Traveling in another country brings you face to face with many daily joys and challenges. Mark Twain had it right when he wrote, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime” (from Innocents Abroad). In our travels abroad, we’ve come face to face with many joys and puzzles requiring us to let go of our narrow-mindedness, and be like little children in school. By the way, I like to think of travel challenges not as hassles but as brain puzzles to try to solve. Here’s a short-list of some of the joys and puzzles of traveling abroad:
After our first six weeks in Europe, we’ve now been in five different currencies, including the Danish Kroner, Czech Korunas, British Sterling, Swiss Francs, and the Euro. Each different currency has it’s own exchange rate, causing you to do mental math over and over, trying to figure out just how much that cup of coffee or bus ride costs in terms of USA dollars. Several times a day, you find yourself back in grade school with ratios: US Dollars to Danish Kroners is about 1 to 7 ($1 = 7 kroners). In Czech Republic, the magic ratio of dollars to koruna was 1 to 24 ($1 = 24 Czech Korunas). In Great Britain, one pound is worth about a buck and a half (£1 British pound = $1.53). Much of the rest of Europe, including France, Germany and Italy use the Euro, which is similar in value to the dollar (1€ euro = $1.10). Once you leave one country, one of the challenges is getting rid of (spending) the pocketful of coins of that currency before exiting the country. Those coins are deadweight and useless in another country. Airports and train stations have plenty of opportunities for such last minute spending. Part of the weekly puzzle regarding currency is learning how to use credit card machines and cash machines, as well as knowing when to pay cash and when to bring out a card. In Europe, all credit cards have a “chip” as well as a magnetic strip. Most USA credit cards currently lack the “chip”, though I’m told by 2016, these chips will become normal for USA credit cards. Tipping is also very different in other countries, and you can be sure you’ll make mistakes. In general, Europeans do not tip, or the tip is already figured into the price of a meal. Sometimes, we simply give thanks by rounding up to the nearest whole amount as a modest expression of gratitude for good service.
Phones and Computers
Before we left for overseas, we geared up at a Portland Verizon store with new iPhones, adding a global plan for use overseas promising to make calls easy from anywhere. Yeah right! Cell phones are a mystery, a big expense, and often a hassle. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they do not work. Every few days you find some outlet to keep them charged. Of course, there are different outlets in Europe than in USA, as well as different outlets in Great Britain, requiring bringing adapters to charge these phones and other electric devices. Phone numbers are befuddling. Who knows which numbers to enter. There are national codes, regional codes, and local numbers. It always takes me several attempts before getting the right combo. Then there are roaming charges piling up fast if you forget to shift your phone to airplane mode. Once logged into a secure wifi (such as offered at hotels and other paid lodging places or family and friend’s homes), phones work beautifully, unless the wifi is slow or you are living in an upstairs room in an old stone house. Wifi has a hard time getting through medieval walls. But we try to stay connected via our phones and computers. There are multiple useful apps and websites available for international travelers. We’ve used google maps a lot to quickly find our way while walking in an unknown city or town. We’ve also enjoyed duolingo, a phone app to learn another language with 15 minutes per day lessons. We’ve been working on both Danish and German. I’ve also enjoyed Rome2Rio and DieBahn, two excellent travel planning apps to help with train schedules, though I’ve also found the actual ticket agent at the counter knows the schedules and cheaper prices better than a phone app. A savy ticket agent in Selestat saved us 25 euros per ticket with one less station changes when we booked on a long day of train travel from Selestat, France to Rudesheim, Germany. We’ve spent time weekly and even daily as possible on our phones or a laptop to catch up with email, check social media (Facebook), and post blog entries. Finally, facetime has been great to connect face to face with family (including our new granddaughter!) through video phone calls.
Safety and Security
Common sense and simple vigilance will keep most security problems away. We keep our valuables (passport and wallet) on our person, in velcro-closure travel pouches we wear on our body. I backup my computer weekly onto two light-weight, portable “Seagate” external hard-drives (one I keep, one Trina keeps), in case my computer fails or is stolen. These hard drives also include thousands of digital photos which I back up every night from the SD 32 gig card in my Canon T3i EOS SDR Camera onto my Macbook Air 13” laptop. When enroute, we keep our luggage by our person or in sight in an overhead rack on trains and buses. We leave our stuff behind locked hotel rooms worry free. Whenever I pull out a credit card, I keep it in sight as the payment is being made. Thank God we have had no problems thus far.
We all use them daily. In foreign countries, they come in many shapes and designs. Basic call of nature can get interesting. Sometimes, you must pay to go, especially in bus and train stations. No coins, no go. Toilets operate differently in each country. Funniest experience I’ve had with a toilet was in Selestat, France, with a free public toilet that looked like an oval metal hut. The curved five-foot-wide door was on an electric track that retracted into the wall. I tried to open the door, but realized from the French sign that the public toilet was already occupied. When the person left, I entered, but the door remained open. I found the “close the door” button, like the button on an elevator panel. I pushed this several times, without any response. I waited a few minutes with the door fully retracted into the wall, leaving me wide open to the public street. Finally, I decided to walk out and try to enter again. At the very moment I headed out, the door decided to close, knocking into me with a jarring crash, causing the shy door to retract once again and refuse to come out, no matter how many times I walked in and out of the toilet. I finally gave up on the puzzle, uncertain how to close a door of a free public toilet.
Showers, tubs and other cleaning machines
In a related category, personal hygiene can be a daily joy and puzzle in another country. Every country has their own design of “on/off” knobs, as well as “hot/cold” knobs. Learning these combinations can be quite a joy when standing in the buff, hoping for the correct temperature! Same thing holds true with cleaning clothes in foreign washer and dryers, and in learning to use foreign dishwashers or coffee-machines. Somehow, I feel as though I’ve just barely graduated from pre-school, and am now reached the bright and inquisitive age of a kindergarten five year old. What a blessed age!
We’ve ridden on planes, trains (local, regional, and high speed), ferries, and rental bikes. We’ll rent a car this next week while in Burgundy, France. Each experience on public transportation has it’s own unique joys and challenges. Buses require cash, and we’ve only used them for short shuttle trips across town. In Edinburgh, we rode on the upper deck, giving us lovely views of that scenic city. Trains are a little trickier, due to schedules, multiple station changes, and learning to use the automatic ticket machines, which sometimes accept US Credit cards, and sometimes refuse our forms of plastic, leaving you to dig for cash, or wait in long lines for a real live human to solve your travel itinerary issues. When we come to the window, we hope the agent speaks enough English, or we know enough German or Danish or French well enough to get the correct ticket purchased for the right day, one way or return, for the right season, on the right class (we travel 2nd class in Europe, which always feels like 1st class), and then get your ticket stamped by the little yellow machine before heading to find the correct platform. In bigger stations, such as Strasbourg, France or Frankfurt (Main), Germany, the platform is not posted until just 15 or 20 minutes before the train arrives. When we arrived in Frankfurt Train Station this past week, we had just 15 minutes to catch our connecting train to Rudesheim. We spent 10 fumbling minutes trying (unsuccessfully) to use a ticket machine which we learned did not accept credit cards. Then we suddenly bumped into a university student we know from Astoria. After a very brief conversation with this student, we successfully purchased the tickets using cash, found which platform the train was departing from (of course it was the furthest away, #25!). Ever try running with backpacks? We stepped onto the train sweating, as it was pulling away from the station. One of the joys of traveling for me is watching the world flash by from a train window as I catch my breath and wipe sweat out of my eyes after running to catch a connection. There is an amazing joy of speeding across the countryside on one of Europe’s high-speed very-quiet trains, flying along at speeds of 280 kilometers per hour, watching the landscape roll by at sunset.
We’ve found it best to try to put long distance travel into a single day, dedicating the day to getting from one place to another, then relaxing and resting once we’ve arrived. Here’s an example of our travel day on September 1, 2015, with our travels from from Edinburgh, Scotland to Selestat, France:
- 6am: Wake-up and pack-up from rental apartment in Edinburgh;
- 7:30am: Walk 20 minutes with backpacks to public bus. Note: we checked on this bus the day before, learning we needed cash to get on the bus, and thus making a trip to the cash machine the day before;
- 8am: 30 minute ride on upper deck of double decker bus to Edinburgh airport (EDI);
- 8:30am: check in backpacks at Edinburgh airport, go through security;
- 10:20am: board our Easyjet airplane bound for France (Basel/Mulhouse Airport: BSL);
- 2pm: pick up our backpacks at BSL, go through passport control, get out cash in new currency (euros), and find airport shuttle bus to Saint Louis Train Station;
- 2:20pm: walk several blocks from end of shuttle bus line to Train station, pay for ticket (ticket machine with English option!) to Selestat. Train leaves this station every hour on the half hour. We barely caught the 2:30pm or would have waited another hour on the platform.
- 2:30pm: Ride regional train an hour north through Mulhouse, and Colmar to Selestat;
- 3:30pm: walk a mile an a half into old town Selestat, to apartment. I had spent time the evening before looking at google maps to learn how to get from the train station to our rental apartment.
- 4pm: Check into rental apartment and relax (or simply relax along the way!).
We’ve had the joy of renting bikes in France. We got old 21 speed road bikes at first with hard racing seats that were less than comfy. By God’s grace, my rear tire blew out within the first hour. We walked our bikes to the nearest Tourist Office (the agency which rents bikes in Alsace, France), which was about a mile walk, and traded these old beater bikes in for new Movelo Electric/Hybrid bikes which as like getting upgraded from a old beater car to a new sports car. When I get back home, I’m going shopping for one of these amazing bikes. Even the comfy padded seats have shock absorbers. Perfect commuter vehicle.
One of the excellent pieces of advice given by travel guru Rick Steves is to travel light. He writes, “Go casual, simple, and very light. Remember, in your travels you’ll meet two kinds of tourists — those who pack light and those who wish they had. Say it out loud: “PACK LIGHT PACK LIGHT PACK LIGHT.” Note: I wrote on traveling light in this blog back in late July. We each have an overnight back-pack and a day-pack. Our total weight is about 30 pounds each, with overnight backpacks under 25 pounds. We’ve found traveling with backpacks easier than roller suitcases. We have enough clothes for about five days, meaning doing our laundry weekly. We have quick drying clothing, allowing for quick sink washing of socks and underwear and overnight drip-dry as needed. Anything we’ve picked up along the way (gifts, souvenirs, pamphlets, etc), we mail home, rather than haul along. After walking the two miles uphill from the train station, through the vineyards, to get to St. Hildegard Abbey, I was grateful for our choice to travel light.
Grocery Stores and Restaurants
We all need to eat. MacDonalds and Starbucks can be found in most European cities, but we love eating locally. What’s not to love about tasting local flavors, learning about local cuisine, and ordering food or shopping food in the local language. We’re all learners and make many mistakes when it comes to food. In a grocery story in Rudesheim, Germany, we thought we were buying a small cube of butter, which turned out to be yeast. At the Saturday open market in Beaune, France, we bought butter thinking we had ordered cheese. When ordering in a restaurant in Alsace, France, the menu was only in French. Our waiter spoke no English. We made a best guess order and greatly enjoyed our surprise dinner. We like to ask for beverages or food made in the local area or region, seeking to eat what is native to that part of the world. We’ve enjoyed pickled herring with schnapps in Denmark, wild boar stew in Czech Rebublic, smoked kippers from Craster, England, flammekuchen in France, and crisp/tart white wines (Reisling) from the Rheingau of Germany.
When booking lodging from long-ago-and-far-away, you never know what you’ll get until you arrive and walk into the room. We’ve stayed in rental apartments, with family and friends in their homes, in a guest apartment booked by family, in Bed and Breakfasts, in hotels, and in guesthouses of monasteries. Every place offers its own unique blessings and challenges. In numerous places, the doorways have met me about forehead level, causing me to stoop down or bang my head into medieval stone. As much as I love the medieval period of history, stones seem just as hard then as now. One head bump is usually enough to remind me to humble myself to get into my room. From our bedroom windows, we’ve had amazing view of the sea harbors, of medieval castles, of thousand year old church buildings, of vineyards, of timber-framed colorful town plazas. We’ve been in a modestly priced, beautiful, artistic apartment; and also in an over-priced shabby, bachelor pad with the bachelor living in the room next door. You learn to roll with it, knowing tomorrow will bring you to another place to receive another measure of grace.
Finally, I must say something about language. I have met very few tri-lingual Americans. For some strange reason, our public educational system doesn’t believe in teaching foreign languages much. Most everyone I meet while traveling is tri-lingual, knowing their own native language, English as a second language, and another European language as well. Most adults we’ve met in Europe have had 10 years of formal English language education, and 6-8 years of learning a third language. Our good German friend is fluent in five going on six languages. Very seldom have we been with someone unwilling to speak English, especially people under the age of 40. When in another country, I believe we are wise to take time and effort to learn phrases of the local language, and seek to use common daily greetings, such as “Good morning”, “please” and “thank-you” in the native language. So far, we’ve spoken in Danish, in Czech, in French, and in German. Of those languages, German comes easiest to my mind, since I studied two years of German back in the early 1970s while I was in High School. Of course, when working with a machine, such as the train ticket kiosk in the photo above, we’ve found it easiest when the machine offers an English option. But when immersed in another language daily, it is amazing to me how much language learning goes on without much though, as long as you are willing to be a student-learner and not an expert know-it-all. I’ve seen the attitude shift of locals when they hear even a few phrases in their own mother-tongue, a shift from cautious and hesitant, to open and accepting. We met two university women from Czech Republic working for the summer at the hotel where we were staying on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne in northeast England. When we greeted and thanked them in Czech, they were delighted, and our relationship with them for the rest of the week was not as guest to staff, but as fellow human pilgrims sharing the journey of life together.