Last month, we discussed how to prepare for a trip to Europe. I’m going to assume we are all packed, have researched the best places to stay and visit, and have even learned some basics of the local language. Now, let’s see what to do once we land in the strange airport.
- Get a paper map. They are usually available at the information desk in the airport. Yes, if you read Part I of this article, you have your cellphone handy for maps and direction. Nonetheless, paper maps give you an overall sense of where things are in relationship to each other. I also like to use the maps as souvenirs.
- Safety. When I would mention that we had planned a trip to Paris, people would inevitably say, “Why?” American Jews have the impression that France, and Paris in particular, is a terribly dangerous place for Jews. However, to my pleasant surprise, I learnt that this was not the case. Paris has a large Jewish community, with religious Jews walking around in obvious Jewish garb all over the city. The tourists are easily recognizable by their baseball caps. When I spoke to Parisian Jews about this misconception, they said it’s only dangerous if you go into unsafe neighborhoods, just like in New York. In fact, they wondered how we felt safe in New York with “everyone carrying guns” (direct quote). Therefore, feel comfortable walking around with a kippah, but avoid any troublesome areas. Some research before your trip will tell you where those are.
- Smoking. Something I have found to be quite surprising is that everyone in Europe smokes. If this is something that will irritate you, you might want to stay home. Everywhere you walk, on the street, by cafés, outside stores and museums, you will see people, men and women alike, smoking away.
- Air conditioning. They say that Europeans wear sweaters in the winter and Americans wear sweaters in the summer. Thus, there is no air conditioning in airports, trains and supermarkets. I guess Europeans don’t feel the heat like us Americans do, because no matter how hot it gets in Europe, almost no place has an air conditioner running.
- Water fountains. In addition to our abundance of air-conditioned air, I’ve also taken for granted the ubiquitous water fountains outside every public bathroom and scattered throughout parks, museums, and other public spaces. This is not the case in Europe. As one airport worker once asked me, “Why would they give away water for free?” Prepare to spend a lot of money on water.
- Public bathrooms are clean. As in very clean, and you don’t get that gross feeling after using them. So, although you will have to pay for water bottles, at least you won’t have to buy a drink at a café to use the bathroom. They are even self-cleaning public bathrooms on the streets of Paris that I entered as a dare to whose cleanliness I can attest.
- Transportation. You won’t appreciate how clean Americans are until you decide to use public transportation in Europe. Trains are cheap and efficient, but claustrophobic and time costly. I hated taking the train when I was in Europe and tried to convince my husband to walk as much as possible. Walking is definitely my preferred method – it is free and flexible; I can easily make detours when the mood catches me, and it’s the best way to experience a city with all your senses. Many European cities also have bike-sharing or car sharing programs that you can take advantage of. One important note regarding Venice, where the only mode of transportation is boat: sometimes the canal is closed, so make sure to check if you need to catch a plane or have plans in other cities.
- Food. Despite all the rumors, I did not find the food in Europe to be especially delicious. Perhaps I am spoiled by my access to many kosher options in New York and Israel. We wasted a lot of money trying out the kosher restaurants and bakeries. Thus, I recommend stocking up on kosher items from the supermarket (some research or communication with the local rabbi beforehand will give you a good handle on what is kosher) so at least you won’t have to eat out three meals a day. If you rent an apartment, life will be even easier. Ovens are easily koshered, and it is such a pleasure to buy a package of chicken, some vegetables and a good loaf of bread, and eat like the locals do: consuming long drawn-out meals, eaten outside, with lots of laughter and, of course, wine. This delicious way of eating meals is something I am trying to implement in our life back in New York. Meals have never been the same.
- There is a tremendous amount of Jewish history in the ancient cities of Europe. One of the best ways to see and experience how Jews used to live and pray is by attending the local shuls. Although they are not always open to tourists, many are still used daily for tefillah and are open to all participants. However, you must come on time. If you want to see the inside of these beautiful buildings, wake up on time and don’t forget your passports, as security will often check IDs.
- Many cities offer guided tours. Some are good, and others are less so. I highly recommend speaking to the locals in your newly-acquired language to find the best places to go. Download Google Trips to see sites of interest, as well as links for more information to help guide you.
- Take time for a break. With all the running around, it is only natural that you will need a chance to rest your feet or even nap. Don’t feel guilty about it; by keeping yourself well rested, you’ll be able to enjoy your trip more.
That being said, avoid that TV, as temping as it might be to veg in front of it after a long day of sight-seeing. Did you really travel so far and spend all that money so you could watch TV, even international TV? Instead, get to bed early, because tomorrow is another day, with more experiences just around the corner.