Category Archives: Guest post

Zurich city report

The final (for now) city report I wrote for Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com) is about Zurich. Its one of the most expensive places in the world to live in, but Zurich offers an amazing quality of living, that far outweighs the costs.

Zurich 3

What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
Studied at the ETH Zurich.

How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
6 months, in 2008.

Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
Lived in 3 other countries before coming to Zurich.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Nowadays, it is in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and it takes a 1 hour flight or a night train to get there from Zurich.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
Switzerland is the most beautiful country in Europe. Period.

Matterhorn

Matterhorn

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
Participated in the SOLA running race around Zurich. Cycled around Lake Zurich. Partied with the Dutch fans during Euro 2008. Climbed several mountains. Actually learned a few things at the ETHZ, too.

Rhine Falls

Rhine Falls

What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?
Excellent.

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
Winters are moist, and can be snowy. Summers are warm, with regular short thunderstorms in the evenings.

Zurich 1

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
None that I know of.

Are there any special security concerns?
Avalanches in the mountains.

The Swiss Army is there to protect you, even if it takes a 200-year old mortar

The Swiss Army is there to protect you, even if it takes a 200-year old mortar

Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
Apartments, mostly. City centre is prohibitively expensive, but public transport is, well, Swiss-efficient.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
Its a fine city for everyone but rather expensive. The price-quality ratio is superb, that is, you get value for money here.

Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
I guess. Haven’t heard of any major issues.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
The Swiss are not racist. That would imply they discriminate people. They don’t discriminate except between Swiss (=good) and not Swiss (=mwah).

Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Lots of cobblestones and steep streets. Public transport and buildings are probably fine.

Sunrise at Uetliberg

Sunrise at Uetliberg

What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
The Uetliberg rising above Zurich is a wonderful place to watch the sunrise, and then hike along the ridge. The botanical gardens, both the old and the new ones, are lovely spots. The many museums of the Zurich University are quite interesting http://www.uzh.ch/en/outreach/museums.
http://www.spottedbylocals.com/zurich has plenty of other useful tips.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
As a student, I had access to the facilities of the ETHZ, and they are magnificent.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
Everything is available, for an exorbitant price.

What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available, but its probably cheaper to shop across the border. Germany is only 40 km away, so many people go there for groceries and many services.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Broadly available and accepted.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
A supercar, so that you don’t stand out in the crowd. Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Ferrari, that sort of thing.

A good bicycle is a valid alternative to a car here

A good bicycle is a valid alternative to a car here

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Yes, they’re fine. Best public transport in the world, no doubt.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
At least a bit of German would be quite helpful. The Zurich variant of Swiss-German is exceptionally difficult to understand, so abandon all hopes to learn German while you’re here.

On the other hand, you can learn kayaking right in the middle of the city

On the other hand, you can learn kayaking right in the middle of the city

Size and morale of expat community:
Huge. Over 30% of the population is non-Swiss.

What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
Hiking is huge here. For the Swiss, any mountain that does not involve technical climbing is considered hiking, so that includes summits like the Dom (at 4545 m, the 5th highest mountain in Switzerland). Zurich has a lively clubbing scene.

Switzerland has all the hiking you can handle

Switzerland has all the hiking you can handle

What’s the dress code at work and in public?
Buisness, smart casual-plus. Hiking gear in public.

Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Excellent medical care is available, but can be expensive. Finding a dentist in Germany is a smart move.

You can leave behind your:
Sense of humor. The Swiss don’t get it.

What do you wish you had known about this city/country prior to moving there?
That I should have moved here sooner.

But don’t forget your:
Alpine skills. And your money. All of it.

Can you save money?
NO!

What unique local items can you spend it on?
Chocolate, cheese, kirch (cherry schnapps) mountain summits (guided ascends), Swiss army knives, watches.

Zurich 11

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?
YES!

Recommended books related to this city (title, author):
The Visit (Der Besuch der alten Dame), Durcheinandertal, both by Friedrich Dürrenmatt.

Zurich 4

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Work

Tel Aviv city report

A few weeks ago I’ve published a city report on Rotterdam, that I wrote for Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com). Well, I’ve been busy writing another one, on Tel Aviv, where I used to live, and where I am currently visiting. Allow me to introduce you to the city that never sleeps, “the bubble”, the one and only Tel Aviv.

An iconic view of Tel Aviv from the Jaffa promenade

An iconic view of Tel Aviv from the Jaffa promenade

What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
I came to Israel in 1991 (aged 12), with my family, in the big immigration wave from the Soviet Union, and lived there until 2003.

How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
As many young Israeli’s drawn to the big city, I’ve lived in Tel Aviv for a while, between 1999 and 2001.

Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
It was the first time I lived in another country.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Nowadays, my home base is in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. I visit Israel regularly, as I have family and many friends there. Takes about 4.5 hours by plane.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
The weather is great for at least 10 months. Its a unique opportunity to experience the place that gets so much attention, and see for yourself what the fuss is all about.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
This I’ll have to get back to in another post here – the topic is a bit too big for a short answer.

Just to give you an idea of the highlights - this is the Negev desert. Just two hours drive from Tel Aviv, and you're not on the edge of it - no, right in the middle!

Just to give you an idea of the highlights – this is the Negev desert. Just two hours drive from Tel Aviv, and you’re not on the edge of it – no, right in the middle!

What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?
Good, most of the time the breeze from the sea clears the pollution. When the wind is from the East, can get very bad, but it’s only a few days in a year.

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
July-August are hot and sticky humid. December to March is the rainy season, but it almost never rains more than 2-3 days in a row.

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
Cockroaches. Big, flying ones.

Are there any special security concerns?
Uhm… Yes. Its Israel. BUT the crime rates are quite low compared to other Western countries, and besides – nowadays the chances of becoming a victim of a terrorist attack are higher in Paris, London or Brussels. The Israeli traffic is the most dangerous part, and even that is not as dangerous as it used to be.

Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
Depends on what one includes as “Tel Aviv”. The city itself is small and housing is also small, the outer rings of the metropolitan area contain many typical “sleeping neighborhoods” with more spacious accommodation, but the commute time is also larger.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
For singles the city center is the place to be. If your can find a good house in the city and your family can handle the city life – go for it. But prices are high.

Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
One of the best, I hear.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
Yes. But that’s the simple answer. Compared to the severity of these issues in the neighbouring countries, like Syria, there are none worth mentioning.

Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Challenging. Sidewalks are crowded with parked bicycles and motorcycles, public buildings are not necessarily fitted with ramps.

What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
The whole country is one big live museum of nature, culture and history. For Tel Aviv itself I’d suggest checking out http://www.spottedbylocals.com/telaviv/. As a former resident who has done his best to explore the city I can certify that the local “spotters” are doing a very good job unveiling spots that are usually under the radar.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
Everything is available, from free public gym facilities at the beach to private teachers of every sport you can think of.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
The American fast-food chains are present but who needs them when local fast food is abundant. Every Israeli has a favorite falafel place, and Tel Aviv has a lively dining scene.

What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available but prices are ridiculously high.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Credit cards are widely accepted.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
I’d suggest bringing a tank, but the fuel prices would kill you.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Reasonably affordable and safe. The national railways do have issues with the unions, so sudden strikes can be a plague.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
Most of the local people know sufficient English to get by without knowing any Hebrew. Many signs are Hebrew-only, so learning the Hebrew alphabet is useful.

Size and morale of expat community:
That’s a difficult question, as it depends much on what is included in the “expat community”.There are millions of foreign-born Israeli’s, hundreds of thousands of (mostly Asian) foreign workers employed in construction, agriculture and nursing, tens of thousands of African infiltrators/refugees (depends on who you ask), a constant influx of volunteers working in the Kibbutzs and so on.

If “expats” include only Western diplomats and such, then its probably small, I can’t say much about the morale among them.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy?
Without a job permit chances are probably low.

What volunteer opportunities are there?
Numerous. Not sure how diverse are the options without knowledge of Hebrew or Arabic.

What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
The beach. Huge clubbing scene. Mountain biking is growing in popularity. Barbecuing.

Tel Aviv 3

What’s the dress code at work and in public?
At work – depends much on where you work, but usually “casual-plus”. In public “casual” doesn’t even begin to describe it.

Believe it or not, this guy is actually at work. How's that for "casual"?

Believe it or not, this guy is actually at work. How’s that for “casual”?

Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Israel has one of the highest life expectancies in the world, so healthcare must be good.

You can leave behind your:
Anything you thought you knew about the place and anything anyone has ever told you about it. Its nothing like you thought it is, no matter what you thought. And don’t bring your politeness either, it will go unnoticed at best.

But don’t forget your:
Balls of steel, elephant skin, all the sarcasm and cynicism you can find. A huge supply of sense of humor. And, of course, your hiking boots. Israel is best explored by foot.

Can you save money?
No.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?
Yes.

Recommended books related to this city (title, author):

  • “The lover”, A. B. Yehoshua.
  • Works of Bernard Lewis, such as “The Middle East: A Brief History of the Last 2,000 Years”.
  • 1948: A History of the First Arab–Israeli War”, Benny Morris.

Take them all with a huge pinch (better yet, a bag) of salt – everyone’s view is politically colored.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
“Lebanon” – OK, it takes place in Lebanon, but its set exclusively inside an Israeli tank in Lebanon.

An Israeli tank close to the Lebanese border

An Israeli tank close to the Lebanese border

Any other comments:
Don’t be like the American presidents and Secretaries of State, who think that all it takes is for people to shake hands and stop being so childish. Its not up to you to bring peace, nor is it up to you to lecture the locals about how they should behave and think. Just try to enjoy the good parts, and ignore the bad ones – that’s what everyone else is doing.

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Work

Rotterdam city report

Tales from a Small Planet (http://www.talesmag.com) is a website dedicated to helping expats to get credible information about “What It’s Really Like to Live There.” It contains reports from over 350 cities, school reports (where the schools are graded) and essays, fiction and humour about life abroad. The project originates from the U.S. Foreign Service and the reports are mostly written by and for Americans, so I decided to do my best to add a non-American angle to the Tales. Here’s my first contribution, reporting on Rotterdam, my current home town.

Rotterdam Talesmag 1

Rotterdam from the Euromast

What are your reasons for living in this city (e.g., corporate, government, military, student, educator, retiree, etc.)?
Came here as a student at first (studying at Delft University of Technology). Met a local girl, married, got children. That sums it up pretty much.

How long have you been living here? Or when did you live there?
I have been living in Rotterdam for over 6 years now, after spending 7 years in nearby Delft.

Was this your first expat experience? If not, what other foreign cities have you lived in as an expat?
I lived in 4 other countries before moving to Rotterdam.

Where is your home base, and how long is the trip to post from there, with what connections?
Having lived in the Netherlands for 13 years, by now my home base is here.

What are the special advantages of living in this city/country (e.g., touring, culture, saving money, weather, etc.)?
The classic painting-like Dutch countryside is beautiful, Dutch museums are magnificent, connections to the rest of Europe are superb. And of course cycling here is something quite amazing.

What have been some of the highlights of your time in this city/country?
After so many years spent here, it is hard to choose from so many. Getting married in a medieval townhouse. Sailing on the Dutch lakes. Spontaneous weekends away to another country. The annual International Film Festival in Rotterdam. The insanity when the national team plays football. Cycling. Cycling. Cycling. Hey – its the Netherlands, what did you expect?

What is the air quality like (e.g., good, moderate, unhealthy, or very unhealthy with comments)?
The Dutch air looks clean. Its not. Especially in Rotterdam, with its oil industry, fine particles pollution is a serious problem.

What is the climate like? Weather patterns?
Its sometimes hard to tell what season it is without a look at the calendar. They say it can be sunny, warm and calm here, but never all 3 on the same day. That said, its not as bad as some would make you believe. The biggest downside is that good weather seldom lasts longer than a couple of days in a row.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

What kind of insect problems are there, if any?
Mosquitos are a nuisance at some parts. Ticks occur in the countryside. Wasps in late summer. But its not a major issue.

Are there any special security concerns?
Compared to the rest of the world – no. The locals do complain, but its a national hobby. Fact is that crime rates have plummeted in the last decade or so, and in Rotterdam there are no real no-go areas (anymore).

Housing types, locations, and typical commute time?
City center is apartments mostly. Further out its typical suburbia. Commute time in the Netherlands is among the longest in the world, which is surprising for such a small country. But given the amount of cars per square km, which is one of the world’s highest, its not that surprising that rush hour traffic is best avoided here.

What’s the availability of International schools and your experience with them?
There are a few, a recent trend is dual-language education (classes are in Dutch and English).

Are preschools/daycare options available (with comments about your experience and costs)?
Available – yes. If you book way in advance. Expensive, too.

What accommodations do schools make for special-needs kids?
Depends a lot on which school it is – the quality varies greatly.

Is this a good city for families/singles/couples?
For singles and couples – great. For families it can be challenging to find affordable housing and good schools in the same neighbourhood.

Rotterdam Talesmag 4

Some of the playgrounds here are really awesome.

Is this a good city for gay or lesbian expats?
Yes. Another recent trend is that Amsterdam hipsters, including LGBT, are moving to Rotterdam due to the excessive costs of living in Amsterdam.

Are there problems with racial, religious or gender prejudices?
Immigrants and their descendants complain about discrimination. Native Dutch grumble about high crime rate and low work-morale among immigrants. You don’t get shot for running while black, so I guess its better than many North-American cities. Zwarte Piet might be a shock for visitors from overseas, but even that freaky colonial legacy is slowly being taken care of.

 

I won’t say too much about the attitudes of many in the local Muslim community towards women, LGBT’s and other religions, especially Jews, enough has been said about it elsewhere. Let’s say there is plenty of room for improvement there. To close this on a positive note – the current mayor of Rotterdam is Ahmed Aboutaleb, of Moroccan origin, who is highly respected by all and is known for his harsh criticism of intolerance in the Moslim community.

Would someone with physical disabilities have difficulties living in this city? Comment:
Its Holland – famous for its flatness, so I guess its fine. More seriously – most bus stops and such are wheel-chair friendly, and public buildings seem to be fairly accessible.

What are some interesting/fun things to do in the area? Can you recommend any “secret or hidden gems”?
Plenty. For Rotterdam check out http://www.spottedbylocals.com/rotterdam (I used to write for them). In the Netherlands the Wadden Sea and the islands are worth a trip, Maastricht is not to be missed, and I hear diving in the North Sea can be quite a thrill, even if a cold one.

Rotterdam Talesmag 6

Rotterdam is full of “hidden gems”. But I’m not telling you where this one is.

Are gyms or workout facilities available? Costs?
Yes, although I don’t use them myself. The prices vary, but I hear you get what you pay for in terms of quality. There are cheap ones, but if you’re serious about your workout, it may be best to pay more.

Are sports programs available for kids?
A lot, outside the school system usually.

What fast food and decent restaurants are available? Cost range?
An abundant supply. In recent years, a major change for good has happened, in terms of price/quality ratio, diversity and overall quality.

What is the availability and relative cost of groceries and household supplies?
Everything is available. If you choose where you buy, the prices are quite OK. Fresh fruit and vegetables are relatively cheap, especially on the markets.

What comments can you make about using credit cards and ATMs?
Credit cards are not really welcome here. Not even all ticket machines at train stations accept them. ATM’s are everywhere.

What type of automobile is suitable to bring (or not to bring) because of terrain, availability of parts and service, local restrictions, duties, carjackings, etc?
Small. Gas prices are among the highest in the world and parking space is very limited. Buying a second-hand one here is probably better – Dutch are known for keeping their cars well-maintained.

Are local trains, buses, and taxis safe? Affordable?
Safe- yes. Affordable – not really.

How much of the local language do you need to know for daily living?
Everyone here speaks English. Learning Dutch is actually a challenge – locals don’t understand why anyone would bother.

Which English-language religious services are available?
Many. Its a major harbour, so quite a few seafarers churches here.

Is high-speed Internet access available? Cost?
Yes. Around 30 Euro per month for regular connection, high speed may cost more.

Size and morale of expat community:
Lots of foreigners, not sure about the morale.

Are there decent job opportunities for expats on the local economy?
Are you?

  • Proficient in Dutch
  • An EU citizen (or have a work permit)
  • A skilled professional in a high-demand job (IT specialist, teacher of math/physics/German, electrical engineer and so on)
  • Prepared to take any job

If you score on all 4 points – you’ll have employers begging to hire you. Comply with 3 of the 4, and you’ll get a job within a week. Two out of four – your chances are OK. One out of four – its a start, but don’t count on much. Otherwise don’t bother.

What volunteer opportunities are there?
A lot. Really a lot.

What are some typical things to do for entertaining/social life?
The above mentioned International Film Festival Rotterdam is a highlight. So is De Parade – a summer theatre festival. Summer carnival is big, especially with the Caribbean community. The Rotterdam Marathon is huge, with hundreds thousands of spectators along the track. Other big events are Museum Night and Open Monumentendag (Heritage Day).

What’s the dress code at work and in public?
Smart-casual, although the office dress code is more relaxed compared to Germany or France. Rotterdam’s blue-collar roots do show in the relatively high amount of sweatpants worn in public.

Are there any health concerns? What is the quality of medical care available?
Health care quality is good and very professional. Dutch doctors are quite reluctant to prescribe medication (which I think is a good thing). So don’t expect to get a prescription every time you see your GP.

You can leave behind your:
SUV.

But don’t forget your:
Cycling skills. Umbrella. Rain jacket.

Can you save money?
Yes, with careful budget planning.

What unique local items can you spend it on?
Cheese, special beers. Antiques.

Knowing what you now know, would you still go there?
For sure.

Recommended movies/DVDs related to this city:
“Who am I?”, with Jackie Chan (filmed here in Rotterdam).

Rotterdam Talesmag 3

Rotterdam’s brand new Central Station is yet another architectural highlight.

I hope my contribution to Tales from a Small Planet will inspire more non-Americans to add reports about their experiences abroad. The site is useful and fun to read, and I think that with a bit more diverse input it can become even better. I know I will do my best to diversify the content at http://www.talesmag.com, and of course will re-post my contributions here.

2 Comments

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Work

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Tips and tricks, Travel

People Who Live in Small Places #5: The Netherlands

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.

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…

View original post 1,103 more words

Leave a comment

Filed under cycling, Guest post, Small European things

Mont Blanc

A few days ago, I’ve published here part I of the story of my ascend of the Mont Blanc – the acclimatization climb of the Weissmies. The Mont Blanc part has since been published on www.streettrotter.com, and I can post it here as well.

Day 8 – Chamonix

We arrive by the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix. The forecast is not encouraging – thunderstorms for tomorrow and what comes next only God knows. We manage to squeeze our tent into a spot on the campsite where at least 200 tents are already pitched on what supposed to be 80 places. Almost everyone here have already tried ascending the Mont Blanc or are about to, and it looks more than anything like the circus is in town.

Day 9 – Desert de Pierre Ronde

In the morning, we leave excess luggage at the camping and go to town to rent gear. At the store, the attendant enquires in a thick French accent “and whitch mounta’n arrre you goin’g to climb” “Mont Blanc”, I answer, in the most casual way I can, enjoyng the disappearance of the smug expression from his face. “Oh la la! In thise shoos and with thise crrrampons? C’est no possible!”, and he runs off to sharpen the edges of my crampons. Good thing I didn’t add it was my second 4000’er and that the first was only three days ago. He might have gotten a stroke.

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Erik in the Desert de Pierre Ronde, with Grand Colouir in the background

Geared up, we take the bus to Les Houches, 1100 m, the Téléphérique to Belleveu, 1800 m and the rail to Nid dAigle, 2400 m, and step right into the epicentre of the circus. Some 25 000 people (twenty five thousand!) attempt to reach the summit of the Mont Blanc every year (and dozens die in accidents), and the slopes are filled with climbers and tourists. Mothers with strollers, grandmothers with plastic bags, people in shorts and slippers mix with fully equipped alpinists (like us). Hiking up to the base of the Grand Couloir takes us 3 hours of strenious hike through the so-called Desert de Pierre Ronde. Literally this means “desert of the round rocks”, and its a French idea of a joke. There’s not a single round pebble among the mass of jugged boulders there. We camp near the Tête Rousse hut, at 3187 m, pitching our tent between Scots, Norwegians, Poles and Americans. The view of the Grand Colouir is excellent, and we see people climbing up and down and rocks flying (only down). This is the most dangerous part of the climb, and it is advised to pass early in the day, before the sun melts rocks out of the ice and snow. As night falls, the thunderstorm hits, but darkness, pouring rain and lightnings striking the rock face do not stop people from climbing, even at 2:00 at night.

Day 10 – Grand Colouir

As usual, we rise before dawn. The thunderstorm still rages, so we wait until it clears a bit. Around 9:00 we can finally start our ascend. It really is not that difficult (PD+ at most), but… Firstly, there are the steel cables supposed to make it easier to climb. Unfortunately, their fixing points actually ruin good grips and some of the cables have been there for a long time already, so they almost come off. Secondly, many ‘climbers’ do not pay any attention to what they’re doing, including groping a cable someone else is already hanging onto, which on an almost vertical rock face is really hair-raising. We pass safely and by 11:00 we already set our tent in the snow, above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, 3817 m, burying the pegs as deep as possible and lie down to enjoy the view for the rest of the day.

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Our tent above the Aiguille du Gouter hut, at almost 4 km altitude

Day 11 – Summit

We rise at 2:30 and by 3:00 we already join the line of people light up by headlamps and sounding like a slave caravan with all that gear clittering. We are plowing our way up the mountain through the immense snow fields at -10 degrees. Nearby the Bivoac Vallot refuge, 4362 m, the first light reveals the hundreds of people lined up to the top like an ant track. Above the refuge the trail becomes a snow ridge, with horrendous gaps on both sides, hundreds of meters deep. The sun rises, lighting up the sea of clouds from below by the most gentle shade of pink for a brief minute, before flooding the sky and the snow by the brightest light.

Sunrise en route to the summit

Sunrise en route to the summit

The last stretch to the top is the steepest, and the wind is at gale force, being on a snow ridge a handpalm wide at almost 5 km altitude is no joke under these conditions. It is so good we took the time to acclimatize, otherwise these last meters would have been a nightmare. By 6:30 we’re at the top, the view is better than anything else in the world, but we are absolutely freezing up here. Clicking photos until the fingers start losing their grip on the camera, and we’re headed down. About 150 meters below the top and a bit out of the wind we sit together and rest for a few minutes. Going down is easier that up, but tiredness starts taking its toll. On the way down we hike up the top of the Dome du Gouter, 4304 m. Drowned in snow, its the flattest of mountains but it is classified as a separate peak. By 9:00 we are back at the tent. Kick off the shoes, put the kettle on and lie down on the matrass outside the tent in the morning sun — WOW!

Erik on the summit

Erik on the summit

Day 12 – down, down, down

Early start, again — we want to pass the Colouir before the masses. At 3:00 we dig out our tent pegs. The wind almost blows us off the mountain with tent and all. By now we’re working together too good as a team. The tent is already packed but it is still pitch dark, so we have to wait for the first light to go down the Grand Coulouir. Erik has already had enough of this and starts to grumble at whoever came up with the idea of climbing the Mont Blanc. I remind him that it was his idea, that shuts him up. Finally, first light, and we fly down the Coulouir in 1.5 hours. Erik releases the tension by screaming out loud at the Mont Blanc. I can understand his relief; it was already his third attempt here, and just this spring he spent a week alone in his tent under the Colouir waiting unsuccessfully for good weather, dodging avalanches. By 10:00 we are already back in Chamonix, where the guy in the gear store is hugely releived to see us back alive and well. We take the Mont Blanc Express back to Switzerland, to Michabel camping, where the tent frame snaps and breaks. A suitable ending to our adventure.

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Michael (and a cup of tea) on the summit

Camping rules:

‘Wild’ camping is technically forbidden. But authorities generally ignore the campers as long as they camp out of sight, above the tree line, do not leave trash and do not light fires. The golden rule ‘Leave the place cleaner than it was before you‘ was applied by us throughout the trip.

A word of warning:

The Mont Blanc is a serious climbing undertaking that requires a great deal of fitness, a full set of mountaineering gear and preferably an experienced guide. A fantastic alternative to actually ascending the summit is the Tour du Mont Blanc hiking trail around the mountain. Erik, who has continued climbing since, reaching as high as Mount Everest, would be happy to be your guide on that trail.

A list of GEAR you will most definitely need: 

  • Thermal base layer
  • Fleeces and waterproof outer shell
  • Rigid crampon-compatible boots
  • Glacier-proof sunglasses
  • Helmet
  • Headlight (with spare batteries)
  • Hat
  • Over-gloves
  • Liner gloves
  • Gaiters
  • High-factor sun cream
  • 30 to 50 meters of rope
  • Harness
  • Slings
  • Karabiners
  • Ice axe
  • Crampons
  • Deadman/snow fluke
  • Avalanche beacon
  • A snow probe
  • A shovel
  • Garbage bag — take everything down with you!

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Travel

My first 4000’er – Weissmies

This is a story about a trip I undertook to Switzerland and France back in 2005. The purpose of the trip was two-fold. A few years before that trip I moved to the Netherlands to study and I was meeting my parents on summer vacations in Europe, so we were to meet in Switzerland. Another goal was to climb the Mont Blanc. On the climbing trip I was accompanied by my friend Erik Ravenstein, who despite being only 22, was already then an experienced climber, havind ascended among others the Kilimajaro and the Akonkagua. This is part I of the story, about our ascend of the Weissmies, which we used as acclimatization and practice for the Mont Blanc. Part II, the story of our ascend of the Mont Blanc, has been published at http://streettrotter.com/.

Day 1 – arrival
Having met in Geneve, we transfer to the Arolla valley for altitude acclimatization. Me and Erik pitch our tent on Camping Arolla, at almost 2000 meters it claims to be the highest campsite in Europe. The parents prefer to go to a nearby hostel, run, like many hostels and campsites in Switzerland, by a Belgian couple.

Camping Arolla (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Camping Arolla (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 2 – acclimatization
After a light breakfast, we hike to the Cabane des Aiguilles Rouges hut, at 2607 m. The climb is a bit difficult, at the hut weather turns to the worse and fog closes in. We descend on the same route, and it becomes apparent that the younger (me and Erik) acclimatize much faster to the altitude.

Day 3 – further acclimatization
Despite warnings by the friendly Belgian hostel-owners (who rahter underestimate our fitness) we go to the Cabane de Bertol hut, at 3311 m. Weather is fair, about 200 m below the saddle there is a small snow field. The hut itself is on the ridge, about 50 m above the saddle, accessed via rock scramble with cables and a vertical ladder. The guide book promises an unforgettable view but all we see are clouds and some hail.

Gliding down from Cabane de Bertol hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Gliding down from Cabane de Bertol hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 4 – to the Weissmies
We move to the Saas-Fe valley, where I rent a helmet and crampons in Saas-Almagell and me and Erik start towards the Weissmies. The most common route to climb the Weissmies is through Hohsaas, and is little more than a glacier hike. The lift brings you there to 3100 m and with an early start you can be back in the valley for lunch. We take the slightly more challenging (and lengthier) approach via Zwischbergen Pass, and at the evening pitch our tent near a creek just above the Kreuzboden hut, at 2400 m.

We start towards the Weissmies (photo: Sergey Afanasyev)

We start towards the Weissmies (photo: Sergey Afanasyev)

Our camp above the Kreuzboden hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Our camp above the Kreuzboden hut (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 5 – Zwischbergen Pass
Through the Almageller hut, 2894 m, we reach the Zwischbergen Pass, 3268 m. By 15:00 we have already pitched our tent in one of the about 10 stone-built wind shelters on the pass. Right after we set camp, weather worsens, and until the evening its all wet snow, imtermitted with freezing rain. Erik unpacks his brand new crampons that immediately break. Its probably been a while since the Zwischbergen Pass has heard such language. We fix the break using duct tape and it seems to hold (another one for the duct tape!).

Our camp at the  Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Our camp at the Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

The Weissmies from  Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

The Weissmies from Zwischbergen Pass (photo: Erik Ravenstijn)

Day 6 – Weissmies – my first 4000’er!
We awake at 2:30 but the weather is not looking good – fog. Every half an hour we peek out again, but to no avail – the fog refuses to dissolve. Around 4:00 the first climber of the day passes (runs!) past our tent. Half an hour later 4 or five others pass and we decide to try – there are footsteps in the snow and other climbers on the mountain, so we should be OK.
We put our crampons on and start hiking through the snow fields. The first climber has left giant strides in the snow, he must have been flying upwards. Soon the fog lifts, around 3500 m we move from the snow onto the ridge and see that the clouds are driven by the wind to the pass and above us the sky is clear. The ridge is not difficult (PD) but some climbing skills are necessary and absolutely no fear of heigts! At 3850 m the ridge turns into a snow field, which we hike to the top of the Weissmies, 4023 m, for an excellent view on the Saas Fe valley and the Mischabel range. We reach the top at about 9:00, make a few photos and start our descend, which is quite more technical than the ascent and requires belaying in a few places. By 12:00 we are at the tent and by 18:00 down in the valley. We meet my parents and all settle down in a comfortable hut on the Mischabel camping and take rest for the next day, before boarding the Mont Blanc Express to Chamonix and the “main course” of our trip – the Mont Blanc itself.

My first 4000'er - the Weissmies! (Erik on the left, me on the right)

My first 4000’er – the Weissmies! (Erik on the left, me on the right)

To be continued…

Leave a comment

Filed under Europe, Guest post, Travel