Archive for August, 2009

Sweden

Monday, August 31st, 2009

I’m in Stockholm now and I must say that it is one of the very most beautiful cities in the world. I’ve spoken to many people who live here as well as have visited and none of them have done a proper job. A proper job that is, or warning me of Stockholm’s beauty.

Sure it has all the standard monuments and churches. It’s got the narrow alley ways and immaculately crown molded building faces. It has the charming cobble stone streets. But the thing that separates it from the rest of Europe that I’ve seen is the waterways. This place has flowing canals and bays that can not be compared to Prague or Hamburg. It’s just different.

As for the people, Stockholm feels a lot less homogeneous than Copenhagen. It seems that the people are a ton more stylishly dressed and don’t ride their bikes religiously like they tend to in Copenhagen. There have actually been a lot more dark dark black skined people here than I ever thought there would be as well.

Though still atrocious, Stockholm’s prices are much more reasonable than Copenhagen because the power of the Swedish Kroner is about 20-30% less than that of the Danish Kroner. The weather is a little colder, but we are still are not really wearing jackets. I went to eat at a $12 buffet (reasonable right?) and the guy who rang us up asked us where we were from.

“Are you German?”
“No, we are from America.”
“Ohhh, George Bush.”
“Noooo, Obama !!”
“I am from Iraq. I like America.”
“Oh thats good.” (in a delicate tone)
“Please, have a free drink on me.”

Was he happy because we gave him a chance to flee as a political refugee to Sweden? This place does feel rather like a utopia. Was he happy that we “freed the country”? That would be a first. Either way, we felt like the topic was a little too sensitive to cover.

At this second I am on a older train to Oslo. The weather is getting steadily worse and I am glad that Allison’s long lost family members will be putting us up for a few nights. No camping in the rain for us!

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Hamburg and Denmark

Friday, August 28th, 2009

If you could only see one city in Germany, it shouldn’t be Hamburg. But it’s still an interesting city, especially when you have no idea what you are looking at.

In wondering around the main water passages, you might enter a bridge that is designed to cross a canal and find that the same bridge will bend and run parallel to the street, elevating you above the cars and side walks. It seems as though this place was designed to be flooded on an annual basis. And I must say that the amount of glass here in Hamburg is much less than that of Berlin.

In Berlin, people will tend to smash their beer bottles down in a celebratory fashion, as if they actually believed that the thousands of shards they release to the streets are green, clear, or brown diamonds. The best part is, if you are in a bar in Germany and someone breaks a glass on the ground, no one is going to clean that glass up for the rest of the night. It just isn’t efficient to run around with a broom all night to keep your patron’s feet safe.

I myself created some of that glass one night by chiming two empty shot glasses together to the beat of a song. Who I’ve always been able to play the shot glass at home without it turning into the in my feet glass. But lets get on to the good stuff. Scandinavia. The first place in Europe that has felt really, really foreign.

In taking the train from hamburg to Copenhagen, you get to experience a true marvel in technology. The train (along with another) loads into the hull of a ferry to make it across to the island where Copenhagen resides. This process runs so seamlessly that you could easy deny that it is happening at all. But you can’t actually stay in the train for the 45 minute ferry crossing according to two Canadian residents of Copenhagen because “If the boat sinks, you don’t want to be in cased in a steel tube at the bottom of it.” Fair enough, but for some reason all I could think of during the ferry ride was “turducken”.

People always ask me, “Have you been somewhere that was just too expensive?” Up until Denmark, I would have said “No” that’s just a roomer that people with an affinity for fine dining tend to pass. But Denmark is different. I can confidently say it is the most expensive place I have been to on the planet. This is where you will happily pay $3 for a candy bar at a super market. A single measly slice of pizza from a hole in the wall will happily run you $7 and a glass of tap water with your meal is a cool $3. If you were planning on sleeping with sheets in your hostel, don’t worry, it’s only an extra $10.

There are tons of place to shop in Copenhagen and I do need a new pair of sandals. The problem with this is that I’m not quite ready to part with the $100. But what about fine dining? How much is that? You know the kind of place that you are actually sitting down and have silverware. A single dish starts at $40, but that’s only for the restaurants that casually line the city streets.

Surprisingly enough though, my hostel dorm room was only $25 per night. This is about the same price as the cheapest accommodation in Japan. The only difference is, in a Japanese hostel, you feel like you are being pampered by a family. Here, you feel like a rat might round the corner at any moment. The hostel dorm that was this price, was by the way, filled with 65 other backpackers in a single room. A new personal record.
But I’m just being sensational. Don’t let me persuade you to believe that I am having anything less than an excellent time. Copenhagen is said to be the very most happy city in the world. This isn’t because the weather is perfect (though it has been while I have been here). It isn’t because they have some secret society that brews happy elixir either. It’s simply because they have set their expectations at an achievable level. This is fascinating to me, seeing as I’ve got the marketing mindset. This is the same school of thought that would explain why people who have so much are almost never happy at all.

The Danish are distinctly not the people who go off looking for greener grass. They lie back in the field and let the blades caress their faces. Come to think of it, this might be the first western culture that I have found who shares this wisdom on a national level. This is the beginning of Scandinavia and I am beginning to believe all the Scandinavians who I have met along my travels who say “We are Scandinavian, not European. There’s a difference.”

At the second, I am on a high speed train to Stockholm Sweden and the baby who is screaming bloody murder is actually very easily calmed by his mother. (Side Note)

I haven’t rattled your cages about fate based travel in a while, and I think you deserve an update. Originally (a few days ago) I hadn’t planned on going past Denmark, but I met a fellow traveler who had plans to go all the way to Norway to see the fjords. When I saw some fjord-like masses in New Zealand, I thought, “I would be great to see the ones in Norway.” But I didn’t believe that I would go all that way to see them.

We did a little research online to see if there were any hostels open for Stockholm, Oslo, and the other important connecting cites to get to the Fjords. Almost everything was booked up. In addition, in a few towns, It was decidedly impossible. Every single piece of accommodation was taken. And why is this? Because though the sun is burning down at the moment, we are only a few days away from the tourist season closing. In just a few days, all the hostels will close their doors for the year and the weather will get as nasty as one can imagine. The polar bears will regain power of the streets and anyone who defis them will stain those the snowy streets red with their own blood. Well maybe not that last bit.

Allison, my fellow traveler is an experienced camper, and regretted not bringing her camping gear. “If I’d have known, we could just camp instead.” The thought of torrential blizzards and blood thirsty polar bears sprinting through the streets flashed through my head. “Let’s check the weather first.”

As expensive as Denmark is, Norway is actually, a lot more expensive and the cheapest hostel “had it been available, would be $50 per night per person.” We got to thinking about how much that would amount to in only 6 days. $600 bucks, do you think that is enough to buy a full camping set?

It seemed a little wasteful to deck ourselves out for only a few days, but the math was there. It would be the same if not cheaper. Just as we were about to make some amazingly expensive purchases, Alison got a reply from her inquiry to her Mother “Can you find me any obscure relatives to stay with in Norway?”

She sent this message out half as a joke, but of course, happy to see a helpful response. In true fate based travel fashion, her Mom pulled though with this response (Not verbatim)

“Ok, I just got off the phone with your grandma and she says that my Aunt stayed with a second cousin in Oslo just last winter and I’m sure they would be happy to let you stay for a few days.”

She went on to give us 3 phone numbers to call as well as background relation to each one of the contacts. She even gave us correct pronunciations of their Scandinavian names as well as nicknames and back stories.

KuuuCHIIINNNNGGGGG!!! Wammy!!!!

If all else fails (these demi strangers are away for the week, or just don’t answer their phones), we can always just buy that camping equipment that we always wanted, and hope that the weather doesn’t turn evil.

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Berlin

Saturday, August 22nd, 2009

By the way, the man in black (in Poland) ended up coming into my room really late at night and rolling into the bunk below mine. The problem was, his bed assignment had been moved that day and he ended up getting into bed with some pore gal who was sleeping. That would have been a memorable way to wake up. Either way, after the commotion, he promptly got into his own bed. Yikes

I took a bus to get to get to Berlin because my rail pass did not cover Poland. I had the distinct disdain of sharing the 10 hour ride with a 17 year old, British, know it all, non showering, hippy. She asked me how many fat people I knew “because, you know, most people in America are fat and stupid.” She went on to brag about how she doesn’t have any money and how she got all the way to Serbia by hitching and staying at strangers houses. She said that she hadn’t paid for a single meal in 2 months. Promptly after that, she began to solicit me for food and money, but not directly, just building a guilty case. I asked her why she was on a bus at the moment.

But don’t worry, she knew it all. Accept that Berlin was the capital of Germany, not a country in it’s own right. Oh and that Copenhagen (where she was headed) was in fact on an island. The following conversation came from that little point.

“Ya, it’s an island, like England.”-Me
“England is not an island; its too big for that!”
“Oh really? Please tell me then, what it is?”
“What is Europe?”
“Europe, my dear, is a Continent.”
“Well, that’s what we are. A continent.”
“No, I think you may be a little short.”
“Well, we aren’t an island, thats for sure.”

Any way….. I got to Berlin at night and was pleasantly surprised with how easy the subway system was to use. A few days later, I learned that my Rail Pass actually worked on it too. I had been paying for tickets for no good reason.

The next day I went on a bike ride throughout the city. The city itself bleeds with the signs of how many times it has changed hands in the past century. If you want a perfectly clean city, don’t come here. If you want to see some real character and contemporary history, this is your spot. Berlin was said to be the center of Europe and has been fought over for the past 100 years. The people here all speak English (an ironic point since we could have easily been all speaking German had things gone a little differently.)

The people here are all actually very soft spoken as well. The Austrians were much louder and abrupter. I’ve got thumbs up across the board for the people of Berlin. Maybe it is a sign of how long I have been traveling, but I felt much more safe walking around Berlin at night than I did in Sydney. By the way, it is Illegal to show a swastika in Berlin as well as signal “Heil Hitler”. You can and will end up in prison for 2 years for either offences.

Berlin is actually quite a diverse city with the largest Turkish population outside of Istanbul. It’s one of the cheaper western European capitals as well. But as always, the people make the place, and they are great. The music is amazing as well as I learned at a pub crawl. The techno here is off the chain.

I met a gal on my train ride from Vienna to Prague. She lives here in Berlin and agreed to show me around. This would be the first local on my trip who would show off their city. I heard roomers about the German thought process and in my experience they were all true. Things need to be done in a specific order. You need to stick to the plan. This isn’t a bad thing at all.

She had planned out the day. Everything from which metros to take to which streets to walk down. She planned exactly where we would eat and even showed me a beer in the liquor store that had my last name. It was a truly special day. The funny part was walking back the exact same way (unwinding the day) when it was time to go home. It was actually something that I would have likely done (just because of my lack of directional sense.)

The next day I went to Sachosenhosen, a concentration camp about an hour outside of the city. I have to be honest. I wasn’t really rocked too too hard. I think it was because I over mentally prepared myself. It is a true testament to the power of the mind. I think that this particular concentration camp was laid out in a very dry and informational way. Which is upsetting in it’s own way. It hierarchy and architecture almost took centre stage.

Berlin will definitely be revisited again. Next I am off to Hamburg and then Copenhagen for a few days!

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More Prague then Krakow

Tuesday, August 18th, 2009

First I’ll start with a character. He will be the common thread across this post. He’s a lot of fun (you’ll see) and at times he might not fit in. Look Mom, I’m a real writer (I can jump between time periods and run multiple stories at once). (This post might be weak and hard to follow)

The first time I saw him, our common thread, our character in question, he was dressed in all black. Cooking Polish sausages on the barbecue, it was Sunday night at “Goodbye Lenin” One of the most famous hostels in all of Krakow (Poland). It was a free BBQ and I felt a little greedy as I edged my way up for seconds. The man in all black looked at me and said “Come over here, I’ll fill that plate right up.” All was safe as of yet, but things would soon change.

Flash back one night to Prague. I am in a crowded bar/club in the north end of town; far away from most tourists. I am there with a few very memorable 18 year old French guys. I’ve been in the same hostel as them and some other sweet Brazilians as well. We met up with a group of French girls that the guys had known from home. The guys were Parisians, the high stakes type of person who can cary a lot of weight in a stereotype. What I mean by that is that if they were extra nice or mean and from some tiny farm in France, one could argue that they don’t properly represent the population of France.

Gabriel and Johnathan are only 18, but years ahead of their time. They represent France (and particularly Paris) with the highest marks. To put it simply, they are all that you ever envied in the Parisian lifestyle and None of the negative stereotypes that come along with it. They have a passion for enjoying life in moderation, but none of the pretentious attitude that often accompanies individuals who believe they have figured out the secret to living a happy and meaningful life (myself included). While everyone is drinking back home enough to sink a ship, they could not be bothered to hastily finish a beer in order to catch a tram ride on time. They smoke marijuana throughout the night, but only a tiny pinch at a time, mixed in with the tobacco of a whole cigarette. These are the signs of someone who wants to enhance life, not escape it.

I asked Jonathan why he insisted on making sure I made it on the right tram the night before and he jokingly said “Because I don’t want you to think that the French are mean. I’ve got to fix that stereotype.” After spending three days with him and Gabriel, I knew that was a true joke seeing as I had met two of the more genuinely good people on my trip to date. I bated them several times. I wanted to see if they would budge from their heightened level of understanding. They would not budge.

They were the dreamers who still had a function to participate in life. They never had anything mean or controversial to say about anyone. Everything was maybe. I even tried to bate the with guy talk about women. They seemed almost asexual in their lack of participation, but in reality, they were just too classy to stoop to my devils advocation.

We met up with 6 of their friends from home. A lively bunch of girls. They were still living for the spice of life, but also happened to enjoy a good judgment. Hell, they were ruff around the edges. In true Parisian stereotypical fashion, they were “so cultured” that they had the God given right to judge other’s lack of it (a true case of a bastard).

Once there were 8 of them in the same room, they would snap into French without fail. Johnathan would protest and request that they all spoke in English so that I wasn’t left out of the conversation, but even he fell victim in moments. But most of the time, he would just look back at me and translate what was going on. He, 7 years the younger, had taken me under his wing in a sense.

The bar/club was called “the cross” and it was almost entirely made out of spare car parts. Skillfully welded together to give the place a true industrial feel. It impressed everyone who walked in it’s 3 stories. We spoke with some local Czech guys when we first got in who wanted to recite everything they knew about California as soon as they learned I was from there. They were not even interested in a conversation. It was a laundry list, dump, of all of their Californian cultural merit badges. We were still in Czech Republic, where it was very good to be an American.

The only true tragedy of the Parisians is how they find it so damn cultural to smoke an entire pack of cigarettes in a row (each) in only a few hours. They are the chain smokers of chain smokers. I like to think that I have gotten a lot better in tolerating cigarettes being smoked in my presence since I’ve been abroad, but in a few short ten minute blocks, I was ready to barf. To top, they for some reason all participated in a strange ritual of blowing the smoke in each other’s faces. Once one did it to me and I coughed loudly. She looked surprised and said sorry. I wondered if she was culturally diverse enough to notice the lack of a miserable flame perched between my cold shaking fingers.

I wind had shifted so that everyone’s smoke trails were blowing directly into my face. I stood up and moved up wind of everyone. One of the gals said “Did we scare you off.” and I replied with “No no, I just want to get out of the smoke.” and a few of them let out an audible grunt of dismay almost to say “What, you don’t enjoy a good cigarette? How inferior?” I wanted to punch some faces at that very moment.

I was time to see the band that was playing that night. The music was from the Jungle group. Imagine fast ray-gay and you won’t be too far off. It was an incredible experience. I was immediately sucked into this pit of people dancing without control of their bodies. I had hardly ever even heard this music, let alone seen how to dance to it. It was more of a shake and the the room was electric.

It’s now been 4 days since I have had the word “decidedly” stuck in my head from a book that I have been reading. Just a thought.

This night, despite the smoking, had decidedly made my time in Prague memorable. Prague is beautiful, but packed with tourists and any chance I can get to speak with real locals is usually my favorite part of a city.

We stayed up all night and headed strait to the train station (provided we grab a quick shower at our “Hostel”)

The place we had been staying for the last 3 nights was loosely known as a hostel. The people running the show had obviously read “The 4 Hour Work Week.” They had set up a situation based on trust. The reception for this place was only open for a few short hours in the morning. Everyone staying in the hostel were essentially on the honor system and it worked perfectly. There was a free washing machine and a single computer with free internet. Reception was on call in case of an emergency and if you didn’t have a phone, then you could use the phone at the bar across the street for free. When I first got to the hostel to check in, I was let in by some fellow people staying there, but then found myself sleeping in the kitchen (which doubled as reception) for 2 hours until someone else called reception for another reason. I sat in this empty “Hostel” and said “Now I’ve seen it all.”

Skipping forward to the train ride from Prague to Krakow, it turned out to be a crowded one. I rushed to grab a seat but learned that I was in a car that was completely reserved. I dashed out to run into the next cable car and finally found a seat that was not reserver. Who said travel in Europe was easy anyway. It has been the most stressful and hectic to date. I think people say it is easy because they haven’t been to other regions where it is even easier. Train travelers in Europe tend to be afraid of buses, but they are sadly mistaken. At least In a bus, you know you get a seat. (well, maybe not in Costa Rica).

I set my bags down and try to catch up on some sleep that I missed from the all nighter from before. There is a couple of people who nervously and anxiously are standing in the gap between cable cars. There are a few open seats here and there and I wonder why they are distressed. As the conductor wakes me up, he asks me, “Where are you headed?” “Krakow” and he says “Well, this train will be spliting soon and you will want to be in the first 4 cars. The back ones are going to Berlin.”

Yikes, that could have been a small problem. So I stand up from my perfectly good seat after my 2 minute nap and attempt to make it to the front 4 cars. As I make my way up, I see that there are tons of people standing in the doorways between cars. They are practically shoulder to shoulder. I shamelessly force my way in and say in a big loud voice “who’s got room for one more?!” I figured I might as well dive right in. Luckily the passage way was mostly full of a local Czech field hockey team that were making their way back form a 2 week tournament circuit. We chatted for a short while before I had them teaching me all the most offensive words I could think of in Czech. They were a fun bunch and helped me pass the 4 hours I would be standing up (without sleep from the night before). After those first 4 hours, many of the people got off the train and I had a seat it sit in for the last 4 hours. Who said European travel was easy again?

Skip forward to yesterday afternoon.  The man in black is now staying in my dorm room in the bunk beneath me.  As I try to grab a quick nap in the middle of the day, I hear him rustling around.  I look down and he has a small roller bag full of what looks like pottery and a golden Christmas wreath.  This wierds me out and I notice that he has three large black trash bags full of, well, who knows.  Periodically he invites members of the Goodbye Lennon staff up into the room and shows them various items, presumably for sale.  Wait a second, wasn’t he BBQing last night?  Why is he staying in my dorm room?  Something is not adding up.  When things don’t add up, I tend to get to thinkin.

Back to the train ride.  I am now on a smaller, local train that leads directly to Krakow.  I see a local sticking his head out of the window and enjoying the breeze and I decide to do the same.  I put on some of my favorite tunes on my Ipod and watch the world wizz by.  I am greeted with fields of lavender and mustard plants.  Then there are fields of thistle.  This place is farm land nestled in the valley between the mountains.  All earlier train travel is forgiven.  The only word that comes to mind when describing this place is “Hidden”.  I can already tell that I am going to like Poland.

Just as I am enjoying this stellar moment a milk carton almost hits me in the head.  What the fuck?  I look forward and there is an Asian man who is throwing trash out of the window.  I wonder if he would like me to murder him and he lights a cigarette.  Some things you just can’t get away from.

Flash forward to later that night, not after the train ride, but the next night, the one where I saw the Christmas wreath.  I was in the bar underneath Goodbye Lennon with a few fellow backpackers.  The place was close but were were still hanging out on the couches.  One of the backpackers comes out of the bathroom and asked us if anyone was trying to open her door and flicking the lights on and off.

The man in all black? I instantly go cold.  Everyone around me finds this hilarious and start to tell ghost stories.  “Why are you even scared?  Do you even believe in ghosts?”  “Decidedly not, but once you are spooked, it doesn’t take much.”  This is the first time on my entire trip that I am actually scared.

That night, I don’t sleep in my room for fear of the man in black who tends to serve me sausages from time to time.  We hear several creaks and movements in the bar and I can’t stand it.

I live.  Naturally.

The next morning I crawl back into my bed as the man in black is running his local business below my bead.  I spend the next 4 hours eating pirogies (Polish Dumplings).

Later tonight, I went to an Indian Restaurant with a few friends and returned to the hostel with the man in all black running another free BBQ.  I was only paying $12 a night for this place and it had free breakfast, internet, laundry, and BBQs.  I love Poland and even though I’m pretty sure the man in all black is a Gypsy, I love him too!

Tomorrow I’m off to Berlin.

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America Understood

Saturday, August 15th, 2009

Being abroad for over 6 months has given me real incite about a lot of things. But today we are going to talk about How the World sees America and Why.

I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing over 200 people from all over the wold. Think my sample set is large enough? I can promise you that I was not very scientific about it though. What I can say is that I’ve heard and seen enough to form one of my famous analogies.

Last night I was in a club in Prague.  There were a bunch of kids dressed in grunge attire.  I was with 5 french people I met in my hostel and 3 Brazilians.  The  were American music videos playing all night and in the course of only one hour I saw chart toppers from the 60’s to 2006.  The best part was that the locals were dancing to the music (regardless of style) like Russian prostitutes from the 80’s (not a lot of rhythm, kind of bouncy).  Being in this place I realized that as I was choking on the dense indoor smoking, the locals were gorging themselves on American culture.  Offspring, Michale Jackson, No Doubt, Tom Jones; It didn’t matter.  People were going ape shit over anything we made.  It was grand.  Many of these people didn’t speak a word of English, but then the corus for Bon Jovie came on they were all “LIVIN ON A PRAYYYYERRR!!!!”

Almost every time I talk to someone who is not American (or Canadian.  Canadians have a pretty damn good grasp on American culture, since they have been “Emulating it for ages” according to many Candid Canadians I have spoken to.) I hear one of two things.  1: You know less than 18 percent (the number changes every time by the way) of Americans even have a passport.

I didn’t miss the question mark by mistake.  This is a statement, not a question.

The second thing I am always TOLD is how Americans only Eat McDonald’s (Thanks Super Size Me Movie).  Then come a lot of other sensational statements that vary widely.

But I NEVER get any positive statements like “Thanks for the past 50 years of Movies, TV, and Music.” Not to mention the actual invention of the Television, Internet, Personal Computer, Mobile Phone, Jeans, Airplanes, and just about every other important Invention in the past 200 years.  All I get are statements like “America doesn’t have a culture.” and “Americans are the fattest people in the world.” No Thanks for Bailing us out of two world wars.

But that’s alright.  I understand completely.  I didn’t at first, but I get it loud and clear now.  America is the Boss.  What? (say my international readers).  Ya, we are the boss.  We are currently the ONLY super power in the world (though it Kills the English to admit it).  But think of it in a work environment.

You all work right? That means you have all had a boss at one point or another.  No one is lucky enough to have NEVER had a boss.  Imagine if that boss walked down the halls every morning (as you are still shaking off that hang over/ morning grogginess) and screamed “I’m number one! Fuck yeah! In your face employees!  You fucking suck and I rule over you.”  I Imagine that you might have some negative brooding at the old water cooler?  Well when Americans chant “USA, USA, USA” this is basically how the world feels.

Better yet; what if the boss locked himself in his office all day, every day and just sent out emails saying this?  What if the boss decided to stop listening to people’s problems?  This is how the world felt about George Bush.  They were upset because he didn’t have any interest in hearing any other nations opinions.

A special note for the English; what if your 6 month old son (“you don’t have a history or a culture”) was among the first to stand up to you while you were the boss?  His name was America and he was among the first children who not only resisted you, but kicked your ass? (revolutionary war).  To add insult to injury, he then came back and saved you 2 times when he was only 3 years old (or was he?)(WW1 and WW2)

Still with me?  But wait a second Alex, this is just a bunch of American rhetoric.  Don’t worry, the warm and fuzzy part is coming soon.

Back to how fat and stupid we are.  The same reason that the Czech people jump up and down to all of our music is behind this.  There was a little film that came along by the name of “Super Size Me” that was a documentary of what MIGHT happen IF someone only at McDonald’s for a whole month.  It also makes reference to how poor our eating habits are in general.  But somewhere along the way, in the mass consumption of our culture, the world decided that this movie was a fact and that the Hypothetical situation.

I’ll have you know that in China, if you want to take your date to a fancy restaurant, It’s McDonald’s.  Not because it’s the most that you can afford, but because you find it to be an amazing delicacy.  This was said directly by a few bilingual Chinese friends of mine.

And if you go into a Pizza hut in Eastern Europe, be prepared to be waited on by a man in a dress shirt, slacks and a tie.  That’s right, shitty old Pizza Hut is being worshiped in many parts of the world as fine dining.

Oh one more thing.  KFC (one of my guilty, once a year, (NEWYEARS DAY) Pleasures) ain’t too shabby either.  You can find it as a favorite among many Europeans too.  I went out with the Brazilians and the French the other day and they chose KFC.  Yuck.  And I also had to by a bathroom ticket (which is a rant that I’ll save for another day)

Just like when you hear a roomer about the boss at work, bam, you fixate on this.  You tell yourself that he is not that special of a guy after all, thus devaluing his accomplishments in a childish jealous denial.  It’s the same thing that the liberals did to Bush when he became president ” you know he did cocaine when he was in college.  You know he has the lowest IQ of any president we have ever had.”  These are the statements that rung through the hall for 8 years.  And the 8 years before that it was something along the lines of  “you know he cheated on his wife.  you know he used a cigar on that poor girl.  you know that he left a stain or he blouse.”

Everyone wants to fixate on the spectacular.  Sensationalism is what sells right?

Then along came Obama.  The door opened and the boss started walking through the halls to tell them he was interested in their opinion.  That they were worth something as an employee.  This is why the world likes Obama.

Here’s the funny part.  Any boss that is worth his or her weight in Salt knows that people say things behind his or her back.  But for the most part they take it and they let it go without pulling their employee into the office and ask them why THEY dropped out of grad school and THEY don’t put in any more that the 40 hours (35 in France) that is absolutely required of them.  The boss doesn’t dare compare their employee’s ambition to their own.  The boss would never be recognized for the immense risk that he/she takes every day.  Or that perfectly rare quality we call initiative.

The truth of the matter is that that boss ( I am referring to the owner of a small business) is assuming all of the risk in the world.  Something that the employee might not ever understand (as they put in just enough to not get fired).

Wow, now your just talking crazy.  So are you’re telling me that you think the rest of the world is working for the US?  No, not at all.  This is where the analogy gets a bit confusing (or maybe not).

But before I go on, lets talk about why America is what it is today.

Being abroad, I am surrounded by like minded people.  This means that everyone who I meet is relatively independent and values traveling.  It’s like living in a water cooler convention for a year and then being convinced that the world is obsessed with water coolers.  I have surrounded myself with people who are (usually) not afraid to take risks.

Yesterday I was on a free walking tour through Prague.  The guys giving the tour only worked on tips alone.  None of them were from the Czech Republic, but all of them were risk takers.  My leader was Mick: a late 20’s Aussie who had married a Czech girl who he met in a hostel in Costa Rica.  He was the type of guy who doesn’t spend any time worrying about paying the bills, or what age he was going to retire.  He was too busy having the time of his life.  He was too confident to worry about IF he would make it.  He believed in himself enough to know that, where ever he was in the world, he could eat and be happier than most anyone I have ever met.

What does Mick have anything to do with America being the boss you say?

It’s simple.  America was started by a bunch of Micks.  A bunch of people who were not going to sit around and take the status Que.  A bunch of people that just assumed that sitting on a sweaty disease ridden boat for a few months was worth the CHANCE for a better life.  Initiative.  This is the key word for the day.

I want you to imagine for the rest of your read that everything in the whole big world revolves around one or two words: Choice and Chance.  Make them into a simple phrase.  “You always have a Choice to take a Chance.  Always!”

Now you are starting to think like Mick.

Back to America.  Just as you will find an extremely dense population of people who value traveling over stuff and security while abroad, you would find that the people who originally started this country would have made great entrepreneurs.  Great business owners.  Great bosses.  Great risk takers.  Great Choosers and Chance takers.

The people who stayed back in England were not fed up enough to FIND a way out.  The are equivalent to many of the people who say.  “I want to do what you are doing more than anything else, but I can’t just quit my job.”

Oh Yes. You Can.

If you are like Mick, you know that you’ve got “IT” and that “IT” can be used anywhere.  Most people value security a lot more than greatness.  And for them, they are loving every second of their secure life.  Right?

Today, America is not 100% bas asses like it started out as.  Those bad asses had children and those children had children and sadly, the bad ass gene is not passed forward to everyone.  It will dissipate among the masses over time and then we get “a bunch of people who eat McDonald’s for EVERY meal and only 16% of Americans having passports.”

But there is the saving grace.  America is an environment created by Bad Asses (remember) and they created this environment to preserve the path to the top for Bad Asses.  That is, If you have the guts to make the Choice to take a Chance, you CAN (not Will) make it to the top quite easily compared to anywhere else in the world.  Any one can start the next Nike, or Micro Soft.  How many other countries are set up like that?  Not many, this is why we have so many risk takers immigrating into the US.  Because they are ready to make it big and made the Choice to Chance it.  Don’t worry, If they wanted a free ride, there are plenty of Countries with a MUCH better welfare state.  Oh ya, and those inventors.  Many of them were not born in America.  They came here because they knew their invention would actually be made instead of shelved by a government without the money or initiative.

Ok ok, this is where my beloved brother refers to my talk as self help bull shit.  Which is fine.  I’m getting sick of the C words myself.

But not every employee is a 9 to 5 er.  Some of them work their asses off (China) and have the guts to take the lead.  And I’m not so dense as to believe that America will always be THE BOSS.  We Won’t.  We will be the next England (thinking we are the Boss, but really just a whole lot more charming than we used to be, because we don’t have to make those decisions that the we used to as the boss.)

ALEX. I’ve just read 2135 words! Is there a point to all of this?

I’m exhausted from writing this crap.  You decide.

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Vienna and Bratislava

Wednesday, August 12th, 2009

Today and yesterday, I am in Vienna.  Grammar check?  I’m here because it was a logical stop on the way to Prague.  About an hour away is the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava.  Today, I jumped on a bus to see what the place had to offer.

I found that Bratislava is exactly what I expected Vienna to be.  Small, quaint, and charming.  Vienna, on the other hand, is very large and impersonal.  The people are nice, but I keep forgetting I am in Austria.  I almost refer to Austria  as Germany over and over again.

One good thing about everyone speaking German is hearing the children shooting off their best infant accents.  Some of them sound charming while some of them sound like Minni Hitlers.  Quite a site.

I met a few Aussies last night who have been traveling through Western Europe on 30 euros a day.  That’s 43 bucks (an ambitious plan indeed).  But I tend to not have much interest in eating bread and water for every meal.  It just puts the $170/day budget that many of my friends from home had into perspective.

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When Buda Met Pest

Monday, August 10th, 2009

I was staring into my half human sized locker this morning in awe. What a wonderful life I live. Everything fits into such a small space, yet I don’t even begin to feel deprived. What does that say for how I used to live?  What did I even need all that stuff for in the first place?  Don’t worry, I’m not about to become a hippy.  I think that people who work extra hard to look like they are not trying are the saddest breed of poser.

I have a new theory: If you can do something comfortably for 6 months, there’s probably not much that could hold you back from doing it indefinitely.

This of course should be applied to things like swimming every morning before work, or volunteering every Sunday at the soup kitchen; not to beating your wife or sniffing cocaine. I’m not even suggesting I travel indefinitely, just limit my possessions to a half man sized locker, even when I get home.

I ran the hypothetical: Would I rater have (almost) nothing to see (almost) everything?  Or Would I rather Have (almost) everything to see (almost) nothing?

America, prepare to be offended: You are (largely) the second.  There are tons of exceptions but I feel that we should embrace the sweeping generalizations if we are to learn anything about our culture as a whole.  Quit hiding behind the iron clad sense of individualism (that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to notice or understand about us).

Ok, maybe I’m taunting a little, but I want to challenge each and every one of you who read this to take a little longer to acknowledge the choices that we tend to take for granted.  At every moment of every day we make a choice (believe it or not).  We tend to just make the same choices over and over again, until we are numb.  Then we begin to believe we don’t have any choices at all.

Cliché?  Too preachy?  Righteous? That’s fine, I’ve got it out of my system for now. Just don’t tell me how jealous you are, or how lucky I am, Nike : JUST DO IT!

I’m in Budapest now after suffering though a 13 hour overnight train in a seat (not bed).  The only moments on this trip I’ve ever thought going home are when I was sick and when I spend a night without sleep on a train or bus.

I’ve been bathing in the wonderful baths that this city has to offer for a few days now.  They have 13-15 pools and 10 saunas of all shapes and sizes as well as temperatures.  They even have a fountain in one of the pools that shoots out water at such a rate that if replicates a deep tissue massage.  But let’s not forget the pool that spins people around with jets of water like a giant whirl pool.  I was having a wonderful time in there until I caught one of the jets in the Bollocks (nuts) and paid dearly for it.

The people in Hungary are very nice and helpful, even if they don’t speak much English.  Everyone except for the people who are at the “information desks” in the train station.

Me- “Do you speak English?”

Hungarian Lady- “No”

Me- “But you understood that much didn’t you?”

Hungarian Lady- “Listen, I don’t speak English! All right?”- With little to no accent.

Me- “Ok well were are the tickets sold?”

Hungarian Lady- ” Over there.”

Wait a second, that whole sequence was a Romanian Gal.  I am traveling too quickly now.  All the Hungarians have been great without fail.  The only failure I’ve run into has been my hostel being as anti social as I can remember these things ever getting.  I came here with several people who I met in Bulgaria, but we all had to split up due to hostel availability issues.  We have been meeting up every day and giving updates on our collective hostels and mine has been the dud by far.  Everyone else have met loads of people at theirs, but mine seems to be full of German 6 and 8 packs (groups or 6 or 8 Germans traveling together who are impossible to start a conversation with.)

The only failure on the city’s part is the rampant graffiti.  It seems to be the scourge of Eastern Europe as a whole, but particularly shameful in Budapest because this city is so strikingly beautiful in so many places.  One place that doesn’t have a drop of spray paint on it is the major church in town.  Larger than life, this place provoked one thought when I entered “such a load of shit.”

That’s right, such a load of shit, is what I felt the rest of the world looked like in comparison to the perfection upon me.  It made every other Church, Cathedral, Mosque, Temple, and monument look like a sorry scribbled picture made by a 5 year old.  Where had all the money and talent in the world gone? Here.

If you’re on the fence, you might want to go here.

I was walking home from a night out a few days ago and experienced something that I never thought I would.  This is like seeing a UFO in the world of Car Fanatics.  I saw a REAL F1 race car speed down the road of Budapest in the middle of the night.  That thing wasn’t a car at all.  It was a 800 horse power, over grown, go cart.  It didn’t sound anything like a car.  It made some pitch of noise that was completely foreign to me.  It accelerated around a corner; 10mph to 100mph in under 3 seconds, and persisted to zig and zag across all lanes of the street, showing off it’s more than perfect grip and handling.  A physics professor would be eating his words if he saw this thing do what it did.  Not of this world!  And In an instant, It was gone forever.

That was as illegal as it was impressive.

The reasoning behind the name Budapest comes from the first bridge that joined the two cities together.  A large river runs between two cities.  On one side, Buda, on the other, Pest.  After hundreds of years, the two towns finally built the first bridge and the new super town was named Budapest.

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Dracula; Now that I’ve got Your Attention….

Wednesday, August 5th, 2009

I’m officially in the Lightening Round now. For the Next 3 months I’ll be foolishly rushing through Europe chasing as many stamps as I possibly can as well as trying to get my money’s worth out of my astronomically priced Euro Rail pass.

The dust wont settle until November when I make my way to Morocco and transfer to Argentina. In the rubble, I will have covered somewhere between 15 to 30 countries.

I am now in Transylvania which is actually region of Romania (not a city). The city I am staying in is Brasov (pronounced Brash off).

Before I got here, I stayed in Valinko Teranova (in Bulgaria). Valinko is one of the more beautiful places in Bulgaria. Situated in the mountains, we spent the days wondering around the town eating from wild fruit trees. Several types of cherry and plum trees nourished our journey.

We stayed at one of the most mellow hostels ever named “Hostel Mostel”. It was completely conducive to social gatherings. Instead of a couch in the common room, we sat on oversized pillows. This is an idea that I will undoubtedly take back to the states when I finally come home.

The best part of Valinco was the night time light show that the town has designed around the historical fortress.  But it doesn’t go every night, the town only turns on the light show if they are paid the 800 Lev ($600 USD) that tourist buses will pool together and hock out.  It must have been designed by the Belagio in Vegas, because it was as classy as it was impressive.

We spent a day down at the local river/pool/waterfall.  We could jump from heights of up to 60 feet into the water.  We were disappointed with the locals who didn’t do any crazy flips.  Come to think of it, the locals were very relaxed and didn’t even ever raise their voices.  If this spot were in America you would get people getting ultra drunk and screaming at the top of their lungs.

We took a train to get to Brasov, but first we had to get through Bucharest.  Bucharest is widely known by travelers as the most dangerous, ugly, and run down capitol city in all of Europe.  The horror stories that come out of this city are amazing, but we decided to catch the next train out to Brasov.

Brasov is the most beautiful part of Romania.  Situated in much more beautiful mountains that those of the Bulgarian nature, Brasov is a quaint town.  We have only been here a day so far and have already interacted with amazing locals and enjoyed great meals for nearly as cheap as Bulgarian prices.  I have been consistently seeing the same people from city to city because in Eastern Europe there are several very popular tracks.

The local Cops told us “You don’t have to drink here” (not you can’t drink here) and 4 locals approached us right after and asked us what the cops said, then they said “those guys drink here all the time”.  Don’t listen to them!

Bran Castle is the fabled location of Vlad the Impaler which is the character that Bram Stoker took and ran with to create Dracula.  Tomorrow we are going there.  I am told that it is a tourist trap now and it is not menacingly dark.

The people in Northern Romania are very kind and helpful.  So much for bad ass dangerous Eastern Europe :(  On the Danger side, we saw a strung out wolf trotting through the town square.  I was fairly sure that it was a wolf based on the size of it’s brain/scull.  In addition it walked distinctively more wild than any dog I’ve ever seen.

A little more danger for you; there is a Brasov sign on top of the local mountain that is set up like the Hollywood sign in LA.  It is a one hour hike to get to the sign.  There are brown bears who frequent the area (at night) and killed a drunken sleeper last year.

We are staying at the rolling stone hostel at the moment and the gal that runs the joint is as eccentric as Dave from Varna!  We think they should get married and start the “Rolling Flag” Hostel.  It seems that Eastern Europe has the very most eccentric hostels in the world (so far).

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According to Dave

Saturday, August 1st, 2009

Bulgaria is THE most corrupt of the Eastern European Nations. Run almost entirely by the mafia, this place is very hard to run a hostel. “When we first came in here, the mafia didn’t know what to make of us. They asked us what we were doing having all these people coming in and out all the time. We just told them that we were bringing in kids to go you your clubs and spend money. The mob bosses said great! And demanded that we start 10 hostels. The towns people kicked us out of our original space because we were making too much noise so the mafia put us in their block of town and told their tenants to let us do what ever. Thats when we started doing free beer and we used to have free shots of Vodka until a few months ago when someone went to the hospital. Before we could start 10 hostels, the mob bosses realized how much money we were making and then doubled our rent, thus making it impossible to be profitable.”

Dave is a character to say the least, but I would sat the bigger character is Bulgaria. The town of Varna could easily pass as downtown Ocean Side which might leave a sick feeling in some people’s stomach. Tomorrow I am heading to a town that is Bulgaria’s medieval capitol. It’s supposed to be beautiful. While I have been here, there have been a bunch of flash rain storms. We have been eating at the same restaurant for quite some time now and I can say that the salad dressing here is just a scoop of water out of the black sea. It’s surprisingly amazing!

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