The picture above is a common scene throughout Europe: Tourists looking lost, tired and dazed. Images like these and stories from clients inspired me to write this post.
Americans traveling to Europe are often surprised, even disappointed, the first day (or two) of their arrival. They spend much of their time frustrated and questioning their decision to visit a foreign country. I know. . . it's hard to imagine sitting in a sidewalk cafe in Paris, or meandering the piazze (plazas) of Rome and being disappointed. But, I have found myself in the same boat from time to time. Let me tell you why.
It is usually because I packed a suitcase full of expectations--and not the good ones! Some expectations are good to travel with, some are better left at home. Knowing what to expect when you are expecting the perfect European vacation will help your first day be a little less disappointing, and less frustrating.
1. Expect everything to be different. Even with 12 years of European travel under my belt, I often experience culture shock the moment I land. Just this year in Granada, Spain, I spent 10 minutes fiddling with a bathroom door while crossing my legs in angst because I could not figure out how to lock it. Thanks to the help of another patron, I was able to get the job done (both of them!).
Things are different in Europe. Every bathroom is different. Every airport is different. Laws are different. The language is different. Hotels are different. The pace is different. Etc., etc. Figuring out how to navigate those differences can be exhausting and frustrating. By expecting those differences and embracing them the moment you land, you will certainly lessen frustration on your first day.
2. Expect normalcy among the extraordinary. Americans tend to romanticize foreign destinations. We imagine it to be like a movie we saw, or a book we read. We envision falling in love, developing some spiritual connection to the land, the food, or the people. Instead, we arrive finding locals going about their daily business, ignoring our momentous arrival. We commute from the airport through the most unattractive parts of the city where we thought we'd see glitz and glam. We find the hotel to be less romantic and culturally unique when the website promised otherwise. The historical site we've dreamed of seeing doesn't lie in the middle of an oasis, but instead, between a pharmacy and a shoe repair store.
Expect to see extraordinary monuments, museums and historical sites--that is, by all means, the reason you are there. Yet, realize that for hundreds of years (thousands, in some cases) people have built their normal lives around these grand structures. Expecting normalcy will help dispel unrealistic romanticism and often lead to a greater appreciation of the local culture.
3. Expect to be tired. Many flights from the U.S. fly to Europe overnight, arriving early in the morning. Most avid travelers recommend adopting the new time zone immediately. In doing so, you are awake for as much as 36 hours or more before your head finally rests on a pillow. The first day is tough. Feeling tired and cranky makes it difficult to navigate a new city, much less enjoy it!
Expect to feel a fatigue like you've never felt before and cut yourself some slack. Take the first day easy. Take a short nap. You will be more equipped the next day to tackle the city.
4. Expect to be lost. I am a navigating queen (pat, pat on the back). However, it doesn't matter how good my internal compass is, I know I will get lost, take the wrong train, or walk in the wrong direction the first day in a new city. I expect it!
The first day is all about getting your bearings. Many European cities are centuries old with roads that date back to horse and buggy (and even older) times. Some of these small roads and alleys rarely make it on to a good map. So, know that you, too, will struggle with navigation, particularly on your first day. If you know it's coming, it won't throw you for such a loop.
5. Expect the unexpected. Even the best laid plans can be macerated when it comes to a European vacation. Before leaving home, the Weather Channel may have called for 80 degrees and sunshine in Paris only to find it is 50 degrees and raining. The Venice hotel told you the water taxi would drop you off in front of the hotel, only he dropped you off two blocks and three bridges away. The hotel's website in Prague stated it is within walking distance of all the important sites, yet you find it is a very steep uphill climb away.
Surprises are common on the first day in a new country. And, those surprises can often leave you feeling frustrated or disappointed. It helps to expect the unexpected and land in the new city with the c'est la vie (that is life) European attitude. Besides, you're on vacation...why sweat the small stuff?!
6. Expect to have no control. Oh, this is a hard one for us mighty Americans! We are a control-freak society, aren't we? It usually takes me more than one day to completely overcome this one (but thankfully, I do!). We expect other cultures to behave like ours. We expect all foods to be to our liking. We want the same ease in transportation we find at home. We expect to be seated and served immediately as we are in our favorite neighborhood restaurant. We expect our vacation plans to be executed exactly as we planned.
Carrying these expectations, we lose the opportunity to truly relax and enjoy a destination. The sooner we let go of them, the sooner we enjoy the ride, receiving all the richness the new culture has to give.