First-time Traveler: Unexpected Practicalities

Sure, it’s beautiful, but where are the light switches, and how does this toilet work?

[Brenna Graham is a grad-student researching for a year in Rome, Italy. When she’s not flitting about the continent, you can find her at the nearest gelateria or buried in any one of Rome’s dustiest libraries.]

Visiting a foreign country, particularly on a new continent, for the first time is exhilarating and overwhelming. Language, food, the sound ambulances make, public transit, the lack of to-go cups–all of these things, great and mundane, are different and take figuring out or getting used to. Due to guidebook recommendations and advice from online or other adventurers, travelers are usually prepared for these major differences. However, there are a few minor necessary adjustments that nobody tells you about in advance, which can surprise, confuse, or maybe even delight the rookie traveler. Even after years of wandering in Europe, the following three things still tend to confound me, and, though little, they add up to a significant part of your day-to-day traveling life. So, like in the Boy Scouts, it’s best to be prepared for the following practicalities.

1. Needing a Magellan-like sense of navigation to find light switches.

Navigating foreign cities can be challenging, with unfamiliar street names, complex transit systems, or medieval centers that defy any type of cartographical logic. However, the real challenge is in finding light switches. In Europe it’s not uncommon for light switches to be located outside of the room the light is meant to illuminate. Particularly for small spaces like bathrooms or closets, light switches are nearly always found on the exterior wall near the door. It’s actually an extremely practical idea, but when you’re not used to it, it leads to a lot of fumbling in the dark and embarrassing re-dos on entering public restrooms. Make sure to watch for switches before entering! Speaking of restrooms, that leads to #2…

2. Re-learning how to use a toilet every time you go to the bathroom.

Aqueducts might have helped the Ancient Romans conquer the western world, but that doesn’t make modern European plumbing any less confusing. Before I traveled extensively and lived in Europe, I didn’t realize that toilets could have different designs. Toilets, I thought, were toilets. Oh, how naive I was! Every time you enter a bathroom in Europe, you are forced to re-learn how to use a toilet. The flush might be a small button on the wall, a cord to pull (but don’t pull the alarm cord!), or a large panel on the top of the toilet or the wall. The toilet might use extremely little water, have no seat, or have a platform, which gives you an ideal vantage point for observing your bowel movement. Or, worst of all, it might be a squat toilet, essentially two footrests above a hole, which I understand is NBD for men, but for women is a horrifying game of trying to avoid the urine. Thankfully squat toilets are few and far between, though if you find yourself in an out-of-the-way small Italian train station I hope you’re not wearing your nicest shoes. It’s a good idea to carry tissues and hand sanitizer at all times, just in case!

3. Going spelunking in your wallet for change every time you buy something.

Though tourism is a massive business for major destinations like Berlin, Rome, or Paris, and the hordes of visitors to the glories of those cities might mask it, Europe is still suffering through the economic crisis. The financial situation in the Eurozone is shockingly bad, and the crisis gets put front and center every time you buy something and the store clerk asks you if you have smaller change. It doesn’t matter if the thing you are buying is €3.50 and you’re trying to pay with a five-euro note or if it’s €35 and you’re paying with a fifty. Whether you’re at a little market stall, a grocery chain, or an international retailer, you can always–always–count on being asked for smaller change. Try to develop a thick skin to rebuff the looks you get when you don’t have small bills, or make use of that giant pile of euro change you’ll surely accrue; you can’t always change coins back into dollars (in some instances it’s possible to change one- and two-euro coins but not smaller denominations), so everybody wins when you pay for your coffee with exact change in five-cent coins!

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