Americans on Vacation in Europe – Adventure, Pitfalls and Observations

We recently returned from a quick, one week vacation.  I say quick because we didn’t visit one country; we visited three – England, France and Italy.  Specifically, we spent 2 days in the cities of London, Paris and Rome with a travel day before and after.  At least on paper that was the case. We found getting from arrival point to each hotel in its respective city a challenge, riddled with mistakes on our part and things you just wouldn’t know as a tourist.

We did a fair amount of research with respect to places we wanted to see in each city we visited. We thought we had a pretty good idea of the navigation necessary to get to the places we were going.  But never underestimate the tourist factor, and don’t apply American logic to how you think things should/will operate.  In most cases, my instincts were wrong and this caused some frustration.

London – Arriving in London, we purchased train tickets and were pointed in the direction of the train leaving the airport.  This was fairly easy.  Arriving at Paddington station, we suddenly realized we had no idea how to get a connecting train to the Barbican area of London.  Perhaps if we lived in a large city and were used to riding metro trains, the task would have been less daunting.  But let me tell you, Paddington station is massive and just because someone lives in London doesn’t mean they know the part of town you are trying to find.  Looking back on the trip, London was by far the easiest of the three and we eventually got to the right platform and figured out how to purchase a few tickets with the £s we had exchanged at the airport.

People were super friendly and helpful in London and after a few missteps, we wandered into the hotel lobby with luggage in tow.  We always felt pretty safe in London and we walked everywhere the first day; that may have been a mistake because the amount of walking we did in the British Museum was exercise enough.  Due to jet lag, this was the only thing we did the first day.  On day two, we again did some heavy walking.  Window shopping on Oxford Street, Westminster, and Buckingham Palace were all achievable on foot from Barbican.  To escape the crowd at the conclusion of the Changing of the Guard, however, we found a taxi the perfect way to get to South London to do the Bermondsey Mile.

As craft beer enthusiasts, we were fortunate to find out about the “Bermondsey Mile”.  This is a craft beer crawl from one brewery to the next.  A total of 6 breweries and The Bottle Shop, a fabulous craft beer store/tasting room.  Due to time constraints, we only made it to 5 of the breweries, which ended up being enough!  Finishing at a nearby pub, some food and then a taxi ride was necessary.  This concluded our fun in London.
Here’s what was good about London:

  1. Friendly people with no language barrier.
  2. Awesome craft beer scene
  3. Central location for shopping, historical landmarks and museums.

Here’s what was might give you a problem:

  1. Navigating trains from the airport.  Visit http://www.tfl.gov.uk/ – This website has maps, scheduling and a lot of other information that I wish we had known prior to arriving in London.
  2. Typical pub beers will be disappointing if you are a craft beer lover.  Do the Bermondsey Mile or find a list of pubs that serve good beer like this one.

Paris – The French have a reputation for being arrogant and impatient with American tourists.  I can see how this perception exists, but I would also say that we met several Parisians that were both friendly and helpful.  I believe that the language barrier between Americans and the French is mostly responsible for this perception.  However, they definitely march to the beat of a different drum than we do.  Transportation and scheduling is perhaps the most frustrating thing I can say about Paris.  We arrived by train from London and one snafu after another burnt half of the day in getting to our hotel.  The manned ticket booths all closed without warning, leaving me and many other people standing in line only to find out they weren’t reopening.  The ticket machines didn’t take paper Euros, only coin and credit cards.  None of our credit cards worked (nor did any Parisian’s).  We got on the right line, but it skipped our stop and we had to jump the turnstile to get out of the station!  Sorry France – the Euro’s in the mail.

The next morning we asked the hotel lobby to call a taxi to avoid any more train “issues”.  They responded that all taxi drivers in Paris were on strike today; back to the train station we go.  After cramming in a train car during morning commute, everyone was ordered off the train as it was suddenly taken out of service.  I felt sorry for the people that were going to be late for work, but as one young man told us, this happens from time to time and his boss would understand.  Apparently these kinds of things are just taken in stride.

Of course everything we saw in Paris was beautiful – The Eiffel Tower, The Louvre and all the sites we saw during our bus tour.  The dinner cruise on the Seine River was another great way to see the city lights, but again they were quite late based on boarding time and the cold December rain did not make the wait a pleasant one.  Americans seem to be more preoccupied with punctuality than do the French.  Nevertheless, the sites and lights made Paris an experience to remember  and a positive one at that.
Here’s what was good about Paris:

  1. Beauty.  I don’t know how else to describe it.  The buildings, the artwork, the lights – all of it was just beautiful
  2. Christmas might be a cold time of year, but the lights and Christmas night life is worth considering a winter visit.
  3. The Louvre could be a destination all by itself.  Truly an awesome place that would probably take several days to see all three wings and all the exhibits.  We visited only the wing with the Mona Lisa and the art is simply breathtaking.

Here’s what might give you problems in Paris:

  1. Language barrier – Hey it’s not their fault you speak English and they speak French, but unless you had some French in school, this is going to give you some problems.
  2. Transportation – Sudden train terminations, ticket booth closings, strikes (I’m told none of these are unusual) is not something we Americans are used to dealing with.  I suggest patience and roll with it like a Parisian.
  3. I’m sure there is some excellent food in Paris, but I didn’t find it.  It was OK, but my theory is that French food is overrated and the rest of the world caught up to what gave it the reputation.

Rome – Roma as it is referred to in Italy is such an interesting mix of the ancient and modern. Circular roads running through Roman arches and meandering around ruins and landmarks create traffic patterns that are interesting, to say the least.  Rewind to the airport.  Due to our transportation challenges in Paris, we used some good old fashioned American logic.  Let’s rent a car, we said.  It will give us less problems, we said. So we did rent a car; it was a cute little Fiat.  I jumped in and turned the key, causing the car to start lurching forward.  Oops, it was a stick shift.  Now, I can drive a stick shift, but I certainly wasn’t expecting my rental car to be one.  I was still trying to use American logic in another part of the world.

Google maps was a huge help driving to the hotel.  I think we would have been hopelessly lost without it.  To describe driving in Rome, picture Nintendo Mario Kart.  People zoom from lane to lane; they drive in the emergency lane, and they create lanes where no lanes exist. While police seem to be everywhere, there doesn’t seem to be any traffic enforcement whatsoever.  Arriving at the hotel, we found out that there is no such thing as free parking anywhere and it is expensive and cumbersome the way you have to purchase multiple parking “scratch offs” and line your dash with them.

If you ask me what the first thing that comes to mind about Rome, it is an emphatic GOOD FOOD.  I’m convinced you can’t buy a bad meal in Rome.  From the alley diners to the more upscale restaurants, everything is delicious.  We ate four meals per day to experience the cuisine.  In addition to the food, there is just so much to see.  Segway rentals are inexpensive and fun.  Vatican City is just amazing; we toured the excavation below St. Peter’s Basilica and the cathedral itself.  There is no description that would do justice to the experience.  The people are wonderful in Rome, but crime is a problem, so be careful. You will be constantly solicited to buy tours and souvenirs.
Here’s what’s good about Rome:

  1. The Food – pick a place; you can’t go wrong.
  2. Vatican City
  3. Easy to use Metro train system* (see below)

Here’s what might give you problems in Rome:

  1. Traffic – Do not rent a car.  It will be more trouble than it’s worth.
  2. The Metro is easy to use.  It’s also the place you’re most likely to get pick pocketed.  My wife had her phone stolen there and I’ve heard of other travelers with similar experiences.
  3. Allow plenty of time to get back to the airport.  You can’t easily estimate the drive time due to grid lock on the highway.

I hope people reading this will realize that I am highlighting the pitfalls to help others avoid some of the frustrations that we experienced.  The enjoyment of our vacation far outweighed the other issues we experienced along the way and I would highly recommend the trip.  Being aware of potential issues certainly alleviates some of the stress involved.  All the problems we experienced worked themselves out and we had a great time.

Fraud Alert – OKpet.com sells fake Frontline® for cats and dogs

You come home to find Rover or Whiskers scratching fleas.  You know you should get some Frontline® from your local vet, but you just can’t afford it.  But a quick search on the internet delivers several websites with discount products.

OKpet.com is one of those sites.  They advertise Frontline® for a medium dog for only $29 – what a deal!  It seemed to take a long time to get there, and when it finally arrived, you realize why.  You notice it had to go through US customs – 1st red flag.

Upon closer inspection, you will see directions in both English and some backward language – literally, the words go right to left – 2nd red flag.  At this point, you could dowse your pet with the suspect liquid and hope it kills fleas instead of your pet.  Personally, I wouldn’t chance it.  What you have, my friend, is genuinely COUNTERFEIT Frontline®!

Here are the facts, folks:

  1. Frontline does not have an expiration date.  If your Frontline® has an expiration date, then it ain’t Frontline®.
  2. If there are stickers from Africa, Australia or your product was shipped from some other country across the great pond, be suspicious.
  3. Go to http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/factsheets/petproduct.htm, http://frontline.us.merial.com/ or visit your vet for more information.

Vista Print – Buyer Beware as complaints and charges of online scam by unhappy customers

Looking for a cheap place to buy business cards?  You might find companies like vistaprint.com near the top of your Google search.  Your “cheap” cards might end up costing you a lot of extra money.  Here is the scam – and it IS a scam!

You get ready to place your order and you are offered $10 off because it claims you were a previous customer.  The next month you may see a curious charge or two.  They might be called things like Mvq*Vpclubus and Mvq*Bizmax; and each of them is a $14.95 charge against your account.

When I saw these charges, I googled them and things pointed to vistaprint.com.  Since we had just purchased business cards from them, I assumed these were the charges for the cards and moved on.  I didn’t realize that this was the second month these charges had been made. 

I am one of many Americans paying bills online and am guilty of not staying on top of my charges.  Having reviewed these charges, I have since learned that I have been charged $14.95 TWICE each month since May!  Shame on them and shame on me for not monitoring this better.

Additional google searches have returned complaints against these fraudulent charges and the company.  One complainant offered their 1-800 number to call.  We called 1-888-243-6185 and spoke with Eric and then a supervisor  who were both very helpful and assured us that in two business days we would be refunded ALL charges.

We did receive an email shortly after stating this intention, but others have been promised the same and continued to receive charges.  I will give the employees of Vistaprint the benefit of the doubt, and will follow up when this is resolved.

* Update: September 22, 2009 – As promised, our account was refunded $14.95 x 8 for the 4 months these charges occured.  I encourage any other victims to call the 888 number above.

Our Happy Hound

We are funny about our pets.   Take for instance my “Happy Hound” Collie Rose.  She was neither a hound or a Collie.  She was a Chow, but our 2 year old named her Collie Rose because it sounded pretty.  I called her Happy Hound because she looked like she was smiling at me.

Collie was trailer trash.  She was born in a trailer park to a stray.  As a single parent, Collie’s mother taught her the wiles of avoiding the dog catcher while snacking from trash bins and sympathizing residents.  Those who didn’t appreciate her scavenging would “sweep” her away with a broom. 

Collie was rescued and given to us at probably less than a year old.  For the first three days, she would only interact with our daughter.  It was touch and go for a while as her tendency towards biting was in direct opposition to my desire not to be bitten.  We soon found out that Collie harbored great animosity towards brooms. 

Any wooden broom would be chewed to shreds.  We remedied this by purchasing a metal handled broom – or so we thought.  Collie found that bending a metal handle back and forth between two trees would stress crack it in half; a few extra teeth dents would ensure it wouldn’t be beating any dog soon.

Through the years, we could count on Collie for two things:  She was an excellent protector, and any wild animals within a quarter mile had short futures.  Ground hogs, opossums, raccoons, skunks, and snakes didn’t stand a chance.  Oh, some of them put up valiant attempts, but when it came to homeland security, Collie let God sort ’em out.

Collie spent her last four years as a city dog.  Whether the change prolonged her life or shortened it, it’s hard to say.  She seemed to adapt well and took advantage of more leisurely days.  She gradually slowed down, but in the end, she slipped away quickly and peacefully.  Collie Rose, from trailer park stray to pet extraordinaire, died at the ripe old age of 16.  She was buried above Reading Rock, her favorite area.

iTunes Rolling Out Higher Prices

Profits might be up at Apple, but for how long?  I just logged into my iTunes account, after a long break, to buy some music.  Imagine my surprise to find the song I wanted was $1.29 instead of $.99.

I’m not sure if Steve Jobs is still a little foggy from the pain meds, but news flash – the reason why this whole paying for music thing started working is because the cost vs. hassle ratio became favorable.  But for a 29% increase, free downloads just changed that. 

I don’t want to hear about how the record companies did this or that.  The solution is simple.  iTunes should refuse to list any music at a higher cost.  That would fix the record companies wagons fast.

The Emperor Has No Clothes – Twitter is bogus

I think I was the first person I know that signed up for a Twitter account after hearing about it on This Week with George Stephanopoulos several months ago.  Hey, I’m a cutting edge computer dude, so I have to keep up with the latest buzz.  It was really cool “following” Weird Al Yankovic, but then it started to hit me…what now?

At first, I thought maybe I just don’t understand Twitter or I just need to play around with it to learn all the cool things it can do.  After all, every actor, hipster and wannabe can now be found on Twitter, and anyone who’s anyone on TV says they Tweet.  Not wanting to feel inferior, I’d login occasionally and type a sentence.  But soon, I began to resent Twitter.  I mean, who wants a Tweet that’s two weeks old? But I felt completely unfulfilled.  What was I missing?

And then it hit me!  I wasn’t missing anything.  Twitter sucks!  There, I said it.  Twitter sucks and this has all just been a big media hype.  Everyone can run around and feel like they are part of some new great thing, but when I finally admitted to myself that Twitter is a complete farce, I suddenly felt whole again.  And so I say to all the hipster wannabes out there:  The Emperor Has No Clothes!

Faith in Science

If you ask someone who believes in global warming how they know it exists, they will point to science.  After all, science in its unbridled quest for knowledge and understanding is infallible.  Let’s look at a few of these examples throughout history:

  1. The earth is flat – This scientific fact was the official position of the Egyptians.  Known for being light years ahead in construction and math, ancient Egypt was no slouch with respect to knowledge.
  2. The earth is the center of the universe – Scientific fact by all but a few radical Greeks until 1800 years later when Galileo broke rank.  Since religion and governments never try to influence scientific truth, I won’t bring up Galileo’s house arrest for saying otherwise.
  3. Spontaneous Generation – Decomposing matter turning back into living organisms (eg. maggots, beetles, frogs) was not disproven until 1668 by Redi. Prior to this, if you didn’t believe rats came from moldy grain, you were somewhat of a dunce.

Since we now understand that science is never wrong, we come full circle on the global warming debate.  Apparently, the 1970’s studies predicting global cooling were accurate; they just didn’t know that global warming would cause this global cooling.  Read that again if necessary.

Hopefully science will have this all figured out before we all burn up or freeze to death.  I will embrace whatever facts are offered without cynicism or doubt.