Traveling in Europe

andreas.com FAQ: Letter from Europe

Here is a bit of a summary of our trip to Europe in Spring 2004. We went for fun, to look around, yes, but also to give a talk in Vienna, meet people, discuss business projects, and so on. Here are some of our notes, impressions, and ideas. Yes, you may pass this around.

Stephanie is my business partner at CCG. We have a company and work on ecommerce projects in Silicon Valley. She has never been to Europe and I lived there some 15 years, so we went together: for her to see the place and me to visit friends.

Okay, I travel casual, but maybe this trip got a bit too casual. We bought the Eurail pass the day before we left. Later that same evening, I went to San Francisco for dinner with a friend, stayed until midnight, came home and worked until 4:30 AM, slept a few hours and then went to a meeting with IBM, where I interviewed them for the upcoming book, and then dashed home with well over 14 minutes to spare and we left for the airport. Once we got on the airplane, I dug out the guidebook for Paris and began to think about what we would see there. We went with no reservations for anything and practically no plans, asides from a speaking engagement in Vienna. My mom kept emailing me every few days, trying to figure out what country I was in. On the airplane to Europe, there was a pack of fifty or sixty kids, 14-year olds, all hyper-excited about traveling to Europe, and they darted up and down the aisles.

Clothes: We traveled light. So light that the check-in people and customs were a bit perplexed. That’s it? Just a small carry-on bag? I took three days of clothes. I wore polo shirts, a pair of slacks, and a suede jacket. Stephanie had a bit more, but she also had a small backpack that was only somewhat bigger than my handbag. Every few days, we washed our clothes in laundromats (there is one nearly every other block in Paris). Stephanie also bought quite a bit of clothes. One could just buy clothes every few days in the stores.

Paris: Friends who travel quite a bit told me the same thing: Paris has changed. I lived for a while in Paris in the early 80s and I’ve been to Paris dozens of times for visits or business. In the 70s and 80s, Paris was dirty, the people were rather obnoxious, and the police were annoying. This was perhaps a big city thing, New York City was like that as well. But in the last few years, Paris changed: the people are friendly, and the city is clean and beautiful. Nearly everyone spoke with Stephanie in English. In the 80s, French weren’t just rude to foreigners, they were rude to each other. This time, the French were friendly and chatty with each other. I noticed that people smile to themselves when they’re alone on the Metro. Everyone seems to be amused. New York City has also changed: it’s very pleasant to visit now, like a village, the cops are easy-going, and it’s safe to walk around at 3 am. I thought NYC changed because of Giuliani, but Paris also changed. Perhaps it wasn’t Giuliani’s changes, but some sort of general change in large cities? Stephanie says it’s the generation change. The post-war generation (“which war?”, a friend asked me) is gone, so is the 68-generation. Gen-Xers have taken over and they’re a mellow bunch, always listening to the music in their head. Maybe she’s right.

French cars have air horns, instead of American electric beeps. The air horns have different tones, so a traffic jam sometimes sounds like the start of a melody. What you don’t hear are the useless car alarms that always seem to be going off in California. SUVs are very rare. Paris is fairly quiet, compared to NYC, where it’s noisy at night. Late at night, when it’s quiet, you hear the deep quiet rumble of the Metro passing by underground. In the morning, a truck comes by and uses a pressure hose to clean the sidewalks, even in the small streets. It rained every morning, which cleared the air, and the afternoons were mostly sunny.

Hotels: It’s very easy to find a place to stay. In the mile or so around the major train stations Gard du Nord and Gard du Est, there are hundreds of small one-star hotels. Nearly every block has one or two hotels. They’re simple hotels, but the rooms are clean and the service was friendly. Just drop off our bags in the morning, so we didn’t have to carry them, and check in at night. There’s no point making reservations, it’s so easy to find a place. In contrast to the US, the French don’t care much for authority or rules, so was no check-in, no receipts, no paperwork. None whatsoever. Push a few Euros over, get the key, and that’s it. At some hotels, we didn’t pay until days later. The small neighborhoods at the base of Montmartre have lots of small shops, local restaurants, and so on, and that’s a nice place to get a feel of being there.

This little girl was wandering around Versailles, looking at the statues.

Paris Fashion Report: University students and high school students wear T-shirts, blue jeans, and running shoes. This means blue jeans, as in blue. No black jeans. No cargo pants. Khaki slacks don’t seem to have made much impact. Guys have very short hair. No baseball caps. Europeans have sneakers that we don’t have in the USA, especially Puma. For whatever reason, Puma has disappeared from the American market, but they’re big in Europe, with totally radical colors and patterns. Women don’t have the American ragged look in hairstyles that’s in the fashion magazines these days. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of shoe stores and I never saw the same pair of shoes twice. It’s as if every woman had a unique pair of shoes. At Chartres, we found a spot where there were five shoe stores within talking distance. The American bohemian look (black anything) is either over or never got anywhere. No hoodies. Stephanie had perhaps the only hoodie in Paris. You also don’t see the Brittney bare-belly look very much. You can easily spot some American tourists: they’re dressed for expeditions to Everest, with hiking boots, rip-stop nylon pants, Gore-Tex parkas, and clutching their bags. Rather out of place for Paris, no? French women are generally beautifully dressed, even in simple things, with perfect cosmetics and skin care products.

Food: On every block, a number of shops sell fresh sandwiches, which are short, fresh baguettes filled with ham, camembert, sausage, and so on. These are only a few Euro. Nearly every block has bakeries, and nearly every one of these is better than anything you find in Palo Alto or San Francisco. The range of food is remarkable, even for California. However, restaurants rarely offer much for salads, asides from a few standard salads, and there isn’t much fresh fruit at restaurants. Stephanie wasn’t too happy about the lack of fruit. There was more at the markets, and there seemed to be more types of vegetables and fruits, especially many African and Arabic fruits and vegetables, which don’t exist in California.

The funniest thing we saw was Mecca Cola. It’s the Arabic version of Coca-Cola. The label is Arabic on one side (written in the Coca-Cola style). It tastes like the real thing. They have a website at mecca-cola.com. The label say, of course, “Do not mix with alcohol”. See the English website at mecca-cola.com/en/. Either Coca-Cola doesn’t know about this, or they don’t want someone to start a jihad on them.

Coffee is basically only espresso or cafÈ latte. No Starbucks with decaf lo-fat half-and-half Frappucino and so on. I doubt Starbucks will make it into the French market: there are cafes, bistros, or bars on nearly every block. On the other hand, no free refills for coffee.

We tried all sorts of things: Indian food, Vietnamese, Thai, Greek, French, Jewish Moroccan, food at kiosks, street stands, and even a buffet food court in a mall. Paris restaurants have become much more international and cosmopolitan and there’s every kind of restaurant now. One of the nice things about European restaurants is that you can sit and relax. We also had a $70 lunch at Maxim’s, where Stephanie had a banana split. We also found Pago, an Austria fruit juice at www.pago.cc, which are very delicious, especially the strawberry juice. These were in many shops in Paris. Apparently there is no US distributor.

Stained glass window at Notre Dame

Stuff to See: We went up the Eiffel Tower, walked around Versailles in a downpour, went on a bateaux-mouches boat ride up and down the Seine, went to Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, and Madeleine, walked up to Sacre Coeur, and around the obelisk at Place de la Concorde. Of the thousands of tourists at Chartres, we went up the tower (some 300 steps up a narrow, winding staircase) where there was only one other Japanese tourist. Stephanie had her portrait done at Montmartre and the artist did a very good likeness of her eyes and smile. She sent it out to have it framed. There’s also quite a bit to see that isn’t in the tourist books. Back in the early 80s, my brother studied at the Sorbonne and he showed me a lot of stuff, so I passed this along to Stephanie. Many things, you wouldn’t know if you walked past them. Small doorways lead to cool stuff.

Rue St. Denis: If you remember this street from the 80s, well, that’s gone. It’s been cleaned up and totally replaced by small grocery shops, bakeries, and so on.

Walking: You can eat all you like in Paris and lose weight because you walk so much. We were out by 9 am or so for breakfast and walked around pretty much until 10 pm every day. After a few days, we were exhausted and our feet ached, but who cares about aching feet when there’s more to see?

The winding stairway at Chartres.

Photos: With digital cameras, you can take too many photos. We have some 550 photos. These fill 900 MB and require two CDs. A friend has a pocketful of memory sticks for her camera and she takes thousands of photos on each trip. Someone could make a bit of software that allows you to create slideshows with literally hundreds of photos. The current products all resize the images too much, use jpg format (which ruins the high resolution images) instead of png format, and don’t have editing tools that can handle so many photos. (The pixs on this page are in jpg format, which is why they are a bit grainy, and they’ve also been reduced by 40% or more.)

Stephanie on the train to Denmark.

Souvenirs: I looked for stuff you don’t see in the USA. For example, a Dutch company makes a small thing made of cardboard that looks like a pair of binoculars: you look into it and see a landscape in three dimensions. When people look into these, they fall silent because the view is so cool. These are made by www.courtesy.nl, which makes all sorts of landscapes, city views, and so on in three dimension viewers. These aren’t distributed in the USA. While we were there, it was Mother’s Day, so I sent my mom a leopard postcard. It’s faux-leopard fur on one side. My souvenir from Denmark is liquid bandaids. These were in an pharmacy. If you cut your skin, add a few drops, squeeze the cut together, it glues the skin together, and the bleeding stops instantly. Is that totally clever, or what? That could be sold to everyone who works outdoors, has kids, and so on via the web in the US. Distributed by Compeed in Scandinavia. In Paris, I bought a small ceramic bird, beautifully painted, that chirps if you touch it. I got that for my cat, who likes it very much. Sorry, there’s no URL for the bird. I also brought back a pile of books: German poetry, novels, and so on. Stephanie and I looked into a number of other projects and ideas and we talked with people about business projects. As I said, Stephanie and I build ecommerce systems for websites. We’re expanding into international markets, which means upcoming trips to China and Japan, plus Latin America.

Internet Cafes: It’s easier to find Internet cafes in Paris than Silicon Valley. Most copy shops, small telephone shops (where you can make telephone calls), and so on have computers where you can check email and use the web. Perhaps everyone in California has a computer at home?

Video Stores: On the streets, there are video dispensers. Punch a few keys, select a video, and a DVD pops out. In general, Europeans are far ahead in automated dispensers. You can buy fresh flowers, all sorts of food, cigarettes, and so on from street dispensers. Not to speak of cell phones. Everyone has a cell phone. These work even in the Metro, deep underground, between stations.

French Police: Near the Seine, I wanted to show Stephanie the bird market, so we spotted two policemen and I asked them about it. A woman with a clipboard came running over and said these weren’t real police. They were actors and a movie was being made. The actors had quiet smiles over being mistaken for real police. We found the bird market anyway, which is quite cute. Thousands of songbirds for Paris apartments. Many birds from Africa and Asia which one never sees in the US.

French Rabbits: My brother lived in Paris for some two years, and he once said that the Metro turns Parisians into rabbits. They pop into a hole in the ground, race along underground, and pop up somewhere else. Paris is all just Metro stops. You pop out and everything is within a few hundred steps. With a seven-day unlimited pass, you get quite accustomed to zipping around on the Metro. Easy to use and never wait more than a few minutes. If you’re there with someone who knows the Metro, you get carried along and never figure out where you are or what is where in relation to what. The Metro often has pleasant surprises: a group of violinists playing music, or someone gets on and plays an accordion. Even at rush hour, everyone is polite and amused.

Detail of a ceiling at Versailles. Hercules, holding his club, ascending into heaven.

European Trains: We took the Orient Express from Paris to Vienna. This was a sleeping wagon, with beds and breakfast in the morning. Very pleasant. Get on the train, buy a bit of dinner from the wagon attendant, go to sleep somewhere at the French border, and sleep through Germany and into Austria. From Munich to Hamburg, we went on another sleeper train. The private cabins have their own showers and bathrooms. This is a nice way to travel: you don’t lose any days to traveling.

Handicap Access: Paris is definitely not a city for someone in a wheelchair. You walk down long staircases in the Metro. None of the sidewalks have beveled edges for wheelchairs. Austria and Germany were much better about this; they usually had elevators or ramps for wheelchairs.

Newspapers: We read a number of French, Austria, German, and Danish newspapers. As I said, I lived there quite a while and I speak a bunch of languages. In general, the news about Iraq is more nuanced than in American newspapers. There was more coverage from various sides, with more background and context. Many of the papers have Arab reporters who can speak with the Iraqi and move around freely. Europe isn’t anti-American. It’s al Qaeda that is anti-American. Europeans are mostly dismayed over the White House and the mess in the Middle East.

Islam in Europe: There are far more Arabs in Europe now than in the 80s and 90s. Minarets in Vienna, large Arab neighborhoods in Paris, and Arab shopping centers in Denmark. I don’t think there were more than a handful of Arabs in Denmark in the 80s; now there are entire high-rise apartment complexes of Arabs. In the US, we think of Europe and the Arab world as two separate regions, and for Americans, the war in Bosnia or Iraq is far away, but in Europe, the Arabs and Islam have moved in. In Paris, we metroed to Belleville (yes, that’s a real place, not just a movie), which is an Arab neighborhood and had dinner in a restaurant run by Moroccan Jews. “What’s on the menu? Fish. Today we have fish. Only fish. Everything fish.” So sure, grilled fish and a bit of wine.

Vienna: A beautiful city with lots of ornate buildings and great neighborhoods. In an old German pub, we had a delicious goulash and a Wienerschnitzel, with a liter of beer, coffee, and Sachertorte. A friend in Vienna is an editor of an arts-and-literature magazine, so she arranged a talk one evening. Stephanie and I spoke about the situation for professional writers in the USA. Two Austrians also spoke; one was the head of the Austrian authors association. We compared issues for American and European writers. In short, it’s not good for writers anywhere. About 30 people attended and they all chain smoked. One could barely see the far side of the room. Your throat gets hoarse just from the smoke. Americans start and end on time, but Austrians writers? We started more or less and went on in an intense discussion of politics until midnight, when we moved on to a bar, continued until 2 am, and then went on to the next bar until 4:30 am. I slept a bit, and in the early afternoon, the discussion continued for another four hours, where we concluded that we had more to talk about. It’s extremely safe to walk around Vienna at 4 am. European cities are very safe. You can walk out at midnight and find lively restaurants. Austrians wear baseball caps, but otherwise, they dress pretty much in California Casual.

From the 50s to the 80s, Europe was mostly London and Paris. But after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the center of Europe moved to Berlin. What was once Eastern Europe is now Central Europe, and that’s where all the development and business is going on. In the last few months, the European Union added another dozen countries or so. There’s lots of jobs, cheap rent, and so on. In Paris, we saw apartments near Montmartre for sale for only 50,000 euro, which is roughly $50,000. But it’s even cheaper in Central Europe. Rents are low in Vienna, only 350 euro per month for a large apartment with very high ceilings, and these are much cheaper in Prague. Go east, young dudette. There’s lots of jobs and opportunities to start companies.

Munich: We walked around, Stephanie bought yet more clothes, we watched the animated mechanical clock at City Hall, and had a dinner of sausages, roast pork, and roast duck, along with another liter of beer and a delicious Riesling at a restaurant that opened first in 1298 AD. Europe isn’t much for vegetarians. The restaurants tend to feature lots of meat for all meals, especially in Germany and Denmark. On the streets, there were a number of those pocket bikes, the mini-motorcycles that are the current fad. Pocket bikes and scooters are fads that started in Germany.

Hamburg: It’s a pity we only spent about a day altogether in Germany. It’s one of my favorite countries in Europe. I studied at Heidelberg (f. 1385 AD), where I got my graduate degree, in the late 70s. We had planned to visit friends in Berlin, but we had too many cities to visit. Next time. In Hamburg, we saw a robot billboard that moves around on the sidewalk. If people get in the way, it stops. We went in and out of shops, ate a bit of lunch, and looked around.

Something you see only in Europe are fields of mustard, which are yellow rectangles in the landscape. In the summer, it’s very cool to hear the cuckoo birds.

Denmark: Somewhere from Austria to Danmark, my passport disappeared. The woman at Danish customs was amused and let me in anyway. We arrived in Aarhus on the same day the Danish crown prince was getting married, so the whole country was covered in photos of Prince Frederick. They even issued new coins with the prince and his bride on the coins. We sat around and watched the ceremony on TV. The last time a prince married in Denmark was in the 1700s. Stephanie and I walked around the city. I lived some seven years in Aarhus in the mid-80s. The next day, we went to the Old City, which is a rebuilt Danish town of the 1600s. The weather was crisp and cool, which was pleasant. In the afternoon, we walked around the Queen’s summer palace, drove to the forest, walked along the beach, and cruised around a bit in the city. The next morning, the weather cleared up and we had breakfast in the garden. We visited friends, walking from one end of town to the other, only 20 minutes. Denmark is very quiet. Walking through the large city garden at dusk, we heard various birds; the birdsongs are different in Europe. Along the road, five small deer stood around a pool of water. A long-eared hare ran casually across a field.

Holland: We visited my cousin, who lives with his wife and children in the Hague. He hadn’t read his email for a week, so we arrived unexpectedly. Nevertheless, they made a bit of dinner for us. Afterwards, he and I went walking around the town at night. It’s a beautiful place, with lots of canals and ponds. My cousin teaches at the business college at the university in the Hague; we talked quite a bit about ecommerce in Europe, business opportunities, and so on. The next day, we called the American embassy to see if I could get back into the USA without a passport. Whereas European customs didn’t mind that I was traveling around without a passport, the US didn’t take that so lightly. We went to the US embassy in Amsterdam, which was easy to find: just look for the building with three rings of 12-foot fences, concrete barriers, tanks on every corner, and police milling around. Very subtle. I filled out a form, paid a few Euro, and several hours later, I came back and picked up my new passport. Here’s a European joke: “What’s the safest country in the world? Answer: The USA, because they don’t have any American embassies there.” At 4 pm, we went to the train station, where by luck, there was a train to Paris seven minutes later. Stephanie wanted to see the show at the Moulin Rouge in Paris at 9 pm, so in Brussels, we switched to a TGV train. These are the European high speed trains that sail along at 515 km/hour, or some 300 miles per hour. With our first class tickets, dinner was included (poached salmon and a bit of wine.) The staff was very polite and friendly. We arrived in Paris at 8:45, down into the Metro for several stops, left our handbags at the coat checkin, and got into our seats at the Moulin Rogue as the first dance number was starting. Spectacular feather costumes, a constant stream of song and dance numbers, brilliant colors, and comedy and acrobat acts in-between, including tall long-legged girls in skimpy jockey outfits, leading miniature horses. The bottle of champagne was quite drinkable. More at www.moulinrouge.fr. Afterwards, we walked a few doors down and got a room at the Du Chat Noir Hotel on Pigalle. The next day, we picked up a few baguette sandwiches and took the train to the airport and back to San Francisco. By luck, the same pack of kids were on the return flight. One sat next to me: she spoke very good French. The kids were at the French-American School in Berkeley, where they start in French already in kindergarten. The kids went to France for two weeks and stayed with French families. The US customs people were mystified by our lack of baggage. “That’s it?” We travel light. Eurydice, my cat, was very happy to see me and slept on top of me for several days.

About the Suede Jacket: It got rather dirty after two weeks of non-stop travel, plus all the cigarette smoke. The dry cleaners wanted $60 to clean it (this is Palo Alto) and I wasn’t going to pay that. I searched on the web and a Brit claimed he often washed his suede jacket in his washer, so I threw it in the washer on a mild cycle and a half portion of detergent, and then tumble dry at low heat. It came out very nice. Who says you need dry cleaners?

It took three days to recover. Before we left, we worked non-stop for several weeks on various projects, including setting up an entire ecommerce site in three days, and finishing the SEO book as well, and then we got to Paris and raced about for 15 days and never took a break.