How to See Europe on Only $2000 a Day

Those of us of a certain age will recall the popular travel guides of some years ago that touted “See Europe on $$$$ per Day”.  The fill in the blank number that I remember ranged from $20.00 to $200.00.  These books were largely responsible for the flood of American tourists that roamed through Europe from the 60’s onward seeking to immerse themselves in European culture.  The reality is that most of those that followed the proscriptions of such “How To” books became acquainted with small dingy hotel rooms, wine that tasted like paint thinner, and that particular brand of European body odor, but, nevertheless, returned home happy and knowing more than when they left.

I suspect that had S. and I not been busy raising babies and climbing young ambitions ladder we would’ve done the same (Europe on $20.00 or so a day) thing.  Not now however.  You see, among other things, our bedroom habits are different.  No, it’s not what you think.  It’s just that she goes to bed late and I get up early.  She watches TV before sleeping, I read.  I have to have coffee and the morning news by 6:00 a.m. and she has been known to sleep in well beyond my breakfast time.  Why do I confide this to you?  Only to explain that the normal European hotel room that you can stand in the center of and touch all four walls, and goes for a reasonable price, no longer works for us.  We need a snoring couch, preferably in a separate space.  And given the eccentricities of our various digestive systems, an extra loo is a strong plus.  Euros tend to call this type of room by various names, but they all have words like “deluxe”, “suite”, “grande” or “superior” in its name, and they make you pay through the nose big time for the small bit of comfort that we now find essential.  So we start out in a big hole trying to hew to a budget that’s at least one or two orders of magnitude higher than any normal traveling couple would target.  That is to say, if we only ate small bits from street vendors, drank from the communal pump, and purchased nothing more than trinkets made in China, we would have a really hard time with the $2000/day thing.  And, of course, we do none of the foregoing. There are many out there like us, and it’s this audience that needs my help.

Do not despair.  I will, forthwith, provide you will some rules of the road, so to speak, that will allow you to wallow at will in the finest of European culture and squeeze the Euro to manageable levels.  Pay strict attention for these are all proven, travel tested techniques  of preserving one’s financial firepower while partaking of the finest Europe has to offer.  Indeed, these maxims are useful to all travelers to the Old Country regardless of their budget.

1.  When you make your hotel reservation, pretend that you are a Canadian.  All you have to do is throw in “eh” every now and then and they won’t be able to tell the difference.  It’s well known in European hotel circles that they love Canadians and give them the best rates and love/hate Americans and always try to get twice the going rate from them because they are all rich and obnoxious.  An alternate strategy is to pretend that you’re from Bulgaria, because everyone knows that they have absolutely no money and always try to get by on the cheap.  This strategy is hard to execute because no one knows exactly what a Bulgarian sounds like, so you might get mistaken for a Swiss….which for obvious reasons would be a disaster.

2.  Never, and I mean never, eat in any restaurant that has, or has ever had a Michelin star, is reviewed in Zagat, or is even mentioned in TripAdvisor.com.  Zagats and TripAdvisor have screwed up every restaurant they’ve ever listed in their publications.  If the restaurant was, at one time, either a good or a cheap place to eat, the fact that they included them in their publication caused hordes of Americans and a few Germans to descend on them resulting in increased prices and reduced service.  You will thank me for this.  The Michelin star thing is a little more complex.  It is possible to get some good vittels in one of these places, but keep two things in mind:  1)  when you finish your meal you won’t have any idea what you just ate and will probably still be hungry and need to stop by the local Paki store for a bag or two of Salt and Vinegar Crisps and a Coke lite, and 2)  the price of the meal would feed a small tribe in Swaziland for about eighteen months.

3.  Always drink the local hooch.  This takes some prior planning because if you’re a creature of habit like me, you will automatically belly up to the bar and order your customary poison without thinking of geography.  This will be a big mistake.  For example, you’re sitting in the corner pub in Dublin and need something to get the parch out of your gullet.  Do not order your Michelobe Golden Ultra Light as you would back home unless you’re willing to relieve yourself of about $12.00 per pop.  Instead, order a ha’ pint o’ Guiness and nurse it along for a couple of hours.  I figure you’ll save about $100 bucks over the course of the evening and as a bonus the local squadron of barflies will have great admiration for your adventurous spirit.

4.  Never ask for or order anything from the wine list.  You won’t have ever heard of anything listed therein, and you will need a second mortgage on your manse to manage anything the waiter won’t giggle about.  I, however, have a fool proof method for ingratiating yourself to even the most arrogant of waiters and saving big bucks at the same time.  All you have to do is when he presents “le carte de vin” is say, “I understand you have a quite nice house red/white/rose.  I’m always so impressed by restaurants that have the savoir faire to provide such intelligent choices to their patrons.  Don’t you think that would be a good choice for us tonight”.  That’s all there is to it.  You’ll have the old bloke eating right out of your hand and save a couple of c-notes as well.

5.  A word about guides.  There are some compelling reasons to hire the services of a local guide.  You can skip the lines.  Yep, that’s what I said.  You will not have to stand in the interminably long lines of tourists from god knows where to see the venue of choice.  This is one of the odd things about Europe.  Everybody wants to see the same stuff, and given the law of supply and demand, the resulting thongs tend to cue up and wait, and wait, and wait to see whatever it is.  If you have a guide, they will either sneak you in the side door or bribe their cousin who is guarding the gate.  Either way you win.  Because of the effect of one above, you may be able to see two days worth of old churches and stuff in one day, or three days of same in two.  You get the drift.  Think of it, if by spending what a visit to your dermatologist cost, you can reduce your hotel and restaurant tabs by a day or two, you’ve made some real money.  If you take my advice and sign up for a guide, I must offer one caution.  Do not invite your guide to have lunch (or dinner) with you.  The reason is clear.  Most guides are notoriously stingy with their own money, and most likely will have eaten little or nothing when they get to you.  If, in an excess of kindness and desire to use the lunch hour to learn a little more about the architecture of Byzantine churches, you invite them to join you for lunch, they may eat you into the poorhouse.  At the minimum they will have all four courses and a double espresso to boot.  Worse yet, as most work by the hour, you’ll be paying their hourly rate to pay for their meal.  The bottom line….eat alone, and read your Frommer’s Guide.

So you see, it can be done.  You can enjoy all the Europe has to offer and do it on a budget, just by following a few time and travel tested techniques.

I just can’t wait to go back.

What They Don’t Tell You About Venice

Ok, I’ll admit it.  When S. made her desire known to go to Venice on our European jaunt, my first reaction was a giant groan.  First of all, I’ve been there, done that, and secondly, it’s really a white bread kind of place to go.  At best, a really old European Disneyland for adults.  Gimme a break….gondolas.  Tourists coming out of the old wazoo.  What a way to spend a few precious days when we could have been in Slovenia or some place really interesting.

But I was wrong.  Well, not completely wrong.  It is, more or less, a Disneyland for adults, but a very fine one, and one with significant history and culture.  Don’t worry, I’m not going to give you a history and culture lecture.  I know you wouldn’t stand for it.  I am, however, going to tell you a few things that your travel agent won’t tell you or you won’t see in Travel and Leisure.  Remember, you heard it here first.

1.  Venice floods about 100 times per year.  Yes, that’s right. Once every 2.4 days.  And it’s even more frequent in the fall and winter.  So if you’re going to be here for four days in say, September, you’re going to need your Wellies (that’s rubber boots for you American philistines).  Most often we think of a flood being caused by too much rain, but here it floods without rain, although rain will make it worse.  They say it’s a combination of off shore winds, phase of the moon, and tidal surges (whatever that means).  You would think that flooding would be a big deal, but not here.  Plus, it’s widely known that the whole place is sinking anyway.  They call it subsidence. I call it really bad planning.  In any case, when when the stars and the moon are in sync, and the waters rise above ankle level, they just bring out some risers, hook them together, put on their wellies, and go about their business.  Yes, It did flood one day while we were there, but not very much.

2.  You will get lost in Venice.  That, of course, is exactly the opposite of what you read in all the guide books.  They say, “yes there are 400 bridges over crooked canals, and no street goes straight for more than forty meters, and the system of addresses is incoherent, and the street signs, when they exist, are unintelligible, and there aren’t that many street lights”, but they rationalize, “it’s a small island intersected by one large canal.  How could you ever get lost?”  Believe me you can.

Our first night in town we had a recommendation to a casual outdoor restaurant, not more that seven minutes walk from our hotel.  Thirty minutes later, having asked four non-english speaking and two semi-english speaking locals, I stumbled into the restaurant.  It wasn’t even where the map said it was.  On the way home after a good meal and a bottle of the local plonk, I changed strategies and asked an American looking couple with map in hand, if they could help us.  They woman immediately started to give directions, and the man (who obviously had had some vini rossi himself) said, “hell, I’ve been here five days, and I’ve been lost the whole time”.

3.  Do not order a gin and tonic in any hotel bar in Venice.  I may have mentioned in a previous piece that I’m starting to get a little stingy about things, but I’ve never been stingy about my potion of juniper juice and quinine water.  Some things you just have to have.  There are two reason why I offer this admonishment.  First, you may be the only person to have ordered a G & T since Hemingway was here, and they will possibly not understand you, and at best, they will think that you’re just another crazy gringo.  Secondly, the common, every day glass of vitamin G will set you back more $$$ than any other drink on the menu.  More than a vodka martini with three olives, more than an Old Turkey old fashioned, and certainly more than any vino they sell by they glass.  At first this drove me mad, but finally a compassionate barkeep explained.  “Well sir,” he said, “first we have to sell you the gin, then we have to sell you the tonic, and, voila we sell you then gin and tonic. Two prices, one drink”.  That was my last G and T on this trip.  It cost, if you’re counting twenty-three Euros.  I think………yep, it’s about $33.81.  An $11 coke I can handle, but not this.

4.  Stay in a hotel that’s connected to the water.  This bit of insight should be read together with another rule, which is “don’t go cheap and try to avoid paying the $150 fare for the water taxi from the air port to the hotel”.  A little geography here.  Your hotel could reasonably be in one of three places.  The Lido which is a long narrow island about three km from Venice wherein resides numerous resort type hotels for those who require beaches with their culture, in Venice facing the lagoon or one of the too-numerous-to-count canals, or in Venice not facing……you get the idea.  Those of us in the know and willing to eat our wallet are met at customs by a representative of the hotel who leads you to a mini-van who drives you to the water port three minutes hence, loads you on to a private water taxi who whisks you to the dock at your hotel in about thirty minutes after a spectacular trip up the Grand Canal.  Same for the Lido.  But for those who think they can out smart the system and have gone cheap with an inland hotel……you will pay and pay and pay.  Here’s the system for that. You recover your luggage and haul it to the bus terminal or the public water taxi terminal and schlep it on board.  You are then taken to a public disembarkation point on the edge of Venice.  You then have the choice of humping it all the way to your hotel or taking yet another public water taxi known as a vaporetto to a landing point hopefully somewhat nearer your hotel.  Then you must find your hotel.  Refer to #1 and #2 above.  Think about doing this at night, with a map in your hand, dragging luggage up and down bridges while your wife is declaiming your stupidity and stinginess.  We met a couple hauling at least 100 pounds of luggage who said they had been wandering for an hour and a half and had lost hope of ever getting to their hotel.  See what I mean.

5.  Don’t pay a sit down price for a stand up drink and vice versa.  I’ve always thought that the epithet, “he’s a stand-up guy” was a compliment which suggested that the fellow in question was worth casting your lot with.  Come to find out, it means no such thing, or at least in Venice it doesn’t.  It pretty much means you’re a cheapskate.  Lemme explain.  Like everything else in this place there are layers on top of the layers of complexity of meaning.  For example, the three tiered pricing system for getting drinks or food.  The first tier is the stand up price.  That is to say, you place your order, you mill around for awhile wondering what’s happening, sooner or later your drink, food or what not is plunked down on the counter, and you stand there, cheek by jowl with the madding crowd taking your pleasure.  There may be six empty tables standing free nearby, but don’t even think about taking the stuff you’ve paid for and sitting to imbibe, for you haven’t paid the sit down price.  Which is the second tier.  You stand up, order your stuff, pay the sit down price (about 50% higher), get your stuff and take it to the table and sit down to chow down.  Be sure to keep your receipt for surely a stand up/sit down checker will come by and demand evidence that you belong where you are sitting.  Woe be unto the poor unsuspecting tourist who takes his stand up stuff and sits down. The checker will berate you to great shame.  Then there’s the third tier which envolves some combination of music, sitting, and eating/drinking.  It’s a lot more expensive and I don’t see much reason to spoil my glass of plonk with bad Bach, so I don’t have first hand knowledge.  I’m told, however, that it’s the standard practice to make you pay through the nose.  Maybe that’s why all those chairs are mostly empty except for the odd Korean tour group.

Remembering only these five simple rules of the road for Venice will save you untold pain and agony, not to mention beaucoup Euros.  If your really interested, I’ve got lots more where these came from.

Oh Paree, I Thought I Knew Ye

Any one who thinks they have the ability to understand a culture other than their own is a fool.  I remember an old asian hand, who after several miso wari’s (scotch and waters for you non-old asian hands), opined about a common malady of expats who had stayed too long.  We called it asian fever, and it happens in other areas of the world as well.  He told me that perfect comprehension of the Oriental culture came only when one finally realized that he would never understand.

It’s relatively easy to apply that wisdom to eastern cultures, where things really look different, but we often fail to understand that it applies equally to places where things on the surface seem and look like they do in the good old US of A.  As I had the experience of doing business and living in different parts of the world, I was often asked, “what’s the most difficult country in the world to live/work/do business in?”  I always immediately responded, “France”.  “France”, they would say.  “What about Japan, China, Mexico?”.  “Nope, it’s France”.  “Why”, they would ask.  “It’s simple”, I slyly rejoindered.  “White socks”.  “In no other culture in the world would a business man wear white socks with their business suit”.  (nb.  I did see some guys in Croatia a couple of years ago with white socks, but I think they were actually Russian mafia so they really don’t count as businessmen.)

Don’t get me wrong I love the French, and I even love most things French, but they are difficult, very difficult to get along with even if you want to.  The reason is simple.  They think they are always right….about everything.  And they are better.  Their food is better.  Their wine is certainly better.  Their art is superior.  Their designs are more fashionable.  Their way of doing things should be the model for everyone, if only we were smart enough to understand.  So if a fellow decides to wear white socks with his Armani suit, it must be a statement of fashion superiority and not be criticized.

One area in which they do have clear superiority….bureaucracy.  Their government bureaucrats can out bureaucrat any bureaucrat in the world.  Let me give a recent, personal example.  In preparing for this trip, my able assistant, T., came across a pile of French francs in the files.  When I say pile, I mean a pile.  I can’t now imagine why I would have toted them back from one or more of my trips, but I did.  As I am tending to get tighter with the purse strings as I age, I quickly referred to my knowledgeable-in-all-things friend Mr.Google.  Google informed me that, yes, they could still be converted to Euros and even gave me the exchange rate.  Happy days.  A windfall that might well pay expenses for my Paris holiday.  To be fair, even Google warned that I would have to report to the Banc de France and fill out some forms.

At the first free moment, me, with an envelope stuffed full of francs, and S. (who came along only grudgingly) made a bee line for the venerable Banc de France, only to find out there are two of them.  One on the left bank (rive gauche) for you francofiles, and one on the right bank.  I had a 50/50 chance of picking the right one.  Nope, it was the left bank.  We found the left bank Banc of France which happily was in St. Germain du Pres…one of my favorite areas, and prepared to turn old paper into new money.  But the door to the bank wouldn’t open, and it looked awfully dark inside, but I thought I saw movement.  I tried knocking to draw their attention.  No luck.  Then I saw the small brass plaque with instructions to “sonner la cloche…”.  I didn’t know what cloche was but I was pretty sure sonner was to ring, and there was a button near by, so I sonnered la cloche.  The door opened, S. and I stepped in, the door closed, but the opposing door did not open.  We were trapped in a glass box.  Again the brass plaque.  (Why would anyone put ring the bell instructions on a brass plaque?…see the paragraphs above).  I rang, and the second door opened into a cavernous semi-dark room which at first I thought to be empty of people.

My eyes adjusted, and I saw a man in a short sleeve white shirt and black tie (see paragraph on white socks above) with numerous imposing signs of instruction in front of him.  None were in brass.  I ignored the signs and dumped my envelope of francs on the counter in front of him.  Without a blink, he started slowly, and I mean slowly sorting them into two piles.  One which he labeled oui, and the other non.  Each time he put one in the pile, non, he shook his head, so I was getting the idea that these were not going to pay for my wine tonight.  The non pile was about twice the oui pile, but they all looked the same to me.  I started to ask, but nah, I thought, if I said, “pourquoi?, I wouldn’t understand the answer, and he might move more of the notes to the non pile.  After he tidied up the piles he handed me a form with detailed questions on two sides.  All in french, of course.  I guessed what I could, ignored what I couldn’t translate.  It took about five minutes.  I handed it back to him, he shoved it back to me and pointed to a bench on the other side of the room.  He waived me back to him, handed me a small slip of paper with the number 50-17 on it and pointed again to the bench.  The rest was easy.  I waited until my number came up, took the form and my francs and with my best “bon jour madame (she was definitely a madame), handed them to her through a security slot.  She read the form, clucked several times, punched numbers into a machine and gave me two more forms to sign.  When I returned the forms, she counted the money once again and put it through the slot.  With a polite merci madame, I headed for the door.

Maybe they are superior after all.

In Paris They Speak French, Don’t They ?

Let me sum up Paris for you in a word.  C’est magnifique.  Well, that’s two words I guess.  No, really it’s three words.  And that’s part of the problem.  They speak a very funny language here.  It’s sounds good, but it’s impossible to understand, and, god forbid, don’t try to speak it to them.

Those of you who know me well, know that I am a bit of a striver for languages, particularly French. I’ve spent more money and time conjugating irregular verbs and trying to understand the subjunctive vs. indicative moods than anyone I know.  Alas, it’s all been for naught.  My two semesters of college study. My eighteen months of twice weekly tutoring by a very comely french maestra in London, two months of morning visits from a local professeur when we stayed in the south of France for the summer, and hundreds of hours of self study.  The result….not only can no french person understand me, it’s more likely than not that they will understand something entirely different than that which I thought I said.

Por ejemplo, no, that’s Spanish isn’t it.  Ok, par exemple…..we we doing the tourist thing visiting the Tour Eiffle (see how I worked in the French rendition), after waiting in a long, long line I approached the clerk with considerable linguistic bravado having had more than sufficient time to compose my forthcoming conversation with the ticket seller.  “Bon jour madmoiselle” I said with an entirely American smile.  Then I panicked.  She wasn’t really young, but I couldn’t see a wedding ring.  But then again, she wasn’t old.  She was kind of in the middle.  Should it have been “bon jour madame”? How was one to know for sure?  Did I offend her by misstating her demographic.  Perhaps I had gotten off to a bad start.   I plunged ahead.  I had translated the sign overhead and knew that there were different prices according to which level one desired to go.  I knew S. would want to go to the top so I said, “Je voudrais, deux billets, sil vous plait,…”.  I was certain I had nailed the sil vous plait, but I had used first person conditional of the verb vouloir (to want) thinking that I wanted to be polite without being obsequious, but then again, maybe I should have said, je veux, which is first person present tense which translates as a more direct request as in I want.  One of my many instructors said one can never go wrong being too polite so je voudrais it is.  Deux billets for two tickets seemed safe, but perhaps I should have clarified, “billets pour deux personnes”.  Nah, it’s clear one would only buy two tickets for two people so deux personnes would have been redundant.

I plowed on to the more difficult part.  I wanted to go to the top, the third level according to the instructions, so I needed to indicate that in the completion of my sentence.  My brain froze.  I could not think of the word for level in French.  Hmm….what I needed was a work around.  You can’t stump us clever Americans.  I would use “etage” as a substitute.  Etage means floor as in the first floor of your house.  What I wanted was third floor because floor three (etage trois) sounded stilted.  So I settled on troisieme, but it had to come after etage, I thought.  I completed the sentence with much satisfaction and only the smallest of doubts.  “Bon jour madmoiselle.  Je voudrais deux billets pour etage troisieme.”  I handed her a one hundred Euro note which is my fall back for not being able to understand when they say the price.  She gave me my change and two tickets and pointed to another line.

It would only be a matter of time before we were on the top of the Tour Eiffel avec une view magnifique de toute de Paris.  We had to change elevators at the second level which meant another line which we braved after the obligatory photos.  As I passed my billets to yet another clerk, he grimaced and wagged a finger in my face then pointed away from the elevator.  Saying, “non, non, non”.  There was no mistaking his message.  We had the wrong tickets and were not allowed to go to the top.  I inspected the tickets to confirm my fear, and, yes, there it was.  A large two printed boldly in black.

How could I have gotten this result when I did everything right.  My French was well thought out and perfect grammatically.  Maybe a few problems with the accent, I guess.

C’est la vie pour un American en France.

A Bad Start to a Good Trip

I don’t know who decided to put JFK at the south eastern end of Long Island, but he surely doesn’t have many friends in those who have had to brave the impossible traffic of the Grand Central and Van Wyk Expressway to get there.

Our American Airlines flight was scheduled to depart at 5:45 so I figured, what the hey, leave in plenty time…say 2:30 and don’t sweat it.  Great plans of mice and men, or something like that.  Our limo was late; only twenty minutes, but that put us dangerously close to the magic 3:00 window for making it through the mid-town tunnel.  I debated telling the driver to hit the FDR and the Tri-Borough Bridge (now the RFK), but I figured he’s the pro.  We lost another twenty minutes or so fighting the traffic between 39th and 36th at the entrance to the tunnel, but we made it through without a traffic calamity.

The Grand Central was slow but moving until the split for the Van Wyk.  We were now stop and start, with more stop than start.  I asked the none to friendly driver casually, “shouldn’t JFK be about fifteen minutes beyond LaGuardia?”  He laughed, or more like snorted.  “Hah”, he said.  “Not at this time of day”.  “Well then”, I timidly replied, “how long do you think”.  He snarled over his shoulder as Sandra was elbowing me in the ribs, “if I was a fortune teller, I wouldn’t be schleping people like you to JFK in rush hour traffic”.  I wisely nodded in agreement and let the subject drop.  The trouble was, however, that I’d carefully calculated the complicated calculus of my liquid intake and interval limits between potty visits.  Those male readers of you well into their sixth decade know whereof I speak.  I will only say that we were reaching my interval limit faster than we were reaching JFK.  A small panic started to creep up my….well let’s just say I was starting to feel some pressure in my nether regions.

Suddenly on the verge of full fledged panic, the traffic started to untangle.  We made our way around a clunker stalled in the left lane and into the sunshine of full speed ahead.  In ten minutes were were in front of the terminal, piles of luggage at our feet.  We organized ourselves for a dash to the nearest relief station, but S. was dragging me down.  I left her and the luggage with a puzzled information desk clerk and set a new sprint record for a man with two knee replacements and full bladder.  At last…..  Ahhhh.  All ended well.

All of this wouldn’t have happened if the Queens County supervisors hadn’t decided to exercise eminent domain in 1943 over a patch of land nineteen miles from NYC that was then occupied by a politically impoverished golf course named Idlewald Golf Club, and proceeded to build what was supposed to be a relief airport for the overflow from LaGuardia.  As you early travelers will know, Idlewald Airport (IDL) was JFK before it was JFK and right after it was Major General Alexander E. Anderson Airport, and New York International Airport.  Suffice it to say that it’s now the busiest international gateway in the US as well as the largest volume air cargo terminal and almost as hard to get to as Narita in Tokyo.

It’s also at least an hour and a half from mid-town New York in rush hour traffic, and if you can’t make it that long, there’s a Chevron station with an almost clean restroom in Astoria.  Stop there.

PS.  We had a good flight to Paris.