Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Planning Your Trip to Europe
"Keep him talking," was the whispered advice in our German class. Everybody knew that Herr Bruderer would forget to give the promised test if we asked a question about his beloved Bavaria, and just let him ramble. When he put his feet on his desk, leaned back with his arms behind his bald head and started reminiscing we all relaxed. Grammar and word order issues were set aside in favor of culture and history. But we played right into his hands. It was on those days that we learned the most.
Sitting in Herr Bruderer's class as a sophomore in high school, I set a goal to go on a semester abroad to Austria. I caught his enthusiasm and love for a different land and I wanted to experience it for myself. Although I wasn't sure what it was, I recognized it when I got there.
It is a feel, an aura: cobblestone paths, unsalted butter, the smell of cheese in tiny shops, buildings built before Columbus sailed, restaurants that have been owned by the same family for hundreds of years. These details create the ambiance I pine for.
Colorful curtains, leaded glass window hangings, folklorish fabric on carved wooden chairs, flouncy light fixtures in cafes, embellished gables on houses still occupied centuries after they were constructed, bouquets of dripping umbrellas stashed in a corner stand, fur-trimmed baby buggies: this is European art in it's natural setting.
Europe tugs at the heart in various ways. Peter likes hiking and skiing in the alps, Amy wanders the museums in Paris and Heidi applauds the theater in London. Scott dreams of the World Cup, Paul rode his bike through France, Jolyn shopped for rugs in Istanbul. There are numerous reasons for going to Europe. What are yours?
When I went as a student, I imagined Europe like Disneyland. You know--immaculate streets lined with quaint shops; restaurants serving foreign versions of my favorite American food; people with accents greeting me with enthusiasm; freshly painted trains zipping me from land to land, and dropping me off in the center of a welcoming town square.
Paris was my first stop and I was overwhelmed and disappointed. It was raining, cold, dirty, old, huge and frustrating. The Eiffel Tower was nowhere in sight, and the Notre Dame was dark and dingy. It smelled. I was bored by the long tour of Versailles, having no background on what I was viewing.
Our hotel room looked nothing like the Travelodge standard double I had stayed in with my family. I ordered the only thing I recognized on the menu: Steak with tartar sauce. Come to find out Steak Tartar is French for raw meat loaf made table side, and served with crackers. My friends and I weren't familiar with jet lag, and we were surprised to wake up at midnight. Naively we wandered the streets of Paris, pleased that so many handsome guys were vying for our attention!
Whenever I hear that someone is going to Europe for the first time, especially if they're traveling European style, passing on the Marriott hotels, I urge them to read Europe Thru the Back Door by Rick Steves. Culture shock is so much less shocking if you're prepared. France, Germany, Switzerland, England--these countries have huge cities and medieval towns, with cultures different from each other and different than ours. That's one reason we want to go: to experience different. Rick Steves gives great perspective.
So, you're almost ready to plan your trip. Whenever I start planning something, from a party, to an important conversation, to reorganizing my desk, I ask myself: What do I want to have happen? After a little thought the answers start coming. In the case of a European tour, here are some ideas: I want to see Pompeii; I want to see the Sistine Chapel; I want to see what everyone is so excited about.
If you're anxious to get an overview of lots of places, start thinking how to alternate big cities, countryside, and small villages. Get a map. Decide how long you'll be gone. Be realistic in planning your schedule. For every week you'll be traveling, factor in a couple of days of downtime. You'll want to do your laundry, balance your bank account and sleep in. A whirlwind of cathedrals, art museums, and souvenir shops, with a different hotel each night, makes even the most enthusiastic traveler dizzy. Relax and give yourself time to soak in the atmosphere at a sidewalk cafe, knowing you have a day to catch your breath.
Your assignment is to think about why you want to go to Europe and what you want to have happen. Remember a book or movie that kindled your interest in Denmark or Holland and think about what you want to experience. Just daydream. Planning a trip to Europe can be almost as fun as going on one!