My husband and I recently took our first-ever European trip (and first-ever month-long vacation!). After week one, we realized we should start documenting our observations – little things we especially felt were fun, interesting, and good to know and remember for the future.
Throughout the trip, we continued to add to the list. I thought it would be fun to share it here as both a way of passing on our knowledge and experiences and also simply for the sake of documenting it for ourselves for the future.
To make it easier to digest, I organized our random list into the following categories: food and water, language, bathrooms, money, gear, mannerisms and miscellaneous, and transportation.
A few disclaimers:
- This has nothing to do with piano teaching (hope that’s OK 🙂 )
- It is in no way exhaustive.
- As the title states, this list is completely random and consists only of our thoughts and opinions.
- While we know it’s important not to overgeneralize, sometimes there are just things that “stuck out.” We realize it doesn’t mean an entire population/culture is that way, it’s just little things that we noticed or found interesting from the moment in time /location we experienced.
- Our opinions were formed by the places visited including Germany, Netherlands, London, and France.
If you have had the same experiences and observations or found this post useful for your travels, I would love to hear about it in the comments!
Food and Water
- A basic French breakfast at a restaurant was a pastry, a hot drink of choice, and a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice.
- Fresh-squeezed orange juice is a staple in France. They have machines in grocery stores, restaurants, and even on small portable food carts.
- Mineral water (sparkling water) is a staple beverage, perhaps even more than tap water – especially in restaurants. Tap water is referred to as “still” water in places. Don’t expect to be served free tap water at a restaurant in Germany or the Netherlands or to get a glass of water with ice anywhere. In France, it is at least normal to have a liter-size glass bottle of cold tap water brought to the table. You have to ask for it, though.
- Anything that was “sweet” – whether it was juice, a pastry, cake, candy, or other desserts – always tasted less sweet than the same item might taste in the US. It was great!
- In Paris especially, the whole city felt comprised of 50% restaurants, 25% stores, and 25% business, this is a shot in the dark, but the point is that everywhere you go, it feels like all you do is walk past restaurant after restaurant. Food and hotels are very expensive in Paris, and while “fast food” or just “hole-in-the-wall takeaway food” exists, it wasn’t as easy to come by as sit-down restaurants.
- Most of the time, restaurants and cafes are fine for you to sit and just have a coffee, but we did witness instances where restaurant staff turned away people who were only looking to sit and have coffee.
- In general, coffees were always small, whether it was an espresso or a latte – except in London, where we could get a larger cup of black coffee. If you wanted something similar to a black cup of coffee in the US, you had to order a “long black.” A short black is a shot of espresso, a long black has hot water added – basically what we call an “Americano,” except they were still never more than 6-8 oz
- Our friends in France told us what kind of coffee they drink based on the time of day. In the morning, they’re more likely to have a cafe au lait, a coffee with milk, or a latte. After lunch, they have a shot of espresso – a “short black.”
- In France, they choose alcohol at meals based on the course they were eating, so you might have a glass of champagne with the appetizer, a glass of red wine with the meal, a glass of white with the cheese course, and a coffee with dessert.
- The Google Translate app is a must. It has settings where you can take a photo, and it will read the image, and even a conversation mode where you can tell it to listen to the conversation in one language but type it out to you in another so you can understand what’s being said.
- Germans often reply “a little” when asked if they speak English but usually spoke quite well. We felt more of a language barrier in France than in Germany or the Netherlands.
- Learning how to say hello, goodbye, please, and thank you in whatever country you’re traveling in goes a long way. Although a large majority speak English, don’t just start by asking them if they speak English. It’s respectful to show you are making a little effort.
- Besides those mentioned above, it’s also helpful to know a few more words such as 1-3 (for ordering), basic restaurant words like coffee, water, menu, and check, and transportation words like train, subway, bicycle, etc.
- “Public” restrooms are normal. Where I live in the US, you can generally find a public restroom in any restaurant or gas station but having an actual public city restroom is not usual. In Europe, more literal “public” restrooms are available in the town square or somewhere in the city. While this is nice, finding a bathroom was always a task – you couldn’t just duck into a restaurant and ask to use their bathroom.
- In Germany and the Netherlands, most public restrooms cost €0.50 or €1 (Euro), but they were well managed and always clean, making it worth it.
- Every home, hotel, and Airbnb we stayed in used the same showerhead – maybe, give or take a few. They all had an 8-10” overhead rain shower and a hand wand. Even the knobs were the same style and chrome color.
- Almost all toilets use the two-flush method.
- In London and France, we could use credit cards anywhere, but frequently in Germany and the Netherlands, there were instances where restaurants would not accept credit cards – only cash (Euro) or bank transfers. They would simply write down their bank account number on paper, and you would use an app to organize a transfer from your checking account. Sometimes you didn’t even know this until it was time to pay!
- Don’t ask to split a check. You’re expected to organize transfers to each other and pay the bill in one payment.
- We only had €200 (Euro) cash, which was all we needed for ten days in Germany and the Netherlands. After that, we got by with just a credit card entirely.
- Have €0.50 and €1.00 (Euro) coins available at all times for public restrooms.
- Rain gear – If you visit the Netherlands or travel in the fall, be prepared with solid rain gear and water résistent shoes. I had a lightly waterproof windbreaker and a small umbrella, which wasn’t enough. We took a tour in Amsterdam on a day it poured buckets. My tennis shoes soaked up the water, and I walked in wet socks for 4 hours. We wished we had our full-body waterproof rain pants and jackets available. There was no stopping the tour for the rain.
- Walking – I regret having my tennis shoes be my comfortable walking shoes and wish I had taken my waterproof hiking shoes. While I knew we would walk a lot, it was even more than I expected. Cobble-stoned streets are everywhere, and even in my tennis shoes, the cobble-stone took its toll on the feet after several hours. I also had two pairs of very comfortable “fashion” tennis shoes. While it was nice to change out shoes, they were not great for walking on cobblestones daily.
Mannerisms and Miscellaneous
- Londoners don’t watch where they’re walking and will practically walk right into you if you don’t move. I can’t tell you how many times we experienced this to the point it felt very obvious and worthy of this list!
- Forget the friendly car wave. In France, whenever I waved at someone from the car as we drove by, they looked at us strangely.
- We weren’t there to notice this personally, but our friends in the Netherlands said that the Dutch are very direct. For example, if you are at someone’s house for dinner, they will tell you to your face that it’s time for you to leave. It’s not in a mean way, they are just very matter-of-fact. In a way, this is nice once you get used to it because what you see is what you get, there’s no being polite for the sake of being polite and making you guess how they feel.
- Every home, hotel, and Airbnb we stayed in did not use a top sheet on the bed. There was always a bottom sheet and then a comforter. Most of them had slipcovers, so it was like a duvet where you could remove the cover to wash. (We really missed the top sheet, though!)
- Sometimes a Queen size bed was either a single mattress or two twin mattresses in a Queen frame, and sometimes, even had separate twin-size comforters on a Queen size bed (as seen in the photo of one of our Airbnb’s above).
- London and Paris do not have a lot of skyscrapers like Chicago and New York. Most of the buildings are 6-8 stories.
- While we were glad we visited Paris and there were lots of lovely things about it, there were many unpleasant things we heard from others that we found to be true. There were LOTS of people, a lot of homeless, a lot of urine smells, and (in places) trash just strewn over the street. On top of that, as you’ll read below, the metro (subway) could be crazy at times. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t everywhere, but it’s frequent enough it’s a noticeable “thing.”
- In France, we noticed very few stop signs – mostly yield – even at intersections.
- In France, when they pass in the passing lane, they leave the blinker on the whole time they’re in the passing lane.
- In Germany, on the Autoban (freeway with no speed limit), if you get in the passing lane, pass immediately and get back over as quickly as possible.
- Speed limits – Rather than just stating the current speed limit, speed limit signs indicate a start and end zone. The zones will also change remarkably quickly. It will go from 130km suddenly down to 80km after just a mile, then change again. Lastly, the no-speed limit sign on the German Autoban is exhilarating.
- There are almost no police on the “interstate.”
- When you drive around a roundabout, you don’t put your blinker on when you enter the roundabout, you put it on when you’re ready to exit.
- The Eurail Pass (made for non-European residents) is managed and maintained by a private company. We purchased the Eurail Global Pass, where we had five days in a one-month period with unlimited travel. Some trains require reservations, however, and depending on the ticket, it may require an additional booking fee. I think we experience anywhere from $8-25. The company only accepts a certain number of Eurail pass bookings, and we almost did not get a train from Amsterdam to London due to not understanding this.
- Trains in London and France felt much easier than in Germany and the Netherlands. I’m not sure why, it just felt that way. It could be because we started in Germany and the Netherlands and got better at figuring them out, or some of it could be simply due to language barriers. I’m honestly not sure I can pinpoint why I felt that way.
- Train times are when they leave, not when they arrive, so a 7:56 train may already be sitting there at 7:52, but it will depart at 7:56.
- Buying metro (subway) tickets in Paris was very confusing. Once we figured it out, it was fine, but what we figured out after lots of research is that for the six days we were there, the “visitor” pass that you would assume would be the best was actually more expensive than a weekly pass. It was just tricker to obtain the weekly pass because we had to submit a photo they attached to the ticket (like a mini passport photo). We had to find our way to a metro (subway) station with a photo booth. It was worth the extra effort, though.
- The Paris metro (subway) is insane. During peak hours, people pack in like sardines. Just when you think another person can’t squeeze in, 12 more do. If you’re claustrophobic, you might consider another means of transport.
If you have had the same experiences and observations or found this post useful for your travels, I would love to hear about it below!
I love your post! Thank you for sharing. I traveled to England, France, Spain, and Italy 25 years ago with a college group and tour guide. These were the positives: I liked the fact that the guide told us everything we needed to know, we had no trouble in transit, language was not an issue, and I saw many great attractions without any hassle. For a single young woman I felt very safe. However, I disliked that everything we did was very scheduled and we had almost zero time to explore on our own, especially in museums–we were very rushed through. I, too, saw a lot of homelessness, especially in Paris. Little children who should have been in bed were pick-pocketing in the streets well after midnight! Also, this was before Euros and the money exchange was confusing. On the rare occasion that we could do a little shopping, I was often undecided about what to buy and how to count the money. And I learned the hard way that I could not take something back or make an exchange. One of the oddest experiences ever was in the city of Nice, Italy at a coin-operated public bathroom on the street. Inside a beautifully tiled little room was just a bowl in the middle of the floor–it looked like a large salad bowl with not even a seat on the bowl! No way to empty it, no toilet paper, no towel, no sink, or even hand-sanitizer. I thought it was a joke they were playing on the foreigner! I hope THAT has changed since then.
Yes, I agree that when you’re with a tour group, there are some benefits, but not having the flexibility to explore on your own can be disheartening.
Our friends warned us before we arrived in Paris to not wear any jewelry because they were known to go so far as yanking them off your neck. They said that they don’t prosecute children so they roam free to pickpocket, often working in pairs!
That is so crazy strange about the bathroom – wow!
Thanks for sharing all of this!
OOPS! I think a correction to my post is needed. The city Nice is in France, I believe, not Italy. We were somewhere on the coast of Italy when I encountered that oddity of a bathroom. Forgive me–it was quite some time ago! But I would love to go back some day!
So interesting, Amy! I love reading and learning about all things travel, especially first-hand from those who have been there. I’m sure I’ll be looking back over this when I get to take my month-long Europe vacation. 😉 Excited that you got to do this and that you made it home safely!