Monday, August 27, 2012

Things I wish someone had told me before we went to Europe

So, we're back, and we had a fabulous time, and very smooth travels. I'm sure I'll be posting more about it as I process the experience. But what's bumping around my brain right now is things I wish I had known before we went. In no particular order:

1. Always buy train tickets from a human. The machines are everywhere, and tempting when you don't speak the language, but we were never able to get them to take our credit cards (and 4 train tickets is a lot of cash...), and in one instance, after it refused to take the card and we went to a human, the tickets cost 2/3 as much from the human as the machine (saving us about $65...) So, humans are good. In many stations, they have flags displayed for each agent indicating what languages they speak (look for the Great Britain flag, not the American flag...)

2. Italian waiters will never, EVER bring you the check until you ask. Sometimes more than once. They would consider it the height of rudeness to bring the check unasked, like they were rushing you off. Most Italian restaurants expect one party to occupy a table the entire evening. So, learn the following Italian phrase: "Il conto, per favore." It means "Check, please"!

3. If you order water, you will get bottled water. For about $3 for 3/4 of a liter. You will go broke  if you drink as much water as we do. It took us a week and a fair amount of desperation before we discovered that if you ask for tap water, they will happily provide it. Although "tap water" doesn't really translate - we said "from the sink" and that seemed to do it. If you do want bottled water, they will ask if you want "gas or no gas". I was completely stymied by this our first night, but Chris correctly deduced that they meant sparkling or flat. So if you want flat, you want "no gas" or "naturale". Also, ice is an alien concept on the continent. They have it in England, but nowhere else. Learn to live without it.

4. French hotels have almost no electrical outlets. We thought to bring a number of plug adaptors, but in France, we had 1 outlet in each of the 3 hotel rooms we inhabited; two of those also had an outlet in the bathroom. In the third one, in Paris, in record 98 degree heat, we had to choose between plugging in my CPAP machine and the fan overnight. We opted unanimously for the fan.

5. Which brings me to air conditioning: they have it in Italy, but not mostly anywhere further north than Italy. The very first items we bought when we arrived in Rome were fans. They were essential equipment until we reached London...

6. Use crosswalks. Especially in Italy. The drivers are lunatics, but they do respect crosswalks and will stop for them if there are pedestrians waiting to cross. Jaywalk in Rome, and you are taking your life in your hands....

7. The street names are pretty much all on the sides of the buildings at the corners. We were completely confounded in Rome looking for our hotel, because we had no idea what street we were on, because we were looking for American-style road signs, which they do not have in Italy or much of anywhere we went in Europe. By our next stop, we'd worked that out, and navigating became a lot easier.

8. Admit you will never learn to recognize the small change. The actual denomination markings on the coins are so small and so faint, you will drive yourself crazy trying to work out which is which. Size is no indicator - the 2 pence piece is the biggest of the British small change, and the 20 pence piece the smallest. I found if  I dumped my small change on the counter and began picking through it, the cashier would help me find what I needed. Oh, and they have coins for 1 and 2 Euro or Pounds, not bills. Those, you will learn to recognize pretty quickly, and they are much more clearly marked.

9. Diet Coke is called Coke Light on the continent (but Diet Coke in the U.K.). And Coke products are everywhere. If you are, like me, a Diet Pepsi addict, prepare to suffer with Coke Light for the duration. We only found Pepsi products in England, and Coke was still more common.

10. Everyone smokes in public. Funny, they are much more progressive on environmental issues (fewer cars, better rail, more bikes, more walking) and have a much better sense of how to live in their environment (e.g., using shutters on the sunny side of the house, then opening them once that side is shady) than Americans, but they all smoke like chimneys in public. There's not a lot you can do about it other than move. And use that fan to waft it away from you!

Those are the biggies... we figured them all out sooner or later (mostly sooner, except the water).

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