Notes on Tour in Europe

Recently I did a big tour around Europe – 8 weeks, 8 countries, 24 presentations and workshops (I actually visited 11 countries, but some presentations never really materialized and/or got cancelled).

In many ways planning this tour was very different than what I am accustomed to… so I thought I would add this post to share some new lessons I have learned.  For example, you will find observations on public transportation, minimum necessary gear, and international shipping, topics definitely not covered in the previous articles.

The biggest lesson, and most relevant to the preceding lessons – Booking a tour from another country/hemisphere makes that whole “lots of phone time” part I was emphasizing very difficult!  I could neither afford the international connection charges nor get people on the line at a reasonable hour.  I had a couple of skype connections work out well, but most of the early booking work was done entirely by email.  This brought expected challenges, such as inefficient communication, occasional confusion and missed connections, and generally much longer times where I was just sitting around biting my fingernails waiting for someone to get back to me.  Almost all of my tour stops were *not* confirmed on the day I flew to Barcelona to give my first presentation, which is exactly what I try to avoid!  I didnt lose heart, though – I just picked up a local SIM card asap, and started the phone calling the very next day.  It was amazing how quickly things fell into place once our communication technology changed.

Another crucial piece of technology was missing too.  I did not have my trusty truck to get me from place to place, and what a difference that made!  Fortunately, there were excellent and usually affordable mass transit options between most of the places I went.  I was not able to move nearly as fast, or at the hour I preferred, which is the reason that I was only able to fit 24 gigs into 8 weeks, I usually had to keep 1-3 travel days between each gig.

I really like travelling by train, so for the most part I felt like this worked out well.  But it was not easy to carry everything on my back between trains and buses.  I had two military-style duffel bags, like this:

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I wish I had photos of me trundling along with both of these, I am sure they would be amusing… believe me, I got plenty of strange looks, or angry looks when getting on the crowded Paris metro.

The one with back-pack straps (right) contained a medium-size tube of bulk posters (up to 80 when full), two large banners, and a small backpack containing my clothes and toothbrush and whatnot, which also came in very handy once I was at my destination and just needed to get around like a normal person.  The other had no straps but was bigger (left).  I had to carry it in my arms (I figured a cart would just be useless extra weight half the time) but usually that was ok because it was relatively light – it contained only a simple sonotube contraption which opened easily to reveal neatly organized rolled posters, patches, and etc, and could be turned into a table display in approx 60 seconds.  My table usually looked something like this:

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Not the neatest or cutest, I suppose, but very efficient for travelling because I had bags instead of baskets and therefore never wasted any space.  And I had all the most important supplementary items, including example posters, tiny charming donation jar, contact booklet, & signage – I used little staple-bound notepads for the signage so that I could have multiple pages for multiple currencies, and so that they could easily perch on the lip of each bag.

When I had a full load of posters, I was at the very limit of my ability to carry it all – there were a few moments when I really wished I had a cart.  When I had less, it was not so bad, for me at least.  I probably would not recommend this to anyone else, unless you are feeling very strong and/or masochistic.  But with two people this arrangement works out pretty sweet!  Most places I went, I was able to get someone to pick me up and drop me off at the station, so I was not always lugging the stuff alone.

Another important consideration was planning ahead for language barriers.  Most presentations required sentence-by-sentence interpretation.  With a good interpreter, this is not a big deal, but it does change the presentation significantly – I only got to say half as much!  So I needed to do quite a lot of adjusting.

And there was the simple fact that almost everywhere I was intending on going was new territory for me!  I did not really know who or what to expect, and that made me nervous.

I knew these things above would be issues, so I tried to be prepared for them in advance, and communicate with my hosts about them.  So I mostly used the same standardized messages I mentioned earlier, with only small changes, but I added these 3 questions into at the very beginning.  Making these things understood early proved to be crucial.

  1. Can I get some helping hands/guidance from someone while I am in the city?  I will be arriving with two very large packages full of posters (hopefully a lot lighter after I leave!)  Also, because my time is so limited, I would prefer to avoid wasting any of it by not knowing which train to take, where to find things, etc.
  2. Will translation be necessary if I speak/facilitate in English, and if so, can you find someone to provide that?
  3. Please describe briefly the space where you are hosting the presentation, and who you expect to show up (including interests, background, approximate numbers, anything else you think will help me to present better)

One of the most difficult things to plan for was the rate at which posters would be distributed, and setting up regular shipments so that I would never run out or have too many at once.  I asked Matt to send a total of 5 different shipments to 5 different countries.  2 got held in customs for weeks, 1 never arrived at all.  That is not a very good delivery rate.  Fortunately, I over-estimated what I needed, and got a few from the Uter crew at the start.  I had to be a little stingy sometimes, and ran out completely before one of my biggest shows (bummer), and I had to change plans to stay a few extra days in Copenhagen to receive my last package, which then resulted in my London show getting cancelled… but the rest of the time it was ok.  Of course, I would have liked it much more if I had too many, and the option to give lots away.

Lesson learned: in the future I will ask that packages be scheduled to arrive at least one month in advance.

I almost never had any plastic wrap, due to a little misunderstanding and the missing packages.   That is why all the posters in the previous photo are wrapped in newspaper (two sheets, overlapped and carefully tucked into the ends).  I mention this only to remind folks not to get easily discouraged when things dont quite come together – there is always some kind of solution, and though it may not be the ideal, it may be easier than you think.  Not one single person complained about the posters being wrapped in paper (though I did have to spend more time helping people pick out the one they wanted).

So day by day, through many cities and countries I rolled like this, up until the last few days… my sonotube contraption was great when I was carrying it myself, but it didnt survive the plane journey to London.  Good thing that was my last stop!  Since my show there was cancelled, I left all these extra posters to Sophie.

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Follow-up was exactly the same – when I got back to the States I sent a thank you email to every host and helper, and I entered all the contact info into my spreadsheet.  So now I have about 120+ potential future hosts, should I or any other bee get the opportunity to tour through Europe again.

One more minor random note, something I noticed when I got back to the states:  I had a significant amount of funds leakage every time I crossed a border… at least $100 basically disappeared in little bits due to currency exchanges (or non-exchangeable currencies), leftover SIM credit, random charges at airports, etc.  Related, it is also difficult to plan ahead for customs charges, they are super-arbitrary and can be pretty hefty too.  Expenses, generally, were much higher than normal, mostly due to transportation costs, but these other small things will add up too.

Well, I think that is all in terms of planning lessons… I have plenty of other stories, but I will put those elsewhere.  Thanks for reading!

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