What I Learned from My European Vacation: Part II

What I Learned from My European Vacation Part II

Going to Europe is not a restful vacation. It’s go, go, go and walk, walk, walk. There is so much to see and do in London and Amsterdam. It’s impossible to see it all. We already have our list of what we missed. In this blog, I’ll tell you what we did and what we learned.

London

Tower of London
We were with a tour that was admitted an hour before opening so we had less lines and people to deal with inside. Looking at the jewels and learning their history was very cool. But be sure to visit all the exhibits. There are lots of fun facts relating to the history of the Tower, including all the animals it was once home to.

Changing of the Guard
You kind of have to do this. But it’s not that exciting. Our guide took us from the area where they change in and out onto Buckingham where they parade by. Would have liked to have gone into Buckingham, but it’s only open for tours in July and August. Buckingham doesn’t look that grand on the exterior.

Afternoon Tea
This was a favorite for me. The tea was bliss. The sandwiches and pastries were good not great (remember, I have a super palette). But I loved learning about the history and customs around afternoon tea.

Windsor Castle
I’d love to go back and spend a whole day in Windsor. It’s not far from London. We did not have enough time to see everything. No pictures are allowed inside. Windsor is grand on the inside and out.

Kensington Palace
You walk through a public park, and there it is. You can only visit a small portion, as it is a working palace. This was the home of Princess Diana so there were exhibits focused on her, including many of her well known dresses and gowns.

Stonehenge
It’s just in the middle of a field. There’s even a highway not too far away. What if you saw Stonehenge on your commute every day. I found it fascinating. There was a definite energy there. You could feel it. And the weather changed four times in 20 minutes. It’s much clearer how the stones were moved here (from sometimes hundreds of miles away) then why. It was very evident to me that this place was very special to many people at one time.

Amsterdam

The city is so beautiful. The history and artistry are all around you. It’s hard not to be intoxicated by it. Whatever your preconceived notions might be about Amsterdam, you’re probably wrong. The Red Light District isn’t seedy. We went on the Red Light District tour, and it was very enlightening. Prostitution is a legal profession just like being an accountant. Well, not exactly. But we learned a lot about the history of the sex industry. For starters, to have a window in this area, you’ve got to have money. It’s not cheap. I’m not sure where the cheaper hookers are but not here. Another thing is that you won’t find any men in the windows. Apparently, they aren’t brave enough.

You probably also might be thinking there would be drug addicts or bums filtering the streets. Not that we saw. We saw neither homeless people or addicts walking the street. Our guide informed us that in the early 90s, there was a heroin epidemic in the city. The traditional way of dealing with addicts was to imprison them. The Netherlands decided that wasn’t working. So they actually provide addicts heroin to use in a safe place. Treating it like an addiction; not a crime worked. The number of heroin addicts continues to shrink. Crime related to heroin addiction plummeted. And there are very few addicts under the age of 40, meaning that it’s not attracting new users. It’s a fascinating and smart way to look at drug addiction in my opinion.

There are so many things to do in Amsterdam. We made a bit of a dent in the list, but it will require several more trips to see everything. We loved the Van Gogh Museum. You can spend hours getting lost in his brush strokes and story. The canal cruises are a beautiful way to see the city. We took one in the day and at night. On one cruise, we saw the newer part of Amsterdam with its modern skyscrapers. I had no interest in seeing this part of the city. I much prefer the gorgeous and aged row houses.

We also toured the Amsterdam Museum, which provides you a great overview of the city from its beginnings as a port to its growth to international destination. The Royal Palace was open while we were there so we took a few hours to check it out. It was built in the 1600s as a city hall. Now it’s a residence for the Dutch monarchy and is open for touring depending on the schedule.

And yes, Amsterdam has coffeehouses and live sex shows. But it should never be defined as a city of hedonism. The Dutch aren’t conservative or prudish about what many cultures consider taboo. Rather they allow individuals to make their own choices about participating in such activities. They’ve removed the mystique around things that many cultures cannot. When things but come less risqué they lose their appeal to many. In my opinion, I believe they get it right.

Our time in Europe will be a time I always cherish. It’s just amazing and breathtaking to be around such history and beauty. We can’t wait to go back. We left parts of our heart their so we’d know we’d return as soon as possible.

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What I Learned from My European Vacation – Part One

 

european vacation part one

This is the first in a series of posts about my recent trip to London and Amsterdam. I’ve been obsessed with Europe since I was young. My mom planted this desire in me. I think her trip to Europe in the 80s was probably one of the best times in her life. So I thought of her a lot while I was visiting castles and famous places in London as she had 30 years ago. Traveling with her is just one more thing we didn’t get to share. But I was glad to be there with my favorite person.

For this post, I wanted to talk about logistics and my observations of how Europe just gets it right.

Trains, Planes, Boats and No Automobiles

We were never in a car the entire trip. There’s no need for a car in Europe. Transportation in Europe is really about getting where you need to go quickly and efficiently. In the US, transportation is intertwined with identity. Having a car is not just about getting where you need to go, it’s a symbol of your independence. I, personally, loathe driving and care very little about a car. So Europe is perfect for me.

We took the Underground everywhere in London. Our hotel was a block from a stop. London is a big city and very spread out. It would be impossible to go everywhere on foot. Although we did walk so much and for so long. Even with comfy shoes on, my feet were on fire.

In Amsterdam, we took the bus and trams. Amsterdam doesn’t really have that many cars. It has bikes. This is truly a bike friendly city. Everyone has their lane: pedestrians, bikes, tram and cars. You have to pay attention and stay in your lane. We didn’t see any accidents nor did we see helmets. Justin wondered how safe biking is in Amsterdam so we looked it up. The stats we found stated six to eight people die from head injuries in biking accidents annually. That’s a very small percentage. My take on why there are so few crashes is that respecting bikers and pedestrians is a cultural philosophy. Riders, drivers and walkers understand their responsibilities to each other. Whereas in the US, most drivers don’t have any desire to share the road or yield. They’ll happily run you over, honk at you and flip you off. Such an uncivilized place is the highway.

The Underground was not hard to figure out. The only tricky thing is that some trains go the same path but then split. So make sure to take the right one if your stop is after the split. The trams in Amsterdam were a bit trickier. The basically run in circles parallel to the canals, but it’s not so easy to understand what the stop is. They make announcements but they aren’t always about the next stop. And the trams stop a lot for traffic not just at actual stops. I ended up just standing beside the window where I could physically see the stop name so we didn’t miss our stop.

Getting from London to Amsterdam

We looked at several ways to travel, including by water. I chose a flight because it was quick and reasonably priced. We chose British Airways, as they don’t charge for the first bag. Plus, we were able to fly out of and back into Heathrow, which is where we departed from to get back home. We are lucky to live in a hub city with direct flights to many European cities. That’s what I always say when people ask me what I like about Charlotte. “It’s got a great airport.”

Interestingly, when checking in with American Airlines on our fight back, Justin and I were questioned about our trip. Separately, due the fact we have different surnames. I was asked what we did on our trip, how we would get home and how long we’d been gone. Justin was asked where he works, how he travels to work and where we stayed. But this has become part of the routine in the world we live in so I expect it. We had no issues at immigration or customs throughout the journey.

About the Stairs

Be prepared for stairs. At our hotel in London, we were on the fourth floor. No elevator just for flights of steep stairs. These were “feel the thigh burn” after one set kind of stairs. I only needed to go back up them about a 1,000 times and I’d have some fierce legs. We were on the first floor in Amsterdam so we lucked out.

Being Short is Not a Bad Thing

Europeans make good use of space. Think IKEA. The rooms are small. We upgraded to the double bed. We survived the small quarters. It’s easier to sleep in a smaller bed without three animals. Doorways are small. The subway is compact. So for all my tall friends, you’re going to have to crouch and dunk a lot. Shorties, this is when you’ll be glad to be petite. They make great use of their space.

English – the Universal Language?

English is, of course, the language of the U.K. They do add a u to many words in which the US does not. They also use an s rather than a z. In the Netherlands, you’ll find everything in English (UK not US) as well as Dutch. I feel conflicted about how most any country offers everything in English. It speaks volumes about the US expects everyone to conform to its language (although the US is still own its own with the imperial system). I wish I could speak lots of languages. I took four semesters of German in college and have little to show for it. Dutch is similar to German so I could read some things. But it’s hard to speak. It’s a language with long words difficult sounds. I appreciate Amsterdam catering to its visitors from English speaking countries and in turn apologetic for our ignorance in not knowing multiple languages.

I’ll end by saying I never felt not safe in Europe. We saw a much stronger police and military presence in London. But I was never fearful in any way. Since our return, the U.K. has experienced two tragic terror attacks. It’s hard to know what I can do in these times. I don’t have any solutions to thwart terrorism. I can only say that I love Europe and its people. I’d go back tomorrow and stay if that were an option. These attacks won’t scare me away. There are many more adventures to take! Next up – Italy.