[Most of this was written during our layover in London on Saturday. It’s now 4:40am on Sunday, January 10. I’ve gotten a total of about 7 hours of sleep between the plane and last night. I woke up at 2:30am and by 3:30 it was clear I wasn’t going back to sleep so got up to do laundry, etc., so Dan would be able to pack when he got up. He leaves for Raleigh in about an hour.]
I’m sitting in the business center of the British Airways lounge. We have about 3.5 hours before we board our flight, a direct to SFO. We’ll rent a car one-way to drive home, and Dan will return it this morning when he leaves for Raleigh for 2 weeks. That’s how we roll these days. We’re glad to have had a full month together with this great trip included!
The lounge experience when traveling with Dan is always appreciated. I think most of you know but just in case: he goes to Europe 5-6 times a year, and Raleigh about once a month, so racks up a ton of miles on British Airways and American Airlines, and Hilton. It gets us regular access to lounges, which is especially nice on these longer layovers. A few pictures:
This is the lounge in Heathrow we’ve been in the most over the years. It’s huge; this photos represent maybe one-third of it. Food and beverages are free for the taking.
The coffee bar by the business center. I keep forgetting to take a photo of the main food area.
Business center, with a wall of computers on the other side. That’s my backpack and laptop on the left.
As I’d stated in the first blog entry for this trip, the impetus for its planning was vouchers Dan had that needed to be used or else they would expire. They got us two round trip business class tickets for not much more than the price of one economy ticket. Hard to pass that up. This is the first trip out of the four we’ve done to Europe that we actually sat together (for the most part) the whole way there and back. We’re usually not even on the same plane much less the same cabin. On this leg, he was across the privacy screen from me, which we kept down. It was a great way to travel. I loved seeing that face every time I looked up 🙂
I was really tired Friday night and didn’t get the final day’s blog posted. It was 11pm by the time I got the photos prepped and there were almost as many as the day before and I knew I didn’t have the energy to do it, especially knowing we’d leave the hotel about 5:30am. We took a bus to the train station, a 6:05pm express train to the airport, and an 8am flight from Rome to London. I figured I could easily finish it in the lounge but I had trouble connecting to the internet.
I worked on this instead in Word. I was hoping I could get it all done before we board – it would be the first time I actually finished a blog before I got home; usually it’s a day or two later. [Post Script: and, it’s a day later. Best laid plans and all that…]
This trip’s blog was really fun; there seemed to be more interaction with all of you than previous ones. Probably the subject matter – Italy is a prime destination spot and, like previous blogs, the interaction splits along two distinct lines: 1) vicarious traveling for those who haven’t been and 2) memory lane for those who have. Either way, we enjoy it. And it’s definitely a labor of love. At a minimum, the whole process – which in the most general sense is two stages: photo editing and writing – takes two hours a night. And I wouldn’t do it any other way; no way I could remember everything if I waited and did it later. Day 7 of this trip (Vatican and Capitoline) set the record at 3.5 hours. But it also had the most photos ever at over 70. When we started this thing we thought 25 photos a day was a lot. Average now is probably 50 or so.
But it’s all worth it for the memories we have for later – and I do enjoy reading them later and do probably more than I should! And for the true appreciation we get from so many for doing it. We thank you for coming along, and you’re welcome. I’m also convinced that we – OK me for sure – wouldn’t pay as close attention to things as we do when we’re out and about if it wasn’t for the blog. And that attention in and of itself helps ingrain the trip in my head in a way that I’m positive wouldn’t happen on the same magnitude otherwise.
As is the tradition, we finish with a few thoughts about our experiences this time around. Some will be generalized around Italy based on similarities we saw across all four cities (Milan, Venice, Florence, Rome). Some will be just about Rome.
1. Oh My God the smokers! You’d think we’d be used to it by now. Europeans definitely smoke more than folks in the USA. (Or at least California.) It apparently gets worse the further south you go. Dan agreed with my assessment that from bad to worse the order of “ew” is Germany, France, Spain, Italy. While they can’t smoke indoors in public spaces, they do smoke in all of those cute outside eateries and cafes. Which means we typically sit inside. Friday night was the exception only because the music was so loud; but we knew we’d have to tolerate the noise as soon as the table next to us lit up. (And for those of you won’t don’t know: Dan has never smoked before but has a very sensitive nose; I’m typical militant ex-smoker from hell.)
1. Tied for first place: perfumes. Again, Oh My God. Men and women, but definitely worse with the women. We’ve never experienced such an over-perfumed society before. Dan has always been very sensitive to it, and my sensitivity to it has increased over the years with him as I wore less and less, and progressed this year after working in a scent-free environment. Just walking down the sidewalk you practically pass out from the fumes. And the worst? Perfume attempting to hide the cigarette smell. Yeah, no. It just makes it that much more disgusting.
3. People are nice to us wherever we go. When we went to Paris in May of 2014, many people told us “Parisians are rude, expect to not be treated well.” We didn’t experience that. We were told that Italians were the worst. We didn’t experience that, either. Everywhere we’ve been we’ve never had any problems. You expect good treatment at hotels and such; but even restaurants and cafes, servers are always very nice. We don’t shop so can’t really comment on retail establishments. So don’t be afraid!
4. Most everyone we encountered could speak some English. Granted, we’ve never ventured into rural areas (although we will one day) and it’s probably very different out there. But in the now many cities in Europe we’ve visited, English is pretty universal. That said, it definitely helps to have learned a bit of the language before you go. Basic stuff like greetings, please, thank you, can I have the check?, where is the toilet? This also goes a long way, we believe, towards creating a sense of goodwill, which may facilitate the results we get in #3. We’d heard Italians were less likely to know English than their fellow northern Europeans but that wasn’t our experience. This despite putting zero effort to learn the language for this trip because we were so dang busy leading up to it. It’s not like Netherlands or Finland (where the answer to “do you speak English is ‘of course’”), but in the same ball park as Germany and France (“little bit”).
5. You better like pasta. It’s true. Italians eat a lot of it. Dan put himself on a tortilla moratorium after just 4 days in Mexico last year. I sense the same thing coming with pasta.
6. Especially compared to London or Helsinki, restaurant prices were somewhere between inexpensive and reasonable, everywhere we went. We ate a lot of good food for not a ton of money.
7. Although we’ve seen lots of American stuff in other countries (Subway and The Body Shop have been oddly ubiquitous), about all we really saw here was McDonald’s. And saw it in every city. But that was about it. I only saw one Subway the whole trip in Rome. And it finally hit me on the train to the airport Saturday morning: no Starbucks. So I looked it up and sure enough, Starbucks made a strategic decision to stay out of Italy, despite (or because of) the café culture of Italy being the inspiration for Starbucks. Google “no Starbucks in Italy” and there are a bunch of articles about it. American music, however, is still what you hear everywhere you go. And yet it still surprises me every time.
8. Koreans (and other diversity observations). Dan commented on it in every city we were in: He estimates 50% or more of all of the Asian travelers we saw were Korean. China has like 1.4 billion people. Japan, 127 million. South Korea, 50 million. Why is there such a disproportionate number of Korean visitors in Italy compared to other Asian cultures? His hypothesis is they learn English in school so are more comfortable traveling individually or as families, where Chinese may tend to travel in clans because of the language barrier. That said, every city we were in, but especially Milan and Rome, were very diverse. Not only did we hear perhaps the most number of languages spoken on the streets ever, things were also likely to be written in 4-6 languages, especially at airports and train stations. When we got to the Rome Airport – Leonardo da Vinci – we saw the Arrival/Departure board flash in Italian, English, German, French, Russian and Mandarin.
Rome was definitely our favorite city of the four, and if you’re Dan perhaps your most favorite city of any visited yet. (I’m still undecided but it’s definitely a contender.) We’re so glad we did it last, although we went back and forth on where it was in the lineup. It underscored what we already knew: we’re city boys. And we like history, and culture, and art, and a variety of quaint little neighborhoods that each have their own personality, and there’s a ton of all of that in Rome; perhaps more than any other place we’ve been. Makes sense, don’t it? It is the birthplace of western civilization. We will definitely be back, especially because 2.5 days is just not enough.
Here are a couple of things we found peculiar to Rome, and they both very much go together:
1. Pickpockets. These guys (at least all we saw were men) are aggressive and they pose as staff of wherever you are, attempting to help. We mostly experienced it in the Rome train station, and we were batting them away like flies. “No, that’s OK, we got it.” They offer to help – show you where something is, how to use ticket machines, etc. – and then stay Very Close To You while you’re doing whatever you’re doing. We kept checking our pockets every few steps to make sure we had everything. Dan lost his room key for sure, and wonders if that’s how. It’s so bad, the AMT-like machine where you buy your train tickets have warnings on them, essentially saying: only allow uniformed staff to assist you, everyone else is pickpocket!
2. Scalpers and other visitor scams. We noticed it the first day as we were walking up to the Colosseum. This very loud announcement about where to buy tickets, and what the actual ticket prices were, with a “be aware” message of the folks on the street trying to sell you “skip the line” tickets that wouldn’t have that effect, or other scalping scams. There were people hanging out the subway entrance at the train station doing the same thing; we saw it at the Vatican, too. If this has happened in other cities, we didn’t notice it. Here, it seemed to be everywhere.
This was the shortest trip we’ve done to Europe. Eight days on the ground worked pretty well; wouldn’t want to do less than that. The next one will be a bit longer, and it’s already booked for the last week of August heading into Labor Day weekend. That will start in Vienna, with a side trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. Then Prague, Dresden (Germany), and finally Berlin. That will sort of complete our initial circle around Europe. We discussed several ideas about the one after that, but lots can happen between now and then so I won’t attempt to comment on it now.
We’ll be back in August and hope to see you then.
Steve & Dan