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20 Lessons Learned from My Trip Through Europe

Last month, my wife and I embarked on our last big trip that we planned on taking after our wedding. We had already been to Hawaii (honeymoon), and we went to Disney World last year for our 1-year anniversary, so this year, we put together a full, 8-stop tour of Europe over the course of two and half weeks.

The planned trip was London-Dublin-Glasgow-Berlin-Salzburg-Paris-Venice-Rome. Here are the results of our trip, by the numbers:

  • Number of flights: 9
  • Cities visited: 12
  • Trains taken: 2
  • Airports visited: 13
  • Countries visited: 8
  • Days traveling: 17
  • Number of times we re-packed our suitcases (not counting the intial pack): 11
  • Buses/Subways/Taxis: Countless

We took notes throughout our trip, and spending 2.5 weeks away from home and overseas taught me some valuable insights:

The ability to give directions varies from country to country.

In Salzburg, I asked the info desk lady how to get to our hotel. It was 11:00pm and we were exhausted. I purposely booked this hotel to be near the airport so that we could get there quickly and get to bed.

“Just walk out these doors and take a left. You’ll see the hotel in a shopping center. It should take you less than 10 minutes to walk.”

Easy-peasy. We could walk, drag our luggage, and save on cab fare. Twenty minutes later, we were lost in Salzburg and didn’t know any German. And it didn’t appear that any people were around, anywhere. We wound up going to a different hotel to get different directions, and eventually found our hotel.

The next morning, we needed to get to the bus stop. I asked the woman at the front desk, and she tells me: “You see that building with the green roof? It’s on the other side of that.”

Oh, that sounds simple. We’ll just go there and we’ll see it. Nope. There were four more turns after that – which we were not told. And it took a lot of guess-and-check to even get there.

The woman at the front desk of our hotel in Paris gave us wrong information that caused us to miss our flight to Venice. It seems that, in a lot of places across Europe, even people who seem to speak English just fine have trouble giving the full details of instructions to someone who’s never been there before. That got old pretty quickly.

I am capable of batching tasks when forced to.

In any blog post on time management, they all tell you the same things: don’t leave your email window open. Batch tasks together.

Sure, sounds easy, but when you are in the habit of constantly watching your email, or opening up Google Reader to see the latest news, it’s next to impossible to try to batch tasks.

The trip was an eye opener for me because I wasn’t able to sit by my email all day, or check my Reader whenever I wanted to. We had Wi-Fi wherever we were staying, but without an international data plan for my phone, I was handcuffed into not having everything in my pocket wherever we went.

It became liberating. Instead of having to constantly check my phone, I was able to enjoy quality time and conversation with my wife. I could soak in the atmosphere of the city we were in. I could disconnect.

And on the other end, when I got back and got to work, everything went fine. All my Reader items were there. The emails were waiting for responses. Nobody died. Nothing broke. Now, I’m finding that I have more self control at home, because I was forced to put this principle into practice.

Public transportation is a double-edged sword.

When we were in London, I loved public transportation. Think about it: no gas, no traffic, no car insurance, no car payments. Pay a few bucks a month, and you can ride anywhere you want! A little walking never hurt anybody either.

By that same token, going somewhere took an increased amount of planning. We had to give ourselves extra time to wait for trains or to change lines. We had to load our Oyster cards, or get our 2-day tickets re-issued several times because they kept canceling out for no reason (I’m looking at you, Paris). Besides that, when you are a long walk from a subway stop and you just want to get home, there’s nothing you hate more than a 45-minute trip back to the hotel.

So I don’t have a verdict on it. It was fun, but I don’t know that I would always want to deal with it.

Few things are more empowering than venturing out without knowing the language.

I did it in Taiwan, and I did it in Rome. Even though it’s a simple task (getting dinner), walking around by yourself in a city not of your origin is exciting. Being able to communicate with people who do not know any English using various forms of sign language can be fun, especially when you have the good fortune (like I did) of running into people who took it with good humor and played along. It’s good fun, and it’s not at all as scary or intimidating as you would expect it to be.

I hate France, but not the French.

After our first day in Paris, my wife and I were walking back to the hotel, and we came to a determination: we didn’t care for Paris. It has some awesome stuff to see, and the food is great, but everything else kinda sucks. And that’s okay – you’re not going to love every place you visit, right?

We put comments on Facebook alluding to that fact, and our friends came out of the woodwork: “I TOLD YOU THE FRENCH WERE RUDE, etc.” Even in conversations now, we tell people we didn’t care for France, and they all say, “You know, they don’t like Americans!”

I can honestly and thoroughly say that we didn’t run into an exceptionally large number of rude people in Paris. We read in a book on the way there that the French raise their children to say “Bonjour” to everyone, acknowledging them as a form of respect. It’s something that’s built in to the French culture.

We did that, and it worked amazingly well. Grumpy cab drivers got out of their cars to load our luggage, and they didn’t look happy to be there. We opened up with a “Bonjour”, and without fail, they all brightened up, flashed back a smile, and said, “Bonjour!” right back to us. It didn’t matter that we didn’t speak a lick of French beyond that and “Merci”. All that mattered was we were showing them respect in the way that their culture shows it.

We saw one Frenchwoman curse pointlessly at a member of our walking tour group, and those at the Beauvais airport were terrible at helping two lost and stranded travelers, but that’s about it. The bus driver in Beauvais, who also didn’t speak English, was very friendly and was a huge help in getting us to a hotel. The woman working at the hotel in Beauvais was also very friendly and helpful. The women working at the bakery around the corner from our hotel was always happy to help us in the morning, and we enjoyed her friendly demeanor, even if neither of us could understand what the other one was saying (no doubt they enjoyed my butchering of pronouncing “brioche”).

I imagine that most people who visit France don’t take the time to understand how the French people operate, and that’s where they get the “FRENCH PEOPLE HATE AMERICANS!” thing. The truth is, cultures are different wherever you go. If I learned one thing on this trip, it’s that America operates differently than most countries. Manners really matter in Europe, and if you are polite, smile, and show a little respect, you’ll get plenty in return.

Charlie Crews is still awesome in German.

While in Salzburg, we flipped through the channels on the TV to find something to watch. We’re huge fans of the TV show Life, starring Damien Lewis (who is now on Homeland). Life was canceled way too quickly into its run, and it ranks as one of our favorite dramas of all time. We were thrilled to see it on TV – except that it was dubbed over in German. That didn’t stop us from keeping it on. Because Charlie Crews is amazing.

Two and a half weeks is flipping long for a trip.

Some people can do it, and more power to them. But we can’t do it again. Living out of suitcases for that long is just too much. Two weeks would probably be the longest we could do it, but it’s a shame that the last part of our trip was muddled with thoughts of “When do we get to go home?” I did it just as much as my wife did, and we still enjoyed ourselves, but we were burned out by the end.

There can be too much of a good thing.

French bread in Paris? Fantastic. We couldn’t believe how many people we saw walking through the streets carrying baguettes, just like the stereotype we think of. We did it too.

But when you eat baked goods for breakfast, grab a baguette and a soda for lunch, and a sandwich for dinner, you suddenly crave a piece of meat or something. I am a long-time bread lover, but that got to be just too much for me.

Downtime is insanely important.

Any trip needs downtime, and a lot of it. The first couple days, you feel like Superman – you want to get out there and see it all. And when you take a short trip, that’s fine. But when you have over two weeks, you need to look at it as a marathon, not a sprint.

Push yourself too hard, and you get cranky, tired, and it keeps snowballing from there. Taking some time back at the hotel to watch a little TV, take a nap, or read a book lets you recharge your batteries for more adventure.

There’s a reason so many Europeans are skinny.

They walk everywhere. This is a foreign concept to Americans, because our cities are built around freeways. We’re built to drive. They’re built to take subways and walk around. Their sidewalks are wider. Things are organized differently.

They spend more time on their feet than on their butts. I respect that.

There’s no such thing as “fresh air” in Europe.

I’m not talking about pollution. I’m talking about smoking. Walk anywhere in Europe and you’ll see 2-3 people outside every building lighting up a butt. We’d get caught behind smokers constantly. It seems like they all do it. I’ve never seen so many smokers in my entire life.

Just when you think things can’t get worse, they do.

Our second day of the trip, my wife tripped while holding our camera. The lens hit the ground and was knocked off-track, leaving it useless and inoperable. After dealing with that, we think to ourselves, “Hey, maybe that’s the ‘bad thing’ that will happen to us on this trip!”

In Dublin, we were stuck in Phoenix Park in the cold rain for two hours. Our showers the next morning had no hot water.

In Paris, we got lost looking for the subway station and walked almost an hour in the middle of the night.

Every time something exceptionally bad happened, we thought (and hoped) that it would be the one bad thing that we’d have to endure.

Then, thanks to bad directions, we missed our flight from Paris to Venice by 10 minutes. There were no other flights going to Venice for two days (when we would be leaving from Venice to Rome). We spent hours trying to find our way around, get to a hotel, figure out a game plan, and so on. We ended up having to buy an expensive last minute ticket to Rome from Paris, meaning we wasted money on four plane tickets and the B&B we booked in Venice, and we lost out on seeing Venice at all.

Things can always get worse.

…and you’ll still be okay.

We didn’t die. We didn’t get injured. We didn’t lose anything. We wound up being forced to spend a lot more money than we wanted to or planned on, but we still made it through the cities safely. We bought a new camera and were able to document the rest of the trip. We still had each other and our health, and we still had an amazing time.

Notre Dame is awesome.

Words and pictures can’t do it justice. Standing in the Notre Dame cathedral is something that struck me silent. It’s the most beautiful building I’ve ever been in.

Plus, I couldn’t stop humming “God Help The Outcasts” during our entire time I was in there. Thanks a lot, Disney.

Climbing the 422 steps to the top of the Notre Dame cathedral is another insanely cool (albeit tiring) thing to do. Highly, highly recommended. Even if it is in Paris.

I’m actually grateful for Facebook.

I give Facebook a hard time a lot, because I think it’s a cool tool that has been completely wasted and cluttered with garbage.

But when we were stuck in Beauvais after missing our Venice flight, we couldn’t book any tickets because the RyanAir website was malfunctioning. We had no way of getting out of Beauvais. My wife put out a call on Facebook for help, and within minutes our wonderful friend (and wedding photographer) Andy was on Skype with us, helping us find a place to book a ticket.

Thank you, Facebook. You win this round.

Bad situations make for ridiculously entertaining stories.

When we got to Rome, there was a mix-up with our B&B, and they had no place to put us for the first night (after spending over an hour to get there from the airport). Fortunately, the hostess called around and got us in a place across the street for the night. After our obligatory whining about how tired we were of this at this point and wanting to go home, my wife became more giggly than I had seen her at any point on the trip. She was reliving a scene from earlier.

See, at certain points, I volunteered to pull her suitcase. Going up and down stairs, I always took both, because they were pretty heavy, and I’m the husband so I get to do manly stuff like that. But our B&B was on the 7th floor. Fourteen flights of stairs later, I’m seeing spots, I’m wheezing, I’m dripping of sweat, and I can’t talk.

Once we get in the door, the guy that greets us says, “Why didn’t you use the elevator?”

This turned into a riotous Facebook status, where everyone enjoyed a good laugh at my expense.

The good stories are never as entertaining as the “stuff went wrong” stories.

Italian teenagers suck.

Don’t believe me? Cram yourself on a plane with about 20 of them surrounding you and try to take a nap.

AirBNB is awesome.

Our budget accommodations were mainly booked through AirBNB, which let us stay at various bed-and-breakfasts and extra bedrooms throughout Europe. It was fun meeting people, and our stays there were way above and beyond our stays at the budget hotels that we booked. Highly recommended (just do your homework before booking – read reviews and look at pictures!).

Churches in the U.S. are pathetic.

Sistine Chapel. Notre Dame. Even the tiniest of cathedrals in Europe blow everything we have in America out of the water. No-name cathedrals are packed with religious imagery and intricate designs. It’s overwhelming.

I missed America.

I really didn’t expect to miss America as much as I did. I love the international scene and learning about new cultures. But at the end of the day, I missed the comforts of my homeland. I don’t agree with everything we do, and it’s a pretty screwed up place, but there’s no other country I’d rather call “home”. I am still very proud to be an American, and this trip didn’t change that.

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