Hopefully by now, you've read all my posts about my big fat European vacation. If not, you can read the entire progression here:
An Overview (and how to pack)
Stop One - Amsterdam
Stop Two - Paris
Stop Three - Munich
Stop Four - Rome Day One & Second Day Bike Tour
And also hopefully by now, you're not sick of hearing me talk about my trip.
Today, I wanted to wrap up the discussion by talking about a few things I learned taking this vacation, and what I would have done differently now knowing what I do.
(1) Pack Only What You Need & Know
As I mentioned in my overview, I ended up over packing just a bit on my trip. What I learned was I didn't really need to bring my second pair of shoes, and that I could have done without my second pair of leggings and boot cut jeans. Yes, I re-wore some of my clothing, but so what? The less you have to carry when you're backpacking around, the better.
I also learned that I should not have packed new clothes for this trip - the dark wash denim boot cut jeans, the one day I wore them, ended up staining my thighs and calves blue ... which I still can't figure out, since I'd washed them at least once or twice prior to the trip. Oh well.
Something to possibly add to the do not pack list is an umbrella, although I'm on the fence with this one. We got tremendously lucky and had no rain during our trip, so I ended up toting around a smaller umbrella in my back pack for no reason. And I could have easily purchased one had it ended up raining, so it's not like I absolutely needed it. But, that being said, it was a nice insurance policy. Because really, do you want to be running around in the rain looking for a shop that sells umbrellas, when you're stuck toting your pack?
On a tangent to this topic, the one thing I'm glad I did pack? A fashion scarf. Technically I packed two, and I wore them almost the entire trip. On the days I didn't, I actually felt naked when compared to the women around me - I'd guess that 75% of women over there wear some sort of fashion scarf on a daily basis. And why not?! They help dress up an outfit, and look cute!!
(2) The Value of a Good (Bike) Tour Guide
I'm not exactly a frivolous traveler, spending money on tours and attractions whenever they present themselves. But, I have to say - when you've only got 24-48 hours in a city and you want to see as much as possible, as quickly as possible, there is a HUGE value in paying someone to give you a tour. Especially if it's a bike tour, since there's an even higher value in being able to take time off your feet and travel greater distances while you site see. Yes, the bike tours we participated in may have set us back 25-40 Euros per person per tour, however I think they were money well spent. Not only did they get us to a record number of sites in a short period of time, it also provided narrative to go along with what we were seeing and some local insight from people who lived there.
When I contrast that to the time we spent just wandering the cities and exploring, it is hands down obvious that on our own we'd never cover anything near to what we did while on a tour. Being in a foreign country is just that: foreign. You will lose time getting lost and trying to find your way, and it will cost you seeing a few sites if you go it alone.
That being said - don't be afraid to wander. In all of the cities we visited, at some point we just threw down our maps and roamed. Sometimes it paid of, sometimes it didn't, but each time we did it we ended up at least finding something good to eat in the process!!
(3) Time Allotment
Yes, you know by now that this was a very aggressive trip. Trying to do a tour of Europe in 8 days means you are moving - A LOT. But honestly, I don't think it was that aggressive. We were just on the move every day, which was a good thing given all the desserts and beer. (I actually lost weight on this trip despite the constant eating and drinking - hooray!)
Looking back on my trip, if there were any regrets I had or changes I would tell someone else to make to our itinerary, there are really only two things that stand out:
First, I personally wished we would have spent a day less in Amsterdam. After having done the bike tour on the first day, I felt like I saw the majority of what I wanted. Plus, if we would have bucked it up and stayed out on the town for an hour or two after that tour and just wandered the city, I think we would have seen all we cared to see in Amsterdam. (Museums aside, which like I said, for a one week trip ... I didn't want to devote time to). With our tight schedule, I would have far preferred to have one extra day in Rome or France instead.
Second, I would not have wasted time on the Vatican Museum. Having the chance to see other far less crowded religious sites in Rome was much more enjoyable to me (Pantheon, Saint Ignazio di Loyola), and in the end they had the same types of features - marble statues, painted ceilings, grand architecture, etc. I wish I would have saved myself the 30+ Euros and the 4+ hours and just been outside to see the city of Rome instead.
And finally, one last comment...
(4) Behavior - BE QUIET and Don't Be a Slob
The one last thing that I learned, I actually didn't really come to appreciate until a few days into the trip. Can I just say, I've realized how FREAKING LOUD AND SLOPPY AMERICANS ARE?!
Seriously!! On the third night when my husband and I were eating at Le Hide in Paris, which was a fairly nice restaurant, we were a table or two away from an American family. I just couldn't handle it. Not only were they talking in a volume that would have allowed the entire restaurant to clearly hear their conversation, their children (both in their teens, so old enough to control themselves) were fighting with each other ... AND HAVING MELTDOWNS. Ugh! One teen was actually crying at one point in the meal and being threatened by her parents to be sent home without dinner. And to cap it all off, they were wearing shabby jeans, t-shirts, tennis shoes and I think the dad even had on a down sleeveless puffer vest. Meanwhile, every other table in the restaurant was inaudible above a murmur, and I don't think a single patron was wearing something less than dress pants and shoes, or fitted and pressed denim tucked neatly into high end leather boots.
I never knew what it meant to be a dirty, loud American until this trip. Using the above dinner as a meter, I noticed something as we traveled: anywhere you went, you could pick out an American from a mile away simply due to their loud conversations and sloppy dress.
Don't think we're loud? Try this sometime. Sit in a restaurant and just listen. See how many tables around you are speaking loudly enough that you can hear all or most of their conversation clearly. Then, do a personal volume check - how loud do you normally talk in the same restaurant, and how loud do you actually NEED to talk to ensure the person you're speaking to across the table can hear you? I'll assure you, 90% of the time, there's a drastic difference in volume between what is required and what we use.
In fact, I think that's been my biggest culture shock coming home again - after having spent a week in Europe, and also having made a conscious effort to blend in at restaurants and what not by speaking softly, everyone here seems so freaking loud!!
Well, that and ... I feel like I always need to wear a fashion scarf now.