The Front Door
First off, if you don't have professional skills that can brave the language barrier (i.e. if you're not an architect, engineer, plumber, electrician, carpenter, computer specialist, etc.) you MUST speak the language, fluently. Second, you have to have a valid work permit or visa.
Your best bet is to find a job with an employer willing to help you apply for a work permit before you leave the States. Start by picking the brains of everyone you know who has ever lived abroad. Call in contacts and apply to companies or organizations your friends have worked for. Go to the study abroad office at your school or to the language department of the country you wish to live in and inquire about work abroad programs. You can also look for a job by doing a web search or looking in the classifieds of international newspapers.
You should also sit down and figure out exactly what kind of job you want and approach these employers directly. If, for example, you'd like to intern at a foreign corporation, you could write to the consulate of that country for information about companies with branch offices in the U.S. or in your city. If you want to work with environmental activists in France, you can get contact information for environmental organizations from the French consulate, from the web, or even from a local organization. Then write to them directly.
The German Goethe Institut and other language schools are good places to get information and make valuable contacts. Also consider working for an American company, agency, or organization with offices abroad. These are easier to find and approach, and they know all about the bureaucratic difficulties you'll be facing.
If you have some time to plan ahead I recommend you think about taking a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) course. The one skill that all Americans have (we hope) that is in demand all over Europe is the English language. If you have a TEFL certificate, you are employable in any European country, and your potential employers will fight for your favors. This is especially true in non-EU, former Eastern Block countries.
Once you have a job offer, you have to get a visa. This won't be easy. In EU countries the agencies issuing visas will want to know why a local or another EU citizen couldn't do the job you're applying for just as well as you. Unless you're offered a job in a special program or an internship, there's no telling if you'll secure a visa. You can get the skinny on the whole process by writing to the consulate of the country you're going to be working in. And bring all of your patience and persistence to it.
The Back Door
Now to the back door, the "just save up some money and go" route. Well, the "save up lots and lots of money and know where you're going before you go" route. I can't emphasize enough the importance of bringing enough money. If you are coming to a strange city with no contacts, no job, or no place to stay, even if you are sleeping in parks and eating bread and water, you can easily drop $500 in a month (minimum). And you'll want to give yourself a few months to find your bearings.
The best places to find your first job are tourist places: hostels, hotels, cafes and bars, resorts, and tourist shops. You can start at the hostel you land in; often they'll let you help clean the place in return for a free bed. Hotels are always looking for cheap cleaning staff; cafes and bars in touristy areas will find your English useful and aren't terribly picky about work visas; resorts and tourist shops will have seasonal work and, as long as you aren't planning on staying long or being conspicuous, will often pay under the table. Such employers won't be too concerned about your language skills, as long as you can communicate with their mostly foreign clientele. Just look for a place with foreign, English-speaking staff and be friendly. Once you've gotten to know some people in the expat community, you'll have little problem finding jobs. Note: these jobs don't pay well.
If all you're looking for is some fun and a year off, you could easily make your way around Europe working such jobs illegally. Once you're settled, though, if you'd like to stay where you are and get to know the local fauna a little better, you can branch out into other work. Tutoring English and translating freelance are both well-paying (once you have some regulars) and a good way to meet local people. If you do know a trade or have some particular skills, try spreading the word in the expat community or advertising in a local paper.
The key words to this endeavor, by either route, are persistence and open-mindedness. Take a job you don't think you'll like, break out of the tourist bubble every chance you get, talk to everyone who talks to you, grab every opportunity offered, and batter away at the door, whichever one you choose, until it opens. It may not be as romantic as you envisioned, but it will be infinitely more worthwhile.
Claire Light works for Kearny Street Workshop, a Bay Area multidisciplinary Asian Pacific-American arts organization.
Do you have romantic visions about going to Europe to work and find yourself? The idea can be a little daunting if you don't know where to start. You'll need to know that Europe has two doors: front and back.