Tag Archives: wine

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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Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl 🙂

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger Münster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger Münster cathedral

 

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How to choose a (small European) country

As the term of my contract at the university is drawing to a close, I begin to ponder on the next move. It is by now obvious we need another place to live. Our small European apartment has been a perfect place for the two of us, and we’ve managed very well to make it suitable for a baby, but with two children rapidly growing up it is becoming rather crowded here. We have few wishes – I dream of a kitchen with room for a dishwasher and the wife has always wanted a garden, even if a handkerchief sized one. The chances of finding an affordable place with a garden in a decent neighbourhood in Rotterdam with our current income are… well, not high. Besides, its not that I don’t like Rotterdam, on the contrary, but the air quality here is the worse in all of Western Europe.

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Rotterdam is a pretty cool place to live

Leaving Rotterdam – but where to?

Since in order to improve our living quarters we would have to find a new town,  I thought “why not tackle bigger issues, while we’re at it?”. There are many plus sides to living in the Netherlands (more about it in one of the next posts), but I would really like to live in a place where you don’t need to look at the calendar to know which season it is. But where to go? And how to decide? I sat down to compile a set of criteria my (our) new home would have to meet. The goal is to apply “Parkinson’s law for hiring”, and to reduce the number of possible places to move to. When applied right, in the end, the choice will be very, very simple.

Van Nelle factory - a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

Van Nelle factory – a Rotterdam architecture icon that is on the UNESCO World Heritage List

A properly run country

First of all, I want to live in a properly run country. You may ask “How do you know whether it is run properly?”. And I will tell you it is very easy to tell whether a country is run properly. Simple question – is it safe to drink tap water there? I think it is a perfectly reasonable thing to ask. Turns out, it already rules out huge chunks of the world. All of Africa, all of South and Central America and most of Asia don’t have drinkable tap water. What’s left is Western, Northern and a bit of Central Europe, supplemented with the Anglo-Saxon division (USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand) and the outliers of Asia that only prove how much they do not belong there (South Korea, Japan, Israel, Singapore, Hong Kong and Brunei).

With a pleasant climate

Having thus excluded most of the world, I went on to think about what makes a place pleasant to live in. I mentioned the climate, but how to define what makes a pleasant climate? And I am proud to say I found a way to do it – wine! I will quote this passage from www.earthmagazine.org in full, because it illustrates my point so well (emphasis added):

“Are there ideal weather conditions for growing winegrapes? Although no two vintages in any region are exactly alike, growers everywhere would be ecstatic with adequate precipitation and warmth to grow the vine and ripen the fruit, with no weather extremes (like frost, hail and heat waves) and disease. During the dormant period, this would equate to enough soil-replenishing rainfall and a cool to cold winter, without vine-killing low temperatures but with enough chilling to ensure bud fruitfulness the following year. The spring would be free from wide temperature swings and frost, and have enough precipitation to feed vegetative growth. During flowering, the weather would be cloud-free with moderately high temperatures and high photosynthetic potential to allow the flowers to fully set into fruit. The summer growth stage would be dry, with heat accumulation to meet the needs of the variety and few heat stress events. The ripening period would be dry with a slow truncation of the season toward fall, with moderately high daytime temperatures and progressively cooler nights.”

In other words, a wine-growing area has a properly cold winter, but not a bitterly cold one, a pleasant, sunny spring without the wild mood swings the Dutch springs are so famous for and a dry, warm summer, that gently slides off into a cooler, but still dry autumn. Look at this picture below and you will see that wine-growing areas are primarily in places like Southern France, California, and Southern Australia. Coupled with the clean tap water requirement it already leaves us with preciously little places to choose from. For the ease of further comparison I will exclude exotic wine-growing areas like Sweden or Canada – I am sure you understand that is not what I mean by “a pleasant climate”.

World Wine Areas, image by Denkhenk

Where I speak the language

Next, I decided I want to live somewhere I either already speak the language or where I can learn a language that is widely used. This leaves out destinations like South Korea and Slovenia. Not that I am not open for attractive business opportunities from Japan or Poland, but I am trying to find ways to cut down my list here.  I already speak Dutch, English, Hebrew, Russian and a bit of German and Spanish. French is a language that would be extremely useful to learn as there are so many French-speakers in the world, and Italian gets a wild-card for ease of learning (from hearsay) and its usefulness in enabling you to at least understand French and Spanish (again, hearsay). This trims down the list to France, Spain, Italy, Australia and New Zealand, USA, Israel and the German-speaking countries.

In Europe

The choices become more difficult, as all the above are rather attractive places to live in. But one has to make choices. The USA is out for preferring guns over nipples. While Australia and New Zealand are really fun, living there would take me rather far from my friends and family, almost all of whom live in Europe. Again, given the right incentive, I will sail for Australia and never look back, but I would prefer staying closer to the ones I love. I’ve already lived in Israel and its just too warm there for me. What’s left are “just” France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Switzerland and Austria to choose from.

Close to mountains

If there’s something I love its mountains. Hiking, climbing, canyoning – even just watching mountains makes me happy. Maybe its the years spent in the flatness of the Netherlands that make me want to live within easy reach of a serious mountain chain. And I don’t mean something like the Massif Central or the Ardennes – I mean mountains with glaciers and all. That narrows the options down a bit further – of the mountain chains in the countries that made the short list, only the Pyrenees and the Alps have glaciers. The Pyrenees glaciers are quite small, and since I’m in the business of making choices here, I’ll leave the Pyrenees out for the moment. Its just the Alps then.

Swiss mountain lakes...

Swiss mountain lakes…

And not too far from the family

Coming to think of it, since we’re pretty settled on staying in Europe, it would be nice to live somewhere reasonably close to the family in the Netherlands. That way, we could drive down to visit grandma and grandpa for the holidays, the cousins can come over to us for a long weekend. So not moving away too far – but how far is not too far? My experience is that driving 800 kilometers is about the maximum for a single day without breaking yourself. And there’s a great tool to help with that, called “How far can I travel?“. I’ve filled in “800 kilometers from Rotterdam”, and the nearest place with mountains hits the spot – its Switzerland. Incidentally, its also the country with the highest salaries and the lowest taxes. Cows, mountains and cheese, here we come! The tough part of having to decide where to go has thus being taken care of, all I got to do now is finish my PhD and find a job. Piece of cake.

Matterhorn - a super strong argument for Switzerland

Matterhorn – a super strong argument for Switzerland

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Picture perfect Burgundy

Everywhere in France, the dead of the Great War are commemorated

Everywhere in France, the dead of Great War are commemorated

Its been a month since we’ve returned from our Grey Wave camper adventure, and its time to close the report. As I’ve revealed in the last post, for our main event we were going to France. France is one of the largest countries in Europe. But even big European countries are built up on the remains of a vast array of smaller ones, melted to a certain degree into a centrally governed state. Some of these semi-states, like Catalonia, are well-known and are actively striving for independence. Others, like Bavaria, while also well-known, seem content being part of a larger whole. And yet others, that in their time have themselves been a major player on the European scene, are almost entirely absent from the public eye, only marginally important even to their inhabitants. We were going to such a “forgotten state”.

A typical Burgundian village square

A typical Burgundian village square

As the September nights in the North were getting colder and colder, we drove 400 km south, and it was the best move we could make. We came to Burgundy. Once upon a time, merely 5 centuries ago, the Duchy of Burgundy was one of the most powerful states in Medieval Europe. Nowadays it is reduced to a minor region of France, hardly known outside the story of Jeanne of Ark, Burgundy wines and beef bourguignon. Its an excellent destination for tourists looking for peace and quiet. Not quite Mediterranean, but surely not Atlantic. Not entirely continental, but too far from the nearest sea. Not yet the Alps, but on a bright day you can see the Mont Blanc from a Burgundian hill top. If this is not the heart of France, I don’t know what is.

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

A street in Tournus, Burgundy

The weather here was ideal – sunny, in the low 20’s during the day, and not dropping below 10 at night. We’ve spent an idyllic week on a camping in a castle’s garden. Ask me what we were doing there the whole week and I will honestly tell you I have no idea. One of the days we cycled to the nearby city of Tournus. The only rainy day we’ve had we took the camper for a road-trip through the hills, ending up in spectacular Cluny. Where did the other days go? Beats me. I went running along the Saône river a few times, we’ve cycled a bit around the camping, but most of the time we just spent doing nothing – a rare occasion in today’s world. The only disturbance (which has added some spice into our week) were the low-flying jet fighters roaring over our heads from time to time.

Our trusty camper

Our trusty camper

We were almost the last to leave as the camping was closing for the winter, moving a mere 50 km northwards to Beaune, our last stop of the adventure. I’ve never heard of the place before, but if you’re even slightly interested in wine you probably have – its the wine capital of Burgundy. The vineyards around here are already on the short-list for the UNESCO World Heritage List – continuously cultivated for two millenniums! Of course, in early October the town was full to the brim with grey-hair, but it probably is in any season. Beaune is a bit like Bruges, but with every other building being a wine merchant instead of a chocolatier. Wine business is done on all levels in Beaune, from vin en vrac for as low as 1.50 per litre, to the famous Hospices de Beaune wine auction selling wines for over 100 000 Euro per  456-litre barrels. Beaune was an excellent place to close our adventure – urban yet laid back, surrounded, as I’ve mentioned in the beginning of my narrative, by the most perfect sunset scenery known to man. All we had to do was drive the 700 km back to Rotterdam. At least, all I had to do was drive – due to a minor technicality (expired driving license) the wife was doing 0% of the driving. But I didn’t mind – driving a 3.5 ton camper around Europe was an adventure on its own right.

And even thought I won’t get a kick-back from them, should you consider renting a camper while in The Netherlands – check out this website: http://camperfun.nl/

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Luxembourg is more exciting than you may think

The third country on our Grey Wave adventure was Luxembourg – the smallest we’ve visited on this tour. Since I’ve recently devoted a separate post to Luxembourg, and our stay was rather brief, I won’t devote many words to it. Save that its probably the closest place to the Dutch border where you can buy wine from the tap, and that I’ve been here a few times already in the autumn and am amazed how bloody spectacular it is.

I've caught sight of the local royals departing the palace.

I’ve caught sight of the local royals departing the palace.

Picture-perfect European scenery in Luxembourg.

Picture-perfect European scenery in Luxembourg.

The city of Luxembourg is mostly built on, in, above and around massive fortifications

The city of Luxembourg is mostly built on, in, above and around massive fortifications

The wife has infected me with her fascination for leadlight, I'm afraid.

The wife has infected me with her fascination for leadlight, I’m afraid.

The rain has gone, but the nights were becoming bitterly cold. It was time to make the big leap southward. I’ll spare you the nail-biting guessing period of not knowing where we went – it was France, of course, but a rather special part of France. Details coming up soon.

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Ugly past of a beautiful place

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

The second leg of our Grey Wave adventure took as across another border – this time between Belgium and Germany. Just a short drive, less than 150 kilometres, but since we took to the scenic roads rather than the highways, including a small stop at Signal de Botrange, the highest point of Belgium and one of the weirdest spots on the continent, it took us the best part of the day just to get there. The roads here wind through dark forests and deep valleys, the bottom of which seemed one big campsite at times, as one infinitely long camping seamlessly converged onto the next. And they were all full to the brackets, with elderly wine-drinkers I presume, as the last week of September is the time of wine-festivals here. The Ahr valley, where we camped, looks (and smells) as if it could be in the mountains of Switzerland or Austria, with the steep gorge flanked by numerous vineyards, that, in September, spread an unmistakable odour of rotting fruit. Castle ruins on hilltops and abandoned fruit trees terraces make the romantic setting complete.

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The next morning we took the bicycles for a ride down the valley, to the pittoresque little town of Ahrweiler, the capital of the wine growing in the area, where I had a rather curious encounter with the ugly German past. I have visited Germany on many occasions, and I have even lived in the country for several months. I’ve seen and experienced a number of Holocaust sites and of course I am aware of the history. For me as a Jew, Germany will inevitably be connected to this most ugly chapter in human history. But I don’t hold a special grudge against modern-day Germans, nor do I think that the Germans of the past are more accountable for the horrors than all the other people of Europe. Except the Danes, perhaps, who deserve special credit for their courage and success in saving almost all the Danish Jews.

As I’ve said, I know my history and am not often overwhelmed by emotions about the Holocaust. But as we strolled through this peaceful, sunny little town, we’ve come across the old synagogue, which in the Jew-deprived Ahrweiler is now being used as an art exhibition space. This is where it hit me. I stood there and read the plaque, telling about the desecration of the synagogue in 1938, and how not a single of the town’s Jews survived the Holocaust and I just didn’t get it. I could somehow acknowledge that in the relative anonymity of a big city, where you don’t even know your neighbour’s name bad things can and do happen. But here, in this small remote town? How could it happen in the 20th century, in a wealthy European country, that the town’s people, educated, cultured folk, who lived together with their Jewish neighbours for 7 centuries, who probably knew each and every one of the several dozens of the town’s Jews by name, got together and burned down the synagogue, and send their neighbours to the gas chambers? I just couldn’t fathom it, I still can’t, and I was most surprised how despite all my knowledge of the Holocaust, I still fail to understand, and probably will never be able to understand, how otherwise nice and decent people can be capable of unspeakable cruelties to their closest neighbours.

We haven’t stayed too long in Germany. The weather became cold and rainy, and we’ve made our escape, stopping briefly in ancient Trier, before heading to the next country on our list. Attentive readers will probably have already guessed which one it was.

Golden decorations on a Trier palace - how German can it get?

Golden decorations on a Trier palace – how German can it get?

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Guests welcome at Small European Country!

This week, I’ve welcomed my first guest contribution, titled “The music of Estonia“. And I will be pleased to host more guest contributions on Small European Country.

In general, short posts of 500 to 1000 words are welcome. I would prefer to host unique and personal contributions – that is, written from your personal experience and about specific things, rather than generalizing. So, writing “Last week I enjoyed the best wine I ever had in Chateau Migraine near Lyon” is better than saying “France has some great wines”.

If you’d like to share your experience travelling or living in a small European country, have ideas on what makes a country big or small, would like to debate the definitions of Europe, want to discuss the differences between small European and non-European countries, or have any other meaningful contribution to this blog, please send your contribution using the form below.

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