I went to Europe in 2009 for the first time ever and Paris was my first stop. It was awkward not being able to communicate with anyone. Only a few people spoke English, usually those that have to (hotel receptionists, train ticket sales people, etc.) The city was quite different from American cities mostly because American cities focus on the efficient use of real estate so as to maximize profit. The buildings in Paris were built hundreds of years ago when a different philosophy was prevalent: Make things pretty, ornate, and beautiful. Most of the city is quite nice to look at. We took a ride up the Eiffel Tower and got a great view. There were lots of historic landmarks that exhibited great architecture, art, and sculpture. Paris seems to be a beautiful city even if you go off the beaten path.
I noticed there were no patriotic bumper stickers on cars, no French flags all over the place, and none of this "You're either with us or against us" philosophy that seems to be prevalent in the US. What I did see was some anti-Bush and anti-War graffiti in several places. So rather than the message being "We're #1 and everyone else sucks!" the message was "Hey USA... stop killing people."
Anyway, I entered one of the most famous cathedrals: "Invalides" ... and wouldn't you know it, the organist was playing one of my favorite organ pieces: Bach's Passacaglia in C Minor. What a treat!
In Europe everything is roughly twice as expensive as in the US. Everything from cheeseburgers to shaving razors to fresh milk to camera batteries. My parents and I decided to go to a pizza restaurant and "splurge". Normally my dad pays $2 per slice or $15 for a whole pizza pie in New York City. The restaurant wanted 18 Euros for a pizza which is roughly $27 in US dollars and we thought "sure, why not... after all this IS a restaurant and we are in Paris." Come to find out, it was $27 per SERVING. So with drinks and a tip it was going to be $100 for the three of us to have some pizza. This was too much of a shock for my dad who was used to the $2/serving prices. He said the prices were insultingly high, so we just bought some groceries in a local grocery store and ate them in our hotel room. Total price: $20.
After Paris we took a train to Nice (pronounced "neece"). It is a very scenic city, but the outskirts were surprisingly dilapidated and ugly, covered with trash, run-down buildings, and graffiti. All houses built in the last 100 years were dull and boring because they strived for efficiency rather than beauty.
Then we went to Cannes, home of the famous film festival. Saw a bunch of pretty scenery and pretty women. The city was a lot like Nice.
The residents of Monte Carlo do not hide their wealth. In front of the Monte Carlo Casino were parked: A Ferrari, two Bentleys, a Maserati, and a Lambourghini. There were plenty of Mercedes and BMWs all over the place but they were so common that they might as well have been Hondas. Saw a red Lambourghini drive right past me. Lots of very beautiful man-made scenery. Manicured lawns, nice trees, pretty fountains, etc. The buildings were also very ornate. Monte Carlo has the highest per-capita income of any city in the world and it showed.
Every block was a little island. Instead of roads there were canals. You need a boat to get anywhere, or if you don't mind walking you can use the bridges. Again, very scenic, very elegant architecture. There is a hint of it in some buildings in Manhattan, but all of Venice was like that. Saw tons of pigeons attacking people for bird feed which people bought just so they could be mobbed by the pigeons. Overall, the environment was quite good. No vandalism, no graffiti, no garbage. We went to a small island near Venice called Murano where they made glass sculptures right in front of us. The glass masters would use thousand-year-old ovens and techniques that had not changed in centuries. The glass-work gift shop was absolutely amazing. You really have to see it. Unfortunately no photography was permitted there.
Final stop: Rome. The colosseum, the Vatican museum, the fountains, the Basilicas... all great stuff. By far, the most amazing art and sculptures were inside various Basilicas and the Vatican Museum. It would take a team of a hundred talented artists, sculptors, architects and stone masons about twenty years to make just one of those buildings... and there were dozens of them everywhere. They really were absolutely amazing.
The sad part: All the best art, sculpture, and architecture was religious in nature. The Bascilicas were designed to overwhelm and humble people with grandiose structures and elaborate, ornate designs so as to make them feel small. My dad raised an interesting point: The religious authorities who spent all that money to make the Basilicas so incredibly impressive and grandiose... why not spend that money to help people instead? Is having a pretty church more important than feeding starving people and offering assistance to the sick and needy?
The Little Things
There were lots of small differences in Europe: The toilets do not flush either clockwise or counterclockwise. They just go straight down. Also, there are two buttons to flush. One for a big flush and one for a small flush. Saves water that way - clever! As mentioned in the movie "Pulp Fiction", you can buy a beer at McDonald's. Also, they have no Quarter Pounder because of the metric system. It's called Royale w/ Cheese.
Tip: If you're in Paris and a woman dressed in Indian or Arabic garb approaches you and asks "Do you speak English?", do NOT give her money. She is a professional beggar and tells the same sad story to everyone. There are dozens of such women around all the popular tourist spots, especially at the Eiffel Tower. They show you a card which says they need money for medicine and a train ticket back home. The thing is, all those women have the same hard-luck story. I don't mind giving a few dollars to charity, but I don't want to be lied to and taken for a fool in the process. I only gave money to people who didn't ask for it and were obviously homeless or destitute.