Things I've Learned While Traveling Through Parts of Europe
Eiffel Tower, Paris
Going to Europe was always a dream, somewhere out there, not quite within reach but close enough to tease. A coy one at that. But a letter came that actually pushed the dream closer, to within grasp, yet not quite. My daughter (she had sent in an audition tape prior) was one of the eight Americans chosen to represent America in the International Cecchetti Ballet Competition in Manchester, England, the letter said. At first, I thought it was one of the soliciting letters that disguised itself as a “prestigious” opportunity. No, not falling for that but the director of the dance studio confirmed it. Now, that’s obviously an opportunity not to be missed since the next round of competition is three years later and it will be on American soil. So, should we sell some of our belongings on Craigslist and try to raise some money to make the trip…all four of us? When you leave no stones unturned, treasures can turn up in unexpected places. We uncovered some forgotten mileage we had with American Airlines, mileage the airlines has, no doubt, put a lock and key over and put it to rest. But with some degree of finagling, we managed to resurrect the lost mileage and brought ourselves four tickets at a reasonable price.
Cechetti International Ballet Competition
So England, Bruges, Antwerp, Brussels (all in Belgium), Trier, Amsterdam and Paris—here we come!
Or in the words of the one and only Dr. Seuss:
Oh! The Places You’ll Go!
You’ll be on your way up!
You’ll be seeing great sights!
You’ll join the high fliers who soar to high heights
Given that we’re mainly holed up in Salford, Manchester for a week, while my daughter competed, we have 11 days to tour different parts of Europe after that. We didn’t time to do all the sight-seeing but we did get a feel of Europe. The experience was enriching, eye-opening, different, awe-inspiring and all the emotions in between. Here’s what I’ve learned as a casual traveler.
The Lowry at Manchester, England
It’s incredibly nice to be surrounded by English accents. Everywhere I turned in Manchester, I was serenaded by ear-pleasing English accent. It sounds so sophisticated: “Is everything alright?” instead of “How are you doing?” Lovely and brilliant replace awesome and amazing. Trash becomes rubbish, restrooms become toilets. More about toilets later.
The River Mersey flowing through Greater Manchester.
Get tour books for beter insight before setting out:
Euros: No Sweet Exchange
Given our exchange rate—food can be expensive and pretty much everything else. A simple sit-down meal can set you back a hundred American dollars. So, if you’re on a budget, opt for sandwiches—they’re very good at making interesting sandwiches and the variety is astounding from mango chutney to duck wrap. If you eat in, they may charge a higher price. Most days, we opt for sandwiches and sometimes, we even eat them in the nearby park, or benches overlooking canals or gardens-- cost-effective and a good way to have a picnic.
Picnic in Luxemburg Gardens, Paris
Wine, Beer or ….nothing
In America, water comes with the meal. It’s a given and it’s free. Try doing that in Europe and the waiter may look at you in funny way....like “Where have you been?” In most restaurants, they charge you for bottled water and sometimes, they are more expensive than ordering a glass of wine.
Fish and Chips—Hold the Ketchup
England is well-known for its fish and chips (or what we call French fries). Beautifully golden, crunchy batter encasing white juicy fish famously paired with chips. Good restaurants serve home-made chips—firm wedges of potatoes that yield fluffy insides. Once you have one of those, you wonder how you’ve been hoodwinked and (and happy on top of that) with emancipated commercial fries all your life. I had the best French fries in Liverpool, England. And don’t ask for ketchup—they serve theirs with vinegar or tartar sauce. And if you dare ask for ketchup, they may just slap with a charge.
Harrods Food Hall
At Harrods food hall, you’ll think you died and went to food paradise. Chocolates of every kind, pastries to please your sweet cravings, cheeses (all too way overpriced by American standards), wraps and little good eats—enough to induce hunger pangs and drool. Practise restraint or you may end up nursing heartburn or dough regret. But that is not the most expensive part in Harrods. Wonder into other levels and you’ll find yourself in aisles of expensive, exclusive merchandise—branded goods and clothes that would require wads of Euros (actually they use pounds in England, still) and a certain degree of je ne sais quoi (which four scruffy tourists are wantonly lacking).
Harrods Food Hall --Eat Til You Drop?
Where are the Restrooms?
With everything thing else being so expensive, you’d think you should get a break when it comes to using the restrooms. After all, it’s a natural body function….well, apparently not…they have sentinels (guardians or wardens or whatever you call them) stationed outside collecting money for most restroom use. Need to take leak? If you’re in a restaurant, you’re covered. If you’re out and about, you can sneak into hotels to use the loo—just act like you belong. Other than that, you can always look to McDonalds (Brits like McDonalds) but have some change ready—you may have to pay “extortion” money (that’s what I call it).
Eiffel Tower, all lit up at night.
In Paris, the bathroom situation gets worse. If you’re blessed with a strong or big bladder, good for you. If not, hunting down a toilet can become your preoccupation and it can have disastrous consequences. Case in point—when we went to the Eiffel Tower, the lines snaked all the way around the grounds and out into the sidewalk. The wait could be two to three hours long. The sun bears down with all its August glory and the wait can be “leak-inducing.” The only restrooms are portable ones and the lines can test your patience. We abandoned our initial plan to go up Eiffel Tower (since one of us was in dire need of a restroom) and went in search of the elusive bathroom. It took some sleuth skills to finally locate one in the library and man, was the line long—everybody had the same idea! And be forewarned: the toilets may be unisex.
Old is Beautiful
The old is embraced and enthroned—cobblestone-paved town center, old Roman ruins, churches, castles and houses made of stones and moss. From Bruges to Antwerp to Paris, majestic centuries-old buildings inspire awe and a sense of longing….of a time long past, steeped in glory and culture and an enviable ancient past where life seemed so simple and romantic. Or so I thought, glazing at these architectural wonders.
Watch Out for Bicycles
Canals rule in Amsterdam and so do bicycles. If you’re crossing the road, watch out not just for cars, but the tram and the fast zipping bicycles. Children are transported in buggies attached to bicycles and well-dressed ladies peddle past in pencil-thin skirt—all in a day’s work.
Take Time for Meals.
In America, we have drive-through and sometimes, when time is pressing, we eat our food while driving. The rush rush-through meal is quite the way of life. The afternoon, we pulled into Bruges and walked into the center of town, we just wanted to grab a bite and go on with some sight-seeing. We finally settled for a restaurant with outside sitting, looking out into the town center, with its ancient cobblestone, horse carriages clopping by, street musicians vying for attention and people wondering about with cameras…..and quickly placed our orders. The appetizers came quickly, but then the pace slowed….and then it seemed to take forever for them to produce the entrees and even longer for the dessert. At first, we wondered at the pace and then as we looked around us---the diners were all sipping their wine and talking---that no one was in a hurry, except us. And then it dawned on us…mealtime is supposed to be relaxing and it’s supposed to take forever. It took us two hours before we stepped out of the restaurant.
Bruges (Brugge), Belgium
Using useful traveling accessories can take the headache away from traveling.
While August is a good month to go to Europe, it's also the time that shopkeepers take their summer break, so some shops are closed. However, that is a small matter, judging by the throng of tourists. It is advisable to buy tickets to major attractions online as you will save yourself plenty of time waiting in line just to buy the tickets.
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