Our Personal Best-of-Europe

How was Europe? I don’t know, how was your childhood?

I’ve never had such trouble answering a question in the span of a few sentences. Possibly because I’ve never visited five very distinct countries in two weeks. Either way, now that we’re back from our grand tour, I feel like I need to sum it up since everyone keeps asking.

I can’t pick a favorite because they’re all so unique, I can’t even play the “where would I most like to live” game because we had such a great time in each place and stayed with such welcoming families, both my own and strangers-turned-friends (thanks to CouchSurfing).

Either way, here are the highlights:

Best Food Culture: Taste and value-wise, we had our best meals in Paris and Versailles. First dinner was duck, cooked medium-rare, and then we had the same the next night because it was so good the first time around. Those that think the French are thinner because of their food have definitely not had a nice red duck filet or any of the half-dozen ways they fry their potatoes. It’s hearty food from the countryside, we were both very impressed and also very full.

Best Breakfast Tradition: The Full English breakfast is a plate of fried things and vegetables that would be good for any meal: a huge plateful of deep-fried hash browns, eggs, grilled tomatoes, stewed mushrooms, baked beans, sausage, and back bacon. Oh, and four buttered half-slices of toast in case you weren’t full yet. Plus coffee, and good Italian non-watery coffee, I might add. I salute this British dish as the progenitor of the modern American diner breakfast, which happens to be my favorite meal when at home.

Eating the Animal: There is a trend, which I believe is unique to our generation, of being afraid of food that is still shaped like the animal it came from. Case-in-point: boneless chicken breast, the ubiquitous protein object. In life, and especially in travel, I aim to get to the source and eat the animal-shaped animals.

Eisbein, known in English as ham hock, is the fat-encased salted joint and foreleg of the pig. Germans love their pork in bulk, together with sauerkraut, mustard, potatoes, beets, and cabbage. I realize that the staple globalized ethnic foods like ramen, sushi, gyros, pizza, etc. are probably more common for dinner for the average German of our age, but we wanted some authentic grandma’s home cooking. We did not go hungry.

Most Like Home: Paris reminded us both of Mexico City: old boulevards and claustrophobic little streets, cobblestones, the tall interconnecting 19th-century style of architecture and the Haussmann layout of the city, including the subway. Also the noise, traffic, and general mess on the street. Not that we don’t both love Mexico City, but I think we were looking for something more out-of-the-ordinary and for Paola, something “cute”.

Best Tourist Sight or Museum: Versailles was monumental and well-worth the hour trip outside the city. This palace built to escape the heat of Paris in the summer has its own mini-palace to escape its heat, which then has its own mini-mini-palace. It’s like a nautilus shell of opulence.

Cutest: Rings of canals and row houses, canal boats, flowers, dozens of bridges, cobblestones, trams, bicycles, plus tiny little trucks the size of motorcycles. Amsterdam was the prettiest of the cities we visited. It was walkable and full of little shops, restaurants, and beautiful little homes. It felt human-sized and also easy to get around. There were bicycles parked literally everywhere to the point where they became part of the cluttered background, like trash on the curb in the East Village or scaffolding in Midtown.

Cinematic Deja Vu: We stayed outside of central London in a suburb called Walthamstow. Rows and rows of identical row homes and apartments and a Tube-to-red-double-decker-bus trip from the city center. Imagine visiting Manhattan but realizing that most families can only afford to live in one of the outer boroughs. It felt like we were in an episode of Skins, accents included, innit?

Most Unconventional Accommodations: Was it the boat in London or the train in Amsterdam? These were both former modes of transportation, if you’re asking. We did wake up both times in the same place we went to sleep the previous night.

Best Beer: Belgium. There’s a reason why both Dutch and French bars serve Belgian or Belgian-inspired beers. Their local stuff is serviceable, but not great, LOL.*

* LOL = Lots of lager. Germany too.

Of all the endless lagers, I’d cast my vote for one of the pours from the Carlsberg brewery tour or Bintang which went great with our Dutch Indonesian chicken satay dinner.

Most Hipster: Paola would say it was Amsterdam, which is one giant Instagram feed of a city. I would say it’s Berlin, with its inexpensive pre-war apartments, gritty charm, Cold War nostalgia, graffiti, and the lowest prices of the trip.

Smallest Big City: Ever get the sense when you visit a place that everyone knows one another? It was hard to escape that feeling in Copenhagen, which must have been a function of the wonderful host family we had and the human-sized architecture, which made you feel enclosed, not dwarfed by the city around you.

The center of the city was reminiscent of soldiers’ barracks: tall apartment buildings built efficiently close together with courtyards in between.  At the Carlsberg Brewery tour, we learned that the city of Copenhagen was originally a garrison and the gates were locked at night. Counter-intuitively, this gives the city a feeling of unity and togetherness, not the drab Soviet vibe you might expect.

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