Posts Tagged ‘europe’

19th April
2011
written by Randy

I’ve been home from Poland for about a week now, but other than my emotional story about the Polish people, I really haven’t told you about Poland.

First, I didn’t see as much of the country as I could have, or would have liked to. This is partly due to the fact that I don’t speak fluent Polish, so things didn’t move as smoothly or naturally for me as I would have like. But more importantly, it is largely due to the fact that, as I said before the trip, I couldn’t have made this trip at all without the offer of a place to stay.

I stayed in hotels in Warsaw and Krakow, but I also spent some time in a smaller city called Kielce, and here I was treated to real Polish life outside the two biggest cities. (If you’re keeping count, that’s three more cities, which puts me at 18 on my way to 20 this year.)

Kielce is a small city, directly on the route between Warsaw and Krakow. The main draw in Kielce is the college, so you might think of it as a “college town.” There is certainly no tourism draw, and with the exception of some of the students, very few people speak English, so it’s a good opportunity to pick up Polish quickly.

Food in Kielce was quite good — even at Pizza Hut where (unlike in the U.S.) everything was actually made with fresh ingredients and quite good. My favorite discovery was a little place called Pierogowa Chata, or “Pierogi Hut”, in which I ate the most delicious pierogi that I’ve ever had in my life.

Warsaw is big and beautiful, clean and efficient. It bears all the indications of an important city in old Europe, after having been blown to smithereens in World War II. It’s obvious that everything there is new: much newer, even, than most American cities. And shiny.

But unlike American cities, the European city-planning remains in tact. Warsaw has a sprawling subway system, a large network of trams, and plenty of buses. Pedestrians walk under the enormous streets, which is not only safer, but much more interesting thanks to the numerous shops in the spaces down below.

In the old part of town called Stare Miasto (literally, Old City) all the architecture has be reconstructed based on the old plans, presenting a beautiful, old European city without any of the decay, dirt, or graffiti.

Food in Warsaw was less impressive. Not only is most of the architecture big, modern, and western… they restaurants are, too. Those that I saw lacked all the charm (and flavor!) of the smaller, home-style places in a lesser-known city.

In Krakow, however, this wasn’t the case. In spite of being a big city and popular tourist destination, Krakow still retained the old charm. The architecture is more old and interesting, the streets winding, the food delicious.

Krakow has no subway, but there are buses and trams. Of course I walked everywhere with no problem, so transportation isn’t much of an issue… and in fact, I think part of the charm of a place like Krakow is the experience of walking around. (I wonder if I would still feel that way in winter.)

The main square (Rynek Głowny) in Krakow is, quite possibly, my favorite place I have ever been. It’s big, beautiful, welcoming. I could easily imagine living in Krakow and spending my evenings in the square. In fact, Krakow is the first city outside of the U.S. where I could imagine myself living one day.

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11th April
2011
written by Randy

I’m starting to see a pattern developing. Travel is really affecting me. But when I travel to the sites of tragedies, I really grow. A lot.

Last winter, I traveled to several landmarks of American tragedies, all within a few days of each other, and I noticed that doing so had a profound effect on me. And I felt a strong connection in the Colosseum when I saw it in Rome, in February.

Well, I don’t think I can raise the stakes any higher. Today, I visited the site of history’s worst tragedy ever: Auschwitz. After this, it’s all downhill.

Walking around in Auschwitz feels like walking around in a summer camp. You’ve got the plain buildings, the dirt and gravel walkways, the barbed wire and watchtowers. Okay, so it’s a summer camp that doesn’t want you to leave…

For me, the profound moment was when I saw the hair. An entire room, filled with human hair. Everything else was a fact – a piece of history being recited. But seeing all that hair, suddenly I had a very tangible appreciation for the scale of the horrible thing that happened in that place.

The last thing you see on your tour at Auschwitz is a crematorium: the smallest one – a death-factory the Nazis thought was so insignificant that it wasn’t worth destroying. Then, you go to Birkenau, where all the style points disappear, and you learn about scales of quantity. Here are the ones they did destroy, but you can see their size, even in the rubble.

This entire experience was probably amplified by my visit to the museum in the old factory of Oskar Schindler yesterday. And even moreso by the memorials and reconstruction and monuments I saw in Warsaw last week.

Poland has been through hell. This country and its people know more about suffering than most of us in the US can ever imagine. And yet the people here are amazingly proud and upbeat. Jews or not, oppressed or not, these people are Poles and they’re proud of it.

Whether it’s the people I’ve met, who live in simple apartments with barely enough possessions to fill two suitcases, or the people I saw in photos in Auschwitz who packed everything they cared about into one suitcase… the theme has resonated with my own minimalism project this year.

Poles don’t derive their identity from their possessions. They don’t measure themselves by their jobs or their cars or their clothes. From the guy in the suit behind the hotel desk to the girl in the embarrassing uniform at the pierogi restaurant, everyone here walks proud. They love their family, they love their friends, and they love their land, their home, Poland.

After these two weeks, I’m finding myself surprisingly content with the simple fact that I’m alive. For 35 years, I’ve passionately chased hobbies, I’ve fed controversy, I’ve chased adventure, and I’ve done it all with a chip on my shoulder and an appetite for destruction. But today, at this moment, I don’t care.

Today, I’m just content – happy to be alive, and to have people I care about. Happy with my possessions that fit into two suitcases, and my right to travel to places like Auschwitz with a tour-guide rather than a gun in my back. And I’m happy that tomorrow I can go home, because I have something the millions of people in Auschwitz never got: a return ticket.

9th March
2011
written by Randy

One of the life-changing things I learned last year was to stop making lame excuses when a travel opportunity comes up. Now, when presented with an opportunity, I simply ask myself “is there any reason why I can’t go?” And as it turns out, the answer is usually no. So now I go!

I recently made a friend in Poland, who invited me to visit. Yeah, that’s pretty cool. But even more cool, is that there’s an empty second room, so that means no hotel costs. Suddenly this sounds like a very affordable trip!

So… is there any reason I can’t go? My work contract ends in a little more than two weeks. I can afford the plane ticket. And I’ve got at least five more cities to visit before my travel goal is met for the year. It’s unexpected, and early in the year, but this actually sounds perfect!

And so, I’m leaving March 30th and returning April 12th, and I’m going to see Poland, and who knows what else. Now it’s time to do some hardcare Polish language practice!

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13th February
2011
written by Randy

As a follow-up to last year’s goal of learning Italian, I began this year by spending 30 days in Italy, using the Italian I learned. This was also a big starting point for one of this year’s goals: visiting 20 cities in Europe.

I landed in Rome. Then, I visited Pisa, Florence, Milan, Turin, Genoa, Verona, Bologna, and Venice. From Venice, I took a short break and flew to Barcelona for a few days. Then, back to Venice, down to Bari, over to Naples, Pompeii, Sorrento, Capri, and then back to Rome and home. Depending on whether or not you count Pompeii, that’s either 14 or 15 cities. For now, I’m going to call it 15, but I’ll aim for going over 20, just to keep things on the up-and-up.

I’m going to have to work for a while to pay for this trip, and to save some money for the next one. I probably won’t be doing another month-long trip this year, so visiting six more cities in Europe isn’t going to be as easy as it might sound in comparison to this one. But anyway, the goal is the experience, not the statistic.

Now, about Italy…

I was surprised to learn that Italy is very much not a modern country. It’s not at all what I expected. Hotels with internet access are hard to find. Televisions are old and often don’t work. In many cases, there is no heat or air conditioning, and when there is, it’s often inefficient.

Most businesses start closing between 5:00 and 7:00 pm, and after that, you’re lucky when you can find a restaurant or pub open… everything else is closed. Didn’t get something you needed? Oh well. Wait until tomorrow.

Life in Italy is extremely noisy. Italians talk very loud — so loud, in fact, that when I spoke to them in my normal voice, they didn’t even hear me. Their phones are loud. Their ringers are loud. The streets are filled with noisy scooters and mopeds and jackhammers, reverberating through the brick and mortar canyons created by large buildings and narrow streets.

Also surprising, and saddening, the country is in a sad state of disrepair. It’s not surprising that with so much there that is “old”, much of it is in need of maintenance. But what is surprising is how much of it was just covered in litter, dirt, and graffiti. From the moment you arrive in Italy, it is glaringly obvious that Italians just don’t take much pride in their environment.

Moreover, they don’t have nearly as much pride in themselves as I was expecting. There is a certain stereotype of the fashion-minded Italian, especially in Milan — one of the capitals of the fashion world — but the majority of people I saw were not dressed with any more care than anyone else, anywhere else in the world. And especially in Milan, I was surprised to find that most people had nothing at all in the way of fashion. Not that it matters, of course, just that it was a surprise.

I’ll just mention one more disappointment. The food. The typically “Italian” foods that I expected to indulge in turned out to be quite the opposite of my expectations. From Rome south, all the places with a food reputation turned out to be the places where I had my worst meals. Naples — birthplace of pizza — had some of the worst pizza I’ve ever eaten. In Rome, Naples, Bari, Sorrento, and Capri, the food seemed no better than an average boxed Italian dinner here in the US.

Of course it wasn’t all disappointments. There was also a lot to like…

From Florence north, I had some of the best meals of my life. I had amazing pizza in Genoa. The tortellini bolognese in Bologna was like something from a dream. And in Milan I got the most amazing serving of lasagne I’ve ever had in my life. Oh, and let me not forget that every dessert I had in the north was worth writing home about.

While the big cities were mostly dingy, decayed, and crawling with indigents, I found most of the smaller and/or less-popular cities to be beautiful, friendly, even magical places. In particular, if you ever want to die of a dreamy romantic overdose, spend a week in Verona followed by a week in Sorrento. Those are two of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever seen, both filled with wonderful, pleasant people.

In fact, speaking of the people… Italy may have its defects, but the people are not one of them. Almost everyone I encountered during my month-long adventure through Italy was polite, friendly, and warm. You might not think so at first, because Italians carry themselves differently than Americans, but once you adjust to the cultural differences, you quickly find the Italian people to be the country’s best asset.

All in all, in spite of several complaints, I want to be clear that I really did come to love Italy, and I definitely enjoyed myself there. I will certainly return. And now that I understand how things work, and have seen such a variety of places there, I’ll know where to go and what to do next time, so I can enjoy myself much more.

Venice St. Peter's Square

Genova Bari

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2nd January
2011
written by Randy

The very first thing on my list for 2011 is more travel. I had such an incredible time last year seeing all 48 of the continental United States. I came two states short of reaching my goal to visit all 50 (and I intend to finish up those last two this year!) but the experiences I had were really quite amazing.

I think travel provides me with the closest thing to a spiritual experience that I’ve personally ever known, and I plan to keep doing it for the rest of my life.

Now that I’ve seen the US, I want to see everything else… starting with Europe.

Saying you’ve visited a country can be sort of a cop-out. After all, I was in Germany on 4 separate occasions last year, but I never stepped outside of an aiport during any of those times. Sure, people spoke German, and I was in Germany, eating German food and spending euros… but it’s not the same. It doesn’t really count, does it?

Thus, I’ve decided to design this goal around visiting cities, rather than countries. There are a few things that make cities more a better goal for travel — or at least it’s better for my style of travel. Here are a few reasons:

You have to leave the airport to see the city! Sounds obvious, but how you frame an idea in your mind is important. Have I been in Germany? Yes. Have I seen Münich, Düsseldorf, or Frankfurt? No. You have to leave the airport to see the city.

Many countries have very different cultures in various regions. If the goal was to visit Germany, you could do the obvious thing and go to Berlin, but you would miss the lilt and personality of Köln, the Bavarian culture of Münich, etc. If the goal was to visit Spain, you could go to Barcelona, but you would miss everything that makes Madrid, Pamplona, and Valencia unique.

There are a lot of cities! If you were paying attention to the names in the previous paragraph, you noticed that there are a lot of things to see! France has Paris, Lyon, Bordeaux, Marseille. Italy has Rome, Venice, Milan, Florence. Poland has Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw. And so on! There’s so much to see, why stop at just setting foot in the country?

So… my first goal for 2011 is to visit 20 European cities. It’s less than 50 states, but it’s much farther away, and more expensive to reach! I came really close to reaching my goal of 50 states, but in doing so I saw much more than 50 cities. So, I hope I’ll do that well with this goal.

As with any year-long goal, it’s easier to be successful if you get started early. And I’m getting started in just 10 days! As you may know, I spent last year learning Italian, and my reward is that this year I will visit Italy for 30 days!

On January 11th I will land in Rome, and then I will spend the next month wandering around Italy by train. I intend to visit Rome, Florence, Bologna, Venice, Milan, and whatever else I have time for, so the year is off to a good start!