I think about travel writers a lot. I think about all their recommendations and always the ‘top ten’ things to see on their trip to [name your favourite city or dream destination]. See this, do that, go here, always the excitable prose, the choppy sentences with nothing beyond, nothing insightful or deep, nothing meaningful because it’s always about the clickbait.
Bloggers, writers, we’re all prostituting ourselves for the sake of views. Views, views, views, a modern online Hamlet might wearily proclaim in a desolate state. ‘Views’, yes, the currency of the modern Internet, are the only thing worth mentioning along with ‘likes’ and ‘subscribers’.
And this goes for travel writers – those bastards and all their vapid clichés. They seem like a tireless race of human beings, always striving effortlessly to deliver the latest things, the latest finds, the cutting edge from wherever their trip. They epitomize sprezzatura, the Italian term for making something hard seem easy, yet most of us wish they would just write more about the ugly side of travel and travel blogging that we can all relate to.
These people tell you what to see and do but never how to get there and never how to survive the ‘getting and being there’. And reflecting on my mother and step-father’s recent trip to Europe, one which included two visits to see me, I thought I would write about the hard lessons rarely mentioned in travel blogs.
So here – framed like clickbait – are ten things my mother and step-father learned while traveling in Europe.
1. Lufthansa commercials lie to us
If you have seen the recent ad with two Englishmen learning their flight has been canceled and they will be flying on Lufthansa, you might chuckle. The youthful Englishman has a look of absolute fright across his face, only to find it is not that bad. The flight attendant speaks English and serves voluminous glasses of beer. There is no football playing on the screens. Yes, there is a braggart of a boy holding up four fingers indicating four World Cup wins for Germany.
For my mother and step-father, it was nothing like the positive aspects of the commercial. They had booked seats that would have given them extra leg room. Didn’t happen. They told the flight attendants. They didn’t care. They received no smiles, no pillar-high glasses of beer. When they saw the commercial in Germany during their visit, they described their trip more like the nightmare version the Englishman had dreamt of.
2. Not all Airbnb Hosts are cut from the same cloth
Airbnb can be a bit of a crap shoot when it comes to hosts and hostesses. Actually, the odds are a bit better. Really, if you break it down, you can predict hosts to be about 80% good or average, 10% excellent and 6% outstanding, leaving 4% mediocre or awful.
While in Leipzig, my mother and step-father stayed with D- in Plagwitz. At first, he seemed a friendly and amicable fellow. He had an apartment in a great location… but the truth is in the details, am I right? There was no soap in either of his bathrooms and no light in one of them as well (this came two days later). On top of this, no shampoo (and okay, who says a host should provide shampoo). The kitchen table was actually two sawhorses with a board atop them. Wearied from their journey, one night my mother and step-father wanted to watch some TV. The batteries weren’t working in the television remote control. When my mother brought this up to the host, he later said, and I quote her quoting him: “What do you expect for 35 euros a night!”
I hear McDreams hotels are under thirty euros, and after eighteen hours of traveling, a few basic conveniences shouldn’t be hard to expect.
My mother tried to write an honest review. In reply, D- said my parents were ‘challenging’. Yes, requesting soap is definitely a ‘challenge’. And batteries, cannot forget them. So yeah, they found the 4%.
3. From Leipzig it is better to take the train to Vienna
I traveled with my mother and step-father to Vienna. We booked with Austrian Airlines with flights going from Tegel (TXL) in Berlin to Vienna (VIA). Fine… on paper, it sounded all well, good and absolutely convenient (and cheap compared to flying from Leipzig … 300 euros cheaper).
But then there is the weighing in of time logistics. First, when starting the trip from Leipzig, you have to get to the Hauptbahnhof then catch the train to Berlin. So, that’s almost two hours. In Berlin, you’re looking at a good chunk of time just getting to Tegel Airport, whether by taxi or by bus. We took a taxi (around twenty euros, and don’t let any driver say the rates ‘change’ – cough, bullshit, cough) – another hour or just under because of traffic.
There’s the check-in time, security, and the wait for your plane. Most people give themselves two hours, right? A grace period is necessary, a bit of room for delays or complications.
The flight itself was only an hour and a half, but once you arrive, you have to get off the plane and find the train to the city centre and from there, the hotel or vacation rental.
We had booked a great Airbnb for this leg of the trip. Thank God on this account, but when we tallied all the time spent in transit, it was at least eight hours. The train to Vienna from Leipzig (with an exchange in Dresden) is about the same. Take the train, I would advise, and enjoy the scenery without any of the hassle. Lesson learned.
4. While in Vienna, eat Käsekrainer, bitte
I thought I would write something positive here and also try to don the garb and gab of a travel blogger. I love Vienna and will write shortly about the trip, but my best advice… eat Käsekrainer. Even if you are vegetarian, go ahead, your morals will forgive you because it is sausage with cheese inside. It is heavenly.
Also, eat Sachertorte. Also filed under ‘heavenly’.
And drink Grüner Veltliner, the varietal of Austria available from most vineyard regions in the country.
5. While in Vienna (part II), visit the Kunsthistorisches Museum
Another positive recommendation from our trip, but one that carries a warning: visit this museum but give yourself half a day. Honestly, if I could be buried in a museum, I would ask to be interned here. There is so much there, even for one trip, let alone a lifetime.
It is beauty within beauty. For one, as a building, it is perhaps the most stunning in terms of architecture and interior design. Ostentatious to a glorious and divine fault, this is the place where centuries of art history are devoutly wrapped in the confines of stucco, marble, gold leaf and capped with a palatial dome – not to mention decorated by Vienna Secession great Gustav Klimt and a host of other Viennese artists.
As for the art itself, you can begin with the Egyptians, flow through the tides of history up to the Renaissance to Baroque and a bit onward. For me, it was seeing Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s’s famous pieces – The Tower of Babel, The Hunters in the Snow (also known as Hunters Returning) – along with the works of Vermeer, Titian (or Tiziano), Caravaggio and Velazquez.
It is a godly place, a temple for the greats in art.
6. Not all Airbnb Hosts are made from the same cloth (Part II)
We had the excellent Mato as a host in Vienna but my mother and step-father went on to France, having booked a place in Dijon for a week and a half. There, Philippe was their host.
Not only did the Frenchman take my parents out on his boat, he took the time to show them around the city and environs. Philippe went above and beyond. They visited ancient abbeys, vineyards producing wines worth $1000 euros a bottle (Chateau du Clos de Vougeot), and came across stunning views of the countryside.
Again, Airbnb is a bit of a crap shoot; sometimes – I would say, rarely – you get the duds and sometimes you get the real ones, the hosts and hostesses who make your experience high above the bar. (Sidenote: while staying in Berlin, Stephanie welcomed my mother and step-father with chips and red wine… still great, in my book).
7. ‘Fish and visitors’, but other things start to stink after a few days…
Benjamin Franklin, writing in his Poor Richard’s Almanac, scribbled out famously that ‘fish and visitors stink in three days.’ The quote hints at the length of time when things become uncomfortable. Also I think the quote applies to over-indulgence.
There are moments when overindulging impacts our pleasure. Whether in wine or beer, a favourite pastry or a particular place, we can ruin things by not moving on from them. My mother regrets booking Dijon for over a week. Dijon, let’s be objectively honest, is a beautiful place, but you can have too much of a good thing. Aristotle argued for moderation, the golden mean in his Nicomachean Ethics. By day eight, my mother and step-father were beyond that moderation and had memorized the tram routes and explored the old town better than the locals. I’m not kidding: my step-father, a French-speaker, even recalls helping a guy on the street find an address – and the guy had been raised in the city!
8. Don’t listen to bullshitters online – do, do your own research
The reason my parents stayed so long in Dijon is that they planned to use the Medieval French city as a kind of hub. But my mother wants me to write that though Dijon is close to Paris, going by train to other cities is costly in France. Where had she gotten this idea? From travel blogs (those bastards). The whole plan was to make day trips while there.
This didn’t happen.
When she and my step-father looked at train trip prices for the day, they were very costly. For them to just get to Dijon from Paris was over a hundred euros. Maybe there are jet-setters out there who have the ‘know’ but they couldn’t find anything to contradict what the train stations told them. And they are still curious to find out if there are true deals out there.
Prices are very high when you have to buy tickets on the same day. Upon arriving at Charles de Gaulle airport, my mother and step-father had to figure out how to get to the Gare de Lyon, where they had to catch a train to Dijon. They were told by taxi drivers they’d have to pay 57 Euros to get there. They were told if they took the bus to the station they’d have to change buses, which actually was not true. If not for the aid of a young limo driver, they would not have been directed to the desk that sold tickets for the bus service, which did not change anywhere at all. They only had to pay 30 euros for both of them – return trip included!
However, at the Gare de Lyon they learned that train tickets to Dijon were very expensive on the same day. The ticket agent also led them to believe they would pay 140 euros first class, but when they checked later, it was 180 euros.
So when they left Dijon they got their tickets a week ahead: first class for $112 euros, quite a saving. But you don’t learn this unless you experience it during your own trip. And there was certainly no one around to sit them down and explain the logistics.
9. Air France bumps people… a lot…
My parents spent the last two days of their trip in Paris, France, which made sense. They wanted to be close to the airport to be there in time for their flight on the 10th of May, with hopefully no snags in the planning. They had prepared everything in advance, made small sandwiches for the airport wait and flight, double-checked the time, and knew exactly where to go.
What they didn’t plan for was Air France…
Yes, Air France bumps people. Apparently there was an IT hullabaloo or conference or international to-do in Berlin. This meant, I’m sure, that many passengers, those not voted important enough by the airline, could be moved to a different time. We are all sluts to the highest bidder, and Air France most likely bumped my mother and step-father for someone with a bit more leverage. That is their theory; it would make sense.
The man at the ticket counter was kind and helpful and yes, their credit card was credited. This was decent of them. But according to a fellow passenger, also bumped, Air France does it a lot. Good thing to know – ahead of time.
10. You’ll find kindness everywhere… mixed in with the odd douche bags… no matter where you go on your trip
I could write a whole blog about how my parents got stranded at the Berlin Hauptbahnhof or how the people at Deutsche Bahn were clueless about helping them get to Leipzig. Suffice it to say, when they landed in Berlin, they had an amazing taxi driver who took them around the IT- besieged city very late at night because they were bumped by Air France. He went above and beyond and felt bad about leaving them to fend for themselves. No, there were no hotels. Nothing left for them to do but wait and sit in the train station – the whole night through.
They’d bought tickets for Leipzig the night before at a ticket dispenser, a booking for five the next morning. However, there was no listing, nothing on the ticket that said what platform the train would leave from. No information booth was open at that time, so they spent the time racing around, asking people.
But even the ticket collectors on the train didn’t seem to know. Because of the language barrier, my parents were either ignored or treated like they were nutbars. Finally the DB office opened and they learned from which platform the train would depart. It turned out to be a ‘milk train’ that included a change at some small city (an hour’s wait on a hard bench trying to stay awake), working out to almost three hours in travel time.
Once they’d arrived at the Hauptbahnhof, using the public phone was also a trial, as they couldn’t seem to get my number to ring even after following instructions. They threw themselves at the mercy of a young man, who allowed them to use his cell phone so they could let me know they’d arrived and to please come retrieve them from their exhausting ordeal.
But back in Leipzig, they had me to show them around. I think I’m pretty great. Also my friend Gord hosted us for a BBQ. And they got to meet a former student, now friend, Felix. All the bumps in the road make way for the good souls and the appreciation of the better parts of a journey.
So no matter how much you can plan, there is a bit of the rough and the always-just-right in every journey.