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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The Seaside and Sightseeing in Beautiful Barcelona

There are many benefits of overnight transit. You kill two birds with one stone by paying for transport plus a night of accommodation in a single cost, and your time sleeping is spent productively whisking you away to your next destination, and you wake up refreshed and ready to venture into a new city. Unless, that is, your luck runs out and you don’t get a bed in the sleeper carriage and are forced to sleep in the ‘reclining seat’ class. It was described as being like business class in a plane, which really meant “You have lots of leg room but the seats are still terribly uncomfortable and actually nothing like business class on a plane”. I had fallen asleep in France and woken up in Spain, but not without the accompanying neck pain and stiff, sore legs that were the result of an inability to find a comfortable sleeping position. I would have been a little more annoyed if it hadn’t been for the fact I’d just arrived in one of my most highly anticipated destinations: Barcelona.

***

When making arrangements for staying in Barcelona, I had discovered that Rich, one of Brendon’s friends who I had met in Thailand, was also on vacation in the city. She was renting out a room through Air BnB, and fortunately there had been a second room in that apartment that I was able to rent out for myself. I’d been unsuccessful in finding any Couchsurfing hosts, and the fact that the price of my own Air BnB room would be less than the four bunk dorm in the hostel in Paris definitely made it a preferable option, so I had booked the room. When I arrived in Barcelona, I dragged myself off the train and through the sunny streets to meet Rich at the apartment. It was around 9:30am and a gorgeous day, with a sky that was a clear and cloudless blue, but the city around me only just seemed to be waking up, with limited traffic and only a few pedestrians. I would quickly learn that Spain generally runs several hours behind the conventional time of most daily events and activities. When I arrived at the apartment, I sent Rich a text message asking which apartment to buzz on the intercom. A few moments later, I heard a shout from above me. I looked up to see Rich hanging out of the window, a big smile on her face and waving down to me. She let me up into the apartment, and she introduced me to the owner of the apartment before sitting down to catch up over a little breakfast. The last time I had seen Rich, she was putting me in the back of a taxi in Bangkok and giving the driver directions in Thai. We’d both come a long way since then, so I told her all about my trip across the Trans-Siberian and Europe so far, and she described some of the beautiful sites she’d seen while she’d been vacationing in Spain. Rich was actually in Barcelona for part of a Spanish language component of her university studies, but she’d arrived early and done some traveling prior to the academic side of her holiday. However, she had been in town long enough to be able to play tour guide for me, so once we were done with breakfast we got ready and headed out to seize the day. Our apartment was right near Arc de Triomf which, having just arrived from Paris, made me do a quick double take. It seems erecting arches on the site of ones victories had been a pretty common tradition at some point in European history. Barcelona’s arch was a fraction of the size of the Parisian one, but it was a still a beautiful piece of architecture among the charming Catalonian neighbourhood. That was one thing I had underestimated before arriving in Barcelona – the desire to distinguish the west coast culture of Catalonia from the rest of Spain. “Argh, it’s so frustrating that I can’t read all the signs!” Rich had bemoaned out loud. I’d been confused at first, knowing that she basically spoke fluent Spanish, but it turns out that most of the signs were in Catalan – a distinction one could probably only make if they actually knew at least one of the two languages. It was at that point that I realised, despite a five week trip to Costa Rica followed by almost a year of language lessons, I really knew next to nothing of the Spanish language.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

A beautiful and sunny day in Barcelona.

Rich and I walked to the metro station and caught a train across town to one of the sights she suggested – the botanical gardens and Montjuïc Castle. In proper European fashion, the town was one architectural delight after the next, from the Magic Fountain of Montjuïc, which comes alive with a colourful light show at night, to the beautiful Italian-style building that was Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, or the National Art Museum of Catalonia, to the classical castle itself, which also gave stunning panoramic views of both the city and the harbour and seaside. In our attempt to find the castle, we also got a little lost and somehow stumbled across the Olympic Stadium from when Barcelona hosted the games in 1992, which we were able to have a peek into as well. Afterwards we wandered through the streets on our way back downtown, with Rich pointing out all the features of the cities buildings, and we stopped for a lunch of traditional Spanish cuisine: paella. Despite it being included in every example in every Spanish textbook I’d ever used in my studies, I’d never had the pleasure of eating paella, let alone paella in Spain, so it was a small novelty that made me quite happy.

Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya, with the famous fountain in front.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

The Barcelona Olympic Stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Inside the stadium.

Montjuïc castle.

Montjuïc castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view of the port from the top of the castle.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

The view over the city from the castles vantage point on Montjuïc Hill.

From there we walked home through the historic centre of Barcelona, and up the famous main street, La Rambla. “You have to be really careful around here,” Rich cautioned as we strolled past the many shops and stalls that lined the dividing strip of the street. “Street theft is a pretty big problem. They’re not just opportunists – they actually have professional pick pockets.” It wasn’t so much a matter of safety as it was just keeping your wits about you, and your valuables out of your back pockets. While I’d fallen for a couple of irritating scams along the way, I’d been extremely lucky when it came to a matter of forceful theft on this trip, so I found myself being extra cautious so that I didn’t spoil that record, although most people just seemed to be peddling their standard cheap and tacky souvenirs. Eventually we turned off the main road and wandered through the smaller streets, adorned with art work and exquisite sculpturing, and grabbed a delicious gelato before returning home to rest and ready ourselves for the coming night out.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

Rich and I waiting for the paella.

The delicious paella.

The delicious paella.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

Tiny side streets of Barcelona.

***

The following day, and in fact most of the rest of my time in Barcelona, was spent relaxing and chilling out, rather than seeing any more sights or doing anything particularly touristic. Barcelona was flooded with tourists for the summer, and I didn’t enjoy feeling like a sheep in that collective. Though one of the things I had been most excited for in Barcelona was the beach, so the next day Rich and I took it easy after our night of partying and spent the afternoon soaking up the sun on the sand, and I also ventured out into the waves. The most striking thing about Playa de St Sebastià was that it was “clothing optional”, but unlike many nude beaches I’ve known or visited back in Sydney, which are usually small strips of sand tucked away in the far corners of the city, this beach was one of the main beaches of Barcelona and it was packed. Men, women, children, families, couples, big groups – the sand was full of all kinds of people and a good 50% of them were baring all for the world to see. Topless sunbathing isn’t such a big deal in Australia, but these women had stripped off entirely, as had the men. I have nothing against nudity, but it did feel a little different from previous beaches I’d been to. I think what struck me as so peculiar was how many people, including myself, remained relatively covered up. I’ve always felt as though there’s some weird reverse taboo about actually leaving your swimsuit on at a clothing optional beach, but the term ‘optional’ is taken very literally here – you’re free to chose, and naked and the modest mingle as though there was no difference in their attire at all.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

The beach where Rich and I spent the afternoon in the sun.

In addition to being a nude beach, I’d also read that Playa de St Sebastià was a gay beach, though while it was frequently by gaggles of gays showing off their naked bodies, there was an equal amount of small children also running around naked, something one wouldn’t expect at a designated ‘gay beach’. I guess the atmosphere was just so liberal and carefree that it attracted all kinds of people. Rich and I stayed there all afternoon, and when we were done we decided to walk home instead of catching the metro. The streets of Barcelona were the perfect blend of seaside relaxation and a festive, lively flair. In the early evening, when the sun was setting but the streets were bathed in twilight, we went for another walk and saw may people in the parks around Arc de Triomf and saw lots of skateboarders and roller skaters, as well as street performers and other people just enjoying a stroll down the promenade. Compared to my arrival on my first morning in Barcelona, it felt like the city had finally woken up.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Arc de Triomf and the promenade during the day.

Although, while the city had definitely woken up during the day, there’s always a lull in activity when most people observe the beloved Spanish tradition of an afternoon nap, or siesta. They slowly take their time waking up again in the afternoon, but it’s when the sun goes down that the city truly comes alive…