Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Our trip to Europe...was it just a dream?

 Its been about 4 weeks since we got back from our trip and I have yet been able to completely wrap my head around the fact that after soo many months of planning, we’ve already came and went. I am still processing all that we saw and did in those 15 amazing days. Not a day goes by where I don’t remember or miss a particular city, or day dream about being back in each of those cities to the point of it making me emotional. The pictures I've already posted are just a preview to the camera roll I’ve had running through my head since getting home. Its taken me this long to even be able to begin writing about it because I’m not sure that I will be able to put this experience into words, but I am going to try.

People have asked me how it went and there are just not enough words to describe it all. It was truly a dream come true and that we were able to share that with Christian, made it all that much more special. The only thing missing was honestly being able to do this along with Danny and Mikey as well, but it just wasn’t possible for many reasons, and now it actually gives us a reason to go back hopefully sooner than later. I also want to take this chance to personally Thank my Mom, Jerry's parents and my brother and sister-n-law for helping us watch our boys while we were gone. We couldn't have done this trip without their willingness to take over for the 15 days, and the time and love they gave Danny and Mikey to make it easier for them is forever appreciated.

I think I will start off by saying that this trip, aside from being a dream come true, was a blessing from beginning to end. The sheer fact of having Chris studying abroad in Spain and London for his freshman year, was the opportunity, the gift, he gave us in return to travel to Europe in the first place. How could we not take this chance to go?  We had to! Soo many things fell into place also- the timing of the trip with our work schedules, the lodging we found, deals, airfares, packing, etc...including the fact that we were able to see and spend time with cousins in Madrid and Scotland, and a brother in law in Dublin...just incredible! The timing for all of this was just undeniably meant to be. 

We also truly did a lot of planning and early enough that it worked to our advantage. The planning we did alone is another blog post to come as it became crucial to being able to do this trip as efficiently and within a reasonable budget as possible. As I have mentioned on other trips, every trip we take is done on a budget or else we just can't do it. So I learned soo much in the process of planning a big trip like this that I feel like I have some useful tips and suggestions for any family out there that travel on budgets as well and might think a trip to Europe is out of the question. Now I know that it just takes some time, patience, lots of research, planning and breaking down your trip into doable parts, both financially and mentally. 

Christian’s school schedule gave us 15 days to move him and travel from the FSU Valencia study center to FSU London study Center, where he will be until August. So then the question became where would we travel to, how long in each city, etc?  Would we do just a few cities and stay longer or get in as many cities as possible? Many people suggested we were doing too much, but the fact that we don’t really know when the next time we will be back, we had to to take the chance to get as much in as possible. And honestly, as hectic and crazy it seemed at the time, I don't know that we would have done it any differently. So after much arranging and rearranging of calendars, flights, hotels and whatever else, we had picked our flight path: 

LAX to JFK to Madrid to Valencia
Valencia (1 day)
Madrid (2 days)
Rome (1.5 days)
Paris, (almost 2 days)
Edinburgh/Dundee, Scotland (2 days)
Dublin (24 hours)
London (3days)

8 cities, 1 train,  9 flights, 15 days...CRAZINESS!!

Never having been to Europe, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into, but Christian had already done his share of traveling. So he was definitely more prepared and we depended a lot more on him to help us navigate through the traveling challenges if any. He had done his best in warning of the possibility of burn-out, the reality of travel costs (for Jerry's sake), and that we were going to have to patient and just kind of go with the flow to prevent as much stress as possible. That part was the hardest for me, but more on that later.

We began our adventure in Valencia, where we so happily reunited with Christian. It honestly took me a couple of hours to really wrap my head around the fact that we were across the world in EUROPE! Omg! Let's just say that after being awake and traveling for 24+ hours, exhaustion and reality set in and my emotions hit me. It was soo surreal! I was sure I had to be dreaming...but I wasn't. I think that's how I felt off and on during the entirety our trip. Every new city/site gave us one or more of those 'WOW' moments. Jerry would keep reminding me..."You know that we're in, insert city here, right?" Yes, I knew, but all I could I could do is shake my head and close my eyes to soak it in each time. I will never forget that feeling.

Our Observations about Europe
We realized that although each city was different in its own way, they also had many similarities between them . So it might make it easier to describe our experience via some of the observations we made along the way.

The people
I don't know if it was just a case of 'the grass is always greener' but everybody was just so 'European'. Even the riff-raff on the streets seemed to be more, dare I say, 'cool?' I guess I'll chalk that up to travelers excitement. But seriously, for the most part the people we met and came into contact with with were remarkably nice and welcoming of us American's and were willing to help us when we needed it. Scotland in particular, had some of the nicest people ever!! Our French AirBnb host, Olivier, was the nicest Frenchman we could have ever met. It was refreshing to see that certain country stereo types were really non-existent. We also noticed just how many different cultures are living in Europe...a melting pot in its own right. Just awesome.

Obviously each country had its own language and/or dialect for Spanish, French, Italian, English. However, it was so interesting to Jerry to see just how much lingo each country had and how it was used and how much. For example, in Spain, the word "Vale" could be heard all most too much and was used to say "Cool" or "Right on," "Yes" or even "Thank you." In Italy the word "Prego" did the same job, as "Cheers" did in Scotland/England and of course "Bonjour/Merci" in France. So of course when Jerry finally got used to using any particular lingo he would end up using it in the wrong country, lol. He's a wisecracker that one.

Also, for the first time, I can honestly say I felt a language barrier. In France I had a hard time remembering to say "Bonjour" at the beginning of each of my sentences. Christian had warned us that proper interaction with the French people was very important in getting a proper response for help. He was absolutely correct as I experienced a few times myself, so we let Chris take the lead in speaking for us most of the time, and he did such a great job with that. I was very impressed with him. I also thought it was fascinating to see how these different cultures were speaking with native accents. For example, In Dublin we had an Asian cafe owner speaking with us an Irish accent. Go figure! Soo interesting!!

Public Transportation
I cannot say enough about the public transportation in Europe.... WE LOVED IT!! I could write all day about this. I truly believe that Europe's public transportation system is amazing! No matter the city, be it the Metro/bus/underground lines...its the way to go! Some city systems took a little more time getting used to and we did catch the wrong one on occasion, but in general, it all just works soo systematically that it just made traveling from point A to point B a breeze. And as long as took proper precautions like keeping our belongings in front of us and closed to avoid pickpockets, we felt safe to ride it anytime of the day.  Depending on the city, it also allowed us to be able to look for lodging sometimes just outside the city center to make it more affordable. For example, in France, we stayed in the business district about a 30-40 minute drive outside of the city, but because they have an express train line, we would get into the city center in about 9 minutes. Soo convenient and it made all the difference for us.

Jerry being the money guy was challenged with European currency game. We knew that the Euro was the currency of choice for most of Europe including Dublin, Ireleand, but in the UK (Scotland and England it was the British pound.  We had to be mentally diligiant in remembering to switch between currencies. Going from Scotland to Dublin and then back to London in the UK became pretty tricky especially because the Euro and the Pound exchange at a fairly different rate. So I in particular had to keep reminding myself that 15£ was NOT $15 it really translated to being over $21. A big difference when trying to figure out the right amount.

Walking in Europe

I'm not sure if its because we live in California, but our tourist attractions are just too spread apart. One of the nice things of these European cities is that that the major tourist sites are all relatively in the same area or within walking distance from each other. Grant it even then, we walked A LOT!!! Our phone health app calculated that in the 15 days we were there we walked about 140+ miles! With our highest step count day being in France, clocking in at 15 miles. Crazy! Other than the metro we never took a cab and chose to walk when we could. We also took many walking tours that allowed us to take in a particular group of sites in each city in a matter of 2 hours each. . Exhausting, but it was worth every step. We realized the more we walked the more we discovered about each city. It was the best way to find those quaint little streets we wouldn't have seen otherwise.

The Architecture
One of Jerry's observations was that every European city could pretty much look like each other.  That by putting these three pictures together, you really wouldn't be able to tell that these 3 streets were from 3 different countries (Valencia, Paris, Edinburgh). Not that that was a bad thing, but it became clear that there was a definite influence of Romanesque and other cultural architectures in one or more of the countries we visited. We saw Greek, Egyptian and Gothic architecture throughout as well.  All of these influences have shaped and given Europe that special aura its known for and the one we go looking for and miss after we leave it. Its just wonderful.

Historical Ties
One of the many things we truly truly appreciated throughout this trip was the amount of history and historical ties involved in everything these cities had to offer.

We took free walking tours in each of these cities through SANDEMAN's New Europe tours company which is what bridged each city visit from being just a pretty tourist attraction to truly connecting its history to where and what we were seeing everyday. We got a history lesson and a scenic tour at the same time and we loved every minute of them. Fascinating information!

Each tour guide had their own set of stories and way helping us appreciate each city in their own way, and made each city experience that much more meaningful.  James was our tour guide in Dublin. He made this tour particularly memorable. Not only was born and raised in Dublin, but his personal ancestors had served a big part in Dublin's military history. He was enthusiastic and the pride he felt for his country was evident in the way he would tell every story. He taught us how to say "Sai Mila Folta" or "Welcome" in Gaelic, he even had us singing folk songs about Molly Malone. It was hard not to leave loving Dublin with a tour like that.

The truth is there is soo much more I could tell you about what we observed, but its hard to fully describe everything we saw, felt, and experienced. We can only hope that everyone at some point has the opportunity to travel to Europe and have their own European experience. There is nothing like it.  Its funny because I'm sure that Europeans feel the same way about coming to America and I had one person tell us how lucky we were to be from California, but we could have debated that back and forth all day as to who was truly the luckiest. Its all relative really, but we were happy to be in their space for a little bit.

We fell in love with something different from every amazing city we visited and I will be sharing some of those highlights later. We had someone tell us that once you go to Europe it just gets into your soul..and dang it they're so right!! We have been bitten with the bug and we totally long to back soo badly! We are soo grateful for how everything went for us- the weather was great, we saw more than we could have imagined, our flights were smooth, our Airbnb/hotel stays were absolutely phenomenal so we truly had a once in a lifetime experience. And yet there is soo much more to see, and so we need to go back...We HAVE to go back!

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