Another Idiot Abroad

monaI recently had the distinct privilege of spending 5 glorious weeks traveling in Spain, France and Italy.  I made some amazing memories, met some wonderful people, and – besides a decent tan and a really great purse – I flew home with some additional insights about myself and human nature in general. Here are just a few:

 I Suck At Languages.

It’s a good thing I learned to speak English as a toddler, because other than some primitive grunting and obscene hand gestures, that’s all I got. I know they say that the locals appreciate it when you at least attempt to speak their language, but I wasn’t buying it.

For example, In Barcelona, you’d think they’d speak Spanish, but you’d be wrong.  They speak Catalan – which is a lovely blend of Spanish and French.  They are proud of their distinct language and culture, so I figured someone like me trying to speak the little Spanish that I do know, namely  – Chalupa por favor?  Donde es la bana?  Puta madre! – would come off as insulting or vaguely threatening, and might even land me in jail.

On the flight over, our show-off flight attendant did her announcements one after the other,  in perfectly flawless English, French, Spanish, German, and Italian.  Who are these people who can transition from one language into the next so seamlessly and with such capable tongues?  I hope the men at least  realize that they could actually use this superpower to score as effortlessly as Leonardo DiCaprio..  Is it hot in here, or is it just you?  would make just about any woman roll her eyes and immediately walk away from the offending beast. But Il fait chaud ici, ou c’est juste toi?  Well, now… that’s a different story entirely.

Expect The Unexpected

No matter how meticulously you plan your trip, I learned that at some point, your plans will go ridiculously awry. You have to be okay with that.  And frankly, sometimes it even turns out better that way.

My anal tendencies were fully engaged as I  planned the trip to end all trips.  I was going to be a goddam travel rock star.  My husband David would have to do nothing but be awestruck in my presence as I masterfully guided us from one perfectly planned location and activity to the next.  I had a binder that had all of the details of each destination separated by dividers.  Hotel confirmations, train transfers, tour bookings, and listings of various restaurants and things to do that I had carefully vetted from various travel websites. You’d think I was selecting a sperm bank donor instead of merely choosing a place to eat.

Umm yeah…so much for good intentions.  I failed to take into account a few things.  For one, many of the smaller train stations and older hotels do not have elevators.  This means that you have to use your own muscle power and balancing skills to transport your massive suitcase up and down multiple flights of stairs.  Bringing 7 pairs of shoes seemed like a good idea when I was packing, but not so brilliant when I was a sweaty, heaving, cursing mess dragging around what felt like a boulder with a handle on it.

I also failed to grasp the fact that apparently all of Europe shuts down on Sundays and holidays.   And I’m not talking American Sundays and holidays, which just means the mega churches and brunch spots swing into action while our stores mercilessly convert every last drop of sentimentality or goodwill into a shamelessly commercial endeavor.  No these people take their Sundays and holidays very seriously.  Their places actually close.  And they don’t care if you had planned on renting a car that day, or doing laundry, or buying groceries.  Oh well.

Another thing – unions in Europe apparently go on strike a lot.  While we were there, there was an air traffic controller strike, a train strike, and a museum worker strike.  I’m not sure why you’d strike if you get 32 holidays and 4 weeks of vacation a year, but I’m now convinced that we Americans are absolutely getting a bum deal.

We Are Really Into Ourselves

This one I’m still trying to come to grips with, since in my mind it is a reflection of a declining culture that views individuals as social media brands, and panders to our basest and most narcissistic natures.  We are all now the photo-shopped, oh-so-carefully crafted star of our own Facebook page, Instagram account, or Twitter feed.

The number one tourist souvenir that vendors were hawking everywhere was a selfie stick. The ancient Roman Coliseum?  Selfie Stick.  Venice in the moonlight?  Selfie Stick.  Michelangelo’s statue of David?  Selfie Stick. I saw people taking smiling selfies in front of the Nice memorial.  Yes, you heard me correctly.  Eww.

While attempting to look at The Birth of Venus by Botticelli in Florence, we couldn’t even get near it because of all the people crowding around it waiting to take their selfies.  They weren’t actually looking at the painting – no, of course not.  It was merely a backdrop for their photo op.   Another time I literally saw a young woman spend an entire hour taking pictures of herself in front of the Pantheon in Rome.  Who is that for?  No matter how hot you think you are, does anyone really want to see a thousand smiling selfies of you in front of various architectural wonders?  Back in the day, narcissists just commissioned artists to paint their portraits and hung them in their own houses, so we weren’t all forced to look at them 24/7.  Can we please go back to that?

Driving in Europe is Not for Amateurs.

Drivers in Europe do not have patience for mistakes.  Horns are used liberally and taxis careen through the narrow streets like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disneyland.  We even witnessed a road rage incident involving a priest right outside the Vatican. He actually got out of his car and was ready to fight the other driver.  Apparently celibacy makes you very angry.

We also ended up on the autobahn by accident more than a few times.  One wrong exit on the roundabout and – Bam! There you are, whether you intended to be or not.  We made multiple loops around a few roundabouts after that just to be sure.

It took us awhile to figure out the whole toll thing too.  Like a couple of monkeys trying to get a banana out of a vending machine, we simply couldn’t harness our combined brain power to figure out how to pay at one of the toll booths.  Our only option was to back up and ride the ass of a big semi off the toll road before the guard rail crashed down on us.   We managed to do so, but not without setting off an alarm so loud you’d think its use would be reserved only for alien invasions.  We spent the next hour looking in the rear view mirror waiting for the cops to come after us. We needn’t have worried.  Apparently there are no cops on the autobahn.  People can drive as fast as their car can go and lanes are a merely a suggestion.

Another time, David decided to toss the coins in the bin instead of merely drop them in.  The coins flew up in the air and landed…on the road.  Now don’t think that this was some tiny little chute which would require the skill of a Seth Curry for the coins to hit their mark. No…picture something the size of a kitchen sink literally right outside the driver’s side window.  I’m still not sure how he managed  to miss. Those also happened to be our last coins.  There were impatient cars behind us, and we were too close to the booth to open the car door – so that little mishap cost us a 10 Euro bill for a 1 Euro toll.

Now, lest you think I am too focused on the mishaps and trials of travel, let me add this final thought:

To Travel is To Truly Live

Remember the awe you felt as a child when you saw your first rainbow, or lay on your back – far from city lights – and gazed at the tapestry of stars above?  Remember the thrill of the wind in your hair when you finally rode a bike without training wheels or Dad holding on to the handlebars?  Travel allows us to sustain that child-like sense of wonder throughout our lifetime.

Travel enriches my soul.  It takes me to places, both literally and figuratively, I never imagined I’d be.  It helps me be a more tolerant person.  It gives me historical perspective.  It teaches me to think on my feet.  It helps me to understand that people everywhere are more alike than different.

And that’s the most important thing that I learned on my trip.