10 Lessons from Two Weeks in Europe

I’m typing this from my comfy Eurostar train seat in the Chunnel under the English Channel, heading for London. My daughter and I have been away from home since 25 June and we go home again 15 July. We’ve had an amazing trip with stops in Brussels, Munich, Salzburg, Venice, Rome, Florence, Milan, Paris and London. Being a long time fan of a certain late night host (don’t want to name names in case it’s a copyright infringement), here are my Top Ten Lessons Learned from Two Weeks in Europe.

  1. Mass transit is awesome. We’ve used trains to get all over Europe and it’s been a pleasant and efficient way to travel. There’s no way we could’ve traveled to so many countries if I had been trying to drive us all over the place. While it’s not cheap, it’s nice not to have to drive or worry about finding parking. It’s also great to be able to take a short nap on the train, which is generally frowned upon while driving. Getting used to the nuances of each city’s system was another story, but we usually got the general hang of it by the second day.
  2. I really appreciate the availability of bathrooms in most restaurants and stores in the U.S. that are clean and free. Having to pay to use a Water Closet is overrated.
  3. Europeans smoke. A lot. Everywhere. It’s really annoying. Ok, let me put this in a positive light. I am so thankful for the “no smoking” laws in the States. While there are still many instances in the US where I encounter second-hand smoke it’s nothing compared to here.
  4. Holy cow is Europe ever expensive! Or, maybe the US Dollar just sucks. Either way, YIKES! How much would you expect to pay for a 20 oz. bottle of Coke in the US, maybe $1.75 or $2? Try double that (or more) over here. Drink water instead. Except…there are not very many drinking fountains (bubblers for some of you) to fill up water bottles. There were a bunch in Italy, but not so much in the other countries we visited. And I really don’t care for buying bottled water for my daily travels or even when dining out. Speaking of dining out…
  5. Ordering a meal from a waitress who doesn’t speak English is a bit difficult. And I wish it wasn’t so awkward to ask if the tip is included in the bill. I did find out from a restaurant employee in Florence (on our last day in Italy, of course) that “Italians never tip” since it’s included in the bill. Yet, in France it wasn’t. Or was it? I really don’t know because I got two different answers from two workers in the same Irish establishment in Paris. Come on Europe, make up your mind. I don’t want to be rude but I also don’t want to be a sucker and tip when it’s already been included.
  6. Tourists are easy marks. We stick out even if we try to blend in. There’s no way around it. Embrace it and be prepared to get asked for money by every beggar in every Metro station. And whatever you do, don’t accept flowers from a nice guy in a public area. He’s not being nice. He’s going to expect you to pay him for his, um, “niceness”. Same for the girl in the train station who will find you wandering in the station and ask you sweetly if she can help you. If you let her help you out then you can expect she’s not helping you simply out of the goodness of her heart. She’s going to expect to be paid for her 5-10 minutes of assistance. Although, if you look at it as a chance to skip the long lines at the ticket counter and a learning opportunity (how to use the automated ticket machine) then it’s not such a bad deal. Be warned.
  7. Sandals might not have been the best idea for a three week trip. Not because there’s so much walking. Nope, they’ve been just fine for all the walking. Because they stink. Literally. Probably doesn’t help that I’ve gotten them wet from the rainy places and they’ve never fully dried out. My shoes and feet are so smelly every evening that I have to wash my feet with soap and water and put the offending footwear as far away from my daughter as possible. I also douse them with baby powder nightly. Still doesn’t fully cover the smell. Oops. I’d consider buying some shoes but doubt I could find anything in a size 16.
  8. Basketball is a universal language. I saw some teenagers playing hoops at a park near our hotel in Paris and watched them for a few minutes. A few of them approached me and invited me to play with them. They were enamored with my height (over 2 meters!) and ability to dunk without much effort (yay 9’ rim) despite wearing my stinky sandals. One boy gave me the nickname of “Easy” because I kept making so many mid and long range jumpers without much (apparent) effort. They also wanted to know if I knew LeBron James because we’re both from America.
  9. Sometimes after waiting in line for an hour or two to enter a specific tourist attraction (that happens to be historical) it doesn’t live up to expectations. Yeah, I’m talking to you, Vatican/Sistine Chape, Mona Lisa and Palace of Versailles. Sometimes it does click (Eiffel Tower, Venice, David statue) and it makes it all worth it. You just never know.
  10. I’m pretty sure that people taking selfies EVERYWHERE is just about as annoying as all the smokers ruining the nice clean air I want to breathe. Of course, if you can’t snap your mug in front of whatever thing you’re seeing and post it on Facebook or Instagram or Twitter then it didn’t really happen, right?

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Note: I typed this on 10 July but neglected to post it until now (14 July) because we were having so much fun in London.

We’ll Always Have Paris

Have you ever run into a friend from your past in an unexpected place? Maybe you went to an amusement park or concert and saw someone you went to high school with and one of you commented about what a small world it is. Try this one on for size. Walking from our hotel in a random neighborhood in Paris, France, my daughter and I ran into some friends that we went to church with nine years ago when we were living in Mason City, Iowa. Stunned doesn’t begin to describe what we were all feeling after I greeted them from about fifteen feet away by saying loudly, “I go all the way to Paris and who do I see but the Muyskens family?”. After all five of them (parents and three daughters) whirled their heads to see who just called their name out in Paris, we exchanged hugs and excited “What are you doing here?” silliness. Duh! We’re all on vacation. Yet, here we both were. I’d kept in touch with Dennis and Susan over the last nine years since we last lived in Iowa. The last time I saw them was in 2009, when I took my oldest went back for a weekend with one of her best friends there. While we remained on friendly terms (exchanged Christmas letters/photos) ours was more of a Facebook friendship where we kind of kept in touch but that was about it. And then, this.

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A chance meeting in Paris. They had literally just arrived that morning after taking an overnight direct flight from Minneapolis, Minnesota. They were on their first outing from their hotel, trying to find the nearby Metro stop. Only, they had gone the wrong direction (toward us). Likewise, my daughter and I had just found our hotel after taking the overnight train to Paris from Milan. After our showers we decided that we were hungry and the hotel clerk said that there were restaurants to the left or to the right from the hotel. We opted to go to the right since that was the direction of the Metro stop we would need later to go to the Eiffel Tower. It was at the corner of that street, a block from our hotel, that we chanced upon our friends. Since we were all hungry we decided to grab lunch together at the cafe which was across the street. What followed was a lot of head shaking and What are the odds?! moments. It was great to see my friends again. It’s amazing how quickly kids grow up when the last time you saw them was nine years prior. The Muyskens girls were just finishing 1st, 4th and 8th grades back in 2005 when we moved. Now the oldest is a college graduate, looking forward to teaching art in the fall. The next daughter is in college, a double major (bio and chem) looking at med school. The youngest is a junior in high school. Crazy! Of course, it goes both ways. Susan was my daughter E’s preschool teacher for two years. Of course, E, at age 14, didn’t realize that this was the famous Mrs. Muyskens from preschool and was even more shocked when I told her that fact. 

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Since we’d had so much fun catching up at lunch we decided to accept their kind invitation to tag along on their trip to the Eiffel Tower. (It’s what we’d planned to do anyhow, but better with friends!) I think it was especially nice for my daughter to be able to have this fun time with three other girls roughly her age instead of just me. We get along well but I’m sure she enjoyed the time with other teens. At any rate, the tower was huge. Bigger in real life that I thought it would be. So interesting to finally see such an iconic European structure. We had hoped to go to the top but the lines were about 3 hours long. No thanks! But walking underneath it was also pretty cool. Thinking about how it was built and all the iron needed to do it. What an engineering marvel. After a delicious ice cream/sorbet break and some cartwheels and bridges in front of the tower we meandered found some other impressive buildings – palaces and cathedrals and such – and just enjoyed our unexpected afternoon together. Seriously. If either of us had left our hotels 30 seconds sooner or later we wouldn’t have seen one another! 

At about 5:30 local time, which was 10:30 am Minnesota time, we decided to have dinner together before heading back to our respective hotels, as some of the Muyskens family were starting to feel the effects of jet-lag. After dinner we navigated through the Metro to the stop near our hotels. When we got to our parting spot we stopped to say good bye. Only this time my daughter had made three new friends so the “kids” also participated in the good-bye hugs. Being the clown that I am and not wanting to dwell in the sadness of the farewell moment too long, I spontaneously said with all the dramatic flair I could muster (which isn’t much, I might add), “We’ll always have Paris!“. It received the desired reaction and we left. Our separate European vacations forever entwined by a chance encounter in the City of Light. Au revoir!