Getting Around in Europe

First, we have to fly there!

One of my favorite parts of travel is not driving. We usually go places that are walkable and have good public transit. Since Germany was our first destination for this trip, I hit my dad up for information. We were flying into Frankfurt and had to get to Schwabisch Hall.

He’d recently made the same trip to visit his family and friends. I figured a train to Schwäbisch Hall, a short taxi ride to our hotel.

Fortunately, he told me the stuff that doesn’t appear in a travel brochure (which Schwäbisch Hall doesn’t, either, by the way). He recommended catching a train to Stuttgart and renting a car for the rest of the way.

Boarding the train to Stuttgart

As it turns out, that was pretty darn perfect.

The Train to Stuttgart

After spending a night in Frankfurt, we left our hotel and headed to the Frankfurt (Main) Hauptbahnhof. Our train to Stuttgart took about 2 hours, and required no train changes. I just relaxed and read as the scenery flashed by, showing all these asphalt bike paths that made me long for a few weeks with my road bike in the German countryside. The stroller-friendly car had plenty of space for Anneka to practice her new skill of crawling. The price was $29 EUR each. You can get tickets right at the station without a problem.

One VW to Swabia

We rented a VW Golf Europcar at the airport and began a long, confusing search for the car in the multitude of parking garages. This was a stressful affair since nothing seemed to make any organized sense. Even worse, we weren’t sure how to install the carseat. The garage attendant was convinced there should be a base the carseat plugs into, while the desk people insisted otherwise. There’s a bit of a trick to using the seat belts to secure the carseat, but I can’t explain it here. And the staff could be far more helpful here (even though they’re very friendly).

Let’s drive!

The VW Golf, by the way, is the only rental car I’ve ever liked as much as a Subaru. It handled beautifully, accelerating, braking and turning well in all circumstances – even rain. It was a six-speed manual, which was perfect for a guy who drives a manual at home. But I had a devil of a time figuring out how to put it in reverse. It turns out you push down on the shifter and move it to the top left. Good thing I had my smartphone to answer the question, or I’d still be stuck in that parking garage.

The Eurostar will wow most American travelers.

Driving on the German freeways is nowhere near as frightening as you might expect, either. Yes, some people drive really damn fast. But they seem to use their heads along with their turn signals. Slower traffic is very good about keeping to the right. The highway signs are top-notch, and the pavement itself is in perfect shape.

Aboard the Eurostar

Our next train trip – and the London Tube doesn’t count – was the Eurostar from London to Brussels. Now, if you want to talk about an impressive train station, Saint Pancras Station is absolutely amazing. It’s huge, with a beautiful fusion of classic and modern design. It’s a bit confusing if you’re not familiar with the layout and all the different trains. Arrive early if it’s your first time.

English: St Pancras International Polski: St P...
English: St Pancras International Polski: St Pancras International (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The security is also a bit more airport-like, so be prepared for that. It’s considerably more genial than a typical US airport, though (a very charming security woman with an amazing Cockney accent referred to Anneka as our "lil’ chicken").

The train itself is comfortable and fast, with a very smooth ride. You’ll get a nice view of the the landscape on both sides of the Chunnel. The Eurostar slows down a bit as it goes under the English Channel.

Arrival in Brussels is pretty easy. We had little difficulty finding our local train into the city. Tickets start around $166, and the trip to Brussels took 2 hours, 30 minutes. Book early, ust in case.

The ICE is nice – even moreso than the Eurostar.

That’s Right, ICE Man

The Eurostar set a high bar. And then the ICE, or Inter-City Express, completely vaulted over it. It was all just a touch sleeker, cleaner and more comfortable. Americans will long for high-speed rail service on par with the ICE after just one ride.

The ride from Brussels to Frankfurt was pleasant and comfortable, and without the added security measures of the Eurostar and its Chunnel route. Europe’s rail transit infrastructure is amazing, and I just don’t understand how the U.S. can allow itself to lag decades behind.

It takes about 3 hours and costs 99 EUR. Our car was often nearly empty, but I’d still book ahead of time.

The trains in Belgian are clean and comfortable.

Based in Brussels

It’s also worth mentioning that Brussels has great rail transit headed to nearby destinations like Ghent and Bruges. For these short, 45-minute-or-so trips, you’re looking at $25 round trip on a clean, comfortable train. You can roll right to the station and purchase tickets.

A Warning

Escalators and elevators can be hard to find in Europe. And when you do find them, they might be small. Our BOB Ironman stroller was pretty awesome everywhere but in the elevators. Keep this in mind during your trip.

A Recent Visitor’s Thoughts on the Brussels Lockdown

I’m looking at a photo of soldiers on patrol during the Brussels lockdown, and I keep thinking "This is not the Brussels I saw."

In mid-October, I spent five days staying in the now-infamous Sint-Jans-Molenbeek neighborhood with my wife and 10-month-old daughter. It was part of a trip that, over two weeks, took us to Germany to visit family, to the UK to visit friends and to Belgium just because. We stayed at Hôtel BELVUE, which was our favorite hotel on this trip by a long shot. We took day trips to Ghent and Bruges.

Brussels lockdown
This is the Brussels I know.

It’s really shocking to compare the Brussels lockdown images in the news to what we found in Belgium. Most of our wandering took us south of the canal that separated Sint-Jans-Molenbeek from the city center. If I had to sum Brussels up to another traveler, I’d say things like "Stylish but easy-going. Great food, coffee and beer. Good public transit, very cool architecture, lots to do."

Brussels lockdown
This is Molenbeek, the neighborhood you’re hearing so much about during the Brussels lockdown.

I always try hard not to fall into the trap of over-estimating a city’s good side when I travel. When you’re traveling, the view is always rosier than living and working somewhere. But still, Brussels seemed to have this vibe of a healthy attitude toward balancing work and life. The streets and restaurants all seemed busy and upbeat. It was just an unbelievably pleasant place even if you’re not a fan of the secondhand smoke (which I’m not). The population was diverse, and people of all backgrounds seemed to intermingle. Only one small spray of graffiti that I couldn’t even translate but clearly mentioned Islam seemed to be the only sign of tension.

Brussels lockdown
The only sign of tension I saw, and I can’t even translate it.

Thinking of Brussels braced for a "serious and imminent attack" is sobering and sad. Recognizing places in the news photos makes this situation hit closer to home. Maybe it shouldn’t – we should, I suppose, feel the same regardless of whether we’ve been there before. But I can easily imagine some of the same people who smiled at my daughter or sat next to us at a cafe now wondering what the hell is happening in their city. And that definitely makes this personal.

I don’t have any answers about what Belgium should do. I don’t want to offer any platitudes to Brussels and the people who live and work there. I just want to offer a different view of what you’re seeing in Brussels right now for those who have never been there. And I want Belgium to do its best to keep people safe without trampling on the rights of decent people who have nothing to do with the current threat, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.

Read about my recent encounter with the TSA to see what happens when “security” runs amok.

True or False: Europhobia in America

There’s an interesting thread on Quora right now. Someone asked "Is it true that Americans don’t travel to Europe because there is Europhobia in America?"

The answers add up to a definite "no." There’s a great synopsis that brings up the main points of why it might seem that way:

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans; given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively “too short” to reap the benefits.

Let’s take a look at these reasons and their effect on the perception of Europhobia.

I don’t have much art for this post, so you get this ludicrous dog I saw at a cafe in Vietnam.

*Europe is far away, and expensive to take a family to.

This isn’t a reason. It’s an excuse. Compare nine days in Europe next to nine days in Orlando drifting from theme park to theme park. It costs more to get to Europe because of airfare. But factor in daily park admissions and jacked-up meal prices, and I think you’ll be in for surprise: This site quotes a Disney vacation, for example, at about $3,485 (four people, 7 nights) not including the cost to get there. If you’re a good shopper, it is possible to get to Europe for nearly the same price – possibly even less if you head to Eastern Europe.

Another thought: Americans find it in their budget to throw down for all sorts of meaningless, forgettable extravagances – smartphones that will be obsolete before they’re out of warranty, needlessly luxurious cars, enormous cable and satellite television packages, just to name a few. These suck money out of our budgets that could just as easily go toward enriching, memorable trips abroad.

Where do Americans go instead of Europe? Mexico, Canada, the Caribbean, to family reunions and to theme parks I mentioned earlier. Those who venture abroad go to England. It’s the top destination.

* America is huge, with many sites to see within driving distance

So, let’s see if I have this straight: Driving eight hours is fine, but flying eight hours is just too far. Eight hours is eight hours, regardless of the vehicle. Yet there’s a perception that eight hours in the air is somehow more exhausting and stressful.

Let’s keep in mind, the point of travel isn’t just to see things. It’s also to learn and to add to your perspective of the world.

I am adamant that, to be a truly educated person, you have to see how people in other cultures live. You have to see it first-hand, not through the media. So while you can drive to all sorts of interesting places in the U.S., you’re missing a chance to see other cultures and people. This reason might not by Europhobia, but it definitely seems like BS.

The VR train is a nice way to get around Finland. And it’s not even the country’s fastest.

Many people in the U.S., especially those who do not travel, have an illusion that they have a degree of freedom and standard of living unparalleled in the world. I suppose this depends on how we define freedom. For some, I guess owning whatever sort of firearms they please and being able to drive enormous gas-guzzlers equals freedom to some. But can you really consider yourself free if you’re one medical problem away from bankruptcy, and you’re too afraid to go on vacation because you’re worried you might not have a job when you come back?

So travel isn’t just about seeing things. It’s about figuring out where you and what you believe fit among the world.

* Europeans speak many languages which may deter many Americans from visiting.

This is a point of insecurity with Americans. I’m miserable at foreign languages. But I pick up at least a few phrases everywhere I travel (and can sometimes pass myself off as a local for a few sentences anywhere outside of Asia).

best passenger planes
Get onboard one of these and go abroad.

But Americans may be forgetting about this place called England. Where they speak English. That’s really close to continental Europe. Which is part of the reason so many Europeans speak -- English.

It’s completely possible – even easy – to get around in Europe if you only speak English. On another note, the U.S. seems to have a huge problem effectively teaching foreign languages. This is a problem schools in continental Europe don’t have. And another missed opportunity to look to other nations, learn from them and better ourselves through their example.

Again, this doesn’t seem like Europhobia. But it’s a fear of our own shortcomings.

* Some Americans are afraid to fly long distances

This misses the mark somewhat. Americans know that flying is safer than driving. Their fear isn’t in the flying – it’s in being uncomfortable. Somehow, we morphed from people that headed west in Conestoga wagons into people who can’t fathom the notion of being less-than perfectly comfortable on a 14-hour flight to Australia.

And I’m out of relevant art, so you get a horse in Iceland. I assure you the horse does not have Europhobia.

That’s a weak, pathetic state of affairs. I’m a 6’2, 205-pound guy whose flown hundreds of thousands of coach-class miles. I’ve emerged physically and emotionally unscathed. I turn on my Kindle or use the on-demand in-seat entertainment and let the miles roll 38,000 feet below me as I enjoy being able to take a safe, affordable journey that spans timezones, cultures, ethnicities, languages, cuisines and landscapes.

* Americans get less vacation than Europeans, and given the travel time, a trip to Europe would be effectively  “too short” to reap the benefits of taking a holiday at all.

This is somewhat legit. The U.S. is far behind the industrialized world in vacation time. As a society, we’ve allowed modern-day robber barons to convince us that we live to work instead of work to live -- yet that our country is somehow also the forefront of personal freedom while we watch our personal time shrink.

Americans are reluctant to go abroad, but many of them are happy to overspend on a sanitized, ersatz facsimile of the world. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Left to their own choices, employers will never change this. They will never voluntarily bring the U.S. level with the other industrialized nations of the world. It will be down to a next generation of lawmakers who choose to represent their electorate and say "this will not stand." The recent increases in minimum wage and healthcare coverage at least give me some hope that the U.S. could be on the way toward a turning point.

Also, discouraging travel abroad is a great way to preserve the venomous notion of American exceptionalism. Just imagine the impact on the status quo if Americans head abroad en masse, witness first-hand European quality of life and start asking uncomfortable questions like “Where’s our work-life balance? Tell me again what’s so much better about U.S. healthcare? Why is high-speed rail so bad? Hey, what’s your beef with free childcare and guaranteed vacation time and a higher minimum wage?” If we collectively start asking questions like this, things change. And there is a tiny, tiny minority of deep-pocketed people who simply don’t want that.

“But wait!” you might say, “What about all the countries out there with a lower standard of living?” Well, maybe those countries should make us appreciate what we do have. But is being better than some what you want the U.S. to be for future generations?

Do Americans Have Europhobia?

So, my European friends, Americans as a whole aren’t plagued by Europhobia. They have some barriers that prevent them from visiting you in your own countries. Some of the barriers are real, but most are imagined or self-imposed through their own poor choices.