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WHY do you want to go?

If you expect to just take off and have an excellent time, you might just pull it off, or you might have a rude awakening. Make sure you are clear on your interests and desires.

Start at the library or bookstore, thumbing through the guidebooks to get a general sense of what there is to see and do. Most libraries have video collections, so check out any with background on key countries you wish to visit.

Think about your expectations and attitudes and make sure you're being realistic and reasonable. Do you want to explore the history? Meet the people? View scenes and sights? Party? Do you want to go just because everyone else is going? Get laid? Get drunk? Get a tan?

Fortunately, Europe can meet the expectations of a wide variety of travelers and tourists. Still, I've seen enough long faces to know unrealistic expectations are the biggest cause of travel stress. Expect to jettison parts of your itinerary, plan on crappy weather and low energy, know that you will lose some gear or have stuff stolen. It will make for good stories, some day.

Then there is the whole "Are they going to hate my nationality?" thing for Americans. It was pretty bad during the Reagan years but of course these days Americans really catch hell from the Bush-haters (that would be about 98.5 percent of the world's population). Still, most Europeans, especially those in the west, have enough exposure tourists and usually take each international traveler on his or her own merits. Usually.

On the other hand there is the Canadian thing. No matter where you go, everyone seems to love Canadians. Not like the Canadians don't know it, with their huge maple leaf flags plastered on their baggage, so they won't be mistaken for Americans. Admittedly they are usually a loveable lot, but where this universal affection comes from is anyone's guess. But if you are not Canadian don't go and tack on the maple leaf in hopes of getting treated better. If you are an American and want a flag, do your state flag. Aussies and Kiwis are fine showing their colors, although most won't be able to tell the difference. ("Oh, right, the Kiwis have red stars...")

Be that as it may, go with an open mind, flexibility, a realistic schedule, and a willingness to adjust old habits to a new environment. Remember that even though some of the surroundings seem familiar, these are different countries, and the people will be going about their daily lives as you tromp through. It is up to you to adjust to their way of life. It puzzles me why people who expect everything to be just like back home go to Europe in the first place.

The most important rule of thumb among travelers sounds simple but implies a great deal: Expect The Unexpected.

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