceptance continued to widen. I opened up to two friends I made in one of my English classes. I started working on-campus, and have been fortunate to make a handful of friends who have accepted me all the same. My roommates that year did not care in the slightest. I eventually reached a point where I decided it wasn’t worth it to hide anymore, and on March 17th in 2014, I came out completely.

I have been fortunate enough to have never experienced discrimination directly. The closest I’ve come to it was heading to one of my shifts on-campus and this guy and his friend passed me and one of them audibly whispered “Fag” to his friend out of nowhere, looking at me. I paid them no mind at all. I know for many others, it’s far worse. People have committed suicide as a result of bullying. It’s heartbreaking to know what some people have to go through, feeling like it is unsafe to be who they are. That, to me, is one of the biggest crimes in the world, and perhaps for those back in the 1920s, it was more commonplace and ‘accepted,’ but with how much progress America and the world has made since then, it shouldn’t be a thing, certainly not in the land where we are guaranteed a slice of the ‘American Dream.’

My own road to acceptance has not been an easy one. No, it hasn’t been faced with some of the same challenges many others my age have gone through, ranging anywhere from conversion therapy to disownment. Suffering with anxiety and mild spikes of depression, however, does not bode well in some of the environments I’ve found myself in. Even beyond my sexuality, I’ve had more than my fair share of moments where I wish I could be different, where I could’ve been born differently, had a different upbringing, and so on. My childhood wasn’t unhappy, by any means, and it’s ironic that, out of all the things I wish I could change, I’m thankful my sexuality is not one of them. It’s weird to me that it’s one of the few things about myself that I can embrace.

Another facet to those who are closeted is the fear of how friends and family will react. After making a blog post as my way of coming out, the reactions I received from my friends were all positive. My biggest concern (as my mind loves to exaggerate scenarios and fears) was finding a way to tell my mom, which eventually happened and, as she’s gay and in a relationship, both her and her girlfriend love me just the same. I’ve seen countless stories of LGBT youth who finally work up the courage to come out to their family, only to have their family completely shun them. Such was the case with an old Lifetime movie I loved watching, called Prayers For Bobby, where, after coming out, his mother tried to convert him back to being straight.

No, compared to others who have gone through much worse, I’ve been very lucky. But it’s heartbreaking knowing that isn’t the case for everyone, and that people have lost deep, personal friends, family members, and jobs over what should not be a huge deal at all.

I know there’s a handful of people who don’t support gay marriage, and people who are completely neutral on the subject. There are those who don’t agree with it, but if two other same-sex people want to get married, that’s none of their business (which is 100% accurate). It’s been the subject of religious interventions and proclamations, like “Protect the family!” My thing is, why do people care? It’s the same thing abut someone else’s religious beliefs, or weight, or age, or skin color, or anything else. Why does it matter to you? What makes someone else’s happiness influential on your own? It makes absolutely no sense, and I realized that the more I came out: There are people who don’t care who you love, or what your skin color is, or what you believe in, as long as you’re a good person and treat them with respect. And that’s exactly how it should be.

 

This short film is the same one I’ve left in previous posts, and is one of my favorite (and honestly, one of the most heartbreaking) short films I’ve ever seen. It essentially flips the stereotypes and discriminatory viewpoints of those who are gay and straight, where, as the title suggests, gay is the norm and straight is worthy of disownment. I don’t have to say much to articulate the message of the video; it truly speaks for itself.

The most I can say to whoever happens to read this, regardless of your situation, is that gradually, as clichéd as it sounds, things do get better. Coming out lifted such a huge weight off of my shoulders. I’m beyond fortunate that I can be myself around my co-workers at both of my jobs. There is a whole ocean of people who can and will embrace you for who you are as a person. My sexuality has never defined me; it’s just a small fraction of the person I am, and I know that even if I wasn’t gay, I would still have the same mindset. Some people may not support you. You may lose friends. But ultimately, your happiness is the most important thing you have in this life. Do not waste it being unhappy.

My own abilities to change the stigma that makes thousands of people afraid to love who they love is very limited. The most I can do is offer support to those who need it, in-person or online. It’s not much, but for some, it’s been enough, and I’ve been thankful for that. I’m confident that, eventually, we will reach an era where nobody will need to come out of the closet. People will just be themselves, and not live in fear. That, I assure you, will be a marvelous world to live in, and as long as I and others who have a similar mindset stick to making that happen, it’s distinctly possible we can have a positive impact on history down the road.

I might only have one match, but I can make an explosion.

United We Stand

For the past few days, I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the events that have unfolded this past weekend, with the shooting of Christina Grimmie at a post-show autograph signing, and with the massacre at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando where 50 people were killed and another 50 were injured.

And honestly, I don’t even know what’s happening in the world anymore.

Rumors abound that Christina was shot by an ex-boyfriend. I can’t begin to describe how shitty that is of him, regardless of whatever motive seemed logical to him and him alone at the time. Some people break up and just go their separate ways. Clearly, some guys break up and decide later on to murder their ex-lover. It’s tragic.

Like most people, I woke up Sunday morning and was instantly heartbroken as I scrolled through Twitter. The #PrayForOrlando hashtags were common, and naturally curious, it took me minutes to find out what it was about. And in many ways, I wish I hadn’t. More importantly, I wish it hadn’t happened.

According to the gunman’s father, he saw two men kissing in Miami, which inspired him to take an assault rifle into a gay nightclub and start killing people. These people, at least from what I’ve seen reported (and little to my own personal doubt), did not provoke him in any way. It’s a nightclub. They came to drink. To have fun. To have a good time. As people. As humans. And one person decided that wasn’t enough. And through his actions, it set a record as the worst mass shooting in the history of the United States.

The negative reactions were, of course, strewn throughout the Internet. Some people praised this man for ‘killing off the fags,’ and a few in that category, through the same power of the Internet, lost their jobs or were expelled from school for their words (case in point: this). Other people noted that if these people hadn’t “flaunted their gayness” in the man’s face, they would’ve still been alive, minus the fact that a) it’s a gay nightclub, and b) he came with an assault rifle, so clearly he came with a purpose. Some have highlighted the fact that he’s gay, in an effort to paint us as a destructive, violent part of society who need to be eradicated (which is something this anti-gay pastor believes).

This is undoubtedly an attack on the LGBT community, and the fact it happened within the month of June, a month we continually celebrate our achievements, only doubles the pain. Investigators who entered the club afterward had to listen to the sound of dozens of cell phones going off. Coming from those who were dead. Calls, coming from boyfriends. Friends. Relatives. Co-workers. People who would never get to speak, hear, or see them ever again.

Sunday was, for the most part, a blur for me. Just a jumble of emotions, intermixed with sitting in the office at my apartment complex for five hours, answering the occasional phone call, checking for a package or two, sending out an email here and there. My life instantly seemed much, much less significant to what was occurring elsewhere, and what other families were now going through.

I’ve seen my fair share of comments from people moaning about how LGBT people aren’t discriminated against, about how we don’t need a month of pride, or pride festivals and parades, about how there should be a straight pride, and the list goes on from there. This event proved exactly why we have pride events in the first place: Because we are collectively amongst a variety of other minority groups that are at risk of public humiliation, discrimination, bigotry, hatred, and, at its worst, physical violence.

Why? Because of who we are and who we love.

It continually boggles my mind how wrapped up some people get in the lives of others. A recent Facebook video showed a mom breastfeeding in a Target store and being subjected to a slew of verbal assaults from a man, until a group of women and Target employees defended her. When the landmark same-sex ruling was handed down last year in June, many people said it would be the end of marriage, and ruin the ‘sanctity’ of it. Here’s a classic lesson from my childhood: If someone else is happy, LET THEM BE HAPPY. This country was built on the principle of the American Dream, for people to live the lives they want to live, permitted they follow the rules of society. There is, and should never be, a rule barring you from marrying who you want to marry, from dating who you want to date, from doing anything in your life that will bring you happiness. What a complete stranger does with their life should never be any concern of yours, because, plot twist, heterosexual couples are still able to marry and have kids. Nothing has changed. At all. The world hasn’t ended. People need to grow up and worry about their own happiness and not try to destroy the happiness of someone else.

So far in 2016, there have been 139 shootings. No, not all of them are on as wide of a scale as what happened in Orlando, nor are they as widely reported. We are currently 167 days into the year, which means 28 of those days have gone without any reports of gun violence, which is a tragic fact. I will never, ever understand how this man came to be in possession of an assault rifle, and for something that operates so quickly and can take out so many lives in a very small amount of time, no single person should have access to a gun of that nature. The second amendment is a valuable one, and people should protect themselves at all costs, but certainly not with a weapon like that.

And yet, as with Aurora, Colorado, and Virginia Tech, and Sandy Hook, and San Bernardino, and many others, we take time to scratch our heads and question why these things continually happen, and then moments later we’re on to some other big topic. I truly believe that regardless of what side you’re on, whether you’re advocating for deeper mental health insights or better background checks or stricter gun control and regulation, better education or whatever else, that something needs to happen. As a society, we cannot continue the same ritual, of offering up our thoughts and prayers and then simultaneously turn around days later and move on to something else. If we really want these things to stop happening, or to happen much, much less often, we actually need to take action in some effective form.

If there is any silver lining to this, it’s the fact that the issue of, for the most part, gun control has landed in the hands of the LGBT community, a network of individuals that comprise a very decent portion of society throughout the country. Those among us fought hard to win the right to same-sex marriage, and there’s little doubt in my mind that, through our actions, something can finally be done to address this. We do not need prayers, or well-wishes, or thoughts. We need action, because that alone speakers stronger than words.

But the bigger silver lining is how much unity came across social media, especially for gay Twitter. In a virtual realm that is often rampant with shade and hatred toward one another, it was incredibly refreshing to see virtually every single person tweeting some of the same things, making some of the same comments as others, interacting with each other, virtually supporting one another. And that is what we need. This shooting is the exact reason we need to STOP hating those that are in our own community. The ‘no fat, no masc, no fem, no black, no asian’ tag line has run its course. We absolutely cannot turn our back on one another. We need to be unified.

I came out two years ago in March, and I know for sure that I’m not going back in. I’m not letting one act of violence dictate how I live my life, because how I live my life is my own business. I am not going anywhere. I am going to continue living my life exactly as I’ve lived it. At a time when many of the LGBT community are closeted, I know this is an extremely terrifying thing for them to bear witness to. But I also believe it is important to note that this is what it means to be a part of society. Women have faced this for decades, back when the wage gap was much deeper, back when they didn’t have the opportunity to vote. African-Americans have faced this for a century, back when slavery was a thing, back when police officers would use pressure hoses on them just for walking in the street or peacefully protesting, back when racism was much more strong and widespread than it is today (while still being a thing, it’s better than how things used to be in the south in cities like Birmingham). Every single time you step outside of your home, you become a part of society. You sacrifice your privacy, safety, and comfort for being out living your life, and this is one of the universal truths that binds us together as people, not just in America, but the world. Every time you step off your porch, you take a risk in what lies ahead for the day, but as with most things, really, what’s life without risk? Being closeted is not a bad thing, and it’s my sincere wish that anyone who is closeted will eventually be able to live their life freely.

This shooting has demonstrated to me the true power and spirit of the LGBT community. In a month where we should be celebrating who we are, this should give us all the more reason to take pride in that, because we are a part of a community of individuals who stand together, not just in a single month, but year after year. And that’s how it should be, and not just for this community. We should all be supportive of one another, and be there for each other when we really need it. We don’t have to love every single person on this Earth. That is next to impossible, because people come in a variety of shades and colors we may not agree with. But at the least, we should respect each other for our differences, and accept that we are after the same things in life: To be loved, to be happy, and to be free.

I hope this spirit never dies. I hope action actually happens. I hope less people are senselessly murdered. And I hope we continue to stand together, as people. As one united fabric in the minuscule stitch of the galaxy. Someday, if we keep fighting, maybe things might get better, but only if we’re willing to take the steps necessary to achieve it.

Love Is Love

June, amongst the LGBT community, is much more than a month of high school open houses and numerous weddings. It’s more than the start of summer, of several weeks of beaches, vacations, sunny days, and the typical 9-5 work grind.

June is National Pride Month.

Pride festivals, amongst the gay community from my observations, are split down the middle as far as opinions go. They draw in crowd of thousands for outdoor events, music, food, awareness, education, support, counseling, community services, and more. They strive to be an all-inclusive event, for people of all genders and sexual orientations. They aim at celebrating the achievements and accomplishments made by the LGBT community while simultaneously striving to break down preconceived notions from others about people in the LGBT community and the types of lifestyles some people believe we allegedly lead.

But they are not without their share of opposing viewpoints. Some people claim they are one giant hookup scene waiting to happen, filled with people dressed in as little clothing as possible in an effort to attract as many people as possible. They provide an opportunity for unwelcome advances from people you are not interested in or attracted to. They formulate the question to some of why ‘straight pride’ events do not exist.

The list is not extensive, and barely scratches the surface, but the opposition is there, without a doubt.

I have never been to a Pride festival before. I did not fully know they were a thing until last year, and unfortunately my only opportunities to go to two near me were not available as I had made other travel plans. But I have told myself for many months that it would be something I would like to experience, just once, and formulate my own opinions. Pride events in each city and region are slightly different, and attract a diverse crowd. No two Pride events are exactly alike, and what may happen at one event in Grand Rapids may not be the same case for another in Chicago, or New York. I am, at long last, having this checked off my bucket list next Saturday, and I’m excited to see what it’s all about. Unfortunately it will not be entirely for leisure. I’m getting in for free at the cost of working for my apartment complex in drawing in interested people to sign leases and tour the property, so there will be some work involved, but still, it counts that I’m at least going.

But regardless of what your personal opinions are of Pride events, what’s truly important is the overall message behind them. These events exist because many others, who came years before us, gradually paved the way for wider and wider acceptance of LGBT individuals. There is still much, much work left to be done, but without those who, to use a phrase I personally hate for some reason, blazed the trail for the rest of us, things could be much different than how they are currently. For a community that has largely been considered to be a ‘minority,’ it is important to recognize and celebrate the advances that have been made, understand the goals that have yet to be met, and continually strive to bring LGBT acceptance into a more national realm, something that is felt in every single state, much less the entire world.

One of the most notable of these recent accomplishments is, of course, the gay marriage ruling on June 27th last year, and although it did not truly become a reality in every single state and every single county (lest we forget dear Kim Davis in Kentucky), the overall principle was clear: Same-sex marriage is, much like ‘traditional’ marriage, a given right.

Struggles have, of course, not been unknown, the most recent of which is the uproar over the transgender bathroom bill in North Carolina, and the outrage a number of Christians have expressed towards Target continuing to promote itself as a welcoming LGBT national retailer. Gay rights have also worked their way into the election climate, with most Republicans either flat-out opposing it or proclaiming it should be up to the states to decide. Some have gone to greater lengths, swearing to appoint new Supreme Court Justices to repeal the same-sex ruling, amongst other measures.

In today’s climate, for anyone who is closeted in particular, it is, at times, a challenge to be who you are, and say what you feel, and stand by what you believe in, based on the environment you’re in. Being closeted is not, under any circumstances, a bad thing. Every single person comes to terms with who they are as an individual, whether gay or straight or anywhere in-between, on their own time, and nobody can determine the length of that journey except for yourself. Nobody should force you into doing anything you are not uncomfortable with, by any means.

What is not okay, however, is denying who you are as a person, or wishing you could be someone else. Many of us have been in those same shoes. Like many others, I went through my closeted period in late middle school, all of high school, and my first two years of college. I knew who I was, but I was afraid to be who I was, because I believed the results would be…less than favorable, and more importantly, safe to my current situation. But after I came out to my roommate at the end of freshman year, while it resulted in him unexpectedly cutting me out of his life a week and a half later and sending me into one of the most emotionally traumatic tailspins of my life, it also sparked something in me to be more honest with myself, and with other people. It pushed me to lead a more open life, and as the circle of acceptance for me widened over that fall semester and into the spring, I gradually realized that being open, and happy, was far more important than feeling insecure, and so on March 17th, I came out.

And that, really, is something that I think is the most important: Being happy, and doing what makes you happy as a person. There will always be a handful of people who will not be ecstatic with your life choices, and how you decide to live your life, but at the end of the day, you have to ask yourself how much do those people really matter to you. How much do they really love you and support you? If the answer to any of those is no, they are not people you need in your life. You have all the power, right, and responsibility in the world to find people who will unconditionally love you and support you, because life is truly far too short to be anything less than happy.

It’s a lesson I’ve gradually come to accept in my own life as well. A good portion of my friendships currently exist thanks to the Internet, but I have come to realize that they can be a challenge to not only maintain, but to stay engaged in and committed to, because, for other people, things like school, life, and boyfriends quickly get in the way. Unfortunately for me when these people wind up in a relationship, our friendship takes a significant drop, if not, dies off altogether. This has been the case with a fellow anon from Missouri, a friend I made who lives in Tennessee and recently got a boyfriend, another anon from Indiana I’ve been talking to the last few months up until he got a boyfriend several weeks ago, the list goes on.

It’s one of the most unfortunate realizations for me to know that some people view me as nothing more than someone to waste time on until something better comes along. I never expect anyone to talk to me constantly, because I know there’s plenty of other things that take a greater precedence over my existence, and that is fine. That’s understandable. And while I understand people get busy, I also hang on to the belief that nobody can ever be too busy to talk to you, because it only takes a couple seconds, if anything, to pick up the phone and send a text. It may not result in the most in-depth conversation, but it’s something. And that counts, just to show you they’re thinking about you. When it gets to the point where a friend of yours is periodically posting links on Facebook or making snap stories but refuses to hold a conversation with you longer than three or so texts and dodges requests to FaceTime, that’s the point where you have to ask yourself if the friendship is one-sided.

But still, the overall message is that, even if it’s not the world’s longest text, or the most sentimental, there are dozens of ways to show someone you care about them. Anything from asking how their day is, telling them to be careful, wishing them goodnight, and so on are just a handful of examples. The words “I love you” can take on a wide variety of forms if you pay careful enough attention.

One thing in particular that the gay community needs to fix is the same thing I mentioned in my last blog post: The apparent disregard for those who are fat, fem, Asian, black, and so on. Here’s the conspiracy: For people who have anything along those lines in any of their social media/dating profiles, you cannot turn around and proclaim love is love and everyone is equal if you don’t successfully promote that same attitude yourself throughout the year. It is fine to date someone if you’re not attracted to them, or if they’re not your type. What’s not okay is dehumanizing people and making them feel inferior based on race, how feminine they are, and so on. A number of these things are unchangeable and permanent. People should not be made to feel ashamed of who they are. That goes against what those before us have fought for years: We should not feel ashamed for being gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and everything in-between.

Nobody will know their interests as well as you. You may prefer guys who are taller, or have beards, or enjoy outdoor activities, and things along those lines, which are all perfectly fine. But you cannot categorize an entire group of people based on something like their race, and immediately discredit them as ‘unworthy’ or ‘unfit’ to date you. The reality is that gay guys come in as many different shades as any other demographic. You can’t state all men are assholes, because in that case, how do you expect to have a solid mentality to find a boyfriend believing that all men are assholes? If you count someone out just because they may have some extra pounds on them, you may be denying yourself the opportunity to date a truly incredible person, someone who will unconditionally care for and support you, perhaps even better than the six-pack guys you may be prone to idolizing.

This draws back to another major facet of the gay community: The focus on appearance. Pretty faces are pretty to look at, and to touch, and to kiss. But as time wears on, beauty tends to fade. It’s the classic line, “Will you still love me when I’m no longer young and beautiful?” Someone who is visually attractive does not automatically make them an ideal partner. If their personality is horrible, the likelihood of you staying with them for long is tremendously small. Don’t get me wrong, we all fall victim to the visual factor, there’s no denying that whatsoever. But beauty is so much more than skin-deep. Who someone is as a person can, and often does, make them as equally beautiful than the most attractive people in the world. It is important to take care of yourself internally and externally, but looks are not everything, and they shouldn’t be. Ever. There’s so much more to a person than that, and I say this not from a point of reflection on the views of my own personal self-image, but of how I have observed others, both online and offline.

Every single second, of every single minute, of every single hour, within every single day, we have the opportunity to use our voice for something positive. There are many people out there who enjoy being shady, and tearing other people down. I know there’s a number of people with questionable opinions and beliefs and attitudes, a few I know directly from experience. There’s many aspects of the LGBT community that are a long way from being perfect. But rather than spending energy stating over and over again the parts we hate, more energy can be put into promoting a more inclusive environment. A vast number of workplaces, organizations, and businesses have begun this practice. There’s no reason why we can’t do this towards members off ur own community.

It truly is okay to be who you are. There’s always room for self-improvement. You may want to lose a couple pounds. Maybe you’re looking to shake up your wardrobe a bit. Perhaps it’s time to dump some old friends and make some new ones. All of those are up in the air, and up to you, as long as you remain confident and comfortable in your skin, because you should. Your happiness is your most important quality, though it never hurts to extend your talents to making those around you equally happy as well.

For the thousands, if not, millions of people who are still closeted, they need to know, more than anything in the world, it is okay to be gay. It is not, and should never be, something to be ashamed of. Do not deprive yourself of the opportunity to do what makes you happy. There are a vast number of people who are closeted who live in secluded or restrictive communities, and therefore makes it a challenge for them to come out. Where you are at now is not where you will be at forever.

It may be corny, but your greatest, most powerful weapon to combat bigotry, hatred, and discrimination is love. There are people, words, and actions that are undecipherable and indescribable, and you can choose to combat these motives on equal footing, usually when they involve verbal assault, violence, and so forth. Or you can choose to fight against their oppression with compassion, as difficult as that may be at times to do. Fighting fire with the same exact chemical is not going to douse the flame any easier or faster.

We still have a long way to go as a community. I still have a long way to go on my own personal quest towards happiness. But the power of such tools as social media can be put to much bigger use. Think of the number of followers you have. Think of the people you can reach, not only through Twitter, but through other forms as well. We cannot expect other people to love us unless we love each other first.

If you feel trapped, think of where you’re going, not where you’ve come from.

The journey to coming out will be hard. You will likely lose friends along the way, but it will make room for much greater people to take their place.

Do not stop fighting for the life you want to live.

Love is so much stronger than hatred and fear.

Love is love. And love will always win.

Raise Your Voice

(this post was inspired by a video I saw on Facebook earlier today, which was shared by @Th1nd0nly, so if he hadn’t shared it, I wouldn’t have seen it, and wouldn’t be writing this right now.)

When I was younger, I used to believe that things were a million percent better once I got older. Once I got into high school or college, I kept telling myself, I wouldn’t be bullied. I would actually be respected as a person, or at least left alone.

And the unfortunate reality I came across, as do millions of other kids on a regular basis, is that bullying doesn’t stop. Ever. There is always an opponent to your happiness, someone who constantly seeks to drag down your success and the success of those around you. Perhaps most notably in today’s election cycle, a prime example of this is Donald Trump’s name-calling of others as losers, crooked, and so on. Are they the most offensive comments? Of course not, but it does point to the evidence that bullies exist, whether you’re in seventh grade or a 45-year old journalist.

This is the aforementioned video. Kids as young as these are afraid of being themselves, and they’re not even in high school yet.

Not a single human alive is perfect, but something I know many people strive for is to be better, and in that process of being better, the desire to be different can often spring up. In some cases, that desire can completely overshadow the simple need to be better, for self-improvement, and instead you end up focusing on becoming a completely different person altogether, which is often for the worst.

Every single day, there are a lot of things telling you how to be, what’s cool, what’s in, what to eat, what to drink, what to watch, what to wear. And it’s very easy to become absorbed by this preconceived idea of who you should be as a person, because it’s frequently seen as the simplest way to get people to like you and to make new friends. You have to force yourself to like something just because the rest of your friends like it. You have to act like you’re obsessed with a show just so you can have something to contribute to your friends’ conversation. You have to pretend like you’ve been in a relationship or two before just so people don’t think you’re a complete loser.

There ends up being a lot people sacrifice in order to try and fit in. I can’t even begin to name all the movies I’ve seen where the main character pretends not to be interested in a passion of theirs just so they can try to fit in, and unfortunately, it’s a reality I’ve seen in person as well, even from personal experience. For the longest time in high school, I was dying for a social life. Band was the only thing I knew, and most of my days involved going to school and going back home. I knew trying to get into sports would be a no-go, because that’s not who I am. But at the time, me being gay was the biggest secret I had, partially up until the end of April in 2013 (in part), and, when March 17th, 2014 rolled around, it was gone altogether. Being pressured to fit in in middle school and high school can, for some people, be a brutal process, and with my shyness, it was something I struggled with immensely.

This is the same occurrence that happens online as well. Being inclusive to an environment that features people of a wide variety of backgrounds, interests, and opinions, you’re more than likely to meet those who are less than savory, and people who only seek to bring down others for the most insane of reasons. Sharing your opinion, to them, is like asking to be punched in the face, and they will look for every available opportunity to try and knock you down. When I started this blog almost two years ago, one of my first posts about self-acceptance was detailing the rich history of my first encounter with a cyberbully, of someone who I tried, for whatever crazy reasons, to be friends with, which ultimately didn’t work out. People like that exist.

What is more unfortunate, however, is that individuality isn’t accepted, appreciated, and valued as much as it should be, because, if you’re a guy, listening to Ariana Grande has to be something you sweep under the rug, or, for girls, enjoying a heavy metal band or video games are not things you’re “supposed” to be interested in. Many people fail to have a basic level of respect, of letting people live their lives and letting them be happy on their own, because at the end of the day, if a guy wants to walk down Times Square in a dress, who am I to stop him or say no? What power do I have? How is it affecting me?

The answer to that last one in particular: It’s not.

Speaking of online bullying, ABC Family released Cyberbully in 2011, and simultaneously struck a chord with thousands, if not, millions of viewers, myself included. For as difficult and frustrating as parts of the plot were to watch, it spoke to the deep impact bullying can have, regardless of what age you’re at. It’s so easy to let certain words become a part of how you see yourself if you’re not really careful to your own self-perception. And more often than not, walking away from the computer or simply blocking someone is the easiest solution. You should never have to tolerate being treated like you’re less of a person, for whatever reason.

Even amongst the gay community, it’s no secret that equality is still a long way from being a realistically obtainable facet of society, due in part to people who push racism off as preferences, and who refuse to even talk to someone because they’re fat. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve tried initiating conversation with someone on Grindr or Twitter just to be ignored, and then watching those same people talk to other people instead. Is it a self-esteem killer? Absolutely. Yet, at the end of the day, how much can I really get upset about it? Is it the end of the world? Of course not.

For the longest time, however, it did make me wish I was different. That I was more confident, and successful, and that I was in a much different place than where I’m at currently. There have been two instances in my life where I have genuinely wanted to kill myself. There’s a whole host of things about myself I would love to change if I ever had the chance.

At the same time, however, there’s parts of me I appreciate as well. I constantly aim to put other people before me, which in some cases is a bit of a downfall. I care about people way too much to have someone stay mad at me. I try and support as many people as possible, because I believe it’s only natural that we reach out to others. You never know when you may need someone supporting you.

The only way anything in society can change, from how people are treated in school and online, whether they are gay, straight, feminine, masculine, thin, fat, black, latino, transgender, and so on is if we use our voice. It’s not something specific to just LGBT individuals; it’s something specific to society as a whole. People need to know it’s okay to be themselves. I hid who I was for the longest time, and my life could be drastically different now had things played out differently in my past. But still, I’ve embraced where I am, and am slowly trying to learn to love myself exactly as I am.

No one single person can, nor should, dictate our happiness. Whatever actions we choose should be ours to make alone. No single person has the right to deny us anything we are entitled to as citizens of the United States. We need to speak up for people who can’t. Every single person deserves to, at the least, well welcomed, accepted, and appreciated, because you never know the battles someone else is facing, particularly if you never talk to them. It is humanly impossible to love every single person you interact with. That will never happen. But treating other people with an open mind will go much, much farther than casting judgment. It’s the same principle for Christians who judge and hate gay people but claim to follow the Bible and are self-proclaimed people lovers. You can’t have it both ways! You either accept people, or you discriminate against them. Hopefully you choose the former. Hopefully things can move past a mother parading through a Target store, wielding a Bible and denouncing their “wicked practice” of allowing transgender people to use whichever bathroom they identify with.

There’s also this video to think about, which is something I shared on my blog several months ago. It’s a minute shy of 20, but it’s incredibly worth the watch, and the context can be used beyond what is on the surface. Imagine if being black was the norm, or being fat, and how the societal roles would be reversed. Would people still be treated in the same manner? It’s one of the most powerful videos I’ve ever seen, and it underscores how truly vital it is to bring a basic level of equality and acceptance to everyone,  not just those within the LGBT community. Again, this goes beyond being an “LGBT issue.” This is an issue with society, and more and more people need to speak up and fight back against it. Everyone has their own lives, and stresses, and challenges to deal with each and every day, but you would be surprised how wonderful it feels reaching out to someone and letting them know that they are not as alone as they think. Take it from me. We truly have more power than we realize, and I hope more and more people begin to put their voices to use, myself included.

“Every single day, we go online and we scroll through the highlight reel of other people’s awesome lives. But we don’t see the highlight reel of our awesome lives, all we see is the behind the scenes of our lives. We see every single moment, from when we wake up. You see your doubts, you see your fears, you see your concerns. You’re the only that’s inside your brain feeling all of your anxieties, and the voices that are telling you that you can’t be who you want to be, or that you’re not who you want to be, or that you want to be more like that other person right over there. Let me tell you, people are mean to each other, but no voices are as mean as our own voices are to ourselves. Every day, when you look in the mirror and your mind is telling you all the things you’re not, if those things are you’re not cool enough,  you’re not pretty enough, you’re not popular enough, you’re not successful enough, you’re not special, you’re not wanted, you’re not unique. Those are not the things you are not. Let me tell you the things you are not. You are not somebody else’s opinion of you. You are not going nowhere just because you are not where you want to be yet. You are not damaged goods just because you have made mistakes in your life. Those are the things you are not. Let me tell you the things that you are. You are your own definition of beautiful and worthwhile, and no one else’s definition. You are wiser, stronger, and smarter because you made mistakes in your life, not damaged. I’ve realized that it’s not about being perfect, it’s not about feeling perfect. I think that sometimes it’s just about getting on with things, and after a while, you look around and you realize that you’re happy today, and that’s all that matters. And I just want you to know that one thing I have learned in 25 years and I’m still learning, is that if you get rained on, you walk through a bunch of storms, life is constantly coming at you, that doesn’t make you damaged. It makes you clean.” – Taylor Swift, The 1989 World Tour, Hyde Park, June 27th, 2015.

No Fats, No Fems, No Equality

Normally I use this blog to vent out my personal feelings, reveling in what accomplishments I made and noting what steps I still have to take personally. But recently there’s something that’s been making headlines, at least in some circles, that I felt motivated to comment on.

And it all boils down to an article of clothing. More specifically, the “no fats, no fems” tank top you may have seen making its way around the Internet (this article should help shed some light).

Am I altogether surprised at the backlash its received? Not entirely, because I know as well as anyone that there are a number of gays out there who this tank top directly applies to. They proclaim these things to be preferences and attempt to shield the fact that it’s prejudice or, worse, racism. They not only refuse to date, but also associate with any guy who doesn’t fit into the stereotypically “perfect” model of being a fit white gay man with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a love of all things Beyoncé.

What I can say personally is that the majority of guys I’ve been attracted to have been white, yes, but has this been the case for every guy I’ve crushed on? Honestly, no. Other nationalities have been mixed in there. Other body types have weaved in and out as well. I truly strive to not have a set definition of who I am attracted to or what I’m specifically looking for, because I believe the more you try to hold a checklist against a guy, the worse your chances are going to be in the long run, especially if you get into a mindset of refusing to work around certain roadblocks and obstacles that you may view as “deal breakers.” Love should be more than that. No single person, gay or straight, is perfect, and the process of love is knowing someone isn’t perfect and knowing it doesn’t matter. Is it important to have some idea of who you’d like to date? Of course, but should that be the only thing you constantly take into consideration? I don’t believe so.

There’s little doubt in my mind that peer pressure may factor into this somewhere as well. Many people aim for a good reputation, and the mere thought of being seen or being with someone that others wouldn’t deem as an ideal companion based on physical traits alone would be viewed as damaging. Do I personally believe this for myself? No, but do others? It’s a possibility.

One of the first things I’ve quickly realized since being exposed to gay Twitter is that many guys adore, idolize, and worship those who are physically attractive. There is a definite attraction to guys who are handsome, beautiful, and other similar adjectives. But what they, in most cases, fail to comprehend is that beauty is only skin deep. A guy may be pretty to look at, but how is he going to treat you? What’s his personality like? What would he do if you got sick, or got in a situation where you needed help? How a guy treats you, in my opinion, is far more important than how he looks. Do looks matter? To a degree, yes. Any person should give the appearance that they take relatively good care of themselves, but does that mean every single person should be thin, have clear skin, good hair, good teeth, and so on? No, because like any standard Crayola box, people come in all sorts of shades, and one of the biggest things in life is learning how to color with what you get in your box.

This tank top isn’t something that should be seen as offensive, because the offense has been here for ages. The gay community as whole, since way before I realized I was gay myself, single-handedly cultivated messages like these, and promoted a sense of internal stereotyping within our own community, amongst people we should be the most supportive of: Each other. Everyone is attracted to whoever they are attracted to, and sometimes yes, these may or may not always point to people of different ethnicities, body types, personalities, and so on. People as a whole deserve the right to do whatever makes them happy, without judgment from others, because at the end of the day, the only person you have is yourself. However, what isn’t okay is closing yourself off to a world of opportunity, and taking a chance on someone you may not initially think you’re compatible with.

Grindr is a prime example of this close-mindedness, where for the most part, unless you are physically flawless, the majority of guys refuse to pay any attention to you whatsoever, whether you initiate the conversation with a simple “Hello” or with a picture of your ass (though usually the latter may result in more replies). Some guys refuse point-blank to explore a world beyond the one they know, and step outside of their comfort zone, and yes it can be terrifying, but how can you expect to develop as a person if you refuse to talk to someone who may not be deemed as “attractive?” Where will that attitude get you in the real world, where you can’t simply block someone if they repeatedly try to talk to you because they “look gross.”

We have no reason to expect anyone to accept us if we can’t first and foremost accept each other. We don’t have to be best friends with every guy we come into contact with, but acceptance will go much farther than, for example, suggesting a feminine gay is less of a guy or more inferior than someone else simply because he’s feminine. The only ones who can destroy this narcissistic subculture are ourselves.

Not everyone has to date someone who is fat, or feminine, or black, or transgender, or anything that fits outside that pre-determined average of being gay. But we should, just maybe, use this tank top as motivation to break down one of the oldest ideologies amongst us, and realize that, yes, it is okay if you aren’t thin, or a different ethnicity, or if you’re gender fluid, or anything along those lines.

You may be pushing your own agenda by proclaiming what and who you are only interested in, but those words you’re broadcasting may be inflicting serious harm on those who may read it. Words can have a much deeper impact than you realize. It’s okay to love who you love. That’s why we are thankful to have marriage equality. But everything has another side to it, and thinking about how your words are seen from someone else’s point of view and perhaps changing that may, by chance, lead you to more interactions with guys. Who knows? Perhaps even a boyfriend. And even bigger implications beyond that to boot.

There’s a similar tank top with another prominent saying, “masc4masc,” which, again, if you’re only attracted to other masculine guys, that’s great. Good for you. But the message these tank tops are trying to promote is that we, not just gay guys but people in general, need to have open minds about everything, not just dating. The more risks you’re willing to take, the more rewarding your life will often turn out to be. Spending less time shutting down a certain demographic, especially when it comes to unchangeable elements like race, will more than likely lead to you being a much happier person.

And that, in my opinion, is worth far more than $28.50.

Two Years

Today marks the two-year anniversary since I created this account.

My origins for coming here were a result from weeks and months of stalking @TheHighGay, who back then was known as Central Gay. I never followed him on my personal account, but the anonymity element intrigued me. After I came out on March 17th of that year, I began to crave friendships with guys I could relate to. Guys who could understand first-hand the experiences I had so far in my life and who, if I was lucky, I could befriend.

And so on the afternoon of April 6th, I made this account.

My number of followers did not escalate quickly by any means. Two of my initial interactions with two anons turned into one of the most combative relationships with another person I’ve ever had in my life (see my post on self-acceptance for the full story). Other friendships I tried to cultivate fell on deaf ears, perhaps because I didn’t appear interesting enough, or attractive enough, or a multitude of other reasons.

But not long after, more fruitful relationships began forming, one of those first ones being with a gay teen from fabulous Las Vegas, @kingUndesirable. He and I immediately bonded over music, with the likes of Paramore and Nicki Minaj being early favorites. We’d exchange song lyric quotes constantly. We spent one afternoon quoting Mean Girls in a series of 100 tweets. We eventually turned the friendship over to texting, where I came to call him my little brother and still talk to him on occasion.

A similar relationship with yet another gay teen from Georgia, @eclectic_gay, yielded similar results. He, much wiser than many people his age, struck me as an old soul trapped in the body of a 17-year old, and there’s plenty of admirable qualities I find in him. Back when I used Kik, we exchanged some of the deepest conversations I’ve had. In that same vein, we also discussed Pokemon. He landed himself a boyfriend earlier this year, and I cannot be happier for him and hope I eventually get to meet him someday.

Perhaps one of the single most meaningful connections I’ve made happened that summer in the form of a then-19-year old from Tennessee. We immediately bonded over Pokemon, exchanged DMs, Kiks, and eventually entered texting, and as is one of my tendencies in various cases, I ended up falling for him. Was it one of my better decisions? Definitely not, as I ended up missing out on a guy who was interested in me in real-life later that year. That, and as I’ve never been in a relationship before, I didn’t fully consider how much I could make a long-distance relationship of that nature realistically work for me. Several months later, we ended up discussing it, and for a while, the crash and disappointment was horrible. But gradually, largely through music (at the time, ‘What Are You Waiting For?’ by Paradise Fears truly helped push me through it), I bounced back, and we’ve continued to be really good friends ever since. He is one of the few people in my life where I have the genuine feeling that we’ll be friends for basically forever, and I am perfectly okay with that.

Yet another truly significant relationship came to me this past summer, courtesy of a fellow gay in high school who lived in the same city I used to, @michigxn_gay, just 2.5 miles from my house. We bonded quickly, and in a matter of weeks, he ended up falling for me, which was enormously flattering as I’ve never in my life had someone care so deeply about me and how I was feeling. It made me ridiculously happy, even if I didn’t directly mention it. It was extremely touching. My hope of getting to know him in person has mostly been dashed, as his dad considers me to be a pedophile, and I definitely have no intention of putting myself in any position to go to jail. Our relationship, like nearly every other in existence, has had its fair share of rough patches. Neither of us are perfect, but we’ve consistently overcome a lot of obstacles and have continued to remain friends, and I take enormous pride in being able to say that we can work through our issues rather than give up altogether, which is an extremely prevalent thing in our generation today. Like many others, he is one person I’m not giving up on, and I have every intention of being friends with him until I kick the bucket.

I’ve managed to connect with plenty other wonderful people as well, one of them being with my friend Ian, an art student at MTSU. The number of fantastic conversations I’ve had with him via text and FaceTime are far too many to count, and I’m excited beyond words to pay him a visit this summer, which wouldn’t have happened had it not been for this account. The same can be said for @UAFabGay, who I visited last year in June and also wouldn’t have met had I not made this account.

This account has connected me with incredibly supportive people like @Hoosier_Gay, where our entire relationship is based off of us supporting one another and boosting each other up. I can’t put into words how much having people like him in my life means to me, and I know for a fact that people like him truly deserve to have every ounce of happiness in the world. The amount of caring he has for me is insane, and flattering, and I cannot wait to finally meet him sometime this summer.

Having this account has even gotten me out of tough situations. In December of 2014, my plans to return home after the fall semester were looking grim, up until @MotorCityGay offered to drive me back home, which for him was a 2 hour drive from Detroit to Kalamazoo, an hour back to my house, and then another 2 or so hours back to Detroit. I can’t think of a lot of people who are just willing to do that out of nowhere.

This account has made me realize there are plenty of other people exactly like me who aren’t the most confident they could be or even should be. It has made me gain an even deeper understanding of the LGBT community, of how many different shades and identities there are, and how no two gay guys are exactly the same.

My goal for making this account was to make more friends, and to talk to people I could relate to. And I’ve been able to accomplish that. The majority of numbers saved in my phone and snapchat have been people from Twitter. For one of the first times in my life, having this account has made me feel like I have friends, and people who support me, which does not go against the friends I have offline at all, but I firmly believe having too many friends is never a bad thing.

I’ve been able to positively impact other people’s lives. I’ve given the gifts of advice, and friendship, and gift cards, and custom-made herb garden pots, and pizza, and so much more, and I’ve been lucky to have some of that same love returned to me. I even saved someone from committing suicide, which I consider to be the best thing I have ever done for someone else, all because of this account. I’ve been able to give love and support to people who desperately need it, and learn in the process that I’m not quite as alone as I used to think. It has made me believe that I can eventually find love, somewhere, somehow. Over half of the numbers in my phone are people from Twitter. The group chats that have happened, the conversations, they have all meant a lot to me, as corny as that sounds.

But the biggest thing having this account has done for me is the profound impact its had on me as a person. I feel like a significantly better person since I made this account. Granted, I have my flaws still. There’s no denying that. I’m still human. But making this account has been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my life. It’s taught me more about the person I am, and want to be, and should be, and especially shouldn’t be. It’s given me plenty of insight into the other types of people out there, the good and the bad. It’s given me the opportunity to boost other people up who truly need it, and at the end of the day, I really can’t ask for much more than that.

For better or worse, I am beyond grateful for every single connection I’ve made, and every single person I’ve talked to, and some of the most crazy, bizarre, interesting, and beautiful memories that I never knew were possible to have. I may not be the most popular account out there, and that’s perfectly fine. It still doesn’t take away from what I’ve been able to experience, and from the people I’ve been able to meet through it, and it will constantly push me to better myself.

There’s no telling how long the ride will last. I feel like eventually, things will change, and I’ll have to lay the adventure to rest. I’m determined to ride it out for as long as possible in the meantime.

I never saw it coming. And I’ll never be the same.

The Incredible Journey

I never expected to say these words, but the fact that I went to Amsterdam, Paris and London all within 8 days is something I never in my wildest dreams expected I would get to say.

It was not my initial plan for spring break however. A friend and I were going to go to Jamaica for just under a week, which would have been fantastic because you can’t go wrong with warm weather and a beachfront resort. Unfortunately he was not able to get time off of work, so I was left with three options: Work on-campus, go back and spend a week with my mom, or find something else to do.

EF College Break, a website I found a couple months ago, came to mind, and with the money I had on hand that was going to go towards the Jamaica trip, I decided to put it towards something more adventurous. It was either that or work on-campus, and as I haven’t done anything for spring break since 2009, I decided I was long overdue for an adventure.

This was a major step for me, as I’ve never traveled outside of the US before, much less by myself. My first solo trip was last summer in June on a week-long voyage to Alabama, but this was entirely new territory. Yet, I was ready. I love traveling. I love seeing new places. And this is exactly what I was going to get.

The morning of my big departure, I was fifty shades of excited. I had minimal sleep, there wasn’t a lot of packing I had to do, I wishfully hoped to be able to get some sleep on the plane to Amsterdam, but I knew my chances were slim. After double-checking my things, I called an Uber and made my way to the bus station, then to Grand Rapids, followed by another Uber trip. This guy was extremely friendly, and even offered to make a stop at a Subway store on the way to the airport, which was perfect because I was simply expecting to grab Quiznos once I made it there. After checking in my luggage, eating my sub, and making it through security, it was only an hour and a half wait until I boarded my first flight and headed to Chicago.

The size of O’Hare will never cease to amaze me. There’s virtually no comparison between O’Hare and GRR. It’s big. And it can definitely be a hike. I made it over to one end of the terminal to find an outlet to power up when I got a snapchat message from one of my old roommates, Drew, who saw my snap story of me passing through a colorful tunnel in the airport on the way to the terminal I was in. He told me he was at the airport too, all the way on the opposite side. I decided a brief interaction with him was much better than sitting alone by myself, so I walked all the way to meet up with him for a couple minutes, which was pretty nice, and then it was the big hike back to my gate where I met up with one of the people who was on the same trip as me.

After boarding the flight, I was prepared for the long, winding road to Amsterdam. Make no mistake, an 8-hour flight is a long time to stay awake, and despite my attempts to get some rest, it just didn’t happen. I’m only glad I was smart enough to bring my portable charger and my flight through United offered in-app entertainment and movies.

I arrived in Amsterdam Saturday morning just past nine in the morning. Being six hours ahead of the time-zone I’m most predominantly used to was not quite as big of a change as I was expecting, and I was much less exhausted than I expected to be. During the flight, my contacts began messing up, a sure-fire sign I had them in for too long, but after I got off the plane, they were fine. After a brief stop through customs (“Where are you coming from?” “What are you going to be doing here?”) and grabbing my luggage, my trip compatriot and I exited through the ‘Nothing to declare’ section and, after a brief search, met up with our tour director, Paola. Born in Italy and native to Barcelona, she was full of passion and spirit and a fun level of energy, and I got the immediate impression that she would be a fantastic person to get to know and hang out with.

We then met up with a few other people who had come in before us, and then collectively made our way to our hostel. I didn’t notice until a little while later, but we had additional company in the form of a woman who I guessed was older than the 28 age limit the company has. I didn’t find out until a day or two later that she was actually the company’s president, and was accompanying us on our trip for photo-taking, some hands-on observations of how the trips functioned, and things like that, which I actually thought was pretty cool that she was not only experiencing the trip with us, but evaluating Paola as well.

After dropping off our things, we received information on the local transportation system, which was a series of electric trams that ran throughout the city. We got a 48-hour pass for the two days we would be there. The hardest part was figuring out which tram goes where at first, although we received a list of where certain locations were and what tram would take us there. Perhaps the only tricky part was locating the correct stops for the tram we wanted to take. After getting our tickets, a group of us took a trip to Dam Square, which, given that it was about noon, was pretty active. We spent a few minutes walking around, snapping pictures, doing typical touristy things, and eventually stopped at an outdoor cafe for a beer (Heineken being the local specialty). Afterward, more walking and exploring, and eventually made our way back to the hostel.

About two hours afterward, we had a meeting to go to which was chock-full of wonderful tidbits of info like safety, being on time to certain things, exchanging money, and so on, followed by a run-down of our itinerary for the trip. Afterward, we made our way by local tram to a spot downtown for our welcome mixer event, featuring a few drinks and some appetizers, which were really good. Future reference: French fries in mayonnaise is amazing. My clumsiness was also on full display here, knocking over a bottle of Heineken all over the phone of the same girl I met in O’Hare. I was too relieved her phone still worked. Afterward, we spent some time getting to know each other. The group was primarily a bunch of girls, alongside me and five other guys. Six girls came as a friend duo each, and two other people came as a couple. The rest of us were flying completely solo. A few people told me I had guts to go on a trip solo, and it’s honestly something I didn’t really concern myself about. Sure, I was going from Grand Rapids to Amsterdam by myself, but I was with a group of people, so I wasn’t entirely solo.

The following morning was, I think for most of the group, our first experience with a European breakfast. They are by and large not known for big breakfasts like sausage, hasbrowns, and things like that, instead opting for lighter options like cereal, bread, juice, and slices of ham and cheese to turn into a sandwich. I, of course, didn’t realize this initially, and after finishing my…slice of ham and piece of bread, I went back and made an actual sandwich. The food though is not horrible by any means, and it’s a wonderful thing when daily breakfasts are included and we don’t have to pay anything extra.

Then, it was off to our first big itinerary item: The Anne Frank House. Notoriously known for housing Anne and her family for two years during the Holocaust, her father, the only survivor of the war, had elected to turn it into a museum a few decades ago. Even by 10am, there was a pretty reasonable-sized line waiting to get in, but fortunately as part of the price of the trip, tickets into the house were part of the bargain, so we were able to skip the line and get into the museum without too much waiting.

Sometime in 7th or 8th grade, I took a trip with my church’s youth group to Washington D.C., and one of the items on our to-do list while there was to pay a visit to the National Holocaust Museum, which was a very powerful experience. There was a segment of the museum where thousands of pairs of shoes were arranged on display in several containers, representing the thousands of Jews killed during the war. I didn’t think it could get stronger than that, but the house proved me wrong. Picturing the fact that a family had to stay hidden in a house for two years, make very minimal noise during the day, and essentially live in fear of what could happen is horrible. It’s also an extremely symbolic representation of what is happening in politics today in regards to Donald Trump’s comments about Muslims and having them have some sort of identification system, eerily similar to the stars worn by Jews in order to identify them. The similarities are there. What happened in the 1930s and 1940s can very well happen again, and people have far more power than they realize.

After the Anne Frank house, it was time for a walking tour with a local guide, which proved to be very informative. One of the more interesting highlights, we stopped outside a store called to Condomerie, a store that sold a variety of different condoms. If you want one shaped like a frog, that’s the place to go. We also ventured down the Red Light District, which featured a Prostitution Information Center designed to break the stereotypes associated with prostitution. The thing that surprised me the most was that there are people committed to protecting the women on display in the windows, because anyone passing by is prohibited from taking pictures of them. Our guide and his wife, even, operate a store in the area and have periodically chased away tourists who try to photograph them. It’s really something.

After the tour ended, we had free time to explore the city for a couple hours until a canal cruise we had scheduled for later that afternoon. A couple of us decided to stop at a local spot for lunch (the waiters thankfully spoke English) and then headed to the Van Gogh museum. I’m not a massive art nerd, but there were a wide assortment of truly beautiful paintings. When we reached the gift shop, I splurged on a t-shirt imprinted with one of his paintings (which so many people have complimented me on), two shot glasses, and two bookmarks.

A few hours later, the majority of us met up for the canal cruise, featuring some drinks and a plate of appetizers. Our driver gave us plenty of information as we proceeded down the river, much of which was covered in the walking tour we did earlier. But it was still wonderful to be able to say that I went on a canal cruise, even if it was a bit chilly.

After the cruise, Paola elected to go to a nearby Thai restaurant, saying it was purely optional for us to come if we wanted, and nearly everyone decided to tag along. This was my first experience with Thai food, and it was better than I anticipated.

Shortly after this, some of us headed back to the hostel. For the first time, I was alone in our room, which was set up with three bunk beds for the five of us. It wasn’t massive, but the hostel did provide sheets and towels, so it was definitely manageable. I laid in bed for a few minutes, trying to think of something worth doing. I certainly didn’t pay thousands of dollars just to sit in a room by myself, even to rest for a few minutes. I could do plenty of that at my apartment. But a moment later, two of the other guys came back, and we decided to head downstairs to the bar. After a drink, two other girls in our group came back, and we collectively decided to head out and check out the town, stopping at an Irish bar for a couple drinks. I elected for a Bailey’s mixed with hot chocolate, and really, you can’t go wrong either way. On the way back, a couple of us stopped in a store to buy some sweets, and I had to pick up four macaroons, which were better than I expected.

The following morning was another early wake-up, and immediately after breakfast at 9, we got on a tour bus and heading to Paris, stopping in Brussels around noon for two hours to eat and do some sightseeing. Brussels is a massive city. We split off into different groups to get something to eat, and a number of us immediately searched for the nearest vendor for the legendary Belgium waffles, which, added with Nutella, are to die for. We did a bit more walking and found ourselves in the center of a square with some of the biggest buildings I have ever seen in my life. The pictures I took no longer exist (more on that in a bit), but believe me, they were gigantic. Not far from here was the infamous Mannekin Pis statue, filled with a good assortment of other touristy people.

I didn’t mention this before, but being around people who speak another language is not something I’m 100% accustomed to. The dining hall I work at does feature a large number of Indian workers who often talk in their native tongue to each other, so in that sense, it’s not too uncommon for me, but in Brussels, I’m like a pigeon in a flock of anteaters. I have zero understanding of what anyone else is saying. At all. On one hand, it’s slightly frustrating. On the other, they’re people I will never see again, just distant car lights flying past me in the grand highway of life.

As Belgium is also largely known for its chocolate, it was only fitting that I bought some. Twelve boxes worth, to be exact, and after sampling some when I returned, it was unbelievably worth it. I also bought a nice red scarf that I absolutely love. After dropping into a local restaurant for sandwiches, we went back to the bus and continued our trek to Paris. We were later given a sheet with useful sayings in French, a number of which came in handy, though not to me in particular. We also engaged in one of those fun ‘get to know you’ activities, where each of us wrote down three facts about us and the rest of the people had to guess who it was about. There were some interesting tales, including one of someone in the group being afraid of penguins.

And then, Paris. A brief stop at our new home for the next three nights, paper-thin ticket strips to the subway system, and breakfast vouchers for the next two mornings. We then headed to the subway system en route for the Eiffel Tower and an evening cruise on the Seine River.

After walking back into the evening air and turning the corner past a large building looming over our heads, we saw it.

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I took French for three years in high school, and in that moment, it struck me how many of the lessons and stories I heard from that class were things I was actually living, breathing, and experiencing in real life. One of the most iconic structures in the world was directly in my eyesight. It was incredible.

We walked down some steps to a ledge overlooking the lawn and tower and joined other tourists in the art of picture-taking. Not long after, white sparkles of light flickered all over the tower, something that I believe is an occurrence at the top of every hour at night. It was beautiful.

We then set off on a cruise around the Seine River. It was nice to get a riverside view of Paris, and we even spotted the Notre Dame cathedral at one point in the distance. Post-cruise, we received tickets to the second floor of the tower and made our way over.

The view from the second floor is amazing, but many of us in the group knew there was a much better view at the top, so we decided to pay the extra 6 euros and take another elevator up to the summit.

The view from the top of the Eiffel Tower is something I have no words for. I wish my pictures had saved, but it was one of the most beautiful things I have seen in my life. And the true beauty of this city is that it feels so ancient, and so familiar. It’s a weirdly nostalgic feeling like I almost grew up on these streets, which I know is factually untrue, but it certainly gave me that impression.

We spent a couple minutes taking pictures and admiring the view before descending down the elevator back to earth, and back to our hostel. Still hungry, a few of us tried to scope out nearby restaurants, eventually settling o na fast-food burger place not far from where we were staying. We made jokes about coming all this way to Paris just to eat a burger and fries, but in all fairness, neither were too awful.

The following morning, it was another classic foreign breakfast! Slices of ham and cheese, orange juice, and bread were all we had to go on. Afterward, it was time for our sightseeing tour of Paris, courtesy of a local guide as well as a tour bus. At one point, we passed by the Bataclan Theater, and that’s when it hit me that this was the very place where the terrorist attack happened mere months ago.

For a moment, it took me my surprise, and, I’m presuming, others too as the bus virtually fell silent. Everything about Paris felt so unchanged from the picture painted by the media months ago. Not to suggest that the media gave an inaccurate representation or anything, but I suppose the old saying is true that time does heal wounds. In some cases, not heal perfectly, but at least make them bearable. The people of Paris carried on with their days as if nothing had happened, and granted it’s a bit harder to get a true feel for the atmosphere when I can’t even understand most of what they’re saying, if anything. People still deliver flowers daily outside of the theater, so it’s evident that not all the wounds are healed, and the people are prepared for the next possible attack, which hopefully will never happen.

We eventually made a trek down the infamous Champs-Élysées boulevard, lined with pedestrians and stores as far as the eye could stretch. And not long after, we made a stop in front of another iconic landmark of the world, the Arc de Triomphe. Built above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and, like the entrance to the Bataclan, still receiving flowers o na regular basis, the massive arc looms in the central island surrounded by a constant rotation of cars and diversionary roads split in twelve different directions. With no traffic lights leading the way to the central island, getting a true up-close view is essentially a suicide mission, but fortunately there’s a curb of open space available for people to snap their variety of photos. Selfie sticks again proved to be a frequent companion to many travelers.

After a couple minutes, we again boarded the bus and continued on our tour, passing by the golden flame above the tunnel where Princess Diana was killed, driving past the pyramid-like structure below which the Louvre Museum was constructed, and getting a closer glimpse of the Notre Dame cathedral, which we were slated to pay a visit to the following day. Eventually, we were dropped off next to the Eiffel Tower, and being a partly cloudy day, it again proved to be a great day for photographs of the infamous tower.

We then boarded the subway, bound for the Palace of Versailles. Beforehand, we made a brief stop to grab lunch. Surprisingly enough, places like Chipotle and KFC were as plentiful overseas as they were in America. Most of us instead opted to stop by a restaurant featuring a wide variety of crepes, all of which were wonderfully delicious. We then rounded the corner and made our way u the cobblestone steps to the palace.

The rooms inside were massive. Our tour guide, Alan, led us through the different rooms, giving us a good chunk of history in the process. We passed by a roped-off entrance to the beautiful chapel inside. We walked down the legendary Hall of Mirrors. We stopped by a gift shop near the end, where I bought a pen that I sadly later lost. We even took some time to walk through the back gardens, which were gloriously massive. I felt like I was living in the 1800s.

We then exited the palace and made the trip back to the hostel, having some free time before 8pm when we had a traditional French dinner to attend to, which virtually everyone signed up for. It was a bit weird being in a different time zone and being 6 hours ahead of the time I’m typically used to. It didn’t truly affect me as much as I thought it would, possibly due to the fact I managed to get a couple hours of sleep a night at least, and for that I was thankful.

A couple of us elected to take a train to the nearby district on Montmartre, an artistic area of town dominated by a large hill, upon which sits the Basilica of the Sacré-Cœur, which translates into English as the Sacred Heart. Along the way, we bought (surprise) a crepe from a street vendor, which turned out to be pretty good (cheers to the delicious combo of nutella and banana), and then made our way up the walkway toward the series of stairs leading to the top.

Along the way, we had our very first run-in with pickpockets, which in this case were predominantly a group of black men who looked to be in their early 20s, blocking the way up and seeking to cause trouble to anyone and everyone that desired to pass by. Myself and the two other girls I was with managed to get through the group with no problem. One of them grabbed my arm, seemingly trying to snatch my crepe away from me, but I thankfully pulled free. The other guy that was with us was not quite as fortunate, ending up in a confrontation with a few of them and then managing to walk past moments later. One of the men came up to me and began asking me my name and where I was from, and attempted to hang me a bracelet. Remembering the wise words of the pre-travel tips posted to our Facebook group, I declined to give any info and refused the bracelet. I initially didn’t understand the big deal about it, but I later found out that these people put these bracelets on you and then refuse to let go until you pay them. A cheap way to get a couple Euros, but certainly not something I was interested in.

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We ascended the staircase and took in the beautiful view above of the glorious city of Paris. It was incredible. We didn’t go inside the basilica this time around, but it was completely worth the near-mugging experience and short hike up a couple of stairs.

We then decided to head back to the main road and walk up the street to come upon the entrance to one of the most legendary musicals in existence, Moulin Rouge. Unfortunately tickets were around 120 euros, with 180 being the price to include dinner, but it was still nice to at least witness the entrance.

The two girls we were with elected to do some more wandering down the main road, and the guy I was with and I collectively decided to head back to the hostel and wait until 8 for the dinner we had that night.

And what a dinner it was. Featuring plenty of wine, three main courses, and an enormously cheerful guitar player who amped up the party with such tunes as I Gotta Feeling, Yellow Submarine, and so on, it was a wonderfully eventful evening. The dishes weren’t bad either. I decided to have prawns, chicken and mushrooms, and an apple caramel cheesecake for dessert. It was wonderful.

The following day, Wednesday, featured me missing out on breakfast. Sharing a room with four other guys presents its small list of challenges, least of which is the use of a singular shower and bathroom. I was unlucky enough to be the last one to use it, and by the time I got downstairs, we were already set to go. Today also featured our trips to the Notre Dame cathedral and the Louvre museum. We arrived to the cathedral around 11:30 and had about an hour and a half to fully explore the cathedral before we would move on to the museum. I decided to tag along with two of the girls from the previous day, and as we were taking pictures in the square outside the entrance, a gypsy woman walked up to us and asked us if we wanted to sign a paper. We said no, and she decided to continually pester me. Rather than put my hand in my pockets, I simply ignored her. I felt my coat move a bit, suspecting it was one of the girls I was with, and I heard her mumble something as she walked away. A moment later, I reached into my pocket to find my phone was missing. Asking one of the girls if she had it, I then approached the woman asking if she took it, to which she said no. One of the girls then phoned our tour director, who had left to buy our group tickets into the Louvre, and panic began to set in as my chest began to constrict and I panicked about what to do. Paola then arrived a few moments later and I gave her a brief summary of what had happened. The woman was fortunately still in the square, asking people to sign the same paper. Paola instructed me to head across the street to the police. Me, being confused on where to go, simply wandered around the square before she came back, saying the woman had ran off, certainly not for lack of her trying to chase her down.

I was stunned. I could not get over how simple it would’ve been for me to simply keep my hand in my pocket and prevent it from happening. In the past few years since I’ve been fortunate to have a phone, it was the first time I had been without it, and it felt bizarre. Perhaps most disappointing to me was the fact that there were plenty of photo ops that I would miss out on, all because I was too stupid to keep guard over my belongings.

Nevertheless, life moved on. I called T-Mobile to at least have them block the phone, and began figuring out what my next move would be. I initially believed I hadn’t purchased travel insurance, which would put me in a difficult spot as far as replacing the phone went, but I then tried to figure out if it were possible for me to buy a new phone while in London and still be able to enjoy the rest of the trip. As fate had it, there was a T-Mobile store not far from the hotel we would be staying at in London, so my spirits rose a bit at the possibility of managing to make it back in one piece.

Afterward, we rejoined the group and headed to the Louvre museum. There were plenty of riveting sights to behold, but none more so than the legendary Mona Lisa. Set up in a separate chamber and being a touch smaller than I remember, it was still nonetheless impressive to observe one of, if not, the most iconic paintings in history. What was only slightly unsettling throughout the museum were the periodic warnings of pickpockets. Being available to children for free, apparently many kids saw it as prime space to perform their nasty tactics of obtaining wallets, cell phones, and other valuables. I had learned my lesson, electing to keep my wallet in the front pocket of my pants.

After some brief exploring, we went to the nearby underground mall, which was massive. I again met up with my tour director, and together we headed to the nearest police station so I could file a report. Not long after, I met up with a couple people at a restaurant located on Champs-Élysées. We then proceeded back to Montmartre, avoiding the pickpockets and making our way into the basilica. The interior was stunning. There was a slightly roped off section around the central area for anyone willing to come in and pray, and there were a handful of souvenirs available for purchase around the perimeter.

We then exited and proceeded into the artsy section of the district. I largely became distracted with my attempts to call T-Mobile and Apple to discover the likelihood of being able to buy a phone in the UK and bring home to America. Still, it was a nice area of town to wander around in. We then made another pit stop outside the entrance to Moulin Rouge, and then decided to head back to Champs-Élysées for one last dinner in Paris, stopping by an H&M store, another view of the Arc de Triomphe, and, to round out the evening, one final trip to the Eiffel Tower, brilliantly illuminated against the night sky like a beacon. After some more pics, we trekked back to the hostel for one final night of sleeping.

The next morning, I discovered, from the previous night, that there was a separate bathroom set up on our floor with four additional showers and toilets, so I decided to take advantage of the opportunity. I was also greeted with news from Paola saying I had, in fact, purchased travel insurance, and they would be able to reimburse me for about $200-300, which wasn’t stellar given the cost of iPhones, but was still better than nothing.

We then boarded a tour bus for a quick trip around the block and were dropped off at the train station, set on a majestic, high-speed Eurostar train bound for London. I can’t recall the last time I was on a train. It had certainly been a while. But it was nice talking to one of the girls in my group, Taylor, and learning about the long list of things she and her best friend, Presley, were aiming to do once we got there. It was nice having some interaction for a while. In place of breakfast, we were instead given breakfast bags with a sandwich and a bottle of water, the sandwich turning out to be pretty decent.

And then, boom. King’s Cross station. London. It felt like I was stepping off the Hogwarts Express, ready for my first day of classes. Instead of heading to a castle, we headed to another tour bus, accompanied by our local guide, Joel, who came packaged with the signature British accent. He proved to be an immensely entertaining fellow, giving us a couple pointers on traditional Cockney language, which is based off of a rhyming scheme. For example, if you were to compliment someone’s hat, you would tell them, “You have a nice titfor (pronounced titfer),” which is tit for tat, which rhymes with hat. If someone didn’t have any idea what was happening, then they do’t have a Scooby Doo what’s going on (rhymes with clue). If someone’s in a bit of a Barney, Barney Rubble rhymes with trouble. It’s a bit unclear as to the origins of these sayings and how more, if any, are created and crop up, but nevertheless, they exist. One of the many fascinating points of London.

Our first stop was the front entrance to the legendary Buckingham Palace. We learned that although it is the Queen’s official residence, it is not her preferring place to call home, instead opting for Windsor Castle a couple miles away. Her flag was also on display above the palace, signaling that she was at home. Interesting fact: Once you become ruler of England, you’re in the game for life. Literally. Until you kick the bucket, you rule the country.

After taking some time for pictures, we made our way back to the bus amidst a buzz of excitement, as the Queen had just left the palace mere moments after we had all headed off. Still, the tour had to move on. We passed other iconic buildings like the British Museum, Big Ben, and the houses of Parliament. It turns out there really is a Ministry of Magic in London as well. We had another opportunity to get out and snap pictures of one of the massive bridges before we ended the tour at our new hotel. This one proved to be the snazziest by far, and even featured a TV inside the room. I ended up being with two other guys, which wasn’t a big deal. Not a lot of time was spent in our rooms to begin with anyway.

A few of us took a brief walk around the building to a fish and chips restaurant nearby, which turned out to be completely worth it. Much of the group then headed off to the Westminster Abbey, the same church that played host to the historic wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton. Walking down the same aisle that was broadcasted on television for millions of people across the world was an absolutely surreal experience.

We then headed back into the tube system, the gifted name for the underground subway system in London, and headed to Piccadilly Circus, bearing a close resemblance to Times Square in New York City. Bright, flashy billboards, street performers. It had an energy to it that was unlike anything I experienced on the tour so far.

We spent some time walking down the street, stopping at a tea shop to buy some things. I picked up two cans of ‘luxury’ hot chocolate mix, which I can only presume is certainly worth it, and we continued onward, stopping at a massive Nike store on the way, followed by a brief trip into a fro-yo shop, which is one of my favorite things ever. Not long after, we decided we had our fair dose of London for a day, so we called it a night.

Friday was another mostly free day to do whatever. A few of us headed to the Borough Market, an outdoor market filled to the brim with vendors selling everything from freshly skinned animals, to freshly-squeezed juice, blocks of cheese, you name it. We took some time wandering around before settling on a nearby Italian restaurant with actual, authentic Italian food, which was delicious. We then proceeded to the Tower of London for a glimpse at the crown jewels and the guards, which was a bit entertaining. We then made it back to the hotel for a bit of rest before that evening’s activity, a Pub Crawl! It was perhaps the most fun I had all tour, getting an opportunity to go on a crawl not only with people from our group, but a couple locals as well.

Saturday was our final full day in London, as most of us were being transported to the Heathrow airport early the next morning. We had to squeeze out as much goodness from the beautiful city as possible, the first stop of which was the small Platform 9 and 3/4 exhibit at the King’s Cross station. A trolley with luggage on it pushed into the wall, symbolizing the point at which one passes through to board the Hogwarts Express, featured a line of people waiting to pose by the trolley, armed with one of four provided house scarves and a wand. We then headed int the nearby Harry Potter store, where I picked up the fifth book (I had an 8-hour flight the next morning. I was taking whatever I could get) and a Slytherin pen. We then proceeded back to Borough Market for a while, wandered over to the British Museum, another trip to the Borough Market, and then back to the hotel to meet up for our transfer information to the airport tomorrow morning, along with two group pictures, one taken in front of the Eiffel Tower, the other taken in front of the Louvre. We then left for our farewell dinner, which, as per the tradition at this point, was pretty good, and then it was back to the hotel for a bunch of hugs goodbye before heading off to bed one final time.

Mere hours after at 4:30 in the morning, it was time to head to the airport. Not long after arriving and making it through security, I realized I could’ve easily asked to go along on the 7am transfer, as my flight didn’t leave until 9:20. Still, it was nice to be early. The only downside here was that I was without my phone, which I conveniently used for my mobile passport. It was something I discovered last year in June when I make my first solo flight, and was something I don’t believe was available the last time I was on a plane before then in 2010. That, or I wasn’t aware of it. But as I had the United app, corresponding with the airline of the same brand with which I was flying home on, I had used it to check in to my flight before leaving Grand Rapids, and simply had to scan the barcode at the security checkpoint and at the gate. No need to worry about paper passes. More importantly, my plan of calling an Uber back to my apartment after arriving in Kalamazoo was kaput, as you could only get an Uber by using the app, and while I could’ve asked someone to use their phone, I didn’t want to take the chance.

An 8-hour flight later, a brief trip through customs and security, a quick strawberry banana smoothie at McDonald’s and making it to my gate mere moments before boarding began, I was on a quick half-hour flight back to Grand Rapids, greeted by request by my mom, who served as my transport from the airport to the bus station. To my disappointment, she was unable to take me back to Kalamazoo directly, so I elected to arrange for a taxi to pick me up. The woman who answered was…less than pleasant. Customer service? Certainly not. Even worse, she didn’t arrive at the bus station, so I decided to walk the 3.5 miles back to my apartment, suitcase in hand (thankfully it had wheels). And then, once I finally reached my apartment, it was all over.

If there is any part of you that is dying to go out and see the world, my honest recommendation is to do it! Traveling alone can be a terrifying experience, but in this instance, the only solo part you really have is to and from the trip. It’s not quite as scary of a thing as you may imagine. There are plenty of people available to help.

Needless to say, there’s plenty of things you should keep in mind, from one first-time traveler to, perhaps, another:

– Who you decide to book a trip with. There are sites like Expedia and Travelocity that let you buy package deals to various destinations, whether you just need flights and hotels, flights, hotels, and cars, or just flights. It all depends on where you want to go and what you’re interested in. Expedia and Travelocity will automatically book and confirm you with the airline you select, and while I haven’t booked a trip with a hotel yet, I imagine they would place the same reservation with the hotel you choose as well, so that way you just need to get to your flight on time and find out how to get to the hotel, many of which likely offer transportation to or from the airport you arrive in.

If you’re more interested in a trip like this to places like Italy, Rome, Barcelona, and so on, one of the people in my group calculated the price of airline tickets from Amsterdam to the United States, and the cost was more than the total price we paid for the trip. So while the trip prices with EF may appear to be high, in reality, you’re saving money compared to if you booked a trip like this on your own. They include flights, daily breakfast, entrance tickets to various things like the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre, and transportation to the hostels and hotels and between cities. The only extras you pay for are souvenirs, your own meals throughout the day that aren’t included on the itinerary (typically anything apart from the welcome mixer and farewell dinner), and so on. You can decide to book your own flights and opt for a “land-only” trip if it saves you money, and especially if you have frequent flyer miles racked up, that’ll save you a lot. Do some research, look through the EF website or wherever you’re interested in, and figure out what you want to do from there. There’s also payment plans available if you book a trip well in advance, and you can cancel up to 99 days before the trip starts.

– Bring photocopies of your passport. This is enormously useful in the event you happen to lose your passport. It’s not very big, so it’s understandably easy to lose track of it. If you do lose it, you’ll at least have a photocopy to get between countries and back to America, and someone can put you in contact with the US Embassy overseas if an emergency does come up. It’s also helpful to bring a lockable suitcase too if you’re worried about anyone stealing your goods. All of the hostels and hotels feature lockable rooms, but extra security is never a bad thing.

– BUY TRIP INSURANCE. I probably cannot stress this one enough. With EF, it’s an extra $150 on top of your trip cost, but is completely worth it, because life happens. You might get sick on tour and need to come home, something of yours might get stolen. Anything is a possibility, and especially with traveling, it’s a very safe bet to not leave these possibilities up in the air. It also works to your advantage to have original copies of whatever valuable you have, like your phone. The trip insurance company through EF will typically reimburse you up to $300 for something like a phone and up to $100 for a lost or stolen passport. You may be able to find more comprehensive insurance elsewhere, so again, do some digging online and see what you find. You’re not penalized at all for not buying the insurance through EF.

– Dieting? Nope. If you’re expecting to hang on to your diet of three slices of lettuce, a wedge of cheese, and six grapes while traveling, reality check: It’s not going to happen. This is partially due to the fact that, because you’ll be in unfamiliar territory, you may not be able to know where the nearest restaurant, food vendor, and so on is, so when you’re hungry and stumble across a restaurant, it’s not the worst idea to stop in and grab something to eat. Also, who counts calories on a trip? Sure, you can bring your fitbit watches and track your steps and all that wonderful stuff if you decide to, but believe me, it’s far more rewarding to fully immerse yourself in the experience and really let go. Try some new food. Don’t worry about the calories. Do it for the experience.

With EF in particular (as I’m sure with other travel companies), they work around any dietary restrictions you have, so while you may not exactly be able to keep up an all-liquid diet, you can at least be assured you won’t have contact with anything with nuts if you happen to be allergic to them.

– Walking? Yep. Walking is, as humans, our primary mode of transportation, so if you elect to go on a trip like this, you should expect to be doing plenty of walking. Anywhere from 5-10 miles is a good bet, occasionally more based on what the day involves. It may be exhausting, but remember where you’re at. It’s totally worth it. It helps to bring comfortable shoes with you. I got around mostly on a pair of reliable tennis shoes and didn’t have an issue.

– Pack light. Some of the longer trips may require a couple extra clothes, so it really comes down to what you decide to bring, how much, and so on. You won’t be spending a lot of time in your room, that’s for sure, so take that into account, along with whether you need a blow dryer or can simply share with someone else, for example. All three of the places we stayed at had sheets, so bringing my own wasn’t a necessity (and more room for souvenirs). As noted on the website, some places don’t have elevators, so the lighter you pack, the better off you’ll be.

In addition to that, it’s to your advantage to buy a converter (I purchased this one before I left, and it worked wonderfully). All of the plugs are different than they are in the US. A few hotels, like the Generator in Paris, also feature USB plugs in the bed, but not all hotels will feature this luxury, so if you want to stay connected and charged, make sure to buy one before you leave.

– Don’t be afraid to travel alone. This is something I didn’t even think twice about when I booked the trip. I simply wanted something to do over spring break. But don’t let the fact that you may be going alone be a deterring factor in whether or not you decide to go in the first place. If you want to go with a friend, they’ll need to make their own purchase (the total cost of the trip is per person), but like I said before, you’ll have just as much of a good time alone as you would with a friend, and it gives you a better opportunity to meet other people from across the world too.

For whatever you decide to do, traveling is enormously worth it. To me, this trip was enormously worth it. I would do it again in a heartbeat (and, of course, not let my phone get stolen). Do some research. If you think it’s too expensive, look into their payment plans, talk to friends and family who may be willing to donate. Even book your own plane tickets if you figure out they’ll shave some dollars off the cost of your trip.

This trip, for me, made me realize that there is a big, glamorous world outside of the one I know, far bigger and better than anything I could ever dream of. It’s a symbolic representation of all the craziest desires you’ve ever wanted directly in front of you, and it feels amazing. I ended up in a massive emotional slump right before I left, and this turned out to be the motivational push I needed to figure my life out and know that, as hopeless as things may seem, nothing really is the end of the world. And everything is just the beginning.

Listening to other people talk about their spring breaks made me realize how incredibly fortunate I was to even go on this trip in the first place. Some people worked over spring break. I went to the top of the Eiffel Tower. These things don’t happen to ordinary people like me, and I never would’ve imagined they would be even remotely possible. It’s definitely a once in a lifetime experience, something not too many people out there can say they’ve done. And I’m able to say that. And that alone is amazing.

For wherever the rest of my life leads me, I certainly hope it leads me back to beautiful places like these, because I’ll never forget them for the rest of my life.