This is the true story…of Cynthia and Matt Dahlgren…who chose to travel around Europe…and have their lives taped…find out what happens…when they stop sharing only the happy photos…and start getting real…
The Real World “Vacation to Europe 2015!”
Important Disclaimer: My main fear in writing this post* is that people will think I am an ungrateful, spoiled brat for complaining about what was clearly an amazing and probably once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to travel and experience some beautiful places with my wonderful husband. I totally appreciate how lucky we are to have been able to afford two weeks in Europe as our Honeymoon/ 1st-anniversary trip. In retrospect, the positive and wonderful moments from our trip completely outweigh the struggles and, given the choice, I would gladly do the trip again in a heartbeat. However, I have to admit that our Facebook album and accounts of the trip to family and friends share a flattering version of our experiences. We selectively edited out some of the stressful and less fun parts of the trip. So here, I will share the REAL version of our trip, unflattering photos and all!
*Of course, I should probably be more concerned about my rambly and incoherent writing style being judged by Patricia and many of her readers who are excellent writers…I apologize in advance for any grammatical errors and confusing, run-on sentences that are my signature.
The Backstory of our Trip:
In August of 2014, Matt learned about a trip to Italy that was being offered for interested students at his school. It turns out that the “group leader” of this trip was looking for a male teacher who would be a chaperone. Matt came home and excitedly told me about this opportunity for an all-expense paid trip to Italy with 19 high schoolers and (most importantly) that he could choose to pay a $100 fee to change his return flight to anything he chose, since the other chaperones said it was fine for them to handle the return journey to Phoenix with the students. We had previously discussed taking a big trip in June of 2015 since we didn’t have a honeymoon right after our wedding and this would give us time to save up and plan a big trip to coincide with our first anniversary. Well, this opportunity seemed too good to turn down, and so he went to the first info meeting and signed up as a chaperone! The tour was organized through the EF tours company: http://www.eftours.com/educational-tour/beautiful-italy and the itinerary ended in Rome, so that is where I booked my ticket to meet Matt, a couple hours after the students were scheduled to leave.
One of my favorite cousins, Ashley, lives in London with her family and as soon as I knew we were going to Europe, I knew I wanted to visit her! Ashley and her daughter, Natalie, had planned to attend my wedding and Natalie was even going to be a flowergirl in the ceremony, but soon after purchasing their tickets to Pensacola, Ashley discovered she was pregnant with her third child and would be unable to travel to the wedding in June, 2014. Her sweet baby Zoe was born the next month in July.
Anyway, so we went ahead and booked our return flights from London two weeks after his trip with the school group ended, which meant we had a blank slate between Rome and London to plan whatever we wanted! And in the spirit of “getting our money’s worth,” this meant cramming as much stuff as physically possible into two weeks. Looking back, we were definitely overly-ambitious with our plans. We have both agreed that in the future, we should consider spending a whole vacation in one location, or at least following a tested itinerary through a tour company.
In an effort to organize this blog post: I have chosen three main aspects of the trip that we struggled with to tell the REAL version of our trip.
#1 Transportation Issues
This was definitely our single biggest issue of the trip. Before I even arrived, when Matt was traveling with his school group, their bus broke down. In his words:
We were driving to Florence and all of a sudden we heard a loud thump. The bus driver pulled to the side of the road. I thought someone’s luggage had fallen out and been run over, but it turns out we had blown not one, but two tires! So we had to wait on the roadside for another driver to come with a second spare. When the other driver arrived, they couldn’t remove the lug nuts and there was another issue as well…so we needed another bus altogether. Being trapped on a bus with high schoolers for several hours is not fun.
The trip from Phoenix to Italy is not easy, and doing it alone was pretty stressful for me. Even though I knew that I should sleep and I really wanted to sleep, I could not seem to fall asleep on the entire 10 hour flight from Chicago to Rome. So I arrived in Italy feeling like a weird zombie and it was only 11 am in Rome after going through customs and everything. We couldn’t even check in to our Airbnb for several hours, so it’s not like I could nap either. But I was so happy to see Matt and be in Italy that of course I agreed to go out sightseeing around Rome! It was not until a few hours later that my tiredness suddenly caught up with me and I switched from “happy and fun Cynthia” to “angry and whiny Cynthia.” Luckily, Matt understood and quickly got me back to the apartment before a full meltdown could occur on the first day.
Other transportation issues included a number of train-delays. Before the trip, we purchased train tickets between destinations using the Italian website Trenitalia, which seemed like an awesomely cheap and convenient way to get around Italy! However, we quickly discovered that many of the automatically generated trips that the website provided were actually impossible. For example: getting from Rome to Florence included taking a little regional train in Rome from our apartment to a bigger train station where we would catch the high speed inter-city train to Florence. The scheduled tickets allowed for 10 minutes between trains. However, the first regional train was delayed by about 25 minutes so we missed the big train by at least 15 minutes. Luckily for us, a nice man who worked at the second station helped us out by writing down our situation in Italian for the conductor and got us on the next train leaving for Florence, so the delay was only about an hour. This was particularly stressful since we had arranged with our Airbnb host in Florence to meet us at the train station upon arrival! Happily, we were able to get wifi on the train and let our host know about our delay so everything worked out…but this was just the first of several stressful missed-train connection problems we faced.
The overnight train from Milan to Paris was delayed for more than three hours due to 60 undocumented people being found on the train at the border with Switzerland. I realize this was technically not the fault of the train company, but we were still miserably delayed by 3 hours…some people we met ended up missing international flights and a wedding, etc. with no compensation or anything. We were lucky to have no real deadline to arrive in Paris, so it could have been worse. But being aggressively searched and questioned by Swiss border guards at 4 am on a train was surreal and uncomfortable, to say the least.
Finally, the most ridiculous transportation issue we had was in the Paris Metro. I am the first to admit that Matt and I did not study much French in preparation for the trip and I realize that having more knowledge of the language might have helped. However, compared to all of the cities in Italy that we visited, Parisian public transportation was particularly unhelpful and confusing for tourists. And the underground stations literally felt like insane rat-mazes…who designed this place?
So the morning of our bike tour at Versailles, we had carefully planned our metro journey to get to the meeting point of the tour and left plenty of time in case of issues. I was walking just steps in front of Matt and saw that our train was in the station with the doors open! I hurried and stepped on, when suddenly: with literally no warning that I was aware of, the doors quickly closed and the train started moving! I will never forget Matt’s shocked face through the window as I sped off down the track! This was probably one of the scariest moments of the trip for me, as Matt was carrying all of our cash and he was the only one with a cell phone. Luckily, I remained calm and remembered I had a credit card and I knew the destination we were trying to reach, so I just went on my own and everything was okay in the end!
#2 Physical Discomfort
I am actually amazed that we made it to as many places as we did, especially considering my usual level of physical activity, which is pretty minimal. I spend long hours most days sitting on a piano bench, then laying around on the couch. I miserably go to the gym 3 to 4 times a week for approximately 45 minutes of slow jogging or speed-walking on a treadmill. I personally like to describe my lifestyle as “nuglife.” Nugget, abbreviated as Nug,* is our affectionate term for each other and our rather fat dog.
*I just did a google search for “nug” and discovered that other people use this to describe either high-quality marijuana or a “naked hug,” LOL!
Anyway, while in Europe we walked like crazy. Matt has a step-counter app on his phone which told us that we “broke our record” several times. 33,600 steps in one day is the new record, though we also had several other days about 25,000 steps. According to Google, 33,600 steps is probably about 18 miles! I was warned several times about breaking in my shoes before the trip, which I totally thought I did. However, blisters, sore feet and legs were constant struggles for me. We started doing stretches in the morning to help prepare for long days of walking, which helped…but I still think we just planned too much into every day.
In the category of “physical discomfort” I would also include the night when we tried to have a fancy dinner in Paris. We got dressed up and walked half an hour to a nice restaurant recommended by our guide book. After finding the place, we were told that we needed a reservation (and the waiter was not nice about it either, he was quite insulting which made us both feel really bad). I said “Maybe we should just not eat dinner tonight,” because I was so tired that I could have just given up and gone to sleep. But Matt, my knight in shining armor, did not let that happen. He cheered me up, found a cute cafe, and ordered us tasty food and dessert so we salvaged our “date night.”
Also, the heat was not pleasant. Italy in general was quite hot, like in the low 90s most days with high humidity. Paris was not as warm, but still muggy. We wore a lot of sunblock because we were outside for a long time most days, and one of the uncomfortable side effects of this was that Matt got sunblock in his eyes frequently. (This doesn’t really happen to me, so I’m not sure if I’m just lucky or better at applying sunblock or what?) Luckily, London was cool and amazing…we got to wear jackets and actually feel nice outside!
The final category of this post is what I call “Museum-fatigue” which was definitely a real issue we faced on this trip.
Here is a list of the museums we visited (I am including the major churches too, since those are basically museums):
The Vatican Museums
St. Peter’s Basilica
The Uffizi Gallery
The Sforza Castle Museum (including the Musical Instrument Collection)
The Last Supper (this is in it’s own little chapel, so not exactly a whole museum, but still.)
Palace of Versailles
The Tower of London
The British Museum
As you can tell: we went to a museum on almost every day of our 13-day trip. The best experience we had by far was at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, because we arrived at 8am with our pre-purchased tickets, so as soon as they opened the doors, so could freely explore the museum with basically no crowds. I would definitely recommend arriving at opening time and trying to get ahead of annoying tour groups whenever possible!
The worst experience was the Louvre. This was probably because we had spent the night before on the overnight train from Milan (see above, Transportation Issues) which meant we were operating with very little sleep. We arrived at the museum in the early afternoon on a Saturday (peak time on the busiest day of the week) which meant we had to deal with huge crowds. I realize that the Louvre was originally a royal palace, so it was not designed to be a museum, but still…for being one of the world’s most famous museums, you would think they would make it a little more easy to find the really famous pieces of art! The little map and guide they hand out is not very helpful. Luckily, you can just follow everyone else directly right to the Mona Lisa, so that was the first place we went.
The Mona Lisa is not the only super-famous piece of art at the Louvre, but for some reason everyone made it seem that way. For example, we wanted to find the famous Venus de Milo statue…and since we were prepared with the map in English, you would think this would be a simple task of just following the map and finding the statue. NO! It took us almost an hour of crazy staircases and endlessly-long hallways to locate her. Ditto for a lot of other famous pieces in the Louvre…we overheard many tourists searching for things. The Louvre is like a giant treasure hunt.
The other thing about visiting so many huge collections of art in such a short period of time is that these museums often have copies of art or statues when the original is somewhere else. Several times I would see a piece of art that I recognized…only to read that “the original can be found in the Uffizi, or the Louvre, or whatever” where we just were! Also, there are only so many religious scenes someone can absorb before feeling like you have seen them all…and I can definitely say I feel like I have seen them all!
Most of the art we saw seemed to be from the same period, like the Renaissance masters and all of that, which is amazing, but can get a little overwhelming. Refreshingly, the Vatican Museums actually had an awesome modern section. The wing of modern art was on the way to the Sistine Chapel. Since most tourists were determined to get straight to the chapel, with no unnecessary detours, this meant we were virtually alone in the rooms featuring 20th century art, so that was cool.
So basically, I would recommend getting to major museums early in the day and checking out a variety of collections to keep things interesting. But even the crazy crowded Louvre was amazing in it’s own way, and I would have been disappointed not to have gone…so I don’t regret any of the museums we visited.
Overall, our trip was beyond amazing and we both had a wonderful time! I did want to add that one of the things I was most worried about turned out amazing. We used Airbnb instead of hotels in Europe so that we could save money and still stay where we wanted in each city. We did decide to reserve private apartments instead of just a room in a shared house or something, but I’m sure that would work for a lot of people too and that’s even cheaper! I was most nervous about finding the host and picking up the keys for each place, especially because we did not have an international plan for our cell phones, and could only access the internet when there was free wifi. But it worked out great…the apartments were all nice and comfortable and the hosts were amazing. Our host in the Cinque Terre was also a wine maker and gave us a free bottle of white wine! The hosts were all so kind and willing to give us good suggestions of cheap local restaurants and good things to do, etc…so I am definitely a big fan of Airbnb now, and would definitely consider checking it out in America for future travel as well as recommend it for traveling abroad.
The trip was better than I imagined it was going to be, but I will admit that I was very happy to come home. I almost cried when I climbed into my comfy bed again. Thank you to Patricia for allowing me to tell the “real” version of our trip on her blog and I hope you enjoyed this guest post!