We were pretty happy to be going home. Three weeks is a long time, it will be awhile before we do that again. Especially at the pace we kept. But we liked the pace, so will probably just choose to do less next time. As I learned in early March, three weeks is a long time to prepare to be gone, too. So many details – mail hold, don’t leave perishables out or in the fridge, dog sitting, bill paying, work stuff, etc.
We left around 7:20am and walked to the train station, got there in about 20 minutes. So the above is the official last picture of the trip! For a variety of logistical and mileage collecting reasons I won’t get into here, Dan and I were on different airlines. His flight left at 9:45am, got him to SFO at 3:30pm. Mine left at 11:20am, got me to SFO at 4:30pm. My flight was completely and gratefully uneventful. Dan’s had some turbulence that he claimed was either the worst or 2nd worst he’d ever experienced, with two big drops and lots of screaming. One of the passengers was injured and there were paramedics waiting when they got to SFO. The pilot on my flight had announced that he was rerouting a bit because of a report of planes ahead that there was significant turbulence!, so we managed to avoid it.
Dan had left his car and pNut with Stephen in Burlingame, so we took a cab there, visited a little and headed home, arriving around 7:30pm. At that point it was 4:30am Brussels time so we were definitely pooped.
But So Glad To Be Home.
I wanted to use this as a sort of summary of various impressions and things learned on the trip in general, as well as some logistical and planning details to help us with next time, and perhaps others who are making similar plans.
Learnings, Surprises and Perspectives
- I have to admit that this American at any rate was not clear about the full impacts of certain kinds of warfare. We’ve never been “occupied.” It’s one thing to send people overseas and lose them to fighting; it’s a whole other thing when you’ve been invaded, when EVERYONE’S life has been completely turned upside down with no apparent end in sight. The terror these people lived with during WW II is difficult to fathom, but I deeply appreciate the opportunity to explore that in ways I hadn’t before.
- On a lighter note: at least in the three countries we were in, American pop culture is their pop culture. I had always assumed every country had their own celebrities, music, movies, etc. Not so. Almost without exception, music played in restaurants and cafes was American, and usually from the 60’s and 70’s. Movies in theaters are largely American. Celebrities on the covers of gossip magazines in bookstores and the grocery checkout are the same we see. A big fascination with Marilyn Monroe and the Kennedys. It was odd, but comforting in this weird way to have all these touchstones around you. Made things feel less foreign.
- Their fast food was our fast food. With the exception of some bakery chains in Germany, we didn’t see anything like that which was theirs, just ours: Subway (was probably the biggest), McDonald’s, Pizza Hut. Starbucks – although their coffee is much better so I don’t know why you would go, except for the free wi-fi! And this weird thing with Dunkin’ Donuts in Germany. Again, didn’t get that at all because their baked goods are so much better. But there you have it. Oh. And the ubiquity of The Body Shop (soaps, lotions, other foo foo stuff). Didn’t get that either.
- We picked the countries we did for a couple of reasons, the first being they were centered around Dan’s work, the second being we knew there would be few language barriers. And for the most part, there weren’t any. English is the predominant language in business, entertainment, and education – even our new friend Erwin said he teaches some classes in English at a Belgium university – so it seemed the vast majority of people we met could get by if in fact they weren’t fully fluent. In Germany, when we asked “do you speak English”, we would get “yes” maybe 50% of the time, but just as often “nein” or “a little”. In Belgium and Netherlands, 80% of the time the answer was “of course” accompanied with a “you’re so silly” look on their face. We learned that in Germany, American TV is dubbed. In Belgium and Netherlands it’s not, it’s broadcast in English with subtitles, so their exposure to it is much different. All that said, next time I will take the time to learn some functional phrases. Especially in Germany, it would have been beneficial to be able to order off a menu properly and ask for directions.
- Simple differences in restaurant culture that took me the whole trip to get used to: you seat yourself, you ask for the check, and you don’t tip.
- There are more American cars than you might think – Ford Fiesta seemed popular – but very, very few Japanese. Not surprisingly, mostly BMW, Mercedes, Audi, Mini, and some names I don’t think I’ve seen since my USAA days: Peugeot, Opel, Renault. And the whole time we only saw 2 SUVs, one of them was owned by an American business – a California tanning salon!
Logistics and Planning
- Three weeks is too long, although for my first trip honoring a milestone birthday it was appropriate. Maybe again for my 60th!
- Staying a week in one place and doing side trips from there was ideal.
- Take multiple plug adapters in case you leave one at the last place you were, and/or just have multiple devices with you. We had 3 adapters and that was just right. (And if you don’t know what I’m talking about – different countries have different electrical outlets – our plugs won’t work. We got ours at Radio Shack, Ace Hardware.)
- Credit cards without a “chip” were a big issue in Netherlands, a small issue in Belgium. They often require cash or ATM card. Good thing Dan’s bank was also in Belgium so he could get cash out, otherwise it would have been tricky.
- Wireless access is unpredictable. The best for us were the apartments we stayed in where there were no bandwidth issues; every hotel we stayed at, our tablets/laptops would be OK, but not our phones. Netherlands had free access almost everywhere you went; in Belgium and Germany, there were plenty of hotspots but you had to pay for access – 24 hour, monthly, etc.
- Cell coverage – we would have literally been lost at times without Dan’s cell phone availability, which his company pays for. Talk to your carrier. If there’s a cost effective way to arrange that without the ridiculous international roaming charges, I highly recommend it, especially if, like us, you’ve come to heavily rely on mapping technology.
- We were very glad to have not dealt with rental cars. Can’t imagine having to navigate streets and freeways when you can’t read signs. (Although we did finally piece together what “einbahnstrabe” meant!) And who needs them: the trains, buses and streetcars are fabulous. Note: no need to make reservations on trains unless you’re doing something 2 hours or more, and even then maybe not. Exception is ICE trains (InterCityExpress) – the high speed trains – where it’s required. And 2nd class is More Than Fine. Don’t waste money on First Class.
- Pack light! That first time I had to take my bags through a turnstile and had to drop a Euro in to use the bathroom in the Cologne train station on Day 1, I couldn’t imagine having a big piece of luggage with me. And because we chose to move around so much, it was much easier to do so with one roller carry-on and one backpack, which was all each of us had.
- Dan had equipped me with Euro paper money and coins before he left, because he brought some back from his last trip. If you don’t have that luxury, be sure to stop at the airport and take care of that before you leave, or you might be surprised the first time you have to go potty!
Next year: London & Paris. I’ll be ready!