Ten years ago, as my wife and I were looking toward our 25th wedding anniversary, we were talking about a vacation to perhaps the west coast or someplace tropical to celebrate.
But before I knew it (as so often is the case with my spouse), we were going on a Mediterranean cruise. It was on the heels of the recession and she convinced me, price-wise, there was not much difference in going abroad versus doing something stateside. Some great deals were being offered to entice folks to travel and prop up the global economy.
So in October of that year we drove to Atlanta and caught a plane to Barcelona, where our cruise would begin. We spent a day there before boarding the ship, and from there we visited ports in France and Italy.
I had been overseas when I was 17 years old, but this was my wife’s first trip across the pond. She quickly acquired a taste for international travel. The cruise was delightful and the ports we visited were incredibly interesting and breathtakingly beautiful.
We both agreed, however, that we would probably not again choose a cruise as a way to see Europe. While it was a great way to hit some high points and see some awesome sights in a short amount of time, we much preferred the land part to the ocean part. At the end of a day in a port, we were always sad to have to get back on the boat.
Since that trip we visited England and France in 2013 with our daughter, and Ireland two years ago with another couple. And my wife went on a ladies’ trip to Paris in 2016. Did I mention she decided she likes overseas travel?
All of those trips were planned and executed by the love of my life. It takes planning like you wouldn’t believe, and I sure couldn’t – or wouldn’t – do it, but she has a real knack for it. Because we are not wealthy people, she spends untold hours researching and looking for the best deals possible. I’m the fortunate beneficiary.
For the past 18 months or so, she has been planning a trip to Italy and Austria to celebrate her retirement. I was lucky enough to be invited along, and for the first time in my working life I took two consecutive weeks of vacation. I returned a week ago. (I’m still a big jet-lagged, which really is a thing, but that’s another story).
A few days into our trip, another couple, longtime dear friends from Arkansas, joined us for a week. When we parted company, they went to parts of Italy we had visited during our cruise, while we headed north to Austria.
Since she no longer has the constraints of a day job, my wife added another week to her excursion, putting an exclamation point on the end of her career. Last Sunday when I boarded a plane in Vienna to come home, she boarded one for London where she met our younger son. As I write this, they are exploring Ireland.
By the time you are reading this, she should be home, but if I know her (and I do), she is already planning her next journey, with or without me.
I will not bore with you with a play-by-play (although you’re welcome to send me an email if you want more details), but I will make some fresh observations about European travel.
First, it is challenging. On this particular adventure, we depended on trains to get from place to place, starting at a huge station in Milan. Even though we had tickets to our first destination (the Cinque Terre, a national park on the northern coast that has five villages), it took a lot of questioning, as well as some trial and error, to find the right train.
We eventually found it and boarded, and everything seemed in order until we missed our stop. We went right past it to the next town because who knew the train platform extended into a tunnel?
Thinking we were doing the right thing, we confessed to a conductor, which was a big mistake. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say we received an Italian tongue-lashing, in addition to being penalized for riding that last leg without a ticket. But lesson learned and within a couple of hours we were where we were supposed to be.
Which leads me to another observation – you need to be flexible. While we had a rough day-to-day plan and reservations for places to stay, we learned to expect the unexpected (like missing a train stop).
And while the GPS apps on our phones were helpful as we walked around, they were not always 100 percent reliable on those tiny Italian streets. On more than one occasion, the destination was NOT in front of me as the pleasant female voice in my smartphone was telling me.
Even so, during some of the wrong turns and seeming wild goose chases, there were sights to be seen and experiences to be had. And with persistence, we usually found the attraction we were originally looking for.
As for eating, the European meal, especially in Italy, is an entirely different experience than that to which we are accustomed in the U.S. Our Easter Sunday lunch in the Tuscan area lasted three and a half hours, and I am not exaggerating.
That was a special holiday meal, but even routine dinner in a restaurant is not a quick affair. Unlike the American establishments that are turning tables as quickly as possible, the Italians make eating an event. In virtually every restaurant we visited, we had to ask for our check (after a minimum of two hours). It was considered rude, we were told, for management to make us feel rushed.
And even the most seasoned drinker (which I am not) may get a little out of whack, if you will, with the copious amounts of wine that are customarily served with dinner. A “table wine” which is very good and reasonably priced, might be served in a bottomless carafe and it’s so festive and (seemingly) light that it’s easy to extend the celebration if you know what I mean.
It helps to know a few phrases in the native language. If it’s only the greetings such as good morning and good evening, the locals seem to appreciate the effort, even if they speak English, and will be all the more accommodating if you need help (and you will).
Traveling light made all the difference in the world for us. We each took a carryon and another small bag on the plane, and that served us well the entire time, especially with all the train hopping we did. Anything bigger would have been a burden. (Kudos again to my wife for coming to this realization).
Finally, people from all over the globe seem to be traveling internationally like never before.
While I am convinced they don’t mean to be rude, some of these travelers seem to have little knowledge of or regard for personal space. Pushing and shoving were not uncommon, and we found the best way to handle it was to simply stand our ground without getting huffy.
More important than that, we tried to retain our own good manners, offering a smile to fellow travelers and our hosts, and getting to know them when possible. Obviously, if we had wanted strictly an American experience, we could have stayed in our own country.
My mother long ago taught me the importance of being polite. She was right, and it translates into any language.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.