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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Swiss Secrets

After a long day of trains and transfers, from Ancona to Bologna, then Bologna to Milan and from Milan to Zürich, I finally arrived in one of the biggest cities in Switzerland, which in reality felt more like a large town than a small city. It was an exhausting day though – one of the most tiresome things about travelling is actually being in transit, and I was usually pretty shocked at how tired I would feel after simply sitting down on a train all day, although by now I was starting to get used to it with all the trains I had been catching around Europe. When I finally stepped off the train at Zürich, I was greeted by my next Couchsurfing host, Umer. Much like Ike had sent me the invitation to visit Ancona, Umer had seen my profile among the people who had listed that they were travelling in Europe, and had messaged me offering a place to stay with him should I ever find myself in his city. Such offers ended up shaping my trip quite a bit, since I had no set or definite plans myself, and I had had no success in finding hosts in any other Italian cities I might have been interested in seeing. I was also acutely aware of the approaching expiry date of my Eurail pass, so I had to make sure I had completed my circuit around Europe before that time arrived.

From the moment we met, Umer displayed a bright and bubbly personality. He helped me find an ATM to withdraw some money, since Switzerland doesn’t use euros like most of its neighbouring countries, but instead has held onto its original currency, the Swiss franc. As we made our way out of the train station, Umer reached into his satchel bag and brought out a bottle of light brown liquid. “Now, you have to try this. This is Rivella. It’s a Swiss soft drink, made right here in Switzerland, and it’s pretty popular. It’s one thing that you just have to try.” It looked like the colour of ginger beer, but it was made from milk whey, but I couldn’t really tell you exactly what it tasted like. It was fizzy, but it wasn’t entirely sweet either, and had a odd aftertaste. I could only manage half the bottle before I handed it back to Umer, but I still hadn’t made up my mind as to whether or not I actually liked Rivella.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

Statue of Richard Kissling, a Swiss sculptor, outside the train station.

We hopped onto one of the numerous trams that made up Zürich’s impressive public transport system. The system is comprised of trains, overground trams, buses, electric buses, a cable car and regular ferries across Lake Zürich, and the system was so comprehensive that I couldn’t imagine why anyone would bother driving anywhere in the city, when public transport could literally take you everywhere. As we travelled through the city centre, Umer pointed out various attractions that I should come back and visit and photograph later, when I wasn’t carrying my large bag. Umer wouldn’t be able to return with me, though. The following morning Umer had to fly out of Switzerland for a work trip. However, he’d agreed to let me stay at his place for one more night without him, since he lived with his parents who would be home for that time. I had had another host lined up for that next night, but they had cancelled on me last minute. Umer also gave me a very serious warning about tickets on public transport. “If you don’t have a valid ticket, its an on-the-spot 100 franc fine. If you don’t have it on you, police accompany you to an ATM so you can get it, and if  you can’t pay it then they put you in gaol.” He told me a couple of horror stories about previous Couchsurfers of his who had been hit with the whopping fine, and even though I had been happy to risk it several times while travelling on the U-Bahn in Berlin, I decided the risk probably wasn’t worth 100 francs, and definitely not worth spending time in a Swiss gaol. Luckily, Umer had brought along his dad’s monthly public transport pass for me to use, so I didn’t have to buy a ticket that afternoon.

The Swiss flag (although this one isn't in the traditional square shape).

The Swiss flag (although this one isn’t in the traditional square shape).

***

Umer was a fantastic guide, even from the confines of the train, teaching me random bits and pieces about the history of Switzerland, and other interesting facts. After I confessed to him that I originally thought that Zürich was the capital of Switzerland, not Bern, he told me that the city only serves as the capital for international purposes, and that most of the regions within the country are pretty autonomous. “Switzerland really is all about being neutral,” he elaborated. “None of the other cities really have sovereignty over any other – it’s all quite self-sufficient. It’s also one of the few countries that has a square shaped flag, and not a rectangle. The equal sides represent equality in all parts, and that idea of remaining neutral.” Who knew there could be so much history behind a flag? We also got off and had a wander through the downtown area, and passed the Limmat River, which flows out of Lake Zürich. “The water quality in the river is so high that it’s practically drinking quality. It’s mostly freshly melted ice from out of the Alps, so it’s so clean,” Umer said as we strolled by the water that was a bright shade of blue. “We don’t really have beaches around here, but in the summer time you can always find people swimming in the river and hanging out by the bars along the waters edge.” I made a note of it, since my good luck streak with the European summer weather was forecast to continue.

But our stops along the way were all really brief. “I’ll let you take your time with the sightseeing when you come back tomorrow,” Umer said. “For now, I want to show you one of my favourite things in Zürich that you probably wouldn’t see as an ordinary backpacker.” And so we eventually arrived that Thermalbad & Spa Zürich, a thermal bath and spa house whose design still held remnants of the ancient Irish-Roman bathhouse that had once stood in its place. “I love coming here”, Umer told me. “Just wait until you get inside.” We paid, entered, and got changed into our swimwear before entering the complex. The whole place felt like a Buddhist temple in that it was extremely calm and relaxing, but when you looked up the roof was old and arching domes made of ancient bricks and stones. We relaxed in the warm bubbling water, which was apparently drawn straight from natural springs that existed under Zürich, and was full of revitalising and rejuvenating minerals. It was actually the perfect relaxing experience after the long, exhausting day of train travel. There was also a mediation pool, where you could lie face up in a shallow body of water, and when you put your ears in the water you could hear soft, tranquil music playing. The whole place had quite a mystical feel about it.

However, the best was yet to come, Umer assured me. Once we were done on the lower levels, we got into a lift that took us up to the top floor. We stepped out of the lift and straight down into a staircase that led into the bubbling water, and rounded a corner and passed through a plastic curtain… which led us out onto a rooftop spa, with panoramic views of the city. The sun was slowing setting, hanging between the mountains, and the view was absolutely breathtaking. “You should see it in the winter when its snowing, it’s pretty amazing,” Umer said, and I could only imagine that the juxtaposition of temperatures would be rather incredible. So we sat up there on the rooftop spa as twilight sank over Zürich, sharing Couchsurfing stories and telling him all about my travels, much like I would have done with any new host, but in a quite a unique setting. Umer was right – it was a pretty special place, and once again I was grateful that Couchsurfing had been able to introduce me to some experiences that I would had never have had without it. Afterwards we headed back to Umer’s house, where his mother made us some dinner and then I promptly crashed, feeling incredibly relaxed after my time in the spa that had felt like something out of a dream.

I wasn't able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet - but I couldn't not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered.

I wasn’t able to take one, so I stole this photo from the Internet – but I couldn’t not include a picture of the amazing rooftop spa and the view that it offered. Image courtesy of: http://www.somestepsaway.com