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.

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Shopping in Rome, Florence, Venice, Italy: Etiquette You Need To Know About European Shops

Shopping in Rome, (well in most of Europe) there are different social norms and customs that patrons are expected to know.  In the United States, people paw the merchandise, carry it around and then usually leave it somewhere it doesn’t belong.

This. Does Not. Happen. In. Italy.

Entering into a shop is like entering into someone’s home.  (While the larger mall like stores are more lax in this custom, for this article, I am addressing the small shops.)  When you enter into someone’s home, you immediately greet them.  This is expected in an Italian shop as well.

Vendors are ready to wait on you.  They want to serve and they are attentive.  When you walk in, say, “buon giorno” and smile.  They will greet you as well and may ask something along the lines of “Che cose’?”  This means loosely, “what would you like?”   It is expected that you do not touch the wares. Italians are very meticulous in their belongings and they frown upon the idea of someone else trying it on and touching it. In fact, if you are choosing to try it on, it is almost an unspoken expectation that you plan to purchase said garment.

Wha?????  How do I know I like it?  How do I know it will fit?  Trust me.  The salesperson will have sized you up correctly the moment you darkened their doorstep.  They will know precisely what size you need.  (An aside here is it may not be the size you want.  Sorry.  Their sizes are different anyway, so it doesn’t matter.)

If you are looking for a particular color, they will be happy to help.  When you walk into a shop, the first thing you may notice is that it is very sparse.  There may be one or two mannequins dressed in an ensemble, but that will be it.  The wall are usually lined with drawers or doors that host the goods.  Italians do not like to be overwhelmed with too much at once.  Much in the way they prefer their meals to be presented in unadorned sequence, they use the same principles for clothing stores.

You may like the scarf or the skirt on the mannequins so you can point to it and say, “Lo mi piace.”  This means “I like it.”  Suddenly, before  your very eyes, there will appear a bevy of this particular skirt or scarf or shirt in an array of colors and patterns and sizes.

If there is a certain color you are looking for, it would be a good idea to learn how to say it in Italian. (Most of the shops are housed with salespeople who can in fact, speak English, but they are so happy and proud of you when you attempt the native language, it’s adorable.)

Once you have decided what you will purchase, you can say something like, “Lo prendo.”  This means, “I’ll take it.”  This is the best part.  The salesperson will whirl you up to the cash register and prepare your new belongings for their journey home.  They use tissue wraps and ribbons and beautiful reusable bags with zippers.  It is a treat in itself to watch them.  The excitement overtakes you as you make your lovely purchase.

Try and maintain your dignity when you leave.  At least go around the corner before you begin squealing in delight.  Once, I purchased a scarf (well I made my husband purchase a scarf for me) on the via Condotti and I was so proud of myself for not tearing the package open and rolling around the streets on my new treasure.  That kind of behavior is an entirely different article.


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.