To understand Europe you have to be a genius, or French.
Madeleine Albright

The task of preparing and packing for a trip of several months is enough to persuade a person to give up foreign travel forever. Our whole lives must be narrowed down to the dimensions of one suitcase and one carry-on each, – summer clothes, winter clothes, in-between clothes, medications, files, laptop, and all the other things a modern couple cannot live without. Arrangements must be made for paying utility bills, caring for cats, caring for the lawn or clearing snow according to season, and sometimes both. Time always runs out before all this is done, but we have to go anyway. Napoleon’s army setting out on its catastrophic march to Moscow in 1812 was better prepared than we usually are as we begin one of these extended trips.

It wouldn’t be so bad if we didn’t have to begin with air travel. Everyone now seems to agree that the airlines are engaged in a vast conspiracy to persuade us all to stay at home, or at least on the ground. This is good from the point of view of global warming, and no doubt we will all have to stay at home soon. But right now there aren’t many alternatives if you want to get from one continent to another. We could drive to Alaska and take a dog sled across the Bering Strait, then a train down through Russia, and come into Europe through the back door, so to speak. But it would take weeks, and it’s not very practical because we are cat people, and we don’t have any experience with huskies.

So we must start with the airlines and their increasingly ludicrous and humiliating “security” procedures. Once disentangled from the airline and the airport, often a major struggle in itself, there is always the question of hotels. In general, we love hotels as a relaxing home away from home. But unless we stay within the safe capsule of the big international chains, which are hideously expensive, every hotel is a lottery. Stars mean next to nothing, guide books are always out of date, and another curious conspiracy operates in the hotel industry. They have agreed amongst themselves that no hotel room should ever be quite perfect, so clients don’t get spoiled. The requirements for a good hotel room are simple: anyone could make the list. But in real life the list is always incomplete. One hotel gives you a coffee machine, but no hairdryer; another has a perfectly comfortable bed, but the pillows are stuffed with dried corn husks; one freezes you with air conditioning you can’t adjust; another tries to bake you alive. All hotel rooms without exception are missing at least one light bulb, and one essential bathroom item. Frills like wake-up calls, newspapers, Internet connections and room service are provided on the basis of a secret lottery run by the hotel management. You may get them, or you may not, but you will never get them all.

I miss the lost age of elegant travel, even though I never experienced it. I like to read about the writer Edith Wharton’s travels in Europe in the 1920s. She crossed the Atlantic on one of the great luxury ocean liners and, once in Europe, she was considered adventurous to travel by car. But the car had a chauffeur and a mechanic on board, and another car full of servants followed right behind. Another group of servants traveled ahead to set up her rooms at each grand hotel. No security checks, no lost baggage, and never any missing light bulbs. That’s the way to see the world.

Time travel, anyone?

Copyright: David Bouchier