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Three personal lessons from my European trip

I have just spent a month in Europe, mainly Malta and Sicily. Don’t worry, I won’t bore you with holiday snaps, although it’s hard to beat these countries for ancient temples, ornate churches and more sacred ruins than Julius Caesar could point a dagger at.

Rather, with head space freed from reading about the sad state of Australian politics and a declining stock market, here are three lessons that spring to mind as the sun sets over the Milanese skyline in front of me.

1. Contrast the ‘remembering’ versus the ‘experiencing’

In his bestseller, Thinking Fast and Slow, Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman, writes about the difference between a life ‘experienced’ and a life ‘remembered’. He summarises his views in this 20-minute youtube video.

We experience life moment by moment. Kahneman says a ‘moment’ last about three seconds, so a life is made up of hundreds of millions of moments. The vast majority are forgotten, but the memories we choose to remember build a picture of how we feel about our lives. It’s vital, says Kahneman, to understand this to realise why we are happy or not. Most studies of happiness miss this point.

It’s a fascinating insight which applies to holidays as much as any event. Consider the riddle of a holiday which is experienced in thousands of moments, versus how it is remembered in an overall rating of the entire trip. Let’s face it, much international travel is exhausting and unpleasant. Waiting around for flights after security checks, catching transport to airports while facing flight deadlines, finding accommodation and checking into a room not as good as expected, looking for places to eat at every meal, searching for toilets in busy cities … you know the drill.

Moment by moment, as I walk around yet another art gallery or temple, I am drawn to ask myself whether I am actually enjoying that moment. Okay, I know I am fortunate to be in Rome or Tuscany, but often I’m not really enjoying the moment, or at least, no more than I enjoy my everyday life in Australia. With obvious exceptions during a great meal, some good laughs, a stunning view over a landscape or the first look at a famous building, it’s often hard work. This is the ‘experiencing’ self.

And yet global travel is one of the main goals of retirement, often a chance to travel in style with more time and money.

What is happening when I return from a trip with wonderful memories? My wife compiles fantastic photobooks, and we read them and reminisce about our amazing holidays. This is the ‘remembering’ self, and we have shared memories. I can relive an entire month-long holiday in 15 minutes … what happened to the rest of the time? They were the tired and hungry (hangry?) moments I choose to forget.

Increasingly, I realise that significant overseas holidays are about building memories and remembering shared good times. The mind can turn events such as being ripped off by an Italian souvenir seller into great stories. In fact, Kahneman says the remembering self is a storyteller rather than the experiencing self who wanted nothing more than a sleep rather than another Roman ruin.

Kahneman extends the value of this insight far beyond holidays. He says it’s essential to understanding happiness and personal judgement of a life well-lived.

Here are some of his quotations:

“We have a confusion between experience and memory. It’s between being happy in your life versus being happy with your life … The remembering self is the one that keeps score and maintains the story of our life.”

“Our memory tells us stories and what we get to keep from our experiences ... Most of the moments of our life are lost forever, yet somehow you get the sense that they should count.”

“The remembering self is the one that makes decisions. We don’t choose between experiences, we choose between memories of experiences.”

“We go on vacations to a very large extent in the service of our remembering self.”

“You can know how satisfied someone is with their life but it does not teach you anything about how happily they are living their life. And vice versa. The correlation is low, about 0.5.”

He suggests the following test to observe your attitude to your remembering self. What if you are told that, at the end of a holiday, all photographs of the trip will be destroyed. Furthermore, you will swallow a potion which will wipe out all memories of the vacation.

Would you still want to go on the holiday? How much less is the value of such a holiday? The elimination of the memories greatly reduces the value of the experience.

2. Prepare for medical emergencies

I travelled around Europe for a year when I was in my twenties, and I don’t recall thinking about illness or doctors at any time. At that age, we’re indestructible. A few decades later, this is not good enough, and Sicily taught me a lesson.

After we’d been on the road for three weeks, including a complete circumnavigation of Sicily, we returned the hire car to the airport at Palermo, ready for a few days in the island’s largest city. On a Sunday morning, my wife slipped a disc, resulting in a severe sciatica attack. She now says it was the worst pain of her life, including childbirth.

Suddenly, we had an urgent medical crisis, and I had not given any thought to what we would do. She was sweating and groaning with pain, and desperately needed immediate relief. In her agony, she suggested all manner of actions like calling the Australian Embassy, phoning an ambulance or finding an English-speaking doctor. We were staying in an apartment so there was no hotel staff to assist us.

From a frantic Google search, I found a couple of doctors who looked suitable, but either the contact details were old or they were not answering their phones. I tried what I thought was the number for an ambulance, but the receptionist could not speak English. Another lesson – don’t assume the world speaks your language.

Meanwhile, my wife could not find a comfortable position, and the pain had moved down her right side and her leg felt like it was on fire.

Our travel insurance was not specifically purchased for the trip but was one of the features of our credit card, an HSBC Qantas card. I recalled it had an emergency medical number, so I checked the internet. Here is what it says:

“Overseas. To make an emergency overseas claim, call Allianz Global Assistance on +61 7 3305 7499 (reverse charges from overseas). You will need to provide your policy number as well as proof that you paid for your travel tickets with your eligible HSBC credit card.”

Policy number? Do I have a policy? I thought it was part of the card. Prove I spent 90% of travel tickets on the card? Is that flights only or accommodation? My wife is in agony and they want me to find policy numbers and details of a flight booking made over six months previously.

In fact, the HSBC’s travel insurance conditions say:

“In order for Allianz Global Assistance to confirm your eligibility for International Travel Insurance, you will need to have copies of the documents listed under ‘Documents to take with you’.” This includes, “copies of their Card account statement and HSBC Card receipt to confirm the purchase of their overseas return travel ticket(s).”

I did not have the documents with me, and with my wife screaming in pain, a more direct approach was needed.

We decided to go out to the street and seek help calling an ambulance. We found someone who seemed to understand what we wanted, and he kindly called the Sicilian emergency number. We tried to explain the problem to him, and he translated, but despite several attempts, the operator said the condition was not severe enough for an ambulance. It was later explained that because ambulances are free and taxis expensive, many Sicilians call the service to visit the hospital, resulting in incorrect usage and cost.

So I ran off to find a taxi. We were staying in the centre of the old part of town, and most of the streets were closed for Sunday morning festivities. Reluctant to leave my wife, and worried about becoming lost in the tiny and intricate street network, I soon abandoned the taxi idea.

I returned to find her standing outside our apartment with four people, obviously attracted by her moaning in pain, trying to help. They called the ambulance again, and this person was more insistent. About 30 minutes later, the ambulance arrived.

I never want to see the inside of a Sicilian hospital again. It was nine hours of communication problems, x-rays and queues to see doctors before she received any pain relief and a drug prescription. It included a weird instruction to inject vitamins into her buttock, an exercise we attempted only once as it was so painful that we later dumped all the vials and needles bought at considerable expense. We were later told that some Italian doctors believe vitamins are a significant part of almost every treatment process.

Next day, the pain was reduced but significant. With less urgency than before, but still needing help, we tried the Allianz Global Assistance line. The call took about 45 minutes, including establishing whether we had coverage and the nature of the problem. They were unable to supply numbers of local doctors because “the contact details change so much”. I don’t see how they could have speeded up the ambulance with a phone call from Australia in English.

To their credit, Allianz subsequently stayed in contact and wrote to confirm we had full cover for expenses (less a $200 excess) which might have included return business class seats and cancellations at many hotels. A nurse later also called with good advice on pain management for the return trip.

We managed to catch the relatively short flight from Palermo to Milan but the pain returned in northern Italy. Finally, during a night in a hospital in Alba in Piedmont, a doctor tried three different pain killing medications before we found one that worked. Hundreds of dollars worth of anti-inflammatory, anti-spasm, painkillers and vitamins later, we had a management plan for the long return of Milan-Rome-Abu Dhabi-Sydney.

I offer this detail to suggest you decide in advance what you would do. In recent years, we have travelled to Burma, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Brazil, Peru and Argentina, as well as other European and Asian countries. The health system in many of these places is worse than the one in Sicily.

In future, I will attempt to clear my ‘qualification’ for cover with HSBC before leaving, to make the initial call as short as possible. Even then, I’m not sure how they could have expedited assistance, as they did not have local contact numbers for Palermo. For less developed countries, I’ll check the state of the health system in advance. Perhaps I will take out cover specific to the trip to remove any doubts about coverage, especially where medical costs can be sky-high like the United States. But now there’s a problem that my wife probably has a ‘pre-existing condition’.

3. There are different worlds within one country (or how football explains Italy)

Nobody should judge a country after a brief visit or seeing only part of it, and Italy is a great example of such a diverse place. Amazingly, while most Australians think of Italy as an old country, the formation of the modern Italian state only began in 1861.

Italians talk openly about the cultural and economic differences between the north and the south, with Rome on the dividing line. A visit to Naples and Sicily shows an Italy rich in history, architecture and scenery, but it’s often untidy and in disrepair, with poor garbage services and graffiti common in many towns. There is not enough money to maintain some great historical sights, and while the roads are generally good, the footpaths are no place for less-mobile people.

When we told an Italian friend from Milan of our experience in the Sicilian hospital system, she said it was notoriously underfunded compared with resources allocated in the north. Milan itself is one of the classiest cities in the world, with the Duomo spectacular after a recent clean. It also has an excellent public transport system, one that leaves Sydney for dead. Towns like Alba and Acqui Terme feel sophisticated, and of course, the Italian lakes area around Como and places like Tuscany and Venice are great destinations in the north.

Even the fantastic city of Rome is now called ‘an open sewer’ by its residents, with protestors hitting the streets last week to complain about the neglect of a city in disarray. They say roads are riddled with potholes, while strikes by garbage collectors leave bins overflowing, and public transport is in permanent crisis. More than 20 buses have caught fire in the city so far this year due to poor maintenance.

There’s an excellent book, written by American journalist Franklin Foer, called How Soccer Explains The World. Judging from my attendance at Serie A matches in the south in Naples (Napoli versus Parma) and the north (the Milan derby, Inter v AC Milan), there are obvious differences.

The Napoli experience felt threatening. As a security measure, they do not sell tickets before the game at the ground, even when the stadium is half-empty. There is no ticket office. All tickets are bought in advance via full identification, and the tickets include a name, date of birth and address to prevent on-sale. The stadium looks more like a maximum security prison, with rows of high steel fences around the outside. There was a massive police presence externally, but none inside, where it felt like a colosseum.

On entry, police check tickets against everyone’s ID, so imagine what a mad scramble that is before kick-off. Fans are herded through tight, single-file barriers and frisked by officials, although this did not prevent the regular firing of flares inside. At the end, whether or not the extreme fans, the ‘ultras’, chant, everybody is standing up, most are smoking and many of the so-called seats are wrecked or filthy. There are high fences and a wide, deep moat around the pitch.

Yet Napoli is not some hick team. Currently second in Serie A behind the all-conquering Juventus (now home to Cristiano Ronaldo), they are coached by Carlo Ancelotti, one of only three managers to have won the UEFA Champions League three times. It’s a top quality side which the following week drew with Liverpool. And yet the passionate fans are treated like animals in a tense and intimidating experience.

Milan’s San Siro is one of the world’s great stadiums, sold out at a capacity of 86,000 for the derby game I attended. It’s purpose-built for football with high sides to maximise noise and atmosphere. Fans are close to the pitch, and I’ve never experienced 90 minutes of such intense noise. I’ve been to three World Cups and great stadiums like Manchester United’s Old Trafford, Liverpool’s Anfield, Wembley and many others in London, but this was among the best. It was an exciting, non-threatening experience. Most fans sat down for the whole game, except at the two ends, and there was surprisingly little smoking. It was a world away from Naples.

We also visited Italy to attend two food festivals. The best pistachios in the world are supposed to come from Bronte in Sicily, but the weekend of the pistachio festival was a letdown. Modest stalls lined the main street of Bronte selling cakes and icecream featuring the nut, but it was low key, poorly attended and hardly worthy of the festival name.

In complete contrast, the white truffle festival in Alba to the north was amazing. Now in its 88th year, the city was packed and the festival itself was a mad scramble by thousands to taste and spend. Some individual truffles cost over Euro 1,000, and just to have a modest shaving on a plate of pasta added $60 to the dish. As my wife is a serious foodie, it was like standing in the middle of a crowd tearing up dollar bills. Knowing they are on to a good thing, this festival runs over consecutive weekends for six weeks, and must have a multi-million dollar turnover.

And not one overflowing garbage bin in sight.

Building memories

Experienced moment by moment, these wonderful trips can be tiring and repetitive. Really, how many temples, museums or art galleries does anyone want to see in a month? After daily pizza, pasta, panini and pepperoni, we craved salads and Asian food. But of course, it's a privilege to travel and there are so many great places to visit, and I don't want to sound ungrateful.

But I know what Kahneman means when he says:

“We go on vacations to a very large extent in the service of our remembering self.”

You're welcome to share your travel tips or comment on any of the above, thanks.


Graham Hand is Managing Editor of Cuffelinks.

November 07, 2018

I will watch the TED talk and see if I can work out what I remember of my last visit to Bali with bad knees! I also loved the football bits as well as the health bits......Maybe there are minders we can take with us for future holidays. Did I know that everything I visited had 30 steep steps without a rail to haul yourself up and down! On the opening night of a festival, for cocktails I managed to get up to climb up to where the food and drinks were but had to call for help to get down. I noticed a few other more mature ladies were suffering the same fate!

Vince Dunlop
November 07, 2018

Rick Steve's Europe travels is probably the best show to watch to gain an appreciation of travelling Europe. Be sure to watch his 'travel tips' guide.

A very simple way to experience the best of travel, especially if you hire a car/motorhome, is to buy each traveller a fold-up chair, and arm yourself with a simple wicker style picnic basket, containing the basics of a plate, knife and fork, sugar, salt etc, 2 wine glasses and a bottle of fine red. A small cooler bag for milk and butter... and with that small outlay, you have the freedom to go anywhere, anytime and sit and take in the experience of so, so many places that are off the tourist map.

Most travellers gain their knowledge from a 'commercial' source, which is why the best tips are not available. Even the so-called 'Lonely Planet' series, I find, is left wanting.

For language problems, I find the best is to seek out a young person, the child of a proprietor of a business or guest house. It's a good chance they will usually speak good English.

And the best food in Italy, at a reasonable price and with efficient service (a huge problem in Italy) is always a local Chinese restaurant. Seek them out.

Andrew Varlamos
November 07, 2018

Great reflections, thanks Graham. I always try and see a football game wherever I travel, as it really does tell you something interesting about the local culture and their traditions. I have that How Soccer Explains The World book on my bookshelf, but just haven’t got around to reading it. I’ll have to move it up the list. Cheers, Andrew

November 06, 2018

That was a good read, Graham - and definitely some food for thought - thank you.

I realised a number of years ago that memories of trips are often much better than the "lived experience". I vividly recall my parents recalling trips, directly to me as well as to others, and thinking to myself "is this the same trip that I was on with you". And I have often reflected on how the memory insertion technology which was the underlying idea to the Sci-Fi movie "Total Recall" definitely has some merit (essentially the opposite of the thought-provoking challenge at the end of section 1 - memories without having to experience the challenges!)

My wife and I have never been the typical Aussie travellers (I know it is dangerous to generalise, but I've always been amazed at the number of fellow Generation X's that seem shocked that I always drive in Europe - and have done since my first visit there in my mid-20s.) And we really just love the experience of "being" rather than "seeing/photographing" - in other words, slow down and feel what it likes to be in the place rather than running yourself ragged trying to tick all of the major attraction boxes. (I see lots of similarities in what you have written, Graham.)

We always travel back roads, slowly and meandering, and stopping whenever we want. The amazing thing about Europe is that there is so much historical artefact and beautiful scenery that even if you avoid the attractions that every international tourist is traipsing over you're likely to run into something that you did not even know was there and some times you're the only one climbing over it!

My wife and I had the great fortune of living in central Europe for two years before we had children. We worked out the cultures and countries we enjoyed most. But still travelling is tiring - no doubt about it - several or many different beds often causing poor sleep, and travelling in unfamiliar places can often be stressful (and navigators don't cope all that well with small villages in rural areas!)

However, we think that we have found an answer to a lot of the negatives of travel (so that we can have more of the positive memories :) ). For less than 5% of the Sydney median house price we have just bought a 140 sqm 4 bedroom habitable stone home in a small village under 3 hours drive from Rome in Abruzzo, 1 hour from skiing and 30 mins to the beach. The area is almost completely undiscovered to international tourists, but it is truly beautiful - a place where Italians like to holiday. (Check out Silvia Colloca's show on SBS if you want to see more of the area). And yes, the food is spectacular - we feel we ate better than anywhere in the north (where we have been many times) mainly because they serve mainly locals, who obviously really do know what good pasta is! (My young "foodie" children - now 13 and 9 - still love to quote, with a long southern drawl, the American woman that sat at the adjoining table to us in a small restaurant on the Cinque Terre two years ago saying "what's a panna cotta?")

While we are very excited and proud of our achievement, we are being discrete about our purchase within our social networks. It seems to me that the long period of prosperity in Australia has only forced a greater level of desire for more by many, often expressed as envy or jealousy, or the counter, a desire to create those feelings in others. This is for us - nourishment for our souls - and we don't wish to cheapen it by sharing our news with anyone other than the closest of friends who we know will share in our joy (and of course will be welcome to visit or use the home for a holiday of their own.)

We had been watching people on various television shows buying holiday homes in Europe and we thought it was for us. And one thing about having some of the most expensive houses in the world is that houses elsewhere seem - and in many cases in Europe where economic conditions have been tough for a while - are - very cheap.

However, our experience living in Europe - especially in southern France - has taught us to be open minded to the problems that we will no doubt experience. (In fact, the challenges of living in southern France for a year still outweigh my wife's positive memories of the experience so much so that even after 15 years she remains resistant to the idea of visiting - one day I'll get her back to Montpellier/Pont du Gard/Nimes/Carcassonne :) ) We would like to think that these days those rose-coloured glasses have only a slight tint to them, but we also know that how we perceive each experience will be a major factor in how this new adventure goes for us.

Perhaps the chance to make enduring relationships and friendships with locals, which all going well may span generations, is also a major factor for us.

Your tip on medical services is also great! At one stage my wife seemed like she wanted to live next to a hospital for this reason, but eventually we just had to say to ourselves that Italians have lived in these villages for centuries and have gotten by, so we will be able to also. But we absolutely do need to get to work immediately at improving our Italian language skills and our knowledge on how to access health services. We know from earlier experiences that the more self sufficient one is at accessing all sorts of services, the easier and more satisfying the experience...


Graham Hand
November 07, 2018

Thanks, Brett. Great insights into how you make it work for you. I'm interested in hearing in a year's time how you go with a "habitable stone home in a small village" which sounds as if it needs renovating to meet your usual standards. Not many tradesmen in Abruzzo will speak English, and the Italians have been ripping off tourists since Julius Caeser played fullback for Napoli.

November 07, 2018

Hi Graham. Actually the home is in good condition - it will need some new electrics down the track - we'll probably do that as we approach retirement and plan to spend more time there (so in 10-15 yrs). I know it is difficult from Australia to imagine such relatively cheap homes but with some research anyone can unearth real bargains there - our second choice was a larger home (probably too large for us) habitable (ie requiring only very minimal immediate work) and for only 15,000 euros.

As for my "usual standards", perhaps there is an assumption in there. I was raised on a farm and my home until going to university was an abandoned workers' barracks with no doors (when the stink beetles etc flew in summer they just flew in and landed in our beds - though the nights the fireflies visited were pretty magical as a kid). When I visited with my (future) wife I had to go down to clear the cane toads from the shower area for her :)

No, I don't have high expectations or needs, but many of the 50 properties listed for under $50,000 that we inspected exceeded our expectations and some considerably. (Have you ever seen the House Hunters International episode where the family from Brisbane bought the cheapest home in Piemonte?)

And the cost of living is so low there - $9 for plates of amazing pasta, pizza or other. Not taking the other stuff too personally is key. The truth is that Italian people have suffered through a long period of tough economic conditions, which in the south has extended a very long time. It never justifies dishonest behaviour, but I've never let these things concern me as I always realise that most would not do these things if they were in more favourable circumstances and it makes me appreciate even more my good fortune.

Did you notice how many mature men serve on tables in Rome (in every-day eating places, not just high-end)? While in one respect it is a nice change from here where very young wait staff, often unskilled if not outright uninterested, and it does suggest a lower cost of living such that one can live on such a wage, but it does also suggest a lower opportunity for good employment opportunities.

I was unsure when I read your article whether you were jaded or just trying to be thought-provoking. Sorry you aren't enjoying travel any more (and btw, I was not trying to be, nor am I now, sarcastic or even contradictory - I am just trying to add to the richness of your thread)... all the best

Deborah Solomon
November 05, 2018

There is a fourth lesson too. Given the recent news of catastrophic weather in the same places we stood in just over a week ago, Timing is Everything.
Just as with a bout of ill health, you never know when a flood or other devastating event will strike.
Make use of our government’s Smart Traveller system of helping to track its citizens who may find themselves in the midst of a disaster.

Nina Harris
November 05, 2018

Great recap of your holiday, Graham ... I felt like I was there with you. We do have to take the good with the bad on holidays, as in day to day life, and trust that the good experiences outweigh the less than good ones. Enjoyed your readers' comments, too, and their travel tips.

Observations about the remembering vs the experiencing self are thought provoking. I imagine that if the experiencing self did the remembering, the population of the world would be much lower!

Laura Cunningham
November 04, 2018

What a brilliant article Graham and do hope your dear spouse person's back is mending well. Travel 'broadens the mind' as they say and I suppose we expect it to be broadened by only good experiences. In fact, despite the trauma of injuring said back, you have no doubt had an amazing holiday, with some incredible memories and an even more varied raft of experiences than most holiday makers. Where to next??
PS Outback Australia is pretty good too, despite the cost. 24 hours to Rome? Try ten days minimum to Darwin!

Philip - Perth
November 04, 2018

We, too have had similar memories and experiences...and aren't we all so lucky that we have such 1st World problems to deal with and empathise with each other about? It makes you realise how the asylum seekers must feel, who wend their way from country to country looking for a safe haven must feel - frightened and frustrated by their own pain, hunger and of being unable to provide safety for their family and rejected and moved along by all and sundry. Despite it being so expensive to live here and the fear of "Labor taking all incentive to succeed" away from us this place is a safe and easy place to live without too much fear of persecution so if you were fleeing death, famine, persecution, disease or political upheaval - unless you're aboriginal - and we might all aim for this wide brown land, regardless of it having all of the world's most dangerous animals...and politicians. Have you seen Sammy J's apology? Says it all really. Thanks for sharing, Graham and other readers.

November 03, 2018

We enjoy Cuffelinks so much. I don't google or twitter or any of those other arcane things so I hope this reaches Graham Hand. His piece on travel to Italy was marvelous and brought back many memories - good & bad - of a lifetime's travel.We always take out specific health insurance through the Credit Union Australia (Allianz!) but have had no serious need of their services, unlike Mrs Hand.
In Arezzo once, when my wife and I had an unpleasant dose of the flu, our hotel called in a doctor to visit us. He was very thorough and gave me antibiotics but told my wife she didn't need them. We both recovered within days and the insurance paid up on our return. I guess we have been lucky.
I've often wondered whether visiting the astonishing Taj Mahal was worth the ordeal of having a mob of beggars beating on the windows of our cab with their stumps. Both memories are indelible.

Graham Hand
November 03, 2018

Ron, thanks for the kind comments. I've been to many places but not India, and while I know the memories would be wonderful, the experience of poverty and beggars really puts me off. Cheers, Graham

Jennifer Lang
November 03, 2018

Graham I loved this piece. The concept of the remembering vs the experiencing self is one I think about even in my non holidaying life (should I go to that networking event, or stay home and watch TV)... You would also probably enjoy Off the Clock, by Laura Vanderkam, an author on time management and what makes a full life.

I took a year off mid career to travel with my family, and it was one of my best decisions, but it is true that it is much better in retrospect than it was at the time! I've forgotten most of the pain of homeschooling, for example, as the children seem to have learned enough to do fine at school.

Graham Hand
November 03, 2018

Thanks, Jennifer. Agree about the non-holidaying life. I sometimes wonder if I have a bad memory as some things that once mattered I don't care or even think about. That book sounds like good Christmas reading. G

November 02, 2018

Great read, thanks Graham. I did my back big time in southern France, first time ever for me - so it was both quite a shock and 11/10 painful. Pretty well immobilised in bed in our BnB for 5 days was the easy bit! The medical care was fantastic and largely free/v low cost. This included 2 visits per day from a nurse - who seemed to delight in sticking a needle in my bum. Pin cushion arse!. In retrospect back in Oz I realised that it all seemed to go so well despite the circumstances because I was unknowingly doped up to the eyeballs!! Many 3 second bites in there!

Graham Hand
November 02, 2018

Hi Brian, yes indeed, lots of 3 seconds you will never recall. And many people think if there is a problem, they can simply fly back to Australia, but what if it's a back pain or incapacity that prevents flying?

November 02, 2018

Graham, that was a terrific piece. Engrossing. Hope your good wife is feeling better.

Julian Talbot
November 02, 2018

I meant to add in my earlier comment btw that REVOLUT and TRANSFERWISE are also great for holding funds in different currencies, if you want to take advantage of exchange rates (whether for profit or you just want to put money aside for a later trip while the rates are advantageous). Both highly recommended.

Julian Talbot
November 02, 2018

Great article Graham. Thanks for sharing your experiences and wisdom.

In your email newsletter you mentioned the woes of bank and airport currency conversions. There are some better options in Australia. HSBC have a multi currency debit card system and 38Degrees offer a credit card with good exchange rates but the best options we've found, having lived in 5 countries and visited 50 are:
Both have great apps, terrific exchange rates and physical as well as virtual visa/mastercard debit cards.

An unpleasant experience for your wife. Commiserations. But thank you for sharing. We have similar arrangements with a couple of credit card providers which we've not had to use but will (thanks to your cautionary tale) investigate the fine print. My experience in the past has been with WORLD NOMADS who offer the best paid travel insurance I've found bar none. In any case, my Plan A with travel insurance is to have a credit card with enough balance to pay for any immediate care - and then worry about claiming it from the insurance company later.

March 16, 2019

I like Transferwise too but I am still waiting for their debit card to be available to Australian residents. But I do use their borderless account.

Jo Reinhard
November 01, 2018

Great read.

November 01, 2018

Landing yourself in a foreign country with a different language, different culture, different way of living, while not always an easy experience, is definitely character-building.

November 01, 2018

Not necessarily an outlier, Phil K.
I too have never travelled overseas, although I have been to every state and territory in Aust.
I also suspect you might be on the mark with your observation of "being able to say you've done it", especially with the advent of social media, selfies and the "look at moi" set.

Phil K
November 01, 2018

I've always held the view that holiday travel is best experienced retrospectively and is often a tedious exercise in real time. It often seems to be done with the objective of then being able to say you've done it, and also with a view to accumulating a treasury of amusing or hair-raising tales to draw from at cocktail parties.

However, I wouldn't trust a single thing I say on the subject, having never travelled overseas and having only ever been in two states and one territory within Australia. I suspect I would be a major outlier within the CuffeLinks readership.

Rob and Krys
November 01, 2018

Graham - we can empathise and sympathise with you.
We left Australia at the end of February 2017, travelled to England where we had already bought a German made Hymer motorhome which had been put in to storage for us and then travelled across to continental Europe where we have been travelling for 20 months and are still in Germany now.
We have travelled through 28 countries and covered over 60,000 kms – in most cases there are no border crossings at all anymore – we were not even sure if we had crossed a border until we saw a roadside sign in a different language.
Yes, we have experienced some challenges but they are all part of the learning experience with other cultures and languages and just part of the fun of travelling.
We have made some terrific friends in Europe and have been invited to stay in their homes and have done so in Poland, Germany and Holland.
We have invited some of our European friends to visit us in Australia after we return and have already had confirmations from one German couple in March and a Polish couple in August.
We communicate with many European people via our blog site and now have people from 77 countries following our travels and tips on the site.
We have taken over 8000 photos and many hours of video footage on this trip as we have done on previous overseas trips to other countries and love reliving the experiences again after we return home.
We tried to get assistance from the Dept of Foreign Affairs when planning our trip but the only advice we received was a referral to a page on their website and a recommendation to contact the Consulates of the countries we intended visiting.
A little difficult when we intended to visit over 30 countries.
We were advised that we would run in to difficulties in the European Schengen Zone where people on Australian passports must leave the Schengen Zone after 90 days, and then remain outside the zone for 90 days before being able to return to any of the Schengen countries again.
After nearly 21 months of being in the Schengen Zone nearly full time we have encountered no problems at all.
We were asked more questions by British Customs at Heathrow airport than we have been asked in any of the 28 other countries we have visited so far and we are from a country that is supposedly a member of the British Commonwealth.
We have visited the UK before but it is certainly harder for Aussies now than it has been in the past.
We only had one way flight tickets as we knew we would be in Europe for around 2 years – that is not favoured by the UK officials.
So we were armed with statements from our Tax Accountant with details of our SMSF balances, health statements from our doctors, copies of our overseas health cover and so on but what we were most nervous about was no return flight ticket but we were not asked about them.
Prior to leaving Australia we took 3 photocopies of all our important documents and scanned them and emailed them to both of our separate email addresses so we had them in each of our Iphones, Ipads and laptops – we then hid the copies in separate places inside the motorhome – we worked on the premise that if we were going to be in Europe for 2 years then the motorhome would be broken in to – but it hasn’t – we have learned a lot about the how, when, why of parking.
We keep 1 copy of all the important docs in plastic sleeves in a 2 ring binder which sits next to the dash board so they are always handy.
We have been made to feel welcome in 27 of the 28 countries we have visited so far – the only exception being France – the French attitude seems to be that France is the only worthwhile country in the world and that French is the universal language.
We only speak English and some German but when people found out that we were Australians they went out of their way to help us – even in countries that use Cyrillic script we were able to get by with hand language and a smile as the people were so willing to assist.
We agree with you regarding the difficulties in getting medical assistance – we now realise that we should not have done our tour in one bite of 2 years but probably should have done 2 tours of around a year each with a break in between so we could go back to Australia for medical checks.
We both turn 70 next year and 2 years without a check up with your own doctors is way too long.
We usually stay in Stellplatz (like a camping area for motorhomes only) and they all have a notice board with emergency numbers for medical help – the real problem like you encountered is language -Google translate helps (the spoken version) but fortunately we have not needed medical help.
We have an off road caravan in Australia but when travelling in a motorhome in Europe we don’t need to carry a hundred plus litres of water, food for a week, spare tyres etc as when you dawdle 50 kms down the road you have probably passed through 3 villages and maybe 2 countries.
One thing that really concerns us is hearing that many people would love to visit Australia but are too concerned about all the dangers in Australia – there is a common quote that “65% of the world’s deadliest animals are in Australia” – this is a complete turn around from previous overseas trips around the year 2000.
We are self funded retirees and watch our spending but have come to realise how expensive it is to live in Australia – we have travelled to all these great places, eaten and drunk too well but have lived cheaper in Europe (including the cost of all those 60000 kms) than what it was costing us in Australia.
If the Labor Party proceeds with all of its proposed changes a lot of the incentives to be successful may be removed and many Australians may head overseas.
Graham, we are sorry to hear you did not have such an enjoyable trip and seem to be a little disillusioned about the joys of travel – maybe you should choose a nice friendly place to visit to get the vibes going again – we are not home yet and we are already planning our next trip.
BTW – we love Cuffelinks.
Kind Regards
Rob and Krys

Graham Hand
November 01, 2018

Thanks, Rob and Krys, fantastic information. Yes, Google Translator is excellent. Everyone should learn how to use it before going overseas. In hospitals, it was the main way we communicated, by typing in the question and it instantly translated it on the screen into Italian. Also point the camera at a sign and it shows the English translation immediately. Stunningly good and free.

November 01, 2018

Really good insights. The drudgery of travel – yes! Just as well our memories can sugar-coat things a bit!

Warren Bird
October 30, 2018

Ah, Piedmont! You've brought back memories (term used deliberately) Graham! Passeggiata during the truffle festival in Alba is a wonderful experience, especially when you wash your truffle shavings down with a Barolo or some other top quality nebbiolo.

Hiking through the vineyards that produce these amazing wines and in the alps that overlook the Langhe where they grow was one of the best holiday experiences I've ever had.

And you're absolutely right about being prepared for medical situations. I had to go to a doctor in Oslo last year, which was fairly straightforward, but I didn't get the right treatment and ended up going to emergency the day I got home and spent a month in hospital, had 3 operations, took a few months before I could get back to work full-time and also had 4 months on 12 amoxicillin a day. I'm so glad I was home for all that and not stuck in a Norwegian hospital, as good as their medical system seems to be.


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