Last Saturday saw my wife and I returned home from a two week, three country tour of Europe. It was fun, exciting, interesting, expensive, and exhausting. We loved it.
We're now at home, sorting through the accumulated detritus of traveling, organizing photos, both offline and on, piling up receipts and setting gifts for friends and family out of harm's way. We both kept travel journals as we went along and I thought I'd post up some of the basics here, in this blog, while more specific reviews and thoughts may be relegated to places more appropriate.
We left Japan on what I have been calling our Honeymoon, although we have been married for almost two years and have traveled a few times since, on Monday, August 13th, bound for Barcelona and Venice with a one night stopover in Amsterdam along the way.
We had decided to travel light. Only one small, carry-on suitcase for each of us, with another bag tucked inside for walking around and possibly for carrying souvenirs on the way home. So, once off the plane and inside the airport we were able to make our way to the train station quite quickly. I stopped at the information desk and got directions to the city center, where we would have to change to the tram.
The train was full of students on their summer vacations; backpacks and rucksacks outnumbered suitcases by five to one and camping gear was overflowing the aisles between the seats. We sat in the small space between cars, where some fold-out seats had been built into the walls, and waited for our stop. Which we got wrong.
The journey to the hotel should have taken about thirty minutes. It took us two hours. We stepped off the train onto the wrong platform. We waited for a train that was twenty minutes late. We could not find the correct tram station. We got off the tram too soon. We could not find the hotel and walked in circles for twenty minutes. And then, finally, we found the hotel.
The hotel was nice, the staff friendly, and marijuana smoke could be smelled in every courtyard. Welcome to Amsterdam.
We got ourselves cleaned up and decided to head into the city for the evening, rather than just tuck ourselves into bed at four in the afternoon. We got back on the tram and, better prepared and less flustered, found our way back to the city center. We ate in a steak restaurant, which we thought was good until we got the price. Then we choked a bit. 70 euros for two people for dinner and two cocktails seemed a bit exorbitant. Welcome to Europe where the Euro is much, much stronger than the Yen and tourist season is in full swing.
We decided to walk back to the hotel, both to let dinner settle as well as to explore some of the side streets. We got lost.
Mayumi pointed out a small pub / restaurant near a park that looked inviting and we stopped in to have a drink and get our bearings. It was a beautiful pub. Cozy and comfortable, with real books on the walls in a handful of languages and one of the cutest girls I’ve ever seen behind the bar. (Even Mayumi thought she was cute enough to point out to me.)
Entering the bar we had one of the few moments of culture shock when the bartender spoke to me in Dutch. It wasn’t until then that I realized something that would be a standard feature of our trip: I look European.
In Japan, my wife and I have long been used to stares when we travel in-country as I stand out a bit. I’m about six foot one and around two-hundred eighty pounds; I have light brown hair and blue eyes. My wife is fairly average height and weight for a Japanese woman. Which means, in Japan, my wife looks just like everyone else and I look like no-one except a handful of other Westerners. But, in Europe, of course, the opposite was true – I looked just like everyone and she looked like one of the twelve other Asians we saw on the whole trip. In Japan, no one expects me to be able to speak Japanese; in Europe, people assume I speak the language of whichever country we’re in.
So. I fumbled for a moment, then just spoke the phrase I hate most in the English language: “Do you speak English?”
He smiled and answered yes in a flawless accent and helped us to our table before introducing the very cute female bartender, who spoke better English than I do. I felt like a jackass for not being able to speak Dutch, but at least was able to redeem myself somewhat by translating everything from English to Japanese for my wife.
We enjoyed our drinks and the bartenders were very helpful, locating the bar on my map and showing us how to get to the hotel. I left them a very generous tip and we left, stopping into a local grocery store for a pint of Ben and Jerry’s (we love it and they don’t sell it in Japan) to take back to the hotel room with us. Once again, the staff spoke to me in Dutch and only switched to English after I had to ask.
Although both the bar staff and grocery store staff remained friendly, the mental shift in category from local to tourist was almost palpable. My feeling of being a jackass persisted and I realized it was because I had broken one of my own rules.
I tell students that they should always try to learn the basic phrases of any language before traveling to another country: Please, thank you, excuse me, yes, no, ok, hello, goodbye, goodnight, etc. And I hadn’t done that. Of course I can say all those things in Spanish and in Italian, but I had neglected to even try them in Dutch because we were only going to be there for a single night. Jackass.