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European Wrap-up, Rants and Raves

When we first arrived in Europe on March 31, it felt very much like a foreign land. We spent  many days alternating between a state of confusion and wonderment. We were only supposed to spend three months in Europe, but ended up staying just shy of four months. Some time during our four month stay – probably when we escaped back to Spain after having a tough time in Morocco after getting ill – we came to view Europe as more familiar than foreign, no matter what the country or the language. Sure, every country is unique, but every country we visited is fundamentally Western. Once we adjusted to travelling somewhere that we couldn’t speak the language – which admittedly is still difficult and frustrating at times – everything else fell into place.

We traded going to Europe for going to South America, which we’ll save for the future. Going to Europe definitely ate into our travel budget much, much more than if we had gone to South America, but it was worth it. We had never been to Europe before. The European countries have had and do have such a dominant influence on the rest of the world that it would be difficult for us to understand other countries and cultures without first experiencing Europe itself. We tried to minimize costs by going to countries that are rumored to be less expensive – Spain, Portugal, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Croatia, Hungary, and Poland.   None of those countries were as cheap as we hoped, but costs are definitely lower than some European countries. We did slip in a few countries with higher costs – France, Germany, Belgium, Ireland, and Northern Ireland – but tried to counterbalance those costs in France and Germany by staying with friends and in Germany and Belgium by only staying a short time.  If you missed it, I posted about our average daily cost to travel through Europe yesterday.

Even with four months, we barely scratched the surface of Europe.  I know we will be back someday – I still need to eat my way through Italy after all.  As we move on to the rest of the world, I thought I’d close out our experiences by sharing our rants and raves about Europe:

Raves

  • Canine freedom.  Dogs lead a much better life than in the United States.  They seldom are leashed and typically have the freedom to roam courtyards, restaurants, and beaches.
  • Lax liquor laws.  Particularly because we live in Pennsylvania, one of the states with the strictest and asinine liquor laws (god forbid you buy a beer in a grocery store or drink outside in public!), we appreciated the freedom of Europeans to have a drink essentially whenever they want where ever they want.
  • Plethora of bakeries.  Even outside of Paris, where they elevate baking to an art form, much to the delight of my sweet tooth, bakeries can be found on almost every street.  Besides providing constant dessert, the savory items, such as empanadas and the like, made for cheap eats.
  • Free time.  While it endlessly confused as to why no one ever appeared to be working, Europeans’ love of sitting around in cafes and in parks, doing nothing, fit in well with our new hippie, jobless lifestyle.  Once we return to the States and re-join the “real world,” I need to remember to incorporate in more time to perfect the art of doing nothing.  I think it does wonders for the soul.
  • Runaway trains. The ease of train travel in Europe is amazing.  Small towns, big cities, new countries: you can reach almost every place in Europe by train.  It is hard to suppress the urge to keep on rollin’ when it is as easy as going to the center of town and hopping on board.
  • Urban love. Most European cities have compact city centers.  Life is centered in the middle, and radiates out from there.  There are no such thing as a true suburb in Europe.  There is just the city, the outskirts, and the country.  The cities are full of life.  This is most likely related to a corollary love:  ease of getting around.  Most European cities can be traversed by foot or by amazingly efficient public transit systems.  Transit for the masses in Europe is the polar opposite of the Pittsburgh Port Authority.  Most cities have subways or trams.  Even buses are better: most have digital read-outs at the bus stop indicating how long you’ll be waiting for the next bus.  Having a car in not necessary in many countries, and in fact, can even be a hindrance in many of the cities.
  • Blurred edges of different cultures.  I love that crossing borders is as easy as crossing into different states.  Because each country has its own language, food, and customs, it never lost its luster to change countries.  Most jarring, and exciting, was the flights we took, which meant we switched from Spanish culture to Czech culture in the same day or, later, from Polish culture to Irish culture.   But just as interesting was travelling overland, where you could watch separate cultures swirl together, always retaining their own subtle differences.
  • European green. Throughout Europe, we spotted solar energy, windmills, and recycling bins, which made my tree-hugger heart happy.
  • No need for a DVR.  Though it is rare that I watch a commercial at home anymore due to the world’s greatest invention, you still can’t avoid them, such as during a live sporting event.  We met a German woman living in Portugal who just could not wrap her head around the number of commercials in the United States.  After watching television in Europe, I’m with her.  It is nice, however, to have an occasional commercial during a sporting event for a bathroom or snack break.  No need for one after practically every play, like American football, but I don’t have the undivided attention span required to watch European football!
  • Beautiful things all around.  Between the architecture and green spaces, your eye always has somewhere to linger.
  • Disappearing taxes.  If I had to pay as much tax as the Europeans do, I wouldn’t want to see it all broken down either.  Prices in Europe already comes with the tax included, which makes it easier to figure out how much damage you are doing to your wallet.
  • No tip jars for performing your job. Tipping culture in the United States can get out of control at times.  Tip jars in Europe are a rare sight.  Waiters and waitresses are paid better than their U.S. counterparts, so tips in Europe are either nonexistent or drastically reduced.
  • Living life outside. One of the worst things about working is shuffling between a dark, stuffy office and a dark, stuffy restaurant for lunch on a nice, sunny day.  There is never enough outdoor seating at home, but this is not a problem in Europe.  People live their lives outside: with open, screenless windows; at outdoor cafes and restaurants; in public squares and parks.
  • Markets.  It is typically not hard to find farmers and artisanal vendors selling their wares in a market.
  • No unnecessary 9.99s. The jig is up; we all know 9.99 is really basically $10.  The Europeans don’t try to fool us and just charge flat amounts.
  • Casual breeziness.  Even in fancy Paris, women always looked so pulled together in a casual, understated way.  No sweatpants in public here.
  • Appreciation of eating and drinking. I’ve alluded to this above, but Europeans in general have a sincere appreciation for food and drink.  My taste buds were happy there.

Rants:

  • Smoky hazes.  Although some countries are getting on board with smoking bans in public buildings, the smoking habit in Europe is alive and well.
  • Tiny drinks.  This was particularly Sean’s pet peeve.  The drinks in Europe are absurdly tiny, leaving us constantly thirsty.  We agree that supersizing is excessive, but how do they get away with charging 3 or 4 euros for a 6 oz. coke?
  • Is this the Sahara desert or something? As a corollary to the rant above, contributing to our constant thirst was the fact that very, very few restaurants served tap water and insisted upon making you pay for fancy – and often tiny – bottled water.  My favorite is when we would be told that they flat out did not have tap water.  Right.  If we would get tap water, the chances of getting a refill was slim to none.  Related is the Europeans’ love of sparkling mineral water and my corresponding hatred of the same.  Sean still laughs at the memory of me uncouthly spitting out mineral water on the sidewalk on a 90 degree day when we couldn’t figure out, for the second bottle in a row, what meant still water in Hungarian.
  • Lack of customer service.  Although our pocketbooks liked our love of tipping less, this all too often was accompanied by little desire to please the customer.  See note about no refills of water, above.  We quickly understood the cultural difference of needing to ask for the check, but never got used to being completely ignored once the food arrived.
  • Sleeping like old people.  We probably had one queen bed the whole time we were there; otherwise it was two twins pushed together.  Although, I think Sean actually secretly liked having more room in a bed to himself.
  • Runaway shower heads.  I cannot stand the hand-held shower head.  When there was a holder than worked, they weren’t that bad, just less water pressure than I’m used to.  The rest of the time, I never could figure out where you are supposed to set the shower head whenever you did anything else, such as wash your hair.  I’ve squirted many ceilings, walls, and my eyes when the shower head, ever so carefully laid in a resting place to soap up, suddenly surge with water.
  • Confounded locks.  While the old-fashioned keys are cool to look at, use of them befuddled me 9 times out of 10.
  • Lack of air conditioning.  I know that old buildings make retrofitting them for air prohibitively expensive, and excessive use of air is bad for the environment, but there is NO respite from heat in certain cities in the dead of summer – not even in the grocery store or restaurants, two notoriously freezing places at home.  When there is air, it is usually a room unit, extremely undersized, that chugs weakly in a huge space with open doors and windows.
  • Tiny, tiny, tiny Speedos. Not an original rant, I know, but really – why?
  • Subpar chiclet.  When I was an office drone, I chewed an excessive amount of gum.  I haven’t completely broken the habit, but the tiny, hard pieces of gum will likely help.  Where is the spearmint Orbit when you need it?
  • Never having exact change, yet always having a ton of coins.  Without fail, every time we tried to pay for something in cash, the cashier would declare our tender to be too large and request exact change.  Nothing is ever good enough.  Once I tried to pay for a 19 euro bill with a 20 and was rebuffed and interrogated about the change in my possession.  Yet, because of the 1 and 2 euro coins, we were constantly weighed down.  On a related note, if I had a euro for every time the machines at places that purportedly accepted credit cards was mysteriously “broken,” I wouldn’t need to use credit cards at all.
  • Paying crazy taxes as a tourist.  I know someone’s got to pay for all of the fabulous things in Europe, and you can sometimes get a refund on big-ticket purchases, but ouch!  No wonder they bury all of the taxes.
  • Graffiti.  For some reason, many of the beautiful things in Europe are covered in ugly, messy graffiti.  It makes me sad such beautiful, historic items are ruined.
  • 80s on steriods.  For the life of me, I cannot understand why anyone would wear those baggy, droopy pants that sag in the butt and crotch and taper at the ankles.  They didn’t look good on MC Hammer, and not even skinny European girls can pull them off now.  Please, for the love of God, tell me that these have not made an appearance in the United States.  Please.

So there you have it!  Traveling in Europe is a fabulous experience.  I can’t wait to go back someday, but it was great to move on after spending so much time there.  Stay tuned for posts about South Africa and Jordan in the weeks to come, then it is Asia time!


Average Daily Cost in Europe

Back in our planning stages, I loved reading travel blogs to day dream, but the practical side of me was always wondering: how much did it cost?  Here’s a brief breakdown of our average daily cost to travel through Europe.  This figure does not include supplies or gear; costs at home; misc. fees like ATM fees; or most significantly, major transport (which we define as anything that takes us from one overnight destination to another, whether it be plane, train, bus or rental car). Basically, the average daily cost includes things like accommodation, meals, snacks, alcohol, activities, and minor transport like subways.  Any oddities are noted below.

  1. Germany ($73/day) (No lodging costs because we stayed with a friend.)
  2. Poland ($91/day)
  3. Hungary ($101/day)
  4. France ($132/day) (No lodging costs except for one night in a B&B in Mont St. Michel and an air mattress because we stayed with a friend in Paris.)
  5. Portugal ($133/day)
  6. Croatia ($142/day)
  7. Czech Republic ($144/day)
  8. Slovenia ($148/day)
  9. Spain ($154/day)
  10. Northern Ireland ($187/day)
  11. Ireland ($255/day) (This figure is estimated; we lost track of our budget quickly after many a round of Guinness.  Costs are also higher because we went out more than usual while our friends were visiting.)
  12. Belgium ($272/day) (This just for a 2 day trip to Brussels.  Again, costs were probably higher because we drank a lot with our friend and bought an excessive amount of chocolate.)

There are a lot of factors that affect costs, and I plan to write in the future about some of them, including tips we’ve learned for saving money.  To give you a sense of our travel style, we are not eating ramen noodles and staying in hostel dorms, but we watch our spending.  Where you stay has the biggest effect on the budget.  In general, when it comes to accommodations, we always have a private double; we try to avoid shared bathrooms, but will share if we’re feeling cheap; we try to find clean, simple budget accommodation, which means a variety of hostels, pensions, apartments, guesthouses, and B&Bs; and we will sometimes spend $10 or $20 more to get a private bathroom, free wifi, better location, or overall nicer place.  When it comes to eating, we always eat 3 meals a day and usually dessert or snacks; we usually order a drink or two with dinner, and occasionally have a few drinks at other times; we stay at places with free breakfasts if it makes sense, but tend to self-cater breakfast otherwise;  we tend to eat out almost every day for lunch and dinner, but sometimes self-cater if we have a kitchen; we usually spend our most money at dinner, as it is typically our nightly entertainment; and overall, we tend to eat what we want and not skimp on food.

Hope that helps to put the European portion of our trip in context.  Europe is definitely not as cheap as developing countries, but as you can see, it does not need to be outrageous.  If you have any questions about our European costs, leave a comment or send me an email.


Going Up the Country

I’m going up the country, baby, don’t you wanna go
I’m going up the country, baby, don’t you wanna go
I’m going to some place where I’ve never been before
I’m going, I’m going where the water tastes like wine
I’m going where the water tastes like wine
We can jump in the water, stay drunk all the time
I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
I’m gonna leave this city, got to get away
All this fussing and fighting, man, you know I sure can’t stay
Now, Baby, pack your leaving trunk, you know we got to leave today
Just exactly where we going I can not say
But we might even leave the U.S.A.
‘Cause it’s a brand new game, and I want to play
No use of you running or screaming and crying
‘Cause you got a home as long as I’ve got mine

- Going Up the Country, Canned Heat

Due to my sheep obsession, I talked Sean into spending two nights on a working beef and sheep farm in County Armaugh in Northern Ireland after leaving Belfast.  The actual quality time with sheep was not what I was expecting. We only met two lambs and sadly, their days were numbered.

It turns out visiting the farm was interesting for other reasons.  Had we not gone into the country, I would have continued to assume that the Troubles only touched upon people living in the cities.  That was far from the case.  Bombings took place in the country, as well.  Some took place long ago, in the seventies: the pub up the road from the B&B had been bombed, and there was  remains of a car bomb on the farm where we stayed.  More troubling was the more recent activity.  We ate dinner and had a few pints in the neighboring town, Keady.  I never would have suspected any problems there, but several bombs had been planted in the previous few months. Much of the activity is aimed at police. When we were standing on the road, chatting with the owner of the B&B, he waved at a passing car. That was the local police, he told us. They wear armored vests and drive in unmarked cars because too many people try to shoot at them. He said this matter-of-factly, like this was normal, whereas Sean and I were surprised, once again, how the problems in Northern Ireland are not dormant.

On a lighter note, we also saw and did some things that only happen in the country.

Went to the combination general store/post office/public phone/gas station:

Saw road bowling, something Sean had saw previously on the Travel Channel:

Made farm friends:

Saw a new, gangly, awkward, adorable baby mare:

Held a chicken:

Got up close and personal with hungry cows before moving them to a new pasture:

And saw beautiful rural scenery:

Sometimes you just gotta go where the water tastes like wine.


Learning By Cab

After spending time in Derry, we wanted to learn more about the Troubles in Belfast. To do this, we took a cab tour of the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods.

Somehow, we got gypped out of taking a black cab, but it turned out okay because our tour guide was very passionate about explaining the Troubles to us. When the tour ran long, he told us that always happens to him because he talks so much. Luckily, his talking was interesting. He drove us around to different sites in the neighborhoods, such as places that had been bombed, murals, the church where developments for the Good Friday Agreement took place, and memorials. Along the way, he gave us a running commentary. He told us right off the bat that he tries not to be biased, but it quickly became apparent that staying neutral was impossible for him. He had grown up in the Catholic neighborhood, and his family was forcibly removed from the neighborhood when he was little. While it would have been nice to talk to someone from the Protestant side as well, it was fascinating to hear about the Troubles from someone whose life was so directly impacted.

He spent a lot of time explaining the meanings behind the murals on Falls Road, which runs through the Republican/Catholic neighborhood. It helped to hear the reasoning behind some of the murals. For instance, I assumed that the one mural was an ad for the taxi company giving the tour – Taxi Trax – but we learned that the murals was in commemoration of the taxi cab drivers who continued to provide transportation to the Catholic area of their own accord after the city stopped public transportation there.

He took us to a memorial park in remembrance of those who had died during the Troubles from the neighborhood. Next to the park, a giant wall known as the “Peace Wall” divides the Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. The gates are still closed every night to minimize trouble. According to our guide, the British government places the wall smack dab against the houses in the Catholic neighborhood, while a large expanse lies between the walls and the houses in the Protestant neighborhood. I’m not sure if the placement of the wall was intentional, or if there is some sort of rationale for the placement, but we saw that the wall was much closer to the Catholic side as he said.

People on tours write messages of peace on the side of the wall filled with graffiti. Our guide told us that he hoped that someday, we could watch them tear down the wall on television like they had done to the Berlin Wall. Only then, he said, would real peace and progress be achieved.

After we left the Falls Road area, he took us to Shankill Road, which runs through the Protestant/Unionist neighborhood. In the Catholic neighborhood in Derry, we saw Irish colors everywhere. In the Shankill Road area of Belfast, British flags flew all around. (Later, we realized that the neighborhood in which we were staying also flew British flags, which we had not noticed earlier. I found myself beginning to wonder about the religion and politics of every person to whom we talked.)

Our guide told us that a couple of years ago, he would not have entered the Shankill neighborhood, and he would have handed us off to his Protestant counterpart. It was obvious that he felt uneasy being in the Protestant neighborhood. I think he was relieved it started raining harder, so we didn’t have to get out of the car much.

The Troubles are a fascinating part of Irish history, not the least of which because they were so recent. Like many things we learn about during our travels, more questions are raised than answered, but our learning process continues.


Making Places Real

Plagued by violence for so long, Belfast is reduced on the news and in music to a city dominated by the Troubles.  Van Morrison, a native of Belfast, is one of the few singers who sing about the good things in Belfast.  We visited two places that appear in Van Morrison’s songs.  One of my favorite parts of traveling is when dots on a map or names in a song become real, living places.

Hyndford Street

Take me back, take me way, way, way back
On Hyndford Street…

This is the street where Van Morrison was born and raised.  Much as it was when Van Morrison was growing up, the street is in the middle of a working-class neighborhood with small, sensible houses.

Cyprus Avenue

And I’m caught one more time
Up on Cyprus Avenue…

Near Hyndford Street, Cyprus Avenue stands out from the others around it.  Many years ago, a developer envisioned a grand avenue.  He planted big cyprus trees lining the street that would someday grow into big, stately trees, providing shade and magnificence to the avenue.  The homes there are not mansions, but are considerably bigger than the houses on Hyndford Street.  Apparently, Van Morrison used to go to Cyprus Avenue to daydream, and later wrote a song about the avenue.


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