Am I practicing what I preach? Hell yeah!

I have written on a number of occasions how I find it strange that people who travel are in such a rush. As an alternative, I suggested taking the time, going to less places and staying longer in one destination. But I wondered whether I practice what I preach? To check whether I follow my own recommendations, I looked at a recent example – the Grey Wave camper vacation in Western Europe, and at an older one – the big Round-the-world trip.

“Grey Wave tour”

Our trusty camper

We’ve spent a whole week on this camping and would have stayed longer but they were closing for the winter

Let’s start with the recent trip. In September of last year, we rented a camper van and traveled for 3 weeks, going to Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg and France. Four countries sounds like a lot, but its less than it seems. Firstly, we’ve been to all these countries before, so we were under no pressure to see as much as possible. Secondly, we stayed mostly in the border region of these countries, which limited the travel times.  All in all we stayed in 5 different locations – on average, that’s 4 nights at a place. So not bad, for a short trip to familiar places, I would say.

Our route for 3 weeks

Our route for 3 weeks

Our big Round-the-world trip took us to 4 continents, 15 countries and countless destinations over a time span of about 10 months. But we managed to stay calm and never (well, almost never) rushed around.

First leg – Europe and the Middle East

Starting with a day in London, just to board a plane, we went to Ukraine, spending almost two weeks spread between Crimea and Kiev. From there we went to Israel for a few days with the family and crossed to Jordan just to see Petra. Excluding the week in Israel, where we were on a family visit and basically just dragged along, we’ve been to 4 ‘destinations’ in two weeks.

Second leg – Indian subcontinent

After a few days in Delhi to acclimatize, we went for a couple of weeks to Rajastan (Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Jodhpur), and then to Rishikesh. From Rishikesh, we went on a trek to Hemkund and then left India, going to Nepal. In Nepal we mostly hiked (Around Annapurna and Annapurna Base Camp treks), and spent the remainder of our time in Pokhara, Kathmandu and Chitwan. We then returned to Delhi for a few more days, before flying out to Bangkok. All this took us 3 months, with a total of ~13 ‘destinations’, depending how you count them.

Third leg – South-East Asia

Here we’ve been a bit more mobile, going to no less than 5 countries and a variety of destinations I will not bother listing (“the banana pancake trail”). Sufficient to say we’ve spent about 3 weeks each in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos. With a few days in Singapore, I count ~17 ‘destinations’ in 3 months, which is a bit busier than our time in Nepal but we were certainly not in a rush.

Fourth leg – Oceania

Most of our 3 months in Oceania we spent in New Zealand, where we drove a lot around, camped on remote beaches and hiked a variety of tracks. After New Zealand we spent three weeks on a remote atoll in French Polynesia, and stopped by at Easter Island. The ‘destination’ count does not really work on this leg, but I can tell you we were in absolutely no hurry.

Pearl farming

Pearl farming can feature on Discovery Channel’s “Dirty Jobs”

Fifth and final leg – Peru

Originally our plan was to make a brief stop in New Zealand and spend more time in South America. We chose the comfort and safety of New Zealand though and cut our final leg down to Peru only (hurray for flexibility!). Our two weeks in Peru were split between Cuzco and Lima, with side trips to the Nazca lines and Macchu Picchu.

 

Sure, we sometimes stayed in a place just for one night and moved on. Overall though, we usually spent between 3 days and a week in a place, taking day trips and/or longer tours before coming back to the “base camp”.

Conclusion

Having critically reviewed my own travel habits I can now safely claim to live according to my own preaching. Of course, sometimes I do travel at a faster pace. But most of the time, I do my best to slow down a bit. I’m not saying this gives me the right to claim moral superiority or something. But I think I can safely say I know what “slow travel” means. Its not like I avoid the tourist highlights. I just not limit myself exclusively to them.

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European destinations I have almost been to

I’ve been living in the heart of Europe for over 12 years. In this time, I have visited dozens of countries on countless trips, short and long (the European countries I’ve been to are shown in the map). But some destinations, however classic or accessible, keep eluding me. So, I haven’t been to Paris. From Rotterdam, where I live, its only 3 hours away by high-speed train, and tickets are sold as cheap as 50 Euro, but I somehow managed to miss on Paris entirely. Closest I’ve been was passing by on the Boulevard Périphérique on my way to the Mediterranean sun. Brussels, which is much closer, I haven’t visited too. I’ve been all over Belgium, have flown out of Brussels’s airports many times, but as far as the city itself is concerned, I have only got as far as the Belgian fries stand outside the Central Station. OK, it’s more than the average Contiki “traveller” gets to see, but I still don’t feel like I’ve been to Brussels.

Speaking of airports, the airports of Barcelona and Rome are the only part of these famous cities that I have seen. I honestly intended to spend a few days in Barcelona with my girlfriend (now known as wife), but delays and mechanical mishaps on the way meant we headed straight into the Pyrenees and that Barcelona is still on my wish list. In the meantime, I settle for Barcelona, the neighbourhood tapas bar. Rome I have passed a few times, flying to and from Israel to visit the family. The Italian national carrier, Alitalia, is famous for its strikes, and if I got “lucky” I could have got stuck in Rome for a day or two as a result of one of those strikes. But their numerous strikes seemed always to be unsynchronized with my travels. My luggage, on the other hand, got to spend a vacation without me on several of those occasions – Alitalia managed to lose it on 3 out of 4 flights, delivering it anywhere between 1 day and a week later.

Another European capital that is on everyone’s lips is Budapest. I have, in fact, spent about 12 hours there on another layover on my way to Israel. But I arrived at the dead of night, went straight to a friend’s apartment to sleep a few hours and went back to the airport to catch my flight, so I don’t think it counts. Warsaw, another of Eastern Europe’s gems, I could have reached by a night train from nearby Cologne. I haven’t even seen the airport of Warsaw – like that British pilot in Frankfurt, I flied over several times but never landed.

Last but not least – one of the first European cities I have almost been to was Bucharest, the capital of Romania. I was there way back in 1991, as we immigrated from the Soviet Union to Israel. Inside the Communist block, Israel had diplomatic relations only with Romania, so most Soviet Jews stopped in Romania first as they left, before going to Israel. I have spent there a full two days, lodged in former Soviet barracks, which I am sure does not qualify as “have visited Bucharest”. All in all, despite, as I said, having lived more than 12 years in the heart of Europe, in a place with probably the best connections to everywhere and extensive travels, I still have a whole lot of Europe to discover. Lucky me.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway - B&B 't Nachtegaeltje.

Who cares about Paris, when you can go to Sint Oedenrode? This is my stay on the latest weekend getaway – B&B ‘t Nachtegaeltje.

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Tourist: A User’s Guide

As you may know, I occasionally host guest contributions on Small European Country (see some general guidelines for submission here). And I am happy to present you with a guest contribution by WD Fyfe. All the pictures in this post are from Pixabay.

An overview of (small) European countries

An overview of (small) European countries

Most tourists don’t want to be tourists. They want a more unique experience than that. Yeah, they want to see all the sights, eat the strange food and check out the local culture — that’s natural — but they also want an adventure. Something different. Something that says, “Our trip was totally cool. We didn’t waste our time and all that money doing the same old crap every other tourist does.” Actually, it’s easy to have a brilliant vacation if you just follow a few simple guidelines. I’ve customized these for a Small European Country but they work anywhere.

WARNING: These guidelines only function for the average urban vacation. If you’re taking the 8 Day/12 Cities bus tour of the Rhine Valley or backpacking the Bumsweat trails of Borneo, different rules apply.

Before You Go:

  1. Yes, that's sign language too

    Yes, that’s sign language too

    Learn “Hi,” “Good-bye,” “Please,” “Thank you,” “What time?” “How much?” and “Where’s the toilet?” in the language of your destination. Or you can just practice pointing, gesturing, grunting and looking like an idiot; that works, too. In a pinch, grabbing your crotch and wiggling your ass is universally recognized as a sign of distress.

  2. Pack one suitcase — only one. Make sure you can lift it over your head. If you can’t, keep taking stuff out of it until you can. Alternatively — stay home!
  3. Make a list of all the things you want to see and do. Wait 24 hours. Cut the list in half — no cheating. Wait 24 hours. Cut the list in half again. Now you have a workable schedule that will maintain your girlish laughter through your entire holiday. The Singing Weavers of Nantes aren’t going anywhere; you can catch them next time.
  4. Watch YouTube street scene videos of your destination. Ignore everything but the people in the background. These are Europeans. Notice they’re not wearing lederhosen, berets or wooden shoes. Nor are they wearing vulgar t-shirts, socks and sandals or pajamas. Use your head! Dress appropriately or expect to get charged the ignorant jerk price for everything.
  5. Tourist is not a job — enjoy yourself.

When You Get There:

  1. Lose the gigantic bag and all the junk that’s in it. Unless you’ve got some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder, you don’t need all that stuff. Yes, women normally carry more crap than men, but nobody needs binoculars, a first aid kit, bug spray, two guide books and a roll of toilet paper just to look at the Brandenburg Gate. And, BTW, if you have a selfie stick, go out in the alley and beat yourself to death with it.

    The gigantic bag you might want to leave behind

    The gigantic bag you might want to leave behind

  2. Shut the hell up! The people around you live there. They don’t need a 102 decibel running commentary about how awesome or awful their country really is. If you feel you must rattle on like a hyperactive child, pretend your trip is a for really special secret that you can only whisper to your invisible friend.
  3. Don’t sweat the details. If you’re getting scammed, robbed or beaten up, definitely complain. Otherwise give it a rest. Ripping into the waiter is not going to change the V.A.T, the sauce or the level of service. (It will, however, increase the jackass population in Europe by one.)
  4. Europe is not overrun with gypsies, tramps and thieves; however, they are available. If you insist on waving wads of cash around, strolling the darkened alleys of Barcelona at 3 a.m. or leaving your wallet, pants and purse on the beach chair while you have outrageous sex in the bushes, you will get robbed.
  5. Treat religion and alcohol with respect. Both can sneak up and bite you on the ass.

Change Your Attitude:

  1. Never comparison shop. You’re in Europe: the way “we do things back home” is irrelevant. It’s like going to a furniture store to buy a boat or asking Lebron James to do your taxes. Go with what you’ve got, even if you don’t totally understand it. That’s why you came here in the first place.

    Shopping=OK, comparison shopping=less OK

    Shopping=OK, comparison shopping=less OK

  2. That European culture you’re so desperately looking for is happening all around you. Quit running at breakneck speed to the museums, art galleries and historical monuments, trying to find it. Relax, and like a timid animal, Europe will come to you.
  3. You are just as exotic to the locals as they are to you. No European expects a half-educated, monolingual North American cowgirl to know which fork to use or where the bargains are. However, with some polite ignorance and a whole lot of please-and-thank yous, they will come to your assistance. It’s surprising how much Europe opens up when you admit you don’t know what you’re doing.

Now that you’ve got these guidelines down to a science and you promise to do things this way for the rest of your life, I’ll tell you the quickest way to turn an ordinary vacation into something completely different.

Find a bar or a cafe close to where you are staying

Find a bar or cafe close to where you are staying

Find a bar or cafe close to where you’re staying. Go there every day for a beverage, either first thing in the morning or last thing at night. These places are great. They force you to stop, settle down and smell the amaretto. However, more importantly, most tourists don’t do this (they’re too busy doing tourist stuff) so after about the third day, the people working there will take custody of you. You will cease to be a tourist and become their tourist. They’ll take a personal interest in the good time you’re having in their town. This works best in smaller places, but it happens everywhere. Remember, the local folks can tell you more about where they live than Trip Advisor ever thought of. These are the people who know where the puppet shows are. They buy clothes, go to local restaurants and know where to just hang out. They also have friends, aunts and cousins who sing in the local band or make jewelry or might be convinced to take you up-river. Not to brag, but I’ve been invited to an illegal Kachina ritual, had a personalized tour of the cliffs of Cornwall, sung “Hasta Siempre” with a band on stage in Havana, and danced with an hereditary Polynesian princess in a South Seas thunderstorm – all because I like a second cup of coffee in the morning.

Happy Trails! WD Fyfe

WD Fyfe has written for newspapers, magazines and radio, but never television (where the big money is.)  He loves the art of travel, and if he ever wins the lottery, he will become a permanent vagabond.  Right now, however, he’s content to live near the Pacific Ocean, type, eat and drink like a king, and watch Ice hockey and European TV.  You can catch his not-so-serious view of the world at http://wdfyfe.net and his serious fiction at http://amazon.com/author/wdfyfe.

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Maps that will not help you understand Europe, but may get you started appreciating its complexity 

I love maps. Am absolutely fascinated by maps. As a boy I had a map of the moon and a map of Mars decorating the walls of my room. Yes, I know. I am a nerd and am proud of it, too. Recently, I have read a book about maps, “How the world was mapped”, a book I can absolutely recommend. A bit Eurocentric, even Britocentric, at times, but what can you do – the heydays of mapping the world were the heydays of the British empire, too. But that’s not my point here. My point is that the main thing I’ve learned from that book is that maps are never objective. All maps are not more than bits of misinformation, incomplete, biased, not to be trusted sketches, that represent the wishful thinking of those who ordered them, the limited knowledge and abilities of those who made them and are perceived through the expectations of those who look at them.

Political map of Europe - the boundaries are not telling you a lot http://www.worldatlasbook.com

Political map of Europe – the boundaries are not telling you a lot
http://www.worldatlasbook.com

As an example, here are a few maps that will not help you understand Europe but will perhaps help you appreciate its complexity.

As continents come, Europe is relatively small. But it has a rather odd shape, with huge penninsulas sticking out in the North, South-West and South-East, and it is jammed into the huge mass of Asia in the East, so there is no “climate of Europe” to speak of. In the far north, there are polar deserts, around the Kaspian Sea there are “proper” deserts. The Western edges of Europe are soaking wet, while the steppes in the East are dusty and dry.

Climates of Europe (one way to look at them) http://www.graphatlas.com

Climates of Europe (one way to look at them)
http://www.graphatlas.com

Culture is above all language. Europe has a long history of nation-states, longer than any continent. That history includes repeated attempts to suppress and extinct cultural minorities, either physically, by shifting boundaries or by enforcing the dominant culture (and, thus, language). Despite all this, most European countries still poses a significant linguistical (and, thus, cultural) minority. The depth of this rift is best illustrated by Ukraine, where language boundaries are literally front lines.

The complex patchwork of languages in Europe http://teacherweb.ftl.pinecrest.edu

The complex patchwork of languages in Europe
http://teacherweb.ftl.pinecrest.edu

Europe is the most densely populated continent. That, however, is just the average number. As in other continents, Europe’s population is largely concentrated in a small area, with swaths of relatively sparsely populated land in between. And even in the most populated countries, there are thinly inhabited areas, like the Belgian Ardennes, or the Massif Central in France.

As you can see, huge parts of Europe are rather empty of people http://media.web.britannica.com/

As you can see, huge parts of Europe are rather empty of people
http://media.web.britannica.com/

For centuries, the politics of Europe has been, above all, politics of religion. East vs West, Christianity vs Islam, Catholics vs Protestants, everyone against the Jews. These ancient conflicts and fault lines are still there, even if they only masquerade as social, economic or ideological conflicts.

Conflict lines in Europe still follow religious divides http://commons.wikimedia.org

Conflict lines in Europe still follow religious divides
http://commons.wikimedia.org

The division of Europe into regions is a mess. Just a few years ago it was clear – you had the Iron Curtain neatly dividing Europe in two. Nowadays? It’s anyone’s guess. Call Poland Eastern Europe and they’d claim they are Central Europe. I recently got in trouble for naming Finland a Baltic state. The CIA factbook does probably the most comprehensive job, dividing Europe into 7 regions, that, at least to me, make a lot of sense.

The CIA factbook excludes Caucasus and Cyprus from their definition of Europe http://commons.wikimedia.org

The CIA factbook excludes Caucasus and Cyprus from their definition of Europe
http://commons.wikimedia.org

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How to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in 10 simple steps

Summer is upon us and as always, Europe will be filled with tourists, young and old, spending their well-earned currencies around the old continent. Many of those are fresh graduates, from high school, college or graduate school, eager to make a journey of a lifetime. Sadly, quite a few visitors are bent on making their European holiday unique and memorable, missing the golden opportunity to march along the obvious tourist traps, fast-forward between the places where everyone else is going, and to do what everyone else is doing, as if their life is not subject to the tyranny of the bucket list. For those poor souls who think they can avoid making the common mistakes, I have compiled a simple and efficient instruction on how to turn your European holiday into a nightmare in just 10 simple steps.

  1. Don’t stay anywhere longer than 2 days. Berlin? 2 days is more than enough! Amsterdam? Can do in 1 day, no sweat, it’s a small city.
    The common advice is to spend at least 3 nights in one place. Longer is better. Trust me, you won’t get bored – plenty of opportunities for day trips out of your “base camp”.
  2. Don’t go to Eastern Europe. Raggedy commy ruins, nothing interesting ever happens there. Nobody speaks English, too.
    It is true that the most visited cities are in the West of Europe. Places like Budapest, Tallinn or Zagreb are rather Westernized nowadays, but the American (and European) travelling crowd still has what the Germans call “Mauer im Kopf” (a wall in the head). 25 years after the fall of Communism its time to ditch that East-West labelling once and for all. Weather is better in the East, too.
  3. Forget about currency exchange. All of Europe uses the Euro, right?
    About half of the European countries uses the Euro. This means the other half doesn’t! There are dozens of different currencies in use, and key countires like the UK, Switzerland, Czech Republic and Sweden stick to their own coins. No need to avoid leaving the Euro zone but keep in mind that it is expensive and inconvenient to get used to other currencies.
  4. Nevermind the climate. You’re going in the summer, what are the odds it will rain?
    Especially in Western Europe summers can be quite rainy. But also in parts of Spain, Italy and the Balkans, weather can be much of a spell-breaker. Don’t forget the rain gear, no matter where in Europe you’re going.
    Average annual precipitation in Europe (Britannica)
  5. Plan your entire trip in advance. With all the information available on the internet, no way you’d miss something and want to change your plans.
    Especially on a longer trip (anything more than a couple of weeks) you are bound to find out things are not as you expected them to be. Some places turn out to be a disappointment, others you’ll love and want to stay longer. Or the weather is nasty where you are and its great just around the corner (see previous point). Having pre-booked hotels and transportation robs you of the opportunity to exploit an opportunity.
  6. Never stray off the beaten track. If all those other places in Europe would be interesting, they’d be full of tourists, too.
    By all means visit some of the highlights, they are famous for a reason. But at least try to discover places not tramped by millions of tourists every year. Europe is so much more than the obvious Paris-Berlin-Venice-Rome tour. And even in these famous places, there are plenty of hidden spots you can brag to your friends about finding. There are even websites that help you discover them – like www.spottedbylocals.com or Hidden Europe magazine. Or even this blog.
  7. Stay in the cities. Europe is a crowded place, there’s no nature left outside the cities anyway.
    European cities are rightfully a tourist magnet. Paris, Berlin, Venice, Rome – the list can become infinite. Outside the cities though there is a splendid country side, huge mountain chains and endless sandy beaches that are all yours, if only you follow point number 6.

    Ridin' the hills

    The French countryside in Burgundy

  8. Stick to the old stuff. Its called “the old continent” for a reason, and you’ve come to see the old masters.
    First of all, the best of the old masters are in museum in North America and private collections in the Persian Gulf. Secondly, Europe did invent impressionism, Art Deco, Bauhaus, cubism, modernism and so on and on. Old stuff is cool. However, European art did not stop in 1800. Do dare to check out some of the less-old stuff, too.
  9. Ignore distances. Europe is the smallest continent, getting around is fast and easy.
    Europe is relatively small. Its still roughly the size of USA or Australia. But besides the size, most time traveling  is lost on waiting. Even getting from Amsterdam to Brussels, just 100 miles apart and 2 hours by train, will take half a day if you consider packing your stuff, checking in and out of hotels and transfers to and from the train stations. A longer distance easily eats a whole day of travel. See point number 1, too.
  10. Avoid hostels at all costs. These are bed-bug infested places, only poor people go there. A hostel is no place for a family.
    For sure, some hostels suck. But there are plenty of other hostels who are just what they say they are – a budget-minded, clean, basic alternative. Many are extremely family-friendly, and I’ve met people of all ages and groups of all compositions who had a great time staying in hostels. Don’t let silly movies put you off hostels.

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People Who Live in Small Places #5: The Netherlands

Michael:

Mayotte, Gibraltar, a Small French Village, the Seychelles – and now – also a Small European Country! I’ve been asked to write a guest post for the Expat Partner’s Survival Guide, telling about what its like to live in a small place, like a small European country. Here’s the result.

Originally posted on :

When I started this series, I wasn’t sure what I would end up with. I started with Mayotte, simply because I had never heard of it so thought it would be interesting to hear about life there from someone who actually lived there. But while in the process of putting together those first set of questions, I kept coming back to my own experience of living in a “small place” and how similar life must be in Mayotte as it was for me in St Lucia – despite being half a world apart. So the concept of People Who Live in Small Places was born. Since then, I have branched out to include a small rock (Gibraltar), a small village (in France) and a small series of islands (the Seychelles). And then when I spotted a blog called Small European Country I knew I had to ask the owner to…

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Will Brexit become just Exit?

If the British vote to leave the EU, instead of Brexit (British exit) it might boil down to just an Exit (English exit), with the other members of the United Kingdom deciding to stay in the EU after all, as independent states. This way, Europe will be one big country poorer but four small European countries richer.

With the dust settling on Britain after the dramatic elections, the question on everyone’s lips is “what about Brexit”? That is, will there be a referendum about the United Kingdom leaving the EU, and what will be the outcome? To be honest, I don’t really care whether the UK will be a member of the EU or not. I don’t think most Europeans care much either. I do feel the British public is not fully aware of the impact of such a decision and I think their politicians and media are doing a poor job informing the public. 

Now that Nigel Farage, (former) head of UKIP, has left the political scene, it seems the referendum issue will lose some momentum. But it is unlikely that David Cameron will dare back off his promise to hold one. And if he will back off, there are plenty of people who will remind him of his promise. However, without Farage, who was the main force in the pro-Brexit camp, there is an opportunity for the British to engage in a meaningful discussion on the aftermath of leaving the EU.

What is it really about? The Brits are concerned about immigrants taking their jobs and straining the social services. They say the EU is costing a lot and is providing little in return. What they forget is that without the EU they would have to take back millions of Britons who retired to Spain. How’s that for strain on healthcare? It’s not like it would not be possible to retire or get a job in EU, it just would be much more difficult. Jobs in the UK, too, would be at risk, as exports to EU will suffer. And London, that lives on its banking system, will perhaps not be cut off all together, but will be left out of much of European decision making, and banking across the channel will be pricier. I’m pretty sure people in Frankfurt and Zurich would be more than willing to fill the gap.

Not that leaving the EU will stop the illegal immigration. The illegals are not EU citizens anyway, so they come regardless the UK membership. Leaving the EU is not going to address immigration from Commonwealth countries like Nigeria and Pakistan. I also don’t see how the UK will remove the millions of Germans, French, Poles and Romanians who live in the country for years or even decades. And who will do the plumbing? Are German doctors, French bankers and Dutch engineers also to leave? Sure, some immigrants are not model citizens. But leaving the EU because of them is a bit drastic, isn’t it?

What about Scotland? Surely, if the Brexit referendum will decide for leaving the EU, Scotland will want to hold a new referendum about leaving the UK? Having narrowly lost the previous referendum, Scottish nationalists stand a good chance of winning the next one, especially if the choice is between the UK and the EU. Scottish independence might reignite the flames in Northern Ireland and maybe even Wales will decide to split. And so, instead of Brexit (British exit) it might boil down to just an Exit (English exit), with the other members of the United Kingdom deciding to stay in the EU after all, as independent states. This way, Europe will be one big country poorer and four small European countries richer.

These are mere possible scenarios. I’m not claiming knowing the future or even that these are likely scenarios. I do think it is absolutely necessary for the British public, politics and media to be able to discuss the possible consequences of Brexit, without the rhetoric, in a polite, responsible fashion. If the BritishU do decide to leave the EU, its their legitimate choice. It would be a shame if they leave for the wrong reasons and under false assumptions. Whatever happens, Britain will remain a European country. They can vote whatever which way they want, but they can’t ship the whole bloody island to Australia. They can’t, right?

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