Somehow I'd allowed too many years to slip away without making any of those big, overseas trips. It was time. It was BEYOND time. Europe, here we come.
I didn't want to die without seeing Paris, so that was the primary destination. Beyond that, I wasn't sure. Fortunately a friend put me onto Rick Steves and his excellent travel books, and made a few recommendations for destinations. I bought several of the books, read them, highlighted them, dog-eared them, covered them with sticky fingerprints. Spent hours hunched over the computer keyboard. Ultimately I settled on nine days in Paris, a few days in Bruges, Belgium, and a final few days in Amsterdam.
One thing was for sure; I wasn't making this long-distance airplane trip like a sardine. My old bones were going to be as comfortable as they could be while trapped in an airborne tin can for eleven hours. The cost for business class was daunting -- almost $12,000 for us both, half the total cost of the trip -- but I've reached that stage in life where I'd rather spend it now and enjoy the experience. When I'm 90 and being wheeled around, I won't care so much about luxury. Maybe. I hope. Actually I hope I don't MAKE 90. BUT...I digress. I filled in the ol' credit card number on the Air France website, clicked "submit", and exhaled. Now...where to stay?.
Mike and I need separate beds in our accomodations; otherwise, there's really no sleeping for either of us. As far as I could tell, European hotels just don't offer a two-beds option in most of their rooms. I did find a few cases of twin beds in inexpensive, crowded rooms, targeted toward young people on a budget looking for more of a hostel environment. Not our style. One way to get what we wanted would be renting apartments, and Paris seemed an ideal place to try living like a local. Once I started investigating, I was amazed at the available choices (as long as you have the $$$). Dozens of websites, thousands of rentals. Eeep! I have no idea how many hours I spent glued to the computer, narrowing down the choices. Eventually I settled on a place on Ile St. Louis, the smaller of the two islands in the middle of the Seine, the dead center of Paris. The rental was a direct-with-owner situation, cash wire transfer only, no credit cards, no recourse (really), so it was a little scary; our €3000 might be disappearing forever and we wouldn't know about it until we found ourselves sitting on our luggage on a Parisian sidewalk! However,this apartment and its owner had several excellent reviews going back a couple of years; the website was established and reputable; the owner's emails seemed very responsible and professional; and thousands of people were already using this method. So Mike went to the bank and we crossed our fingers. Here we go!
More hours on the computer researching and planning sight-seeing itineraries. Nine days in Paris is not as long as you think, especially with my limited stamina. Also I had made a small boo-boo; our time there would include May 1, which I didn't know would be a big holiday. May Day. Duh. European Labor Day. I'm such a rube. So there went one whole day when most tourist attractions are closed. Taking that into account, I mapped out alternatives for how to spread the sight-seeing by day. Of course, any plan would only be a guide: the day-to-day weather would control or influence our real-world actions.
There was a new travel wrinkle we had to deal with: money. In all our previous travels, we'd used our credit cards for most expenses. European countries use chip-and-pin credit cards, meaning the cards have a computer chip in them. You can use the USA magnetic-strip type at restaurants and shops, but any machines that accept credit cards won't recognize them. Furthermore, depending on your bank, there can be significant currency-conversion charges for every credit-card or debit-card transaction. Again, back to the research. How marvelous is the internet? And how swell are all those people who share their knowledge and experience? After many more hours of squinting at the monitor, we discovered that through our existing Charles Schwab account, we could get a debit card (for ATM withdrawals) that would reimburse all international charges. We could withdraw up to €300 a day from pretty much any ATM, so we wouldn't need to carry a lot of cash over with us. Sweet! The only remaining unsolved problem was how to buy Metro tickets -- most machines don't take cash -- but I figured we could manage that when we got there.
The last part of the puzzle was: what to pack? Rick Steves is a big proponent of one carry-on bag per person for any trip. I'm an admirer of that philosophy, but seriously -- two weeks in Europe with one little bag? Does he spend all his time in a laundromat, or just smell bad? The weather was going to be cool, so that also made it harder. Yeah, I know, layers, layers. Mike had his own kind of packing problems. If left to his own devices he dresses like a shabbier version of Crocodile Dundee. I was NOT walking into Parisian restaurants with a guy dressed in a ragged t-shirt and zip-off pants, so I shanghai-ed him to the local mall to pick up at least one decent outfit. Ultimately we limited the packing to two carry-ons plus one checked medium bag. Our apartment in Paris had a washer and dryer, so I could take advantage of that to pack a bit lighter.
Are we there yet? <taps foot>