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No detail too small

My husband and I recently took the kids on a 12-day tour of Europe. We hit the highlights of cities like London, Venice, and Paris, and enjoyed the natural beauty of Innsbruck and Lucerne. But–as I mentioned in a previous post– the most interesting part for me was the details that made Europe different from the US.

Not just foreign languages, old buildings, different food, and paying to use the restroom. I mean the things you might never discover without visiting.

For example, in many of the hotels, the lights wouldn't turn on unless you inserted your key card into a slot by the door. After the first night in one of those hotels, the tour group was laughing about how long it took each of us to figure it out.

Insert key card for electricity

If you're in continental Europe and you want a Diet Pepsi, too bad. Pepsi apparently failed Euro-marketing 101. It wasn't even in the little grocery stores. And if you want a Diet Coke, it's Coke Light.

In Innsbruck, there are boxes at the crosswalks, but no obvious button to push to request the walk signal. We never did figure out if it was a motion sensor or what.

Mysterious crosswalk box

If you need to know what street you're on, check the wall of the nearest building. No street signs on poles.

The commercial rest stops are amazing. Clean bathrooms, great food, and nice displays. They reminded me of the toll road oases in Illinois and New Jersey, but nicer.

Rest stop food

Rest stop shopping

Rest stop tortellini

Just to make things confusing in Italy, if you wanted self-service food, it worked like a cafeteria, but if you wanted something made-to-order, you had to pick it out, get a ticket for it, pay at the cashier, then take the receipt back to pick it up. We stuck with self-service and still got excellent food like the tortellini above.

The UK had fun names for its pubs. We didn't get a chance to eat at The Slug & Lettuce (“Slug” for short), but we dined at a pub called The Bunch of Grapes (near Harrod's).

The Bunch of Grapes

This is just a sampling of the things that I noticed on our trip, but I think they're the unique aspects of a place that make it interesting. And as a writer, it's the little details that make a setting real to the reader. I'm already dreaming up ways to incorporate some of the places we visited into a new book.

What are some of the fun things you've learned about different places you've been (foreign or not)?

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Thanks for sharing the photo tour! It reminds me of how much I miss visiting Europe. Well, not the cost of it all….but the culture, the art, and the little things that are so different than here.

    One of my favorite memories is from an Alaska trip with my grandmother when she could still travel…buffalo burgers before they were mainstream, sourdough bread before you could get it everywhere, and 7up pancakes.


    • Reply

      Those sound like great memories, Sybir. 7Up pancakes?

      I remember when my husband and I discovered ciabatta bread at an Italian restaurant in Tucson. We used to go to a special bakery to buy it fresh. Now you can get it on a sandwich at Jack-in-the-Box.

  2. Reply

    Gwen, are these food rest stops particularly or rest stops like here in the US where you get gas?

    I’m only asking because over on the Trish Milburn was quoting Michael Pollan’s rule about not getting your fuel where your car gets fuel.

    These “rest stops” sure look like an exclusion to that rule.

    • Reply

      Mary, generally I’d agree with Trish. We go out of our way to find healthy alternatives while traveling, but these are definitely exceptions.

      I’d say they’re similar to the truck stops we have here, but really nice, and everyone uses them, not just trucks. Think Panera, Trader Joe’s, and a gas station combined, with tons of parking.

  3. Reply

    Cool stuff and great pic’s. I bet you’ll remember this trip forever.

    I sure hope though I can hear more about Scrivener when you’re done with your European vacation blogs. 😉

    I was astonished in England when I asked for a coke it came in a cup with no ice. I asked for ice and they literally brought me one cube. I’m a guy who likes LOTS of ice, is that American? Anyway, i can relate to the soft drink stuff.

    • Reply

      Thanks, Rich. You’re so sweet. I’ll try to come up with some more Scrivener tips, just for you. 😉

      My experience with soda this time was that they brought the bottle and an empty glass, but in a few places they did ask if we wanted ice.

      I actually prefer no ice, but I was born in Germany. Maybe it rubbed off. My son was irritated though. 😉

  4. Reply

    Fun fact we recently learned.

    After five years in south Ga one of the folk we have become friends with shared with me. ” Now we are friends but I want to shoot you straight. We are a little clannish down here and have bad manners. If you’ve noticed we are a little slow to catch on it’s because you are from out of town. “

  5. John Randolph Burrow


    Thanks for noticing my link to your blog, Gwen. I have enjoyed your writing here, and I am feeling very envious of your package trip through Europe.

    The last time I was there, on just such a tour, my wife and I were but recently married and our German-leg bus was filled with WWII vets visiting the sites they had bombed or marched through; one guy reminisced about flying his plane between the spires of the Cologne cathedral — it was decades back. Even then we noticed the pleasant “truck stops,” as we called them, particularly in western France.

    • Reply

      Thanks, John. I appreciate you leaving a comment. 😉 Your bus tour sounds like an interesting experience. I hope you get to go back again.

      Happy writing!

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