Saturday, February 23, 2008

Book Review: The Rough Guide--First-Time Europe: Everything You Need to Know Before You Go

Sometime last year, I got this wild idea that I needed to go on a serious, "grown-up" vacation for my 40th birthday. My choices meandered between Europe, Hawaii, and Napa (wine tour, don'tcha know) before I finally settled on Europe to satisfy my inner cultural geek/snob. The next thing that concerned me was how and where to go. "How" would mean one of two options: guided tour or independent travel. The Rough Guide is geared toward the latter. In fact, it is designed for someone much like me 17 years ago, when I had the choice between "backpacking through Europe" after graduating or moving to Florida. (I chose the latter route, fearing that I might have to live in Illinois after I returned, and my trip to the Continent has been held in abeyance ever since.)

The amusing and annoying part about the book's chosen target audience is that it deals with kid-type problems ("convincing your parents" is one such amusing chapter), though it does offer mostly age-neutral advice that anyone can use. It is also rather bar- and adventure-centric. As I reach the exalted age of 40, my interests are focused more on the culinary and the cerebral.

Another problem with the Rough Guide is that it is meant for the two-, three-, or four-month traveler who really is "backpacking through Europe." There are large sections dedicated to camping out, staying in hostels, and living dirt-cheap. Getting older also means getting a little richer. If I wanted to go camping, I'd head for the Blue Ridge for a lot fewer dollars. I'm more likely to stay at a hotel (no s), travel by car or train instead of hitchhiking or bicycling, and live as well as my budget will allow. For those who are interested and have the time, the Guide offers tips on securing employment while over there, including volunteer work or sheer scut work in a variety of fields. (And speaking of fields, working in a French vineyard might earn you room and board, if you've got the time and inclination.)

And here's where I have to turn on the Egoism Machine and bring this discussion back to me, because I bought this book with a specific purpose in mind: I plan to be a single adult traveler, hoping to get a taste of culture after a long stretch of busting my @ss for the space business. This holiday will last anywhere from two to four weeks (it might mean burning all of my vacation time and asking for a leave of absence on top of that). After a three-year stretch of doing my best for king and country, what's going to be more relaxing: depending on myself to make a lot of arrangements in advance or being herded around with a bunch of old folks in go-go-go mode for two weeks straight?

This will be a leisure trip. That means I will be there to enjoy myself in whatever manner seems fitting to me. I don't plan to be hustling for a jobs tutoring Euros in English or picking grapes in some Frenchman's vineyard to make ends meet. I'll have the money to, by Deus, spend and do things I wouldn't be able to do here in the ol' U.S. of A. Staying in a dive of a hostel with a bunch of 20-somethings making whooppee and smoking pot 'till all hours of the night is not my idea of a relaxing vacation. Plus, I'd probably get questioned by the authorities for being some sort of dirty-old-man stalker if I did stay at such places. So: what to do about hotels, B&Bs, and the like? Again, that will be more work on the front end, but less stress "over there" because I know I'll have a place to flop for the night.

I guess I need to find yet another book.


And since I'm on the subject of touring Europe, the book had one suggestion thatI did like: "Think in terms of what you plan to do, not just what you plan to see." This is important, because traveling alone as a middle-aged single guy is sad enough (who the hell takes my picture?) without having some sort of active agenda planned. I will need to do what I do at my space conventions: turn on my reporter's personality and talk to people. This is not always easy. When I'm on my own, I can go hours or days without talking to anyone. If I don't talk to anyone, I really won't have anyone around to take my picture, will I? So one thing I really need to do is make a list of things I want to do.

That said, here follows my list. Some of it does, indeed, involve seeing, but I also intend to be learning about what I see, which is not quite the same as just snapping a photograph and saying, "Okay, let's hit the Eiffel Tower now." I probably can't afford to do all of these (unless I can get paid for writing while I'm over there), but what the hell, I can always whittle down a wish list.

Too much? Probably. But that's the list: UK, Ireland, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Czech Republic, Austria, Greece, and Germany. No sweat. The best time of year to be doing these things appears to be September, as several of the big touristy spots close down or get really hot and crowded in my birthday month (August). I rearranged the list from North to South, under the assumption that the weather up north is likely to get a little frostier as one heads into October.

Or I could just say, "Screw this whole thing, I'm goin' to Vegas!" right? Feh.

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