Europe through the Back Door

Maastricht Musings is a series of posts written while I study abroad for 11 weeks this summer in Maastricht, the Netherlands. Some will dabble deep into theological truths; others will offer comic relief, but hopefully all will offer entertaining and informative glimpses into Europe.

The city of Florence is a tourist’s dream. Cafés spill out into the cobblestone streets, and the Arno River cuts through the heart of the city. Tuscan hills dotted with vineyards line the horizon. Florence means colors, culture, and those cream-colored Italian stucco buildings with the orange-tiled roofs. It’s picturesque, famous, and idyllic, and because of that, you get to enjoy the relatively small Italian city with 50,000 other tourists.

I’m quickly figuring out that the real gems of this continent are not where the crowds are. The best cities, restaurants, and activities are hidden. They’re off the beaten path. They’re through the back door. So when I had a free Saturday morning in Florence, I set off to find one of these gems.

The crowds were already thick, and my resolve to escape them increased as I dodged street vendors and tour groups in the big city square. I walked north away from the Duomo and the Ponte Vecchio and everything else that the city was famous for. My destination was the Alinari Bike Rental shop. I ducked into a tiny Italian groceria and snagged a baguette and some salami, threw the groceries in my backpack, and headed on towards the bike shop.

The place was hard to find, nestled in the less popular Northern part of the city on Guelfa Avenue. I negotiated prices for a few minutes at the counter and then walked over to my machine. A shiny new white Vespa like they drive in the Italian movies, White Lightning was mine for the next three hours.


“Do you have experience on one of these?” The shop owner asked me. “Of course,” I replied, failing to mention that I had only driven a friend’s scooter down the block one time. I struggled to get White Lightning to start, and he gave me a skeptical look. I smiled back and twisted the throttle, zooming away in the type of dramatic exit that only an underpowered 50cc Vespa named White Lightning can make.

Driving through the city was a lot like Mario Kart with higher stakes. I dodged traffic and tried to do what the other Vespas were doing. White Lightning had more giddy-up than I was expecting, and I hit 40 km/h effortlessly. I glided past the city’s fountains and squares. Before long, I had left the hordes of tourists and crowded city streets behind and was cruising up the Tuscan hills, passing small villages every few kilometers.

White Lightning struggled a little bit on the hills, and during the steep inclines, we slowed to a steady crawl. After half an hour of climbing, I rode past a viewpoint overlooking the city. The massive Duomo Church was a tiny orange smudge on the landscape from up here. This was Italy. This was vacation. This was Europe through the back door.


I stopped in a town of Fiesole and ate my picnic lunch in their bustling town square. I checked my watch: one more hour to explore. I started my descent back down the hillside, and topped out at 60 km/h on the way down (that was the moment when White Lightning got his name). I hugged the Eastern outskirts of the city and headed in the general direction of Piazzale Michelangelo, a famous overlook on the South side of the city. Following the Italian signs, I made it up to the Piazzale. The tourists head up to the spot en masse for the sunset, but during early afternoon, it was quiet and serene.

I glanced down at my watch, twenty minutes to get back. I crossed the Arno, and set out back for the North side. At some point, I made a wrong turn and found myself on a highway with way too many lanes for White Lightning to handle. Ducking off at the nearest exit, I asked an amiable Italian for directions. He pointed to our destination on the map, and five minutes later, the storefront was on our right. I’m not sure if the shop worker or myself was more surprised that I showed up on time. I handed over the keys, and starting walking back to the hostel. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the long line slowly snaking towards the entrance to the Duomo. Don’t they know about the back door?


I don’t want to over-spiritualize these posts on my travels. Sometimes a vespa ride is just a vespa ride, and there’s no deeper, underlying spiritual truth. But when I think about Europe through the back door, about how the real treasures lie off the wide and crowded road, the words of Jesus are just too applicable to leave out.

Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. —Matthew 7:13


4 Ways to Make Friends in Foreign Countries

It’s been an incredible first month in Europe. The beauty of Europe is simply astounding. In the past 30 days, I’ve visited France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and Liechtenstein. Seeing so many cultures in such a short time has been presented lots of unique learning opportunities underlined by one central idea: I don’t know how to do anything in a foreign country.

Shopping for basic toiletries in Dutch strip mall was a half hour struggle, and finding a rain jacket proved to be impossible. The next day when I ordered at a German bierhaus, I pointed blindly at the foreign menu like it was a game of “pin the tail on the donkey.” At our hotel on the island of Lindau, I turned all the knobs but still couldn’t figure out how to use the bidet in our bathroom. And for a particularly chilly icing on the cake, I didn’t realize that Lake Geneva was full of fresh snow melt run-off from the towering Alps until I had already jumped in.


There’s really only one thing that I’ve succeeded at over here on foreign soil, and that is making friends. Every place I go, I try to make up for my incompetence in every other area by befriending whomever I run into. Although it’s only been a week, I think I’ve picked up enough experience to make a quick four-step guide to making friends in foreign countries.

1. Ask questions- As we ambled down the Lake Geneva Promenade in Montreaux, a ritzy charter bus pulled up in front of our hotel. Twenty women, all at least six feet tall, filed out of the bus wearing matching sweatsuits. I looked closer at their jackets. On the left pocket, CHINA was written in bold white font. The Chinese national volleyball team was staying at our hotel, and I really wanted to meet them. Whenever I’m intimidated, whether by a strict professor in class or a pretty girl in a coffee shop, I make a point of asking questions. Questions are safe. Asking questions takes all the pressure off of you and lets people do what they are best at—talk about themselves. The next morning at breakfast, the team was there in their red jerseys. Palms sweating, I wobbled timidly up to a table where five of the players were seated. Smiling to cover up my nerves, I spoke slow and pronounced every syllable.

“DO YOU PLAY VOLLEYBALL?” They nodded enthusiastically.


“No.” They giggled and muttered among themselves in Chinese. One player answered confidently on the group’s behalf. “We play game tomorrow tomorrow,”


Five seconds of silence followed. The player motioned one of the coaches over for translation back-up. The coach clarified that their first game was “the day after tomorrow,” and the players and I laughed for a solid minute. We snapped a memorable photo and said our goodbyes. Sorry America, but I’m switching my allegiance for the volleyball portion of the 2016 Olympics. It all started with a question. Questions make friends.


2. Smile- One of our first nights in Maastricht, I ran into three University of Maastricht students on the riverwalk. Eager to figure out the city and make some friends here, I stammered out a few questions about Maastricht. Their English wasn’t great, and my Dutch was (and still is) nonexistent. The conversation easily could’ve gone downhill quickly, but mutual smiles and genuine laughter more than made up for anything that was lost in translation. Tinka, Fauve, and Janna (pronounced yawn-ah) grew up in Maastricht and taught me a ton about the city. We’re meeting up for coffee soon. Pardon my cliché, but the language of a smile is spoken everywhere.

3. Take selfies- After our group of forty piled on the minibus headed up to Neuschwanstein Castle, the driver yelled that the bus was full. Unfortunately, the Taiwanese tour group directly behind us didn’t understand that statement. Their forty piled on top of our forty, the driver let it a string of German expletives, and we set out for the castle. Sensing the potential for a unique cultural experience, I whipped out my iPhone and made an announcement.

“Hello friends! I am going to take picture of us!” I spoke slowly and extended the phone out in front of me. “Look here and smile!” The many different pieces of our human jigsaw puzzle scrambled to get their faces in the frame, and then I snapped one of my all-time favorite photos. When we got off the bus and walked up to the castle, you better believe I had some new Taiwanese friends.



4. Remember why you’re there- On a trip like this, it’s easy to get caught in tourist mode. Tourist mode happens when you’re so busy snapping panoramic pictures and planning the perfect itinerary that you don’t notice the one thing around you that really matters, the people. I didn’t come to Europe this summer to check paragliding off my bucket list or to get a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower. I came to cross paths with people from all over the world, from Luxembourg to Liechtenstein. I came to learn from these different people and see how they view this world. But most of all, I came to love people—to communicate that love through little things like smiles and questions and selfies. That’s why I’m here, and that’s what this summer is all about.

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. 1 Corinthians 13:13