I recently came back from a conference in a big European city that is on everyone’s list of top three cities to see on the Old Continent. Anyone who heard where I was going went “Wow!” so I had to assure them that it all sounded much more glamorous than it would be, as I had a lot of work to do and the conference had a pretty tightly packed schedule.
The trip started and ended with very uncomfortable airline travel for someone who is 6 ft tall. I needed to sit completely upright just to have a chance of actually fitting my legs in the tiny space provided (and yes, I always ask for an aisle seat). I was busy with paper and grant agency report submissions till the very last moment so didn’t have time to prep for the trip, and as a result I didn’t feel comfortable braving the subway, so I ended up paying 60 euro for (legitimate) cab to the hotel. But I met a nice cabby who spoke good English, and actually had him take me back to the airport a few days later as well. He was the most pleasant person I met during the stay.
While I travel to Europe quite often, this was my first time in this particular city, and probably the first time in the country in the last 20 years. The city is lovely, but it’s not magical. It is a big European city, with all the hallmarks — people walking in the streets, sitting in cafes and restaurants at all hours of the day, old buildings… But also busy traffic, noise, and a lot of trash on the streets. It’s great but nothing I haven’t seen other places many times before, including where I am from. I gave up on trying to do touristy things, because I didn’t have the time or the desire to stand in line for a museum or another landmark for several hours each. One day, when I am on an actual vacation, maybe I will brave the sights; this time I did get a chance to see quite a bit from the river, as we had the conference dinner on a boat, and it was very nice.
My students and I commented on having had the pleasure (or rather the displeasure) of experiencing the stereotypes: how the locals really dislike Americans (I easily pass for American in Europe and get all the usual “stupid American” crap), how you can’t tell if it’s worse if you speak no word of the native language or try to speak it but imperfectly, either way they will grudgingly speak English (which is far from perfect, but whatever) and probably spit in your food; how service people everywhere are very rude and disinterested, probably because they don’t work for tips (it’s the same in my home country; the wonderful customer service everywhere in the US spoiled me forever for all of Europe); how everything is ridiculously expensive; how food and wine are great (and, yes, ridiculously expensive).
The bustling city reminded me of a few other things. In most European cities, walking is a way of life. The cities are conducive to walking not because Europeans are inherently smarter and more virtuous than Americans, but because the goddamn cities are very old, older than the invention of the car. As a result, downtown traffic and parking are a nightmare, but public transport is great and varied, and the city is alive throughout. For instance, my hotel was a 25-min walk from the conference center, so I easily clocked in 50 min of walking every day, and even more to go about to restaurants or get coffee . In contrast, cities in the US are in general just not walkable, with the exception of a few (NYC, Washington DC, San Francisco, Chicago, and perhaps a few others I don’t know well or at all, like Portland). Outside of the few walkable cities, if you want exercise, you have to allot time for it and generally transport yourself by car to where you can engage in it. If I were to walk 20-25 min from where I live in any direction, the most exciting places I would reach are my kids’ schools in one direction, a grocery store in another, my dentist in the third, and a park in the fourth. There is nothing of note in between except houses, and it easily happens that I run into no other human on my way to any of the exciting landmarks. So if want the same 50 min of exercise that I was getting around the fringes at the conference, I actually have to set aside an hour to go somewhere and do it, as walking around the neighborhood is pleasant but freakin’ boring and a little creepy. My folks, when they came to visit me, always commented on how uncomfortable they were to go outside and walk in the beautifully maintained neighborhoods, because there are no people anywhere. Where I live, without a car you are toast. There is bus service, but very infrequent and also creepy. In European cities, including where my folks live, there are buses, trams, metro etc. all the time, connecting all parts of the city. And people walk the rest of the way.
In the city that I visited, people are also stereotypically among the best dressed in the world, and I will concur, there were many stylish-looking specimens. There were no t-shirts, no sneakers, no flip-flops, and no pink. I don’t think I saw anyone, male or female, in shorts. There was considerably less skin showing than in the US, i.e. I saw no overtly tan young women in short shorts and tank tops, which are the staple of fashion on my campus once temperatures are above 50. And there were scarves, scarves everywhere, on both men and women. I was in line to get coffee, the temperature was in the mid-seventies, and a dude in front of me was wearing a jacket and what looked like a woolen scarf. I started sweating just looking at him, but I suppose one must suffer for fashion; if you are not uncomfortable, then it cannot be fashion.
Also, I couldn’t help but notice how tiny everyone was — not just thin, but really short. Everyone likes to hate on the fat disgusting Americans, but the thing is — where I live, people are of north European descent. Even at their thinnest, my neighbors are not the candidates for the same clothes as the fabled stylish and petite brunettes of the country I visited.
Another annoying issue, which probably had to do with conference organization as much as the city itself, was the lack of wireless access to the web. I happened not to have wireless in my hotel room (nominally I should have, but I was in some sort of no-coverage nook, so I could get a faint signal only in my bathroom, not in the room itself). Basically, I had access to the web only in the hotel lobby, so a little in the morning and evening. There was nominally wireless coverage at the conference center, but you couldn’t get on at all. On the upside, the absence of wireless at the conference helped me focus on the program, which resulted in me paying more attention to the talks and asking more questions than usual, which may or may not have been widely appreciated (mwahahahaha ;-)).
Overall, overseas travel makes me grumpy. Big European cities are not as magical when you were born and raised in one and you’ve seen a number of others, but many people will also think you are an a$$hole when you dare question the mythical magicalness (yes, I know it’s not a word) of mythically magical cities. The conference program was decent and I enjoyed catching up with colleagues. The food was good, I enjoyed walking and taking in the city, and I loved that I could open the window in my hotel room, it’s wonderful to occasionally not be subjected to airconditioning. But, when I travel I miss my family and the comforts of the US. I love my US, and it is home, as much as some aspects of its culture scare me. But that’s perhaps material for another post…