Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

7 Golden Rules to Surviving the Colosseum

In a universe far, far away, the Colosseum isn’t a hive swarming of tourists without deodorant. It isn’t in an awkward stage of half renovation where one side of the amphitheater looks completely fake and the other is a historic wonder of the world.

Unfortunately, we don’t live in that universe. I’d love to visit the Colosseum in those circumstances. Begrudgingly sometimes I go to such iconic places because it seems to make every life that visits it so. much. better.

The Colosseum is impressive. It is worth visiting. Because I know you’re going to go, here’s seven survival tips to make it much more enjoyable.

7. If you’re going between April and October, go to your Dollar Store/ Poundland and buy handheld fans. 

Otherwise you’ll melt. Honestly. Imagine a human current that takes you to different places and you’re shuffling along (and not in the cool way). There’s no way to not sweat. Bring a handheld fan and not only do you get to keep cool but you also get to accidentally hit stupid people that intentionally block your photo.

6. Toilet before you walk.

Toilets are by the audioguide pickup which is really inconvenient to get to once you’ve started walking around, that is. You have to walk downstairs (or through a hallway) and then you have to shuffle and scoot past the people that are trying to enter and shuffle and scowl at the people crowded around the audioguide pickup because the concept of a queue is lost here.

5. BYOB. Water bottles, that is.

I did mention it gets atrociously hot. Put some water bottles in the freezer and take them with you in your satchel/ man purse/ backpack and by the time you get into the Colosseum you’ll have about half a bottle of water to drink.

4. Buy your tickets here. Don’t be a dimwit and think you want to buy them at the door. Breezing past all of those people makes you feel like:

happy leo

And who doesn’t want to feel like that?

3. Pack a 4-liter bottle of patience. Or maybe just bring a flask to tolerate the very annoying groups.

You know, the kind that everyone loves that amass a group of about 20-30 people and then STOP RIGHT IN THE MIDDLE OF THE WALKWAY AND DECIDE TO GIVE A TEN MINUTE DISSERTATION ABOUT BRICKS.

2. Go to this restaurant to escape the crowds and the heat. 

Lovely, jovial older Italian gentleman who cracks jokes and has a sweet smile. They have little croissants for 3 euro and some really good espresso and Mark ordered lasagna which was divine and then some. Oh and for all my fellow AC-loving Americans, they have real air conditioning!

1. Get up at 7am and take the first uber there around 8am. 

Thank God Uber is here! The Colosseum is worth losing sleep to get even an hour without the droning and humming of the mid-morning tourists.

If you would like a quick look at the interior, from our perspective while we visited, see below!

Ciao, beautiful people.

It’s Okay! You Can Skip the Vatican Museum and the Sistine Chapel

I can’t believe there’s not more blogs promoting this. I really don’t understand why it’s on so many people’s life goals lists (Please tell me in the comments). It’s like millions of people suddenly become devoutly Roman Catholic and suddenly care about the lineages of the popes, what the popes wore, what they did and didn’t do, who they did and didn’t kill, and an even greater number of people pretend to really, really like art.

If you’re not on a pilgrimage to fulfill a religious preoccupation, you can skip the Vatican Museums and the Sistine Chapel for any of the following reasons:

It’s expensive

16 euro if you dare wait in the queue (are you insane?) or 20 per person if you pay online. It’s a 4 euro convenience fee to pay online. You still have to stand in a line to pickup your tickets from the ticket counter. Then you shuffle.

Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle.

And sweat, sweat, sweat. This is Italy which means there’s no AC in this building. It’s very old and AC is new. I’m not sure where the 4 euro fee is going, but it’s not going into cooling the building where the average number of visitors is more than 15,000 a day. This isn’t an area with wide walkways or an air current or even somewhere to stand off to the side. Throughout the entire walk through the museum, shuffle shuffle shuffle, which reminds me, I can remember taking exactly six real steps. There’s nowhere to really admire artwork, so actually,

It’s visual overload. 

Every room is ornately painted or carved from baseboards across the ceiling. EVERY. ROOM. You begin walking and trying to take in the beauty and enormity of the artwork, but you can’t because these IDIOT GUIDES and their flock of 20-30 something tourists walk right in front of people that are clearly trying to take a picture or admire artwork. You ask them, mi scusi, a photo? and you get the most disgusted look and a 15% chance of someone actually moving. Two hours later, by the time you get to the Sistine Chapel, you are so tired of seeing 16th century art that your eyes kind of glaze over and Michelangelo’s famous painting The Creation of Adam, becomes an actual snoozefest. Speaking of Michelangelo…

The Sistine Chapel is last room of the entire museum. 

And you’re supposed to be silent. All the signs before you enter tell you to 1) cover your shoulders, 2) cover up your super cute mini, AND BE QUIET. “Silence” is universal. But thousands and thousands of morons can’t keep their mouths shut and they keep whispering. So the guards shout SHHHHHHH! across the chapel and people think it’s funny so they keep talking. Again, you shuffle, and the museum guards make you shuffle in a particular direction. If you don’t shuffle that way you’ll be forced that way. Shuffle shuffle. All the sitting room will be taken, so you stand in a crowd of people that are smelly and sweaty and you just stare at the ceiling. No point in taking a photo. The ceiling is so tall you can’t zoom in far enough with any camera to get a fair picture of Adam and God. Speaking of which..

Take a picture of the Sistine Chapel and be prepared to get thrown out.

No one ever said #ShamelessSelfie with Michelangelo is a good idea. Signs have a picture of a camera with a line through it. No photo. And what do these idiots do? Hold their camera up above their head and try to take a picture, then act all surprised when they’re approached by a guard. Are you serious? How daft do you have to be?!

After you finish the Sistine Chapel, you’re guided through the histories of each Pope, what they did wrong and what they did right (all in Italian of course). At this point you’re just ready to leave. You came, you saw, you pretended to be Catholic or you pretended to know who Raphael was, and then you leave.

Want to have a good time at the Vatican? Don’t go. Just don’t. 95% of the people who go there are better off somewhere else.

If you insist on going, here’s my sage advice:

  • Buy the ticket online and deal with the 4 euro/pp convenience fee.
  • Enter the “group with reservations” line.
  • Go through security, put your bag on the line, and go straight to the left where it says tickets.
  • Show the wo/man your phone, get your tickets printed out.
  • GO UP THE RAMP. Do you really want to be stuck with a bunch of smellies on the escalator? No, you don’t.
  • Finally, at least pretend to be interested in something other than the Sistine Chapel, and divert if only for a moment to another room. We enjoyed the “Modern” Gallery right before the SC entrance.

Ciao.

24 Hours In: Surprised and Culture Shocked in Naples, Italy

Italy marks country number 14 and I may be speaking for myself but I am currently experiencing a severe culture shock. English is not widely spoken (it wasn’t in Finland, either), the four-hour breaks in the middle of the day are NOT a joke, and the laws of driving, walking and living are merely suggestion. Here’s a list of observations after 24 hours that have been doubly frustrating for us, so hopefully you come away from this read more enlightened with a better chance of enjoying your time.

Dining

It’s extremely difficult to find someone that is willing to speak English out the gate. It seems that most people want you to fail at Italian so they can get a good laugh before they attempt to help you. Once you sit down, it’s a 1 euro fee (per person) to occupy the space. At a higher end restaurant, this can be up to 2 euro. It seems through experience that you’re expected to know what you like to eat straight away, and order drinks and food at once. At one restaurant, we were told to reuse our water glasses for the wine because it’s “tradition” to drink wine and water from the same glass (Can anyone actually confirm this?).

Once you order, expect to never see your waiter again. American expectations of hospitality: How are you doing? Do you need anything else? How is the food/ drink? are completely absent. Let me say it again. You will not have a waiter come by and ask you if you need anything else. EVER. I read in an Italian culture blog that their perspective is to leave you alone until you need something; however, this is only really effective if you can actually find a waiter to flag down.

You eat, you drink. Every restaurant we’ve visited sets bread on the table. If you eat the bread, it’s another charge of 1 euro per person.

Then you receive the check. There was a bill yesterday that literally read: Pizza, 50. Pizza, 8. The total was 58 euros. Every restaurant must provide an itemization of what you ordered. Demand it if they don’t. In our case, we asked for it because all we wanted to see is that the waiter understood our order. Turns out he was right, but I was charged an additional 2.5 euro because I wanted my chicken grilled, not fried. 😦 

Activities and Things to Do

Sunday: Only a few restaurants open after 2pm. Some stores open. Not much. I was told bars started opening up after 8pm. Supermarkets and grocery stores also closed on Sunday. If you want to do anything in Naples, don’t arrive on a Sunday.

Monday: Actually, don’t arrive on a Monday, either. Apparently there’s NOTHING open on Monday. If you want to visit the Naples National Archaeological Museum, it’s closed. Want to check out the Bourbon Tunnel? Closed. Want to understand the history of the Catacombe di San Gennaro? Closed. Want to unfold the history of LAES – La Napoli Sotteranea? Color me surprised – that’s closed as well. Turns out that reviews on TripAdvisor are useless if you plan on visiting anything of merit on a Monday.

Tuesday: If you’re dead-set on taking a day-tour to Pompeii, Herculaneum, or Mount Vesuvius, odds are you’ve checked out the tours offered by Viator. Turns out they run tours every day except for Tuesday. That’s the day we wanted to go. Need to go to Pompeii, Herculaneum or Vesuvius anyway? Your best bet is to rent a car from the Napoli train station and hope for the best while you drive yourself. Haven’t done this yet – will report on it after 9th September.

**NOTE** Booking tickets to Pompeii online so you can go it on your own? You can only do so if you have an Italian address and an Italian equivalent of a social security number. Not Italian? Sucks to be you (and us) – you’ll be lining up at Pompeii to get your ticket at the door.**

Wednesday – Saturday: All I can say is that from about 12:00pm – 4:00pm, it’s slim pickings for food, cappucino, or a glass of wine. We’ve been here for nearly a week and still haven’t adapted to the 4 hour absence of food that isn’t gelato or espresso or pizza.

 Accommodations

Our Airbnb has been good to us so far. Space is so limited here that there isn’t even a place to put a clothes drying rack on the balcony. You have to let it fly freely in the space away from your balcony. No big, right? Until one of your clothing items falls down to the concrete overhang on the ground floor. No worries, says Mark, I’ll go get it. So he walks down to the ground floor, braces himself against the CONCRETE OF THE OVERHANG, and guess what? The concrete holding up the building actually COLLAPSES. It collapses. Are you kidding me? Not to mention Mark free-falls 7 feet and now has a lovely bleeding gash about 2 inches across. Also, if the place has an elevator be prepared for world’s smallest. It fits two people and two carry-on bags. That’s it.

Lifestyle

Drivers in both scooters and cars will run you off the road. They run the show. Pedestrian right of way? That’s funny! Smokers (of real cigars and cigarettes) abound and they have no problem letting you know about it on the exhale. Train rides, unlike Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Finland, Brussels, the Czech Republic, or France, are ridden with conversation and children yelling and running up and down the aisles of the train. If the quiet, near-silence on the trains in other parts of Europe gives you anxiety, don’t worry, because that quiet won’t exist here.

NOTE: There was also a protest today. Apparently the Napoli mayor is really sticking it to the Prime Minister. It was a peaceful demonstration that lasted about 6 hours with some rhetoric sprinkled in.

—-

That’s Naples after 24 hours. Tomorrow we’re picking up a car and driving ourselves to Pompeii. Taking adventure to an entire new level.

Ciao.

Choosing Your First AirBnB

AirBnB has been truly great to us and we can’t recommend them enough. Every type of lodging is available: tree houses, huts, beach cabanas, modern flats and castles! Search functions allow you to search for a private room, a shared space, or the entire home. The prices vary as much as the style, meaning there is definitely a listing for your taste.

For accuracy in prices and availability, put in the dates you’re looking to stay, even if they’re tentative because you may find a place you like that happens to have a flexible host. It’s no fun to get super attached to a listing only to find out it’s not available. 😦

Before booking, check the cancellation policy. Each listing has one: flexible, moderate or strict. Flexible means you can cancel no later than 24 hours before your intended stay for a full refund, which is best for more spontaneous bookings. Moderate means cancellation must be made five days (in host’s local time) before intended stay for a full refund.  If you’re planning to attend an event or you’re pretty sure you won’t change plans, this is an option. Strict is… Strict. No full refunds are offered for Strict cancellation policies.  Instead, a 50% refund will be given for cancellations made seven days or more before your intended stay.

We’ve found the hosts to be quite delightful and to ensure you get the most out of your stay without any misunderstanding, we always message the host before booking. We also crafted a template to familiarize you with the site and ensure you ask vital questions with a message like this:

Hello, My husband and I are traveling to London from September 23 to September 28- confirming you have these dates available. We are mainly looking forward to visiting Westminster Abbey, Tower of London, and Camden Market. We would like to prepare a couple small meals as well. We will be arriving from Heathrow at 7pm- would you be home at that time? What is the best tube route to your location? 

Thank you kindly. 

Most hosts respond within two hours as they are eager to confirm guests :). Generally, a more outgoing, interactive host will respond with a more detailed message. Ask for recommendations in their area. If you’ve any allergies, it’s good to note that so the host can accommodate. We had an instance where a review noted a pet but the host didn’t, so if pets are something you need to avoid, confirm before the booking. At a different stay, I was totally under the impression the host would be there, but he didn’t live in the area anymore; the house was a rental property. For a first time stay, you may want to ask if there will be other guests in the house.

For short stay travelers looking to maximize time, ask:

  • What do you find is the best way to get around?
  • Is Uber operating here?
  • What times do the trains/ buses run?
  • Additional charge on public transit during peak travel times?

For super savvy and aspiring long term travelers, ask:

  • How far is the nearest market and when does it close?
  • How far is the nearest pharmacy?
  • Do you have ample pots and pans, flatware and cooking tools?
  • Do you have a clothes washer if I bring my own detergent?

For families of four or more, we recommend:

  • Selecting “entire house” instead of one room as a search filter. More privacy, flexibility and importantly security.
  • Booking as soon as possible if you’re attending an event. AirBnB hosts will raise prices too, sometimes three months in advance.
  • Letting the host know the ages of your children, especially younger tots.
  • If you rented a car, ask where the car can be parked. 

Final note: Give a host with no reviews a chance. We did and had a lovely stay!

Have you had an experience at airbnb you’d like us to feature? Let us know! We would love to hear your travel adventures.

Mark and Melody

London on a Budget: Don’t Forget This! 

When looking to travel in a big city like London, it’s easy to be seduced into picking the lowest price for hotels/ lodging. We found out the hard way that the cheapest place actually ends up costing more…

Big Ben.

How? Because time is valuable too. 

Our 100+ day journey (no return ticket!) started with a week in London, so this is sage advice for long journey travelers and ambitious tourists who believe they can absorb London in a week.

It’s hard to find a way around London being pricey: bargain hotels start at $130 USD near the main attractions and hostels are mostly dorm style. AirBnB is typically the best way to get quality lodging at a deeply discounted rate. Unless you’re the worlds greatest hotel rewards points collector of course, in which case, don’t be afraid to share.

After looking into our options, we found a beautiful little place ‘just outside of London City Center’ for a modest $38 per night. That’s just $19 per person, per night. We had a nice little kitchen to cook in and a living room – excellent!

We flew ‘Into London’ (rolls eyes) and began working our way toward the house. Color me surprised to find that it would take us nearly an hour and a half via train and underground to get there.

Geograph-2430114-by-Malc-McDonald

Transit into London came at a steep cost of $77 via train on the express, taking about 45 minutes. Buy your ticket in advance and you might not get taken advantage of like we did. After another two transfers, we ended up on the train that would take us 45 minutes outside of London City Center ($4). We then walked / climbed the hill that brought us to the house we would call home for the next week.

Side note: This hill did not mess around. It puts San Francisco to shame. I’ve been on trail hikes less exerting than this. I felt like a winded mountaineer. What’s worse is these delightful little British kids are running all up and down this hill like it’s the easiest thing they’ve done all day. Ah.  Good ol days.

EVERY day we went into London to visit the Tower of London, or Tower Bridge, or the Beefeater Gin Distillery, or to visit a random park to have lunch, we were literally travelling uphill both ways. So that’s what my grandparents meant.


We took the bait for the cheapest place and paid a lot in time; over 18 hours was spent traveling to and from London city center which was $148 in fare over seven days for two people. The underground, overground and Thameslink train are surprisingly inexpensive, but we definitely could have used that 18 hours to spend another day at the Imperial War Museum, the National Gallery or the British Museum. 

Taking into account travel costs, the weighted cost of lodging became $415 – not taking into account our time (which of course everyone values differently). That brought the nightly rate to $59.29 or $29.65 per person.

We may have been able to find something that was more accessible and end up spending the same amount (or less), by opting for something a little higher in initial cost.

Pro-tips:

London’ is broken up into six zones. Zones one and two are where most of the popular attractions are. We were technically staying in London, but zone six, which was an hour away from the center. A trip to the Jewish Museum, a little further afield, was over 90 minutes away and back.

If you are staying at an airbnb (which we totally recommend) please ask them what zone they are in and what station they are near. Give us a shout if you need help deciphering the infamous London Underground map. 🙂

Think about how much time you want to spend getting to your points of interest each day, and always account for potential delays when you are further away. Remember – time is money!

Cheaper accommodation usually sacrifices: Convenience, Amenities, and/or Access to Transit. Even if you do not mind spending more time in transit, always take the everyday travel cost into account when making your decision.

AirBnB London

Consider a slightly more expensive accommodation to save yourself time or money overall. Looking back now, we could have spent $40-50 per night at a different AirBnB and found ourselves at a spot near London City Center, which would have saved us $65-135 – not to mention the time we spent and the stress incurred by the longer transit.


Whether you are on a mission to visit every country in the world as we are, or you’re just looking for a quick getaway to a world city, we hope that the information here might prove enlightening whilst you are planning.

Please send us a note of the travels you wish to embark on, and don’t be afraid to let the travel bug bite.

Mark & Melody