Soft Drinks in Europe

Coming from American (or Canada) you are likely used to having abundant, cheap soft drinks available at every turn.  Soda, especially cola, but all kinds are everywhere.  Every gas station, every restaurant.  They come in huge sizes and cost next to nothing.  It is a staple of American culture.  Arriving in Europe a lot of Americans will go into “soda shock” because, quite simply, there isn’t any.

Okay, that is a bit dramatic.  There is soda available everywhere in Europe but not anything like there is in North America.  Soda selection is small, the sizes served are very small and always come from bottles not from a fountain and the price is absurd.  Europeans do drink soda but in very small quantities and as a special treat – not as a regular component of their fluid intakes.

You may think that you will just hit the grocery store and pick up cans or a two litre of soda to meet your needs.  But even in a grocery store a two litre of Coke or Pepsi that might cost you as little as eighty nine cents back in the States might set you back three Euro (think four dollars) in Europe.  Doable, but a large expense and that is just the grocery store price.

And don’t expect free refills.  That is unheard of in Europe since drinks come from bottles, not from a fountain.

I’ve asked Europeans about this and they feel that it is simply a cultural thing – prices are high because Europeans don’t drink the stuff.  In Europe people drink water, beer, wine, tea and coffee primarily.  Soda just is not a natural part of the diet.  Considering that beer and wine and available to almost all Europeans by the age of sixteen the cultural introduction to soft drinks that happens so strongly during the teenage years in American just doesn’t exist in Europe.

Traveling with kids who are accustomed to drinking soda regularly might be tough.  I highly recommend working on cutting the habit a bit before traveling so that the lack of soda is not part of the culture shock experiences when stepping off of the plane.  For kids this most likely means moving to drinking mostly water.  Thankfully tap water is clean and safe in Europe.  When we travel, even with the one year old, we use tap water everywhere without concern.  If anything, European tap water is better than water in most of the US.  And just like in the US, bottled water is ubiquitous so if you do not want to risk tap water you always have options.  Bottled water is probably more common in Europe than in the US and you must be careful because in restaurants it is bottled water by default, not tap.

Another important note about soda: if you do want soda and are used to drinking diet in the US, it is called light in Europe.  So a Diet Coke at home is a Coca Light in Europe.  Weird, I know.

In addition to different names, the selection of soft drinks in Europe is a little different.  The US has a much broader selection and some drinks rare in the US, like Fanta, are quite popular in Europe.

If you feel that soft drinks are a requirement, feel free to order them.  They are available.  But be prepared for a lot of differences especially around how much you will pay.  Americans are so accustomed to using soft drinks as the cheapest step up from tap water than having this role be replaced with beer in Europe can be pretty surprising.

For adults traveling in Europe consider moving your soda habit to beer and wine to be “native” for your trip.  This allows you to save money compared  to soda, experience local specialties wherever you travel and experience European life a bit more up close and personally.

Arriving in England

We arrived in England to an uncharacteristically sunny day. After the challenges involved with traveling all day and overnight with two small children, we decided to take the weather as a good omen for the rest of our trip, which was perhaps a bit overly optimistic. Our youngest, not quite 13 months old at the start of our trip, took great exception to being awakened after only about 4 hours of sleep. She normally sleeps for a 12 hour stretch at night, so we really couldn’t hold it against her. She cried off and on from the moment we woke her up on the plane, and by the time we got to passport control she had had it with the whole situation and dissolved into a full-blown meltdown. We moved her so that I was carrying her on my front in the ERGO baby, and I did my best to calm her by singing softly and rubbing her head, but she refused to be calmed. As we gazed out onto the sea of at least a thousand people stretched out in front of us, Scott and I exchanged a look of utter helplessness that only a fellow parent could fully understand.

After about 15 minutes in the queue, with our baby wailing louder than I’d ever heard her before, the voice of an angel came from behind me “Madame, would you like to come with me?”. I quickly realized that this was not the first time the angel had spoken to me, but between Luciana’s crying, my near panicked state, and sleep deprivation, it had taken me a little while to hear him. When I finally turned around, I saw an official looking man holding open the rope that formed the queue. “Would you like to come with me?” he repeated, while gesturing away from the queue with the hand not holding the rope. Ever swift with a comeback, Scott said “As long as we’re not being arrested for being too loud!”, which elicited a chuckle from the angel and those within ear shot. We followed our savior all the way to the front of what must have been at least a 3 hour line, and breezed through passport control in about 5 minutes. I do realize that skipping us to the front of the line benefited the other people in the queue almost as much as it did us, since they would no longer be subjected to the incessant and extremely loud wailing of a confused and angry baby, but I certainly never expected to be given special treatment, and I will never forget the kindness of our Heathrow angel.

After collecting our checked bags and breezing through customs, we purchased Underground tickets from a ticket agent, and began our journey through London to Saint Pancras station, where we would catch our train to Nottingham. I did a little bit of research ahead of time and determined that while the Heathrow Express would get us into London in half the time or less, the Underground would take us directly to our desired station (the Heathrow Express goes into Paddington) and was a fraction of the cost. We decided that with 2 kids plus all of our baggage, being direct and cheap far outweighed speed. Upon arrival at St. Pancras station, we made our way to the ticket counter and bought one-way tickets to Nottingham. When catching an East Midlands train, it is important to note that you will pay at least 20 pounds more if you don’t buy your ticket online ahead of time. We discovered this the hard way. I wasn’t sure what time we would be able to get to St.Pancras, and was concerned about choosing the correct any time ticket, and so didn’t buy them from home. In hindsight it would have saved us about 80 pounds if we had bought our tickets online, which I did do for our return trip from Nottingham to London, because we had to make a critical connection for our Eurostar train.

The ticket agent put us on the very next train to Nottingham, and as it as already at the platform. We had to practically run there. Not an easy thing to do while hauling 2 rolling suitcases, a duffel bag, 2 backpacks, a stroller with a toddler and a baby in a carrier. We were able to get 2 seats together, but it was a rather long ride with the children on our laps, since both of them were exhausted and thoroughly sick of sitting still. This was Sunday morning, and there were 4 blokes seated around the table next to us on the train that had obviously had a Saturday night out in London. One of the group fell asleep with his head on the table, and as the train approached their stop, the other 3 climbed over and around him as quietly as they could, with the obvious intention of leaving him there. They quietly giggled as they snuck away and as I was openly watching their antics, they each gave me the universal “shush!” sign, first finger to lips and smiled a boyish grin. At the very last moment, they took pity on their sleepy friend, woke him up, and he managed to get off the train in time.

Packing “Light”

Packed Luggage

We are traveling in Europe exclusively by rail, so we need to be able to easily manage both the children and our baggage.  In the early planning stages, we considered renting a car so that we could more easily haul our stuff around, but I don’t like to drive, so that would not have been a nice vacation for Scott who would have ended up driving most of the time.  Also, the scope of our trip would have had to be much smaller, because driving for thousands of miles around Europe is quite a different undertaking than riding the rails.  In the end, we decided that taking trains was the better option for us as a family, but for me, this decision added the challenge of packing for a family of four in such a way as to make us as agile as possible.

I first stumbled upon the packing light concept in 2004 while searching online for packing lists for Disney World.  The basic premise is that no matter how long your trip is, you should be able to fit everything you need within a carry-on sized suitcase.  You must be willing to do laundry, b0th in your hotel room sink, and for longer trips like ours, in laundromats.  It is essential to pack clothing that matches, for instance, all tops should match all bottoms, and 1 or 2 pairs of shoes should be all one needs to pack.  There are many of excellent websites devoted to packing light, so I’m not going to delve any deeper into the specifics of it here.

Now, packing light for an adult is fairly simple.  Adults don’t really need much stuff: clothes, toiletries and electronics, that’s pretty much it.  Children, on the other hand, require all kinds of peripherals: bottles, diapers, formula, blankies, toys… the list really can go on and on.  Children are less adaptable.  Our 3-year-old daughter cannot sleep without her special pink polka dot blanket and her Dora the Explorer pillow.  Our 1-year-old daughter likes her stuffed giraffe and her purple polka dot blanket.  I am confident that I will not be able to find replacements for these beloved items in Europe, so they not only must come with us, but also must be closely guarded against loss.

Here is a photo of the luggage we are taking to Europe:

2 Ikea rolling backpacks with zip-off dayppacks padded and suitable for carrying laptops, iPads and other delicate electronics, 1 umbrella stroller (Combi Flare), 1 ERGO baby carrier with matching backpack, 1 Skiphop bumblebee backpack for our 3-year-old to carry, and not pictured here an Ikea reusable shopping bag with a zippered top to use to carry snacks onto the plane, since we have a 6 hour layover between our flight to NY and our flight to London, and I have a picky eater.

I keep unpacking the luggage and looking for things to leave behind.  For example, I dumped the separate bottles of laundry detergent, dish washing liquid, body wash and shampoo in favor of a couple of 2 ounce bottles of Dr. Bronner’s Miracle Soap.  This stuff gets great reviews among light packers, so hopefully it will work out for all of the uses named above, but if it doesn’t it’s not like we’re going to be in a 3rd world country!  We can buy anything we need over there, which is important to remember.  This afternoon we watched Rick Steves’ Europe travel skills episodes, and in one of them he said “Pack for the best case scenario.”  I’ve been pondering that advice all evening, and am seriously considering removing half the amount of diapers I currently have packed.  Europeans do have babies after all, so it’s not likely I will encounter shortage on size 4 diapers!  I do plan on posting the complete list of our luggage contents, but I’m going to wait until I know for sure what will make the cut.  Stay tuned!

A New Travelling Laptop

As we prepared for this trip it was apparent that my existing laptop, a sturdy three year old workhorse, was going to be too large and too bulky for this trip.  Having a laptop is absolutely essential for us as I have to work part of the time while we are traveling and we need the ability to store and upload pictures and videos and to write our blog posts.  The laptop is going to be heavily used on this trip, as it always is when we travel.

So at the last minute we made the decision to get a new laptop, one of the “ultrabooks” – that family of very small but fully functional laptops that are beginning to become popular.  We own a few netbooks but they are too small and lack too much functionality for how we need to be able to work.  So the more expensive ultrabook option is the best one for us.

I have been looking at the HP Folio 13, widely regarded as one of the best small laptops on the market today, for a few months but knew that if I was going to get one that it would have to be just before we leave on our trip.  And at the last minute, it worked out.

We are both really excited.  The old laptop was much larger and a little heavier than this laptop and fitting it into the luggage was going to be hard.  We have no space to spare and every ounce matters.  This laptop is more rigid too so it will stand up to the travels better.

There are several factors, other than the materials and form factor, that lead me to the HP Folio 13.  It is a full power Intel i5 dual core processor for desktop-like performance.  It has 4GB of ram so that I can easily run all of my applications without any problems.  The screen is 13.3″ which is way smaller than I would like but when you want a 13″ ultrabook there is no way to get a screen bigger than that in there.  The screen is sharp and brilliant, though, so very easy to use even though it is small.

There are two really stand out features for the. First there is the 128GB solid state hard drive which means longer battery life, less heat and faster performance along with far better protection from getting knocked around during our travels.  Solid state drives can take a lot of physical abuse without losing data.  Nothing like a traditional hard drive.   Second the keyboard is backlit.  That seems trivial but when traveling with kids and needing to be able to work from a dark hotel room or a dark train or even on the plane without turning on extra lights, the backlit keyboard will be a life saver.

The battery life on the Folio 13 is excellent too.  I have not had time to run it through its paces to really test it heavily but I am seeing battery life in the four to six hour range already.  The led lighting on the screen and keyboard help to keep the heat and power down.

The entire bottom of the Folio 13 is a sleek rubber which is nice to hold and easy to keep on your lap or other surface.  Perfect for traveling.  If we need the laptop has USB, Ethernet and HDMI connectors.  Very flexible.  It is unlikely that we will need to use those but we are prepared just in case.  When traveling it is good to have some sort of support for Ethernet because, while rare, some hotels offer Ethernet only and not WiFi.  That is a major problem for iPad users.

The laptop also has an SD card reader which is critical since one of its primary purposes will be to upload our pictures and videos “as they happen” while we are in Europe.

Now that I have been using the laptop for several days one unforeseen advantage of it has come to light.  The boot up time is seconds.  From power on to usable is maybe as little as five seconds.  I’ve never had a computer able to do that since the days of the Commodore 64!  That means less battery wasted on reboots and more time able to be spent on the vacation rather than on waiting for the laptop to turn on and turn off.  My old laptop easily takes a minute or two and my desktop even more.

So far we feel that the Folio 13 was an excellent traveler’s choice.  We will be field testing it, to be sure, but already we are very much relieved that we have a rock solid and very portable computing choice for our travels.

Choosing a Travel Camera

Having grown up the son of a Kodak engineer, photography has long been an important part of my life.    I received my first camera, a Kodak disk camera, in 1984 on a family vacation to Bar Harbor, Maine and when I was older I spent some time working as a newspaper photographer – mainly doing covers and sports.  So my choice of cameras is pretty important to me when traveling.

On my last trip to Europe (Germany, 2009) I had just purchased a Nikon D90 SLR with the GPS attachment.  I loved it and the pictures from that trip and having GPS data added automatically made the trip a lot more meaningful as later we were able to look back at the pictures and not just guess where I was at the time but could know exactly where I was.  Instead of just being pretty to look at, the pictures actually told a bit of the story.  My family back home could see my progress day by day simply by looking at my pictures being uploaded to Flickr.  I never wanted to travel without photo-GPS again.

That brings us to now.  The D90 is a stunning camera but it is huge and out of the question for this trip loaded down with our children and no car.  Any camera going with us has to be light, portable and resilient.

After doing a bit of research I came across the new Nikon AW100.  This camera is very portable fitting easily into a pocket, is water proof (important as it will be exposed to unknown weather), shock proof (from a few feet at least) and has built in GPS with compass, time sync and maps.  A pretty good combination.  Additionally the lens does not need to mechanically extend and retract between uses which can be quite a nuisance when traveling and needing to get pictures taken quickly.  It also takes beautiful 1080p video which is perfect for recording the action on your trip.  And for still pictures it is 16MP, not too shabby.  And, of course, it is a Nikon.

We decided to get the camera straight away and so far we are very happy.  It takes great pictures and great videos and is truly light and easy to use.  It’s not the D90, of course, but for everyday picture taking and vacation pictures on the go, it is perfect.

Decisions, Decisions

When we started preparing for our first big trip to Europe with our kids we discovered that there was a real lack of good travel material addressing our needs. So we set out to produce our own.  Traveling with kids presents many challenges but also opportunities. Our trips are necessarily less about fancy restaurants, romantic getaways and extravagant resorts but having our children forces us to focus on safety, practicality and ways in which to turn our fun travel into valuable educational situations.  We are both professional consultants and always intended to homeschool our two girls in order to give them the ability to live highly mobile and flexible lives.  Traveling with them gives us the ability to turn normal travel into lessons on sociology, history, geography, art, music, anthropology, archeology and more.

Being mobile workers with kids with backgrounds in technology, media, writing and venturing into home education we felt that sharing our adventures in traveling Europe with our children would potentially be of great value.  We hope that you think so.

One of the hardest choices that we had to make on our first trip to Europe was whether to do the bulk of our traveling by car or by rail.  Unlike the United States, Europe is extremely well connected by rail and traveling that way is possible with few limitations.  When I was in Germany in 2009 I arrived in Amsterdam with no plans and just trusted the rail system to get me to the right country and city.  And it did without a problem.

At first we were planning to use trains so that we would not have to deal with expensive care rentals and the headaches associated with driving in several foreign countries – many of which have very different driving cultures than we are used to, being from the US.

But then we discovered low cost car purchase options that lead us to think that the added flexibility of the car might make sense.  In the end, however, the sensibility of riding comfortably and safely in the train, not getting lost, having the kids able to move around won out.  We decided to get an all Europe access Europass and have the ability to see the entire continent if we so chose.

As Dominica hates driving, even in her home country, I was very relieved with the choice of train over car travel.  No one wants to see Europe more than me and having to “see” it al from the driver’s seat would mean that I would miss most of it and be very sad.  Train travel will be much more equitable and will keep me from becoming stressed worrying about maps, schedules, sleep, etc.

After months of planning we finally settled onto a plan for our trip that, at the very least, included our end points.  Contrary to every plan that we have had thus far, we are starting our trip by flying from Newark to London and we are returning from Lisbon.  If you were privy to all of the “we think that this is the final plan” moments that we had over the past several months you would never believe that these ended up being our starting and stopping cities.

For the last several months we were sure that we were going to be flying through Dusseldorf.  Originally we had been starting in Ireland.  Now Ireland is not even making our agenda.  After Ireland we were flying directly to Warsaw, Poland thinking that I would be working there but that was changed to London.  Our flights alone have been an extremely fluid topic.

At the end we both felt that we were more upset not getting to see Iberia than not getting to see farther east.  So we dropped Prague and Berlin in the hopes of seeing Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon.  Our trip is going to be focused very heavily on very western Europe with Nottingham, England as our starting point, western Switzerland and Piedmont, Italy as our main foci and short trips down the Rhine, into France, into eastern Italy and maybe Austria and then crossing Spain and Portugal before returning home.

One of the most important aspects of our trip to us is getting enough time in each place for us to settle in and get a feel for the area.  No matter what we do the trip is going to prove to be a whirlwind and we want to make is as relaxed as possible.  We don’t want to exhaust ourselves or the kids.  We have a lot to see but we want to be a little less tourists and a little more a piece of the places that we visit.

Even with our starting and stopping cities selected there is a tremendous amount of unknown lying between them.  We know that we are flying into London and heading straight up for a several day stay in quiet Nottingham where we will acclimate to European life and the cold weather (I am writing in early march from Texas where it is already warmer than summer in England) before heading to Belgium where we will also be staying for several days.