Ongoing anecdotes from the countries I visit
a) Amsterdam anecdote
The Dutch are nice people, on the whole. They are a laidback, clear and friendly group whose condition can probably be attributed to their cycling culture. . That is until it comes to getting around. A typical Amsterdam or Haarlem street has three pedestrian lights, two bicycle lights and one car light. At least six lanes are present for the different transportations, and each are only somewhat signed. If this doesn’t cause enough problems, the Dutch only sometimes obey the signage. I was nearly hit by a delivery truck as it blindly turned right while the bike light was green. Scooters frequently zoom past on bike paths and the occasional car pulls on to the sidewalk, adding another level of defiance. It is anarchy trying to get anywhere, and even when you’re doing the right thing, you can never tell. My attempts to signal, warn people and apologize for my ever-frazzled cycling were completely ignored, so I gave up and joined the Dutch in the mob-like but improbably happy biking. After three days of this, I have adjusted, but I’ll be glad for the German orderliness when we get to Berlin.
b) A different Berlin
Germany has been very good in remembering and owning up to the crimes they committed during World War II. It was still hard to imagine rebuilding and moving on when your country is held responsible for such atrocities. I wrote this story imagining that getting past these acts was too hard, so the world chose to shut them out for good.
“Where are they from?” the young boy asked, pointing at the guard who stood watch over the street. The boy’s sister looked at the man.
“Outside.” she answered, her words bouncing off the great wall where the soldier stood. The two children stopped, staring up at the silhouetted figure, lit by the setting sun.
“How did he get here, then?” the boy sounded disbelieving of his sister’s answer.
“He came along the walls. Every few days they change, till they’ve walked from one outer wall to the other” the boy pictured ants walking along a maze of concrete walls “That way they see us, but never have to come near us. That’s right isn’t it?”
This was addressed to a third figure had come to stand with them. It was an old man.
“Yes. They start in the outer towns and make their way here.” he said quietly.
The boy stamped his foot impatiently.
“But what’s outside, and what are they guarding us for?”
The old man answered these questions calmly.
“The outside is where the world is. And they aren’t guarding us; they are guarding the outside from us. The walls were built to keep us in.”
He sighed and looked at his grandchildren. The children looked back, confusion on their faces. The old man turned to look at the wall.
“The world doesn’t want to know us anymore. So they keep us here, where we are more easily forgotten.”
“Why does the world want to forget us?” the boy asked.
The old man didn’t answer.
c) Turkey Survival Guide
Tips on exploring the country with financials intact
1) All information comes at a cost. Sometimes they’re a tour guide and expect to be paid. Other times they just want to be “friends” and you wind up at their shop. Their intent can be ever-so subtle or blatantly obvious, but they next to never are simply helping you out.
2) All information comes with a bias. Okay, this is true of everything you’ve ever heard BUT, its especially true here. A complex system of alliances and commissions between hotels, restaurants, tour companies and shops exist. The only way to get around this is by accident. Otherwise, you jus have to remember the place you’re being sent is not necessarily the best, but the one linked to the person who told you about it.
3) Conversations lead to deals. Are you Chinese? Do you like cats? These are real examples of what merchants will ask you, even if its completely inapplicable. Even telling someone where you from will end with tea in a backroom and someone showing you carpets. (By the way, everyone in Istanbul claims a connection to Canada. Girlfriends in Edmonton, Montreal getaways etc.)
4) No one is trying to be nasty. When they see tourists, they see rich people from far away with more than themselves. For them, selling a carpet or filling another table with people means a lot more then the hassle it causes you. Not that that helps when people pester you about something you never ever wanted..
d) A series of silly Greek limericks
The sights of the Aegean isles
Resemble those Ancient Greek styles
Of whitewashed small towns
And olive tree downs
A people of laughter and smiles
Though the ocean is turquoise and blue
The hills very scenic, it’s true
One cannot forget
That ignominious threat
The chaos that comes with the view
I like it on Samos a lot
To say that requires no thought
But if order you seek
Your culture’s not Greek
Here organization’s for naught
e) Hungary and the name game
While trying to get my Hungarian up to scratch, I noticed that in Hungarian, Hungary is not Hungary, its Magyarorszag. I was confused by this because why on earth would Magyarorszag translate to English as Hungary? It’s one thing to pronounce a name differently, but to use a whole different word! So I put together three lists:
France = France
Netherlands = Nederlands
Italy = Italia
Spain = Espagna
Completely off the mark:
Germany = Deutschland
Hungary = Magyarorszag
Greece = Hellas
Croatia = Hrvatska
f) Croatia/Bosnia- too much history
Bosnia and Croatia are beautiful countries: pastoral and lush. Most of the time driving through them you see red roofs, green fields and sparkling streams. But other times, you see the bomb-outs: abandoned skeleton-like buildings, weather-beaten and crumbling. Then you remember that twenty years ago, a conflict was raging. Suddenly you notice the bullet holes and war monuments, the fierce national pride and religion. The countryside starts to show scars. And it makes you think: how many of the locals lost family or friends to the fight? How many had to leave their homes? How many are still rebuilding? And how can you rebuild, when every walk down the street reminds you of the people who didn’t return, or couldn’t? How do you heal when the wound remains?
g) Italians in the rain
There are many things that make Europe different from North America. I realized this clearly when an afternoon thunderstorm rolled in to Verona. It took three raindrops before everyone was sprinting for protection, huddling together under awnings and ducking into stores. The city ground to a halt as purposeful and happy activities were replaced by bewildered stares at the dark sky. This truck me as bizarre: if life stopped every time it rained in Vancouver or Victoria, we would spend seven months of the year hiding in doorways accomplishing nothing. I of course walked through the streets in my summer dress earning looks from the Italians. My theory on this behaviour: clothing and hairstyles are a much bigger deal here. For Europeans, especially Italians, it is worth waiting awhile cramped in a corner to avoid getting damp. Getting wet is undignified here. At home, its expected.
h) Bright Barcelona
Distance from Victoria to Saskatoon = approximately 1600 km
Number of time zones: 2-3
Distance from Barcelona to Budapest = approximately 1650 km
Number of time zones: 1
One of these things is not like the other
i) Politics, from France
Watching the European Union Parliamentary Election results, I was disappointed. It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen the signs. In the past two months of travel, I’ve seen posters all showing the same thing. I didn’t always understand the language, but red bars over the EU flag weren’t hard to interpret. At first this seemed quite understandable, remembering news reports of bailouts and austerity. That citizens were tired of the EU for financial reasons seemed natural, because that’s how I’d learned about the EU. From my high school studies, it represented an economic union, a way to compete with international markets and a consolidation of power in a dense and diverse continent. Now that I’ve traveled, I think of it very differently.
On a basic level for tourists, the advantages of fewer currencies and fewer customs were obvious. More interesting were my parents’ stories about machine-gun armed guards and running tanks from when they traveled in the 80s. I can’t imagine cross-border shopping when that was normal. More valuable were the even subtler signs showing the EU’s importance. For every Roman ruin and medieval fortress we visited, there were war-ruined houses and gravesites, the downsides to having so much culture in one continent. It was these places where I saw another side of this continent, the way Europe has been broken along so many lines in the past. The EU has the chance to fix that.
So watching the election posters become election results, I felt upset. That fringe, radical parties are growing is deeply unsettling in a continent that has experienced both extreme right and extreme left wing politics. In France, the National Front, a Eurosceptic and anti-immigrant party won a quarter of the vote, making it the overall French winner. Denmark and Great Britain showed similar growth in their anti-Euro movements. The notion of a larger cooperative Europe risks being abandoned for one of nationalist division and the return of political borders.
While visiting northeastern Croatia, I was struck by the piles of rubble houses that still exist and the wording of war memorials. It takes longer than 25 years to make up for such a brutal conflict. Or when I visited the Holocaust memorial in Berlin and tried to understand what it would be like to admit, to apologize, and to repay for those actions. Going even further back in history, I cannot imagine being overrun by your neighbours because of a string of treaties. How do you pick up afterwards? Somehow Europe has managed it.
At the same time the EU elections were coming to a close, exit polls in Ukraine were showing its new president would likely be the pro-European Petro Poroshenko. As Europeans decided to regress towards a divided continent, Ukrainians struggled with a similar question, although one with more immediate consequences. How can Europe counsel tolerance and cooperation while it abandons its own unity? The conflict in Ukraine is based on differences in language and ethnicity, the same boundaries the EU tries to overcome.
As a Canadian, I am fascinated by the European ability to pass through several countries in a day. Even more than that, I love the multilingual, spanning-the-border culture that I’ve experienced. To have so many separate nations expanding their borders through art and ideas is the best form of development. Unfortunately, the elections don’t support that. With the growth of nationalism and the xenophobic undertones to the rising parties, I’m worried. Europe has gone through so much in the past hundred years. The EU is a path to prosperity that goes beyond economics. It goes straight to the heart of what Europe should be: a peaceful, stable union of incredibly diverse cultures.