By Rick Steves
On the road, I get out of my comfort zone and meet people I'd never encounter at home. In Europe, I'm immersed in a place where people do things — and see things — differently. That's what distinguishes cultures, and it's what makes travel interesting. By being open to differences and staying flexible, I have a better time in Europe — and so will you. Be mentally braced for some surprises, good and bad. Much of the success of your trip will depend on the attitude you pack.
Don't be a creative worrier. Some travelers actively cultivate pre-trip anxiety, coming up with all kinds of reasons to be stressed. Every year there are air-controller strikes, train wrecks, terrorist attacks, small problems turning into large problems, and old problems becoming new again.
Travel is exciting and rewarding because it requires you to ad-lib, to be imaginative and spontaneous while encountering and conquering surprise challenges. Make an art out of taking the unexpected in stride. Relax — you're on the other side of the world playing games in a continental backyard. Be a good sport, enjoy the uncertainty, and frolic in the pits.
Many of my readers' richest travel experiences were the result of seemingly terrible mishaps: the lost passport in Slovenia, having to find a doctor in Ireland, the blowout in Portugal, or the moped accident on Corfu.
Expect problems, and tackle them creatively. You'll miss a museum or two and maybe blow your budget for the week. But you may well make some friends and stack up some fond memories. This is the essence of travel that you'll enjoy long after your journal is shelved and your trip is stored neatly in the photo album of your mind.
Head off screwups before they happen. If you make a rental-car reservation six weeks early, have everything in careful order, and show up to pick up your car and it's not there, don't be upset with the car-rental company. You messed up. You didn't confirm the day before. Had you made that smart phone call — even though you shouldn't have to — the problem would have been ironed out in advance and you would have avoided that annoying hiccup in your travel plans. Don't have a trip cluttered by other people's mishaps. As your own tour guide, it's your responsibility to call in advance and double-check things all along the way.
Be militantly humble — Attila had a lousy trip. All summer long I'm pushing for a bargain, often for groups. It's the hottest, toughest time of year. Tourists and locals clash. Many tourists leave soured.
When I catch a Spanish merchant shortchanging me, I correct the bill and smile, "Adiós." When a French hotel owner blows up at me for no legitimate reason, I wait, smile, and try again. I usually see the irate ranter come to his senses, forget the problem, and work things out.
"Turn the other cheek" applies perfectly to those riding Europe's magic carousel. If you fight the slaps, the ride is over. The militantly humble and hopelessly optimistic can spin forever.
Ask questions. If you are too proud to ask questions, your trip will be dignified...but dull. Many tourists are too afraid or timid to ask questions. The meek may inherit the earth, but they make lousy travelers. Local sources are a wealth of information. People are happy to help a traveler. Hurdle the language barrier. Use a paper and pencil, charades, or whatever it takes to be understood. Don't be afraid to butcher the language.
Make yourself an extrovert, even if you're not. Be a catalyst for adventure and excitement. Meet people. Make things happen or often they won't. The American casual-and-friendly social style is charming to Europeans who are raised to respect social formalities. While our slap-on-the-back friendliness can be overplayed and obnoxious, it can also be a great asset for the American interested in meeting Europeans. Consider that cultural trait a plus. Enjoy it. Take advantage of it.
Accept that today's Europe is changing. Europe is a complex, mixed bag of the very old and the very new. Among the palaces, quaint folk dancers, and dusty museums, you'll find a living civilization grasping for its future while we romantic tourists grope for its past. This presents us with a sometimes painful dose of truth.
Europe is getting crowded, tense, seedy, polluted, industrialized, hamburgerized, and far from the everything-in-its-place, fairy-tale land so many travelers are seeking. Hans Christian Andersen's statue has four-letter words scrawled across its base. Amsterdam's sex shops and McDonald's share the same streetlamp. In Paris, armies of Sudanese salesmen bait tourists with ivory bracelets and crocodile purses. Drunk punks do their best to repulse you as you climb to St. Patrick's grave in Ireland, and Greek ferryboats dump mountains of trash into their dying Aegean Sea. A 12-year-old boy in Denmark smokes a cigarette like he was born with it in his mouth, and a shoeshine man in Barcelona triple-charges you with a smile. Your must-see cathedral is covered with scaffolding, your must-visit museum is closed for restoration, and your favorite artist's masterpiece is out on loan — probably to the US.
Contemporary Europe is alive and in motion. Keep up! Savor the differences. Even Europeans' eating habits are strange and wondrous. They may have next to nothing for breakfast, mud for coffee, mussels in Brussels, snails in Paris, and dinner at 10 p.m. in Spain. Beer is room-temperature here and flat there, coffee isn't served with dinner, and ice cubes are only a dream.
On town squares, tattooed violinists play Vivaldi while statue-mime Napoleons jerk into action at the drop of a coin. Locals are more attracted to sidewalk cafés and mobile-phone shops than medieval cathedrals. The latest government tax or austerity measure has everyone talking. Today's problems will fill tomorrow's museums. Feel privileged to walk the vibrant streets of Europe as a student — not as a judge. Be open-minded. Absorb, accept, and learn.
If you can think positively, travel smartly, adapt well, and connect with the culture, you'll have a truly rich European trip.