Saturday, July 21, 2012

Our Trip to Europe: Lessons Learned

Well, that was quite a trip.

We visited.  We saw.  We talked.  We boated (for certain values of “we”).  We ran around.  We relaxed.  We tried new things and repeated the ones we liked.  We took four different flights to three different countries (counting the US) and never lost any luggage or had any particular difficulties with paperwork or officials.  We climbed things and jumped off of other things.  Doing all this was a privilege in this economy, and we wrung everything we could out of it. 

We also learned a few things.

Probably the biggest thing was that if you’re going to go to Europe, you need good friends to visit.  They know where the things to see are – the big things that you can find in the books, and the cool little things that aren’t so obvious.  They have houses you can stay in, with kitchens and laundry rooms – something that cannot be overvalued on trips like this.  They know the rules of the road and the language the signs are written in and what those little graphics on those signs actually translate to, which is not always obvious.  You can hang out with them, catch up, play cards, and let the kids run around with each other and develop new friendships – friendships that someday may promote future visits back and forth.

So we owe a huge thank you to our hosts.

To Mats and Sara in Sweden –

To Julie and Richard in England –

Thank you for having us, and we look forward to returning the favor here in the US as soon as you can get here.

We managed to visit a few other friends in that part of the world as well, though there were some we missed.  Perhaps next time.  It is always good to visit friends.

But those things are lessons we could see coming even before we left.  It turns out that there are a few other lessons that we picked up on this trip, things that came as a surprise because either we didn’t know them beforehand or had forgotten that we did.  So for the benefit of all those who will follow in our chaotic footsteps, here are a few things to remember next time you go abroad as we did.

Things I Learned in Europe

1. Foreign money isn’t real until you convert it into your own money, which is not something you really want to do.

This summer there are seven Swedish crowns to the dollar and somewhere around 1.75 dollars to the British pound, and after a while doing that math was just not good for me.  Food is expensive in Europe.  Gasoline is more expensive (more than double what it is in the US).  When I just thought in the local currency, my life was happier.  “Seventy crowns for lunch!  One pound, fifty pence for a soda!  What a bargain!”

That’s why you save up for these trips, so you can say things like that.

2.  American credit cards are just primitive.

Nobody in Europe wanted to take my credit card, and at least one place actually could not process my debit card.  This was not because they were being mean to me, but instead because my cards were Behind The Times.

All European cards have chips in them.  You poke the card into a slot, punch in your PIN, and that’s that – no signature required.  Every time I went to buy something, I had to say, “This needs a signature, not a code.”  Most places are used to it, but there were some places where this created problems.  Well, at least I know what’s coming next here.

3. Everything is more compact.


The roads are smaller.  They have major Interstate-style roads, of course, all carefully labeled with either an E in Sweden or an M in Britain.  But they get smaller awfully quickly.  In the UK, for example, the next level down from M is A, and the A roads vary from four lane undivided highways (rare) to two lane roads to roads that might generously be labeled as 1.5 lanes with stretches that get smaller.  These stretches are usually prefaced with a sign that says “Give Way” so there aren’t collisions.  Then there are the B roads, which range from roads that are about as wide as an American driveway to roads that most American cars could not fit onto.  None of these roads have straight sections longer than 50 yards, and there is generally no shoulder because of the hedges (see below) or stone walls of the houses in whatever village you are passing through.  The posted speed limit on these roads is usually 30mph.  Good luck with that.

The houses are smaller.  Europeans in general take up a whole lot less space on the planet than Americans do.  Some of this is design, and some of it is simply history – a lot of houses there are centuries old, and people were and built smaller then.

The meals are smaller.  American portion sizes are bizarrely huge, and outside of a British pub you rarely find anything like them.  This is healthy, and one of my goals is to keep this in mind as part of my “Eat Less Crap” diet.

It’s all closer and more compact.

4. 68 degrees Fahrenheit is, in fact, a perfectly reasonable temperature for mid-summer.

One of the joys of being in northern Europe is that what they consider “high summer” we in Wisconsin would call “April.”  In Sweden it nudged into the 70s a couple of times and in England we never saw the north side of 65.  It was glorious, especially considering the 100-degree-plus weather that engulfed the US while we were away.  You can always add clothing, but there is only so much you can take off.

Of course, the weather was unusual everywhere.  Both Sweden and England are experiencing their wettest summers ever recorded, while the US is being kiln-dried.  It’s a good thing the climate isn’t changing, because otherwise?  I’d be worried.

5. Soccer: not as boring as you thought.

I actually like soccer, in keeping with my general tendency to be out of step with American culture (Stanley Cup Finals, anyone?), and our trip coincided with the UEFA Cup games.  In the evenings in Sweden, after our day’s events, the grown-ups would sit and watch the last few playoff games.  And when you’re watching with someone who actually understands the game, they’re really fun to see.

6. Ruined castles are a lot more fun than whole ones.

We visited plenty of castles and enjoyed them thoroughly, but the ruined ones allow you to use your imagination more and you get to touch them and climb on them.  There are too many signs on the ones that people still live in or that have been repurposed as museums.

Where’s Woody Guthrie when you need him?

7. You will never actually send those postcards.

Just accept it, and buy the ones that you want to keep.

Things I Learned in Sweden

1. Most Swedes speak better English than most Americans.

On the one hand, this is not hard.

On the other hand, it is quite impressive to be in a country where English has never been a native language and realize that the only people who can’t hold conversations with you in English are small children and pets.  And their command of the language includes a proper grammar that I rarely see from university students in the US.

2. You need a degree in material sciences to throw out your trash and recycling.

In Our Little Town we have basically three piles on trash day: Recyclables (subdivided into paper and plastic/glass/metal) and Trash.  This is two more than you will find in many places in the US.

In Sweden, the trash gets divided into Wet and Dry, and the Recyclables get divided into a bewildering array of separate categories for varying types of paper, plastic, glass and metal.  And then you have to bag them up and take them to a separate facility and put them into the proper bins.

You know what would happen if they tried this in the US?  Pollution, that’s what.

3. The midnight sun shifts everything later.

We were in Sweden over midsummer, when the sun sets in Stockholm around 11pm or so and then rises again two or three hours later.  And even when the sun is up, it comes at you at a rather oblique angle compared to what we’re used to in Wisconsin. 

The practical upshot of this is that I never could tell what time it was by looking at the light or the sun.  I’d be rolling along, enjoying the day, and suddenly I’d start to feel hungry.  “Hmm,” I’d say to myself, “it must be getting on toward dinner time.”  And then I’d look at the clock (more on that below) and discover that IT WAS 9PM.  No wonder I was hungry.

We were also there over the Fourth of July, which – being the Americans we are – we decided to celebrate with as close to an American picnic as we could arrange – hot dogs, corn on the cob (which comes canned in Sweden), potato chips and so on.  We thought about sparklers or some other sort of minor fireworks, but even if we could get them it quickly became apparent that such things were sort of a waste unless we wanted to stay up until midnight, when it would be dark.

4. Having a bunch of extra letters really screws up a keyboard.

The Swedes use far more characters than Americans do – things with umlauts, things with two letters mushed together, things with circles on top, and so on.  Ultimately this means that there are two different shift keys on the keyboard, each leading to different sets of characters on the same keys, so you can fit all the characters in without needing a computer a meter wide, and characters that are in one place on the US keyboards are in a completely different place on the Swedish ones.  If I were a better touch typist, this would have been a disadvantage.

5. If Americans drove on Swedish-designed roads there would be carnage.

American roads are largely straight, wide and open, which is good because as a culture we drive like hypoglycemic baboons.  Not only are the roads in Sweden almost as small and twisty as those in Britain, but the Swedes also insist on putting obstacles in them.  Every so often, the road will randomly narrow from two lanes into one for about 10 yards, with the intent that people will slow down.  Swedes are really good at taking turns when coming to such chokepoints.

In the US, land of 4x4 GM “Compensators” with 12-liter, 5000-horsepower engines, seating for an entire football team and military-grade suspension systems, such obstacles would quickly devolve into a Darwinian struggle for right of way that would end only when the last spinning hubcap of the last compact car went dancing off onto the sidewalk.

6. The number of varieties of crackers is potentially infinite.

Sweden is my kind of place when it comes to crackers.  There are entire sections of the grocery store devoted to nothing more than a vast array of packages of crackers, each minutely different from the one next to it.  It would take a lifetime to try them all, but I, for one, am willing to accept that challenge.

For this reason, they sell an almost equally vast array of cheeses by the brick and salamis by the box.  It’s the perfect meal.

7. Sweden looks a lot like Wisconsin and Minnesota, except it has fewer Swedes.

The landscape is wide open, with rolling hills, lakes every few feet, and forests of evergreens and birches.  No wonder all those Swedish immigrants to the US a century ago landed in the upper midwest.

8. The average American cannot conceive of a beverage of less than 20 ounces.  Swedes will buy a half-liter of soda and split it three ways with dinner.

This was the thing that most marked me as an American on this trip, aside from my resolute inability to speak anything other than English.

9. It is astonishing how many different types of food can be packaged in toothpaste tubes.

Swedish supermarkets are full of food in tubes.  Cheese.  Bacon-infused cheese.  Tomato paste.  Caviar.  If it can be ground up, made into a paste and stuffed into a metal tube with a cap on it, you can find it here. 

10. Any building may be aesthetically enhanced by painting it a brownish shade of yellow.

Swedish cities and towns are colorful places – far more so than English or American ones.

My personal theory is that this is to compensate for the long dark winters, but I was also told that there were class distinctions as well, historically.  The poor would have houses that were either unpainted or whitewashed.  The middling sorts would paint their houses red.  And the upper sorts would paint their houses a shade I have come to call “Swedish yellow.” 

It’s not the bright yellow on their flag – it’s more brown than that.  But I was constantly amazed at how many buildings of how many varieties were painted this color.

11. No road is complete without a roundabout. 

This is one of the Swedes’ favorite obstacles to put into roads.  Most intersections have them, and when people know how to use them they work very well.  There is a reason that you are seeing American road planners beginning to put them into American roads – they make intersections work very well.

But the number of these things in Sweden is clearly indicative of preference over and above utility.

12.  Swedes use a 24-hour clock.  For Americans who have not served in the military, this means doing math after noon.  I was told there’d be no math.

It did take me a while to learn how to react when I was told that something closed at 17.  It’s more efficient to tell time this way, but jarring to someone who is used to “am” and “pm.”

Things I Learned in England

1. Coin collecting is an expensive hobby in the UK.

The British are way ahead of the US when it comes to replacing bills (“notes” in England) with coins.  On the one hand, this means that they don’t have to keep printing new bills every 18 months when the old ones wear out, the way the US has to do.  On the other hand, it means that you can get coins with some fairly hefty value.  The 50p coins are worth about 87 cents now, the one pound coins roughly $1.75, and they even have two pound coins now.  Saving aside a few of those adds up quickly.

Coin collecting is also a heavy hobby.  The 5p coin is about the size of an American dime, but after that the coin sizes ramp up quickly.  British coins are big and thick.  If you’ve got a pocketful of pound coins, you’ll know it.  Eventually you will begin to list to that side.

2. The English are even more fond of roundabouts than the Swedes.

It got to the point where I was almost startled to come to an intersection that wasn’t a roundabout.

3. There are things you can do to a potato chip that neither God nor chemistry ever intended.

This was one of my quests while I was in Europe: to try all of the varied flavors of potato chips that I could find.  All right, so it wasn’t a necessarily high or dignified quest, but it was mine. 

The Swedes had a few odd ones – “Cheese Burger,” for example, which was awful, and “Grilled Cheese with Ham,” which was okay.  The “Dill and Sour Cream” was actually quite good.

The English, however, specialize in doing things to potato chips (“crisps”) that really should never have been considered.  Sausage.  Roast chicken.  Bacon and cream cheese.  Peri-peri.  And so on.  Some of them were actually quite good – the Worcester Sauce kind and the Strong Cheese With Onion kind were my favorites, along with the various types of salt and vinegar chips – but in truth I never did have the heart to try any of the variations on “Sizzling King Prawn.”

4. The idea of mixing hot and cold water into a single tap is profoundly un-English.

Most of the sinks I ran into there had two taps on the far side of the sink – one very hot, and one very cold.  I suppose I could have plugged the sink and mixed the water until it was warm, but that just struck me as a lot of work.

5. Small English towns tend to be one street wide, with houses you can touch from the car as you drive by.

They’re strung out along the road, and largely built before the idea of setbacks must have been popular.  It does give an air of excitement to speeding through town.

6. Whoever named most English towns was clearly intoxicated.

We did a lot of driving through southern and western England while we were there, and it never failed to amaze me what names towns had.  Driving through Westonzoyland was definitely one for the bucket list.

7.  There are a grand total of a dozen road signs in England.  Three are redundant, one is outdated, and the rest do not point anywhere you wish to go.

We spent an hour one afternoon about five miles northwest of Tavistock, a pleasant little town on the edge of Dartmoor.  This is the Bermuda Triangle of England.  All roads in that vicinity dump you at an unmarked roundabout, though a different one each time.  We eventually drove off and came at Tavistock from the south, which worked.

English road signs are predicated on the notion that you already know exactly where you are and simply need help locating a town somewhere in the next county or two.  You will rarely if ever find a sign that indicates what road you are currently on, and when you come to a roundabout you will equally rarely find a sign indicating which of the five exits is the continuation of the road you came in on.  You’re supposed to know these things. 

8. It is entirely possible to have three complete cycles of brilliant sunshine and driving rain in less than twenty minutes.

Every place I’ve ever lived has had the same joke about its weather: “Don’t like it?  Wait five minutes.”  England is the first place I’ve been where this is true.  On more than one occasion we went through a complete gamut of sunshine, cloud, drizzle, driving rain, and back again in less than five minutes, and the only reason we didn’t squeeze more than three cycles into twenty minutes is because it paused somewhere in the cycle once or twice.

You either worry about or you don’t, and by the end of the trip I’d learned not to worry about it.  You get wet; you dry off.

9. England is a country of magnificent and beautiful scenery, none of which is visible from the roads because of the dense protective layer of hedges in which they are encased.

See that road?  That’s typical of the roads we were driving on for much of our visit.  Every once in a while there would be a break in the hedges and we’d just gasp at how lovely it all was, but then the hedges would come back and we’d be encased in greenery again.

10. When the English tell you that the summer has been unusually wet, watch out.

They’re experts at wet.  This summer has been the wettest on record, and their records go back an awfully long way.  You would be well advised to bring a raincoat.

11. Safety rails are for wimps and Americans.

This is one of the things that constantly amazed me while we were there.  You’d climb your way up to a peak or a castle wall or sometimes both at once, and between you and the sheer drop down to the other side – a drop of several hundred feet sometimes – there would be a little sign politely requesting you to be careful.

In America there would be titanium lawyer-proof guardrails surrounding the entire scene and netting below for those too stupid to read the shouting red letters on the signs urging you to STAY BACK and DO NOT APPROACH THE EDGE.

On the one hand, I appreciated the trust and the restraint in England.  On the other hand, I tended to stay away from the edges more than perhaps they meant me to.

12. Tanks have the right of way.

Tanks always have the right of way.


Random Michelle K said...

7. You will never actually send those postcards.
Speak for yourself. ;P

Re the roads: come to West (by God) Virginia. Our roads our how we weed out the weak and unfit.

Sounds like you had an AWESOME time! Welcome back!

David said...

All right, Michelle, you actually send postcards. :)

Me, I've got an inch-thick stack of them in my luggage, along with several pages of addresses and a nice collection of foreign stamps.

I've driven on the roads in West (by God) Virginia, including some that would qualify as B roads in England, and I was not weeded out! I'll take that as s compliment.

We did indeed have an awesome time. Thanks!

Rufus Dogg said...

You nailed Sweden, especially the endless varieties of crackers and food in a metal tube. Speaking of food, nutrition labels -- like railings -- are also for Americans and wimps. I disagree with you on one thing. stuff isn't more compact. Everything there is just the right size.

Unknown said...

Your description of Britain is charmingly accurate - thanks! Sometimes it's nice to have visitors to remind us of what we've got so used to. Incidentally, the back of Richard's car still smells of those goat's cheese and chili crisps. You missed the Walkers' crisps thing they were doing last year with the mystery flavours, and before that, the one off weird flavours like Crispy Duck with Hoisin Sauce and Cajun Squirrel.

David said...

Rufus, we're not disagreeing about stuff being more compact. Stuff is a nice size there (though the roads could be a bit wider) - things are just bizarrely huge here in the US.

Sorry about Richard's car, Julie! I never did get to try those crisps, actually - I think we carted them all the way to the airport but never managed to open them. And I didn't miss the Cajun Squirrel crisps, I just didn't eat any of them. There's a difference. ;)

Beatrice Desper said...

Has anyone here heard of "the cliffs of Moher" in Ireland? The cliffs in "the Princess Bride" were based on them. There are signs suggesting that you stay away from the edge and then inform you of the number of people who died the previous year because they didn't.

Beatrice Desper said...

How about this for compact? Our first one bedroom apartment was 330 square meters. That's about 17 feet by 17 feet for EVERYTHING! My mother said that had she seen it, she would have flown over and dragged me home.

Beatrice Desper said...

Oops, there's a typo. I meant thirty square meters. I'd LOVE to have 330!

David said...

Apparently the Irish and the British are just more Darwinian about their tourist sites - thinning the herd of its idiots. The US doesn't believe in such thinning, and it shows.