Reflections on Europe

I’ve written reflective posts about the previous journeys that comprise my round the world tour, for both South-East Asia and the Trans-Siberian Railway, but I’ve found myself at a bit of a loss as to how I am supposed to recap my entire travels through Europe in a single post. The journey was twice as long as any of the other legs of the tour so far, and it’s taken me so long to chronicle the whole thing that I’ve since found myself returning home and then moving back to live in Europe before I’d even finished! But my time spent on the continent was a very big influence on me – I mean, I moved here – so I feel it is important to reflect on some of the lessons I learnt, the surprises I discovered, the cultures I clashed with and the memories I made…

***

Stockholm.

Stockholm.

Copenhagen.

Copenhagen.

The most noticeable thing about Europe for me, as a traveller, was the stark contrast in culture between the dozens of different countries that were all relatively close to one another. European cities mostly all seem to have this inherent charm about them – something that I suppose comes from never having lived in Europe – but beyond that every country had its own kind of culture that rendered it distinct from its neighbours. While I don’t want to rely too heavily on stereotypes, I often found that a lot of aspects about each country or city – the language, the cuisine, the friendliness of the people, their favourite pass times, their daily routines – were surprisingly congruent with most of my expectations. The French guys loved huge brunches full of gourmet food and lazy afternoons of drinking, with every type of wine imaginable readily on hand, yet they blew the preconceptions of rude, arrogant Parisians right out of the water. The Danish were friendly and soft-spoken people who rode their bikes everywhere and were always so proud of their idyllic little country, but were never, ever ones to brag. The Spaniards lived up the expectations of their siesta culture, all but disappearing during the day, only to reemerge in the early hours of the morning, with fire in their hearts, drinks in their hands and dancing shoes on their feet. The Germans drank beer like it was water – since half the time it cost less anyway – and in Berlin everyone from the artists to even the politicians seemed to wake up at 2pm. The Austrians were friendly and accommodating, though they resented that the Germans usually didn’t appreciate the linguistic differences between the Austrian German and their own. The Swiss seemed so content in their high quality of life that everyone was so happy, and you could completely understand how they have come to be considered such a neutral player. The Italians were late for everything, and nothing could be cooked as well as their grandmothers recipe. The Czech men thought their beer was better than the Germans, but they were happy to remain less renowned and keep to themselves with their gorgeous fairytale cities like Prague. The Dutch were loud and friendly, and also rode their bikes everywhere, the English were drinking tea whenever they weren’t drinking alcohol, and the Irish were just perpetually drunk.

Paris.

Paris.

Wait, what did I say about not using stereotypes?

But really, the actual proximity of all these countries and cities is really quite astounding for someone who comes from Australia. I could jump on a train for several hours and I would suddenly be in another capital city of another country, where they speak another language and use a different currency. All within the space of a continent that could practically fit inside the landmass that is my home country. That all these places could be so physically close but so culturally distant is still, and probably always will be, the thing I found the most fascinating about Europe.

Barcelona.

Barcelona.

Madrid.

Madrid.

***

Currency within Europe is also an interesting consideration. Despite most of the continent being economically unified under the euro, I still encountered a number of other countries that were yet to make the switch, with many of them seeing no reason to change any time in the near future. Denmark have the Krone, Sweden have the Krona, Switzerland still uses their Francs and the Czech Republic currency is the Koruna, and of course Britain has hung onto the Pound Sterling. There was some places such as major travel terminals, on trains, and on the ferries between Finland and Sweden and Wales and Ireland, that would accept both euros and a second currency, but generally speaking you had to have the right currency for the country you were in, which meant withdrawing new money in each of those countries – there was no point exchanging the euros since I was inevitably heading back to a country where I could spend them, so I just had to hang onto them – and then making sure I exchanged them back into euros before leaving that country, lest I was stuck with handfuls of coins that weren’t able to be spent or exchanged in any other country. All I can say is that I was glad to be doing my Eurotrip in the time of the euro, and not back in the day were every country had their own currency. I would have had to withdraw cash at a lot more ATMs, and do a hell of a lot more conversions in my head.

Rome.

Rome.

Zürich.

Zürich.

***

Something else about Europe that I really took a liking to was the buildings and architecture. Not just the famous sights and structures that I saw during my trip, but even things as simple as the houses on the street. While it was crazy to consider the fact that I could walk down a street in Rome and just casually pass the Pantheon, a building over 3000 years old that has been in place longer than any of the buildings in Australia, I also loved the styles of houses and apartments in places like Paris, the Netherlands, and even the outer German suburbs on the outskirts of Berlin had some adorable little homes that looked like something about of a storybook. But I suppose with the older buildings comes a real sense of history – just knowing how long some of these buildings had been there gave them the ability to appear classical and somehow timeless in my mind, when likening them to my comparatively very new and modern hometown.

Prague.

Prague.

The hours of daylight were also something that took a lot of time to get used to. There were days when 10pm snuck up on me rather rudely, and suddenly all the shops were closed but I hadn’t had dinner yet because it was still light outside – although on the flip side the early sunrises meant that I stayed up well past dawn on some of my nights of partying, though I wasn’t even out particularly late by my own standards. I was blessed with a freak run of amazing weather and beautiful sunshine during my tour of Europe, with hardly any rain or cold weather. But to be fair, I had planned my time in Europe to be in the summer, mainly because the idea of lugging all my winter clothes around on all those trains seemed a lot more of a hassle than it would be worth. Now that I’m back in Europe, though, I’ll have to brace myself for the sheer cold that will eventually be upon me – I have the summer to look forward to first, but winter is coming.

***

Berlin.

Berlin.

But perhaps one of the things that I found most enchanting about Europe was the amount of languages that I encountered. Almost everywhere in Europe it was rare to find a person who could only speak one language. Luckily for me many of those people had English as their second (or third) language, so I was able to get around and meet people with relative ease, but I would watch on with a mix of amusement and… awe, I guess, at the way they could seamlessly slip between foreign languages. It made me partly jealous, but I also found it rather inspiring too. Being bilingual or multilingual had always seemed like such a cool and useful skill to have, but the reality in Australia is that people who don’t speak English are few and far between, and there is no one common second language that serves to unite the people of the country under some cultural identity. While the cultures of each country try to stay well-defined and separate, Europe as a continent has become a melting pot for so many languages that multilingualism is just a common, everyday fact of life. Now that I am living in Germany I am trying my best to learn German, although it’s a lot harder than all these native speakers make it out to be. It’s challenging, but it was definitely one of the things that I took away from my time in Europe and have carried with me ever since.

Amsterdam.

Amsterdam.

London.

London.

Although if truth be told, once again it was the people I met during my time in Europe that made the journey so amazing and memorable. I really got into the Couchsurfing community, which is something that I could not recommend highly enough, particularly for anyone who is travelling alone. Sure, perhaps I didn’t see all of the “must see” sights in every city, but I did something that in my opinion was a lot more valuable – I made a lot of friends, locals who showed me sides of their hometowns that many tourists wouldn’t get the chance to see. My gratitude is endless to that long list of people, all of whom you’ve encountered in one way or another by reading my blogs. Experiences like that really make you appreciate that travelling is not about a particular place or destination – it’s about the journey you take to get there, and the things you see, the people you meet, the parties you dance through, the food you eat and the memories that you create along the way.

***

Dublin.

Dublin.

I could quite literally rave forever about how much fun Europe was and how part of me never wanted it to end, but I just don’t – and didn’t – have that kind of time. Because as that plane took off from Dublin airport, my teary-eyed self soon perked up because I had something just as big and diverse and exciting to look forward to: I was on my to the Land of the Free, the one and only United States of America.

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Eurail: A Critique and Review

At this point in time I’d like to take break from retelling the narrative of my journey to offer some opinion and advice, of sorts, regarding the way I travelled around Europe, my major mode of transport: the European train network. Ultimately it was something that worked very well for me, but there were definitely lists of both pros and cons. However, some of these points aren’t really things that were explicitly bad, but rather minor details that easily slipped under the radar, and things that I would have liked to have been a little more aware of beforehand.

***

Choosing to do your Eurotrip with Eurail does require a little forethought and planning. Eurail is the company brand that offers passes to people who are citizens of non-European countries – Interrail is the service offered to European citizens – and therefore you can only purchase such passes outside of Europe, and they can only be sent to non-European addresses. This meant that while I did choose to have a very free and flexible journey around the continent, I had to choose and commit to that kind of journey from the very beginning. Passes come at 4 different levels: Global, which lets you travel up to 24 countries; Select, which lets you travel between any 4 bordering countries of your choice; Regional, allowing you to choose from popular 2 country combinations; and One Country, which is rather self-explanatory. From each of these, you can also choose a Continuous Pass, which allows you to travel every day within your set period, or a Flexi Pass, which meant your pass was valid for a set number of days, but you were only allowed to travel on a certain number of days – however, the amount of trains you could catch on those travel days was unlimited. It was all a bit confusing at first, but it’s quite simple when you put it into practice.

If you’ve been previously reading about my travels then it will be obvious I selected a Global Pass, and I chose a Flexi Global Pass that allowed me 15 days of travel within a 2 month period. This just meant that I had to keep track of how many days it would take me to get where I wanted to go, rather than worrying about how long I was able to stay in each place. It was a cheaper option, with a further 35% discount of the price for people under 26, and with a little bit of planning it was just as comprehensive and useful as the continuous pass would have been, for a fraction of the price. Once I had ordered it, Eurail posted me my ticket and trip log, a train timetable booklet, a Eurail map and an information guidebook. As confusing as some of the fine print was, I can’t deny that Eurail did try to give you all of the detailed information to help you prepare, and I tried my best to read over it carefully to maximise the use of my pass. There are things like discounts at hostels, hotels and cafes,  and reduced entry to some sightseeing attractions, and for your pass can even be used to make reservations on selected ferry lines.

Eurail Travel Log, which you're required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

Eurail Travel Log, which you’re required to fill out as proof of your travel days.

The Eurail Map I used for planning - as you can see, the original plans I made aren't quite what ended up happening.

The Eurail Map I used for planning – as you can see, the original plans I made aren’t quite what ended up happening.

***

Given some of the difficulties I came across, I obviously didn’t read the fine print closely enough. There were times when I got it right – in Stockholm, were I activated the pass, I saw that all the trains to Copenhagen were high-speed trains that required the purchase of a reservation. So I did that, no problems – since I already had the ticket, it was just a small fare to reserve a seat on the train. I had an allocated seat when I boarded the train, and other than a huge delay once the train was already en route to Denmark, there was no issue with the trip. However, when I went to travel to Hamburg from Copenhagen, I’d seen in the timetable that reservations were not compulsory, but when I went to ask someone at the ticket office where I should go to catch the train to Hamburg, she looked at me uncertainly and asked if I had a reservation.
“Oh… um… Do I need one?” was all I could think to say. She pulled a discontenting face which made it obvious she was reluctant to give the final word on that issue.
“Maybe. Perhaps not. You can go down to the platform and ask.” She pointed me in the right direction, and on the platform it was all rather chaotic. I eventually found where the 2nd Class carriages were and stepped onto the train and found myself a vacant seat. It was here I learnt that just because a reservation wasn’t compulsory, doesn’t mean you still couldn’t get one. Several times I saw people come over to other passengers and upheave them from their seats – those were obviously people who had reservations – and the displaced passengers usually had to stand up for the rest of the very long trip. I was lucky during that trip, however, and when the train inspector came along to check my ticket, he didn’t require anything more than a stamp to my Eurail pass to mark off one of my 15 days of travel. That was when I started to get the hang of compulsory vs non-compulsory reservations on the trains.

The ability to catch more than one train on each travelling day was also a life saver for me on the odd occasion, in conjunction with the handy Eurail iPhone app that I downloaded, which effectively made the timetable booklet redundant. When I found myself stranded in Hamburg without a place to stay, I referred to the app and put in ‘Hamburg’ as the origin and ‘Groningen’ as the destination. It searched the timetables and showed me exactly which train I had to catch to what cities, and because I turned on the function that only showed trains that didn’t require reservations, I was able to travel for the rest of the day for no extra charge, and that was how I ended up in the Netherlands with Gemma a day earlier than I had planned. It was generally the less frequented routes, such as the ones that took me to Groningen, which required no reservations, so the pass I had was particularly useful for things like that. Once I’d familiarised myself with how it all worked, I was able to really enjoy the flexibility of my pass knowing that I could stay an extra day or two in certain places, as I ended up doing in Berlin, without it having too much of an impact on the cost-effectiveness of my pass. The desire to take trains that required no reservations also encouraged me to see cities that I probably would have otherwise missed, such as Cologne, Brussels, and Bratislava.

***

There were other problems though. The one I had the biggest issue with was the inability to make reservations for a Eurail pass online. On my last night in Berlin, when Ralf was helping me try to book a ticket to Paris, there was no where for me to state that I had the pass, which would have resulted in me paying for the full-priced ticket (the trains to Paris were all full anyway, but that’s beside the point). This meant that for every journey I took with my Pass that required a reservation, I had to line up in the often monstrously long queues – in Paris, Barcelona, Rome, and Ancona – for what was ultimately a ridiculously small and simple exchange. Paris in general was just a nightmare for train reservations, both travelling to and from the city. In Cologne I got up extremely early and rushed to the ticket office – which had been closed by the time I arrived the previous evening – to reserve a ticket to Paris. The woman told me that all of the allocations she had available for Eurail customers were taken, and that I could pay a full priced fare for either 1st or 2nd Class if I wanted to catch that train. I hadn’t been aware of that point, and it was frustrating to know that there was room on the train, but my pass just simply did not allow for it. I assured her that full fares were not an option, and she eventually found a way for me to get to Paris that day by sending me via Brussels, but I still had to pay reservation fees, with the one for the French train company being particularly large for such a short distance – while Eurail passes are valid all across Europe, they operate in partnership with all the separate national train companies across the continent, which is why it cost me €30 to get from Brussels to Paris, but only around €9 to get from Stockholm to Denmark.

Then there were the difficulties of making a reservation for the overnight train from Paris to Barcelona. The evening that I wanted to leave was completely booked out, and the next day only had reclining seats available, rather than the cabins with beds in them. Desperate to not overstay in a city as expensive as Paris, I took the reclining seat class, which was still a hefty €50 reservation fee. I know that’s significantly less than than the price of the usual ticket, but after having paid around €550 for the pass in the first place, I never expected to be paying quite so much more for reservations. On the whole, I would have spent at least €100 or more just on those reservation fees for my trips, which is – to be fair – briefly outlined in the guide, but it was never really impressed upon me how often I would have to do that, or even indeed that my access to those reservations would be quite so limited due to allocated numbers. It’s also worth noting that while the Eurail pass is also valid for some of the ferry lines between Spain, Italy, Greece and Croatia – something I was considering in my initial plan – they are still limited by availability and incur extra reservation fees that are undoubtedly greater than the ones for train.

***

Then there were just a lot of random nuisances with the trains, as well as random restrictions on the pass. When I’d had my direction dilemma leaving Berlin, Ralf had suggested visiting Poland, but along with Serbia, Montenegro, Albania, Macedonia and Bosnia, it was a country that was not valid for my Eurail pass. Anything east of Poland or Romania was also excluded, and while perhaps they’re not as popular destinations as parts of Western Europe, I thought they’d qualify for an inclusion in the Eurail pass, since it extended down all the way to Turkey – although perhaps that was an issue with those countries rather than Eurail itself.

The other place where I had problems booking tickets as Ancona. I lined up at the ticket office to ask about ticket availability for travelling to Zürich, as I would need to make several stopovers. The man angrily yelled at me and told me to speak to the information office in another part of the building. There, from the amount of effort it took to explain what I wanted – and I’m not even talking about language barriers – it was as though the woman had never had to deal with a Eurail pass before, and Ancona is a popular tourist port for ferries travelling to and from Greece and Croatia, so that can’t have been the case. After moving at a painstakingly glacial pace, she was eventually able to tell me if all the trains I needed to catch had vacancies – they did – so I thanked her and went back to reserve them. Of course, when I went to book it, all the prices she had quoted me were wrong, and I ended up having to pay a lot more for the reservations than I intended. I was also a little apprehensive about making reservations for Italian trains because from what I had experienced they were never running on time. It could take just one delayed departure to mess up my entire booked schedule and have me sitting on trains shooting across the country while I wrung my hands in stress and tried to figure out alternate routes.

Of course, in Switzerland I had the opposite problem. I anxiously checked the time on my phone as I stood at the end of the queue of people who were boarding the train. There were so many people in front of me taking so long to get on that, with a minute before scheduled departure time, I ran to the end of the carriage and jumped on there. While I was still walking to my seat, the train began its movements exactly on time, and I’m almost certain if I had still been at the end of that line, I’d still be on the platform watching my reserved seat haul out to Austria. You just don’t mess with Swiss punctuality.

***

There’s all kinds of hiccups that can make the planing of a Europe train expedition a rather stressful, touch-and-go affair, but in the end, despite all that, I would still say it was worth it, and would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to see a lot of Europe on a budget in a limited timeframe. With the pass I travelled through 12 different countries and bunch of different cities, having in-depth experiences in the cultures of almost all of them, and in the end it was a fraction of the price of what individual tickets would have cost me to do the same trip – even with the added reservation fees. It’s relatively simple – no complicated check-in or security search or customs – you just jump on board, find a seat and away you go. You get to see the countryside pass you by, and you really get an appreciation for the distances that you’re travelling that you really just don’t get when you’re hurling through the air in a big metal flying machine. You get in amongst the people and feel like a real traveller, and that was by and large one of the things I loved about train travel – almost every day felt like an adventure.

And after your big trip is done, if you send Eurail your travel log – which I assume they record for some kind of research purposes – they return it to you along with a little gift to say thank you for helping them with that research. I can finally throw away the countless ticket stubs I hoarded, knowing that I have this cute little USB stick to remind me of my Eurail adventures.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

The neat little gift Eurail sent me after it was all over.

Danish Delights

The day I left Stockholm was actually something of a milestone in my journey – it was the day I activated my Eurail Pass, and began my tour of mainland Europe via train. The type of pass I’d gotten was a Flexi Global Pass, which meant that I had unlimited travel on the European train systems for 15 non-consecutive days within a two month period. It had seemed like the best option for me, given that my own plans were virtually non-existent, and I had plenty of room to be flexible. Though something else exciting also happened that morning – I received my first successful reply to a Couch Request on Couchsurfing! On the website, you can either post public messages or requests to which individual users may reply to, or you can browse through hosts and send them more personalised requests to stay with them. As I checked my emails before checking out of the hostel, a weight was lifted off my shoulders when a guy named Esben had agreed to host me during my time in Copenhagen. I set out to the train station to leave Stockholm with much higher spirits than when I had arrived – I had a place to stay and, most importantly, someone to hang out with upon my arrival. My time in Stockholm had taught me that having company or going solo can make a huge difference in the way you experience a city.

***

Unfortunately, those high spirits were somewhat deflated by the time I reached Copenhagen. After sitting around on a train that had been motionless for almost two hours, listening to numerous non-English announcements, a Swedish woman finally explained to me that there had been a fire on the tracks ahead of us, and that we had been unable to proceed due to a back up of other trains. It was certainly a bizarre, unexpected circumstance, and I’ll never know for sure if it was a train that was on fire, or just the area around the tracks, or something else entirely. All I knew is that I would be late for meeting Esben at the train station in Copenhagen, and he had to work until midnight in the evening. So instead of meeting him beforehand, when I finally got to Copenhagen I lugged my bags into an all you can eat pizza and salad bar and virtually ate my weight in lettuce – it had been a while seen I’d seen fresh vegetables. After overstaying my welcome, I returned to the station and set up camp on the floor, and waited for Esben to arrive.

I was approached by various people, including numerous beggars and a vulgar group of young men, one of whom – when I failed to understand what he said in Danish – told me to perform fellatio on him (using much more vulgar terminology, of course). But then the group just laughed and wandered away, leaving me by myself to sit and wait. I was so relieved when Esben finally arrived – the city hadn’t been making a very good impression so far, but right from the start I could tell Esben was a good guy. He was a gentle giant – tall and broad, but mild-mannered and soft spoken. He showed me which bus to get on, and asked the driver to tell me which stop I had to get off at – Esben had his bike with him, so he told me he’d meet me at the bus stop. By the time we got home and set up the air mattress in the small living room it was nearly one in the morning, but Esben was extraordinarily patient, and only headed to bed himself when I assured him I settled and comfortable.

***

The following day, Esben said he would be able to show me around in the afternoon, but had a few errands to run during the morning. He was, however, able to lend me his spare bicycle. At first I was a little wary – firstly because the last time I rode a two wheeled vehicle had been a disaster, and even managing the quad bikes in Siberia had been a bit of a fluke, and secondly, I knew that cycling was a serious thing around these parts. Counties like Denmark and the Netherlands are interesting when it comes to their topography because they are exceptionally flat. As a result, riding bicycles becomes a highly favoured mode of transport, because its so easy to get around – there’s no steep hills to work you into a sweat on your way to wherever you’re going, and the bike lane systems are so integrated that its actually easier than driving a car. Seriously, the bike lines even have their own miniature traffic lights! It’s a nice change from the usually arrogant and sometimes aggressive cyclists of Sydney, who usually obey neither road rules or pedestrian etiquette. Helmets are also optional in Denmark – I know there’s obvious dangers in that, but it gives the city a totally picturesque and carefree feeling, with hipster girls in their flowing summer dresses and unbridled hair catching the breeze as they cycle through the wide, open streets.

While Esben ran his errands, I busied myself by cycling to the National Museum, and only getting lost once. There was a huge collection of ethnographic displays and exhibits from ancient cultures from all around the world, and the fascinated sociologist in me was able to spend a couple of hours there trawling through the artefacts. The fact they had free WiFi probably helped as well, the Viking and medieval rooms with displays full of weapons, armour, goblets and tapestries even satisfied the Game of Thrones nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Viking drinking horn that excited the GOT nerd in me.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Wooden statue of St George slaying the dragon of legend.

Ancient skull - the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

Ancient skull – the living human most likely died from the damage visible here.

***

After the museum I met up with Esben again, and we rode our bikes through the city, passing a lot of old and beautiful buildings mixed in with the modern. With a major street named after Hans Christian Anderson, Copenhagen appropriately has a fairytale feeling surrounding it. We stopped a 17th century church called Vor Freslers Kirke, an elegant looking building with a bell tower that loomed over the city, and was finished with a narrow, spiralling point at the top. Esben and I went inside and climbed to the top – from the final steps, at a height of 95 metres, you could pretty much see the entire city. The land itself was so flat that a tower didn’t need to be much higher than that to get the sweeping panoramas. Esben pointed out some major landmarks and buildings around Copenhagen, allowing me to better familiarise myself with the city and get my bearings for when it came time to do some exploring without his guidance.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The enchanting tower above the church.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

The bells inside the old wooden interior of the tower.

Copenhagen horizon - view from the tower.

Copenhagen horizon – view from the tower.

We pressed on via bicycle to an area that I had been very excited to visit ever since Susanna had told me about it back in Helsinki – the commune at Freetown of Christiania. “They’re a commune that have managed to stay pretty independent from the rest if the laws in Denmark. It’s legal to smoke pot, and everyone there’s a little bit of a hippie – it’s just a really cool and chilled out place.” It sounded fascinating from the first time I heard about it, and when I met Esben he told me that he actually worked in a store in Christiania, so he’d be able to give me a tour of the area. And it was really cool – it definitely felt like I’d walked into a completely different city, which I guess I technically had.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben's shop.

Groovy mural on the side of Esben’s shop.

The local brew in Christiania.

The local brew in Christiania.

There were shops, stalls, cafes and restaurants littered throughout the area. There were mainly unsealed roads and paths through the gardens and greenery that were almost always filled with pedestrians and cyclists – in retrospect, I don’t think I saw a single car in the main centre of the village, if at all in the whole commune. Maybe they’re not even allowed there? I’m not sure. It almost felt like a big festival, the kind that turns into a small village for the duration of the event, except this was a small, permanent village. A highlight was probably walking through the Green Light District. There were only three rules in the Green Light District: no running (it can cause panic and alarm people), no photos, and have fun. The ‘no photos’ rule is obviously the most applicable, because any outsider would see what was inside the district and automatically feel compelled to capture such a foreign world on camera. Esben also told me that while the sale of these drugs goes on quite openly, it’s still technically illegal. I’m not sure if the law just turns a blind eye, or if there really is something infringing their jurisdiction, but within the community it all seemed pretty normal. Christiania displayed a lot of it own laws, including no fighting or physical and no ‘hard drugs’, so I suppose they can’t be accused of actively promoting a hugely rampant drug culture, I don’t even know if I should be saying so much about it on a public platform – I feel like it might be in violation of some kind of code of secrecy, something the mainstream world isn’t supposed to know about without experiencing for themselves. But lets just say that before browsing the stalls and shops that were set up throughout the Green Light District, I’d had no idea that hash and marijuana came in such a wide variety of types, styles, flavours, and any other kind of property. Weed isn’t really my drug of choice – not saying that I have a drug of choice at all – so I was merely an observer as I passed through the Green Light District.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

The folk band playing in Christiania.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

Being all about freedom, people in Christiania seem to be very active and aware about the situation in Tibet, and sights like this are common in the area.

The rest of Christiania was a little less busy and a lot more mellow. There was an American folk band playing out the front the shop where Esben worked, and we sat and listened to them for a while as we drank a few of the local beers. Afterwards we rode our bikes through the rest of Christiania, which was mainly parks and other areas of greenery. The vibe was so relaxed and chilled out – I could imagine being a regular visitor if I was ever a resident of Copenhagen, purely just to enjoy such an open-minded and chilled out little corner of the world. The following afternoon I even returned by myself, while Esben was at work, to grab a beer and lie on the grass under the warm afternoon sun. At six in the evening the sun was still strong, but the European sun in general doesn’t seem as dangerous as the Australian sun – perhaps it has something to do with their lack of a hole in the ozone layer. I laid in the afternoon sunshine for so long that I think I actually fell asleep for a little while, yet when I woke up all I had was a few tan lines on my feet from slip on shoes. Scandinavia was once again surprising me with a climate that actually allowed for sunbathing.

Snoozers and Losers: A Rant on Snoring

At this point in my journey, I feel it’s appropriate to take a break from the linear narrative and focus on some of the smaller details. Actually, one detail in particular – something that not even the thickest of guide books can adequately prepare you for, yet something that almost every traveller will encounter at some point in their journey. This detail is the dreaded and infamous act of snoring.

I have a long and troubled history with this bizarre bodily function, with the cruel twist being that I don’t snore, and never have. I’ve shared rooms and beds with enough people to know this. I’ve also shared beds with boyfriends who have snored. I don’t mean heavy breathing, or that kind of muffled wheezing that people make when they have a blocked nose. Real snoring is loud and consistent, and doesn’t just show up some nights and disappear on others. For me it can be a deal breaker in relationships – how am I supposed to sleep with you if I’m unlikely to ever have a good nights sleep again? To be sure, there are varying degrees of severity. Sometimes it’s a solution as simple as a pair of ear plugs. Other times its a little more dire and requires moving to another room – generally not an option in the middle of the night when you’re in a hostel. But there are some people who snore so badly that no amount of soft foam wedged into your ears is going to help, and in some cases even a dividing wall can’t cut out the vibrations rattling from their distorted windpipes.

***

During my time in South-East Asia, I miraculously avoided this problem. Either I was extremely lucky that I never shared a dorm room with someone who snored, or I drank so many 50c beers every single night that I passed out too hard to notice – which is the only real foolproof way I’ve discovered to overcome a snoring roommate. Though that was all about to change once I reached China and began the Trans-Siberian tour. In Beijing I’d had the luck of being placed in my own room, so I’d asked Tim what the situation had been like with the rest of the group. “I’m in a room with Don,” he’d told me. “Which is fine, except he snores pretty bad.”
“Really? Ah man, that really sucks.”
“Yeah. Like, last night I’d already gone to bed, and he came back late from some sightseeing or something… When he went to bed, his snoring actually woke me up.” There’s a common tactic of trying to fall asleep before the snorer in order to not be kept awake – the fact that Don’s snoring was loud enough to rouse people from their own slumber filled me with grave concern.

The following nights had been on the train to Ulaanbaatar, and the night in the hotel in which I’d shared a room with Tim. He’d also shared a cabin with Don on the train, so I quickly suggested that we should share one of the double rooms, and I’m sure Tim was grateful for a solid nights rest. It wasn’t until the ger camp when I became due to experience it for myself, when the three guys who weren’t one half of a couple were all put into one ger together – that’s Don, Tim and myself. And boy, Tim had not been exaggerating – Don snored. It was almost funny, like some kind of awful joke, but that sentiment faded extremely quickly when I realised we were actually supposed to sleep with the racket going on in the next bed. Luckily I had been prescribed some sleeping pills before I left Sydney, for a blocked ear that may have caused discomfort during my flights. Yet even washed down with vodka and wine on the night we had a party in the gers, sleep still didn’t come so easily.

***

It was a similar story at Lake Baikal as well. I would never have expected my best nights sleep to be had on the Trans-Siberian trains, while having to drink and medicate myself to sleep at each of our stops. Tim had been sharing a room with him ever since the ger camp, including all of the trains – I felt so bad for him, though not bad enough to offer to trade places, since I’d had my own share of restless nights with Don’s snoring. When we got to Moscow, however, there was a rush and a scurry as our group was divided into two rooms – a larger dorm for nine of our people, and a smaller room for the other four. I’d secured a bed in the larger room, but when I looked back out into the lobby I saw Tim standing amongst the chaos, a lost, slightly dejected look on his face. And I instantly knew why – the larger room was full, and Don had claimed a bed in the other one.

So I stepped out and offered Tim my bed. He seemed genuinely shocked, but I didn’t have to offer twice. He was extremely grateful as he moved his stuff in, while I dropped my bag off into the smaller room. After four nights on from Irkutsk to Moscow, I was concerned Tim might not make it through the next day without a decent night of sleep. If you can cast your thoughts back to my blogs about Moscow, you’ll remember I lamented about having a terrible nights sleep. This is the reason why. Between the room that became ridiculously humid during the nights and the snoring that rattled the bunk beneath me, I think I managed maybe a couple of hours sleep each night, at the very most.

Come St Petersburg, I was once again in a dorm with Don. Now it may be a little more clear as to why I did my best to keep with the Russians when it came to our evenings of drinking – a solid sleep with a resulting hangover, in my experience, is infinitely better than a frustrated and sleepless night of tossing and turning. But on my last evening in St Petersburg, I had decided it would be better to have a decent nights sleep and a clear head in the morning, to make sure I didn’t miss my train to Finland. I went to bed at a decent hour – unfortunately, Don had beaten me there. He was in one of the bunks underneath me, and I swear sometimes I felt the vibrations through the bed frame. That’s how bad it was. It was a noise that almost didn’t sound like snoring – every so often it mutated to a strangled gurgling that actually made me feel a little bit sick. I never thought I’d ever use the word ‘disgusting’ to describe the sound of a snore, but it honestly made me feel ill. I laid in my bed, desperate to fall asleep, but it was literally impossible with such a commotion going on below me. Sometimes it would stop, and the partial relief came with the simultaneous concern that maybe he’d actually stopped breathing. But it wasn’t long before there was a huge, sucking snort and the horrendous snoring would continue. Some people get woken up by their own snoring, and then they roll over or move into a position with better airflow into their nose or oesophagus or whatever – not Don, he just powered on through. I wondered if there was actually anyone else asleep in the dorm. No one seemed to be tossing and turning as furiously as I was – maybe they were all drunk and passed out.

I managed to doze off a few times, into a very light sleep, but I was always wrenched back into the unfortunate reality of Don and his snoring. It was a shame, because Don was a nice enough guy, but I think I really came to resent him by the end of the trip, purely because he had, however unintentionally, robbed me of far too many nights of sleep while he had been happily snoring away in his own slumber.

***

It happened again in Stockholm. There was someone – and I never figured out who it was – who snored and made the most vile gargling noises that a decent sleep was next to impossible. I didn’t have much energy to do a lot of sightseeing when I was in Stockholm, and it was partly, if not mostly, the fault of whoever kept me awake with that racket they called breathing. And I don’t think it’s something mild that people should just deal with – I honestly think that that persons snoring was a serious negative impact on my time in Stockholm, because the lack of sleep just really threw me out for the entire day.

I’m not the first person to suggest that people who snore shouldn’t be allowed to sleep in dorms, or they should be allocated special ‘snoring rooms’. Even though I say I develop strong negative feelings towards snorers, there’s nothing personal in the request. But I think for a snorer to sleep in a shared dorm is incredibly unfair on everyone else. It’s almost selfish – you get to enjoy a nice long sleep while simultaneously robbing everyone else around you of the same luxury. Why should you get to sleep when you’re the reason the rest of us suffer from lack of sleep the following day? There’s no way you can come so far in life without having to share a room with someone – someone is bound to have told you about it, especially if your snoring is that bad. In that case, I really think you should either search for a medical solution to what is actually a very real problem, or do not stay in dorms where you’re going to be a serious nuisance to others. I don’t mean to sound like a bitch, but it’s the honest truth, and I dare you to find me a traveller who hasn’t had similar thoughts about a snorer they’ve encountered in a dorm on their travels.

And it may sound harsh, or like an overreaction, but unless you were there and experienced the Hell that I slept through, or rather didn’t sleep through, then maybe you’ll just never understand.

Stockholm Syndrome

Scandinavia as a region is not known for being cheap, and Stockholm is supposedly one of the most expensive cities in Europe. It was an unsettling thought – the progressive price increases hadn’t let up since I left Thailand. However, Susanna had assured me I’d only really need two days each per city to the see the best bits of both Stockholm and Copenhagen, so I could take small comfort in the fact my time in this expensive area would be relatively brief. Aside from being expensive, Stockholm was also renowned for being a beautiful city – both in its physical aesthetic, and the people who lived inside it. “Stockholm is such a fashionable city,” Susanna had told me in our discussion about my future travels. “Everyone there is just incredibly good-looking and so well dressed. I swear, if you lived there you would have to spend nearly your whole paycheque on clothes just to keep up with the fashion.” From what I’d seen of Swedish men during my time in Australia, I can’t deny I was more than a little excited to be entering this supposed treasure trove of eye candy.

***

Unlike the trip over from Helsinki, navigating the Stockholm upon my arrival was not such smooth sailing. From the map in my guide book I could see that the port was a fair way out from the main city. Actually, that’s only half true – I could very easily see the city and the part of Stockholm I was trying to get to. As the crow flies it would have been a relatively short walk. The problem was that it was across a huge gulf in the river that ran through the city. Later, a local would tell me that Stockholm is known as the Venice of Scandinavia – I hadn’t heard the term before, but by the end of my stay I certainly believed it. Unfamiliar with the public transport system that didn’t even really seem to come down this far in the first place, I was forced to catch a taxi. I asked for the meter – he said there was traffic, and offered me a price that would supposedly be better. He asked for it Swedish Krona – I only had Euros. It was a complicated exchange that didn’t even seem to be helped by the fact he spoke English, but in the end I think the price was fairly decent. I tried not to think about it to much – You’re in Stockholm now, I said to myself. It’s not going to get any cheaper than that.

During my time in Helsinki, I had attempted to search for Scandinavian hosts in Sweden and Denmark, so far to no avail. While I was still desperately clinging to the hope of finding a host in Copenhagen, I resigned to the fact that I would also be paying for accommodation in this beautiful, expensive city. I arrived at the hostel without a reservation, hoping for the best. The hostel had a nautical theme, and a large number of the beds were located in cabin dorms, inside a renovated ship docked out the front in the river. Lucky, they still had room in the 17 bed dorm, located on solid ground and considerably cheaper. Check in wasn’t until 3pm though, so I used the shower, dropped off my bags in luggage storage and set out to explore the city. Stockholm lived up the expectations. Everyone just looked so good. Even people who weren’t conventionally attractive were so well dressed that walking down the streets felt like being an extra on a TV show or movie where the detail in every single background character had been so meticulously planned. The fact that I had been wearing the same tired clothes and repeated outfits for nearly two months didn’t do wonders for my self esteem, and a mild paranoia kicked in where I felt as though just being there was letting the city down, and lowering its standards.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

The ship that was actually part of my hostel.

***

Like most cities in Europe, Stockholm had a travellers pass, the ‘Stockholm card’, that you could buy which provided you with either free or discounted entry to many of the city’s attractions, and free unlimited use of the citywide public transport. At first this excited me – regular readers will know how excited I get about good public transport – but further investigation revealed that Stockholm as a city didn’t really have that much public transport. In fact, it just wasn’t a very big city. There were also other passes that gave you access to public bike stands around the city – you swipe the card, the bike rack unlocks a bike, and you can ride it anywhere so long as you return it to another stand somewhere in the city within three hours. However, all these options were only really of any value if you were there for at least 3 or 4 days – the bike pass itself came for a minimum of three days. Given I was only staying for a maximum of two nights, it hardly seemed worth it. I wasn’t planning on visiting a huge number of museums, and I wouldn’t be straying too far from the city centre, which was near enough to my hostel. And so began my extensive walking tour of Stockholm.

Traversing the city by foot was actually a great way to see the city, in my opinion. With the exception of the Gamla Stan area, whose streets mirrored olden days of the 12th Century, there was a quaint, modern beauty to the streets of Stockholm. Clean, refined and operating like a well-oiled machine, it fit the model of typical Scandinavian efficiency that they were generally well known for. Crossing the road was easy because the cars drove slow and steady, but once again locals seemed reluctant to even contemplate jaywalking. I visited a few of what appeared to be the major sights – I honestly didn’t know that much about Stockholm, and had never heard of any ‘must see’ attractions. There was the Riddarholmen Church, a beautiful old building that was home to a large number of tombs, mostly containing nobility from Swedish royal houses. After that was the City Hall, which included a huge tower that provided 360 degree views of the surrounding city. When I went to buy a ticket to go up, the attendant gave me a warning. “The elevator is broken today, so you’ll have to climb the stairs the whole way.” I couldn’t help but laugh – the building looked so old I hadn’t even expected it to even have an elevator. I’d been climbing up the steps of every attraction from the Great Wall of China to St Isaacs Cathedral, and a took a moment to think of Kaylah as I assured the woman that I would be fine with the stairs. It would have been she had wanted.

Riddarholmen Church

Riddarholmen Church

The interior of Riddarholmen church - complete with token scaffolding.

The interior of Riddarholmen church – complete with token scaffolding.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

City Hall and the tower that I climbed.

There were a lot of stairs though – the upper reaches of the tower, where the elevator didn’t go, was a narrow red brick hallway with a pointed ceiling, which went around and around and around and around and around and around and around and around to the point where I thought that I was trapped in some kind of magicians trick and I was going to end up at the bottom of the tower without ever having emerged at the top. I finally reached the summit though, and it was definitely worth the hike. The panoramic view gave me a better understanding of the city’s layout: the different islands and peninsulas it was composed of; the wide river and multiple canals that divided them up; the obvious architectural distinctions between the old city and the newer parts of Stockholm. It was a cold and windy day, but I stayed up there for quite a while drinking in the sight. Unlike St Petersburg, Stockholm was a city that was quite beautiful from both the street level and from an aerial perspective.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The narrow, never ending staircase.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

The view from the top provided sweeping panoramic views of the city.

***

My second day in Stockholm had substantially better weather, clear blue skies and wam, invigorating sunshine. I set out into the bright morning to explore Gamla Stan, the Old Town of Stockholm. It was a tiny, charming area of the city, with narrow cobbled streets that were sloping in all directions, with some so steep I was actually a little out of breath after climbing them. This was the picturesque Stockholm that looked like it could have been lifted out of a fairy tale, or a children’s storybook. I wandered around the narrow roads until I got to the palace, where I had arrived just in time for the changing of the guard. A whole bunch of Swedish soldiers marched out of the main courtyard, half of them comprising a marching band on horseback, while another set of guards moved in to take their place. I joined the throng of tourists that had gathered to watch, thoroughly impressed by the ability to play their instruments on horseback, more than anything else.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The main palace in Gamla Stan.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The horseback band at the Changing of the Guard.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

The charming little streets of Gamla Stan.

There were lots of sightseeing tours in Stockholm, most of them by boat. It seemed like the most obvious and easiest way to see the city, dissected as it was over and over again by the multiple canals, but as I examined the list of tours and respective prices, I couldn’t help but feel it was such a grossly touristic thing to do, not to mention they seemed far too overpriced. So instead I spent my afternoon on an island called Skansen. All the islands of Stockholm are joined by bridges, so I strolled through the more modern streets of the city until I reached Skansen, an island almost completely made up of greenery: forests and parks and grassy clearings and trails through the woods. There was even a theme park with a few rides, but I had a more leisurely afternoon in mind. Everywhere there were people exercising, going for their afternoon and evening runs, and I followed along the roads that ran along the outside of the huge island, stopping to admire some of the statues along the way, before turning inland and hiking off a short way up into the hills. It was like a slice of natural heaven, completely isolated, right in the middle of the city. You would never have guessed it though – there was only the faintest sounds of the city in the distance, so quite that you really had to strain your ears to even notice them. I found a sunny clearing at the top of one the hills, and took a break to sit down and work on my blog. There’s something about that kind of natural environment that really gets the creative juices flowing. Or maybe I was just so far from any kind of distraction – it’s hard to be sure. All I know is that I spent a long time hanging out on that island. It was as though the weather was trying to make up for the unusually long and cold winter, and I was more than happy to enjoy the penance it was paying.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the grassy areas on Skansen.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the Skansen statues along the river side.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

One of the more isolate parts of Skansen, were I took some time to myself.

Skansen selfie.

Skansen selfie.

***

It’s hard to really say what I did with my nights in Stockholm, because there was really so little of them. I’d spent longer than I’d realised on my first night pouring over maps and timetables, trying to get a better idea of where I was going in Europe and when I would be there, to potentially avoid some of the anxieties I’d had upon arriving here. When I decided it was time to start thinking about dinner – I’d assumed it was approaching six o’clock – I was shocked to see that it was already well after nine. The days were so long that I was literally forgetting to eat. I was there during for a Monday and Tuesday evening, so I decided to give checking out the nightlife a miss – it would probably be, yet again, very expensive, and to be honest the city wasn’t really inspiring a party mood in me. I hung around the hostel and chatted to a few travellers – a few nice and friendly people, a couple of shy and quiet ones, but no one of particular note, or anyone I attempted to stay in contact with.

I guess I spent a lot of time on my own, reflecting on how far I’d come on my journey, and how it was really only a fraction of how far I still had to go. After the close confines of the Trans-Siberian the solitude still felt like something of a luxury, though I knew sooner or later I was going to get sick of being alone. But Stockholm had definitely been a suitable city for solitude and contemplation – the gentle and non-confronting beauty was the perfect background for being alone with my thoughts.

Cruisin’

On my first night in Helsinki, I’d been chatting with Susanna about prospective routes for my journey. “I’m thinking about getting a boat to Stockholm,” I’d said. “I feel as though it would take too long to get the train all the up through Finland and then back through the rest of Sweden.”
“Ah, the good old booze cruise,” Susanna had laughed. “You’re right though, and there isn’t that much to see up that way anyway. But the cruises are a lot of fun. I’ve done it a few times when I’ve had to go to Stockholm.” She explained that a lot of Finnish people booked the overnight cruise as a round trip – they partied all night on the boat, slept all day when the boat was docked in Stockholm, and partied the whole night on the way back. “I had to do things in Stockholm though, so didn’t get the benefit of a day of sleep. But it’s still heaps of fun.”

Then I’d mentioned potentially getting the train to Turku, a town on the western coast, and getting the ferry from there. “Yeah…” Susanna had replied, but there was obvious skepticism in her voice. “The trains are pretty expensive though, if you were still thinking about waiting to activate your Eurail Pass. And Turku isn’t that exciting either. I’d get then boat from Helsinki, if it were me.” Back when I had been making rough plans for my world tour, I had the intention of visiting not only the major cities, but other smaller, less frequented destinations. However, it seemed that the scope of the countries I wanted to visit meant I was going to have to be a little more selective. I cast my thoughts back to Chau Doc in Vietnam, and how the side trip had really not been worth it at all, so I decided to heed Susanna’s advice and head straight to Stockholm from Helsinki.

***

Being the terrible decision maker that I am, it wasn’t until the Sunday morning that I booked my ticket on the ferry for that night. That was something I had to work on, although I had discovered a ridiculously good value fare online, so perhaps this time it worked to my advantage. After saying farewell to Susanna, I headed for the docks on the south-eastern side of the city and boarded the boat. I was still feeling quite hungover from the previous night out, so I wasn’t sure how well I was going to handle a night where I was essentially trapped in a party atmosphere.

The boat was massive. There were 10 levels, including a conference room on the top deck and several levels of restaurants, shops, game rooms, nightclubs and stages with live music. I was actually really impressed at how nice the whole thing was – red carpers and gold trimmings on the decor made it feel as though I was in a fancy hotel. However, my room was less glamorous – a small room in the depths of the hull (thank god there was an elevator) with four bunks that made me feel a little nostalgic for the Trans-Siberian Railway cabins, except there were no windows. None of my cabin mates had arrived, so I made my bed with the provided linen, dropped my bags off and did some exploring. There was some kind of convention or conference on this trip, as I noticed a lot of traditionally dressed Muslim men heading up towards the 10th floor. I wandered thought the duty free shop and around the games room, before having dinner at the cafeteria buffet and then making my way over to see what was happening in the entertainment area.

There was already a rock band in full swing, belting out songs I didn’t know – possibly in a language I didn’t know – but there were only a few smatterings of people around the bar, groups talking amongst themselves and not really paying attention to the actual entertainment. No one was dancing. It was a middle-aged crowd that didn’t seem like the partying type at all. I wondered where the rest of the young people who I had seen boarding the ferry earlier had gotten to. They’d come on with their stylish clothes and suitcases and for the most part seemingly enthusiastic attitudes. However, it was a Sunday night, and I wondered if maybe I hadn’t chosen the right evening to expect the party boat or “booze cruise”.

And the unsatisfying end to this story is that I will never know. I went below the main deck to my cabin to find that it was still empty, a clear indication that the boat wasn’t full. So I decided to go and shower, and then returned to my cabin… where I promptly passed out. My hangover and day of sightseeing in the warm Helsinki sun had caught up with me, and when I stirred to check the time again it was already after one in the morning. Rather than drag myself out of bed to see if there was in fact a raging party on the upper levels, I decided to indulge in the fact I had a room to myself and continue with a solid night of sleep. I know I’d only just had a room to myself back at Susanna’s apartment, but the uncertainty of my future accommodation meant that I had no idea when I would have such a luxury again. Considering I had been expecting to be sharing with three other people, I took full advantage of the situation.

I awoke in the morning with enough time for the buffet breakfast before gathering my things and departing the ship. We’d crossed another time zone on our voyage to Stockholm, so I had an extra hour on the day. Which was helpful, considering I had no accommodation booked, knew very little about the city – just what was in my Lonely Planet Europe on a Shoestring guide – and didn’t know a single person in the city. Yep, this was going to be interesting.

***

I’d always been a little dismissive of cruises, on the argument that it was a holiday for a holidays sake. You didn’t really see that much if you spent all your time on a boat, and you didn’t get a very cultural experience if you were spending all day on what was essentially a big hotel. I still sort of hold that view of cruises, although I have to say, being on the boat made me think that it would actually be a lot of fun, especially if I’d been with a group of friends. After the staggering range of cultural differences I’d experiences over the past 2 months, I think I can appreciate the idea of a holiday where the sole purpose is to just relax, and not really care if the only sight you see is 360 degrees of ocean for seven days. I know that’s not exactly how cruises work either, but I’ll admit, given I did have my own room, I wouldn’t have minded spending a little bit longer on that boat. And next time my friends suggest it, maybe I won’t be so quick to shun the idea of a cruise holiday.

Nothin' but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.

Nothin’ but me and the big blue Baltic Sea.