We have been traveling now for 20-something days. If you’ve been following the blog, you are aware that we left the US and flew to London, England. After spending a week or so traveling around England we crossed the channel to France. After about a week in France we took a train directly north to the Netherlands, from where we also visited Belgium.
And I had a thought. And this thought is for those of you who have expressed that you “wish you were joining us” or who “want to travel abroad someday”. Pay close attention, this is for you.
Of the four countries we have traveled in thus far, we picked what I could best- compare to a beginner, intermediate, and advanced experience.
Beginners, listen up! If you are an American first time overseas traveler, England is for you. The UK is brilliant! There are many things to see and do, “something for everyone” from the castle-connoisseur to the ancient history sites dating back to early paganism such as Stonehenge. Also, there are plenty of colloquialisms and different uses of familiar words, thereby eliminating some of the expected stressors of international travel.
One thing you’ll notice in England is that everything is written in English, for the most part. Need to read a menu? No problem. Wondering which train or carriage [bus] to take? No worries! Look at the brochure or the sign at the stop. Wondering how to use the ATM? Again, no big deal because you can read it in English. Are you lost? While possibly unnerving, you will have no difficulty in eventually finding your way because you can ask someone, compare the landmark you are standing near with the one on the map. It’s brilliant, really.
Concerned that this may not be “authentic” enough? Trust me, there are still plenty of new experiences to be had. For example, the architecture is very different from what we Americans are accustomed to. There are gorgeous cobblestone streets, old buildings and monuments, castles and spires galore! There are many icons that you have always heard about and wanted to see, yet perhaps never realized where they were? Now you can go see them in “the comfort of a familiar language”.
And by the way, see how many days it takes you to get accustomed to the flow of traffic [don’t know that I really did].
Intermediate traveler? You may enjoy taking on the Netherlands or Belgium. It can be a bit tricky here because many signs are in Dutch or whatever. This ups the anty, if you will, at locations like the train station. It also makes reading street signs, directions, menus, ATM’s, or any other informational tidbit nearly impossible unless you can pick out the cognates, of which there are a few. However, once you get up the nerve to ask someone for directions or other assistance, lo and behold, they speak English! You might feel a bit meek, as did I, but upon realizing that communication was indeed possible, a huge relief washed over me. English! It was a wonderful welcome after spending time in France.
Which brings us to…
Advanced travelers. France is for you. Are you interested in encountering a foreign language and quizzical looks when you ask for help? Go to France. Do you want as little help as possible when trying to decipher directions in maps printed in French? Go to France. Do you want to feel lucky to be able to get yourself to the metro station when few people speak English and those who do, use it sparingly? Definitely go to France.
And by the way, I don’t mean that you should stay in the nicer hotels with concierge’s who want to help you and do so in English. I don’t mean go to the Louvre and ask the trilingual people sitting at the information desk. That doesn’t count.
I mean really, go to the citizens grocery store or mall. Go to a small cafe.
Try to ask the metro-attendant in a small suburb of France, who really gains nothing by helping you, “Parles vous Anglais o Espanol?”
“Non” he may state with a smirk.
To the people behind you, clearly not Americans, but also from out of the country, he may respond to the same query “A leetel” [a little].
Yes, being in France -as an American, I should qualify at least-feels like an advanced sort of opportunity.
Of course, in any country you are likely to find varying degrees of kindness and helpfulness. Take for example the other night in Amsterdam. Walking around the canal-zone, popping our heads in windows, and enjoying the vistas while casually looking for a place to eat an inexpensive dinner. We ended up wandering by a mannequin dressed in the traditional dutch outfit -which I had seen the previous night but did not take a photo- so this time I stopped and made it a point to get a photo with the intriguing mannequin dutch-girl. A kind woman standing nearby offered to take the photo for us, thereby striking up a conversation. Ultimately we went inside this little restaurant where her daughter just started working that serves typical dutch food [which the Dutch will be sure to remind you is “winter fair”]. We ended up hanging out together and chatting it up as they sipped cappuccinos while we enjoyed our typical dutch meal, which was comfort food at it’s best; meat and potatoes. It was definitely the type of moment I invite and welcome and look forward to happening more as we continue on our adventure.
ps. The food was awesome! Vegetables are mixed-in with the homemade mashed potatoes, who knew? Brilliant idea. And the meat is deliciously impressive, wonderfully textured and with perfectly scrumptious gravy.
I realized -according to the scale above- I just may be most comfortable at the “intermediate” level, for now. Which kind of traveler are you?