Tips for American Tourists

Planning a vacation can be part of the fun.  While there is a fine balance between having no plan at all and having every minute of the day assigned with an activity, it’s important to be informed before you leave on your trip.

Leaving the United States is a big deal.  Whether you know it or not, there certain unalienable rights that we as American citizens enjoy.  When you leave American soil, you’re at their house.  While it’s important to know their local customs, it’s also important to protect yourself.

Traveling with a passport means your activity can be logged.  When you register and check into a European hotel, they will ask for your passport.  Don’t panic, as this is customary.  They will make copies of it and keep it on file during your trip.  You are a foreigner.  It’s worth your while to find the American embassy in whatever city you are in and let them know you are there.

Follow the directions in your passport.  They put them there for a reason.  What are they, you ask?  Well, make two copies of your passport.  Leave one at home with somebody you trust.  Bring the second copy with you and DO NOT KEEP IT WITH THE ORIGINAL.  If, God forbid, your passport is stolen, you have some proof to bring with you to said embassy.  Also, if you are traveling with others, don’t keep all of the passports on one person.  Split them up.

I’ve said before, and it’s worth restating.  I love the United States.  I am so proud to be an American.  Yet, out there my little grasshoppers, are people that do not like us.  Unfair.  Illogical.  Whatevs.  They do.  These are some tips to keep you from sticking out and making yourself an easy target.

  • Do not fiddle with your map in the middle of the street.  Even in a town heavily visited by tourists, you don’t need to advertise that you’re entirely lost.  Take ten minutes and sit down somewhere, or better yet, map yourself out at the hotel.  If you look like a wounded antelope, well….
  • Respect the local dress code.  I know you like to wear what you like to wear.  Get over it.  Take the time to learn the customs.  Europeans do not take shoes off when they enter someone’s home.  They’ll think you’re rude for pulling those smelly shoes off your barking dogs.  I know we think we’re being polite by not tracking in dirt, but they perceive it as too familiar.  Did you know that pants were illegal in France for women until….like last Thursday?  I’m kidding.  No, I’m not.
  • Do not, under any circumstances wear a mesh fanny pack.  The circling thieves won’t be able to get near you because I’ll be in the way slapping you upside the head.  There are so many options that are classic and practical.  Do yourself a favor and find one.
  • Contact your credit card companies and let them know you’ll be traveling.  They will red flag your card if you suddenly start showing purchases on the other side of the globe.
  • Don’t go into a trance at the ATM machines.  Seriously.  People do this.  Be aware of your surroundings.

Continue reading

Buying Gold and Silver Jewelry on The Ponte Vecchio

Ponte Vecchio Over The Arno River, Florence

The Ponte Vecchio, Florence, Italy


One of the lovely shops on the Ponte Vecchio

The Ponte Vecchio, (or The Old Bridge) is one of the most famous sites in the world to purchase gold and silver jewelry.  Founded hundreds of years ago, this trading post was the centerpiece of Florence, Italy with vendors and customers coming from all over.  Italian gold and silver is the finest in the world, and buying a little trinket, (or two) on a trip to Italy is a wonderful remembrance to bring home.  It’s something you’ll actually use because let’s face it, what do you do with a tiny Leaning Tower of Pisa after you’re home?

There is plenty of debate as to whether or not you are getting the best deal or if the jewelry is overpriced on the bridge.

This is something you have to decide for yourself.  Perhaps you pay a bit more.  Maybe it is a bit less.  Either way, all of the shops on the bridge are accredited vendors, so you know you have genuine materials.  Remember, you’ll also be paying for the experience.  Believe me when I tell you that in itself, that makes it worth the price.  You’ll remember it forever.

Italian gold is made as 18kt.  It will say 750 on it instead.  True Italian gold will also have a tiny stamp on it with usually a star and some small letters or numbers.  These are the identification numbers of the area in Italy in which the jewelry was made.  Each region has its own stamps and numbers.  When you are shopping for gold in Italy, look for this marking to insure you are getting Italian gold made in Italy.

When you shop in Italy, is is different than here in the States.  As I’ve mentioned before, there are some unspoken rules that are followed.  When you are on the Ponte Vecchio, you are truly marked as a tourist. (Or at least as someone with cash or credit cards to spend.)  You want to be alert and aware of your surroundings, so your adventure on the bridge is pleasurable.

One thing to know when you are on the bridge is that vendors are everywhere.  They aren’t selling jewelry, but they have scarves and wooden Pinocchio dolls and such.  They will attempt to distract you, so be prepared and keep walking.  Keep your hand on your purse.  If you need to, say, “Va Via!”  (This means, “Go Away!”)  While they won’t suddenly think you’re a native, they will at least know you’ve done your homework and will move on.

Shopping on the bridge, everything is there for your perusal.  When you spot something that’s caught your eyes, you knock on the door of the shop.  They only allow one party in at a time.  The vendor comes out and you can literally point to something in the window, or you can say, “posso?”  This means, “Can I?” to have entrance to the shop.  They will escort you in and lock the door behind you.  For real.  Be ready.

They are very gracious and it’s intimate.  Once you make the purchase, you will need to give information for customs as there are forms you will need to return when you arrive at the airport heading home.  You’ll receive your papers from the vendor and your purchase will be wrapped like the precious trinket that it is, in velvet bags and tissue wrap.

Honestly, the safest place for jewelry is on your person.  Wearing a gold chain or a bracelet will not make you a target, and you will be infinitely more secure than if you tuck the bag into your purse. Thieves and pickpockets will be watching to see who comes out of a store with some tiny bag in ribbons.  The important thing, again,  is to be aware and alert.   If you decide to wear the jewelry out of the store, (even if it isn’t for you, remember safety) tell them.  They will assist you and they’ll still give you all the lovely wrappings and bags.

They are used to tourists and they are so accommodating and gracious.  Every time you look at your beautiful piece of jewelry it will make you smile to know you bought it at the most famous jewelry location on the planet.

Pack For Europe

As promised, I have compiled a list for you for packing for an international adventure. This list is designed for an urban, European city. This will work if you’re including churches, restaurants, museums, evenings out etc. If you are planning a trip to a tropical beach, there’s a whole different way to pack.

Image 1The first thing you need to remember is that you CAN NOT bring everything. Not plausible. Not possible. Not pleasant. You want to get the most bang for you buck for every piece you choose.

Here is the list, refined and undefined:  

  • One navy or gray dress
  • One print skirt
  • One solid skirt
  • Three tops
  • For the flight, trousers, (NOT jeans) a silky/dressy t-shirt, a second top, a sweater and a light weight scarf

There is a method to this madness.  Read on.

Plan to pack around a color scheme. While you may think this is restricting, in all actuality, it is absolutely liberating. When you choose core pieces in similar color schemes, then you can add diversity and spice with the accessories you will bring, (and probably buy.) For example, if you choose navy blue as a base color, go with yellow and white, or navy with green and cream. If you choose, say gray, go with gray, red and cream. Gray, blue and white. If you want brown for your base color, mix it with coral and cream. These core colors will give you options with aforementioned accessories.

Europeans tend to dress in darker, well made fabrics. That doesn’t mean you have to follow…suit. It does mean that you should try and be aware of the customs of a local area. Religious and cultural expectations must be upheld. For the first piece, I would choose:

1- A Navy blue or gray dress: No, not black. These colors are a bit more day time friendly, especially in the summer. This dress needs to be at least knee length. Until you’ve seen (and possibly worn) those weird hospital gown throw away coverups in the churches, you won’t understand the importance of this. The Vatican, for example, will NOT let you in. There are a million people in line behind you and they don’t care how far you may have traveled. Legs. Covered. Arms. Covered. This dress will be your work horse essential. Choose one that is light in weight and either lined, or doesn’t cling. Cap sleeves are appropriate every where. If you choose sleeveless, be sure to have a scarf to wrap yourself in when you enter a place of worship.

2- A print skirt (and a solid skirt) in your chosen color scheme: This skirt will need to match every single one of the three shirts you will bring with you. Remember all those boring combinations and permutations you did in high school math wondering when you would ever use it again in your life? Well, this is one of those times. You want all of your garments to be able to combine with everything else. This multiples your choices without adding weight. So, say you have picked a navy blue polka dotted skirt. Pack a white, a chambray and a pop of color shirt, like yellow.

Traveling for a week, you can bring much less than you would expect.  One of the first things you will need to concede to is that you don’t need to bring jeans with you on every single trip.  Dress up a bit more on vacation.  There’s plenty of evidence in the business world alone that, hate to break it to you, people judge you by what you are wearing.  The same is true at hotel check-in desks, airlines, and restaurants. Dresses take up such little space in a small suitcase.  It’s an irony of sorts because the garment that makes you look the nicest requires the least amount of thought.  One navy dress and/or one gray dress can see you through days of travel.

3- Accessories: Leave your most precious jewelry at home. This can be sentimental or monetary value. If it will ruin your entire vacation and haunt you forever if you lost it, stow it safely at home. Instead, choose some high end costume jewelry. Silver hoops are perfect with everything. Jewelry is also a perfect souvenir for yourself….er, I mean your friends and family.  Pack a few scarves that match everything.  These can be used as belts, scarves, or even just some color tied to your bag.

4- Shoes: Get ready to hate me. You can only bring two pairs. One of the pairs you will be wearing. This is one of the biggest ways to keep the heft down in the bag. Pick a pair of ballet flats and perhaps a pair of flat, dressy sandals. I know you want to look chic and Parisian, but you will be weeping all the live long day if you choose uncomfortable shoes. Sorry. That’s the breaks.

So. You have a dress. Two skirts and three tops. This will see you through days and days. I mean it.

Now. For the flight, you have to consider a bunch of things. First off, the shoes. Literally, that’s the first thing they make you remove. Belts, scarves, jackets, bags, everything has to go into the bins. Layer a sweater and a striped silk t-shirt with a top. (Look what you just did, you wore three different outfit options at once. Separate them for the days ahead.) Choose a classic pair of trousers to wear on the flight. These will also follow your color scheme.This lets you scoot and shift in your seat and you can stay comfortable and covered. Don’t wear a belt. Instead, put the belt along the perimeter of the bag. It won’t take up any room. Wear a scarf for the flight. Wear the heaviest one you brought. The plane can be chilly and those blankets they now charge you for the privilege of using are gross. Really gross.

Other incidentals in the bag include your unmentionables. I won’t mention them except to say bring “wicking” undies. These dry in a flash and keep you cooler. You will be washing your skivvies in the sink, so prepare yourself. The hotels will have soap, even the hostels will. They have become uber-chic of late, so try one! The one thing I will say about the hospitality items in the hotel bathrooms, they don’t have conditioner. I don’t know what millions of Europeans are doing, but it just won’t be there. In your 3-1-1 bag the airline forces you to use, I would bring conditioner and leave the shampoo for whatever they provide. Honestly, my hair can handle cruddy shampoo, but if I don’t have the right product for frizz, things can get ugly. (Wait, what’s a 3-1-1 bag? Well, 3 ounces (actually 3.4 or less) 1 quart size and 1 bag per person.)

Now. I want you to pinky swear that you will not bring the following: white, hideous sneakers, a fanny pack, (for the love of all that is holy) and t-shirts with sayings, words or pictures on them. I’m serious, people.

A man from Belgium once asked my husband about Americans. He wanted to know WHY we are so proud of the towns we live in that everyone wears a shirt with their cities on them. We had to explain the whole culture of college ball, and sports and on and on. It made me think though. It becomes glaringly apparent that YOU don’t belong and you probably have a lot of cash on you. Try to blend in. The same is true for the sneakers. Americans are equated with sneakers. I am a proud American, but there are people in the world who would hurt us if given the chance. Again, blend in. The fanny pack, well they are just ugly. Don’t wear it.

In my next post, I will explain the fanny pack aversion and offer you some choices that are not only chic, but safe for your traveling papers.


Souvenir Shopping in Italy: Part One of a Zillion

Browsing in Montepulciano
Browsing in Montepulciano

Browsing in Montepulciano

Ah, Bella Italia.  There is nothing like shopping in Italy.  The beauty of it is that if you really put some thought into it, you can find a fantastic souvenir that will remind you of your wonderful vacation forever.

One of the things about shopping in Italy is that you can easily be overwhelmed.  There are a huge amount of shops to choose from, and each one seems to have just what you never knew you wanted until you saw it at that very moment.

There are a plethora of open air markets, little shops, and famous designer stores.  You can spin in a circle deciding where to go first.  I have some suggestions to help you.

First off, you have to consider the size and weight of some objects.  Most reputable shops are willing to ship gifts home for you, (for a fee) so look in their windows for a sign indicating this to you.  (“Lo Mandiamo” means “we’ll send it.”)

International customs are more stringent than ever now.  Be careful about what you buy in terms of food and liquor.  At the current time, each traveler over the age of 21 is allowed about one liter each.  There is nothing more heart wrenching than having to leave behind a souvenir because it doesn’t meet requirements at border security.

This rule also applies to food.  Meats and cheeses, especially, have strict regulations.  Because these are considered “agricultural products” they are under stricter guidelines than, say, packaged candy.  You may not be allowed to bring them home.  My husband still weeps over a brick of Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese that he bought in Parma and left behind in Rome.  (He left it in the hotel refrigerator, so they never even had the chance to rip it from his hot little hands.)

Fruit is also carefully screened.  “Floral and Fauna” as they are sometimes called under the Agriculture heading can have organisms on them that are foreign to the United States.

A serious word of caution: Italy is very proactive in protecting her treasures.  This includes taking rocks from the Colosseum, The Roman Forum, etc.  Fines are involved, so do as the Romans do and leave them alone.

Each tiny section of Italy is extremely proud of their local wares.  As the title of this article suggests, I will be adding more information in the coming days  about what lovely things to buy in each “provincia” of Italy.  For example, Montepulciano is known for its honey, lentils and soap.  (This is without even mentioning the wines….oh the wines!)  Florence is famous for its jewelry.  Buying a piece of gold or silver on The Ponte Vecchio is like owning a treasure…in your heart.

The word “souvenir” in Italian is “Ricordo.”  I love how it sounds like “recording a memory.”  In fact, one of the best parts of a trip is returning home and unpacking your memories.  They will stay with you forever.