Final comments on our trip to Europe

April 11th, 2010

I wrote a lot about our trip to Europe here, and I had a few more comments to share.

I had a great time there. It was fun to stay with people, and it was also fun to explore cities on our own. I am eager to be able to go back.

Communication
I’ll admit – I wasn’t sure how I’d do there. I speak only a little German, and no Czech at all. I have never been in a situation in which I don’t speak the dominant language, and this is probably typical for Americans. (I’m not going to count the few exceptions of eating at small Mexican restaurants in the USA where the staff speaks little English, as it’s not really the same experience to be in that situation for an hour or two.)

I was most apprehensive about our time in Berlin and Prague. In those cities, we didn’t know anyone. And, although I speak a little German, I speak no Czech at all. In the end, though, it all worked out fine.

I never saw anyone get frustrated with us for our lack of language knowledge, and we also never got rattled. With patience and a bit of ingenuity, we figured things out in every different situation. I feel a sense of accomplishment from that, and I think it’s left me more ready to travel in the future. And, I’d also have to say, that was one of the most interesting lessons of the trip: how two people that don’t share a common language can still communicate. It might be slow, but it’s also rewarding and easier than I might ever have thought.

I remember particularly buying a couple of fragile carved wood souvenirs at the Zeidler Holzkunst (wood art) shop in the Altes Rathaus in Leipzig (Seiffener Volkskunsterzeugnisse was on the window). The shopkeeper spoke no English. We were interested in some rather fragile items, and I wanted to ask her if she could pack it in a box. I didn’t know the German words for “pack” or “box”. So after a couple seconds’ thought, I realized I knew how to tell her, in German, that we’re from America. And then I asked, “Can you?” (in German) and gestured for a square box, figuring maybe she’d put it together that we’d need to pack it well to take it home with us. Success. She quickly produced a box, and asked if that’s what we wanted. A few minutes later, a bit of pointing towards the glass case communicated what we wanted to buy. It took a little longer than it would have from someone that spoke English, but this was more rewarding in the end.

The train station in Prague was another challenge. It didn’t have nearly as much English signage as other train stations we’d been in. We did a little wondering around, and some educated guesses, and a brief English conversation in a bank, we eventually found an ATM, a place to change the big bills for smaller ones, and a Metro ticket shop that was open.

Clothes

Many Americans, and American travel books, suggest not wearing jeans and tennis shoes in Europe. Many commented that people dressed more formally in Europe. That advice appeared to be rather wrong, especially in Lübeck, where it appeared that many people dressed less formally than in the USA. As we went south and east, we saw fewer jeans, but still they were rather common. Our biggest blunder here was probably the shoes that we brought for Terah. She brought some shoes that looked nice, but weren’t very good for walking. She wound up with some painful blisters on her feet, and wished she had just brought her regular tennis shoes.

Luggage and Packing

We try to travel light when we can. All of our luggage for the entire trip fit into two carryon-size suitcases, though we sometimes separated some items out into a backpack for ease of use in airports/airplanes. This worked out about right. We did laundry once in Germany so we didn’t have to pack enough clothes for the entire trip.

As far as electronics go, we brought along an international GSM phone from onesimcard.com, my Droid (which could use Wifi but not GSM), Terah’s iPod Touch, a GPS, my digital camera, and a laptop. That also was about right. We used the Droid to call back to Indiana to check on the boys, using SIP over WiFi for free calling via Google Voice. The laptop is a small one, so didn’t add a lot of weight or bulk. It was nice to have to check out maps and Facebook.

The GPS was somewhat less useful than I had anticipated. I had pre-loaded it with street-level maps of most of Europe, and also put on it points in Berlin that had been suggested to us. The transit maps were really more useful most places, especially when combined with a detailed street-level map. In Berlin, though, the detail on the street-level map from our hotel was somewhat lacking, so the GPS came in handy. It was also nice to quickly be able to see where the nearest S-Bahn and U-Bahn stops were, then cross-referencing with our transit map to figure out how to get where we wanted to go. One night in Leipzig, after a concert at the Gewandhaus, we made a couple of wrong turns on our way to a tram stop. The GPS would have saved us 15 minutes of walking had we brought it along, but we figured it out with our street map and it wasn’t really a problem.

Rick Steves is a big advocate of money belts when traveling. These are a belt with a zippered pouch, and are worn under your pants (though over your shirt, if it’s tucked in). The idea is that it’s hard to pickpocket. He suggests having a days’ worth of cash in a front pocket, and passports and larger bills in the money belt. We brought one but never used it. I kept small cash in my pocket, and we kept passports and my wallet (with larger bills) in Terah’s purse, which was on a strap around her neck, zippered shut, and held under her arm. We had no problems. I tend not to keep my wallet in my back pocket even when traveling in the USA. Also, the hotels we stayed in had safes, and the residences were of course plenty safe, so we had no problem leaving valuables there.

I brought only a single lens for my Digital Rebel XTi, a 28mm fixed lens that is small and light. That was just fine, and I was happy to have a fixed lens for photography in dark churches. Also, I wouldn’t have wanted to carry around a bulky zoom lens all over. We sometimes took the camera with us, and sometimes not. In Berlin in particular, we just left it in the hotel room. I figured (correctly) that there would be plenty of photos on Flickr of the sites we were visiting, and we could just enjoy the time a little better if we weren’t worrying about a camera too. But I was glad to have it along.

Transportation

The transportation systems in the cities we visited felt more, well, balanced than they often are in the USA. It’s not that there weren’t busy car-filled avenues, but more that there were also quiet shopping streets where cars were banned. Cars often seemed to be more of an option than a necessity, and not always the best option at that. Public transportation was common, as were pedestrian routes and bicycle lanes. The only American city I’ve visited that felt even close to this approach was Portland, OR. I wish we adopted it more often here.

I also admire the German intercity rail service, operated by Deutsche Bahn. You can get all over the country pretty quickly. The trains we rode on were quiet, smooth, and timely. I wish we had that kind of service in more parts of the USA.

Categories: Travel

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  1. Hauke

    Nice summary. I didn’t read all your posts about the trip but at least a few of them. I really can’t believe you were told we wouldn’t wear jeans :)
    I should’ve pinged you when you were in Berlin. Would’ve been nice to meet you guys…

    Reply

  2. Brad

    Interesting review. Regarding clothing, I wouldn’t neccessarily agree with you accessment that those in Germany in Prague are dressed more informally, I just think there may be a lower percentage of men wearing suits and a different style of semi-formal. Although I come from Kansas, I haven’t traveled as much in the US as in Europe. I was wondering if you could compare the general price levels that you encountered. Also, did you always use ATM machines to get cash or did you pay for some things using a credit card? Finally, is there anything you would do anything differently next time (besides comfortable shoes)?

    Reply

    John Goerzen Reply:

    Interesting point on clothing — makes sense.

    Yes, I almost always used the ATM for cash. With only a few exceptions, American credit cards add a fee of at least 3% when they’re used outside of the country. It wasn’t practical to use an ATM for a few things, such as hotel reservations made online.

    As far as prices are concerned — making a very broad generalization here, it looked like: restaurants were more expensive than in the USA, as were many sidewalk stands. Bakeries were much cheaper, and rail transportation was cheaper. It’s a bit difficult to compare rail fares because of the difference in distances and type of service involved, but in general the discounts we got for buying in advance on DB made it a good deal in my mind. I believe the total cost for our 3 trips on DB came to EUR 80 for 2 adults. A couple of exceptions to that: the restaurant in Prague where we ate with Anna was far cheaper than most American restaurants, and also almost everything at the Prague airport was terribly expensive.

    As for things we ought to do different — well, I’d really like YOUR feedback on that too! In any case, besides Terah’s shoes, I ought to have just left the GPS at home. I think we did what made sense for our first trip to Europe, but next time, I think we’d want to spend more time in each place rather than squeeze in more cities. It felt that just as we were getting used to the transit system, getting around, etc. in a given place, it was time to move on to the next.

    I wish that I had learned more German before we went. That wasn’t really a problem for the trip; more a personal goal.

    From your perspective, what do you think we ought to have done differently? Did we make any errors that I just didn’t notice?

    Reply

    Brad Reply:

    I don’t know that I would necessarily advise you to do anything differently per se, other than staying longer.
    However, that’s related to a debate I am having right now. Anna and I are starting to plan a two to three week trip in the Balkans in September. Generally, Germans seem to take the following approach to vacations: travel somewhere. Stay their one or two weeks. And then travel back. It may be some latent American urge of mine that says, well, if we have up to three weeks, we might as well see all eight countries! Of course we could spend two weeks in Serbia, but I want to see more than that.
    Generally, wherever you go next time, I think that it’s important to maintain a balance between seeing interesting things and keeping a relaxed pace. I think your approach was pretty good. I always try to avoid travel legs of more than half a day if it can be avoided.

    And of course comfortable shoes are a must wherever you go.

    Reply

    Folken Reply:

    Regarding Credit Card Payments.

    Usually payments above 100 Euros are done with credit card. E.g. hotels, car rental, elaborate dinners. There has been a recent rise in the usage of direct debit cards at for example grocery chains. While credit card payments are usually possible its not generally done. There are also small stores and restaurants that do expect cash payment. So its better to ask or look for stickers.

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