After two and a half years of living in the Netherlands, I’ve moved back to the United States.
All in all, I was lucky enough to travel to 21 countries in Europe, gaining an appreciation of how culturally different Europe is between countries and even provinces of the same country. It’s hard to appreciate this, but once you’ve traveled around enough, you understand how a just a short one hour drive in Europe could turn your world upside-down: you may find a different style of toilet, prices could double (or triple), you might encounter a different language… or completely different alphabet, it could be rude to say something using an informal pronoun (which you might have just learned), personalities could be completely different, and even food or drink you just had could be impossible to find – only one hour away. You also can see what we share – the things that tie us all together – at the end of the day we’re not that different.
Do I miss Europe? Yes, of course – the Netherlands became my home and even seemingly small things like biking everywhere, the hustle and bustle of train stations, public etiquette, and the claustrophobic tiny spaces became more normal then foreign. I’ll probably write some more articles going in detail.
Some people say that you experience ‘reverse culture shock’ when returning home after an extended stay abroad. Luckily for me it’s been more enlightening than traumatic. Here are some of the random things I’ve noticed after being back in the United States:
I instinctively go to the bathroom before leaving the house, so I’m not stuck paying 50 cents for a small, dirty toilet
I scoff when I see people wearing shorts in public….. but after a couple weeks, I started wearing them
It’s easy to get lost in multi-story buildings, because the floors start at 1 (there is no 0 floor in the US)
Wonder why all the stores are open in August – shouldn’t people be on holiday?
I forgot why people drive everywhere, but I remembered when I entered the suburbs…one person’s lawn is almost the size of a Dutch city block, and public transit is laughable
I fight to get a parking spot, but the distance from the parking spot to the store’s entrance is farther than my old apartment to the nearest grocery
Drive-through windows terrify me
I get anxiety in Target and Wal-mart because they are 30 times bigger then my usual store
I have the smallest basket of groceries at the supermarket (in Europe mine was the biggest)
Customer service. Wow, sweet, sweet customer service. If you want your food with a substitution, sure no problem. If you need to get into a store that closes but only have 5 minutes, just hurry up. Oh you made a mistake on the form, let’s fix it. It’s refreshing to not hear “it is not possible” :) *
I’m confused because tax isn’t included in the sticker price… however, glad that it’s not 19% VAT
Order a small coffee and ask why they gave me the large (people wonder why it gets cold half-way through)
I ask people “how’s it going?” and they give me a vague, emotionless answer. And I’m ok with it. And they ask me the same out of fake-but-comforting politeness*
Laugh at the supermarket’s pathetic cheese section – 50 kinds of shredded cheddar doesn’t count
Things are so much louder – you have to fight to be heard at a restaurant instead of being the loudest person (obvious American) when eating in Europe. Now, when I see people speak loudly or get mad in public, I’m really annoyed*
Have trouble finding the eggs in the refrigerated section and am disappointed at the lack of raw-meat products
Forgot how much I love American happy hours and bar specials
Still confused why we don’t use the metric system… except for Celsius, I’m not a fan
Have anything to add? Put ’em in the comments. Items with a (*) were submitted by friends.
Bangkok is a a place like no other in the world: 14 million people live there. 15 million tourists per year – it’s the #1 most visited city in the world in 2013.
When you descend into this urban overload – your senses light up from just walking down a street. The smells quickly oscillate between near-vomit inducing sewer products to seductive freshly grilled duck to rotting fish-like products back to rich broth that yells “try me.” With those kinds of highs and lows, you understand why people carry around personal sniffers of menthol to restore sanity back in their nasal passages.
You can walk by a Four Seasons – one of the nicest hotels you’ve seen in a while – and the next block – you will run into a small alley with dozens of vendors overflowing into the street, forcing traffic yield to them, selling anything and everything until they pause to serve dinner to family in the same place and may stay open as late as people are buying. Most blocks have these alleys, properly called ‘Soi,’ making the city of Bangkok more like an infinite fractal image then a map. Everything is deliberate and there is organization to a point, but finding an address isn’t a given. You can’t help but notice the power line eyesore –above every street there are hundreds of lines placed ad-hoc – it gives you a tear in your eye for any apartment with a second story window who had the dream of a view, now all they can see are black wires.
The city roads are overpopulated, just like the power lines – from big to small with delivery trucks, the occasional (insane) bicyclist, scooters, cars, buses of a thousand types, pickups with 10 people in the bed, and tuk tuks (tiny taxis for up to 3 people). Being a pedestrian requires suicidal tendencies. We saw an unfortunate accident with an older woman trying to get into a bus but instead got her leg crushed. You wonder how the whole road system even works, but no thanks to the often-ignored traffic lights that give countdown timers on green lights to encourage speeding through. They have a decent metro system, if you live near one of the scarcely-placed stops, but you quickly realize that you’ve probably reached the only city in the world where the cab rides are generally cheaper than the metro if you have 3 or more people – about $4 for a 12km/7mi ride (which would cost $23 in New York)… but don’t bother during rush hour. If people have to walk more than 4 blocks, they will usually hop on the back of a scooter with a driver in an orange vest – these scooter taxis are all over the city and I’ve never seen anything like it before. Maps are deceiving because the center of Bangkok is so big – skyscrapers you’ve never noticed appear when you go to a new neighborhood.
Depending on where you are in the city, you’ll see the occasional or frequent homeless person. There are slums tucked away in many of the Soi (alleyways) that you wouldn’t give a second look because they are so well disguised but might house hundreds of people. People are really nice and friendly – and you don’t often get begged for money or to buy anything. For a huge city, I almost always felt safe, even at night. Most people don’t speak English except yes/no/thank you and some numbers – this includes taxis adding a level of difficulty – but people are impressively good at gestures. The Thai alphabet looks like nothing familiar (ตัวอักษรไทยเป็นเรื่องยาก), so it’s hard to remember a street, but most signs are written in both English and Thai.
The city is chaotic but not as dirty as you’d expect, the litter situation is under control, even though finding a trash can is a challenge, and people are often sweeping their storefront. Just don’t think you can wear sandals, because the streets are not clean, largely thanks to stray cats and dogs, rats,
and the puddles of standing water with colors of the toxic rainbow from antifreeze green to used-cooking-oil brown. You’ll find drainage ditches and canals throughout the city and the Chao Phraya river that splits the city is littered with trash and ferry traffic making it a sight to see. Most boats are traditional thai longboats with an old car engine and a 15 foot propeller welded to the back.
Bangkok is notoriously a hot and humid city, but we are visiting in January, a temperate month. In April, it’s common to see heat indexes of upwards of 42C/107F –many people have an extended holiday over April and now the New Year (Songkran) is a country-wide water fight because of the heat.
Prices are really low, but just like every city, it scales. You can eat a pretty solid meal on street food for 50baht($1.50); groceries are dirt cheap; you can get a red bull for 11baht($0.33), cigarettes are 90baht($2.60), subway tickets cost 40baht($1.30), beer starts around 40baht($1.30), legit massages are 200baht($6)– if you start going to the high end, you can easily run into prices comparable to New York.
…and the food…. perhaps the best food city in the world? how do they do it? You’ll find out in my next post…
It’s quite a place and initial shock if it’s your first time visiting, but you get accustomed surprisingly fast. No wonder it’s the most visited city in the world.
Visiting the Netherlands and love to eat? Well, the Dutch aren’t exactly known for their cuisine, but they definitely have many interesting and delicious things from cheese to fried snacks to raw meat. Here’s a scavenger hunt of must-have Dutch cuisine – get started with the below list and explore markets, snackbars, cafes and grocery stores all over the Netherlands to find the lekkerste (tastiest) and most Dutch food!
(1 pt) Kaas – Dutch “gouda” cheese (the older, the better)
(1 pt) Patajes met mayo – fries, with mayo
(1 pt) Melk – Dutch milk
(1 pt) Biertje – small beer at a bar, foam cleared with spatula
(1 pt) Speculaas – Dutch windmill cookies
(1 pt) Broodje – 2 plain pieces of bread with margarine and one slice of meat
(1 pt) Stroopwafel – waffle cookie filled with caramel, best fresh at markets
(2 pts) Pannekoeken – Dutch pancakes
(2 pts) Bitterballen – deep fried gravy balls, best dipped in mustard
(3 pts) Zacht, zoet drop – sweet black licorice
(3 pts) Broodje kroket – soft bun with crushed deep fried gravy stick
(3 pts) Frikandel speciaal – deep fried, coarse ground sausage served with mayo + curry ketchup + onions
(3 pts) indonesische rijsttafel – rice table, 10-25 small portions of Indonesian dishes to sample, served with rice
(3 pts) Kibbeling – deep fried white fish chunks
(3 pts) Oude jenever (+1 for both oude and jonge) – the Dutch evil father to gin
(4 pts) Haring – raw herring usually served with onions, eaten by holding the tail
(4 pts) Filet americain – raw, bright red, spiced, finely ground beef, best in sandwich with onions
(4 pts) Karnemelk – Dutch sour milk (buttermilk)
(4 pts) Ossenworst – raw lightly-spiced and smoked beef sausage
(5 pts) Paard – horse meat
Extra credit (worthwhile mentions)
(1 pt) Douwe-egberts koffee – the original dutch coffee, try a cappuccino also
(2 pts) Hagelslag – bread and butter with chocolate sprinkles on top (good also with peanut butter)
(2 pts) Krentenbollen (+1 points if you have a “Sweet Twister” from the AH to-go) – raisin rolls
(2 pts) Kaassouffle (+1 points if it comes from snackbar’s vending door) – deep fried cheese patty
(2 pts) Erwtensoep – Dutch split-pea soup
(2 pts) Kruidnoten – small cookies, only during the holidays
(2 pts) Mosselen – mussels – best only on the months with an ‘R’ in the name
(3 pts) Poffertjes (+1 for during the holidays – olliebollen) – small pancakes with sweet toppings
(3 pts) Stamppot (+1 for zuurkool) – dutch mashed potatoes with other vegetables
(3 pts) Saucijzenbroodjes – greasy sausage wrapped in flaky bun
(3 pts) Muisjes on beschuit – mice, colored anice seeds served on a hard biscuit, often to celebrate birth of a baby
Short history lesson (skip below for pictures and story of visit)
In 1986 something unimaginable happened. No person in history could predict that humans could leave a mark like this: an invisible 30km (19m) circle in Ukraine was unlivable for 20,000 years.
During the morning of 26 April the forth reactor of the Chernobyl complex was scheduled for routine shutdown. The plant leadership thought that it would be a convenient time to circumvent the usual protocol and for the first time test risky emergency procedures. The test failed and uncovered some crucial design flaws – but it was too late. The core of the reactor exploded, spewing radioactive material it into the air like the most deadly fountain in history. An emergency was declared, 31 fire fighters arrived and were exposed to lethal levels of radiation immediately. The next day, 53,000 people were evacuated from the cities of Chernobyl and Pripyat with hours of notice. The citizens were told they could return in three days, but were never allowed back. Reality hit the world; the safe days of nuclear power were over.
The wind immediately started carrying deadly particles of radiation around the world. The USSR didn’t even tell anyone until two days later when sensors in Sweden (1000km away) reported a spike in radiation levels.
Somewhere up to 250,000 people were sent to help clean up the site over the next two years. In some places, radiation levels were so high that they were only allowed to work 1 minute at a time before taking a break. Attempts were made to cleanup or neutralize the 180 metric tons of radioactive material trapped in the reactor, but they were futile. The only possibility was to initiate the “largest civil engineering task in history” and cover the site with the with a massive concrete sarcophagus to surround the reactor. Today, the sarcophagus is still protecting the world from unstable sludge of radiation.
Hunting parties were sent out in the 30km area to kill every living animal they could find, because of a fear of deformities. Haunting pictures of three legged animals are on display at the visitor’s center. Months after the accident, all trees directly downwind of the reactor died at the same time and turned a reddish-brown color. The “red forest” is still today one of the most contaminated areas on the face of the earth. Sadly, Belarus, the country which borders Ukraine to the north received over 60% of the radiation fallout. Wild boar in Germany are still found today with excessive radiation levels.
The health effects are virtually unmeasurable, and widely debated, but the estimates are:
Immediately: about 50 workers killed from acute-radiation poisoning
Regionally: a total of 5000-9000 deaths due to radiation or fatal cancers
Worldwide: an estimated total of “985,000 premature deaths as a result of the radioactivity released” (who knows how they came up with that number)
You’ve likely breathed in contaminated air from Chernobyl at some point. The most surprising fact is that there are three other reactors on the site that kept running. Due to Ukraine’s electricity needs, they kept the other reactors (with the same design flaws) operating. In fact, they ran the last reactor until the year 2000, 14 years after the accident.
Our visit to Chernobyl
Today, the site remains restricted with both 10km and 30km checkpoints to control entrance. In 2011, the area was opened up to a limited amount of visitors if they book through approved tour providers and each person must receive a government permit. In July 2012, I and two others got a chance to visit the area.
The story started as a internet fraud warning on 60 Minutes – I sent an email to one of the tour companies and got a quick response. They thought they could get us the government permit with short-notice, but they needed $60 to confirm our reservation. I sent the money, waited anxiously for four days and finally heard we were in. We were told to meet a man in a white van outside of a hotel on Saturday morning at 9. Wear long pants and long-sleeved shirt, shoes fit for walking on broken glass, and bring cash for the rest of payment that was due.
We showed up on time, to meet a person who promptly collected our money. We headed off in the
white van, with a non-English speaking driver, and met the three other people on the tour: 2 Americans from San Francisco and a older French man. We weren’t too thrilled because it was a dark and cloudy day with occasional showers. Maybe it would clear up on the drive.
After 90 minutes of snaking through small villages in rural Ukraine, we were at the first 30km checkpoint. We drove a little bit more and reached the 10km checkpoint and the rules were read to us. Don’t touch anything, don’t leave the group, don’t take pictures of certain things, and you could be detained if you get contaminated or violate the rules. As our guide was telling us not to worry about the radiation, we made a stop to change shoes and grab two Geiger counters – one for her and one for us. Yes, of course. Don’t worry about anything.
Our second stop was the entrance to the city of Chernobyl which was not as contaminated as some of the other cities because of the wind pattern during the explosion. It’s a pretty small and very quiet town with a couple dozen buildings in sight (including a bright green cantine). Some of the workers and tour staff live in apartments here but for no more than 14 days per month.
The second stop was an abandoned school where things started to get spookier. I’m surprised that the floor hadn’t caved in while we were there. You could still see the class roster on one of the walls. There were books and toys, which would never again be used by a child, scattered all over. You could tell it had been looted, but there was still a lot left.
We kept driving and had our first stop within view of the actual reactors. They are very sensitive to taking pictures at certain angles, so after this stop, when we were driving ~100m away from the reactor where you could see some more of the infrastructure and other parts that are now abandoned.
Our geiger counters started to pick up intensity – we were moving in the direction of the heaviest fallout zone. We passed the red forest, which is still today the most radioactive place on earth. It’s called that because several weeks after the accident, all of the trees in this forest turned red and died. We also passed over a bridge raised above train tracks where many of the residents were evacuated from.
Our next stop, and most interesting, was the ghost town of Prip’yat. This town was built to house most of the workers and families of the Chernobyl complex, about 50,000 people lived there.
We weren’t supposed to enter the buildings because of the radiation level or getting hurt or something, but they weren’t too strict on the rules as you can tell. Dodging broken glass, sharp exposed metal pieces, random holes in the ground, and crumbling cement we got a first-hand view of what years of neglect can do to our precious untouchable society. In many cases, it was clear that the buildings were looted and valuables stolen. Many times there were rooms full of chairs, electronics, pianos, furniture, and filing cabinets left to rot.
Oddly enough, the main warning was to avoid stepping on the moss and any vegetation, as the plants have an affinity to absorbing the radioactive isotopes. It was clear based on the geiger counter readings that this was true, but it was virtually impossible to avoid the vegetation. Moss was everywhere.
The next stop was the abandoned amusement park that was slated to open days after the disaster happened. No child ever used the iconic ferris wheel that now stands there, locked in time, rusting away day by day, soon to be just a speck of radioactive dust and memories.
We left the city of Pripyat to the next stop – the cantine for lunch. Yes, the tour included a traditional Ukrainian lunch (think borscht) on-site, conveniently located about 1km from the reactor complex. Sound weird to be eating so close to the disaster, but don’t worry, it’s on the side that didn’t get fallout and the food is shipped in daily so they can feed the reactor staff and any visitors. To ensure you are not overly contaminated, you get screened on the way in… and they let you wash your hands with soap.
If you have any leftover bread from lunch – you are directed to bring it. We are off to go feed fish from a bridge spanning a canal that circles the complex. These aren’t just any fish – these are monster catfish the size of small sharks. Why are they so big? Interestingly enough, it is not due to the radiation, but rather they are just thriving in the deserted environment. Two tips: they only like white bread (not brown) and it’s really fun to hit them in the nose with a big piece of bread. Sorry – I didn’t get any good pictures here.
We proceeded to the memorial honoring the 31 firefighters that lost their lives and rushed in to save the day. We were not allowed to take pictures of the reactor from this angle for security reasons.
We all solemnly hopped back into the van where we drove on a new route with the the four reactor complex to the left of us and the river to the right of us. Surreal to see a giant natural river right next to a series of reactors. We arrived at the final stop – the viewpoint of the sarcophagus from 200m. It was crazy how close we were to the reactor – you could see the details of the structure that was built as quickly as possible during post-apocalyptic conditions. It is definitely showing signs of aging, but surprising well built all things considered. To the right (not pictured or you would get arrested) was the new super-sarcophagus that was being built to protect the reactor long term. The geiger counters were going crazy at this point.
We said goodbye to Chernobyl and took one last breath of the fresh air before we hit the road. Our final stop was a sad, sad convenience store that had four hideously designed “souvenirs”: hats, shirts, coffee mugs, and lighters.
On the ninety minute drive back to Kyiv, we took some time to reflect on the visit, but it was almost too much to process right away – perhaps we even had a small PTSD. There’s something about a bond formed while exploring an abandoned nuclear site that can’t really be described… except in the back of the van, in true Ukrainian form over a bottle of vodka and some imitation crab flavored croutons.
Welcome to a country where the police may demand a bribe if they hear you speaking English. A country where the government takes money from the EU earmarked to protect history’s largest man-made disaster – and uses it for other projects. A country where a politician accused of poisoning his rival and rigging past elections is the current president. A country that still shows parts of its repressed, former soviet history divided between Russian and Ukrainian speakers. A country that still has an active communist party handing out newspapers at train stations. Most residents don’t speak English, but they are friendly to visitors. Here, rent is cheap, but a cockroach-free apartment is reserved for the upper-class. Oh, and here’s a bottle of water – you’ll need it – you won’t be drinking the tap water because of the chemicals. Despite the problems, things seem nice here. People are (somehow) even happy. Some call it the wild, wild east. Most just call it Ukraine.
Ukraine is the second largest country (behind Russia) in Europe by land mass. Kyiv (or Kiev) is Ukraine’s largest city and capitol with 2.7m people. Tough history: They had a famine in the 1920’s that killed millions because of Joseph Stalin. They lost 6 million people to WWII. Finally after years of being culturally repressed by the USSR, they got independence in 1991, but suffered economic chaos and political corruption. Things are looking up for the future, especially with the revitalization of the city as it hosted the EuroCup earlier in 2012.
My flight landed late; 1:30 in the morning, and it wouldn’t be an adventure if my luggage arrived…. so here I am at the luggage office of the Kyiv airport at 2:00 am forced to complete three copies of paperwork (one each in English, Russian, and Ukrainian). I get a text message from my host Danny, my friend’s brother who lives in Kyiv, saying cab he called for me was here. If you hire a cab from the airport without calling for one, you can pay up to four times more.
Both Russian and Ukrainian use the Cyrillic alphabet, so every sign is a complete mystery to me, but luckily for now, most airport signs were also in English. Try to read this: Ось приклад деяких українських письмовій формі, так що ви можете бачити, як він виглядає. My favorite characters are:
Ж , Ю Д Щ , И , Я
After confirmation the airline had no idea where my bag was, I find a blue Volkswagen, license plate AA 1139, driver’s name Peter – exactly as specified in the text. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but welcomes me in. He’s watching a WWII movie on the old DVD player atop the dashboard. We pull away, and I’m hoping that he’s taking me to the right address, but I can’t pronounce it (Давидова 15), so the only thing I can do is to sit back and enjoy the complementary in-drive movie. The driver starts typing on his GPS, then gets a phone call – while the movie is playing – juggling three electronic devices at once – and smoking a cigarette. After 35 minutes and a couple close calls with road obstacles; I learned that in Kyiv, the car actually drives you.
We finally arrive in a dark, graffiti-ridden alleyway, and I’m almost certain we’re in the wrong place. We call Danny and his friends who speak a bit of Russian and the driver asks where they are. They start to argue, so the driver takes me around the block to the other entrance, pointing and yelling bad words in Ukrainian and the whole time. He’s angry, so I get out of the car and pay him so he’ll be stop with the temper tantrum. He parks the car a couple blocks away, sitting there waiting. This makes me worried that he was waiting to rob me. I call my friends, after 5 minutes of describing where I was, we realized that the cab had gone to the right place, but Danny and friends were at another apartment, hence the confusion. About 20 minutes later, the cab driver called my friends to check up and make sure I found them safely. He was waiting for me – to make sure I was safe.
I met Danny and two new friends, all English teachers living in Ukraine, at 3am on a Boulevard under the glow of iron soviet-issued street lights surrounded by tall, simple concrete and brick apartment buildings on a near-perfect summer evening. Since it was already late, we enjoyed the evening, taking advantage of the many kiosks selling snacks and beer all night long. We scooted over to a man-made canal (giant concrete slab with water flowing) to watch the sunrise with Ukrainian junk food – bacon and crab flavored croutons. Since it was already 7am, we found the neighborhood market just opening and we joined a line of 10 people waiting in line for milk and cheese from a babushka (grandma) as Danny impressed some older ladies with his broken Russian. It was finally time for a couple hours of sleep after a long, pleasant night.
Running on two hours of sleep, I woke up Friday to be taken on the Kyiv metro and dropped off on my own for the morning. The elaborate metro stations show off their marble, ornate decorations, and communist statues from the soviet era. This metro is the deepest in the world – 100m (328ft) underground. This means you two never-ending and swiftly moving escalators about four minutes each up or down from the ground to the train. I suspect the train rides only cost about 20 cents because of the inconvenience. I emerged, walking down Khreshchatyk street and had spectacular views of Independence square]. I stopped at the Besarabsky market and was surrounded with varieties of fruit, more caviar than could feed a whole country, unrefrigerated raw meat that looked less than desirable, also complete with overly aggressive vendors who wanted you to buy their stuff.
Time for my first glass of the ubiquitous street drink – kvas – a non-carbonated alcoholic fermented drink made from stale bread. tasting between kombucha and beer, but refreshing. I am still regretting the thick-sliced salo – uncured raw pork belly – eaten on brown bread.
After wondering around some more, Danny met up with me for lunch at a Ukrainian cafeteria where we stuffed ourselves with Ukrainian specialties: red and green borscht, local sausages, Varenyky (dumplings like perogi), and more. We went off to see some of the coolest churches I’ve ever seen. The colors were fantastically vibrant and had a modern but traditional look all highlighted with gold leaf. Inside, you’d think it was a chapel – there were no seats to be found- only walls and domes covered with ornate murals, tapestries. The women visitors (fully covered up) passed picture to picture of Jesus to kiss each one. Much more intimate then the giant Western European churches.
Perusing the endless street vendors near Andrew’s Descent you can see some of the most unique and rare-to-the-west merchandise around. Looking through USSR uniforms, busts of former communist leaders, flags from years ago, Matryoshka dolls with anything you could imagine, pins with the immortalized hammer and sickle, and even the occasional weapon – you might think you’re in a hands-on museum. We went home early to nap and wait for the airline to drop my bag around 8-10 as promised. I called them at 12:02 and was told that I wouldn’t get my bag until tomorrow. Oddly enough, at the exact same, the delivery people called. They were outside.
Saturday was a big day. How do you start big days? McDonalds breakfast with a side of Ukrainian replica McFoxy’s chicken balls, which were quickly rejected by my immune system. We took an amazing journey to Chernobyl (which I’ll cover in a separate article) and were back in time for drinks and dinner, where we joined tables and enjoyed several carafes of vodka with Ukrainian people about our age. They invited us to come to another bar with them where we saw a fun but not musically inclined Ukrainian cover band butcher every American song we knew.
Sunday morning crept up on us faster than expected. We took the morning easy, with a walk on the bluffs overlooking the wide river and visited a park that was possibly the most obvious remnant of the soviet era in the city. Strolling through a sidewalk with serious speakers blasting either opera or military marches (depending on the mood), we passed cannons, a military exhibit, and several extremely dramatic communist statue depicting struggling people. As we passed a memorial honoring the strength of the 14 soviet “hero cities,” the pinnacle of the park awaited us. The motherland statue.
She is the exact opposite of the 151ft Status of Liberty. The 203ft high, chrome plated statue sports a sword in one hand, a shield in another, and a look that could melt you, and muscles that could kill you – not the most inviting message. And Ukrainians do not like it when you call her “Mother Russia.”
Just like the Statue of Liberty, you can go to the top for the best view of the city. And of course, as good tourists, we went to the top. They rejected Danny for his sandals and yelled at us to wait 40 minutes. We were met by our guide, who smelled fresh of vodka, and started towards the innards of the statue. We hopped into an elevator that could comfortably fit one person and started our ascent. The second elevator ride was a little more touch-and-go, but we made it. After that, we started climbing stairs in the dark, military green, steel inside of the statue. We were then told to climb several ladders that followed the contour of the arm of the statue without a harness. After we shimmied up the ladders, we emerged outside in a steel cage that was behind the shield to admire the city for a couple minutes.
We took a one of the thousands of the city’s mini-buses (marshuka) back to the central station. One more glass of kvas, retrieving my bags from the cryptic, perhaps bomb-proof, I took the bus (no more taxis) from the train station and launched off to the comfort of the western world.
Two weekends ago it seemed like everyone was out of town. I had to jump ship too.
After hearing a documentary about abandoned embassies, I thought Cologne, Germany would be an interesting place to visit, and I was craving some German beer and sausages. There is a direct 2.5 hour train, but to save some money, I took the slower, cheaper trains with 3 connections. I almost missed two connections, learned the hard way this was a bad idea.
I started at the Kölner Dom church, right next to the train station. It’s the biggest building in the city (by far), one of the biggest churches in the world, and apparently even the most visited landmark in Germany. I didn’t get a full appreciation for it’s size until after climbing 509 stairs to the top of the tower for some impressive views of the city.
Getting hungry, I thought I’d pop into the Früh brewhaus for a light snack and also some of the city’s famous Kölsch beer. Anytime I visit Germany (confession: only twice), I’m always impressed by the service. They take refilling beers seriously and will put a fresh one down when you are near empty until you beg them to stop. Some places drink beer so fast, they don’t bother to refrigerate their barrels and they sit atop the bar with a tap on the bottom. Their meals are social and jolly and the people-watching always good.
I found someone to host me in Cologne for the night. We met up, chatted, and started to get ready for a BBQ with some of her friends that she invited me to. I learned about the German “Call a Bike” – which are bikes you pay by the minute and leave wherever you want inside the city. If you want to check them out, just make a call on your phone and type the number. Very cool.
We got to the BBQ and set up shop overlooking the small skyline of Cologne (dominated by the church) from a beach on the Rhine River. We ate, we drank and I met many new German friends as we watched day slowly turn to night and the colors of the city come alive. Everyone was very hospitable and were generally happy to speak English with me. When it finally got dark, the umbrellas were replaced with torches and we went on for hours, hearing stories about how one of the people in the group swam across the river years ago, how Cologne is the best place for Carnival (every European city says that), and how some clubs in town don’t even close until people leave, sometimes 11am.
The next morning was a relaxed one. My host took me for a walk around the city, weaving through some of interesting parks and neighborhoods including the Rheinauhafen, a modern, gentrified harbor. We ended up grabbing a plate of blood sausage, cheese, and onions before fighting the crowds of a festival in town while rushing to my train. That was it. 24 hours in Cologne.
Remember the mention of the city with all the embassies? Well, I made a mistake. Bonn, 30 minutes south, was the city I was originally looking for. Whoops, that’s on the list for the future.
Barri Gotic is the oldest part of town with grey and colored six-story brick buildings so tightly arranged together you can’t fit a car. You are distracted by clothes lines spanning across apartments, cast iron balconies, the charm of an authentic slightly-seedy neighborhood, with sporadic open squares where the streets don’t exactly line up, no concept of N, S, E, or W, and you know that most of the tenants have called this place home their entire life. This is where I found an incredible €4 haircut by a guy who used only shears and a straight razor – my treat for waking up early Friday morning.
Still without coffee, I stumbled down La Rambla, tourist HQ, street vendors poised to make a sale with things from crafts to clothes to even turtles, birds, and several €40 chipmunks. Seeking refuge from the boring vendors, I turned the corner and accidentally stumbled into Mercat de la Boqueria, one of the best markets I’ve ever been to. It had the extravagant displays of Pike Place, vivid colors from fruits & fresh juices found in Mercado de La Merced in Mexico City, and a seafood display that would make an exotic aquarium envious. I was surrounded with spice merchants, food stands, perfectly ripe produce, and thousands of hanging, glimmering jambon legs waiting to be eaten.
What was on the agenda for the rest of the day? Surely not the beach again? Since it was so nice, we took the metro to the other end of the beach. The Barcelona metro is extremely well run – tickets are about €1 and the trains run about every 4 minutes, so when you miss one it’s no sweat. The group found some people to play volleyball with, we swam a bit more, and played this paddle game.
We ate a stunning dinner at Pla, with an almond-melon soup that made our group go wild. We met up with the Barcelona Bar Crawl group, starting at this quirky bar illuminated only by red fluorescent signs, list of albums hanging from the wall to take requests (if you didn’t fill out a request, they stopped playing music), and headphones hanging above the bar in the case you really wanted to tune out the other patrons and listen to a song. After 3 more bars, we ended at some three story dance club having a blast. Watching the clock, we noticed it was getting late, so we headed back and said goodbye to John and Lindsay who went straight to the airport to catch their early flight. The streets were still packed and loud around 4am, but nothing in sight was open for a snack.
We met up Saturday with lofty goals of not going to the beach again. Needing something more substantial than just tapas, we stopped at an Uruguayan grille for lunch. Tiffany ordered the “la carne la parrilla” and was surprised to see two beef ribs bigger than her arms show up on a platter front of her.
We waddled to the our next stop, La Sagrada Família, one of Gaudi’s still-under-construction treasures of Barcelona, dominantly tall, sitting high above the skyline viewable from almost anywhere in the city. Walking into the church was literally an experience I will never forget. Sure the gothic-meet-transformers sculptures are like nothing else, the nativity scene’s detail is world changing, the partially completed stained glass is vivid with a modern pattern, the gothic columns inspired by trees, spires and external detail unmatched, and the views of the city from the bell tower are impressive, but nothing held a candle to the experience of walking in and seeing the inside of main church for the first time. I have already planned to come back in 2028 when the construction is finally complete.
We took the long way home, through upper class l’Eixample, seeing two more buildings designed by Gaudi. Later in the night, we ended up at the Irish pub again to watch the Spain football match, which got rowdy. A couple days earlier, we found out it was Revetlla de Sant Joan near the time of the summer solstice, not really a festival. It was a holiday, with nothing organized – just random
bands on stages throughout the city, and adults and children as young as 4 lighting off fireworks everywhere you could imagine. So we went to the beach around midnight – walking through a war zone with sounds of fireworks everywhere, often lit off right in front of you – to join tens of thousands of people lying on the beach in the dark cheering on the rogue firework displays. To help experience the local culture, we decided to get some fireworks and join in; when else do you get the chance to light bottle rockets in a city center?
We needed a museum – Picasso perhaps? Nope, closed on Sunday. Instead we got lunch at La Paradeta, my favorite meal of the trip. After you walk in, you’re greeted with a cooler of raw seafood beautifully displayed on ice. You basically just point at anything from lobsters to whole calamari to shrimp and oysters, they weigh it, you pay, they cook, you wait, they call you, you eat and eat and eat. So much food. So fresh. Go good.
Our final hurrah was a ride on the gondola above the city to the Montjuic hill with some killer views of the beach and harbor. I had a flight to catch, we bid eachother sad goodbyes.
Somehow, I felt like I knew the city of Barcelona before I even got there, maybe because of its similarity to Buenos Aires, Argentina. Spain proved to be the extremely relaxed culture I always pictured it to be. I was off to a delayed flight and an airport meal so unsatisfying it made me want to go back to Barcelona before I even left.