The most awesome experience ever

In the blogosphere its almost mandatory to write a post with your “bucket list”. I’m sure you know what a “bucket list” is, but just to be on the safe side – its a list of things to do before you die (“kick the bucket”). Some call it a “wish list” or “list of things to do before I’m 40″, it all boils down to the same – a list of cool stuff you’ll do some day.

Me – I am not a big fan of the “bucket list” concept. Yes, I too have a whole list of places I want to visit and things I would like to do some day, like visiting Paris (after 12 years living within 3 hours train ride from Paris I still didn’t get around to go there). But publishing it sounds so… silly is the word I am looking for, I guess. Because what will happen if I write them all down in public and end up not doing any of them? Even if I will do lots of really cool stuff instead, it would still feel like sort of a failure. Besides, if I’d publish it, I’d have to maintain it – crossing off things I’ve done, adding new ideas – and I’m just too lazy for that.

I write this blog mainly to share the experiences I have already had, so instead of a bucket list, I thought I’d write about some of the coolest things I’ve done. I even made a draft post, telling about how I quit smoking, climbed the Mont Blanc (was very cool, but the Weisshorn was a much bigger challenge) rafted the wild rivers of the Altai mountains, got a degree in rocket science, worked on a pearl farm in the Pacific, travelled around the world and so on. But then I thought – hang on, why am I doing this? Why not just go for the Big Prize, describing that one experience that surpasses all the other ones, the most awesome experience ever?

In the past year, I’ve been living in a whole different kind of experience, one that just keeps growing and becomes more and more amazing with each day, even as I think it just can’t get any better – fatherhood. Among my friends here in Holland, I am the first to have a child. Especially in the past few weeks, as we were celebrating my daughter’s first birthday, I was often asked how it feels being a father, and whether I miss all those things I could just do when I didn’t spent most of my time changing diapers and cleaning milk bottles. Things like, well, pretty much everything – sleep, going to the movies, having a night out, basically what some perceive as “having a life”

Honestly – I don’t miss it all that much. Well, to be completely honest, part of the reason I don’t miss it is that I actually still do all those things. This is largely thanks to my daughter being such a wonderful child, that sleeps up to 13 hours straight. Having a lovely and understanding wife, and fairly sharing the responsibilities helps a lot, too. Most of all – I don’t miss the pre-fatherhood life because being a father is so much fun. In fact, it was a huge surprise to me that it can be so enjoyable.

I thought that it would take 3-4 years before being a father really becomes something you can call “fun”. But I was totally wrong – I was having the time of my life from day 1. And I’m not going to pretend changing diapers is “fun” – it is not. There are some who claim that if its your own child, it doesn’t smell, or at least is not so bad. That’s just nonsense. It smells, and badly. The nice part is that you get to see how happy your child becomes when he or she is clean and dry, and there’s nothing more rewarding in the world than making your baby happy.

Yes, there are times when you have to get up at night because your baby is crying. Not fun at all when you’re getting up for the umptheenth time and its 4 in the morning. On the other hand, then I think about what its like to be a baby. You’re alone in your bed, perhaps not even hurting but just waking up from a bad dream, you can’t even speak, its dark and you’re really-really scared. You cry and then, out of the dark, comes a friendly giant that picks you up, cuddles you, whispers calming words in your ear, and rocks you back to sleep. Well, I get to be the friendly giant (I am only 1.73 tall, and don’t get to be a giant that often, so its an added bonus) . I am the stuff fairy tales are made of. For my one-year old daughter, I am absolutely all-mighty. And she adores me like a god – that smile on her face when she wakes up and sees me is better than all the wildest parties in the world that I missed because I have to be there for her in the morning.

There’s a song by Matti Caspi called “My Second Childhood”. And its not about being senile – its about re-living ALL your experiences together with your child as he or she grows up. When you think of it, its pretty amazing. I mean, do you remember learning how to walk? Or tasting an orange for the first time? Touching a cat, hearing a bicycle bell, smelling a banana, seeing a teddy bear “clap” his paws (extremely funny) – think about doing all these things for the first time, but now being aware that it’s the first time you’re doing it. That’s what it’s like to be a father – and it’s the most awesome experience ever.

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European myths and legends

Europe is teeming with myths and legends. Tales of kings, gnomes, elves, wolves and witches are everywhere in the castle-filled Europe. But its not only old myths – modern myths are here as well. As you can probably guess, these modern myths hold about as much truth as the old ones. Here are some of those modern myths about Europe.

  1. Holland is all about drugs and hookers
    When I told my grandma I was going to the Netherlands to study, she started crying. I said: “But grandma – why? You’ve always wanted me to study, so what’s wrong?”. “Its all drugs and hookers there”, the old woman cried – “I’ve seen it on TV!”. I did my best to reassure her. I said: “But grandma – its all drugs and hookers here as well”. That brought her right back to her senses. She stopped crying and said: “You’re right. The TV is all lies anyway”. Despite both prostitution and cannabis being legal in the Netherlands, the consumption of both here is actually around or even slightly below the European average.
  2. London is full of rich people
    This myth is fuelled by the high concentration of Russian billionaires and football players in London. The capital of the grandest Empire of all times is also full of Imperial Glory in the shape of grand buildings, museums and fancy shops. Sad truth is, that most Londoners are poor people. Even those with a good job in the City pay half of their salary to rent a shared apartment (not even their own!) and endure an hour’s ride each way in the rush hour Tube to and from work. You can’t call that being rich.
  3. Eastern Europe is poor
    This myth is especially popular in… Eastern Europe! True, on average, income is significantly lower in Eastern European countries. But the reality is not as black as some would make you believe. The GDP per capita in Bulgaria, for example, is about 7,000 USD. Corrected for Purchasing Power Parity (that is, the actual prices of goods, which are significantly lower in the East), the GDP PPP in Bulgaria is over 15,000 USD! That is still rather low compared to Western Europe, but the differences are not that big anymore. And another thing – the more one moves to the East (and South) of Europe, the higher the share of non-documented economy – the untaxed, unreported income. In Russia it may be as big as the official economy according to some reports! So no, Eastern Europe is not as poor as you might think by looking at the dry numbers.

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

    Eastern Europe? No, Holland (at -12 C)!

  4. Europeans are skinny
    Mostly believed by Americans, this myth is only partially true. Yes, compared to Americans, Europeans are skinny. But Europe is competing with the U.S. for first place in the obesity crisis. In every country in the EU, more than 50% of men are overweight, and almost everywhere more than 40% of women. The UK is hit especially hard, with numbers approaching the USA. Even in France and Italy, countries praised for their healthy food, more than 10% of the population is obese and the numbers are rising dramatically.
  5. Europeans are well-dressed
    Again, a myth mostly believed by a specific group, this time visitors from SE Asia (and, again, many Americans). Compared to SE Asia, where its nothing unusual to do your shopping dressed in a pygama (mint green, with blue teddy bears or purple, with yellow chicks), Europeans are haute couture. In reality, almost everywhere on the continent, people dress casually. Business districts see more suits and there may be less sweatpants and sneakers on the streets that in North America, but outside the city centre in any European country there is plenty of Adidas fashion walking around. Geographically, as you go Eastwards, sweatpants become less and less the exception until, in Russia, they become the norm.

These are just five of the many, many modern myths about Europe. Have you heard any myths you found out to be untrue? Or have a myth you particularly like? Do share it please!

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How football bankrupted Ukraine

Ukraine has been out of the headlines in the last week, toppled by Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. But after this weekend, Ukraine will be back on top of the news, following the Crimean referendum. Its not going to be pretty for Ukraine and the question everyone will be asking is – how did it get this far? Well, I say football is to blame. This is my version of what happened.

Suppose you have a house. Its a nice house, a big one, that you have inherited from your parents. But it’s an old house, with plenty of problems – the roof is leaking, insulation is non-existent, some windows are broken and the piping is rotten. Your house needs a total overhaul to be restored to its former glory. The problem is – you have just lost your job, your wife is sick and the children need money for new school books, so you’re not exactly swimming in cash.

What would you do? You do have an asset – your house. So a reasonable option would be to take a loan with the property as guarantee, to last you through the tough times and make the repairs before the roof caves in on you. This way, you will have a solid home, your children will benefit from good education, your wife will go to a good doctor and if all goes well, with the new job you will repay the small loan you took and get your family back on your feet.

There is, of course, another option. Mortgage your whole house and spend all the money you get on a huge one-time party, making only cosmetic repairs, so that the roof doesn’t leak into the champagne and caviar you serve your guests. Invite everyone – the boss who fired you, the contractor who “fixed” the leaking roof the last time, hell, invite all your old girlfriends, too – show them how successful you’ve become in life. Who cares that the party will be over and leave you with a huge hangover, a ruined house and a loan you can’t repay? Sell your grandma’s jewelry, too, while you’re at it – no expenses can be spared for a good party!

Unfortunately, the last option is what Ukraine has done when hosting the Euro 2012. Various reports say that the tournament has cost Ukraine 10 to 14 bn USD – four to six times the original estimate! What’s even worse, half the money wasn’t event spent on unnecessary infrastructure like lavish football stadiums – it was just stolen. Who remembers now that Ukrainian media seriously claimed that Ukraine’s road to the EU will start at Euro 2012?

Football alone was not the cause of the downfall of Ukraine. The financial crisis and widespread corruption have hit Ukrainian economy hard, eventually leading to the ousting of the government of Viktor Yanukovych (and a Russian invasion). But hosting the Euro 2012 tournament has undoubtedly made the problems worse.

Ukraine’s woes must be a warning sign to other “emerging” countries that waste their assets on prestige projects. I’m talking to you, Russia and Brazil – chopping the fruit garden around your house and selling your winter coal stock to finance an even bigger party won’t make it better.

The conclusion is obvious – hosting huge events like FIFA World Cups and Olympic Games is possible only when you already have the money, the infrastructure and the judicial system that can cope with such huge money flows. Otherwise, you will be left with a herd of white elephants and a huge debt millstone hanging around your neck, like Ukraine, or Greece. And the last word about the burden of Beijing 2008 Olympics on China’s economy has not been said yet, I’m afraid.

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At the center of Europe

A while ago, I’ve written a post in my Europe by Region series about the areas of the former Austria-Hungarian Empire. And to be honest – I was never entirely happy with that post. Not with the definition of the region, nor with the content. So I’ve decided to revise the post, and re-brand these parts as Central Europe.

Where is Central Europe actually? In another post, I’ve defined Central Europe in a broad sense, as “members of the EU that have been behind the Iron Curtain“. This definition of Central Europe would make it too big of a “travel region”, spreading from the Baltic to the Adriatic and including a dozen of countries. Making a more limited definition of Central Europe would be easier by just saying what Central Europe is not. Since I’ve already defined the regions of the Russian Empire, the Balkans, the Alps and will write on the Baltic States, Central Europe is all that’s left in between – Poland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Hungaria and perhaps the non-Alpine parts of Austria and Germany, for good measure.

  • Why go there?
    This is the picture card Europe you’ve dreamed of visiting. Castles, cobbled streets, villages hidden in dark forests and beer- lots of beer. And Central Europe is, well, central, which means you can easily make your escape to another region or visit it en route elsewhere.
  • What’s it best for?
    Central Europe is popular for city trips (think Prague, Kraków and Berlin), but I think it is also the best budget option in Europe.
  • When is the best time to go?
    With a pleasant spring, a warm summer and a colourful autumn, any season is good to go. Wintertime is probably the best though – winters in Central Europe are snowy but not as cold as in the East and even hotspots like Prague and Vienna are virtually tourist-free. December with its Christmas markets is extra special.
  • How to get around?
    In a region where rail infrastructure is the densest in the world getting around by train is obviously easiest. The connections are excellent, distances are mild and the views are spectacular.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    As I said, this is the mild, classic Europe. If you’re looking for more exotic parts, I’d suggest the Caucasus.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Give Slovakia a try. It got a bit of a bad rep thanks to a horror film set in Slovakia, but don’t let a silly Hollywood movie discourage you! Bratislava, the capital, is a charm, the Tatra Mountains are great for easy hiking and skiing and the Slovakian countryside is as cheap as can be.

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Will Crimea be the last straw for Russia?

By now it is pretty obvious that Russia is taking control over Crimea. The naval base at Sevastopol is essential to the Russian Black Sea Fleet, but is taking control over Crimea and risking a war with Ukraine really the best way to safeguard it? The invasion of Crimea is yet another in a long line of Russian involvements in post-Soviet conflicts. In many cases, these involvements resulted in “frozen conflicts”, leading to the establishment of separatist regions supported by the Russian government – regions like South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Far apart, and each with a different background these regions share one common feature – if it wasn’t for Russian military back-up, they wouldn’t exist in their current pseudo-state form.

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

A Russian Navy vessel is being towed out of Sevastopol harbour

Over the years since the break-up of the Soviet Union, Russia has been involved in a growing number of conflicts, mostly in the Caucasus but also in the Balkan, in Tajikistan, and more recently, in Syria. The gas-generated cash flow has fuelled the Russian appetite for rebuilding the Empire. While the Russian army achieved limited successes in the 2008 war with Georgia, the scope and nature of that conflict were very limited. However useful for propaganda purposes, these limited successes blind the Russian leaders and Russia’s population to the real capacities of their armed forces in a serious conflict. The bloody Chechen war has illustrated the shortcomings of the Russian army with brutal accuracy. That conflict still drags on, and Russia keeps losing men, money, strength and face in the Caucasus while achieving nothing.

So what will happen in Crimea? It is unlikely that Russia will fully annex Crimea or that the region will move for full independence. Based on past Russian involvements, the creation of yet another pseudo-state with limited to no international recognition seems the most probable outcome. Unfortunately, that would lead to a lose-lose situation for everyone except a couple of Russian generals.

Crimea's economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Crimea’s economy is largely dependent on tourism, and a military invasion is not going to be good for business

Already bankrupt Ukraine will be drawn into a low-intensity civil war and will lose its territorial integrity. The Crimean Peninsula is essentially an island, connected to the mainland only at Perekop, a strip of land only a few kilometres wide. In case of a conflict, the 2 million Crimeans will be cut off from all supplies, and will be dependent on Russia to provide them with all they need via the sea. Russia may have the capacity to block Crimean airports, but it is unlikely that it has the capacity to sustain the population through a blockade. The suffering Crimeans will seek refuge in Russia, adding to the millions of refugees from older conflicts already living in Russia. That’s not the end of Russia’s worries – taking control over Crimea from crippled Ukraine is easy, keeping it might prove a whole different story. The peninsula is populated not only by Russians. Ukrainians are a quarter of the population and another 1/8th are Crimean Tatars, Muslim people with a long record of bad blood with Russia. Anyone thinking that they will accept the de-facto annexation of Crimea by Russia is in for nasty surprises.

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

Many Crimean Tatars are reduced to a cheap tourist attraction

The Russian economy is already strained to the limit by epidemic corruption, runaway military expenses and lavish spending on luxury projects like hosting the 2014 Winter Olympics and the 2018 FIFA World Cup. All-in-all, it might just be that the burden of a conflict over Crimea with Ukraine, Russia’s biggest European neighbour, will be the last straw for Russia. If you have any investments in Russia – now is the time to start worrying.

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