Our Senior Year Abroad is over.
In the last 13 months, we have visited Paris (twice), Nice, Venice, Florence, Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, Barcelona and London for a total of about 21 weeks.
We have crossed the North Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 for seven days and nights, crossed the English Channel by train from London to Paris, taken other trains from Paris to Nice, Venice to Florence, Florence to Rome and back and Madrid to Barcelona, plus assorted day trips. We have flown in and out of airports in Lisbon, Barcelona, Paris, Nice, Venice, Florence and Brussels.
And now it’s back home for a while. A long while. For more than a year now, we have been planning the following trip even before taking the next one. Now we are just planning when to take our boat to the Gulf Coast this summer and maybe a baseball trip to Miami and Tampa, since we will not be frequenting the home park of the team formerly known as the New Orleans Zephyrs.
Traveling for longer stretches makes you appreciate home and friends more. The familiar haunts and habits that become so routine in everyday life take on more pleasure and importance when you return to them. Friends become more special. The coffee tastes better here. Can’t get French Market with chicory over there. Or anywhere else but in New Orleans, for that matter.
Every time we return home, our friends ask the same questions, so I thought I would answer them right here, along with offering a few tips for travel abroad.
Question #1–What was your favorite city?
Answer #1–All of them.
- Paris is Paris. Even in the 20s.
- Nice is nice. (Sorry, I’ve been wanting to say that for a long time.) The Mediterranean there is a pure blue, like the sky. The food is great, and the city buses will take you as far east as Monte Carlo, west to Cannes and north to St. Paul de Vence. For one euro.
- Venice is La Serenissima. You have to go there to understand. Go there. Go while it is still there, because that is not a given for the long term future.
- Florence is the birthplace of the Renaissance. Yes, you can actually get blasé about another Michelangelo. No, not really.
- Lisbon is a real gem just now being discovered. Go there before everyone else discovers it.
- Madrid is huge and bustling and alive. And the Prado is just one of its great museums. Which is sort of like saying the Louvre is just one of Paris’s great museums. The Prado is at that level, though.
- And then there is Barcelona, everyone’s favorite. Barcelona is to Europe what New Orleans is to the United States. Great food, great architecture, lots of history, very laid back and enjoying a culture all its own (which, by the way, is NOT Spanish but Catalonian). No one doesn’t like Barcelona. And Milk restaurant on carrer Ample makes the best Bloody Mary in Europe. If you find a better one, let me know and we’ll go over to test.
Question #2–how you you find apartments in the cities you visit?
Answer #2–Type the following into Google: “Apartments for rent in (fill in the blank with your city name).”
It helps to know the city, so you can choose the right neighborhood, but even a little research will give you a good idea of where you want to stay. It didn’t take long for me to find Alfama in Lisbon even though we had never been there before.
Friendly Apartments is a huge company that manages more than 3,000 apartments in some 35 cities across Europe and the U.S. You can try them first. But Barcelona has MH Apartments, Florence has Apartments Florence, Venice has Apartments Venice and Nice/Cote d’Azur has Habitat/NY (yes, New York). They all carefully screen (or in the case of MH, own) their apartments, so you can rest assured your choice will meet your standards. If you use VRBO or Air BnB, you take your chances, as we learned to our disappointment this last time in Paris.
Question #3–How much weight did you gain living and eating the local cuisines?
Answer #3–None. We ate pasta and pizza and potatoes and anything else that looked good, all washed down with gallons of great local wines and never gained a pound. In fact, I lost weight after three months in Europe.
But we walk three to five miles a day in these cities, not counting time spent standing in museums and cathedrals.
Finally, a few tips that we have learned about eating, drinking and living in these places:
- Don’t go into restaurants that either:
- Show photos of the food. If you have to see what it looks like, look on the diners plates.
- Have waiters standing outside barkering you into their restaurants like they are Bourbon Street strip clubs. There is usually a reason the waiters are not busy, and it’s usually because their restaurants are not good.
- Check the back label of any wine you buy. If there is no back label at all or if the label is printed only in the local language, buy that. It means this wine will never be exported to the U.S. The Europeans save the best stuff for themselves.
- Learn the following words/expressions in the local language:
- Good morning
- Good afternoon
- Thank you
- Very good (spoken to your chef or waiter after a great meal)
- Pardon/excuse me
No one will confuse you with a native, and in fact, most people in the major cities speak English a whole lot better than you speak their language. But using a few words of greeting lets them know you respect their language and their culture. And so they treat you with respect.
4. Never, ever, ever use a selfie stick. In fact, don’t take selfies at all. The selfie stick is one of the major threats to Western Civilization, right up there with ISIS and pine trees. Don’t be one of Those.
5. Never, ever, ever pack more than one bag per person. You don’t need that much stuff, and you will be sorry, really sorry, to lug that extra suitcase around. The best way to pack is to pile all your clothes up, then start moving stuff away. You’ll be amazed at how much you just don’t need.
6. One of those unneeded things is a hair dryer. All apartments come with hair dryers. Even if you own a European model (which we do, having overpaid in Paris last year), you can leave it at home. The reason apartments come equipped with hair dryers is that they don’t want you plugging your American Monster Air & Leaf Blower into their tender electrical system using your two-dollar adapter and blowing out all the circuits in the place. This actually happened to Lynn many years ago at Royal Thames Yacht Club. Today the club provides hair dryers in each room. And they still let us stay there when we visit London.
Like I said, it’s great to be back home, but just writing this last segment makes me want to go back already. Je suis desolé. Adieu, Senior Year Abroad.