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Cultural Quirks from Europe


Traveling in Europe is easier when you learn how to use the 24-hour clock, navigate a rental car smartly (from autobahns to roundabouts to signage), order food in metric quantities, and write dates and numbers the European way.

Complete Video Script

Travel is fraught with cultural differences. Celebrate them…it’s fun…that’s why we’re here.

Rick: Buongiorno.
Hotel clerk: Buongiorno. Your birthday date, please.

On forms, fill in the date European style: day…month…year.

Hotel clerk: OK, here is your key. Second floor.
Rick: Grazie.
Hotel clerk: Prego.

And over here the ground floor is the ground floor. So, what Europeans call the first floor is the American second floor…and their second floor is what we'd call the third. By the way…cute little European hotels…often without elevators.

In order to travel well, you need to be engaged. Weights and other measurements throughout Europe use the metric system. Give it a try. Here's about half a kilo…that's roughly a pound.

All over Europe, produce — in this deli, cheese and meat — is sold in 100-gram increments — about a quarter pound — plenty for a hearty sandwich.

Butcher: This is a kilogram. So, one kilo, hundred grams. Ten little one makes kilogram. Hundred grams, she looks like this. This is 100 grams. This is 100 grams. And this is 100 grams. Good enough to make one sandwich.

And when they write their numbers, Europeans use commas and periods differently than we do. For example, one and a half kilos looks like this… and there's one thousand grams in a kilo. And you might as well write your numbers European style, too: cross your sevens because a one looks like this. And for temperatures they use Celsius rather than Fahrenheit — here's a memory aid: 28 C is the same as 82 F…pretty warm.

Checking the departure schedule, I see there’s a train every hour — we’ll catch the 14:53 to Koblenz.

Remember, schedules in Europe use the 24-hour clock: anything after 12, subtract 12 and add p.m. 14:53…14 minus 12…that’s 2:53 pm…that gives us about an hour to enjoy Koln. Let’s go.

And with your own wheels, you can get to more remote places like the monastery at Andechs. Because it’s easily accessible only by car, it has fewer tourists and more locals. The stately church stands as it has for centuries. Its baroque interior both stirs the soul and stokes the appetite.

The monks here nurture a heritage of brewing a heavenly beer. And it's served by the liter. The hearty meals also come in medieval proportions. Like many beer halls, the food's perfectly Bavarian.

When I'm far from home, I become a cultural chameleon. In England I actually fancy a spot of tea. But here in Germany, it's big pretzels, beautiful radishes, kraut, knuckle of pork — check this out — and great beer. By the way, don't drink and drive. I'm done driving for today. Permissible alcohol levels are extremely low and penalties are severe.

There's nothing exotic about driving in Europe. While the British drive on the left, everyone on the Continent drives on the same side as we do in the USA.

Filling the tank here — whether diesel or gas — is like filling the tank at home — except it's Euros and liters rather than dollars and gallons — figure four liters to a gallon. Don't overreact to Europe's high cost of gas. Over here cars get great mileage and distances are short.

Rental cars come with a basic insurance policy. But deductibles can be really high. You can pay extra for zero deductible for the peace of mind. But first, check with your insurance agent at home to see how well you’re covered in Europe.

When driving, to cover long distances in a hurry, use the freeway. This is Germany's autobahn. Like most of Europe, Germany's laced with these super freeways. And around here, fast driving is considered a civil liberty. On the autobahn, you'll learn quickly…the fast lane is used only for passing. Cruise in the left lane and you'll have a Mercedes up your tail pipe.

Here and throughout northern Europe the autobahn is toll free. In France and countries south of Germany these super-freeways usually come with tolls.

Learn some navigation basics: In Germany: Zentrum means center. A giant letter “P” means parking, and this icon means autobahn, color-coding and arrows point you in the right direction. And while many travelers here go through their trips thinking all roads lead to the town of Ausfahrt…ausfahrt is German for exit.

This sign means traffic circle or roundabout. Merge safely into the circle, take the exit for the direction you’re heading. If you’re not sure, relax, take an extra loop and explore your options.

Entering a new town — this is Dinkelsbuhl — it's safe to assume the church spire marks the center and the tourist office is nearby. Old town centers are increasingly difficult to drive in — one-way streets… or closed to cars entirely. Drive as close as you can and find a place to park. Confirm you're parked legally. Your time is valuable — just pay to park and walk.

Know the key road symbols. They're the same throughout Europe: no parking anytime, no traffic allowed, wrong way…don't enter, this means no cars or bikes from 8 to midnight, no passing, and you know this one… And make educated guesses: with this one…be ready for anything. I navigate by town names because road numbers on maps often don’t match the signs.

Distances and speeds are in kilometers — on this road: 80 kph.

A kilometer is 6/10 of a mile. To change to miles, cut the kilometers in half and add back 10% of the original. 80 kph = 40 plus 8…that's 48 mph.

It's time to say ciao to Venice and head for Tuscany. Our next stop: Siena.

Siena is a stony wonderland…an architectural time-warp where pedestrians rule and the present feels like the past. Its main square, Il Campo, is enchanting. Five-hundred years ago, Italy was the center of humanism. Here, it's the city hall bell tower rather than the church spire that soars above the town. And today, the beloved square feels like a beach without sand.

At the edge of Siena’s medieval center, our hotel’s garden is a fine place for reviewing some ideas on itinerary planning.

Start your travel experience early by enjoying the planning stage. Talk to other travelers, choose books and movies with your trip in mind, nurture your travel dreams. Then develop a thoughtful itinerary in steps:

Brainstorm a wish list of destinations, put them in a logical geographical order, then write down how many days you'd like to spend in each place and then tally it up. 32 days. And now you've got to fit it with your vacation time. I've got 21 days off, that means I'm going to have to do some serious cutting here…minimize redundancy…can't do both the Italian Riviera and the French Riviera. Keep a balance between big cities and small towns. This is heavy on big cities. I think I'll have to cut Rome. Greece takes too much time to get to. It'll have to be on the next trip. Rather than spending an entire day on the train I can save a day in my itinerary by flying or taking the overnight train, from Bavaria to Venice. I still have to cut one day. I'll have to tighten up on Paris, three days rather than four and I've got it — 21 days. It fits.

Now fine-tune your itinerary. Anticipate any closed days. For instance, in Paris most museums are closed on Tuesday. Take your trip to the next level by researching events you’ll encounter along the way: concerts, sporting events, and festivals. Also, consider building in a few slack days…two days on the beach midway through the trip; that'll be very nice. One-night stops are hectic. Try for at least two nights per stop. And remember…open jaws — that's flying into one city and out of another city — that's very efficient.

Finally, be realistic about how much you can cover. You'll always find places you can't get to. I really wanted to get to Greece but squeezing it in would rush my entire trip. Assume you will return.

Travel is freedom. It’s rich with choices and exciting decisions. That’s part of the appeal.

Factor in your comfort level with doing things on the fly. Some people have a great trip with nothing planned at all. Others have a great trip by nailing down every detail before they leave home. I like to keep some flexibility in my itinerary — perhaps I’ll fall in love with Siena and stay an extra day.

Also, plan thoughtfully to get the best weather and the least crowds. The most grueling thing about travel over here is the heat and crowds of summer — especially in Italy. Check the weather charts. My rough rule of thumb: north of the Alps is like Seattle or Boston; south of the Alps is like Southern California or Florida. I prefer visiting the Mediterranean countries in spring or fall and I travel north of the Alps in summer.

We happen to be here in August. And it’s hot. Winter travel is a whole different scene. And it comes with pros and cons too: flights are cheaper, museums are empty, and the high culture — symphonies, opera, and so on — is in full swing.

But in the winter, it rains more and gets dark early — especially in the north; and many activities and sights are closed or run on shorter hours. While small towns, outdoor sights, and resorts can be sleepy; big cities are vibrant and festive throughout the year.

Years ago, the language barrier was a big problem. But today's Europe is increasingly bilingual — and English is its second language. These days it seems any place interested in your business speaks your language.

While it's nothing to brag about, I speak only English and manage fine. Still, a few tips help. It's rude to assume everybody speaks English. To be polite, I start conversations by asking, "Do you speak English? — Parlez-vous anglais? Sprechen Zie Englisch?" Whatever. If he says no, I do my best in his language. Generally, after a couple of sentences he'll say, "Actually I do speak a little English." Okay, your friend is speaking your language. Do him a favor by speaking slowly, clearly. Enunciate. No slang, no contractions, internationally understood words. Instead of asking for the restroom, ask “toilet?” Instead of asking, "Can I take your picture?" point to your camera and ask "Photo?"

Make educated guesses and proceed confidently. This must be a pharmacy. And at the station, this sign shows trains arriving and trains departing.

Communicate with a curiosity and an appetite for learning. In Europe, each region has its own gestures.

Packing light is essential for happy travel. Think about it: Have you ever met anybody who, after five trips, brags, "Every year I pack heavier"? Learn now or you'll learn later the importance of being mobile with your luggage. Pack light.

While large, unwieldy suitcases are bad for this kind of travel, smaller, carry-on sized wheelie bags are popular and can work well.

If you don't mind slinging your suitcase over your shoulder, a bag like this works great. This is a convertible suitcase/backpack. It's designed to be as big as you can carry onto most airplanes. I use it as a backpack but if you zip away these padded shoulder straps, it converts into a soft-sided suitcase.

You’ll see all kinds of travelers and bags on the road. Remember, you'll be walking a lot with your bags — especially if traveling by train. Before your trip, try this test. Load everything up, and go downtown. Window shop for an hour with all your gear. If you can't do that comfortably, go home, spread everything out on the living room floor, and reconsider.

Pick up each item one at a time and look at it. Ask yourself, "Will I use this swimming mask enough to justify carrying it around?" Not "Will I use it?" It’d be great fun here on the Riviera. But will I use it enough to feel good about carrying it through the Swiss Alps? Frugal as I may be, I'd rather buy it here than pack it all around Europe.

Don't pack for the worst scenario. Pack for the best scenario and if you need something more, buy it over here.

If you run out of toothpaste, that’s no problem. Then, you’ve got a great excuse to shop around over here…and pick up something you think…might be toothpaste.

You can get virtually everything in Europe. If you can't get one of your essentials here, perhaps you should ask yourself how 400-million Europeans can live without it.

Whether traveling for two weeks or three months, I pack exactly the same. Everything I need fits in this bag. For travelers, Europe is casual. For warmth, layer it. In the summertime, I've got a light sweater and a light jacket. That works great. In the winter, of course, you’ll want to check climate charts and pack for rain and cold. For pants I like to wear these jeans. And, in the Mediterranean where it’s so hot and muggy, I bring a light pair of long pants, as well. A pair of shorts doubles as a swimsuit. For shirts: I have a T-shirt, two or three short-sleeved shirts, and I like to bring a couple of long-sleeved shirts.

The thing that determines when I need to do my laundry is when I run out of socks and underwear. How many you take is up to you. As far as shoes go, this is really important: bring one pair of well broken-in, sturdy walking shoes. If you bring a second pair of shoes make it a light one.

For travel information, this is really important, but don’t go too heavy on this — I bring a notebook, the maps I need, couple of chapters ripped out of various guidebooks, and my favorite guidebooks covering the places I’ll be traveling. I also have a toiletries kit: very small, just the basics — you’re on vacation. And a miscellaneous stuff bag full of odds and ends — you know…the ten essentials that you’ll never need. I didn't pack an umbrella. But it rained so I bought one. They're cheap over here. And when I'm out and about, I have my day bag.

For women, of course, there are differences and lots of clever tips. But it’s just as important to be mobile, and these same basic principles of packing light apply.

Now, let me talk about electronics. These days, there’ s WiFi just about everywhere. I bring a laptop — because I’m working; a little point and shoot camera works fine for me; I buy a simple cell phone over here — it’s handy for calling within Europe; and I bring my smart phone from home. These days, this is an increasingly valuable tool for those on the road. All of these are dual voltage — they work just fine in Europe. Your only concern is physically plugging it into the wall. Your American plug won’t work so you need one of two European adapters: in Britain you use the adapter with the three rectangular prongs, and anywhere on the Continent, the adaptor with the two little round prongs works just great.