Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Travel Lessons Learned

I realize I haven't yet put up a post about Crete, Athens, or the Vikings Festival. And all these will be up soon enough.

But in the meantime, I've been compiling a little list to remind myself of the lessons learned through travel in case I ever sign myself up for a trial-by-fire sabbatical ever again.  Sure, many of these items wouldn't have come as such great surprises had we, say, done more reading, were better prepared, and/or were simply more savvy travellers.  But where would the fun be in that?

So here's my list so far:

• Always take a 10 kr or 20 kr coin with with you if you search for a public restroom in Denmark or Norway. If in Greece, take a child.

• Show proper appreciation for Himmelbjerget, one of the highest points in Denmark at 150m above sea level. Who cares if your house in Salt Lake is at 1700m? No Dane wants to know it.

• Beware a hopeful Norwegian man bearing a hand-carved mangel board. Accepting the gift is accepting a marriage proposal - and a lifetime of doing his ironing, as that's what these rolling pins are used for.

• Don't be vegetarian in Norway. If you are pescatarian, or even if you just love fish, I still recommend you avoid the pickled herring, preserved three different ways for breakfast.

• If your children somehow slip into the changing of the guard ceremony at the Royal Palace in Oslo, take pictures politely, but disavow any knowledge of them.

• If you're planning on visiting two different countries with two very different climates, book them back to back with one day in between so that you can wash clothes, change out winter jackets for beach gear, and generally exhaust yourself so that you arrive in the second country gasping for breath and completely unprepared. You'll absorb so much, and appreciate the differences of each country so much more, when you're in complete shock.

• Also make sure that in one country (Greece), meals start and end late. So that once you've gotten used to finishing up lunch at 3pm and starting dinner at 10pm, you can come back to Copenhagen for dinner and find all the restaurants have closed at 9. Or for the entire month of July. Take your pick.

• For bonus entertainment, rent a GPS system in Greece for your rental car. It will have the clunkiest interface you have used since playing PacMan on your TSR-80's keyboard in the 1970s. And it will conveniently provide you with a US keyboard so that you can type in transliterations for Greek cities for which it recognizes only one spelling.  (What it recognizes won't be any of the spellings you try.) Once it's decided how to spell where you are going, it will give you driving directions out loud in German. Even when its settings say "English."

• If you have trouble working the GPS system of your rental car, call the rental car company for help from a gas station. A flustered rep will show up, unsuccessfully try to demonstrate how to work the GPS, swap it out for several different GPS units with the same problems, swear colorfully in Greek (you may not understand it all, but it will be fun to watch the facial expressions and gestures), call her colleagues for assistance, and have maybe three or four other rental car employees all descend upon the gas station in a state of confusion and dismay.  It will now be about ten at night. They will all play with your GPS as though it were a game controller they've never seen before, discuss it loudly in Greek, and then throw up their collective hands and tell you to come to the main office in the morning where they will "take care of it." They will all then simultaneously disappear in a cloud of dust, leaving you without any sense of where your hotel for the night is located.

• A super fun add-on to the experience above is to attempt to find your hotel by stopping at a gas station and asking for directions. The gas station attendant may be so mystified by your presence as to not be able to point to where he currently is on your map. (Note the use of the traditional Greek map now instead of the puzzling, newfangled GPS). He will not know where he is even when your friend, Vasilis, who is Greek, translates the question for him in Greek over the phone. Even when you are about a block away from the hotel you are looking for. Which is on the map.

• Try not to let signs in English send you mixed messages. Or confuse you.

"Smoke free zone," on an ashtray.
Huh, Yogurtlandia?

Yo, Smelly Cosmetics. Yo.

• The hospitality of Greeks is truly unparalleled: our children still talk about the fine time they had staying with Theos Vasili and Stavrianna. But what about Greek people whom we didn't know? They were also enormously generous and friendly. The owner of the air-bnb home we stayed in, for example, showed up with the most delicious, sweet, gargantuan watermelon I have ever had in my life, and shoved it into the fridge for our later enjoyment. She had greeted us the night before with homemade Greek spinach pastries, homemade strawberry raki (an alcohol made of distilled grape skins and pulp), and chocolates.

• All Greek restaurants will give you free dessert and raki after your meal. One restaurant even gave the kids a plastic rubber band gun each, much to their surprise and joy. However, if you ask for the bill before the restaurant thinks you should, you may get none of these things.  Because if you've only waited for the bill (and dessert, and raki) for an hour or two before asking, you may be in a rush, and these extra things would be an unwelcome delay for you.

• If you happen to lose a child while shopping in Greece and end up running frantically up and down the street calling your child's name in a wild panic so that all the shopkeepers come tumbling out of their shops to see what's the matter, stop at the first fish spa you find.  The child who showed a fascination for fish who nibble the skin off people's toes will inevitably end up there.

• If you observe the speed limit in Greece, you're driving too slowly. And if you manage to overtake on a two lane highway without making oncoming traffic swerve to avoid you, you aren't driving properly.

• Get lost on the small dirt roads connecting one small town in the center of Crete to other small towns. You may just get stuck in the middle of a wedding with the whole town turned out to celebrate. You may see men in traditional lace neck pieces and tall black hats. They may take out their pistols and traditionally shoot the air for joy. It may be the best thing to ever happen to you, or you may have to run for cover. Either way, Greece is fun.

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