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Wheeler: In Europe, mayo mayhem, heroic hips and Donald Trump

Only one thing could be worse than mechanics finding a fuel leak after hundreds of people have already wrestled their suitcases, snacks and security-weary surliness onto a jetliner and settled into ridiculous seats for an eight-hour flight across the ocean:

Their not finding it.

That’s the lesson in perspective that kicked off my recent once-in-a-lifetime trip to Europe with my best friend, her husband and my guy.

Clearly, having to disembark like deflated cattle and spend 72 minutes talking to an airline representative only to have to go home and travel the next day was somewhat preferable to running out of gas over the Atlantic, even with an added stop and a six-hour layover in Chicago.

Perspective, in fact, like the wine and pasta, was plentiful on our 17-day journey to Italy and France. I also learned:

1 Large hips can save the day. At a stop in Madrid’s airport on the way to Venice, the doors to a train that would take us to a far-flung terminal were closing with two of us still on the escalator outside. “I’m not leaving here without them,” I shouted as I jutted my hip into the opening until my friends were safely inside. Forced at our stop to sprint to the gate, we realized that, without my heroic hips, we wouldn’t have made it in time.

2 Our national irritation – restaurant tipping – has its plus side. Initially, not having to add 20 percent to every bill was nice. Then we realized that meant there was only one seemingly well-paid waiter per 37 tables who had no incentive whatsoever to take our mangled order. Wait. Polpo is octopus? I meant pollo. Pollo! Chicken!

3 No wonder Europeans drink alcohol with everything. Asking for water at a restaurant meant buying a fancy bottle of it, so we reasoned that we might as well spring for water made with grapes or barley and hops instead. Although:

4 Beer is for barbarians. Because Italy and France are wine countries, every restaurant has only three kinds of beer that come in three sizes: huge, absurdly huge and bigger than my head, though perhaps this is an unfair measurement tool because I have a peanut head.

5 If it looks like a deer, it’s probably a deer. When we asked an English-leery Italian college student what kind of sandwich he was eating so we could order it, he made antler gestures. He couldn’t mean deer, could he? Bull! Sheep! Goat! We kept guessing. Finally, out came the cellphone with its search engine. Deer, he eventually said. Deer salami. I had the pepperoni.

6 Pigeon poop is easier to remove if dry. We have empirical proof of this after one of us who got pooped on tried to wipe it from her shirt immediately and the other poop-ee let his dry.

7 Squats are a necessary pre-Europe workout. You didn’t expect so many toilets to be seatless? Silly you. And “Find the Flusher” is a fun European game. Pull the chain here! Push the lever there! Find the button hidden on a wall everywhere else!

8 Buildings can last more than 40 years. In a cellar that dated from 80 BC, I drank wine. In a house built in the 13th century, I had lunch. In an 800-year-old hotel, I slept well. Yet so many of our schools are falling down.

9 Trains are wonderful things. Cheaply and easily, I rode from Venice to Cinque Terre to Pisa to Siena to Rome. Where’s my train to Asheville?

10 Breakfast might as well be called breadfest. Would you like a pastry with that croissant?

11 Grasso is Italian for fat. This is a word you learn when your companion asks an Italian tour guide why he can’t find any tacky souvenir T-shirts in 2X.

12 Graisse is French for fat. A search through six square blocks of Paris also netted no plus-size T-shirts, not to mention the elevator in our beautiful but old hotel refused to take the two of us and our luggage up five stories. One of us had to get out and walk. It wasn’t me.

13 There’s a reason people hate the French. One waiter got so angered by my pointing to the menu instead of trying to pronounce my order that he spit out a “Non!” when Mr. Graisse asked for a sandwich with no mayonnaise. He can’t have it without mayo? “Non!” Fine. He’ll have the fish and chips. He’ll see your 800 calories and raise you 1,000 more.

14 There’s a reason people hate Americans. At a restaurant in Siena, we watched as four other Americans ordered fish, demanded that it come with no eyes and bones and then forced the sweet waitress to stand at their table and dissect away the offending parts after something clearly got lost in translation. These were also people who ordered a carafe of wine and then bent their heads to peer at their glasses to make sure the pourer gave everyone the same amount. No, we’re Canadian, thanks for asking. 

15 Security can be scary. On patrol at several sites were serious men carrying machine guns. Machine guns! As we sat outside a Parisian cafe, sirens sounded and SWAT teams screamed by with regularity. In the age of terrorism, this is their daily reality. I’m thankful it’s not mine.

16 Donald Trump can be scary. Non-Americans are paying keen attention to our presidential race, and Trump supporters were as scarce as 2X T-shirts. One Canadian said she just could not imagine casting her vote, her “prized possession,” for someone so awful.

A vote is a treasure whose value lies only in giving it away. For many Americans, it seems, having to choose a recipient between our likely presidential nominees is starting to feel remarkably like the beginning of my dream vacation.

Which one is the disaster who makes you appreciate the annoyance is the question.

Wheeler: 919-829-4825,, @burgetta_nando