Monday, June 23, 2008

Day 34: Goodbye, Europe! (My Survival Tips)

First of all, this is the last in my series of posts on Europe. I will be back to techie stuff after this one. I thank you all for indulging me; I always love creating original content so I definitely enjoyed putting up pictures that weren't of me (mostly) but helped give people a flavor of these various, beautiful cities. I don't do very many series (the last one I did may have been for ACL in 2006), so this was always quite unique. The next post I write will be about securing your system, and then after that I'll go back to tech news coverage. I imagine my next post to be out by Thursday, and then I'll start with the tech news again probably next Tuesday or Wednesday. I'm hoping that in the midst of trying to move in to my new place in Seattle I can still get back to at least a weekly schedule and hopefully biweekly after I'm settled in.

I have a couple of pictures to share with you, but if you want to see more then just scroll down below this post and you'll see over a hundred of my favorites from the past 33 days.

We went to the International Street Festival in Sindelfingen on Saturday, which is the suburb of Stuttgart that my cousin lives in, and it was great! It's the only street festival Sindelfingen has all year, but various places around Germany have similar ones throughout the summer and people just drive to them on the weekends and enjoy them. It had a lot of great food and live music. I had some great spatzle with vegetables, a kabob stick holding bananas and strawberries coated in dark chocolate, pizza with bacon and potatoes, and a brat. What I didn't know about the brats is that this is how they cook them:

Isn't that interesting? It reminds me kind of how Mongolians grill their food. It's just a bit circular plate on an open fire. It was very delicious. The other picture I have to share is my cousin's cherry tree:

Apparently, when this type of cherry is black then it's ready to eat, and these are already quite sweet as they turn a dark maroon. It's amazing how well things seem to grow here, or maybe more people have green thumbs. I've probably seen more roses in Europe during this trip than in my entire life because they have these bushes with literally hundreds of rose buds and other types of flowers and greenery plus apple and cherry trees like that one.

Anyway, onto the tips. Over the trip I learned a lot of random stuff about Europe that I didn't know before. I'm going to list them here just in the order that they appear in my head, and some will apply to all of Europe whereas some will be for certain places (I'll specify this where necessary). I hope you find this interesting and informative, or else I encourage you to put up your own list ;)

  • Do your homework. Be smart: plan out your trip in advance. Get travel books so you can read up on where you're going and figure out what you want to do. The Frommer's series is excellent for a general look at not only hot spots but stuff that's off the beaten path. It has restaurant and hotel recommendations and maps, as well, but the maps usually aren't too detailed. It reads like you're talking to a friend so they're definitely fun to read. If you get a big one like Europe, note that it'll focus on big cities. If you want to check out small towns in Germany, get one on Germany (but the Europe one has Romantic Road stops as well). Also, their 3 star rating system is great: if a sight has 3 stars then you should almost definitely check it out. Another great series is the Eyewitness Travel Guides. They literally double as museum guides/maps. They're full of not only key maps and subway/bus maps but up close hand-drawn maps for neighborhoods and plazas and such pointing out interesting things. It pointed out a lot of stuff in Italy that I totally would not have noticed otherwise.

  • Europe is expensive. Make no mistake about it, most things cost more here than in the U.S.. The exceptions are beer in places like Germany and wine and cheese in some places (namely, Italy and France). The euro is stronger than the dollar and the current rate is above 1.6 dollars for a euro. Even quick, takeaway meals (you buy the food and take it with you rather than sitting there and eating) will run you 5 euros. A good meal will probably run you more like 12-15 euro when you include drink. Hotels are crazy expensive, and it ran us like $150 a night on average for a room for 3 at 2.5/3 star places. And these places are more like a 2/2.5 star in the US. Why are prices so high? Sometimes its just normal market forces, but sometimes its the extreme unionization of Europe. So when you're paying 13.50 euro to see the palace at Versailles, understand that part of the high price is paying high wages (in Germany they have 30 hour workweeks and like 7 weeks paid vacation every year).

  • Bring change to the restroom. Many toilets you encounter are not free, even at restaurants (including McDonald's). If you see a sign about it or a person sitting outside the toilet or a towel boy/girl, then you have to pay 0.30-0.50 euro. I know, it's ridiculous because we're used to them being free, but a lot of times restaurant restrooms are free if you eat there so you may want to run in a cafe and get a cheap drink if you need to use the restroom. Oh, and in Paris, you can use the Louvre restroom for free without buying a ticket, you just have to go through security.

  • Water is usually not free. Most americans are used to drinking tap water when they go to a restaurant, but Europeans don't drink tap water even though it's typically potable. You'd be smart to buy a couple of cheap bottles at a grocery story (it can be like 0.30 euro for a huge bottle) and carry it in a backpack with you, very few places disallow water bottles (for us, only the Uffizi did, and they didn't check our bag for it). In some places, especially Rome, you will find fountains just on the street that look really old but are still functioning and in Rome they actually produce fresh spring water. Keep an eye out for those because restrooms do not come with water fountains.

  • Watch your pockets in crowded areas. In places like Paris, Rome, Florence, and Berlin, pickpockets are common. You don't have to worry about it in smaller cities and towns and stuff, but the big tourist cities that are fraught with crowds are often also fraught with petty thieves. In a way, it's nice that petty crime is a bigger issue than violent crime because the opposite is true in the U.S.. Anyway, keep your wallets in your front pocket (guys) and watch your purses (ladies) because thieves will slit the bottom of your purse. I recommend keeping most of your money in a money belt around your stomach and keeping very little on hand. In the worst case, you can run to a restroom to pull out more money from it if you run out in your wallet. If you think that you're too careful to have your wallet stolen, you need to realize that these people are professionals. I would just keep my hand in my pocket when I was on a crowded bus or subway and that worked pretty well. One guy picked my dad's pocket that had trash in it and then grabbed my wallet pocket on the outside while pretending to fall over onto me, and he knew we figured him out so he scurried off the bus. We should've known he was bad news though when he pushed a lady holding a baby to get a seat on the bus so he could better do his work.

  • Be vigilant of scams. Again, this is common in places like Rome and Paris that are full of tourists. Sometimes the con artists will look like tourists also, but often time they look seedy. Not to be racist, but a lot of the con artists you see in Paris happen to be Nigerians and a lot of the ones in Rome happened to be Bangladeshi. One scam is to pretend to drop a ring and ask you if it's yours while their team picks your pocket (while you're distracted). Another scam, which we fell for, are non-uniformed people at a ticket machine for the subway "helping" you buy your ticket from a machine using their credit card (and then you pay them cash), but you end up getting a child's subway ticket. Another scam involves them putting string around your wrist to distract you while others pick your pocket. These scams are rarely pulled off by one guy and often involve a group of people.

  • You don't have to tip, but cover may be required. All across Europe, service is included in the price of your meals. In fact, some places even have a cover charge. Why? Because Europeans are people watchers who love to sit at restaurants all day and may just order a cup of coffee. To help cover the cost of them just sitting there on that table, many places will charge a cover, which also helps cover the service charge. So if a restaurant offers takeaway, food may cost more if you sit down rather than take it with you. You only need to tip if service was really exceptional, which for us was very rare. Because...

  • Service is typically not very fast. In countries like Germany and Austria, meals are 1-2 hour affairs. Food doesn't come out very quickly at all. Food comes out quicker in places like Italy and France, but wait staff are often not very attentive so you have to grab them if you need something or want the check because most restaurants will have a couple of people service the entire restaurant since they're salaried employees and that's not cheap. This is good in some ways though because, unlike America, they don't ask you every 5 minutes if everything is ok; you can eat your meal in peace.

  • Be prepared to walk, whatever the climate. Everywhere that we went, we had to walk a lot. This is especially true in places like Paris and Vienna where much of the experience is just walking around and enjoying the architecture and views. In the summer, don't think that it'll always be hot or always be cold. It's been fairly hot here (like 31 degrees celsius) but also pretty cold (as low as 14 degrees celsius), so bring some light jackets with you (and umbrellas), but if you're traveling in the summer it'll probably be hotter more often than not (especially in July/August).

  • A/C is a joke. Most hotels and restaurants do not have a/c, but usually do have heaters. This is not because it's not necessary, but rather because in the places where it gets really hot people are in denial about global warming. It can get quite hot, but people just buy fans and leave their windows open. The problem with A/C is that the law in many places is that you can't set your thermostat to more than 10 degrees below the outside temperature. This means that it's still rather hot inside, and heat rises so the higher you are in a hotel the worse it'll be (though if you're on the top floor you may have ceiling windows, which we had in Vienna). Note that some hotels that have a/c do not have windows that open, so that's a bad deal overall.

  • Check your electronics. The plugs in Europe are different, so you'll have to buy a converter (my cousin had them so I don't know where to buy them, sorry). Before you plug anything in though, make sure that it can handle 220 Volts at 50 Hz, lest you blow a fuse.

  • Internet is not plentiful. Don't expect hotels to give you free wi-fi, you often have to pay for it and many places don't have a computer for you to use so you need your own. The good news is that there are Internet cafes, and I've gotten it for as little as 1.5 euros an hour.

  • Each country has its own keyboard. It's super annoying. But if you're a touch typist like me, then look at the bottom right corner, before the taskbar icons, for the country code (e.g. "DE" for Germany). If you click on it, you can change it to "EN" for the American style keyboard. Obviously your keyboard won't physically change, but all the key mappings will be for an American keyboard. Note that it will only apply the change for the window you're in, so if you have multiple windows open and you click around between them then you'll probably have to change it back to "EN" because it'll default to the host country in the meantime. Ask the cafe owners though if they have an American-style keyboard though, some actually do.

  • Austrian toilets are weird. You can see a video of what it looks like here. It has a raised area above where the water is, kind of like a waterfall I guess, so when you go number two it just sits there on top (not in the water), which stinks up the bathroom for longer than a normal toilet would. Plus, I imagine it'd be problematic if you took a big one. If you know why they design their toilets in this strange way, please comment.

  • Don't touch the fruit. If you see fruit vendors on the street, sometimes they have a "you touch it, you bought it" policy. So just point out the fruit you want and let them touch it. If you touch it and it's too expensive, you're out of luck.

  • Trains are great and usually affordable. Trains between Florence and Pisa were like 10 euros round trip and between Paris and Versailles it was like 5 euros round trip. Even for longer distances though they're typically cheaper than airlines and you get to enjoy a great view. The only problem are the sleeper trains, where it can get cramped and hard to sleep. Be wary of doing a sleeper train, and be aware that they'll probably take your passport if you're going through a non-EU country so that the conductor can hand them over rather than waking you up.

  • The roads are narrow. If you're going to drive in Europe, be wary of the roads being narrow and having twisting turns, especially on mountains. In fact, I'd recommend getting a GPS for the trip. We would've been so screwed without a GPS. Anyway, it'll take a few days to get used to driving in Europe, so just keep that in mind. Plus, in some cities (like Brussells and Paris), it's stupid to drive in unless you've driven in areas like that or Romania or India before.

  • Cops won't pull you over for speeding in Germany. This is part of the legendary autobahn: you can go 100+ mph and no one cares. Just look out for signs warning you of cameras, because they do have that in place in certain areas. Driving in Germany can definitely be fun if you enjoy speeding.

  • Pedestrians often cross the street without looking. You have to always be vigilant of pedestrians. In some places, the cross walk is a striped line in the street that has no signal light so pedestrians have the right of way and it's your job to stop for them.

  • Paris transit shuts down early. By 8:30 PM the buses stop running and by 1:15 AM the subway stops. Some of the RER lines end before that so be sure to not be out past 10PM without a plan of how to get back home.

  • In some places, you have to buy your bus/subway ticket in advance. In the U.S., you can usually just bring change to a bus but in several places in Europe, like Rome and Florence, you have to go to a tabacco (Tabac) shop and get your tickets. They also sell passes, usually, for a whole day or multiple days. The one day passes are usually not for 24 hours, but until the end of the day (for Vienna, oddly, they were for 24 hours).

  • Check with your hotel for maps and restaurants. If you did what we did and go to multiple cities, don't worry too much about buying a map because your hotel should have one. If you're not staying in a hotel there, then you need to pick up a tourist map from a convenience shop somewhere. Also, 9 times out of 10, your hotel concierge knows of a great place to eat nearby, so tap them for that information.

  • Be wary of guided tours. This is not to slam guided tours, but they'll sometimes try tactics like "if you wait in this line it's 2 hours but if you come with me then you can go in right now." They're half correct: most guided tours for museums and palaces and such do get priority entrance, but often lines aren't that long. Same with reservations: you may have to pay 4 euros extra for a museum reservation, but then you lose flexibility because it has a time attached to it. Just plan for an hour to wait in line because most museums won't hae you wait in line longer than that and often the guided tour people exaggerate the wait (especially at St. Peter's Basilica). If you want a guided tour, then that's fine, but they're not cheap and you can't go at your pace until after the tour. I recommend the audioguide unless a guided tour is required (like at Schloss Neuschwanstein).

  • Leave a day for the Louvre. That is, if you go to Paris. It is more than you can possibly see in a day, trust me. Do yourself a favor and get the multimedia guide, too, so that you don't have to shuffle around with a map. It's not all that intuitive where the collections are and the guide has tour routes on it.

  • See the Vatican Museum before St. Peter's Bsilica. That is, if you're in Rome and want to see them. The line for the Basilica goes super fast, but the museum line takes longer. Plus, the museum will take you several hours whereas the Basilica will probably only take you an hour. But when you go to the Basilica, head for the crypt first (it feeds into the church).

  • Yeah, people kiss each other as a greeting. I know in the U.S. it's associated with being stuck up, but usually people here do kiss each other on the cheeks to say 'hi'. Just be aware of that

  • There's a lot of nude art here. Be aware that any art museum you go into is most likely going to have nude art. So if that bothers you, then deal with it or don't go see the amazing, priceless art that Europe has to offer.

  • Take breaks and have fun! The most important thing is to have a good time. Don't plan a marathon trip where you're totally exhausted by the end of it: plan for days where you just laze around in cafes or in a beautiful park. Do what you want to do and not necessarily what people think you should be doing. If you hate sculptures then don't go to the Rhodin museum in Paris, but if you love impressionist art then definitely check out the D'orsay instead.

All in all, I really enjoyed Europe. Having to go with my parents was a bit of a challenge simply because our tastes sometimes collide and I'm more willing to go on long walks or go up hundreds of steps than they are, which is understandable because they're definitely getting pretty old now and need to watch out for their health. I was glad to have the opportunity to get this first look at Europe so that I know what to expect and next time can not only be better prepared but go to places like Rome and Paris and do off-beat things rather than the touristy stuff. I highly recommend going to Europe on a vacation and really just enjoying the easygoing European lifestyle while making some cessions for a few tourist excursions. You don't need to know the language in most places, just go online and look up the important phrases ("Do you speak English", greetings, "thank you", "check please", "how much is this", etc.). Then, learn the languages as you go! It doesn't take long in Germany to realize that "ausfahrt" is exit and that "verboten" means forbidden. Just make sure you look up pronunciations (like 'v' in German is really pronounced like an 'f', and 'ch' in Italian is pronounced like 'k'). Aside from just the language, you just learn a lot about how other people live and I definitely think it makes you, subconsciously, a better person overall because it reduces your level of ignorance. Plus, Europe is gorgeous and unique in the amount of history it has, so really leave some time to take it all in and enjoy yourself!

The next time I post I will be back in the U.S., assuming everything goes to plan. Bye bye!

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