August 9, 2012

102 Days In Europe

We have spent the last 3.5 months traveling through the Netherlands, Belgium, England, Ireland, Scotland, Spain, Italy, France, Slovenia, Croatia, and Montenegro. Whew!

ON EUROPE…
 
We have experienced amazing things. The biggest of cities and the smallest of villages. Ancient ruins and modern public art. Great food and drink. Wooden clogs and flamenco heels. Tulips and lavender. Cold and hot. Royal palaces and former war zones. Nature’s wonders. Planes, buses, cars, gondolas, boats, chairlifts, trains, trams and trolleys.

It really is amazing to see firsthand how many different cultures are packed together in such a small area. Basic things like food, dress, language, customs, and personalities change drastically just by crossing an imaginary line. Sometimes – like in Italy – they’re even more drastic within the imaginary lines.

As we progressed through Europe from England to Spain and Italy, a lot of what we learned in South America really came into perspective. For example, dates and names we had heard about while visiting Inca ruins made a lot more sense when we got to Spain. It was a good reminder of how interconnected the world really is.

Europe is advanced – in many ways more so than the United States. But there have still been things that have baffled us. Life’s simple expectations that we have as Americans just do not exist over here…like shower curtains, free tap water, double beds, pre-cut pizzas, washcloths, adequate coin circulation, cold beer, mounted shower heads, free bathrooms, drivers who don’t swerve into oncoming traffic, train tickets that actually show the train number and departure time, and construction sites that are closed to the public. 


It seems that everything in Europe is either under construction or “under restoration”. It’s hard not to find a main attraction that isn’t partly covered in scaffolding. What’s unbelievable is that places still charge full-price to see something even if you can’t see it…and they don’t tell you in advance! In 10 years I guess I’ll have to come back to see that restoration work I paid for.


In honor of the ridiculous number of churches that we’ve passed through, here are our top picks:

Favorite big church #1: Sagrada Familia (Barcelona, Spain)
Favorite big church #2: Siena (Italy)
Favorite small church: Bled (Slovenia)

We have completely lucked out when it comes to being in Europe during epic sporting events. From the moment we landed in Amsterdam all the way through Florence, we enjoyed 3 whole months of European soccer championships and the Euro Cup – played every 4 years on an alternating schedule with the World Cup. We were the worst fair-weather fans of all time…cheering for whichever country we happened to be in at the moment. There was a televised game every night and the restaurants would wheel big screen TVs into the squares for everyone to watch while they dined.


Have you ever wondered which Olympic sports other countries watch on TV? I did, but then it got old after one day. NBC has censored us by blocking all online videos from being shown outside of the US. So at first we were forced to watch what the Croatians deem important….ping pong and handball. Finally we got to some places with satellite TV and saw cool events like triathlon, marathon, tennis, gymnastics, swimming, and track and field (which they call “athletics”). Still, I miss Bob Costas and his crazy toupee.

Have I mentioned that European “beaches” are 99% rocks? Sure I have, but I’ll rant about it again. How can an entire developed continent – which enjoys all of life’s other luxuries – put up with this? I mean honestly, after laying on rocks for 30 minutes it looks like you have a skin disease. Americans, please, get out there and enjoy your sandy beaches. Frolic on them. Roll around in them. Take a nap on them simply because you’re so damn comfortable. I’m not sure we realize how good we have it.


European cars are like micro-machines. 


At any given time, Europeans (more specifically in the Mediterranean) are either holding a cigarette or an ice cream cone.

If European fashion is any sort of precursor to American fashion, then I predict that Birkenstocks will be making a comeback. They were everywhere in Italy. That’s right, the shoe of 1997 is back. This has made me realize that I have now reached the age when I can spot 15-year fashion cycles.


If the French get their way, chic fanny packs are right around the corner. Prepare yourselves.

Europe. It’s a real class act.



ON OUR STATE OF WELL-BEING…

While watching the Opening Ceremonies, I had a startling realization. The TV was on mute, and when I would sporadically glance over at the parade of athletes, I could correctly identify the country within 3 seconds solely by seeing the flag bearer’s face. I realized how much I had broadened my horizons.

Before getting to Europe, fellow travelers had scared us about the quality of the hostels and the lack of Internet. Neither of these turned out to be a problem at all. Our other major worry was the heat. This was a problem, and there were some days I thought I might go crazy. It was particularly hot in Spain, Italy and Croatia, but we powered through.

Trip planning in Europe was so much harder than in South America. In countries like Bolivia, there may only be 3 or 4 cities that 90% of people visit. That makes it easy because it’s fairly obvious what to choose. In Europe everything is so nice that there are endless options. That was difficult for us because (1) we didn’t have time to research everything and (2) we can be a bit indecisive.

While we were still vigilant throughout Europe, it’s been more relaxing to know that we didn’t have a bullseye on our bags. People weren’t waiting to steal our stuff at any moment. We could actually go into the ocean at the same time together, which is something we didn’t feel like we could do in Brazil.

Here’s a funny thing about communicating…you don’t necessarily need to speak a country’s language. You just need to be able to speak their back-up language. We managed to get by in Italy and France and counted our blessings that we are from an English-speaking country. But if you’re from Russia, what do you do? We have no clue.

I have an ice cream problem. I’ve had so much of it that I’ve become dependent. At the end of the day, I crave ice cream like a gainfully employed adult craves a glass of wine.

On a related note, several people have commented about Steve’s weight loss. On our flight to the Aran Islands in Ireland, our plane was so small that they had to weigh us to balance out the plane. This was when Steve discovered that he’s lost thirty pounds since we left San Diego! Everyone’s reaction has been pretty unanimous…nobody thought he had anything to lose. From the sweets of Belgium and the fried food of Great Britain to the tapas of Spain and the carbs of Italy, we have eaten well. This just goes to show what getting out from behind your cubicle desk can do. We walk a lot. Activity…it’s good stuff.

We’ve been traveling for 6 months now and the wear and tear on our equipment is starting to show. Halfway through Italy all of our stuff started to break. The zipper on my backpack spontaneously combusted, my flip flop blew out, and the sole on my running shoe is peeling back. To make matters really worse, the flash on our camera stopped working, our iPhone freezes, the iPhone case cracked, the Kindle case ripped, and the ‘h’, ‘g’, apostrophe and backspace keys are our laptop intermittently decide they need a day off. All of these technology problems are not good news for a pair of flashpackers.

These tribulations just been magnified by the fact that we’ve been moving so quickly the last 2 months…changing cities sometimes almost every night. Lately we have been feeling more stressed out than we think we should be for having a year off.

We’ve made mistakes – especially in Italy – with trains, hotels, tolls, and the Dolomites hiking mishap. We chalk it up to how fast we’ve been traveling. We set a blistering pace for ourselves that we just haven’t been able to keep up with. It’s been a reminder that we really didn’t know what we were doing when we first planned our trip. We wanted to try out different paces to see what we liked. This was a test, and we learned a valuable lesson about what our limits are. Steve said it best, “The last month and a half has been fun but hard. If we were to keep up this pace, it would be hard to have fun.”

In the midst of all this madness, we’ve also had annoyances back at home. We’ve basically had to evict our tenants in San Diego and we were victims of credit card fraud – in the US of all places. Lately we’ve felt like we’ve gone through a gauntlet of bad luck. We completely expected to have some low points on our trip. After all, you can’t have the highs without the lows, right? We are trying to get our balance back in order.

In the exact same way that we felt three months ago when we left South America, we are ready to go but a little scared to leave. We’ve learned that 3 months is about the limit for how much time we can spend in one continent before getting stir crazy. When we arrived in our final city of Kotor in Montenegro and we weren’t marveling, we knew it was time to move on from Europe. This city deserved to be marveled at. At the same time, we have learned the European system. We’re in our comfort zone (as much as that’s possible), and the thought of starting over is daunting and scary.

But then we remind ourselves that we’ve done it before and we can do it again. Hey, it’s springtime in Australia! A fresh start sounds perfect.


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