FYI: Photos will be coming soon to the blog as well as www.twenty20productions.com
So, we left for Europe for the first time last month. It was quite the interesting experience. I have been all over the USA, including Hawaii, as well as the Caribbean and Mexico, but never Europe. So, first on the list was to get passports (no, we didn’t need them for the Caribbean or Mexico, at the time). Then, you gotta have some sense of conversions (most of which weren’t complicated, but still): kilometers to miles, military time to standard time (this I had already learned), French and Italian to English, pounds and euros to dollars, celsius to fahrenheit (never nailed that one), so on and so forth.
Fortunately, most of the people in Paris and Rome spoke enough English for us to get by without having to bust out the translation book (people in London obviously spoke English, though sometimes the accents were so thick we had to go “huh? what’s that again”). In fact, even the French/Italian menus had everything translated into English below the main description. The flights were long (it’s about a 9-10 hr flight to London), but we didn’t have much trouble getting on British time (6 hrs ahead of central time) or Paris/Rome time (7 hrs ahead of central time), or back again. Getting around was easy via public transport. All in all, navigating Europe (whether that be physically, mentally or verbally) was not as big of an issue as we thought it might be.
Things we dodged thanks to prayers and God’s provision:
- Shortly before we went to Europe, Paris had a transportation strike that was resolved before we arrived.
- While we were there, London had a one-day transportation strike, but it didn’t manage to affect us personally.
- A couple days after we arrived in London, the airports were shut down due to weather.
- We had the option of doing a layover in London or Madrid from Rome. Originally, we wanted to do Madrid, just to say we’ve been and to pick up a magnet at the airport. But, we ultimately decided on London since we’d already be familiar w/ that airport, and the signs would be in English. We figured this would be helpful and less stressful in trying to switch from one plane to another. Good thing we picked London, because Spain (therefore, affecting Madrid) was having a transportation strike, including airfare. So, our flight would’ve been cancelled.
- It was good our trip wasn’t a week later, because exactly a week after we got back to Dallas, the exact terminal and gate we landed in and would’ve landed in was evacuated due to a suspicious package.
- While in London, there were student protests going on in an area we had been in the day prior, but were not in the day of.
- Right after we left London, those protests turned into violent riots (I hear Prince Charles’ car got attacked, and his wife got stabbed in the ribs with a big stick, amongst other things).
- When we were going from London to Paris, the weather was icy causing the airports to shut down. However, we booked a train, not a flight. The early morning and night trains had been cancelled. Our train (at 10:25am) was the first that had not been cancelled that day. The rationale we used in booking that particular train (they go about every hour or so) was because then we’d be arriving in Paris at check-in time at the hotel. But, clearly, there was a bigger reason why we ended up on that train.
- Shortly after leaving Paris, they had record snowfall that caused the Eiffel Tower to shut down as well as transportation.
- We got colds in Rome, mine with a fever (from being outside so much in the cold in London and Paris), causing us to stay in the hotel room for a whole day, but we stayed in Rome longer than we ended up needing and still got to see everything. The day we stayed inside we planned to see Vatican City, but as it turns out, it was closed that day anyway due to “Immaculate Conception”, so we wouldn’t have gotten much accomplished sight-seeing wise that day anyway as we had already taken care of everything else. So, we saw Vatican City the following day. So, the sickness didn’t cause any big dints in sightseeing plans.
- While in London, we had the option of a day trip to either Stonehenge/Windsor Castle/Oxford or Stonehenge/Windsor Castle/Bath. We were originally gonna go with the Bath option, because we didn’t know about the Oxford option. But when we found out, we went with Oxford. We had a very friendly tour guide. However, the other bus (which arrived to the first two stops at the same time as us, and then went on to Bath instead of Oxford) had a REALLY MEAN tour guide. He was an old man that YELLED at the passengers for small stuff. This one girl got hot coffee, which the tour guide yelled at her for, shaking his finger at her, and told her to leave it behind. So she left it on the ground as the bus rolled off. Josh joked, “you want some coffee?” While this isn’t necessarily unsafe, it sure would’ve made it unpleasant.
I believe there were other things, but they are escaping me at the moment. But 11 is probably enough reasons for anyone to see that clearly these things didn’t happen by chance. God was orchestrating everything from us planning the vacation to while we were actually there.
Now…on to the cities…
London was a fun city (probably my favorite of the three) that felt very “Americanized” and reminded me a lot of New York City. The difference is the fact it is a very historical city and has some very unique architecture (but no sky scrapers like NYC). Literally, all of the buildings were visually intriguing.
We saw all the main tourist sites such as Big Ben/Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus (the “Times Square” of London), St. Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Abbey (this is a church, believed to be about 1000 years old, with very interesting architecture, and we also saw a mass take place there), Tower Bridge, Tower of London (which is actually a castle right in the middle of the city), London Eye (a big ferris wheel with 360 degree views of the city), etc. We saw a Broadway musical, Thriller. For Josh, we also went to Abbey Road, where the famous Beatles album cover was photographed. Next to it was Abbey Rd Studios where they recorded. We also took a day trip to Stonehenge, Windsor Castle and Oxford.
There is no such thing as “Oxford University.” Instead, Oxford is a college town consisting of 38 separate colleges. So when someone says, “I went to Oxford”, you are supposed to reply back “Oh really? Which one?”
The Queen has multiple residences, the most famous being Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. Whenever the Queen is “in residence”, a flag indicating such is flown from the top of the palace or castle. When we visited Buckingham Palace, the flag was not being flown, so I wondered if perhaps she was at Windsor Castle. We went to Windsor the day or two after that, and she was, in fact, in residence at Windsor (of course, we didn’t see her). Apparently, the flag is flown when she is LITERALLY IN RESIDENCE. In other words, if she goes out for coffee or something, the flag is taken down, and then put back up when she arrives again. Sounds like a lot of work to me. We saw the changing of the guards at both residences.
Stonehenge is still a mystery. There are lots of theories as to why it is there, but as our tour guide repeatedly stated, they are just “theories.” It was bigger in person than I would’ve suspected. Apparently, the stones are actually buried several inches or feet into the ground, helping keep them up. In addition, the horizontal stones on top have grooves in them to fit into the perpendicular stones (like legos).
The people of London were very friendly, and some quite funny. Like our hop on/off tour guide, amongst others. We met a lot of people from different countries while in London. I knew, based on watching Gordon Ramsay on Hell’s Kitchen, that British people say “yeah” a lot…like in place of where Americans would use the phrases “right?” or “okay”. But, even that show couldn’t prepare me enough for just HOW MUCH they say it. They say it after EVERYTHING. Sometimes multiple times per sentence. We have now developed the habit (actually developed before the trip just from watching Hell’s Kitchen) of saying it too.
London has a very extensive and efficient public transportation system, much like NYC, only bigger. However, there was a transportation strike one day while we were there, but apparently it’s against the law to completely shut down (as I imagine millions depend on the system daily). So, it was running on limited service, and didn’t affect our plans. There were also student protests going on while we were there (over the gov’t tripling tuition rates), which turned into violent riots (because it passed) shortly after we left. So, we left at a good time.
The day we left, there was some snowy/icy weather, which caused airports to shut down and the Eurostar train (London to Paris train) to cancel it’s early and late departures. Fortunately, our train into Paris was late morning, and the first or second that wasn’t affected. However, because earlier trains had been cancelled, people from those trains were put on later trains, causing a confusing shift in seating assignments. But, in the end, we still had seats, just not our original ones. But, it would’ve been nice had someone explained this to us when we checked in so as to avoid a panic when someone was in our seats. But, I digress.
Paris was probably my least favorite city of the three, which is good because it’s the city we spent the least amount of time in.
To me, Paris is worth visiting once (solely for the Eiffel Tower), but unless you are really into museums, etc, then I suggest only going for a day. The Eiffel Tower is definitely worth seeing…during the day and especially at night. It is much larger than you would anticipate (about the size of The Empire State Building). At night, it is quite amazing. It is all lit up, and at 9pm, it flickers for several minutes. The ride to the top is not for those who are afraid of heights. I notice the older I get, the more aware of my surroundings and the potential risks associated with them I become. So, I couldn’t look out as it kept going up and up and up. It felt like it was never going to end. Then, once we were up, I could only stay a few minutes. I wasn’t afraid of falling or any such thing, so much as an attack taking the whole thing down.
We also went to the Musee D’Orsay, Notre Dame (this is a church with very interesting architecture), and we saw the Mona Lisa at the Lourve. It was roped off, so you could maybe get about 6-12 ft from it, and the painting itself was enclosed in glass. There were also security guards standing near it. But, they still let us take photos of it, which surprised me. I tried walking around to see if her eyes followed me, and sure enough, they do.
All we ate in Paris were crepes (we did try fish and chips in London, and that was good, despite my not normally liking fish), which were very good. The people, however, are another story. They are very aggressive. At the Eiffel Tower, people constantly come up to you trying to get you to buy Eiffel Tower souvenirs, give them money, or sign things. But, saying “no” or ignoring them wasn’t good enough for them. They would continue to bother you, and literally wave their hand 3 inches from your face and go “hello?” There were a couple times that people placed hands on my shoulder/arm. Then, at one of the metro stations, a ticket-checker person stated we weren’t using our tickets correctly and fined us 25 euros (about $40).
They call Paris the City of Love or the City of Lights, but I really didn’t find anything romantic about it (except maybe the Eiffel Tower at night, but then that mood is quickly ruined by annoying people that keep coming up to you wanting something or another). The city was dirty, with graffiti and even rats. But, each to their own.
We took the overnight train from Paris to Rome (we had a cabin with beds). We had a confirmation that we had to use to print out our tickets at the kiosk. Well, due to the supposed complexity of our last name, it didn’t work. But, because it was a weekend, the people that can help in such situations weren’t there. So, we talked to the reception/security area, and with broken English, he stated we could go across the street to another station that had a person there that can print it. We didn’t want to haul our six bags of luggage all around, so I stayed, while Josh went in search. An hour passes, and he finally shows back up with the tickets. All the while, I was worrying why it was taking so long and wondered if something bad had happened. But, apparently it really wasn’t across the street, and was difficult to find. Then, once Josh did find it, there was a long line. Josh didn’t have his cell phone on him (because we didn’t get the international calling plan on his phone…figured we only needed it on one phone). He also didn’t take his credit card or license with him to confirm his identity, but fortunately, they didn’t ask for any proof and just printed the tickets anyway. Unfortunately, Josh hadn’t been dressed to spend an hour in the cold.
By the time we got to Rome, we were starting to get colds due to being outside so much in the cold & damp weather in London and Paris. But, we felt relatively well the first couple of days in Rome, so made use of our time. Then towards the end, I got a fever and spent a whole day inside the hotel room. But, fortunately we ended up being in Rome for longer than we needed, so we were able to spare a day.
In Rome, we saw the Coliseum, Roman Forum, Catacombs (where Christians are buried), Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon and Vatican City (which also has St. Peters Basilica and Sistine Chapel). St. Peters Basilica was very neat much like Westminster Abbey in London or Notre Dame in Paris, but it was much larger. The Coliseum was pretty cool. We were going to go to Vatican City on Wednesday to see the Pope, but that was the day I had a fever, and Vatican City ended up being closed that day anyway due to “Immaculate Conception.” So, we went Thursday. The paintings of the Sistine Chapel were almost 3D and looked like they were jumping off the walls/ceilings. The Chapel itself was actually smaller than I thought it’d be. In there, you aren’t to take photos, but they didn’t heavily enforce it. The hallways leading up to the Sistine Chapel were just as, if not more, intriguing.
Italian food is one of my favorites, probably right behind Mexican food. So, I had high expectations of “real” Italian food. But to our disappointment, real Italian food isn’t that good. The pasta isn’t too bad, but you really can’t screw that up. I liked the fact they put bay leaves in the pasta though. But, the pizza was lacking in flavor and spices. Also, if you order a “pepperoni” pizza, you will get a pizza with big, nasty peppers. Pepperoni doesn’t exist. You have to order “salami.” Shortly after we got back from our trip, we ordered some pizza back at home, and we were like “mmm American pizza…much better.” I guess it comes down to what your taste buds are accustomed to.
The traffic situation in Rome is very congested, and people park their cars everywhere, and even have to double and triple park behind other cars. Their metro trains are ALWAYS jam-packed, and it’s a rarity when you can actually find a seat. Rome is also dirty, like Paris, with graffiti everywhere. But, the people seemed a bit more reasonable, overall.
Things I liked about Europe:
- All three cities (and most cities all over Europe from what I hear) have very extensive public transportation options. The only comparable city in the USA would be NYC. This would save time, money, gas and frustration on the road. However, it was nice to drive again once back in Dallas because after a while, you get tired of having to stand up against a million people and be exposed to germs, possible pick-pocketing/stealing (which we didn’t have an issue with, but apparently is common), and weird stares/looks (especially since everyone KNOWS you’re American just by looking at you). I did miss getting to be private, in my own car.
- In London, if you are riding an escalator, you stand on the right if you plan to stand, and if you want to walk up/down the escalator, you go to the left. Seems self-explanatory, but something Americans still haven’t mastered.
- I thought having $1 and $2 coins (well, euros and pounds, not dollars) was a good idea, although I suppose that could get heavy.
- London, in particular, seemed more advanced technology-wise than America.
- My absolute favorite thing about how Europe does things is that ALL bathroom stall doors close in such a way that there are no cracks on either side (and therefore, no one will see your crack either). Some doors even go completely up to the ceiling and down to the ground. Much more privacy.
- One thing that I think is a GREAT idea, and should be adopted by America, is that EVERY restaurant displays their menu & pricing OUTSIDE of the restaurant, so that people can decide whether or not they want to eat there before even walking into the restaurant and wasting anyone’s time. Great idea.
Things I didn’t like about Europe:
- Everything is so crammed and congested…much like NYC I guess, but quite different than much of the USA.
- Everything is more expensive. I suppose if the exchange rate was 1 to 1 (where 1 pound or 1 euro equaled $1) then it wouldn’t be as bad. But, since pounds to dollars was like $1.60 – $1.80 and euros to dollars was like $1.50, then things are just naturally more expensive.
- The bathrooms, particularly in Paris and Rome, cost money. Even if you are a paying customer at a restaurant, you’d still have to pay anywhere from 20-50 cents (which could be up to 75 cents in dollar terms). In London, the only place that was like that was at the Underground (metro) stations. Oh, and they only take exact change.
- I got the impression that Europe is very “environmentally friendly”, and so the blow dryers in the hotels didn’t put out much power at all.
- Speaking of hotels, with the exception of the hotel in Rome, European hotel rooms as well as the showers are so small you can barely move. There’s basically just enough room for the beds. Speaking of which, they don’t have such things as queen or king beds over there, just twins and doubles.
- People seem to be more aggressive and maybe don’t keep to their own as much as they do in America. Some things that people can get away with over there, I imagine could get you arrested over here.
- VAT tax…everything in Europe includes a VAT tax (about 18%, give or take). Unfortunately, this is something America is considering adopting. I do like the fact that the price you see on the item or menu is the complete price (including tax), so you aren’t left wondering what the grand total will be. That is nice. BUT…it’s still a high tax amount.
- In addition to a VAT tax, most restaurant totals already include a 15% service charge for tip. Part of me likes this because then you don’t have to do the thinking or deciding what to tip (also kind of along the lines of the VAT tax, where what you see on the bill is it…which also explains why stuff costs more). But, at the same time, what if the server didn’t deserve that high of a tip? And what’s the incentive for the waiter to do a good job if they know they are already going to get a 15% tip anyway, regardless of the job they perform? Seems kinda backwards.
- They are always striking over there or having riots, etc. Shortly before we came, Paris was having a transportation strike (which was resolved by the time we got there). While we were there, London had a transportation strike as well as protests and riots after we left. We heard Spain was also having transportation strikes, including airlines, while we were there, so it’s a good thing that on our flight back home, we chose the layover in London and NOT Madrid. Apparently, striking, etc is very common over in Europe. Seems they are always upset about something I guess. It seems this could really throw a kink in people’s plans on a regular basis.
- The people drive crazy over there. It’s like there are no rules or something. And in Rome, there are no cross walks with lights. You literally have to walk out in front of cars and just hope they stop for you. So, normally we’d wait for other people to walk first, and then walk with them while the traffic was already stopped.
Something I noticed: Europe is very focused on America:
Europe focuses a lot of attention on America. In London, their news programs, and even their newspapers, focused a lot on American gov’t, not so much their own. In all three cities, they played American music in their stores. Rome had a lot of cologne/perfume commercials, all of which featured American actors/actresses. Europe has a decent amount of American food chains over there: McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC. To my surprise, London actually carried Dr. Pepper (which is an American soda – specifically southern America, not a global soda like Coca Cola). NYC doesn’t even carry Dr. Pepper…but London does?!?
All in all, I really enjoyed Europe, and grateful I got to experience it. However, while it makes a good vacation or educational/historical destination, I wouldn’t want to live over there. So, it does bring with it a new, fresh appreciation for America, which was much needed given the current state it’s headed in (it’s headed for a European-like existence, but it’s not quite there yet, so America is still better). Of course, I don’t want to make it sound like Europe is awful. There are far worse off places in the world than Europe. So, Europe is worth traveling to, but I suggest sticking to the big cities such as we did. In part, because they have the most to see. But, also because they anticipate American tourists and therefore are equipped to handle them.