We’re back! The trip was wonderful, and I’m proud to report that I was able to stay fairly open and relaxed. There were several times when I realized that we weren’t going to be able to fit in everything I had planned (see Travel Lesson #2, below) but I was able to release my disappointment pretty quickly and be thankful for the experiences we did get to have. (Hey, it just means that I have to go back soon so I can make it to what I missed this time!) If you’d like to see pictures from the trip, you can check out my Instagram feed (@joydetectiveashleybrown).
About midway through the trip I began to jot down some lessons to remember for the next time—some I used to know but had forgotten, and some were new. I will share them with you now; and if you have any of your own hard-won insights from traveling, I would love to hear them!
Travel Lesson #1
Jet lag is REAL; apparently it gets worse as you get older. When my husband and I last went to Europe, it was fifteen years ago. I remember feeling a little dazed that first day, and sleepy the next, and that was it. This time, we both felt like we were underwater for the first three days. I didn’t really feel like myself until Day 5.
We were able to tour around and enjoy ourselves, but every afternoon at about 3 p.m. I would feel like I’d been hit by a truck. I’d have to push through an overwhelming urge to go to sleep. I would manage to make it until about 9, then I’d collapse. I also felt vaguely seasick. Our son was fine, thankfully—he slept like a ton of bricks each night and woke up at his usual 7 a.m. feeling chipper. Ah, youth!
Travel Lesson #2
Everything takes WAY longer than you expect—even things you think will be simple, like switching trains in the same station (leave LOTS of time for that). My original itinerary was much too ambitious; things that I thought would take an hour or two generally took three or four. And you need a break in between each thing, or you’ll wear yourself out. (If you are like me, you will also need food in between each thing! My appetite was greatly increased, due to all the walking!)
Travel Lesson #3
In a foreign country, everything is foreign, not just the language. That can be surprisingly disconcerting. Obviously, we knew there would be a learning curve as we figured out how to get around in a new place. But I had forgotten about all the little differences—plugs (which even varied from the UK to mainland Europe), light switches, appliances, train stations, restaurants, stores, food… practically every aspect of basic life was different, and it was tiring to have to keep figuring stuff out. It took a while to get to a comfort level.
It didn’t help that we stayed in three very different countries on this one trip, so by the time we got the hang of one place, it was time to move on. On our next trip we will limit ourselves to one or two places.
For example, something as simple as walking on the street could be really taxing—in some places, what looks like sidewalks are actually bike lanes, and when crossing streets you often have to watch out for cars, and bikes, and motorbikes.
Going out to eat was often more complicated than expected. We were able to decipher descriptions easily enough, and even often found places with English “subtitles” on the menu. But many times descriptions seemed straightforward, but the food was not what we were expecting. For example, I was really craving some greens after a few days of heavy fried food, so I was thrilled to see a grilled chicken Caesar salad on a menu.
When it came, however, it was not what I had pictured. The chicken was small strips of dark meat covered in a sort of chili sauce; the dressing was a sort of vinaigrette; there wasn’t much lettuce; and there were boiled eggs and other items that we don’t generally put into Caesars in the U.S. I still ate it, and it was fine, but it didn’t really satisfy that salad craving. And then there was the “lobster roll” sandwich, which was actually a roll and a large fried rectangle of something smushy inside that tasted like tuna and cheese.
There were several times when neither my husband nor myself could figure something out, and it was really frustrating—especially when it was as simple as trying to turn on the light in a hotel room. We had to get someone to come show us what to do—and even though it was something we could never have discovered on our own, we still felt stupid, which is disheartening.
Add to that the tiredness of a long day of travel, and hunger, and you have a potential recipe for disaster. But we were able to keep our heads, and no matter what challenges came our way, we overcame them with only minor outbursts. It even became a point of pride—we weren’t going to let anything defeat us. (Even when we thought we weren’t going to make our flight home, due to a computer issue. As we stood at the Air France counter for more than an hour, while a very nice man tried valiantly to find our reservations in their system, we were able to keep from flipping out—a major victory!)
I am very proud of the fact that my husband and I never let our frustrations prod us into fights. I remember a couple of doozies from our travails in Italy on that last trip. Certainly having our son there helped, but I also kept reminding myself to keep calm, and stay focused on my intentions for the trip.
Sometimes that was really hard. For example, when you’re tired, hungry, confused—and stuck INSIDE a train station at the end of a long day of taking THREE trains across FOUR countries. And you can see daylight, and the taxi that will take you to your lovely apartment where you can wash off and rest and go get something to eat, but you CAN’T GET PAST THE TURNSTILE BECAUSE YOU DON’T HAVE THE MYSTERIOUS LITTLE CARD THINGY EVERYONE ELSE SEEMS TO HAVE.
And there is apparently NO PLACE within the station to get one of those thingys. And NO ONE TOLD YOU that you would need one, when you bought the train tickets that brought you to that station.
That situation required some very difficult mastering of emotion, as my son and I stood there for almost an hour while my husband searched for help. (We finally were able to get a nice lady to let us out.)
Travel Lessons #4 and 5
Don’t take three or more trains in one day. That third trip will bite you in the ass. And read up on the train stations you will be entering and exiting—there are all sorts of little tricks that can mess you up if you don’t know about them in advance. Don’t assume the company that sells you the tickets will tell you everything you need to know.
Travel Lesson #6
Some of the best memories will be the “in-between” moments, not the guidebook experiences. I will always remember riding bikes back from dinner in the Netherlands, and my son saying he wanted to keep going when we got to the house because he was having so much fun. We rode around the neighborhood in the lovely cool dusk; it felt like we were residents, too.
I also loved savoring a morning café au lait and pain au chocolat at the café around the corner from our hotel in Paris as we watched the locals start their day. I honestly could have spent our trip riding bikes and enjoying leisurely café meals and I would have felt completely satisfied. Speaking of eating…
Travel Lesson #7
When in doubt, eat Italian. Especially when the country you are in serves mostly fried, heavy foods, Italian can really be a delight. The menus are fairly universal—you can pretty much count on getting a familiar version of what you order—and I have yet to find a bad Italian restaurant on our travels.
An amazing Italian place rescued our evening in London (site of the can’t-turn-on-the-lights defeat). I had thought we would eat around the train station since the hotel was close to there, and had written down several recommendations, but what looked close on the map turned out to be not close at all (see below) and we weren’t about to go back there once we finally made it to the hotel.
We went next door to a place that looked good, but it was full. I pulled out my trusty phone and began searching, and found Mangia Bene. It turned out to be one of the best meals we had, thoroughly reviving us and restoring our spirits. (A calzone as big as your head and the best ravioli you’ve ever had in your life will do that.)
And when we were in Amsterdam and in dire need of a decent lunch that didn’t involve more fried food, we found incredible paninis and pastries at this tiny hole-in-the-wall. Vivia Italia!
Travel Lesson #8
Maps don’t show hills. You would think I would have learned this after we visited Capri in 2002, and I discovered that “strolling” around the island was more like mountain climbing. But no. We got off the train in London, looked at the map, and figured that we could walk the mile to our hotel since it was on the same street. Within a block, the street started to rise, and it got steep pretty quickly. It was hot, and we had been on the train for six hours, and we were hungry, and we hiked up that damn hill with our heavy suitcases for what felt like an eternity. #shouldhavecalledacab
Travel Lesson #9
Travel hairdryers suck.
Travel Lesson #10
Renting an apartment is wonderful because it gives you more room to spread out, and to rest comfortably in between excursions. If you can get one with a washer/dryer, that’s even better! Especially on a longer trip, it’s extremely helpful to be able to wash your clothes. (However, be prepared to get REALLY frustrated as you try to figure out how to operate said washer and dryer!) It also helps you feel like residents, rather than tourists.
As I read back over these, it strikes me that I sound whiny in places. To go to London and complain about not being able to figure out the light switches, or to the Netherlands and find issue with a different type of Caesar salad? Talk about first world problems.
I’m a little ashamed at how mentally unprepared I was for this trip. I was eager to “experience new things” but I didn’t anticipate the frustration that could bring—and how much more sensitive we would feel when we were tired and in unfamiliar surroundings. Now, I’m eager to go back again soon; I feel like I’ve been broken open a bit, and that I would be able to appreciate the adventures more and feel less blindsided by the challenges.
If you’re planning a trip to foreign lands, I hope these “lessons” are of some help. I will certainly refer to them before we go back. And if you have any tips on how to get over jet lag faster, I’d love to hear them!