Sunday, February 7, 2010

An embrace of the intoxication poured out of Europe

Europe is a spill of coffee on the white saucer on the Spanish coast. Drinking the smooth, thick café al fresco and within view of the Mediterranean, it is also the sugar cube dropped in.

There are particulars of pockets and packing lists that could weigh down the traveler. But so often these are forgotten in dreams of Paella and the myriad possibilities of pâtisserie. (Chocolate ruffles, pain au chocolat, and croissants layered in stories of butter.) It is good to lose oneself, better than forcing too much thought on how many euros are in your hands and how much weight is (or isn't) on your shoulders.

All things in life rely on a good balancing act. Get carried away. Drink enough wine to follow the Italian banter at the dinner table. If you don't drink wine, induldge in panna cotta and try to savor it - one of the biggest challenges posed by Italian cuisine.

These infatuations (which often lead to ecstasies) can be healthily tempered by mindful preparations. Have a budget, make it limber. Decide what you'll pack, leave half of it at home. There is the essential - the water bottle, the pocket knife - and then there is the 300-page guide. Skim it in the months and weeks before your trip, tear out 15 pages that you really believe will benefit you, and relax.

The perfect packer will inevitably lose a pair of underwear (mine was eaten by a yellow lab in Southern France). When you forget something, or leave it on a train, you'll buy or find another. And if you don't need it, leave it for someone else. A woman biked up to me in Millau, France, gesturing to the book I had purposefully left on a bench - well-read and ready for a new pair of eyes. I took it and left it on another seat. Often WWOOF farms have boxes or mudrooms filled with trinkets, clothes, and occasional treasures gifted by past volunteers. From these collections I got a very pleasant farming shirt and to them left books and clothes of my own. You will meet people that may want that extra t-shirt, or an aspiring mountaineer who could use the extra layer that you'll never need while touring Holland in the summertime. Get rid of it and enjoy your lessened load.

Envelope yourself in the continent, the seas, the ocean. And keep your ears and eyes open for recommendations to the perfect tapas bar or a vineyard looking for workers to get their hands grape-stained. There are opportunities and extraordinary events and moments everywhere. Keep sniffing! Talk to people, watch documentaries, read guides if you'd like before you go. Once you're there, your senses - all six of them - will take you much farther than anyone's advice could.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The woes and wonders of the Schengen Agreement

Some of the more divine residents of Europe's Schengen territory.

Reader Annalis asked this concise question: How long can you stay in France? In the grand tradition of short questions, it requires a long, meaty response. This one has a lot to do with the Schengen Agreement.

I briefly touched on this subject in my last post. It is a beast of a topic, and one for which travelers to Europe have a lot to be thankful for, and maybe a thing or two to loathe. In spite of its importance, neither Matt nor I realized that the Schengen Agreement existed until Valentines Day of last year, which was at least two months after we had started planning our trip. It threw a pretty big wrench into our itinerary, and while lemonade was definitely made from those lemons, it was an inconvenience that this information will hopefully help you to avoid!

The Schengen Agreement currently involves 25 European states. Those countries are: Austria, Belgium, The Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, The Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, The Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.The agreement, a treaty that originated in 1985, allows for free travel within those member states. I can attest to the fantastic ease of border crossings that exists on the continent now - last March, Matt and I hitchhiked into France from Spain and didn't have to answer to anybody - quite a change from our experiences with US border control! Also, if you are an American, Canadian, Australian, New Zealander, or member of various other select countries, you do not have to have a visa while traveling to or within the Schengen territory - a big plus. (To see whether or not you need a visa to travel to the countries within Schengen territory, you may go to this site or check in with your nearest European consulate.

The only problem with the agreement is that it mandates that a visitor may only spend 90 of 180 days within the Schengen territory. To spend more than 180 days, you'll have to apply for a visa, which according to involves "a heavy inquisition and mountains of red tape."

This means that if you are planning an eight month to trip to Europe (as Matt and I were), and would like to spend time in Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany (as we were), you will have to break that time up as such: Your first 90 days may be spent in the aforementioned countries, and then you will have to leave for another 90 days to spend in European countries that are not covered by the Schengen Agreement - Bulgaria, Cyprus, Ireland, Romania and the United Kingdom. Of course, you could also look into visiting African, Asian, or Middle-Eastern countries! You may then reenter the Schengen territory, but only after those 90 days have passed.

To illustrate this further, I will rehash how Matt and I spent our eight months in Europe. Though we had to make some major changes in our itinerary, as you will see we still managed to make quite a few friends during our travels. For our first 90 days (mid-March through the beginning of June), we traveled through...




and Italy.

Then we ferried over to
England, where we actually had got our passports stamped for six months, and visited with a good friend for a few days, before taking another ferry to

Ireland, where we stayed through September.

We then returned to the continent, and spent the bulk of our last sixty days in France, though we also visited Holland (The Netherlands), and Belgium, before flying out of Spain.

This equates to 90 days in the Schengen territory + (roughly) 90 days in Ireland and the UK + 60 days Schengen, equalling about 240 days altogether. This was done within completely legal parameters, which was comforting when faced with the possible consequences of deportation or future travel restrictions which may be imposed if you are found to ignore this agreement.

And so, though things are different from how they used to be (I have talked with people that visited Europe in the days where the 90-day limit still existed, though you could leave France on a Thursday and walk back in on a Friday, and find your 90 days completely replenished), it seems like the treaty has made Europe a much easier continent to travel in.