(13… because that’s how many lessons I came up with)
I’m home from my parents’ and my two-week, eight-country tour of Europe! It was a wonderful whirlwind trip that went smoothly for the most part, with only a few minor hiccups. However, being home doesn’t mean relaxing; on Friday I fly to Paris for a day and a half to see my best friend from ISU Chelsea, then I come back on Saturday and not only do I have classes starting on Monday, but I also need to sort the hundreds of photos my parents and I took this trip, and figure out how I’m going to write about it without it taking over my blog for the next month! If you have any suggestions, I’d love to hear them!
Traveling with my parents for two weeks taught me several important things, both about Europe and going on a trip with your parents/other people, as well as traveling in general. As a “placeholder” post until I get my first one about the trip done, I would like to share with you some of the things I learned!
13. Getting your parents/travel partner(s) a cheap pay-as-you-go cell phone is a wonderful idea.
I have a cell phone that I can use in France and for higher rates in other countries, but my parents’ American cell phones won’t work in Europe. Instead of trying to figure out and paying a lot to borrow a global cell phone from Verizon, we instead opted to get them a cheap pay-as-you-go phone from here in France, and I am SO glad I did! I think we only used it once, in Nice, but it was great for peace of mind if we ever had to separate to do different things or to take a bathroom break. Which leads me to number 12…
12. You will need more bathroom breaks than when traveling alone.
When you travel alone, it’s a lot easier to mentally plan when you’re going to hit a bathroom, and easier to find change for those silly bathrooms you have to pay to use that Europe favors so much. When you’re traveling with two other people, you have to go to the bathroom more often than when you’re traveling alone- it just makes sense. This fact led me to often asking my parents, “I see a sign for toilettes” (which is what we called them no matter what country we were in) “…do you need to go?” That was one of the many things that taught me that…
11. Traveling in a place where you are more knowledgeable/experienced than your parents leads to an interesting role reversal.
My parents have never been to Europe before and also only speak English, so they left the planning almost completely up to me. One day on Skype we sketched out a rough calendar of places we wanted to go, things we wanted to see there, and when, but after that they let me decide the exact dates, travel times, where we stayed, tours we booked, etc. That meant I was completely in charge of making sure we had ticket confirmations, knew how to get from place to place, all that good stuff. It was a really interesting role reversal to be the one reading the map and deciding which way we needed to turn, teaching them about public transportation, and paying for everything (because it was easier for me to get Euros than them). I took to calling them “kids” (“Okay, kids, we ready to go?”) because I honestly felt like the parent! Something else I realized in seeing them experience Europe for the first time was that:
10. Reading a book about the places you’re traveling really helps prepare you.
Before I left for France, one of my cooperating teachers from the school where I student taught gave me this book as a going-away present. Even though the book was about Paris and I have since found some of the things in it to be slightly exaggerated, it really helped prepare me for the cultural differences between France and the US, such as not tipping in restaurants, the difficulty in being able to find a public restroom, and the behavior of servers in restaurants. I found myself wishing my parents had read that book, or something similar, before they came just so they would have an idea of what to expect. For example, something the book warned me about that I learned firsthand this trip was that:
9. Strikes are a pain in the rear.
When you mention a strike in Europe, most people’s minds will immediately go to France. And while it is true that the French do strike often, other European countries do it too, and it just so happens that the only time I’ve personally been affected by a strike was in London, not anywhere in France. The day after Christmas there was a strike in London and the tube (underground train) wasn’t running. Unfortunately, we had been planning on taking the tube to Heathrow Airport to catch our flight. We tried to take a bus, but they were all full (due to everyone using them instead of the tube to get to the airport), so we ended up paying 60 pounds to get to the airport. And the cab driver gave us a deal! Which leads me to my next point:
8. Cash money goes waaaay faster than you ever thought possible.
London was the only place we went where we had to get currency other than Euros, and I tried to plan it so that I wouldn’t have any pounds left over when we left because converting money ALWAYS ends up in a loss. When we decided we needed to take a cab to the airport, I withdrew some money at an ATM (best way to get the currency of the country you’re in, by the way) so that I had 70 pounds in cash, then talked to a cab driver and discovered that a taxi to the airport was going to run me around 80 pounds! I went back to the ATM and got more cash (paying the out-of-country fee again… grr), then returned to discover that my dad had struck a deal with a cab driver for 60 pounds. That was great, but that means I STILL have pounds in my wallet that I need to convert back to Euros! That’s just one example of going through money way faster than I expected. Always withdraw more cash than you think you’ll need, because you’ll probably need it eventually, and it’s nearly always cheaper to withdraw more at a time. Speaking of money, another expensive lesson I learned was that:
7. When taking the EuroStar (train in the Chunnel between Paris and London), you really DO need to get there half an hour early.
My parents and I got caught up sightseeing in Paris, then it took longer than we expected to find a Metro (so hard to find underground tunnels!!), get back to the hostel to grab our things, and get to the train station. We got there just as our train was scheduled to leave, which might have been okay for a normal train, but for the EuroStar you need more time than that. Since it’s an international train, you have to go through customs and security in Paris (or in London, if that’s where you’re leaving from), so that when you get off the train you can just go on your merry way. We ended up missing the train and having to pay to change our tickets to the next train two hours later. It ended up being okay since we didn’t have anything scheduled for that day in London, but it did cut our time there a couple hours shorter! However, this trip taught me that:
6. A day and a half really is long enough to see all the major places in big tourist cities.
Because my parents wanted to see so many places in their short time here, we didn’t have a lot of time to spend in any one city. The only place we stayed more than two nights was our three nights in Germany, and we got there late one evening and then left EARLY–wake up at 4 am early–three days later. So we really only had two days to sightsee. Most places we only had one full day and part of another, and a few places even less than that! But that was okay. We were kept busy, we saw all the major attractions, and even had a little bit of downtime. During our downtime at the hostels, I learned that:
5. My parents really couldn’t care less about free WiFi, while it nearly makes or breaks my experience in a hostel.
We spent Christmas in London, and on that day (and the next… argh) there was no tube service, plus nearly everything was closed. That led to us spending most of the day in the hostel, relaxing and getting to know some of the other people staying there. The hostel had WiFi, but for some reason it wasn’t working on Android phones, so I was without WiFi for that whole time!! WiFi is my connection to my friends, family, and boyfriend, so it was really frustrating to not have it work, especially when I was spending so much time in the hostel. The only thing that kept me from being super annoyed with it was London’s free WiFi in all its tube stations! When the tube is running. Ahem. But speaking of public transit…
4. Figuring out public transportation in places you’ve never been with a language you don’t speak is totally possible.
As a rule, I like trains WAY more than buses. Trains are on a set track, can’t deviate, and are generally way easier to figure out. But on this trip several times it was necessary to take a bus to get from point A to point B, and we were successful each time! We never got on a wrong bus, although a few times we had to ride it longer than we should have. But it all worked out, and my confidence in figuring out public transportation, buses in particular, soared. As we were on the bus in Italy, a country where I’ve never really been and don’t speak the language AT ALL, I said to my dad: “And I remember when I thought the buses in Bloomington-Normal were hard to figure out!” Boy have I learned a lot since then. The reason I was able to successfully use unfamiliar public transit was because I figured out the next lesson before the trip:
3. Plan ahead as much as you possibly can!!
I did a TON of planning before this trip, not only booking flights, trains, hostels/hotels, and tours, but also printing out maps and looking up directions. This planning was what allowed our trip to go so smoothly. For each city, I downloaded the city and public transportation maps to my phone, in case we couldn’t get a paper map, and also printed out two maps for each city. One was a zoomed-out version with our airport/train station/hostel on it, so we had a general idea of where each was, and one was a close-up map of our hostel location with street names visible. I also looked up directions for how to get to our hostels and certain landmarks. For hostels, they often have directions for how to get there from all the airports and train stations on their websites, or if they don’t, use the handy public transportation on Google Maps. To figure out how to get to landmarks, Google is your best friend; there is a plethora of articles, forums, and guides to help you get to where you want to go! For example, I found directions from the train station to the exact tram and bus we had to take to get to the Caen Memorial Museum in Normandy, including where to buy tickets and what stops to get off at, as well as what bus and where the stops were for how to get to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Internet is your friend. Use it. The careful schedule I created for this trip and our ability to follow it, as well as the fact that I was with my parents, taught me the following lesson:
2. Traveling with your parents will lead to you getting on a normal adult schedule: go to sleep early, get up early.
My sleep schedule here as been TERRIBLE from a responsible adult point of view. I only teach in the morning twice a week, if that, plus with the time difference it’s often necessary to stay up late if I want to have quality phone conversations during the week with the people I love back in the US who actually do have to work all day. Therefore, I often stay up fairly late at night, and then sleep in. This is quite a change from my last year and a half or so, when I had to get up early every day either for school or work, but I’ve adjusted and have even stopped feeling guilty; when else will I be able to live like this?? I’m enjoying every second of it. But these two weeks may have ruined the hard work I put in in changing my sleep schedule 🙂 (although I’m well on my way to changing it back… it’s currently 12:50 AM and I have a taxi to the airport with my parents at 5 AM, haha. I’m banking on a nap when I get home from taking them to the airport.). In order to make the most of our time we had several VERY early mornings and mostly early nights. I am not ashamed to say that I was asleep by 11 on NYE and didn’t miss ringing in the new year at all. Despite their “early to bed and early to rise” mentality, I also learned one final lesson:
1. Parents are the best travel partners.
They really are. My parents have known me longer and know me better than anyone else. We can be honest with each other about what we do/don’t want to do, we want everyone to be happy with the trip, and maybe best of all, parents tend to pay for most things, even when their daughter is the one paying up front in Euros!! Old habits die hard, I guess. I’m not mad 🙂 but really, there are few people that I would spend nearly 24/7 for two weeks with, and my parents are two of them. Of course there were times they got on my nerves (“Daaaaaaad stop sitting so close to me!!”), but going along with the honesty thing, I would just tell my dad to get his stinky feet away from me and life went happily along. I am so grateful that my parents were willing to leave their country and their comfort zones to come spend the holidays traveling with me; it’s the best way I could imagine spending my first Christmas in a foreign country. I am truly blessed.
Honorable mention, one I meant to include but forgot: being able to sleep on public transportation is a VERY useful skill! I think there was maybe one or two trips the whole two weeks that I didn’t sleep on!