Christos Mouzeviris has seen it all in Europe but where did it all start and what gave him the Europhile bug? Here, Christos tells us the tale of this first Eurotrip and how it was love at first sight with the continent.
I have always had the traveling bug, that innate need to explore and get to know other cultures and nations. And I was so lucky to be born in one of the most affluent regions of earth, which allowed me to satisfy this need for freedom: Europe.
I grew up in Greece in a working-class family from the country’s second largest city, Thessaloniki. My parents separated when I was entering adolescence and for many years I was lost, not knowing what I wanted to do in life. My father’s suggested that I follow a career in Greece’s booming tourism industry, although I was never too keen in working with people. However, working in a hotel, no matter how demanding, gave me the opportunity to encounter tourists from all over the world, but primarily Europe.
From introvert to extrovert
That soon proved to be a life-changing experience because from an introvert, I became an extrovert and acquired a thirst for knowing people and the hotel’s guests, which some I befriended, I still have a connection and I call friends, twenty two years later.
It was a group of young Austrians, which I met while working at the restaurant of a hotel in Potidea in Greece, who first suggested that I should visit them for Christmas. We were hanging out after work and became friends during the two weeks of their stay. Soon after their departure, I met a group of Germans from Feucht, near Nuernberg and after them many others from their homeland. With some we became very close and they also invited me over for Christmas. While in the beginning I took those invitations somewhat lightly, after I finished working in the hotel, I begun to seriously consider them.
I was in contact with quite a few people from the previous summer season and many had reinstated their invitation. I announced to my family at the age of 20, for the first time, that I won’t be spending Christmas and New Year’s Eve with them. Initially they tried to prevent me, and they warned me that “foreigners” are not as hospitable as us-the Greeks, so that they would not host me. They were naturally believing all the stereotypes about Germans and other Europeans, plus they could not believe that people that met only for two weeks in a summer resort, could become close friends.
They did not stop me, however and after I booked my flights and arranged my itinerary, I contacted my hosts to discuss which dates would suit for my visit. My family on the other hand, tried to provide me with Greek contacts in Germany, in case those “cold and inhospitable” Germans refused me.
I flew over to Cologne on my own, two days before Christmas, first time on a plane and outside the borders of Greece. The year was 1997, five years after Europe signed the Maastricht Treaty and two years after the Schengen Agreement’s supplement, the Schengen Convention, came into force, with a complete abolition of systematic internal border controls. I landed in Cologne at around ten o’clock that night and suddenly I found myself alone in a foreign country, with basic knowledge of German. There were no visa requirements, no long queues and no stops at customs. I swiftly got out of the massive airport and started panicking.
Found in translation
I had to reach Wuppertal, a small city close to Cologne, where my first guests were living but I had no idea of how to get there. After a brief cold sweat spell, I gathered the courage to approach a German taxi driver and ask him to take me to the train station, in order to get the next train to my destination.
In broken English and a conversation half in German, with the addition of some sign language, I managed to understand that he offered to drive me directly to the doorstep of my hosts, for around 175 marks, a bit over of what a trip to Wuppertal would cost by train, together with the taxi fare to the station.
I agreed, as the time was getting late. Somewhere along the road the driver got lost and I started worrying again, this time about money. I was alone in a taxi at night-time, somewhere in Germany and the person who was driving was unsure of where we were. He immediately stopped the taxi meter and reassured me that he would charge me the agreed price and that he would find the address of the house, to safely drop me off. And he did, even if he took him numerous stops at gas stations to ask for directions.
As soon as I rang the doorbell of my friends, I heard the voice of my parents in my head, warning me that they won’t answer the door and I should be prepared to find an alternative accommodation. But to prove them wrong, I was not only accepted, but had slippers on my feet, hot food and shower prepared for me. After spending Christmas in Wuppertal, I took the train again for Nuernberg, to visit my friends in Feucht. I was far more confident by now and I was able to relax and enjoy the amazing German countryside, as I was traveling by its majestic rivers, old towns and castles.
Glued to the wagon’s window, it was the first time that I saw ships on a river-the Rhine, plus the amazing forests of Bavaria. After an amazing stay in Feucht and a visit in Nuernberg, it was time to leave again and spend New Year’s Eve in Austria. This time I took the train to Passau, a beautiful city on the German-Austrian border, in which my Austrian friends were awaiting to take me across the border to Schaerding, a small, picturesque baroque town. There were no border and no passport controls so we were just crossing the bridge over the Danube and there we were – simple as that, I have reached Austria.
We welcomed 1998 by drinking sparkling wine and watching the fireworks in Schaerding’s old town square. During the few days I have spent with my friends, my hosts also drove with me to Salzburg and the surrounding area. I have never seen such beautiful countryside and old towns, so clean, neat and tidy, unlike the ones I was used to back home.
So far, the trip was an eye-opener by any means. It boosted my confidence and made me fall in love with Europe and traveling, something that hasn’t left me ever since. In addition, it shattered all stereotypes I had about these two countries I have visited, and the often-unjustified rumours that circulated about them in Greece.
It also inspired me to have a different view about many things I accepted, tolerated or took for granted in my home country. My mind was broadening, and I was becoming cosmopolitan. But the trip was not over yet. After a few days in Austria, I took the train from Passau to reach Freiburg. It lies south-west, in the wine producing area of Germany, something that I was completely unaware prior to my visit. I have never heard of German wines until then, let alone taste them. And not only that, but I was about to stay with people who worked in the local wine producing industry and have the privilege of drinking their wine.
Freiburg itself is an amazing city, yet my hosts were living a bit further in Breisach, a town right to the border with France. It was occupied by both French and the Germans over the centuries and changed hands numerous times. After it was taken back by Germany and briefly belonging to Austria, the French built their own town of Neuf-Brisach just over the river Rhine, opposite Breisach.
The bridge of delicacy
And thank God they did. Because during my stay in this region, not only I was able to taste German wines, which are fizzy, fruity and light, but also wake up each morning and drive across another bridge, just to buy French baguettes and “fromages” for our breakfast. Again, while we were crossing the bridge over Rhine, although the border posts were still standing, there were no checks or controls. I was able in one trip to visit three countries, spend my money in so many shops and towns and experience the best of what they had to offer.
After a stroll on the French side, we returned to Germany to continue our exploration. We travelled to Aschaffenburg, and old, picturesque, beautiful fortified town in Bavaria by the river Main. I have instantly fell in love with it and this became the last impression of that trip, as soon I had to take the night train back to Cologne, to catch a flight back to Thessaloniki.
But I did not return empty handed. My camera was full of pictures, my mind full of beautiful memories and my suitcase full of gifts. Not only I have bought many souvenirs for my family during my travels, but my hosts have given me presents to take back to them. I was so proud to open my bags and offer my mother two bottles of German wine, some Austrian kiwi liquor, lots of chocolate, sweets and other hand-crafted Bavarian goods, which my friends have sent for her.
In that way, I had dispelled any stereotypes about the peoples of the countries I have visited, not only for myself but for my family too. I have experienced the benefits of a Europe with open borders and the opportunities that it offers for personal growth and development, something that we all often take for granted. I have acquired a new, different view of living and made some lifelong friends along the way. Eight years later I have decided to leave Greece altogether and relocate permanently in Ireland. Yet I still travel at any chance I get across Europe. I have visited around 36 European nations, including all EU member states.
It is something that I always recommend youngsters to do, if they seek personal growth, lifelong experiences and lessons, plus making friends. Nothing changes you for the better like traveling and currently Europe is ideal for this.
Let’s keep it this way, let us maintain a continent with open borders, minds, hearts and doors to other fellow Europeans, but also others from across the globe.