How to survive — and enjoy — your vacations in Europe
Since today is a holiday for us Americans, we’ve turned the shop over to the Frenchwoman in our midst. Eleonore Bonne-Verfaillie is a Paris native and a freelance communication consultant working with the Cross Cultural Institute in Wichita. Her blog, inthemiddleofamerica.tumblr.com, chronicles her discoveries of the “real” America. Today we’ve asked her to share some advice from a European point of view for Americans planning a visit overseas.
Sometimes American tourists may not feel welcome in Europe, and I know some of them do not feel safe. And it really makes me feel bad. Here are a few words of advice from the Paris girl I am to the American travelers you are – or will be soon.
Blend in style
One of the best things you can do to avoid this feeling is to try to look a little bit less like an American tourist and a little bit more like the locals. Do you really, really need to wear big white sport sneakers? And safari shorts? You do need to be comfy but you do not need to gear up as if you were going to hike a jungle. Europe is a pretty civilized continent.
White sneakers would literally signal you as an American tourist. Highly branded items and big cameras might attract the attention of pickpockets. So avoid showing too much; it’s a good way to avoid trouble. And it can actually look impolite and disrespectful to walk into some fancy shops, restaurants or clubs in sportswear attire – you might even be denied entrance. Colorful tops, black yoga pants and neon shoes (like those you actually wear at the gym) are nice. You will feel better in them when you will pass by the super glam Firenze ladies. By the way, dress code adaptation is a perfectly rational reason to go shopping.
Tune in the melody
You may not speak fluent Italian, Spanish and Czech, but giving it a try is always highly appreciated by the locals. Learn a few key phrases from your guidebook such as “I do not speak Croatian” “Do you speak English?” and “Can you help me?” Even just “hello” and “thank you” with a heavy accent will make a friendlier introduction than speaking English. Bear in mind some people do not speak English, and might feel uncomfortable or self-conscious just because they do not understand you.
If you cannot speak a word, you can try to adapt the speed and the volume of your voice (Americans do have the reputation to be loud). Make sure your tone of speech is very clear – avoiding irony, sarcasm and jokes. Non-verbal communication can be tricky too – do not take anything for granted, a friendly gesture from your part may be misinterpreted!
Leave the car behind you
If you travel in Europe, there are high chances you will go mostly to major cities. Most of them are not suited for car driving – unless you really love traffic jams and parking frenzy. On the other side, most of them have a good public transportation infrastructure. You can probably purchase a daily or weekend card to travel around the city in buses, tubes and trolleys. You might even find bikes to rent. It will allow you to discover the different neighborhoods and catch a glimpse of the local way of life. Actually half of Paris households do not own a car! And believe me, being squeezed in a Paris underground train with high-heeled business women and young Rasta kids is part of the experience.
The best way to really discover European cities is probably walking around, and maybe getting lost at some point. Remember that space is scarce in the Old World, and everything is much smaller. Walking is also a good workout, so you can indulge freely in gnocchis, tapas and pastries (this is the skinny b— secret). It’s not a marathon though, and you can take your time, wander around. Prague, Rome or Dubrovnik are open-air museums, and you can visit all that for free (some guidebooks feature walks). It will be good fun for the children as well, but a lot of cities are not very stroller-friendly yet. Amsterdam and Berlin are favorites with small ones.
Plan for restrooms
Convenience is very big in America, and you may not find the same level of service everywhere in Europe.
Whenever you are in a restaurant, café, or museum, think about taking a bathroom break. There are not many public bathrooms in European cities, so be sure to take precaution before heading out. And the restrooms you will find might not be as spacious, comfy or clean as you would expect, so bringing tissues and wipes can be a good idea.
You might not always be offered a big glass of water with a lot of ice everywhere you go. Fountains and free refills are not very common either. And a lot of beverages are served without ice. It does not mean waiters are mean, it is just different customs! You can ask for what you want with a smile, and you will get it. If you are walking around with children, buy a bottle of water whenever you can in a local grocery to keep the family hydrated.
Even if you go to England, where everybody speaks English, the culture will be different, and it can be an unsettling experience. My advice would be to consider every moment like an adventure and make the most of it. Go on and get confused by the bus map, walk in weird stores and order some unknown food. Most food is delicious and food markets are some of the best places for exotic immersion. It will probably be cheaper and more interesting to try any sandwich from the local bakery than to go to KFC or McDonald’s.