My wife and I had a wonderful opportunity to spend a year overseas that took us from the Far East to Europe with a stop in Hawaii. We learned a lot during this trip, but nothing more important than to never assume other countries and cultures work and behave in a similar manner to ours. Below are three tales that we now look back and laugh at, but which at the time were quite an inconvenience.
We arrived at Rome's Termini Station in an overnight train from Paris. According to the map, our hotel was very near a subway stop, and so we decided to be adventurous and forego the taxis. This was our first and second mistake of the trip. First, we had arrived at rush hour, and you never want to be in the Rome subway with luggage at that hour, if ever. Second, upon arriving at our subway stop, we found ourselves at the intersection of three roads and in possession of a map that included no street names. We had assumed finding the hotel would be easy, but it took fifteen minutes of walking with luggage down the wrong streets until we finally oriented ourselves and spotted the hotel - less than a block way from the subway exit. We were to be in Rome for four days after having traveled for the past week, and decided to have some laundry done on the third day. We found the local cleaners early in the morning and using an Italian phrasebook and much gesturing asked that our laundry be washed. That turned out to be the third mistake of the trip. When we arrived late in the afternoon to pick up our clothes, we were handed a wet heap. Silly us for assuming that when you take your clothes to be washed, it will also be dried! After more gesturing on both sides of the counter, we figured out they could have dried the clothes had we asked, but it was now too late as they would be closing soon and that we should come back tomorrow. Having reservations for an early morning train to Florence, we paid for the wet heap and resigned ourselves to spending the evening in the hotel blow-drying our clothes. The next day in Florence, we found a coin operated laundromat and re-washed (and dried) all our clothes, which apparently was much appreciated by the gypsies that tried robbing us later that evening. Well, at least we learned an important lesson during this trip - you cannot dry a pair of wet jeans with a hotel room blow dryer in one evening.
We had been sightseeing in Tokyo for a few days, successfully navigating the subway system. One morning we decided to visit Akihabara, the electronics district, and proceeded to look at our subway map in order to plot out the best way to get there. One can't help but wonder if the same people who designed Tokyo's subway map were also in charge of laying out wiring diagrams at a power plant. We were in luck however, and according to the gray line on the map we would be able to get to our destination without having to change trains. We eagerly figured out the fare, paid for entry, and were on our way. The train was crowded, though no more so than normal for Tokyo, and as always we enjoyed extra breathing room being tall foreigners. The train stopped at a few stations, and the normal exchange of people took place, until about half way to our destination where everyone got out. We thought this was strange but the map told us this train ran to our destination and maps don't lie, at least not in Japan. We were the only ones left in the train when the doors closed, the lights went out, and the train reversed course back to our departure station. Once there, the lights came back on, the doors opened, and the people waiting to get in were too polite to say anything about us already being on board at the train's point of origin. We stayed put, going over the same track now for the third time. Being quick learners, we got out of the train at the half way point, and milled about with other passengers. That's when we discovered another train comes along to take you the rest of the way. Knowing only the mandatory Japanese words for good morning, thank you, and great sushi, we were unable to find out about this oddity of the Tokyo subway system. We arrived at the Akihabara station and promptly got out of the train where we were greeted with more electronic gizmos than lights at Times Square. One store had over 300 models of cell phones, but when I asked about a subway navigator with built-in GPS they just shrugged. At least we learned another important lesson that has served us well to this day - if everyone else in your train gets out, you should too.
Stuttgart is a great city to be based out of to explore the rest of Germany and Europe. We spent one long weekend driving from Stuttgart to Strasbourg (France) and Freiburg in the Black Forest. There are some beautiful castles in this region that are definitely worth the side trips. We arrived in Freiburg on a Friday planning on staying for two nights, and proceeded to drive around trying to find a parking spot for the weekend. The first spot we found was in front of a hotel (not ours) and had a parking meter that we thought would be expensive and a pain to feed for the weekend. After driving around some more, we found a shopping plaza with an underground garage a couple of blocks from our hotel. As we drove in, we noticed a number of signs at the entrance to the garage, but as they were in German we assumed they would not make any sense to us. We were handed a time-stamped parking ticket and left our car for the weekend. Freiburg is a great city to walk around with some phenomenal architecture. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves, and were saddened Sunday morning to be leaving. As we walked past the shopping plaza, we noticed it was closed, but didn't give it much thought as it was 11:30 in the morning, so we figured it would open by Noon. The first sign of a problem was upon our arrival at the garage entrance, which had the gate, extending from floor to ceiling, closed. Surely employees would be arriving by now and would need to park their cars. We walked the long steep ramp to the gate and shouted for someone, but the only light streaming in was from the street. We walked back up the ramp, and now with all the time in the world decided to look at the signs. Clearly written on the largest sign was "Soontag, Montag geschlossen". Needless to say, it didn't take much to realize we knew more German than we thought, and that getting back to work in Stuttgart by Monday may not be possible. Back to the hotel we went and after much explanation, signs of concern, and likely some laughter at our expense, the hotel staff was able to contact the parking garage manager. We were informed to wait at the bottom of the garage ramp where someone would meet us. An hour later, the manager shows up, not looking too happy about being back at work on a Sunday. He proceeds to open the gate and tell us the fee for the Sunday service is 60DM (about US$35), in addition to the normal two night parking fee of 12DM. We were only too happy to pay and get out of there. And once again we leaned an important lesson - the parking spot in front of the other hotel would have been free as there is no parking meter charges on the weekend.
Although we visited numerous sights, these events are what we remember most of the one year trip. Sure, the countryside was beautiful, the food delicious, and (most of) the people charming, but what is a memorable trip without a few incidents. We hope to have a few more in the not too distant future, and wish you a few of your own.
Robert H'obbes' Zakon, www.zakon.org