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.
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.
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.
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.