Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Discussion of Europe, Part 3: Where to Go

If you're going to be abroad for two and a half months, like I was, you probably don't need a great deal of direction regarding where to go. Chances are you won't be spending upwards of half your time in Metz, France in that case either--and you're better off for it. Nothing against Metz, really. It's a fine town: plenty of history, one of the best cities to experience Lorraine culture, and all in all a decent place to spend a few hours in a train layover. The Moselle's Obligatory River Shot compares to some of the finest in Europe, like the Rhone or the Saone. That said, Metz falls short in two key areas.

The first is "having anything to do after 8 pm." This includes getting anything to eat anywhere except for maybe the kebab shop. (Of course, even if that restaurant is still open, you'll pay eighteen Euros for the pleasure of eating there.) Apparently there's a couple of clubs hidden somewhere if you're into that sort of thing, but some of my classmates who are into that sort of thing didn't seem too impressed with the local nightlife in any case. You can always see whatever big American movies are out with varying degrees of success in their French dubbing. Word of caution: it's better to see a movie that you don't really have to think about what's going on. Pirates 3 was not a good choice in this regard. The bus schedule even ceases running normally after 9 pm, when you'll have to rely on the once per hour "Route tardif" to get anywhere at all.

Metz's only other shortcoming is "having anything to do at all in the Technopole." You hear "college campus" and you think it's going to be like Tech's. Spread out and too much car traffic, an unacceptable amount of construction most of the time--but otherwise peaceful and attractive. Green space, places to buy food and necessities in walking distance, amenities and at least some sort of solidarity-building locations, traditions, etc. There's really none of that. College campus here means you're in a dorm (which is actually a little nicer than Tech dorms) in walking distance to your one academic/administrative/student services building. And in between? Road. Offices. Urban bus service. More offices. You can go to the grocery store, certainly, but it'll take 20 minutes to walk there, then you have to walk back with your junk.

Where to, then, if not Metz? First off, you know I'm no big fan of France. Overrated in almost every regard, you can get just about everything that you can get in France elsewhere in Europe except 1) cheaper and 2) with better service. A major concern when going to Europe, of course, is willingness either to speak English or to navigate their way through your broken attempts at the local language. Now you might be conversational in German, or approaching fluency in Spanish, and that's really impressive. If you're going to say that you have the same level of mastery of Dutch or Catalan, I'm going to go ahead and call BS on that. People use English as a sort of mutually agreed upon mediation language. Take the Viennese tower I visited. The German-speaking man who was handing out information on the tower and the Korean man who'd brought his son finally settled on an informational flyer in English. Or the Italian train conductor who was trying to negotiate with the Russian man about his passport? English again.

English proficiency is generally very good in Germanic countries, or in countries where Germanic languages are spoken. Maybe that's due to linguistic similarity, maybe to straight-up cultural differences; I'm not sure. But it's very easy to communicate in English in Germany and Austria, and not too bad in Switzerland and the Netherlands (or Dutch-speaking Belgium). Spain and Italy fall a little behind, but communication is still generally possible. Even people who don't speak a word of English (like the owners of those wonderful "little granny hotels") really try to get across what they're trying to say.

Now that you're able to talk to the locals, what's worth visiting? A country-by-country guide:

In Spain, one of my travel guides said trying to choose between Madrid and Barcelona is like trying to choose between London and Paris. This is apparently a more difficult choice for the author of this book than for me. I'd compare it more to trying to choose either New York or Chicago. Both are wonderful cities, both are worth a visit, and honestly I think it's better to shortchange them both by spending half your time in each than to miss either. Madrid is Spain. Bullfights, sangria, and flamenco, and everything else you could think Don Quixote missed out on while he was jousting against windmills. Barcelona is something completely different: artistic, independent, and modern. Apparently it has a great club/bar scene too. Both are culturally phenomenal.

On any trip to Europe, London is not to be missed. I was in London for longer than any other single city (except Metz, of course), and here is a list of things I didn't get to do that I'd still like to.
  • Go inside the Tower
  • National Gallery
  • Harrod's
  • Afternoon tea
  • Other half of the British Museum
  • London Eye
  • Some boat thing down the Thames
  • Globe Theater
  • See a play (the theater district rivals or maybe even surpasses New York's)
  • Go into Westminster Abbey
  • Observe Parliament

and even here, I'm probably forgetting things. London is a remarkable city, with especially easy public transportation, and English generally spoken. Even though it has a funny accent.

In Germany, I think Munich is essential. Bavaria in general is great--and that's not just the inherent Catholic bias I have. Pretzels, check. Sausage, check. Cuckoo clocks, check. Dirndls, check. Magnificent palaces, check. Depressing concentration camp sites and other World War II memorabilia, check. Beer... you've got no idea. And unlike most other countries' beer (especially America's), it's actually worth putting in your mouth.

I've already discoursed on Rome. Go there. The only danger in visiting Rome is that Roman ruins across the rest of the world seem a lot less impressive. Naples is sort of dirty and obnoxious, too urban for my tastes. Two huge saving graces: the best pizza you will ever taste, and Pompeii, which is the quintessential Roman ruin. Switzerland is really pretty, though too Protestant for my tastes. I mean, 20 foot statue of John Calvin in the middle of town square in Geneva? That's a little much.

Finally, towns that I would have really liked to go to, and would very much like to visit on a later European excursion: Dublin, Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Prague, Florence, Venice, Berlin, Budapest. We'll see if that ever materializes.

Currently listening: Singularity, Mae. Review soon to follow.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I love London. When I was in high school my family went on a vacation there during Thanksgiving, since one of my father's friends had a flat in Central London which was paid for by his company. I wouldn't mind living there sometime, although it's incredibly expensive.

Stupid US dollar exchange rate.