Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Wonderful Chaos of International Travel

Traveling overseas can be chaotic and frustrating. Flying has become much more complicated and annoying. While much of this is due to post-9/11 security measures (and paranoia), it is also the result of increasing automatization. Just as we finally get used to printing our boarding passes at home, we must learn a new trick: how to check our bags without human assistance. Soon there will be NO humans left at airport counters. Soon it will be impossible to talk to anyone at an airline office. Everything will have to be done online.

Once you get overseas, you experience the byzantine rules for shopping and sightseeing. In Rome, Paris, Amsterdam and most other European tourist Meccas, you can buy a pass that will let you visit many attractions for a fixed price. For example, the “Roma Pass” costs about 35 euros and it is valid for three days for an unlimited number of sights and museums, plus free transportation.

But there are so many exceptions and variations that things often malfunction: You try to visit the Colosseum, but it’s Sunday and you discover that the pass isn’t valid on Sunday. Or you go to the Baths of Caracalla, but you get there at 1:00 PM and you find out that they close at 1:00 PM. Or you go to Capitoline Museum, and your Roma Pass just happens not to be valid because it’s a national holiday.

Or you are in Paris, and you want to take the train to the Versailles palace. This is more complicated than rocket science. The train to Versailles might leave from platform 3 on Mondays and Wednesdays, platform 5 on weekends and platform 7 or 9 on Thursdays (unless it’s a leap year and you are a left-handed Hungarian).

In some countries, pharmacies might be open from 8:00 to 11:00 and from 4:00 to 7:00, but only from Tuesday to Saturday, and elsewhere the hours are totally different. In France, most shops are closed on Mondays. In some places, butchers are closed on this day of the week, bakers on that day, barbers on yet another day, banks at some other time, and so forth. In several countries, you buy postage stamps and subway tickets at the tobacco shop.

My wife and I joke: So do you buy vegetables in a shoe shop? And soda drinks at the post office? And can you visit the Loire castles on even days of the month until 3:00 PM, but only if you are between the ages of 21 and 65 and you have a B.A. in history?

And then there is COMMUNICATION: telephone, Internet access, Wi Fi, etc. All this wonderful modern technology. The conventional wisdom is that technology is the solution for everything. I am firmly convinced that it is often part of the problem.

Whenever I go to a European family get-together, I am armed with the obligatory iPhone, iPad, laptop - the whole nine yards. At my mother’s place in Holland, there is also the backup of her phone land line and her desktop computer. Often, other relatives have also just flown in from some other countries - England, Spain, France, Hungary, Switzerland, even Japan (I have relatives all over the world). They also bring all their machines.

But the amount of information required to coordinate all these international machines is a nightmare. Take the phone, for example:

When you go overseas, you must disable the “data roaming” setting on your iPhone, or else risk coming home to a $2,000 phone bill. Last time I went to Holland, I discovered that “data roaming” was ON again after I got there, even though I had turned it OFF before leaving the US! I disabled it again, but not before receiving over 100 e-mail messages at a cost of 100 Euros. So if you want to do e-mail and access the Internet, make sure you use somebody’s Wi Fi!

Furthermore, many plans make calling prohibitively expensive, so many people resort to texting instead, or not even that.

When you travel from one country to another - in Europe, you tend to enter a new country every hundred miles or so - , the rules keep changing. Sometimes, things just stop working altogether. This happened to me last year in Italy, where Vodafone was down.

In Holland and elsewhere, when you call a cell phone from a land line, you have to dial “6" first. But if you use a cell phone to call, you don’t have to...

Calling internationally (e.g. France from Holland or vice-versa), you must first dial the exit code of the country where you are, and then you must dial the country code of the country you are calling. (33 for Holland, 31 for France, 44 for Britain, 39 for Italy, etc.).

But if you come from the US, your call may go via America, so you have to first dial the exit code, then “1" to enter the US, and then the code of the country you are calling. Sometimes you have to dial “+” before a telephone number - which is the same thing as dialing two zeros...You get it?

But I wouldn’t trade the chaos of travel for anything. I suppose I could take cruises. But I have little desire to do that. I want to be immersed in the local cultures and mix it up with the local people. What else is the point of traveling? Despite all the frustrations, when I travel I feel alive, I chalk up unforgettable experiences and memories. If you want to make a great omelet, you have to break some eggs! leave comment here

© Tom Kando 2014