“Not only do I not know what's going on, I wouldn't know what to do about it if I did.” G. Carlin

Though I have no regrets from the entire trip, there were a few times when things did not go exactly to plan. No matter how much we prepared, there were always times when we were placed into an unpredictable situation where our kids would stare at us blankly, waiting for us to come up with a solution. The trick was to try and remain as calm as possible, but sometimes the stress led to a spur of the moment decision which just made the situation worse. Jet lag, laundry, food, adolescence, money, and driving were all issues that led to mental breakdowns if we stewed on them for too long, but we found it best to move on to the next challenge rather than trying to fix something that we couldn’t change.

I knew before leaving that driving from Paris to Tuscany was going to be the greatest challenge I would face. I paid extra to add my wife on the rental car as a driver, but I only relinquished the responsibility once. After she dealt with an hour of Italian drivers passing her on cliffs and causing her to stall on hills, she was happy to be a passenger again. I was fine handling transportation though because I feel like it’s my duty to handle driving on long trips, and I take that task very seriously. I wanted my wife and kids to be able to sleep or play games in the car so they could recharge their batteries for the next adventure I had planned. I was honored by their oblivious trust as they ignored the complexities of the foreign roads outside, their safety was my cross to bear as a vacationing father. 

Unfortunately, after picking up the car in Paris I immediately scraped the passenger side door pulling out of the narrow Sixt garage into the street. Despite my daughter shaking with concern that we just ran over a puppy, I was actually relieved to get it out of the way at the beginning of the trip.  I was bound to hit something driving on these chaotic roads, and after breaking the ice I felt less nervous driving. I was confident I’d be covered by the rental insurance through my Chase Sapphire card anyways, so minor dings weren’t anything to worry about.

I mentioned the speed cameras in France earlier, and I expect to receive a couple tickets for my ignorance of the speed limits, but the advantage of booking through Sixt is that they had a very intuitive website which catalogued all infractions and accidents so you’re not trying to use fax machines or struggle through language barriers to resolve them. The speed cameras register your license plate number and report it to Sixt who then adds the ticket to their website and notifies you it’s pending payment. I read horror stories about hundreds of dollars in admin fees if the local French municipality needs to track you down themselves, so I’m actually glad Sixt makes it simple. Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and as a guest of their country I’m obligated to pay any infractions I received while spending my time there as a temporary resident. Luckily, my plate might have been blurred when I passed the camera so I haven’t received any to date.

Driving was one issue, but the efficiency of their speed cameras was contrary to their archaic handling of parking fines. After a frustrating time looking for parking at a beach near Pisa, I finally found some street parking on a sandy dirt road near the water access. Apparently there was a parking meter out of site at the end of the road where I was supposed to swipe my credit card and input my plate number. Since I didn’t see any paper tickets on the windshields around me, I incorrectly assumed it would be fine. The meter maids in Europe are no less ruthless than they are in America and I had a ticket on my windshield when we returned from the beach.

The best advice I have if you receive a parking ticket in Italy is to try and hunt down the meter maid who placed the ticket there. Most of the time, they will allow you to pay it on site so you won’t have to deal with the hassle of paying through the Post Office. Even though their speeding tickets are highly automated and able to be paid online or over the phone, their parking fines require a visit to a state run Post Office which all close at Noon in Italy. 

On our way to the airport at the end of the trip we stopped at a local town in Tuscany to pay the fine, but absolutely no one there spoke a word of English. I didn’t want to take the ticket home with me and risk paying a large administrative fee when they eventually tracked me down, plus if we paid it in Italy within a week we'd receive a slight discount. 

My wife and I waited in the line, but several regulars from the town took priority regardless of our queueing. I don’t blame them though, if I had foreigners waiting in line that I knew were going to take up a considerable amount of my time, I would want to handle the other customers first too. The first lady we spoke with handed us a long form to fill out and when we started completing it at the counter she motioned that we needed to leave the line and bring it back when we were finished. After guessing at where the information on the ticket should be pasted into the form, we brought our best effort back to the counter only to have it rejected, but this time we refused to leave the line until someone assisted us. 

Heavily relying on Google translate to speak for me, I kindly explained our situation and begged for guidance. After helping us fill out a new form she scanned the information from the form into her computer anyways, and I threw up my hands in defeat. Bureaucracy is not bound by borders and this nefarious process was only made arduous in an attempt to stall tourists and locals into paying additional fees to the state. Nonetheless, I paid my fine like a good evanescent citizen and was on my way with the peace of mind that I wasn’t going to receive a ticket in the mail eight months from now. At least if I did, I’d have a receipt from an Italian Post Office employee to help me argue my case.

While I was able to use Google Translate on my phone to interact with the Post Office employee, I could only use it to translate what I was saying because the OCR technology to translate what she was saying didn’t work very well. The language barrier was a continued struggle, and I had many binary conversations in France where my only input from the other party was a head nod, making it difficult to haggle for better deals. Additionally, it seems that bargaining is an exclusively American past time because while gypsies would sometimes drop their price, shopkeepers were offended you even asked.

This was apparent in Paris when I came across a beautiful brass chess set, hand made from parts crafted by the machinist who owned the hardware store. I took my daughter with me to try and make a deal as I was enamored by the unique pieces and thought it complimented my office decor nicely. However, the owner wouldn’t even take it out of the window for me to take a closer look before throwing a price of €1000.00 at me. I really wanted to see the item before dropping that kind of money on it, but I threw out an offer of €650.00 because I fell in love with it, thinking that he would at least discount it slightly. The shopkeeper wouldn’t budge from his original price even though I went all the way up to €900, but at that point I had to walk away. I could tell he didn’t really want to sell it to me, maybe because I was American, or maybe because he was attached to it and couldn’t stand to let it go. Either way, I was happy to teach my daughter the number one rule of negotiation, if the deal’s not right, the deal’s not right.

I attempted a lighter version of haggling in Italy when my phone battery was low and I needed to strike a deal with one of the many gypsies stationed at the base of the Colosseum if I was going to be able to take photos during the tour. My kids were intimidated by the peddlers because of their aggressive sales tactic of never taking ‘no’ for an answer. They sold selfie sticks, water, trinkets, phone batteries, and anything else you might find in the impulse aisle of a supermarket. I started to sing songs with the word ‘no’ in them to lighten the mood and combat their annoying persistence, but when I noticed my phone battery was dying I prepared myself to be swarmed. They knew I needed an already charged battery, and their capitalist Spider-senses were tingling.  

The gypsy was a younger Indian man and he told me the price was €25 which was a “very good deal”, I immediately walked away to find someone else and he began to shout “€15! €15!”  I returned and we settled on €12, but I learned a valuable lesson about shopping with gypsies when he gave me back the incorrect change. I was so anxious to finish the awkward deal that I momentarily turned my back while he scurried away, scamming me out of €3, but I just let it go rather than calling over a policeman and risking getting stabbed later. It was also worth every penny to teach my children about people like that, hopefully they will be smarter than me when put in a similar situation someday.

In France it was no different, and near tourist destinations such as The Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame the male gypsies were increasingly aggressive as the sun went down. Our concept of time was definitely distorted and it felt like the sun never fully set until after 10:30 PM, so we’d often find ourselves walking the Seine after Midnight. 

Paris is a beautiful city, but my wife was inundated with cat calls and advances from men shouting at her in French after night fell unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.  The sun played tricks in Paris and it was easy to find yourself out late in the city of lights. Walking around Paris after 3:00 A.M. was a little scary for me so I can't imagine how a woman traveling solo would feel.

The two men in hoodies were getting a rise out of insulting her in French, which I couldn’t understand, and I felt emasculated by her refusal to tell me what they were saying using her high-school knowledge of the language. Her face told me it wasn’t anything good, but I put my arm around her and we ignored them until we made it home safely. Following our trip, a 22 year old woman who decided to reprimand a cat-caller for making similar advances was severely beaten, and France has since instituted steeper fines for gender based street harassment.

International tour groups are found in every corner of the world and tend to be loud, rude, entitled, and numerous. They can be obnoxious and have no issue cutting in line, using their flash on priceless artwork, or shoving their selfie stick in your personal space. I recommend avoiding tour buses at all costs by arriving early to well known sites, their groups are large and loud, and navigating through them will be a huge challenge, especially with kids. 

This assessment could be because tour groups generally consist of less experienced tourists, so it isn’t an unreasonable stereotype that they would be less well behaved than independent travelers. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, but I believe in embracing the culture and speaking the language without hindering the ability of others to enjoy the shared space.

We ran into a few more issues on the Paris Metro when we tried to use non-municipal tickets to go to Disneyland along with scanning the incorrect child ticket for an adult, but it was more difficult than I thought to keep track of which tickets were valid and which were expired. I suspect I’d figure out a rhythm after riding the Metro regularly, but we definitely paid some extra costs as tourists trying to keep track of valid tickets after shoving them in our pocket, mixing them with other already-expired ones. 

I previously mentioned the Parisian attitude towards assembly and while I fully support and admire their ability to be heard, the protests also intentionally threw a wrench into our plans as tourists multiple times. 

We were unable to visit the Parisian Catacombs after showing up to the main gate and being turned around by the locals who were fighting for labor reforms. Luckily, I used a credit card to pre-purchase the passes so it was easy to dispute the charge and receive a full refund, but if I would have used a debit card, or paid cash, then I would have been at the mercy of The Régie de Paris Museums who didn’t respond to any of my emails.

On our final day in Paris we also planned to visit the Palace of Versailles, but it was again shut down due to a protest and we arrived to a locked golden gate. We were able to meander around the gardens and gift shop, but the main palace was closed to visitors indefinitely and without warning. I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the hundreds of other travelers barred entry over the centuries by the King, and found irony in the fact that the middle class were now the ones refusing admission.

Another huge bummer on the trip was the closure of The Aiguille du Midi cable car up to the highest peak of Mont Blanc the week before we left, and after I had already purchased our Multi Passes for the entire resort. During the off season the staff prefers to maintain the lifts while attendance is slow, and during a routine check they noticed an issue with one of the cables so they rightfully decided to close the entire area due to safety concerns.

Our host in Notre-Dame-de-Bellecombe was gracious enough to call the ski resort for me, but there was nothing she could do besides request a refund, and since the entire trip was already planned, we elected to keep the passes and explore the other areas of the mountain she recommended. I’m very glad we did because it was still a magical experience and the Brevent peak was just as breathtaking, but next time I’ll wait and purchase the passes on site after assessing what's open. 

I was worried the Mont Blanc passes might sell out, after dealing with bookings for the Palais Garnier and Colosseum, so I elected to purchase them in advance to avoid any possible heartache of being turned around once we arrived. I forgot it was a ski resort during the off season, so tickets weren’t hard to come by and there weren’t any lines when we arrived. It also caused headaches with shipping the passes to our house rather than issuing them at will call and having to track weather and safety closures leading up to the trip. Just buy your passes at the office when you arrive, then you can determine if the Multipass is worth it based on the weather condition and lift closures.  

However, by purchasing the 'Cosmo Jazz' package online beforehand we all got free rides on the Alpine Coaster, a self-braking thrill ride that took us in pairs on a luge down the mountain

Surprisingly, alcohol didn’t hinder our decisions too much during the trip, but I did have a moment of panic when I hid my wedding ring from myself in the boiler room of our apartment in Riomaggiore, a drunken attempt to find a safe spot for it the night before. We found it by sheer luck, but I suggest you store all your valuables and passports before time traveling with booze in Italy. Drinking until 3:30 A.M. the night before a 14 km hike probably wasn't the best idea either, but we succeeded regardless of the massive hangover.

Probably the biggest problem of the trip, and also the best opportunity for growth, came from dealing with a myopic teenager who pointed out all my mistakes and took every opportunity to speak negatively about the trip. I lost my temper several times, but each time I spent the following night lying in bed trying to figure out how to apologize. I hope my stepson saw me as a flawed person on this trip and realized that I didn’t always have an explanation when plans went awry. That didn't mean the intention was bad, it just meant that I made a mistake.

A constant theme of negativity caused me to sometimes snap at circumstances beyond his control, and I felt guilty when I would yell at him for eating something he knew he wasn’t supposed to with his braces, or when we’d have to wait for him because he'd incorrectly order at a restaurant and then send it back. I thought he was trying to sabotage the trip and at times the stress of the situation caused me to overreact. 

While at home we have the ability to retreat to our safe spaces and sometimes go days without speaking to each other, but on this trip our issues were forced to the front and we dealt with them head-on through communication and tears. It was good therapy for both of us and our relationship is stronger now that we’re home and went through it together.

Most of the memories from the trip, both positive and negative, ironically tie back to my stepson, and it’s probably because his stubborn attitude, expressiveness, and OCD remind me of myself when I was his age. I realized in the end that he handled a three week trip away from his girlfriend way better than I would have 20 years ago.

The only other issues we came across were having to tape our suitcase shut using American-tape because we purchased luggage that was on sale prior to the trip and they broke when we were trying to pack for the return home. Also, United refused to take our passes when we tried to access the lounge at the airport.

The United employee at the counter gave us a BS excuse that the passes weren’t valid for family members after stereotyping our American family, even though it says directly on their website that they are valid for two adults or an adult and a child for each Mileageplus Explorer member.

We had two one time passes, plus we were both Mileageplus Explorer card holders, meaning we had enough for six passes and should not have been barred access from the lounge. My wife gave the employee a piece of her mind and we left to put the children asleep on the floor of the airport while we waited for our plane during our 11 hour layover in London. Also, keep in mind that the security area of the airport doesn’t re-open until 5:30 AM so leaving the airport during our layover meant we needed to wait in the ticketing area when we returned.

One thing that I noticed in both France and Italy, that we’ve nearly eradicated in America, is smoking. It’s still a very large part of society in European nations and the smell and yellowish tint of cigarette smoke is everywhere. I don’t know how the culture can be so health conscious, but still ignore this major impediment to social progress. There are numerous cigarette vending machines in addition to the sale of single cigarettes at newsstands throughout the city, and I assume the lack of regulation leads to tobacco companies luring rebellious teenagers looking to develop their image. Maybe it's a side-effect of such a freedom-loving culture, but I saw more people smoking in France than I saw carrying baguettes, and that’s saying a lot.

Regardless of all the problems I experienced on this trip, they pale in comparison to the bleak news coverage I left behind. While traveling I could simply focus on my family, making my issues smaller and more direct, building my confidence and melting away stress as I solved each one.

Unexpected Costs
  • Rental car damage
  • Parking ticket
  • Nordic bath
  • Cinque Terre trail fee
  • Italian tourist tax
  • Paris metro fines
  • Over tipping
  • Ordering bottles of wine when we meant to order glasses
  • Tolls

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