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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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Ridin' the hills

    The French countryside in Burgundy

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

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Filed under Europe, Tips and tricks, Travel

A virtual tour of my Rotterdam

The Markthal at night - inside is the biggest art work of the Netherlands

Rotterdam’s newest and already the most popular attraction -the Markthal at night – inside is the biggest art work of the Netherlands

The last few days, spring has been in the air. The sun is shining, temperatures are in the double-digits, crocuses, narcissi and tulips are blossoming everywhere and a small army of orange jackets is trimming bushes all over the city. Other, less appealing signs of spring are the intense smell of fermented manure being sprayed on the fields and me getting a hay fever, but that’s not the point here. The point is that Rotterdam is firmly on the map as a tourist destination in its own right. In the last couple of years, the city I live in has scored big-time in international awards and “top destination” lists. And the publicity is bearing fruit – Rotterdam is literally swarmed with tourists. I am seeing more and more of them, gaping at the sight of the Markthal or standing at a street corner trying to figure out the map in their hands.

Spring is in the air and on the ground

Spring is in the air and on the ground

For the past 3 years or so I’ve been doing my best trying to help visitor find the best spots in Rotterdam by contributing to Spotted By Locals. But I’ve recently thought about it and realized its all very nice writing about spots, but that I think there’s more to it. I would actually like people to have the opportunity to experience Rotterdam the way I experience it – in a coherent, connected fashion. So whether you’ve been following my writings at Spotted By Locals or not, if you’re just visiting Rotterdam or lived here your whole life, let me take you on a city trip along my favourite spots. I’ve put them together in 3 “theme” days, so that if I inspire you, you can either get just the main highlights in 1 day, venture outside the city centre if you have another day, and should you be staying for longer, perhaps see a bit of the greater surrounding. Click on the day headers for the map of the day.

Day 1 – Downtown Rotterdam

Centraal Station - befitting Rotterdam's reputation as architectural capital of Europe

Centraal Station – befitting Rotterdam’s reputation as architectural capital of Europe

Cube houses at the Oude Haven

Cube houses at the Oude Haven

Since you’re probably arriving by train, don’t forget to look back as you exit the spectacular shining new Centraal Station. From here its a short walk to the Dudok, to start the day with a cup of coffee and Dudok’s iconic apple pie. If its Tuesday or Saturday, you’ve got the chance to experience one of the biggest outdoor markets in Europe, on other days the brand new Markthal is a good alternative. After exploring the market(s) and the weird architecture Rotterdam is so famous for, Seth’s Poffertjes are a perfect spot to lunch and do some crowd-watching. Walk to the river and cross to the Noordereiland over the Willemsbrug, that offers a panoramic view of the city’s skyline. Stroll along the south bank of the Maas past the Erasmus bridge (aka the Swan), not forgetting to pay your respects to the Holocaust victims at Loods 24. Take the water taxi at Hotel New York, moving back to the north bank, to the Veerhaven. If the weather is friendly, go up the Euromast for an unrivalled view of the city and the harbour, on clear days as far as the sea. And if its raining, take an indoor trip around the world at the Wereldmuseum. By now its probably dinner time. If you’re made of money, you can dine at the Michelin-starred restaurant of the Wereldmuseum. Those on a more reasonable budget can dine at the Wester Paviljoen, where you can also close the night with drinks. If, after all these efforts, you’re still up to it, in the wee hours Rotterdam gravitates towards the Witte de Withstraat, where De Witte Aap is the focal point.

The view from the Euromast is spectacular on a clear day

The view from the Euromast is spectacular on a clear day

Day 2 –  Ol’ Rotterdam (or what’s left of it)

Dragon boat race on the Kralingse Plas

Dragon boat race on the Kralingse Plas

Somewhere in Kralingen...

Somewhere in Kralingen…

As you might know, the centre of Rotterdam was pretty much levelled by the Luftwaffe in 1940. And what was left standing was torn down under the disguise of “urban renewal”. The old town was replaced with glass, concrete and steel and these are, in their turn, being replaced by even more glass, concrete and steel. But outside the city centre, the “old school” Rotterdam is still there. But first, its back to the Dudok for a solid breakfast to start the day. Its one of the few places that serve breakfast, so there’s not much choice anyway. Simit Saray just down the road is perhaps a bit more budget-minded. From here, take the subway to Voorschotenlaan, at the heart of Kralingen, Rotterdam’s rich suburb since about forever. Walk through the alleys following the pattern of ancient waterways to the Trompenburg botanical garden (don’t miss picture-perfect Slotlaan), where you can spend some time exploring the pathways. If you can find the tea-house, you can have lunch here in classical Continental style (which requires a lot of patience). Weather-pending (it’s a recuring theme, isn’t it?) take a detour to see the Kralingse Plas pond and perhaps feed the zillion ducks there, walking through a neighbourhood where kids on lunch breaks play tennis rather than football, I kid you not. Mme Masette is a wonderful spot to enjoy the sunset with a cup of coffee or a glass of wine (they’re good at selecting those) before heading back to the centre through Rubroek, practicing your bird-watching skills along the way. Back in the centre, all you have to do is decide whether you’re in the mood for French, Spanish or Italian – and go to Pierre, Barcelona or Due Tonine. But regardless of where you dine, end up at Bokaal.

Day 3 – Beyond the city limits

Boompjes promenade

Boompjes promenade

The Water Bus is the best way to get to Kinderdijk

The Water Bus is the best way to get to Kinderdijk

Its time to see some of Rotterdam’s surrounding country side, and the best place to go to is of course UNESCO World Heritage site of Kinderdijk with its classic windmills. Rent a bicycle, get your groceries at the nearest supermarket and sit at the Boompjes for a breakfast in full view of the river. Board (with your bike) the Aqualiner water bus to Kinderdijk. Touring the windmills will probably take the best part of your day, but if you haven’t had enough pedalling, you can disembark on the way back at the Stormpolder and cycle the extra 10 km to Rotterdam. Back in the city, cross the Earsmusbridge again to the Kop van Zuid, and choose your spot to enjoy the sunset – Hotel New York, the rooftop terrace of nHow or just sitting on the quay wall. The Lantaren-Venster filmhouse is an excellent place to say farewell to Rotterdam, closing off with a dinner, a movie and/or a concert.

Hotel New York is flanked by modern high-rise

Hotel New York is flanked by modern high-rise

Its a boat... its a bus... its... SplashTour! Hotel New York's water taxi is on the background.

Its a boat… its a bus… its… SplashTour! Hotel New York’s water taxi is on the background.

I hope you enjoyed this virtual tour of Rotterdam and perhaps will be inspired to visit for real.

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Filed under cycling, Europe, Small European things, Travel

Yesterday I woke up to a white morning

It seems that the European winter is teasing me. In the end of December I’ve complained here about the lack of proper snow in our parts. And as if to show what the Dutch winter can do, yesterday morning I was surprised to wake up and see a properly white winter. The city was covered in 4-5 cm of pure, crisp, dry snow under a clear blue sky. Of course, by noon most of it was gone and what was left melted together into deadly patches of ice. But I still managed to capture the magnificent views from my balcony.

DSC_2599

DSC_2600 DSC_2606 DSC_2603 DSC_2604

To put things into perspective, this was a very local snow event. The map below shows the extent of snow cover in the Netherlands yesterday. Most of the country appears to be snow-covered. But the orange parts indicate a patchy snow cover of less than 1 cm, so only the green areas are really snowy (Rotterdam is in the lowest most left green patch).

sx20150205

Snow cover in the Netherlands on Thursday, 5th of February 2015 (source: KNMI). Numbers indicate depth of snow (in cm), 97 means less than 1 cm, 98 means broken snow cover.

 

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Let it snow in Europe (or not…)

Winter in Europe sounds so romantic… Snow-covered castles, jolly Christmas markets, evenings by the fireplace – all the ingredients of a Disney classic.

Winter in Europe as you imagine it would be...

Winter in Europe as you imagine it would be…

The not-so-cold truth is, that Western Europe, the destination most people associate with a European vacation and with the classic images of castles and such, has a mild oceanic climate (see map below). In plain language this means winter weather here is best described as “disgusting”.

Climate zones of Europe (from http://go.grolier.com/atlas?id=mtlr026)

Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Vienna – in January, the coldest month, typical weather in these European capitals is just above or just below freezing. Precipitation is mostly rain, occasionally wet snow, and only accidental snow cover to give you the opportunity to make that classic photo.

This week's snowfall in my neighbourhood - pretty, isn't it?

This week’s snowfall in my neighbourhood – pretty, isn’t it?

This is what it looks like up close...

This is what it looks like up close…

Snow in Western Europe rarely stays for long. It usually starts to melt immediately as it falls, leaving you wading in ankle-deep muck. As the temperatures drop below freezing during the night, semi-molten snow and fresh rain freeze on the surface, turning the roads into an icy death-trap for pedestrians and motorists.

I wouldn't dare driving over this, I barely dare walk here.

I wouldn’t dream driving over this skating ring, I barely dare walk here.

Even in the Scandinavian capitals Oslo and Stockholm winter is by no means a guarantee of snow due to their location on the sea shores. I’m not even talking about the Southern regions of Europe – the chances of seeing snow in Rome or Barcelona are close to zero, and you will probably spend most of the winter there being cold and wet nevertheless. In many parts of Europe, winter is indeed full of snow and frostbites. Its just not the parts your are likely to visit as a tourist. Take a look at the map below, showing average January temperatures in Europe.

Europe, temperature-January (from http://go.grolier.com/atlas?id=mtlr029)

The darker areas are colder, and parts that are below -5 Celsius are likely to see permanent snow during most of the winter. Mountain areas (like Schwarzwald, shown in the first photo) will probably be snowy regardless of their location. But most of Europe to the West of the line Warsaw-Belgrade will probably be freezing cold but rather grey and very, very moist. For the Americans among you – Seattle is probably your closest weather “parallel” to North-Western Europe. I don’t mean to discourage anyone but if you plan on a snowy trip to Europe, you better be going to Zermatt or Moscow. And check out the handy charts at http://weatherspark.com/, like the ones for temperature and precipitation in Amsterdam shown below. As you can see, November to March will be either cold or freezing, and there’s a high chance of rain at some point of the day. Welcome to Europe and have a nice stay!

Fraction of Time Spent in Various Temperature Bands in Amsterdam.

Probability of Precipitation at Some Point in the Day in Amsterdam.

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City tripping in Europe – what to bring?

In my years in Europe (and beyond) I’ve been on quite a lot of city trips. And I must say by now I am quite efficient in my packing – taking only what’s necessary and leaving the rest behind. In the past, I’ve already shared here a bit of my fathomless wisdom concerning backpacking essentials. Some of the stuff certainly overlaps. For example, a pair of Crocs can be as useful on a city trip as when crossing an Icelandic river. And earplugs save your sleep on a glacier when the wind is wailing around your tent, but also on a night train when you’re next to a noisy ventilator. Well, enough of this prelude – to business!

  • Black All Stars, image by Hadley1978 (Wikipedia)

    Black All Stars, image by Hadley1978 (Wikipedia)

    All Stars. No, I don’t get a kickback from Nike. I just like wearing them, and I am fortunate enough to be able to walk on All Stars all day long without problems. They’re light, wide enough to accommodate warm socks in the winter and cool enough to wear in the summer, representative enough to attend a conference (the ones I attend at least) yet casual enough for an underground concert.

  • New Year's Eve in Berlin. Europe's "mild winters" can mean -8 C and a bone chilling wind.

    New Year’s Eve in Berlin. Europe’s “mild winters” can mean -8 C and a bone chilling wind.

    A rain coat. Of course a wind- and waterproof jacket is absolutely essential in the bitterly cold European winter. But at any season anywhere in Europe – bring a rain coat. Not joking – it may be utterly useless, but you may seriously regret relying on European weather. It might rain cats and dogs your entire trip, and an umbrella is just not good enough when the rain is horizontal.

  • A Senz Umbrella. Yes, I am serious – both a rain jacket AND an Umbrella. Yes, Umbrella with a capital letter. Because everything you called an umbrella so far was just a cheap replica. You know what happens to an umbrella in the wind? It folds backwards, doesn’t it? Well, not anymore it doesn’t. Because now there’s Senz – Umbrella’s tested in wind tunnels, that don’t bend over backwards at the slightest gust. Even the small ones that fit into a hand bag are stormproof up to 60 km/h (and the newest model up to 80 km/h)! So why would you need an Umbrella AND a rain jacket? Because European weather is treacherous, and it might be as hot and humid as in Singapore, and you don’t always feel like lumbering around town in your bag-shaped jacket.

Any favourites you bring along for a city trip? Do share!

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