We are back from our two-week vacation to Europe, and we are almost totally adjusted back to Pacific Standard Time, if passing out at two in the afternoon and waking up ready to go at three in the morning counts as being adjusted. I have not been very productive this past week in my jet lag fog, but the least I figured I could do was impart some of my newfound travel wisdom. Just think of me as a really poorly-informed Rick Steves.
SMIDGE’S HANDY EUROPEAN TRAVEL TIPS
PLANES, TRAINS, AND TINY AUTOMOBILES
Traveling on airplanes with kids
If you are considering flying long distances with children, it is best to gather up their books and every electronic device you own (iPads, iPods, Leapfrogs, etc.), put them all in a backpack, and bring that backpack, along with the children, to Grandma's house and drop them off, because you should never fly with children.
Don't ever rent a car in Europe. You are not qualified to drive there. Italians drive like NASCAR racers on a combination of crack and grappa. Germans drive like Formula 1 racers on a combination of meth and more meth, and uppers. Lane lines are only fun road decorations in Italy, and have no bearing on traffic patterns. Lane lines on the German autobahns are strictly followed, on the other hand. The only problem is, neither lane is built for you. Traffic in the slow lane consists of big rig trucks going slower than you want to and traffic in the fast lane consists of Audis, BMWs, and Mercedes going about four kilometers per hour over the speed of sound.
Take the train between cities. Train stations offer a wonderful opportunity to stand confused in front of a large board written entirely in Latin and scribbles, and then a great exercise opportunity where you do the steeplechase while dragging three hundred pounds of luggage after you realize your train is leaving in two minutes, four platforms away.
Buses and trams
Buses and trams
Once you have caught your train, and then subsequently changed trains to go in the correct direction, your awaiting destination city will have a marvelous bus and trolley system. The trolleys and busses run on very strict schedules, which are not posted anywhere, and are subject to change based on the meal and nap times of the driver. The bus lines are marked with all the stops, so they are very easy to decipher if you born in the city you are visiting. If you weren't, none of the stop names will correspond to any of the attractions you want to see, so just jump on board the first large vehicle that stops for you, and see where it takes you. It doesn't matter where it goes, because all European cities are old and historic, and there is a restaurant that serves beer and wine on every corner, so you really can't go wrong.
Europeans love tolls. If you were crazy enough to rent a car, while you are still alive you will get to pay tolls. Many countries make you buy a sticker to put on your windshield. Austria is nice enough to let you buy a ten-day sticker that only costs a little. Switzerland is nice enough to let you only buy a sticker valid for the whole year, which costs enough to fund an entire road crew for a month.
Italy doesn't have stickers, because Italy loves tollbooths. Second only to Insane Cab Driver, Grumpy Toll Booth Operator is Italy's number two growth occupation. There is a toll booth at every single exit on major Italian freeways. Judging by the state of the roads in Italy, it seems that the tolls only go to support the toll booth infrastructure itself, and possibly the politicians’ girlfriends’ clothing and jewelry budgets.
Germany is the one country without road tolls. They gave up on tolls a few years ago, because everyone drives too fast to be able to collect them. They tried to install those automated coin basket toll booths, but too many hapless motorists were accidentally killed by stray Euro coins, like rifle bullets, being flung out of Porsche windows.
There is no parking. All the spots in Europe are already taken. Park on the sidewalk or in a field outside of town. (Side note: When renting a car, make sure it is no wider than the narrowest sidewalk - approximately eighteen inches.)
It is very helpful to learn a few key phrases at a minimum for each country you plan to visit. The most important one is, “This is my cousin who speaks fluently and will order food for all of us.”
Other helpful phrases include:
“Do you know anyone who would be willing to buy our children?”
“Which one of these trains has Nastro Azzuro beer in the bar car?”
“Do you take third-party American checks at this toll booth?”
“What is the bail amount?”
And, “Have you seen our car? We parked it on this sidewalk last night.”
Eating is really the main reason for traveling to Europe, so enjoy yourself. The food is amazing. Just don’t expect to eat at a normal hour, or for a normal time period. Italy is the best example of this. Lunch in Italy occurs sometime between the hours of two and five in the afternoon. Restaurants do not open for dinner until after eight o’clock. Dinner is served in courses that last approximately three hours each, so expect to be at the restaurant anywhere from three to five days. Breakfast is served the night before.
Europeans devote most of their time and energy to the culinary arts, doorknob design, castle maintenance, and road closures, so very few professionals are left over to handle refrigeration. To reduce service calls, all European refrigerators are set to keep food just above room temperature. If you have food you wish to refrigerate in your hotel or apartment, it is best to keep it in a basement, a cave, or submerged in a river. It will last longer that way. Also, do not ask for ice. Ice cubes do not exist in Europe.
Europeans don't tip. You might be tempted to take advantage of this fact, but please don't. We as Americans must keep tipping. It's our strongest advantage in the war for seating priority.
AND FINALLY, BATHROOMS
Back to tolls and infrastructure for a moment, the public toilet industry is also a major moneymaker in Europe. Short of your own accommodations, you will pay to pee most places you go. In a show of love and appreciation for the next generation, kids are always free. (Or maybe they just got tired of cleaning up the accidents when the parents couldn't find enough pocket change in time.) It will cost you, the adult, anywhere from twenty to seventy cents every time you have to tinkle, so have coins at all times. Most countries have automated turnstiles, but Italy still relies heavily on the personal touch. Creepy Coin-Collecting Bathroom Attendant is Italy’s third largest growth industry.
Just resign yourself to the fact that you won't have a satisfying shower until you get home. Many showers will try to fool you by being life size. Don't fall for it. You are sharing water pressure with the entire town, or you only get hot water in six-second bursts every three minutes. Otherwise, the shower will be the size of a phone booth, if you were to miniaturize a phone booth.
Don't expect any. Counter space in most European bathrooms consists of the little flat spot in the side of the sink designed to hold the soap. Most airplane bathrooms have literally five times more counter space than the average Italian bathroom.
Like the showers, don’t get your hopes up for powerful or robust plumbing. In many areas of Europe you are lucky to get a toilet instead of just a hole in the ground. Flush intensity ranges from “light mist” all the way up to “spilled a glass of water.”
Some places have the baffling “shelf toilet,” which has a flat porcelain plateau directly beneath your seat, with the exit hole moved all the way to the front of the bowl. Anything you happen to put into the toilet sits perched proudly on the shelf until the mighty flush, when it is (hopefully) punted off into the hole. Good call, Europe!
And then there’s the bidet
The most mystifying device in the European bathroom is the bidet. I will be blunt here, because the bidet is confusing enough as is. We Americans have a vague notion that this device is supposed to somehow aid us in the cleaning of our butts. Sure enough, the bidet is always sitting right next to the toilet, suggesting that a pants-down transfer is expected.
All the bidets we encountered had a standard-looking faucet that would shoot water horizontally across the top of the bowl, but with standard low water pressure, so as not to be able to accidentally shoot past the end of the bowl.
So, here’s the problem, Europe. If you are expecting this thing to take the place of my toilet paper, we’re going to need about sixty or seventy more PSI, here, and some kind of splash guard. This thing has a standard sink drain, so a toilet paper/water combo cleaning does not make sense plumbing-wise, even if there was a world where that would make sense practicality-wise.
In short, Europe, you have placed a low sink next to the toilet and I don’t know what you want me to do with this thing. After many hours of long contemplation, the only possible explanation I can come up with is that you want me to sit on this thing and use the water faucet in combination with one of my own hands to take the place of toilet paper. If that really is the case, I must ask you Europe, what in the actual hell are you guys thinking?
(Side note: You probably shouldn’t ever shake hands with anyone who purposely owns a bidet.)
Well, the bidet may remain a mystery, but I hope I was able to help with some of the other stuff.
See you soon,
Copyright © 2015 Marc Schmatjen
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