Tag Archives: americans in europe

2017 set to bring record numbers of Americans to Europe for third year in a row

2015 and 2016 have both been record years in terms of U.S. tourists arriving in Europe, and 2017 seems firmly placed to be third record year in a row. Why wouldn’t they come? The American economy is doing well, the Euro is on a 12-year low (just 1.07 USD for one Euro!) and Europe is a safe, pleasant and immensely variable destination. Added bonus – many Americans have European roots, so even without direct relatives still living on the “old continent”, its always fun to see the town where your great-great grandmother came from back in 1882.

Euro vs USD exchange rate over the past 10 years (source: http://www.tradingeconomics.com)

Rotterdam

In recent years my city – Rotterdam – has become increasingly popular with tourists as well, becoming the second most popular Dutch city. Rotterdam will probably never surpass Amsterdam, which gets more than 10 times as many visitors. Nevertheless, with the increased popularity of the sea cruise, not a week goes by without 2, 3 or even 4 cruise vessels docking in Rotterdam. You know what that means – Americans! Europeans welcome the American visitors and their $$. In addition, the visitors bring with them a perhaps even more valuable commodity – free entertainment. As my fellow writer WD Fyfe has so nicely put it in his guest post: “You are just as exotic to the locals as they are to you.” Here are a few of my own observations on the habits and customs of the American visitor to Europe.

  1. Americans tend to think everything in Europe is “cute” and “small”.
    Cut it out. Its not “quaint little Cologne“. Cologne is a city of over a million people, the centre of a metropolitan region with a population of 3 million. It lies in the Rhine-Ruhr metropolitan region, with over 10 million people, the third largest metropolitan in the EU. Just because the city centre looks old, doesn’t mean its a cute little village. Same goes for Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague and all other major European capitals. Such comments are especially funny when made by Farmer John and Pumpkin Jane from Springfield, Illinois. Although even if you come from the suburbs of Chicago, its still no excuse to pretend you’re living in a cyberpunk 3D Futurama-meets-Fifth Element-style SuperCity, and you feel agoraphobic in these European “quaint little cities”.

    Quaint little Cologne

  2. Speaking of Chicago, you’re not in mortal danger in Europe.
    Dear American visitors. You’re not “surviving” Brussels. You haven’t “braved” Paris. Your few days in London were not a selfless act of courage. Yes, in 2015 and 2016 there were several high-profile terrorist attacks in Europe, with almost 200 people killed in both years. No, you’re not in mortal danger from the moment you step on European soil until the moment you leave. Think of it – in Chicago, 700 people were murdered in 2016! How does that compare to the risks posed by terrorism threat in Europe? Right – relax and get a bullet-proof vest when you get back to USA.
  3. Since I mentioned bravery – there’s nothing “daring” in visiting Budapest.
    For some reason, Americans still believe the Iron Curtain is crossing Europe. Therefore, they tend to describe their day-trip to Budapest as a hair-raising plunge into the Great Unknown, where Stasi agents lurk on every corner. Stop it. You’re not “boldly going where no one has gone before”. Prague and Budapest are not even in Eastern Europe – its Central Europe. Both cities are in the Top 10 of most visited cities in the world. Countries like Estonia welcome more tourists per capita than Spain or Italy. Trust me – they’ve seen tourists before you. They know how to strip you of your dollars. Its not by robbing you, silly – its by selling you rubbish guided tours and ridiculous chariot rides.

  4. Copenhagen is a hidden gem of Europe” – yes, exact quote.
    I’m sure that’s the reason you can’t even see the statue of the Little Mermaid, let alone take a good photo of it. The crowds of tourists are there to hide this gem. Look – just because you haven’t heard of a place or a city, doesn’t mean its “new”. Something is “a hidden gem”, “a route less taken” or “off the beaten track” if its actually less haunted by the masses. A place like Gent, a region like Pyrenees or a country like Moldova might qualify for such a term, because they are not immediately recognized by everyone. In the more touristy places its also possible to find “hidden gems” or go “off the beaten track“. But calling Copenhagen “a hidden gem” is about the longest stretch ever.
  5. I know it’s a shock to you, but not everything is better in America.
    Of course, this one is not limited to Europe. Americans are known throughout the world for compulsively trying to prove that everything is better in America. I recall one especially fanatical American, who, in front of a Belgian, a German and a Czech, tried to argue that the best beers in the world are being made in Boulder, Colorado. And all that in a Danish pub. Of course, it didn’t occur to him that a)it’s a matter of taste b)nobody actually cared and c)he was making a complete fool of himself. Seriously – why do Americans try to make a pissing contest out of everything? It only shows your deeply engraved inferiority complex, darlings. No need to argue with the French about who’s wine is better, with the Germans about who’s cars are faster, with the Greek about who’s state debt is bigger and with the Russians about who’s president is insaner.

    French wine is just better.

Dear citizens of America visiting Europe in their masses this summer. Please chill out. You’re on vacation. We wish you a pleasant stay and hope you never change. Life would be so dull without you.

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Filed under Europe, Travel

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

7 things Americans don’t understand about Europe

I don’t understand Americans in Europe. Actually, I don’t understand them in their own country as well. I mean, I don’t get baseball, NASCAR, American gun laws, the American insistence on using an archaic measurement system and above all I don’t understand ice in whiskey. But I think Americans do not understand Europe either. Not all of them, of course, but I think the average American has no clue about may things that are quite common in Europe. Here’s a small guide to the visiting American, helping rectify the most common American misconceptions about Europe.

What most European cities really look like

What most European cities really look like

  1. Europe is a continent, not a country
    “Europe is my favourite country” – how many times have I not come across this statement? Admittedly, the last one I saw was made by a Canadian, which only serves to prove the point that Canadians (and Australians) are a bit of Americans in disguise. Perhaps for people from countries the size of a continent it is difficult to understand. But Europe actually consists of more than 50 countries (depending a bit on how you define “country”). They have their own flags, anthems, culture and for what its worth their own foreign policy. Lumping them together is like saying “animals are cute” – sure they are, but a bit overgeneralizing.
  2. Europe is not the same as the European Union
    Its true that by now the majority of Europeans live in EU-member states. But there are still dozens of countries in Europe that are not a member, and the EU still covers less than half of Europe’s physical area. Besides, contrary to what Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike would like you to believe, the EU is not a super-state. Its members are independent countries who largely run their own affairs.
  3. Europe is more than the tourist hotspots
    Sadly, most Americans who visit Europe, and even many of those who live in Europe rarely leave the beaten track of old town centres, business districts and tourist top destinations. Their impressions of Europe are limited to Paris and Venice, and perhaps a bit of the countryside of Tuscany or the valley of the Loire. Their image of Europeans is therefore that of sopisticated, cycling, latte-drinking fashionistas. Sad truth is that most of Europe is less like the Champs-Élysées and more like the suburbs of Dusseldorf or the Bulgarian countryside – full of moustached people in jump-suits, who drink beer for lunch.

    What most of Europe's countryside really looks like

    What most of Europe’s countryside really looks like

  4. The UK is not a part of Europe
    This is actually what the British themselves believe, and their Anglo-Saxon cousins have inherited this belief. However, the UK is separated from the European mainland by a stretch of water just 33 km wide and less than 50 meters deep. People have even crossed swimming! The UK has been a part of the EU for over 40 years. Culturally, economically, socially, ethnically, religiously, geographically – any way you put it – the UK is firmly a part of Europe. Dear Britons – you are Europeans. Get over it. And mention it to your cousins, will you?
  5. Europeans have more than two parties
    In the USA it is simple – you’ve got the Republicans and you’ve got the Democrats. Europe is a bit more complicated politically. In most European countries its an elaborate game of multiple parties and coalitions. I know Americans like things simple, but European politics just doesn’t work this way. But don’t worry about this one, most Europeans don’t get it either.
  6. Football – no, its not soccer, its FOOTBALL
    Americans don’t even understand the name of the game that drives Europe crazy. They think they have football and what the Europeans play is soccer. But seriously – American “football” is played with the arms and hands mostly. Even if the occasional kick is taken into account its “limbsball” at best.

    What football really looks like

    What football really looks like

  7. European social system
    “Social=socialism=communism=DEVIL” – that’s pretty much the line of thought of the average American. “Europe” is in the USA a symbol of all that goes wrong when the government takes over. In reality, in the USA government spending is ~47% of the GDP and in the EU government spending is ~49-50% of the GDP. Hardly a difference, isn’t it? True, in Europe poor people get various benefits and social subsidies. But in the USA the system is pretty much the same – the benefits are just called “tax credits” so that it sounds more business-like. But how can people who pay no taxes get tax credits? A-ha! That’s just social benefits in disguise!

So dear Americans – whether you’re visiting Europe, or just hearing some news about “Europe” – do keep in mind that things are a) a bit more complicated and b) perhaps not that different than at your place. And if you have stories of European misconceptions about the USA – I’d love to hear, I’m sure there are plenty.

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Filed under Europe, Travel

Unorganized Europe – tips on how to enjoy Europe on your own terms

I’ve never been on an organized tour in Europe. And I honestly do not understand people who go on these tours. Well, some people at least. If you’re in your 50’s and enjoy wearing name tags, then its the right thing for you. Or if you’re a Chinese or a Russian and don’t speak a word in another language, then I totally get why booking a bus tour is the way to go. I even understand why Americans who only have 10 days off a year would think that swooshing through 17 countries in a week is a good idea (it’s not – Best of Europe in 21 days? Best of Europe’s highways and tourist traps, perhaps). But there are so many young people out there with lots of time and little money on their hands who nevertheless pay a premium price for something like this:

This mad schedule offered by Contiki will take you to 8 countries in 12 days!

European Discovery
From Amsterdam to Rome to Paris, you won’t want to miss a thing. In fact, sleep will probably be the last thing on your mind!

Sleep will probably be the only thing on your mind as you are dragged to a new town every day, and spend an average of at least 4 hours on the bus daily. More than 100 Euro per day and drinks are not even included! What I understand least is that it’s the same crowd that rents a motorcycle and crosses the back-roads of Laos for weeks, hitchhikes across Africa, stays in an Indian ashram for half a year, but when in the most civilized, tame continent they suddenly feel the need to be taken by the hand and fast-forwarded as if chased by ghosts. I honestly can’t think of a more exhausting and unsatisfying way to spend your vacation. The only explanation I can come up with is that people who book these tours want to get drunk in as many cities as possible. But surely there are cheaper ways to achieve this noble goal?

The rushing is not limited to organized tours though. So many travellers, young and old, wreck themselves with travel schedules from hell. 15 countries in 30 days, 10 countries in 12, 5 cities in 3 days – there’s no limit to the self-inflicted travel misery. Sure, I am a fortunate person. Blessed with a sufficient amount of paid leave and living within easy reach of Europe’s best. But its a lifestyle choice most of all things. I see my vacations as an opportunity to relax. Spending endless hours in transit (and traffic), checking in- and out of hotels every day or two, queueing up to see the endless must-sees is just not my idea of relaxing. When on holiday (and in daily life) I try to choose quality over quantity. And so can you – here’s how to enjoy your (European) vacation

  1. Set up base camp

    No, you don't always have to go to 4000 meters for a free place to sleep in Europe

    Not all base camps must look like this

    Even if your next destination is only a 100 km away, packing, checking out, dragging your belongings, checking in and unpacking still eats a whole day off your vacation. In most of Europe distances are (relatively) small, trains are fast and border controls non-existent. Setting up a strategically located base camp will enable you to explore a whole country, if not several countries, just by doing day-trips. Of course, I’ve done the ultimate move and set my base camp in The Netherlands for the past 12 years already, but that’s an extreme case.

  2. Think of your goals
    It’s so trivial but true nevertheless. If your goal is, indeed, to get plastered in as many destinations as possible – go with it! But don’t try to combine it with cultural aspirations (well, getting plastered is a part of most cultures, but you know what I mean). Think of the things you really want to do and tailor your trip to suit those aspirations. If you’re on a tight budget – go to the Balkans rather than Scandinavia. Yes, you can enjoy Scandinavia on a tight budget, too. But it probably will require a lot of camping and not everyone’s up to it.
  3. Choose the right transport

    During Chrismas vacation bicycles get stuck not only in traffic

    Obviously the wrong choice of transport here

    For you and for your trip. I can’t stand long bus rides so I try to avoid those. But there’s more than personal favourites to it. So, if you are hopping between major destinations, a flight is a good budget option in Europe. If you don’t mind the trip taking a bit longer, and being perhaps a bit more expensive, the train is a good alternative. And if you’re in a party of 3, driving a rented car is probably cheapest. But it’s not all there’s to it. Driving takes an effort, and high-speed trains take you there in a whisker. For example, going from Madrid to Barcelona takes more than 6 hours of driving, but less than 3 hours by train. Can you drive this bit? Yes, you can! But it makes little sense to do so unless you plan to stop along the way.

  4. Limit your destinations
    This can not be stressed enough. An excellent recommendation is a minimum of 3.5 days per destination. But that’s a minimum. If you go to bigger cities, and plan day-trips to other places and/or the country side, I would suggest 5 days at least. As an example, if you intend to spend 5 days in Paris, you can probably fill your schedule completely just with the city. But even if you’re fed up with Paris after a couple of days, you can still take a day to visit Fontainebleau, and a day for another city (Dijon is just 1.5 hours away!). Better still, rent an apartment in Paris for a week, and don’t let that stop you from going to the Loire for two days, spending the night in a Chambres d’hôtes along the way, before going back to the city. The total will be probably cheaper and surely more efficient than separate bookings.
  5. Keep things optional

    The Narrenturm was probably not the happiest place to be in

    Is a former madhouse in Vienna a “must-see”? I sure enjoyed the visit

    I always try to remind myself that there are no must-sees. So what if I haven’t seen whatever that is that’s on “everyone’s” list? Its my vacation and I’ll cry if I want to, cry if I want to, cry if I want to… Sorry, I got distracted. I’m not going on vacation to tick off a bucket list, but to enjoy myself. And to me that involves more leisure time and less obligations. I do my research, but view the resulting wish-list as “options” rather than “musts”.

  6. Optimize you trip
    In retail marketing they call it “cherry-pickers”. The term refers to customers who are coming in, buying the items on most attractive sale and leave, not tempted by the overpriced trash presented at the check-out. Be a “cherry-picker”. With open borders and short distances, Europe is an excellent place to optimize. No need to think in terms of “countries” – if an activity or a landscape is better/cheaper elsewhere – go there! Let the example of Cousin Avi be your shining light:
    Doug the Head: [referring to England] We’ve got sandy beaches…
    Avi: So? Who the fuck wants to see ’em?
    See what I mean? There are many reasons to go to England, but why would you stick around for the beaches when Ibiza is only a two-hour flight away?
  7. Try to be flexible
    Booking ahead your entire trip makes sense if you have only one or two weeks. But if you have a month to spend in Europe it’s rather unnecessary. What if you hear of a place you really want to see? Or if you would like to stay longer where you already are? Can’t do, because you’ve already booked elsewhere. By setting your beginning and end points and perhaps booking one or two nights there, you’ll be free to choose your next destination as you go. And no, it’s not difficult or expensive. You’ll just have to be flexible about it.

I’ve written a series of posts about the different regions of Europe, and listed what I think a region is best for, when is the best time to go, how to get around, why you shouldn’t go there and where to go if you only want to spend one week in the area. Perhaps this summary can help you choose and plan your next European destination:

And if you have comments on how you optimize your vacations, I’d love to know.

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Filed under cycling, Europe by region, Tips and tricks, Travel, Work

The price of Europe

The Euro is in a free-fall vs the US dollar, sparking much debate about the macro-economical consequences. And of course about how cheap it is for (American) tourists to visit Europe. How expensive is Europe really? MoveHub, a website dedicated to “help you make an informed decision about wherever you want to move” has recently published a handy infographic showing the of costs of living around the world, compared to the cost of living in New York used as a 100% benchmark. Since I’m only concerned with Europe here, I took the liberty to crop that part out:

Relative cost of living in Europe (from www.MoveHub.com)

Relative cost of living in Europe (from http://www.MoveHub.com)

Compared to the cost of living in the US (based on the same infographic), there are several types of countries in Europe:

  1. Bloody expensive – Norway, Iceland, Denmark and Switzerland
  2. Quite expensive – UK, Ireland and Luxembourg
  3. Just expensive – Sweden, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium, France and Italy
  4. “Average” – Germany, Austria and Cyprus
  5. Slightly cheaper – Russia, Estonia, Slovenia, Spain and Greece
  6. Rather cheap – Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Portugal, Croatia, Slovakia and Azerbaijan
  7. Really cheap – Poland, Ukraine, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Albania, Bulgaria, Armenia and Turkey
  8. A total sell-out – Moldova, Macedonia and Georgia

It is immediately obvious that the general trend is for countries to be cheaper towards the South-East of Europe. But that’s nothing new. The interesting part is in what this map does not show. And its quite a lot.

First of all, the numbers come from Numbeo, which is a collaborative database. This means that the prices are provided by individuals and are not verified. But with hundreds of thousands of users providing millions of statistics, I’d say it is as reliable as it gets.

Secondly, a map of the local purchasing power index is much more useful if you’re going to live in a country. Prices are high in Switzerland, but so are the salaries.

Thirdly, even if you are a visitor, the prices you are interested in may not be the ones that are taken into account when making this inforgraphic. After all, why would you as a visitor care about the price of a Volkswagen Golf or of a membership of a fitness club?

Finally, the biggest disadvantage in this map is that it presents averages per country. And the differences may be quite significant. For example, Berlin is about 20% cheaper than Munich.

And now the good news. One of the biggest expenses for both a visitor and a resident is in having a place to stay. And that’s where the differences tend to be highest! It is a rough indicator still, but if you look at the price per square meter to buy an apartment in Munich and notice it to be twice as high as in Berlin, be prepared for significantly higher hotel prices.

All-in-all I can say that this map is a very good match to my personal experiences around Europe, and I would seriously recommend using it as a start in your budget planning, whether you intend to move to a European country or just visiting.

What would you say? Does this map match your experiences and/or expectations? How about maps of your continent? Share your thoughts!

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Filed under Europe, Travel, Work