3 tales of European homestays

Somehow, people do not associate “homestay” with Europe. Usually, “homestay” is only used to describe a hut in the jungle without a toilet and with no dental clinics within a 1000 km radius. Of course, this is a rather limited view of what a homestay is. If you look at a homestay as any occasion when you sleep over in someone’s private home rather than a specially designed location such as a hotel, then Europe is full of homestays. I myself have had quite a few experiences with homestays all over Europe, and here are 3 tales of European homestays.

  1. Njeguši, Montenegro
    Njegus in his Mausoleum

    Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, in his Mausoleum

    I know it sounds cliche, but really – the sun was setting down behind the mountains as we were seeking our way around Mount Lovćen. Turning right instead of left took us to the top of the mountain and the Mausoleum of Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, the king-poet national hero of Montenegro. The sunset view from the top was stunning but we’d rather have a place to stay for the night. The Mausoleum was about to close, it was almost dark, and we were nowhere near a lodging. But this was the Balkan, and what could have been a problem elsewhere was an opportunity here. Granted, what is a minor misunderstanding elsewhere can erupt into a full-blown civil war in a matter of minutes here, but that’s besides the point. And the point is that the guardians of the National Monument were more than happy to earn a few Euro’s by keeping it open half an hour longer just for us. “Closed? No! Two Euro – open! Let’s go! I call family in village, we find place to sleep! Let’s go!” While we were touring the megalomaniac mausoleum, the guard was frantically calling relatives in the village down in the valley to get us lodgings (and a commission for himself, no doubt). Half an hour later, we were welcomed to Njeguši (population 17) by an old lady into what was obviously her living room, which she vacated for us to sleep in. Surrounded by the dusty complete works of the king-poet Petar II we collapsed to sleep. The next morning we were awakened by the classic call of the rooster. The old lady was serving breakfast in the village’s cafe (we were lodged in the downtown area of Njeguši, that’s for sure). The locals at the next table were having a traditional Montenegrian breakfast consisting of four shots of Slivovica. We opted for the fried eggs and Njeguši cheese instead. This little episode to me was the essence of the Balkan experienced in just a few hours.

  2. Lecco, Italy
    This is the guy I was staying with. No wonder he didn't have pictures on his profile. OK, this was after a night out in a wine bar with his friends. But he wore this mask at the beginning of the night, too.

    This is the guy I was staying with. No wonder he didn’t have pictures on his profile. OK, this was after a night out in a wine bar with his friends. But he wore this mask at the beginning of the night, too.

    As the date of my flight to Milano was approaching, I was rapidly running out of options. I was going to the Lecco campus of the Politecnico di Milano, for a week-long course in Green Architecture. Being the poor student, I wanted to go Couchsurfing instead of paying for a hotel, but of the 6 Couchsurfers in Lecco, none was available for a variety of reasons. The only positive response I got was rather vague. The guy had no references, no picture on his profile, and was not even living in Lecco! Yes, he said he worked in town and would drop me off at the campus in the mornings and pick me up on his way back, but it all sounded rather weird. I took my chances and was so right about it. As my fellow students whined about their dilapidated hotel with wallpaper peeling off and stale smells, I was staying in a mountain village, and waking up every morning to a view of snow-capped peaks around me. The dude I was staying with was absolutely charming, a unique character. He hand-crafted his entire furniture, could you believe it? As a culmination of his hospitality, we went to visit his parents for a taste of his mother’s amazing tiramisu, and spent an evening full of laughter there watching Italian reality show about plastic surgery. One of the best nights out I ever had, I kid you not.

  3. The hostels in Iceland
    Homestay means you also share the shower with the owners. Hostel Fljótsdalur has superb facilities!

    Homestay means you also share the shower with the owners. Luckily, Hostel Fljótsdalur has superb facilities!

    Can a hostel be called a homestay? Yes, it can! Because the Icelandic hostel is more often than not just a couple of extra rooms in the owner’s house. In my travels in Iceland, I’ve stayed in hostels in all corners of the country and I never felt as a customer, always as a welcome guest. I’ve been welcomed by an open door and a note saying “If no one is at home, please come in and settle down. You can use everything in the kitchen. If by the time you leave, no one has shown up yet, please leave the fee in the tin box next to the door”. When you see a note like this, you do feel like home. And to me, that is what defines a homestay.


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The raw and uncut history of European colonialism

I’ve been reading a wonderful book titled “The discovery of tin on the island Billiton” by Bert Manders. It is a description of the origins of the mining giant BHP Billiton, published a few years ago to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the company. The book is based on the diaries of the founder, John Francis Loudon. Loudon lead the first expedition to Billiton in 1851 and published a report of his experiences in 1884. But he also left his heirs a square box with documents and a hand-written instruction to preserve the contents “should someone wish to write the history of Billiton”. Which is strange to say the least – hasn’t he just published the history of Billiton?

As it turns out, in 1884 Loudon has published a purged version of the history. He naturally did not want to unnecessarily offend his partners and colleagues, and due to the morals of the Victorian era he had to leave out the spicy details. Spicy details like the story how he combined business with pleasure by marrying “the most beautiful virgin of Banka”, a 17-year old beauty from a Chinese family with excellent connections in the local mining community. The book I am reading is based on the original, supplemented with unpublished passages from Loudon’s diaries, comments he wrote in the first edition of his report, photos and some background. It is a fascinating tale from the heydays of 19-th century colonialism.

An open-pit tin mine on Singkep (near Billiton), probably in the 1920's (Tropenmuseum collection)

An open-pit tin mine on Singkep (near Billiton), probably in the 1920’s (Tropenmuseum collection)

Loudon spares no one in his writings. His companion and co-founder, Baron Vincent van Tuyll, he describes as “a perfect fool”, his chief engineer De Groot is “a vicious bully”, the colonial administrators are a bunch of useless bureaucrats. The locals are lazy and a ragtag gang of pirates, the imported Chinese workers are “opium junkies, murderers and thieves”, the chieftain of Billitong is an “evil, cunning rogue”. Even some of his friends are en passant mentioned in the book as real losers. Only John Francis Loudon himself is a pillar of society, an entrepreneur and a hero. But that’s how I would describe myself too, if I was writing a book about how I started a mining company. I must say, that from the impressive biography of Loudon, it seems he was everything he claimed to be. Most importantly, having been brought up on Java, fluent in Malay and experienced in the ways of doing business in these quarters, he was much better prepared for the exploration of the colonial riches than his partners.

Chinese mineworkers on Billiton, ca. 1890 (Tropenmuseum collection)

Chinese mineworkers on Billiton, ca. 1890 (Tropenmuseum collection)

What I find especially interesting about this book are the insights it provides into the mutual perceptions and misconceptions of Europeans and natives in that era. And I would like to illustrate with a quote from the unpublished part of Loudon’s diary. He describes a written communication with his business partner, Tuyll, who was back in the Netherlands at the time. Loudon, of Dutch-English origin, writes in his diary in Dutch, so I translated the piece to English. Tuyll’s letters are in English, and I’ve put them in italics.

“Tuyll wrote me in his letter of July 24th that I had to judge on a matter he discussed with the queen. Her Majesty claimed that the native women have black palates. Tuyll asked me to investigate: “Please look into your nonna’s roof of mouth“, as he wrote. In my diary I find the following: November 3rd. Wrote to Tuyll that I have attempted, as far as circumstances allowed, to investigate the issue commented upon by Her Majesty. I have never investigated on this before; I have limited myself to the lips. I could not look at my nonna’s mouth, as I was celibate for a month. I had to investigate the mouths of the other nonna’s to judge on this important issue. To my regret I must say that Her Majesty is wrong. It has been shown by inspecting various specimens. In a letter of February 23rd 1853 Tuyll noted: “Notwithstanding your investigations, which I communicated to the Queen, she still maintains that the women have black palates.

I can vividly imagine the scene on Billiton. Loudon, in his casual evening dress, is reading the letter from his companion by the candle light. As he gets to the passage above, he bursts into laugh. Letter in hand, he goes out of his hut and knocks on the door of his European neighbour, perhaps the engineer De Groot.

-What the hell do you want? I’m busy with my nonna.
-Oh, she’s in then? Good! Can I check her palate?
-Her WHAT?
-The roof of her mouth.
-WHAT?! Go check your own girlfriend’s mouth!
-Come on man, you know she died of yellow fever last month and I’ve been dry since. Its for this fool Tuyll, he says the Queen thinks they’re black on the inside as well. Let me have a small look, just to make sure its not true.

Roaring laughter, the whole small European community gathers to check the palates of their native girlfriends. That must have made their day. No wonder Loudon didn’t publish such stories in 1884. And what a genius he was to keep the records. This stuff is priceless.

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Amsterdam Alternatives


I’ve written this piece last year for Travel Between The Pages. A recent post I read about a trip someone else made to Amsterdam reminded me of my own work. Amsterdam, like most major cities in Europe is filled with things to see and do. But most people only do the stuff 99% of what “all the other people” do. Amsterdam has a big advantage – its quite small. So you can “tick off” the top attractions (Rijksmuseum, Vondelpark, Red Light District, Anne Frank) in a single morning, and then be “free” to experience the city at a leisurely pace. And I have a couple of suggestions for you.

Originally posted on Travel Between The Pages:

This guest post is from Rotterdam resident and blogger Michael Afanasyev. You can follow Michael at his own blog Small European Country


Amsterdam alternatives

Every major tourist destination has the “big ones”, the things everybody wants to see – like South Africa with the Big Five. Amsterdam has the Big Three. I mean, everybody goes to the Anne Frank House, visits the Rijksmuseum and takes the canal tour, right? Unfortunately, the popularity of these hot-spots tends to bring them down, too. To make the “experience” suitable for the masses, the attractions (yes, Anne Frank is also an “attraction”) make themselves suitable for mass consumption, in what I call the McDonaldsization of travel. I am not a huge fan of Amsterdam myself – to me it is a bit like a sleazy Disneyland. But over the years I’ve learned to appreciate the Amsterdam behind the touristy facade and discovered Amsterdam…

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