Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing my experiences in traveling to continental Europe for the first time. I’m a nervous traveler and I like to pre-plan and organize as much as possible. My brain is always boiling with what-ifs. Indeed, I always manage to get myself into some kind of shenanigans because I misunderstood something. This trip was no exception!
The first thing to know about Europe is the distinction between the continent of Europe, the European Union, and what is known as the Schengen Area. Young people, you may not have noticed this yet, but world geography and political borders will probably continue to shift over the next several decades, aka: “your lifetime.” This will affect any bucket list or checklist you may have. Take notes; there will be a test! You can go to a country like Germany without ever learning that distinction, but it does affect what currency you can use and whether you need a visa. If part of your travel fantasy involves collecting passport stamps, alas, they don’t give out as many as one would hope.
Okay, so I was preparing for this trip by prematurely inducing jet lag in myself. This worked out well during the trip, but it did make me a little dopey and inattentive at home. I woke up at 4:15 AM and never stopped moving for the next 12 hours, getting my house and pets ready for nearly three weeks of absence. I wound up packing without using a checklist or triple-checking everything like normal. I forgot a micro-USB cable, of which I have at least half a dozen, and had to pay 15 euros for a new one. I also left without locking the dog door.
On backpacking trips, I protect my pack by zipping it into an enormous canvas duffle bag, or “hockey bag.” It keeps any straps from getting caught or torn off. It also simplifies things. I know from experience that there will be between 30-42 pounds in my pack, so my luggage won’t be overweight. There is so much extra room in the hockey bag that if I forget anything, I can just toss it in and pack it more securely later. Extra socks? Zing! Nothing but net. (Mixing sport images…). I make sure this bag is waiting by the front door the night before I leave, so I don’t have any last-minute freak-outs. I also bring two folding nylon bags for the flight: a small day pack for my laptop and other essentials, and a shopping bag for my emergency food stash.
I brought, in weight and volume, significantly more food than clothing. That’s clothing for the entire trip and food for the flight over.
I have used a shuttle service several times, and I hate them. The quality of the same brand is highly variable from one city to another. In my area, they always come early and they will try to leave without you, even if they’re 45 minutes ahead of schedule and they didn’t knock on the door. I wish I was making that up. This is the main reason my luggage is ready the night before. I don’t have to feel quite as sorry for the next passengers who miss their flights because the dispatcher assigned too many distantly scattered pickups to the same van. Don’t blame me, I’m an hour and 15 minutes ahead of what I originally booked! We use a car service because it’s still cheaper than the long distance parking lot at the airport. It’s the kind of expense that seems like a splurge, until you find that you can amortize it by booking a cheaper flight and/or cooking your own dinners during the trip. (Or only owning one vehicle). If you have a friend or family member who will even consider giving you a ride to the airport, even one time, treasure this person as a demigod.
I’m a Trusted Traveler, which means I applied for a special program, paid the fee, got fingerprinted, had a full criminal background check, and went through an in-person interview. For this opening of the kimono, I get to go through the same short line as the first-class passengers, who could be felons for all we know. I can often keep my shoes on and I don’t always have to take out my laptop or my shower bag. At some airports, I still have to go through the same line as everyone else. At others, I also get secondary search and a body scan anywhere from 50-80% of the time. Outside of the US, my “trusted traveler” status means nothing whatsoever. The upshot is that it wasn’t really worth the time or the expense, even though I fly all the time. I get secondary search significantly more often now that I go through the “short line.” When I’m traveling with anyone else who isn’t in the program, I have to wait for them anyway.
When you cross international borders, you get a little paper slip to fill out on the plane. “Anything to declare?” “Yes, I declare that it sure is muggy today!” You’re supposed to state whether you are bringing more than a certain dollar amount of cash or valuables, whether you are smuggling antiquities or exotic animals, and whether you’re unintentionally unleashing an ineradicable agricultural pest that will cause famine in nine nations.
I took off from LAX, an airport that seriously deserves a makeover in a city known for them, and made my first stop in Heathrow, after awkwardly sleeping between both halves of a married British couple. This is one of those great travel technicalities. I’m in jolly old England! Except not! I didn’t get my passport stamped or leave the terminal. Do I “count” England as a place I’ve been? It’s something to consider, because they have anomalous electrical outlets, and with a three-hour layover one may need to charge a device or two. It’s a weird airport because I walked about a mile of hallways, motorized walkways, and escalators before reaching the line for security. I got my stuff scanned again, even though it had been through security in another highly secure area immediately before I got on the plane I just left.
At this point, I had slept about 7 hours over two days. Jet lag is something you only intellectually understand until you’re caught up in it. Then you don’t intellectually understand much of anything. It is distinguishable from garden-variety drunkenness only in that it doesn’t come with little paper umbrellas and also is not fun. I wanted to participate a little and test out some of my nice fresh German language skills. On a plane, when you are so loopy from exhaustion that you can’t even calculate how many hours you’ve been traveling, which will add up to 19, is not the best place to do this. The next worst place is in going through Customs.
So I’m standing in a line at the Hamburg Airport. The sign is blue with gold stars and it has “EU” and “CITIZENS” on it. I live in Southern California and I’m like super tired, okay? I read and understand this as “Estados Unidos” and I stand there. It takes me a full five minutes to realize I’m in the other line, the “All Passports” line. I go over there, get stamped, and then get completely confused by the gate. It looks like a railing to me and I turn around and start to walk back. “Hallo? Hal-LO!” calls the irate border guard. I’m turning in circles and about to make an international incident out of myself. My dog could have figured it out sooner than I did.
Now I’m alone in a foreign country where I don’t have the verbal skills of einen kindergärtner. I have 50 pounds of luggage balanced between three bags. I make the mistake of collecting my pack before going to the ladies’ room, where I have to take it off and put it on again in an enclosed space, alone, like a camel dancing the hornpipe in a phone booth. I’m so cognitively impaired I could lose a trivia battle to someone who had been sniffing glue. It’s about to get dark. The goal is to get across town and meet my husband at the hotel. He’s already anxiously texting me to make sure I made it.
This is one of those beautiful moments of trust in altruism. I simply write down the address of the hotel on a post-it, walk outside, find a cab a few yards from the door, and hand the note to the driver. We have a peaceful 20-minute drive, listening to Mark Knopfler, an artist I respect and whom I now realize has a Germanic name. We pull up and I pay him in the euros my husband gave me before he left. I do my best to convey my thanks. Usually, I like to interview/totally annoy cab drivers, asking them about their most memorable fares, what happens when someone barfs in their cab, etc. Riding with someone in a comprehension-free zone is a different kind of experience.
I check in with completely fluent desk clerks, all of whom most likely speak at least three languages. I am told that my room is on the first floor, and I walk down the hall, seeing nothing but conference rooms. Now, I know the “first floor” in Europe is what Americans call the “second floor,” but hearing colloquial English (and being jet lagged) made me think they had made the cultural translation as well. I walk back, feeling sheepish and provincial, and take the elevator. I find our room, which is empty. My poor husband has gone downstairs to meet me. He comes in, looking like I have just been saved from drowning, and lifts me off the floor. I’m equally glad to see him, after nearly a week apart, but I’m self-conscious about my clothes and the 27 hours since my last shower.
Guess what? In fifteen minutes, we’ll be going to a business dinner with his boss’s boss.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.