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.

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27 Responses to Three personal lessons from my European trip

  1. Sid November 7, 2018 at 5:27 PM #

    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!

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