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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.


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