Handy-dandy European travel tips

Some planning can help bridge the gap when traveling across the Pond.
Some planning can help bridge the gap when traveling across the Pond.

Since I’ve just returned from a meticulously planned and busy but fabulous trip to England and Paris, I am feeling magnanimous, so I am going to share a few of the things I learned while traveling there this time around. Those of you who might be traveling that direction for the first or second time might find some of what I picked up useful. Those who have done more traveling might find this simplistic, or it may still be helpful in some ways. Either way, have fun!

  1. Get the right outlet converter. outlet adapterYou may know, as I did years ago when I first traveled to Paris, that electrical outlets/plugs are different there than they are here in the States. We use two- or three-pronged 110-volt outlets and cords, and the Europeans use 220-volt outlets. So when I went on that first trip 9 years ago to Paris, I picked up a voltage converter at Radio Shack. Worked just great. Back then it allowed me to charge my laptop quite easily. Well, here’s the kicker: England is, once again, different than the Continent and different from here. Just as those wacky Brits drive on the left side of the road, opposite of the States and the rest of Europe, they also use a different plug. I thought that I was all prepared for all of our trip using the old voltage converter, but no. England uses a big three-pronged plug that’s different than what we use here in the U.S. and different than the tiny two-pronged plugs in France and Italy, for instance. Next time we go, I will make sure I have a converter that works for each place we visit. (We happened to get lucky, however, in our nice hotel in London: that blessed place had a whole variety of outlets behind the desk in the room, including an American-style outlet, so I was able to charge all of my gadgets. Yay for the Rembrandt!) Also remember that even if you do get the right converter, if it only has a two-pronged “in” for your gadgets, you might be out of luck with your three-pronged grounded items. I found this to be true when I got to Paris. Yes, my old converter worked, but it was only two-pronged, and my newer netbook has a three-pronged plug, so I wasn’t able to charge it anymore once we left our posh London hotel and got to our less-nice Paris digs.
  2. Prepare your credit card. Here in the States, we swipe magnetic strips on our credit cards and then sign for them. In England and Europe, they have moved on from swiping to using chip-and-PIN cards. A special chip is embedded in the middle of the card, and you must use a PIN to be able to use the card once the card is inserted in the card reader. If you want to be able to charge purchases on your trip, call your credit card issuer and request a chip-and-PIN card. Otherwise, I don’t think it’s possible to use the old swiping-style there anymore. And you’ll be up a creek. Also, when you call your company, let them know that you’ll be traveling, where and when, so your card won’t trigger fraud alerts or not be authorized. That should smooth the way for your travels and ease your mind so even if you plan to use mostly cash, you can still use that credit card in a pinch.
  3. For clothes, pack in layers. Weather could easily be very different from your home town, so be sure to check the weather. Even then, pack light jackets and prepare with layers. I took short-sleeved shirts and tanks and then layered with short-sleeve and long-sleeve light sweaters and jersey “cardigans.” I kept the long-sleeved cardigans in my carry-on and could swap out with the short-sleeved if necessary.
  4. For heaven’s sake, make sure your passport is up to date. Passports are issued for 10 years. But if you’ve had one for a while, make sure it hasn’t expired. Otherwise, you have about 4 to 6 weeks to get a new one. If you’ve never gotten one before, apply in person. Most likely, your local Post Office has a spot for doing that. If you need to renew, all you have to do is send in the proper paperwork along with the old passport through the mail. For more details, go to the State Department’s website.
  5. To make things a little easier, get a feel for local currency before you travel. I knew what the exchange rate was for dollars to pounds before we traveled, so that was helpful in judging how much things were “really” costing me in dollars when I made purchases. But when I pulled out my cash, I was embarrassed at how long it took me to pick out the right coins for the job. One time, a cashier just picked out the coins from my hand. I’m guessing he was being honest. 🙂 After a week in England, I still felt a little shaky over the sizes of the coins. It might have made things easier if I’d taken the time to acquaint myself with the coins before I left. Not crucial, but nice, and a little less embarrassing.
  6. Make sure your suitcase(s) and carry-on(s) are easy to carry/wheel around. If you’re anything like us, you’ll end up on a lot of trains and/or taxis and subway cars, and having a suitcase and carry-on that are in good condition and wheel comfortably, etc. will be a godsend. my suitcaseI did some shopping a few months before the trip on Overstock for a new suitcase that would be a few steps up from the cheap set I bought at K-mart years ago, and I’m so glad I did that. One, my new suitcase and matching tote had very bright, multicolored stripes, making them easy to spot on the luggage carousels and easy to spot when my husband was taking a turn wheeling one around. I always knew where he and the luggage were. More importantly, the newer and nicer case had a much higher quality set of wheels and telescoping handle, making it easier and lighter to wheel around. We took those suitcases everywhere and on all kinds of transportation and in between, on planes, trains, taxis, ferry, underground, metro, and on lots of sidewalks in between. I’m SO glad I spent an extra hundred bucks on the nice case. Take a look at mine: (but don’t buy the same exact one, people. We’re trying to stand out here, right?)
  7. I highly recommend making a day-to-day detailed itinerary for yourself of where you’re going, when, and how. I printed up about 10 pages of fairly detailed instructions for myself for every stage of the journey. Since we did so much traveling from town to town via lots of modes of transportation, it was SO helpful. First page was my first flight, then my second flight, then the arrival time and the train we were supposed to take to the next destination. Then I had the hotel information for our first night, then the transportation info for the second day’s travel to the next stop. I just checked off where we were/what we’d done and flipped the page. It really made the journey a lot easier to look to that main itinerary.

Above all, my last “tip” is simply to relax and enjoy yourself. No matter how much time you allot yourself, you won’t possibly see everything there is to see or everything you’d like to see. Just pick a few highlights that are most important, and give yourself plenty of time to enjoy them. And if you get worn out and have to take a nap at the hotel, don’t beat yourself up that you’re not seeing more sights. Just remember, IT’S YOUR VACATION. You’re meant to be having fun, relaxing, and enjoying yourself. If you have to take pit stops to rest and regroup, then do it and don’t feel guilty. Now go out there and have a great time.

Motherhood: Growing your own friend from scratch

Being out of the country and away from my four daughters for 8 days recently, I was struck anew by how much I not just love them — because of course I love my offspring — but how much I like them. I’ve never been gone from them this long, and in the past when my husband and I went on trips together, they were younger. I missed them, but when they were little and the days were endless cycles of feeding, diapering, clothing, and just keeping them alive and well, I was largely relieved to have a break from that caretaking cycle.

Now they keep me just as busy, but in completely different ways. They can be their own caretakers in most ways: they can go potty by themselves now (diapers are a distant memory), they can feed themselves (even cook), get dressed, and even get themselves places on their own (oldest has a driver’s license). Now my job is to make sure they’re learning and becoming who they should and could be. It’s to make sure they are nurtured in so many more complex ways as they make their way through tricky adolescent and pre-adolescent years. It’s to support them in their activities, volunteering as a band booster and so on. The job title is the same — Mother — but the duties and job description are very different and much more complicated and nuanced. I don’t have to just show up and go through the motions; I have to bring my A game.

What’s happened, though, in the course of their becoming these independent selves, morphing from little eating and pooping machines who cry to communicate or just repeat “no” or “why?” ad nauseam is that they have become people. They are completely their own selves, with amazing personalities and unique mixtures of traits, talents, and quirks. What’s more, we have become friends in many ways. Sure, I’m not one of those parents who is more of a pal to their children than a parent, but it’s absolutely true that my daughters are my friends. My oldest in particular, who’s turning 17 this week and will fly out of the nest next year (cue the leaky eyes), is such a fun person. She’s nearly an adult, and she is mature in so many ways and simply fun to be around. We have all kinds of inside jokes and we can look at each other and grin at something we just know we’re both thinking. She is so delightful and pleasant to be around that I miss her presence when she’s not.

brianna as flower

And I felt that keenly while in another country. I didn’t talk to my girls for more than a week. I emailed and Facebook-ed a little, with one short chat session. (Even then, though, they were all using my mom’s account, but I could tell when a different child started typing. I knew exactly who I was “talking” to because of just how they phrased things.) But as much as I enjoyed my time alone with my husband and loved all the great scenery we soaked in and famous sites we visited, I missed my friends back at home. There were so many times I thought, “Oh, Brianna would like this. Oh, Cami would love that.” I was sure one would respond a certain way with a certain phrase to something we saw.

And as much as I loved (but often just plain endured) the different phases of mothering, I am loving this one, in which I can see how the little seeds I sowed have grown into full-size plants. They’re still here in my own garden, but in not too long they will be transplanted to other gardens. Right now, though, I marvel at how much I like them, how simply miraculous it is that I was growing my own friends all this time and didn’t quite realize it. I love them, but, even better, I really, really like them. Today, I will celebrate Mother’s Day with some really amazing friends. I can’t imagine life without them.

Making memories: priceless.

TuileriesI’ve long since decided that it’s far better to spend money on doing things, rather than acquiring things. Sure, if I spend $5000 on an amazing diamond necklace, I’ll be able to keep wearing it for the next 40 years, but if I spend the same amount on a trip, I’ll be able to keep the memories of that trip FOREVER. Even better, while there’s a possibility someone could always take a necklace or any other tangible item, no one can take my memories from me. They’ll always be with me.

I just spent 8 days in England and France with my husband celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary. I worked RIDICULOUSLY hard to get the trip planned. We did all kinds of interesting things and went a few places that weren’t the typical tourist haunts, so it wasn’t as simple as just buying a package deal from some travel site. I had to plan every last detail. But we went, we spent a ton of time on trains and planes and ferries and the Underground and Metro and even a few taxis, and we saw all kinds of gorgeous scenery and cool sites. Now we’re back, and life is just the same as it was 10 days ago, with food to be bought and prepared, laundry and dishes to wash, kids to care for, and all kinds of other responsibilities, but now my brain is full of new memories that just weren’t there a week and a half ago. It’s kind of amazing.

One thing I’ll cherish is the memory of green: green leaves, grass, shrubbery. In England, especially at this time of year, green washes over everything on the landscape. From the sky, I could savor the patchwork patterns of green fields broken up by low stone walls. I soaked up the sight of rolling hills and shallow valleys layered with green grass and dotted with newly-leaved trees, fresh and new in the springtime, a different shade of green from the more mature colors later in the summer.

I spent the first 10 years of my life in Pennsylvania, which I previously suspected but now know for certain is a fine replica of England, the same rolling hills and patchwork fields with even the same low stone walls. Since I’ve now spent some years in the West and live in the state that’s euphemistically called “Golden” (but is just frankly “brown”), I miss the landscapes of green that surrounded me in earlier years. So this time in England recharged my green batteries for a little while, allowing me to store up memories of more soothing colors for the harsh, dry, brown summers here in central California. I even had a lovely day in Paris, which treated me to some rain along with alternating cloudy and sunny skies. I spent an hour just sitting on a chair in the Tuileries, soaking in the vivid greens dotted with bright splashes of reds and magentas. It was a feast for the eyes and for my memory.

No, I could have stayed home and bought that amazingly delicate and exquisite necklace I spied at the jewelry store. But I wouldn’t have these absolutely irreplaceable memories, stored up in my mind and heart, accessible at a moment’s notice on some future dry, brown, even stressful day. I’ll take the memories. They’ve expanded my whole mind and heart.

Now if I could just re-create this Secret Garden-y entryway in my front yard, I would be ecstatic. But I have the memory - and the photo.
Now if I could just re-create this Secret Garden-y entryway in my front yard, I would be ecstatic. But I have the memory – and the photo.

Brilliant! no, barmy. no, lovely. Ah, cheers.

So I’ve been vacationing in England for three days with my husband, and we’re getting the biggest kick out of British English and our lack of understanding of it, being American and all. You’d think that being somewhat of an Anglophile (I love reading books set in England; I watch foreign films, indies, what-have-you), I’d be a bit better prepared for the difference in vocabulary, let alone the accent. I mean, I already knew that “biscuit” really means “cookie” and that “crisps” are “chips” (and “chips” are french fries).

But it honestly takes us a couple of “excuse me”s to understand people’s meaning around here. The accent and dropped letters make it hard to clearly understand the meaning of words we actually do share, and then different words entirely make it extra-challenging.

We have observed that “brilliant” is a lovely all-purpose word to say that any service was great. Dinner? Brilliant. Sights? Brilliant. And the all-purpose word for anything else? Cheers. Hanging up? Cheers. Buy something? Cheers. Not sure what else to say to anything? Cheers.

Guess what these are. You'll never guess. Really. (Brits, no cheating.)
Guess what these are. You’ll never guess. Really. (Brits, no cheating.)

Food has been fun. I thought that it was a little challenging choosing food from the menu in Paris when we went there 9 years ago. But it’s been just as foreign ordering from British menus. Baps? Queenies? Bangers? And I finally had to ask, What the heck is treacle? I’ve read about treacle tarts for years. Then we went to a pub that served treacle bread. It was just a nice wheaty bread. Hm. What could treacle be if it’s in regular bread and tarts? The answer: it’s a sugary syrup of some kind. Huh. Okay. Then I bought a little collection of chocolates on the Isle of Man, and one was toffee that had treacle in it. My husband and I finally figured out what treacle really is when we popped the toffee in our mouths: it’s molasses, or something darn near like it. Huh. Molasses bread: fine. Molasses toffee: eh. Molasses tart? I’m not gonna try it.

Last of my observations: the Brits can sure conjure up some hilarious-sounding phrases. The one I’ve loved the best so far I saw on a sign in a train station: “lovely jubbly.” Lovely jubbly to you all, fair readers. Cheers.