Weather, language barriers part II, and luggage allowances

25 Mar

Rome -- like all cities -- is significantly less fun in the rain.

I’m currently sitting on the balcony in my new cheapo Argos camping chair. This is the first time I’ve ever come out onto our balcony. Spring has finally come to London, and not a day too soon. I never realized how much the weather affected my mood until I moved to a city where it’s cloudy and rainy 80 percent of the time. Chicago had its bitter cold and snowy winters, but it still had sunlight and blue skies. I actually saw an ad in a pharmacy window the other day for vitamin D supplements, claiming that people don’t get enough vitamin D because of the “dreary UK weather.” I’d believe that. I’d also believe that a good number of people here have SAD (seasonal affective disorder). Thankfully it’s finally sunny now and the rain is not supposed to come back until late next week.

I never got a chance to write about my family’s visit. I think they had an enjoyable time. My brother came to London and Paris a few years ago on a class trip, but I believe this was the first time my parents ever visited a foreign language-speaking country (Cozumel, Mexico on a cruise ship does not count). I’ve deducted that there are three ways to approach a foreign language in a foreign land, and my family embodies all of them.

When my brother came to Paris with his school group, his guide instructed them to only speak French. He learned the necessary phrases to get by, like “hello,” thank you” and “I would like ham and cheese.” He tried as best as he could to refrain from using English, even if he had to result to sign language (which he’s currently studying in college). When we had to buy train tickets, we pushed him to the front and he was able to complete the transaction with his broken French. We were all impressed. I think my brother was actually upset when he realized most people in Paris speak English, or at least enough to give an American tourist what he wants. We walked into a restaurant, my brother told the waiter “Party of four,” in French, then the waiter came to our table with our menus and said, “Hey guys, what’s up?” So much for pretending to be European.

My dad, however, tried the other extreme — speak English and only English and hope for the best. Because we were in two mega touristy cities — Paris and Rome — it worked out pretty well for him. It gave us away as American tourists right away, but it also got us food and hotel accommodations. When my brother’s broken French and sign language didn’t work, my dad would go over and say, “Four tickets, please,” blowing my brother’s cover.

My mom, on the other hand, tried to avoid the situation all together, not speaking French or English and encouraging one of us to handle the situation.

I like to think I’m a mixture of all three schools of thought. Like my brother, I want to look like a local and speak the language, but like my mom, I get embarrassed, so like my dad, I end up speaking English. I feel more comfortable with Italian than French, so I was able to order dinner in Italian, though it wasn’t very encouraging when the waiter responded, “OK, mushroom pizza for you” to my “pizza ai funghi.”

There were instances, though, when we weren’t speaking but a waiter or ticket seller would automatically address us in English. “How did they know?” my brother would ask, and we would all ponder it. Was it the way we dressed? We weren’t wearing NFL jerseys, baseball hats or anything else stereotypically American. Was it the way we carried ourselves? Our facial structure? Are there ways to tell someone’s nationality just by looking at them? I can’t help but wonder.

The trip went pretty smoothly so I don’t have too many anecdotes. It rained the entire two days we were in Rome, which put a damper on things. I was in Rome five years ago in the summer and it was beautiful, but now my family will always associate Rome with that disgusting wet sock feeling we experienced tromping around the Vatican Museum. They did throw coins in the Trevi Fountain, so maybe they’ll have a chance to go back when it’s sunny.

We took Ryan Air, a budget airline similar to easyJet, from Rome to London. We bought our baggage allowance online in an attempt to save money at the gate. I also got the bright idea that the three of them should share one suitcase, not realizing that my brother wears a lot of heavy hoodies and my mom would pack more shoes than days traveled. Needless to say their one suitcase was hefty, but it wasn’t a problem until it was time to head back to London. We put the bag on the scale and it read 25 kg — that’s 55 lbs. In the US the weight limit is usually 50 lbs, so it would have been overweight there, but Ryanair’s cheapo weight limit is 15 kg — 33 lbs. The bag was 10 kg over so I asked the woman what the fee was, thinking it’d be £20 and we’d just suck it up. “£20,” she said. “…per kilo overweight.” That would cost us £200, more than the plane tickets for five of us cost. Checking a bag cost £15 — if we weren’t at a tiny airport, we could have bought a new suitcase and checked it. But that wasn’t an option, so we did what we could — we moved over to the side and started shoving hoodies, belts and shoes into our carry-ons and my checked suitcase, which was already 14 kg. I’m sure we weren’t the first travelers to have to do this, since 15 kg is a ridiculously low weight limit. I’m still not entirely sure how we made it, but we did, and saved ourselves £200. It’s just an easy way for the airline to make a quick buck, because as my brother so wisely pointed out, “What does it matter, the weight is still on the plane!”

In the future I’ll remember that it’s cheaper to check two smaller bags than to bring a jumbo suitcase.

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