Traveling the world, learning languages, and immersing myself in new cultures.

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All my travels, encounters with language and culture, and of course, learning the language.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Spanish Road Trip: Christmas 2014

Synopsis: My parents are flying out a few days before Christmas so we can tour around Spain a bit and then head back to Pamplona for Christmas with my new Spanish family. I plan to do all the driving so my parents can enjoy the scenery and relax.

Road trip!

Day 1: I head out at 5 in the morning to Madrid, and it's actually nice since no one else is on the road. Super foggy and dark, though. As the sun finally comes up around 8:15, I can finally see the beautiful Spanish countryside in the Sierra Guadarrama, and the sunlight helps wake me up.

Meet my parents at the airport in Madrid and we sit and talk a bit over coffee and catch up. Hop in the car and while heading down to Granada, we stop at Toledo on the way. We park in a garage and my mother and I take the elevator while my dad walks up the stairs. I tell him if anyone talks to him in Spanish to say "no entiendo". He walks away practicing aloud "Nintendo". 

As soon as we are out the parking garage, we grab some food. We eat at Bű Terraza and it is delicious. Walk around the city a bit and it's very foggy, but still nice. Catedral Primada Santa María de Toledo towers over the city, but again the fog makes it hard to see.

Drive on to Granada and I'm glad my parents are there to talk to because there is nothing between Toledo and Granada, except some beautiful mountains right before Granada. Walk around the city a bit and stop to eat at La Terraza, by the Granada Cathedral, and the food is decent, except the paella. Then we head to our hotel that we found, and decided on, while eating dinner.

Thoughts: So great to see my parents again. It's been a full year since we last hung out and we have so much to catch up on. My dad is funny at languages and when trying to imitate me saying "hasta luego" he says "yoyo". Turns out we got a pretty good hotel, Gran Luna De Granada (tripadvisor review), at 77€ for 3 people, plus cheap parking and breakfast and Wi-Fi included. My parents also gifted me an iPhone 6 for Christmas, that they let me open tonight. So happy! Today I drove 8 hours.

Picking my parents up at the Madrid airport

Monday, December 15, 2014

6 Ways This American Travels Without Spending A Lot of Money

Throwback to Czech Republic in 2010
I've been asked how I am able to travel so frequently. I do not make a lot of money, but I take at least 1 trip per month. I have had some trips that were outrageously expensive, and some that were so cheap it seems unreal. This post is about the latter, and what I do to make it happen.

Obviously, the cheaper trips I have taken have been to countries with lower costs of living, so that helps, but also having a frugal mindset discourages frivolous spending, without diminishing the fun of the trip. The main key is to make a travel budget. I decide how much money I am willing to spend while on vacation, and I stick to it. This is easier said than done, so here are some tricks on how I do it. Here are 6 ways this American travels without spending a lot of money.


Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Castillo de Javier and Monasterio de Leyre

Synopsis: Virginia and Leo recommend a day trip to Castillo de Javier and Monestario de Leyre. Arthuur and Rodrigo are at their grandparents' house so it's just Gonzalo with us.

We head first to Monastery De Leyre. Leo and I pay 2,75€ for the crypt, which takes like 28 seconds to see. But, Leo and I are goofing off and taking pics and having fun. We walk around the monastery grounds for free, so Virginia and Gonzalo join us. The monastery is surrounded by breathtaking scenery and mountains and a lake. We walk into the church part, and a mass is in progress. After seeing the whole monastery in about 45 minutes, we leave to go to Castillo de Javier.

First thing you see when walking to the castle from the parking lot is a spectacular view. It's like a miniature castle, maybe the smallest castle I've been to in Europe. It's 2,75€ to enter the castle, which is effectively a museum dedicated to San Francisco Javier. Upon entering are a series of dioramas depicting Saint Javier's life. He was a missionary to India, Japan and China, so there are also some Oriental artifacts inside. Apparently, he was the first missionary to Japan. We make our way up to the top of the castle and go outside, and we're greeted by biting cold wind despite beautiful sunny weather. After ascending to the top, you simply descend and walk out the castle, but not before stopping by the small jail by the entrance, that shows just how cruel prisoners were treated back in the day.

We arrived at noon and there was no line. We leave around 13h and there are twenty people in line. Head to the church next door with mass going on and notice the same architecture from monastery.

On the drive home I can see the signs for Camino de Santiago, the pilgrimage some people taking in the warmer months, and it seems like it would be pretty cool. We stop in the city of Lombiers and eat at a cafe. We spend more time waiting for the waitress to bring us and then pick up the check, than we did waiting for the food. 

Approaching the city of Javier

The Monastery

Day trippers!


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Road Trip from Belgium to Spain

Synopsis: I have found a way to immerse myself into the Spanish language and culture. I finally got an au pair visa (read about the chronicle here) and I'll teach some English and French to the Spaniards. I am taking my car with me, so that means a road trip is at hand! Will and I are going to take three days and enjoy some of the French countryside on the way there.

Where the map goes, we will follow

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Head out on the road with Will, the best driver this side of Peru, and myself, the best non contributor in the galaxy. I accidentally select "avoid tolls" on the GPS and we add two hours to our drive time and we are off in the farmlands of France.

Finally, we arrive in Lyon, right at rush hour. After driving around our hotel a few times, we find free street parking, then walk to our hotel. Since our hotel is on the main strip we walk around and hit Place Bellecour. Other than a giant ferris wheel, a statue, and a closed tourist info center, there isn't much there. We grab some food and then walk around the Traboules of Old Lyon, and walk forever uphill to the Basilica Fourvière. After all that walking, we are hungry again and end up at a Mexican restaurant. Afterward, we go to place Hotel De Ville, but it's dead so we head back to the hotel.

Thoughts: After watching Will drive for six hours, and then walking for several more hours around the city, I was exhausted. But not as exhausted as Will, who fell asleep as we walked into the hotel. Lyon is beautiful by night and quite spread out. We stopped at a hostel to ask about pub crawls and organized night tours and there doesn't seem to be either. Dommage.

On the open road

This is what it looks like when you are not on the toll road


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Au Pairin' with the TMax (The Spanish Visa Process)

How This American Became An Au Pair (The Spanish Visa Process)

The Who, What, Where, and When

I, "The TMax", have decided to become an au pair and I'll be moving to Pamplona, Spain, in the Navarra province by the end of the year.

The How (the long part)

BLUF: I spent almost 600€ and waited 2 months processing time for my visa.


Thursday, November 27, 2014

Where are you from?

This is one of the hardest questions I get while living and traveling in Europe. I usually just say USA but that begs the follow-up question, "Which state"? Then I say South Carolina, since that's where I'm registered to vote and I have a driver's license from there. But where am I really from?

The reason that is tough to answer is because I am a military brat and I don't really understand the question. It actually has many connotations and, therefore, different answers for me. Some people are born in a city, grow up there, go to college there, and then work there. Their whole life is in that one city/state/country. No matter how you look at it, they are from that place.

I want to make it clear that this is not a sob story. I absolutely enjoyed my childhood and wouldn't do it any other way. The following scenarios are my attempt to answer where I am from. Which do you think is the best response for me?

Where were you born?

I was born in Fairfield, California, in the United States of America, and lived there until I was 4 and never returned. I guess this is what gives me the right to call myself an American.

Where did you go to school while growing up?

I went to 12 different schools from kindergarten to high school, in 9 different cities and 6 different states. I couldn't even narrow it down to a region of the country, as I was in every corner of the U.S., including Guam for two years.

Where do you live now?

This question brings to mind three tour guides from my travels who were from other locations, but claimed the city I was visiting: Jen the Brit claiming Edinburgh, Scotland; Laura the American claiming Amsterdam, the Netherlands; and Viviana the Columbian claiming Madrid, Spain. I currently live in Pamplona, Spain so what does that make me?

Where do your parents live?

I have military parents, so it is thanks to them that we moved every two to three years. They are still serving in the military, and therefore still moving around. They both have hometowns, but neither of which I identify with.

Where have you spent the longest amount of time in your life?

If this question is the determinant of where I'm from, then I'm officially Belgian. Though I have learned quite a bit of Bruxellois slang, and I'm almost fluent in French, I don't think I have the paperwork to back up this claim.

Where do you say you're from?

This is pretty much how I've been operating, and I say I'm from South Carolina. There, I went to college for two years, and stayed for a little over a year after school. It was really hot in this state for a very long time, so I've sweated enough to claim it.

So now that you understand my conundrum, which do you think is the best response for me, to the question "Where are you from"? What other responses could I give? Feel free to let me know in the comments below or on Facebook.

Fun reads for people who don't know what a military brat is, and, for those who can they can relate.
25 Signs You Grew Up As A Military Brat and 13 Signs That You Grew Up In A Military Family.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Oslo, Norway: Naked Statues and Supermodels

The 40th country I've visited!!!

A little over 25% of the world. Almost there!

Synopsis: Norway has thousands of square kilometers of nature and great outdoors to explore. So, two of my friends and I are going to look at the city-life of Oslo, deemed by several Norwegians I work with, as unrepresentative of Norway. And we will base all of our opinions of Norway on our three-day experience in this city, tussen takk.

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Will, Steve, and I drive to Charleroi and park in P1. 59€ for 3 days is not bad at all. Chillin’ at the airport and then board our flight. The flight isn't too crowded, so we all sit together in the exit row. Land in Oslo just before 10pm. I am asked by border control if I speak French and I end up assisting a lady who doesn't speak English and a customs agent who doesn't speak French, with passing through customs. (pat myself on the back)

We catch the Rygge-Ekspressens to Oslo’s central station, where we grab some food and head to the hotel to drop off our stuff. We go out and walk down Karl Johans gate and the surrounding area. The night life in Oslo is in full force and there are costume parties still going on from Halloween, evident by the superheros, ghouls, and sexy-anything-women-want-to-be costumes, of people in line.

Thoughts: There are black people everywhere, very contrary to my experience in Riga. I didn't even see this many when I was in Morocco, and that's in Africa! Curiosity made me google it, and couldn't find much except thisOnly thing I saw more than black people were Narvesens, a local convenient store. McDonald's, 7/11, and Burger King are also plentiful, and still open at 2:30am.

Ready to start our adventure

Free ketchup!!! (so uncommon)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

12 Doses of Culture Shock for This American in Europe

When you move away from your country and customs and social norms, you expect a bit of culture shock in whatever new country you are visiting. Sometimes that culture shock is an amazing new experience and you wish your home country would adopt that custom. Sometimes the culture shock is so offensive that you can't possibly condone it and you try to avoid it while in the new country. And other times, the culture shock is just what it is, you get over it, and over time you just learn to accept it as a normal way of life.
Photo credit:

Here are 12 doses of culture shock this American has received while living and traveling around Europe. Of course, being an American, most of these revolve around food.

Carbonated ice tea (canned/bottled)

When I moved to Germany, I ordered an ice tea at a restaurant. I was confused when I saw bubbles in my drink, and once I drank it, I realized that it was carbonated. Fluke? No. Traveling around Europe I've discovered many of the countries serve ice tea, exclusively with bubbles. There is no ice tea "without gas" option. However, in the supermarkets and stores you can get regular ice tea.

When I was in the US, I never even knew it was possible to carbonate tea. After living in South Carolina for several years, I became a sweet tea fanatic. The method of making it is simply filling the container half full with sugar, and then adding tea. Sometimes people add lemon, and sometimes people need an insulin shot. But, in all my years of sweet tea-in', I never had it carbonated.

Misleading "American" adjective

While playing basketball in southern Belgium, some teammates of mine invited me over for some food. They assumed that the American would want filet americain. So, I say sure, and dig in. After the first bite, I am confused as to what I'm eating and why it doesn't taste as delicious as I hoped. Well, that's because filet americain is raw American beef. Raw, as in uncooked. Not sure why it's raw, as I've never met an American who eats their beef that way, but that's what it is.
Another time, while eating at a restaurant, I know to avoid the filet americain and I get something else. After a delicious meal, the waiter asks if I want coffee and I agree, but he asks what kind. There is more than one kind? Looking at the menu, I decide, why not, let's try a café americano. That is straight black coffee. Milk and sugar aren't even offered along side. Unless you work at a missile silo in South Dakota, most Americans put cream, milk, sugar, and other things, with just a smidge of coffee.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

15 Things This American Notices While Driving in Europe

I've driven all around Europe, but mostly Belgium, Germany, France, and the Netherlands, and there are some things that I've gotten used to, and some things that still just don't sit quite right with me. Most of it is not really bad or good, but just interesting and different. So, without commenting on driving in the U.K., which will take its own article, here are 15 things this American notices while driving in Europe.

1. Higher speed limits

It didn't really click until I went back to the U.S. and I was in Maryland, on a very nice 13 lane interstate highway (kidding, it was only 6 lanes), there were no potholes and the road was well maintained, but the speed limit was 88kph (55mph).  Most local highways in the EU are between 90 and 100kph (56 - 62mph) and on the major highways its 120 or 130kph (74 - 81mph). In southern Belgium, you are cruisin' at 120kph and dodging huge craters in the road. On the world famous autobahn in Germany, there are many sections where the speed limit is "as fast as your car can go", inviting the 200kph+ (124mph) crew out to play. There are few things more emasculating than a smart car flying by you on the autobahn. In most EU countries, the neighborhood speed limit is 60kph, which is almost as fast as some U.S. highway speeds.

2. Lane courtesy, everyone move to right

In the U.S. we can pass on either side. Here, people must pass on the left. It's an unwritten law, and the guy doing 190kph behind you will ride all the way up to your bumper and flash you and have his left blinker on in the left lane, encouraging you to get over to the right. However, most people know to get over before all that happens, and it actually works quite nicely. When I'm in a rush, I know I can jump in the left lane and everyone in front of me going slow will get out of my way.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Madrid, Spain: Una Segunda Vez

Synopsis: Making my second trip to Madrid. The Spanish Air Force is hosting an air show this weekend, in celebration of Spain's National Day. We call it Columbus Day in the US, and the two holidays have the same origin and have changed over the years. I will meet up with some friends down there and celebrate the holidays.

Trip Overview:
Day 1:  Early ride from a friend to the metro, then to the bus station, then to the airport. Hop on the plane and someone next to me is farting on the flight. Not like 10 or 15 times, but the whole two hours! Still would take that over cigarette smoke, anyday. 

Metro to city center and I walk to Cat's hostel, which was recommended by Aga, who I met in the hostel in Riga. Cat's hostel is much bigger than the one I stayed at in Riga. Weather is decent and once I step into the hostel, a torrential rain ensues. I have a bit of a headache, so I hang out for a bit and relax.

Once the rain calms to a slow drizzle, I walk down to the Prado Museum for a visit. It is pretty impressive, yet smaller than the Louvre. I get an audio guide which has lots of interesting info but at times is a bit long winded. I walk both of the main floors. The paintings are quite interesting, from noble dwarfs to hermaphrodite statues to obese children to only two painting with black people in them (outside the wise men paintings) to only 10% of the paintings with women who aren't naked. Most interesting artist I see is Hieronymous Bosch and his "Garden of Desires" painting. I, a non-art lover, spend over three hours in the museum. 

Meet Aga at Cat's hostel and we go out for dinner and discuss how she got a teaching job in Spain. Afterward, she walks me back to the hostel. I decide to go grab some snacks for tomorrow and walk over to a nearby Carrefour Express. I walk back to the hostel and join the 10 other people in the Moroccan themed courtyard, and surf the web. Not long after, my headache from earlier starts to kick back in and I decide to call it a night. Of course, staying in a hostel, people come into the large rooms throughout the night, making as much noise as humanly possible; but it doesn't bother me much. I sleep in a 19-person room, and it's in the attic, so despite the incessant rain, it is hot. 

Thoughts: Airplane taxied for at least 15 minutes once we landed in Madrid. Almost spent as much time taxing as we did flying. Walking through the Prado museum, thoughts on art that we "regard" from back in the day:

  • art dudes (and probably all dudes in that time period) were marrying girls up to 6 years under 18, and it was acceptable. 
  • they painted so many naked women, but our culture is now overly sexual?
  • everyone painted Christ. So clearly the painters were trying to make some money, in addition to artistic expression. 
  • painting naked children was clearly not an issue in that time.
  • "art" is pretty much whatever people are willing to pay for, like music and antiques.

The Moroccan-themed courtyard in Cat's Hostel
So few people come out to play in the rain
Wish I was a student again, so I didn't have to pay full price for everything

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Edinburgh, Scotland: Lochs, Glens, and Fried Mars Bars

Synopsis: I was planning to go to Scotland last year, but since I signed with a basketball team, I was not able to travel during the season. Now, I've bought my ticket, and Staša and I are going. Hmmm, didn't realize they were voting for independence on the 18th... (spoiler alert: they voted against it.)

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Early morning bus to Charleroi and then RyanAir flight to Edinburgh. Of course, it's misty and drizzling. AirLink bus with free wifi into town. I see quite a bit of uniformity in the housing, like there were only 3 options to pick from, on the way to city center. Stop for lunch and then walk around a bit until our 2pm free walking tour, starting at the Royal Mile.

The free tour, with Jen from Norfolk, is not "naff" at all. She is an excellent and lively tour guide. I wrote a very nice review for her on TripAdvisor. After the tour, head to hotel to check in, and then back out for dinner. Eating some haggis with my meal makes me feel like a real Scotsman. 

We walk around the city a bit until our 9pm "Dark Side" tour, also starting at the Royal Mile. The weather is better than this morning. Sabela, from Spain, is our "Dark Side" tour guide, giving us the gruesome/not so nice history of Edinburgh. The tour is pretty good, and I learn about the inspiration of "A Christmas Story" and Ebeneezer Scrooge - Dickens was inspired by misreading a tombstone in a graveyard in Edinburgh. Great way to end the night. 

Thoughts: It's usually the signs and language that make me feel like I'm in a foreign country, but not in the UK - it's driving on the left. A few interesting observations:

  • There are a lot of Asians in Scotland. 
  • A "close" (pronounced like dose) are small walkways between buildings, that lead to interesting courtyards and streets. 
  • Whisky with no "e" is Scottish. 
  • Cashmere and sheep wool sold everywhere. 
  • Friendly and good customer service - I can't be in Europe anymore! 
  • Smokers everywhere - ok I'm back in Europe.
  • Many Spanish speaking tours around the city. 
  • Free cash machines are ATMs, not free money.
  • "$h!t-faced drunk" etymology - In olden days, bars closed at 10pm, the same time as the nightly waste bucket thrown from the windows, but they had to signal they were throwing out the waste and when they yelled, drunk people leaving bars would look up and...
  • "Graveyard shift" etymology - Body snatching was lucrative and to prevent loved ones from being stolen, they would sit on graves for two weeks, after which the body is too decomposed to sell. 

Front row seats on RyanAir

Turned my $500 into £13. Darn exchange rate


Sunday, September 14, 2014

12 Things This American Can't Stand Living in Europe

First, I know Americans are quick to lump every country in Europe together, despite each country's distinct culture, language, and traditions. After traveling around the various countries, I have found some commonalities that I would say are relevant to Europe as a whole, although I've pointed out the biggest offenders.

As a foreigner in Europe, I do my best to be open-minded and try to avoid ethnocentricism as much as possible. But, I have certain ideas of how things should be, and based on my experiences living and traveling around Europe, some of my ideals clash with the reality here. Below is a list of some of those things I just cannot bring myself to accept as normal way of life. They are not so grave to make me want to leave, but they are really annoying. Behold, the 12 things this American can't stand living in Europe, in no particular order.

1. Smoking 

Biggest culprit: Non-EU countries (but still everyone) 

People smoke in the U.S., but there is a very clear distinction of where they can smoke. Also, Americans don't seem to smoke so much socially, in public settings, because there is still a bit of negative stigma with smoking. In Europe, there is no stigma. People who don't smoke now, probably did before, and even if they didn't, the smoke doesn't bother them. You can see kids and teens, adults and the elderly, here smoking in public and no one bats an eye. It's not wrong or right, it's just normal to them.

The EU has recently banned smoking in all public places indoors (cafes, restaurants, libraries), which I saw go into effect in Belgium, in 2011. It was a slow reception, and in some places, they still don't adhere to the law. But, for the most part, people comply. One issue is, in Europe, outdoor cafes are really popular, as they should be since they are awesome (especially since we only have 12 nice days a year in Brussels). But nothing ruins my outdoor cafe experience like the smell of smoke. Call me hypersensitive or whatever, but I can smell smoke 500m away, and it will bother me!

In the non-EU countries, smoking is everywhere! On my trip to Serbia, I got sick and my non-smoker friend who is used to smoke, caught the flu because of over exposure to smoke. In the 30 and under crowd, it seems like 9 out of 10 smoke. On several of the basketball teams I played for, players on the team smoked, and some of them at halftime!

2. Paying to use the toilet 

Biggest culprit: Bars, clubs, truck stops, and public places in Western Europe 

A basic human function, using the restroom, has been deemed business worthy and capitalizable in many countries in western Europe (i.e. Germany and west of it). Truck stops, public parks, movie theaters, and even the cafe which I am already patronizing, often have a fee to use the restrooms, usually no more than 0.50€. It is usually labeled something like, "to keep the toilets clean", but many times, it will be the nastiest toilet you've ever seen. How ridiculous is that!?

Some restaurants or cafes will allow the toilets free for customers, but require passers-by to pay the fee. And there is always a little 90-year old lady there to allow/deny you access to the hallowed bathroom. I'd rather use the exhibitionist toilets for free!

Thursday, September 11, 2014

7 Reasons This American Loves Europe

The first American ever to love Europe, excluding all those other Americans who loved Europe first

TMax loves EuropeI have been living in Europe for the last six years, working, playing pro basketball, and traveling as much as I can. I have totally fallen in love with this continent. So much to see, so much to do, and so many cultures to embrace. I have now had the privilege of exploring many of the iconic and must-see major cities in Europe like Rome, Athens, London, and Paris; in addition to the equally exciting but less mainstream cities of Mostar, Ljubljana, Aix-en-Provence, and Brasov.

My European friends are amazed that I have no desire to return anytime soon to the U.S. (I've been offered to exchange passports many times). To them, the U.S. is the ultimate travel destination, but not for me. I've lived in 8 states, been to 49 states (not Michigan), Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, driven cross-country twice, plus visited Canada and Mexico many times. My North American resumé is pretty complete.

My American friends are confused as to what is so great about Europe (most of them have never been and a few have had trouble adapting to the difference in culture). I've adapted and I want to stay. I have a travel bucket list now, and I am aggressively pursuing a blackout bingo card of European countries. Here are the top 7 reasons I love living in Europe based on my experiences over the past six years:

1. It's still new for me

I have already been living in Europe for six years and have barely scratched the surface of what it has to offer. I've been to 32 of the 50ish (it's complicated) European countries, and many of those trips have only been to one or two cities in that country. If you have been to Spain, you will know that Barcelona is not much like Madrid, or in France, that Paris and Marseille have so many differences. Most of my trips are over long weekends, so I only spend a brief time in each country. That's not enough for me. I want to do it all. It's still too new to leave.

2. Europe is accessible from Europe

Sounds like nonsense, but flying back and forth from the states to any European country would be ridiculously expensive and time consuming. Thanks to the EU, all the borders are open now, removing the need to stop for passport control. I live in Brussels, Belgium and I can go two hours in any direction by car and be in a new country (in the U.S. it's likely you'd still be in the same state). It's not like a different state, or region, but a full blown different country, with a different language and culture. Even the people have their distinct appearances and mannerisms. Then, if I fly two hours, I'm darn near the edges of the continent! Not to mention that flights are fairly inexpensive, granted you are willing to travel light and lose some of the luxuries of traditional airlines. High speed trains are also reasonably priced (especially if you are under 26) and go to many great places. Believe it or not, hitch-hiking is still popular (mostly among the youth) and I've heard it to be effective. Plus, there are websites that help people connect and share a car ride to and from different places (BlaBlaCar). With a little bit of creativity, Europe is accessibly accessible.

3. The people are diverse and receptive to Americans

Again, two hours in any direction, and I'm encountering a new people. The mentality and customs of each country are so distinct and interesting. Europe is exposed to American culture via television and movies, so they know quite a bit about us (sometimes more than me), and when they meet me in person,  they are really excited (that may not be because I'm an American, but because I'm awesome). Especially in central and eastern Europe, where many more are fluent in English because they don't dub television and movies, they are friendly and curious as to why I'm here in Europe. They want to see if I am from the same place as their favorite actor or singer, and if people in the U.S. are as crazy, stupid, funny, exciting as on TV. Western Europe has more exposure to Americans, so we are not as special there. But, in all of Europe, if you have a genuine interest in their culture, they are more than happy to share it with you.

4. I like learning languages, and there are many to choose from here

I minored in French in college, so I now speak what is considered fluent French by American standards, but conversational in France/Belgium ("Hello, where is the bathroom?"). Every time I travel to a country, I look up the basics like "hello" and "please" and "thank you". The locals really appreciate when you try (even if you fail) and are much nicer to you than had you come at them with an inconsiderate anglophone attitude. After I butcher their language, they smile and correct me, then we proceed in English. 

Also, the standard for fluency in languages here is higher. In the U.S., if you know more than one sentence in a language, you are the Rosetta Stone incarnate, and you walk around saying your few lines like a linguist (Dexter's Lab). In Europe, you could be darn near fluent in English, yet be hesitant to speak it because it's not 100% perfect (super common in Germany).

5. I'm no foodie, but the food is good

Paella for Christmas
Paella for Christmas
Although McDonalds', KFC, and other American restaurants have made their way to Europe, it is still very easy to find a privately owned restaurant or cafe. Mom and pop stores, restaurants, and cafes are all over. And, believe it or not, food without additives and preservatives tastes good too! Each culture is so proud of their culinary specialities, and it is such a high compliment when a foreigner appreciates their dishes. Sometimes you have to watch out because "un americain" in Belgium is a raw beef sandwich and a "cafe americano" anywhere in Europe is straight black coffee. Not sure which American came over here and started those stereotypes, but I think they were just trying to be funny and it stuck (think french fries, which are actually Belgian). 

6. Common sense is assumed

Coming from the land of lawsuits, where there are signs and warnings on everything, it is refreshing to finally be able to use my common sense. In Europe there are many places that are dangerous or susceptible to something going wrong, and there are no signs and no warnings, so if you hurt yourself or cause damage, you are just an idiot and now people know.

I was in Copenhagen looking at the Little Mermaid statue and it was snowing and the statue is off shore, but accessible by several slippery rocks, with no handrail and nothing to prevent you from falling into the water or cracking your skull on the rocks, yet there were people lined up to walk out and get a picture with the statue. The mantra here is very much: If you are brave enough to try it, you get to live with the consequences, good or bad.

7. There is more to life than work

There are workaholics everywhere in the world, but it seems the U.S. is heavily populated with them, likely due to the capitalistic society and the American dream of getting out what you put into it. Many Americans never even take vacations. In Europe, a vacation, or holiday as they call it, is not a matter of if, but when and how long. Coffee breaks and extended lunches are not privileges, but rights. Most stores don't even open until 9am or 10am and still close by 8pm, plus you will surely see employees taking several smoke breaks throughout the day. In Italy and Spain, the shops close in the middle of the day for a "siesta" or "reposo", a break for a few hours so people can go home and have a long lunch with their families. As a devout culture-embracer, I do my best to emulate my European friends!

Work to live, not live to work

What do you think?

This list is based on my experiences and I'm curious if you agree of disagree. For the non-Europeans, what experiences you've had? For the Europeans, how do you feel about these? What do you like about the U.S. or other cultures? Thanks for reading!

Check out the 12 Things This American Can't Stand Living in Europe

(all images used in this post are from other sources and not my own)


Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Riga, Latvia: Lots of Firsts

...and people wonder why I love Europe!

Synopsis: "European Capital of Culture 2014" means that Riga is a must-see destination, and I am a must-see kind of guy. I had some friends who were going to come with me, but they bailed at the last minute, so I'll go by myself. I try to find a couchsurfing host but have no luck. So, I just go to the city and hope for the best. Maybe, I'll try a hostel for the first time ever in my entire life?

Supporting Cast: Since I mention some people by groups in this post, here is a quick who's who.

"Dutch guys" - Chris, Don, Rueben
"Finnish group" - Alexandra, Stephanie, Markus, Christopher
"Finnish guys" - Zachary, Olli
"Italian guys" - Simon, Andrea
"Polish girls" - Agnieszka, Marzena 

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Flight out of Zaventem and it's the first time I use my phone as my boarding pass. Pretty neat and convenient. When I land in Riga, I take bus 22 to Old Town. I sit next to a girl who I try to practice my Latvian with but she is so shy, she just giggles and speaks too fast. I get off at Rifleman Square and there is an really cool giant snail exhibit (a group of artists' commentary on the government: slow as snails). At the square, I jump on the hop on/off bus to get my geographic bearings, plus now I have public transport for 48hrs. The English speaker on the recording is from Scotland; first time I've heard that. 

After the bus tour arrives back at Rifleman Square, I see a hostel, Friendly Fun Franks Backpackers Hostel, and walk to it to check it out and end up booking a room. I walk in right before it gets busy, which is not good because only one person is trying to help many people at the same time.

After booking,  I venture out into the city. I walk up and down the streets of old town until I find myself in the park, Esplanāde, with a canal running through it, that separates Old Town and the Art Nouveau district. It's a beautiful park and they have free, clean toilets. I see the National Opera, Freedom Monument, Riga Castle, and many other places. I head to the Central Market, which is 4 airplane hangars plus an outdoor area, turned into a fresh food and artisan/craft market. The food is making me hungry.

Both the hop on/off and the hostel recommend Lido for traditional Latvian food, so after searching over an hour for it, I find it. It's reasonably priced for a touristic restaurant and the grey beans (the chef recommends it with sour cream) and chicken, strawberries in cream, and mint tea are delicious!

Afterward, I head back to the hostel and meet four of my roommates, the Finnish group. They are finishing up a summer tour of Europe and this is their last stop. I then go out into the community area and there are about 15 guys and no girls. A bit later, 4 girls show up plus 10 more guys. One of the girls says it is a sausage fest, lol. Only problem with the common area is that the smoke area is adjacent, behind a glass wall, but it's overpowering the clean-air area. I meet the three Dutch guys who are pretty cool and are going on the pub crawl. I decide to join in, on my first pub crawl. 

We (the Finnish group, the Dutch guys, the Italian guys, and me and the guide) start the pub crawl at 830pm and go to four different bars. Our guide is really nice, but some of the professional pub crawlers say she isn't a great pub crawl leader. At the last bar, our guide leaves, but most of us stick around to play some drinking games and listen to the occasionally decent karaoke singers. Around 230am we leave to go get pizza. Stop at one last bar/club and it's pretty weak so we leave after an hour. Get back to the hostel around 4am.

Thoughts: This is the first trip I've been on by myself in a long time. I have no plan and I'm just going to let the wind direct my sails. Most places you could pay in in euros or Latvian lats, since they just transitioned to the euro January 14 of this year.

Bus police boarded the 22 bus, and it's funny, because in four years of living in Brussels, I've never seen a transit cop, but saw one in Bucharest, Warsaw, and Riga, on the first bus I got on. First hostel. First pub crawl. Lots of firsts for me.

For those who have never been to a hostel, let me give you a brief scoop. Hostels are designed for travelers who don't need the luxury of a hotel, but prefer not to sleep on a park bench. They have great info and amenities like local maps and discount offers on restaurants and bars, walking tours, kitchens for personal cooking, in-house bar, free wifi, and organized events. They have towels, mixed dorm rooms with bunk beds and linen, and common toilets and showers, as well as a safe room for valuables. The kitchen is open 24/7 and there is unlimited free tea and coffee. At this hostel, I got a free Latvian sparkling wine (I know it's only "champagne" in France) as a welcome gift. The doors are always locked and you have to be buzzed into the building.


Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Palma, Mallorca: Germany's Paradise Island in Spain

Synopsis: It's been three long weeks since my last trip, and after being at work and thinking about considering doing some, I need a vacation! Staša recommends some fun in the sun in Palma de Mallorca, off the coast of Spain in the Balearic Islands. I prefer to stay in cold and rainy Belgium, but sometimes we have to get outside of our comfort zones.

Trip Overview:
Day 1: Leaving Zaventem, and with Ryanair you have to walk to the plane, and then wait outside as the line slowly moves and people file on. Of course it starts raining progressively the closer we get to the plane and then really hard as we wait at the base of the stairs to get on. 

Land in Palma and the weather is amazing, despite it being night time. Upon checking into the hotel, I discover that my Spanish is fairly good but not good enough to recognize and decipher Mallorquin (Spanish's mixed-breed half cousin). We head down to La Llotja to get some food around 10:30pm and the restaurants are packed. We decide on La Bodega and share a delicous paella with some sangria. Fat, happy, and sleepy, we go back to the hotel and call it a night. 

Thoughts: I am amazed at how much Spanish I remember. I'll try to speak it every chance I get while here. 

Boarding the Ryanair flight

La bodega is Mallorquin for "winery that serves good paella"


Sunday, August 17, 2014

16 Great Trips I've Taken

Throwback posts to:

June 2008
July 2009

May 2011

February 2012

April 2012

May 2012

July 2012

September 2012

October 2012

November 2012

November 2012

New Year's 2013

January 2013

February 2013

April 2013

May 2013


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