This Is Why I’m Hot

“Actions speak louder than words, and a smile says, ‘I like you.  You make me happy.  I am glad to see you.'”

“A person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”

Although I’ve been telling you about what I’ve been doing when I travel, I think it might also help for me to describe how I travel and what each day is like.

For starters, what I try to do when I’m abroad is experience how other people live.  I’m more about doing and less about seeing.  My goal isn’t to visit as many cheesy tourist traps as possible, especially if I’m not interested in the subject matter.  I’d trade an hour chatting with a local any day over an hour in a museum.  In every country I try to stop at a grocery store and take the public transit as if I was a native.  A lot of times this also means that I’ll just take a walk around the city to get a feel for the vibe the people throw off.

When I fill my backpack, I try to bring as few things with me as possible.  I took fewer things on this second trip than my first one, and if I go on another one, I’m going to take even less.  The less stuff you have, the easier things are in general.  Your bag is lighter, it’s easier to fit it in lockers, there are fewer things to get lost or stolen, and you can always buy something that you don’t have.  The only exception to this rule is if you have a strong preference for personal products such as shampoo or toothpaste, then it’s best to bring enough for the duration of the trip.

My first trip I didn’t bring a laptop, and I think that was a big mistake.  With how common wi-fi is everywhere, it just makes sense to have one with you.  However, I sold my old one because it was too big and heavy, and I’m really happy with the small one I bought right before the trip.  Sometimes it’s easier to do things on your computer compared to your phone too.  It also makes those long train rides seem brief when you can relax to a movie or two.

I had to plan a bit more for this trip than my last, but not by much.  I still like the aspect of being random and having a lot of flexibility.  There are some times when I don’t read more than five minutes about my destination in my guide book, and then I ask the people who work at the hostel what are the best things to do when I get there.  This is a lot more efficient, and occasionally they tell you something that your guidebook can’t.

I’ll generally wake up each day between 8 and 10 depending on how many people snored the night before, how much light is in the room, and how noisy the area is.  Yes, I’ve mainly been sleeping in bunked rooms with 4-8 people, and the hostels have cost me from $30 to $50 per night.  I generally haven’t been making reservations more than three days ahead of time, and that has worked fine in almost every instance.

I would highly recommend staying in hostels for those of you who are young, want an inexpensive place to stay, and want to meet new people.  The hostel where you stay totally sets the tone for your trip.  Need some time to yourself?  Rent a private room in a small hostel.  Want a crazy party night?  Rent a bed in a 20-person dorm at a party hostel.  And there is everything else in between.  Most of the time I stay at a relatively big hostel, but I’ve been trending toward the medium-sized ones because they have better internet and they’re better quality, though still plenty social.

After waking up, if there’s a walking tour of a city, I’ll do that first thing to get a feel for the sights.  It also serves as a good way to meet other travelers to hang out with.  The tours typically last two or three hours, and you get a solid snapshot of most of the main sights in the city.  Afterward you can revisit those areas that piqued your interest.

I’ve been doing my best to keep up with my fitness, but it’s actually really tough here in Europe.  There aren’t many gyms, and not all of them will let you use their club for just one day.  Or you can get a day pass, but it’s insanely expensive.  I’m talking up to $35 expensive, and again, that’s for a single day.  The alternative is to exercise outside, and I’ve been doing that a decent amount too.  But that’s tough when it’s over 90 degrees and you can’t cool down afterward because there’s no air conditioning anywhere.

That brings me to the next subject and the reason for my title…staying cool.  There have been stretches of weeks where I felt as though I was hot and sticky the entire time.  It doesn’t matter if you take a cold shower if you immediately start sweating after you turn off the water.  My hostel in Warsaw was over 85 degrees all the time, even at night.  And for some reason they aren’t fan lovers here in Europe like they are in Central America.  I would say this is probably the thing I hate most about traveling.

I’ve eaten Burger King in every country that I’ve visited so far.  What?!?  Rob is in Europe with all these amazing cuisines and he’s eating Burger King all the time?  Let me explain.  As you can see in past posts, it’s not like I’m skipping the local dishes, on the contrary.  But sometimes you just want to know exactly what you’re eating, and Burger King provides that.  A grilled chicken sandwich is the same in every country, and that’s what I always get.  I also get Subway, but not as often as BK since there aren’t as many of them.  It makes me at ease to know what I’m eating is actually healthy for me at these two chains, even if they are American fare.

How do I communicate with other travelers?  Easy, Facebook.  Almost everyone is on it, and all you need is someone’s e-mail address to look them up.  The ironic part is that even though it’s pretty easy to connect with people online, travelers are very non-committal and flaky.  Unless I’ve known someone for a couple of days, I always have a plan B because people will just not show up or change their mind at the last minute.  It actually doesn’t bother me much because everyone does it, and I’m used to it by now.

Read the quotes at the beginning of the post again.  I recently finished the book How to Win Friends and Influence People, and I think these were the most salient points.  When I travel I try to genuinely smile at anyone I interact with, and I chat with them for more than a few minutes, I also ask them their name.  Notice how I use a lot of names in the blog posts?

You would be amazed how these two simple things can completely change the look on people’s faces.  Even just asking for someone’s name can make their face light up.  I’ve gotten a lot of free products and concessions from workers just for being pleasant with them.  What’s the best part?  This can work with anyone anywhere in the world since smiling is a universal language.  And when you ask someone their name, it shows that you care about them and who they are.

After learning someone’s name, I try to use it at least three times in the next ten minutes.  I used to be absolutely horrible with names, and just changing this small thing has helped me immensely.  I continue to use their name a lot throughout the conversation to ensure that I remember it.  If the name is tough to pronounce, I might even ask them to spell it.  That might seem weird, but I haven’t gotten an odd look after asking it yet.

I find that these two simple actions can make life so much more enjoyable.  When you approach someone with a smile and use their name, it’s hard for them not to like you, even if they are in a bad mood.  Another fringe benefit of making others happier is that you probably will be too.

I just spent some time in Venice and Rome, and today I’m off to France.  I’ll fill you in on Italy soon!

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Ritzy Switzy

“Characterize people by their actions and you will never be fooled by their words.”

The next leg of my trip took me to Interlaken and Zurich, two diametrically opposite cities in Switzerland.  The former is a 5,000-person tourist town in the middle of the Swiss Alps, and the latter is the country’s biggest city filled with business suits and nightlife.

First off, everything in Switzerland oozes wealth.  The Swiss have a very high standard of living, and as a result, it’s one of the most expensive places in the world.  A bottle of Powerade in the grocery store was about $4.00, and I paid $19.04 for a footlong Subway sub.  That didn’t include a drink, and it wasn’t even the most expensive sandwich.  In one bar I paid close to $25.00 for a rail drink and a Diet Coke.  It wasn’t a double, and it was only about 12 ounces.  Preparty or die here.  A Swiss guy told me that the minimum wage in Switzerland is about $30,000 per year, which helps explain why the prices are so high.  Even the actual money itself looks decadent.  Their smallest denomination of bills is 10 Swiss Francs, and they don’t have coins smaller than a nickel.

Interlaken is a city that instantly rocketed to the top of my must see list.  If you are ever close to Switzerland, I’d highly recommend checking it out.  Not only is it one of the cheapest cities in the country, but it’s also breathtakingly picturesque.  The second evening I did a walking tour, and I snapped a bunch of pictures.  Here are just a couple:

Interlaken’s claim to fame is extreme sports, which is the main reason why I decided to check it out. You can sky dive, bungee jump, white water raft, paraglide, hang glide, and go canyoning, among other activities.  What I really wanted to do is called Zorbing, an endeavor where you are strapped inside a giant clear ball and are flung down a mountain.  Unfortunately the one company that does Zorbing doesn’t exist anymore, huge downer.  Instead I decided to go hang gliding above the Swiss Alps because I don’t think there are many opportunities to hang glide in the States, and certainly not with comparable scenery.

It was kind of crazy how this experience went down.  The first night the receptionist at the hostel told me to check with them in the morning to see if I could make a reservation for that day.  I woke up at 8:30 am and stumbled downstairs a few minutes later.  A woman made a call to the hang gliding company, and there was still a spot left for the 9:00 am slot.  Is there a rule of thumb about hang gliding within half an hour of breakfast?

Bernie, a good-natured Aussie, picked me up from the hostel at 9:00 am sharp to get things started.  He is one of only two hang gliding pilots in Interlaken, and he did an excellent job with everything.  We hopped in his van and picked up the glider, which only weighs about 75 pounds.  After that we trudged uphill to our launch spot.  “Welcome to my office,” he said as we arrived.  I like your style Bernie.

We put the glider together in a matter of minutes, and then we went over some safety stuff.  No, I didn’t hang glide alone, it was a tandem run.  Bernie strapped me in a harness, and then we did a few practice runs without the glider.  “There are two things that are important today.  One is looking cool, and the other is don’t stop running,” Bernie instructed me.  I agree with my Aunt Julie that my glasses and helmet look like they’re from a Hello Kitty line, but as long as they keep me alive, I don’t care.

Here you can see a view of where we took off.  It really wasn’t difficult at all.  I just hung on to two handles on Bernie’s harness, ran beside him, and then the wind just kind of picked us up off the mountain.  Easy peasy.

Once we were airborne, we seemed to effortlessly float in the air.  Bernie said that he longest he’s been airborne by himself is nine hours.  I think hang gliding is the closest you could feel to flying without a wind suit, and it was just freaking awesome.  The trip was very smooth, and I didn’t feel nauseated for even a second.  At the end, Bernie put the camera in video mode and said, “I’m going to try to make you s**t your pants now,” as he did a bunch of tricks.  So awesome!

The landing was smooth and harmless.  I got a few grass stains on my jeans, but that was about it.  “One more survivor, that should bring our average up a bit,” Bernie quipped as he disassembled the glider.  Great success!

On the walking tour I met a couple of girls from the States, and we grabbed dinner that night.  We shared a traditional Swiss appetizer which consisted of melted cheese with baked potatoes.  Honestly the cheese didn’t smell that good for some reason, but it was respectable.

For my main course I had another staple Swiss food: hash browns with melted cheese topped with a fried egg.  Yum.

After Interlaken I traveled to Zurich, Switzerland’s biggest city.  It isn’t well known for being a tourist attraction, but I wanted to see it because it’s the center of Swiss business.  Consequently, I wasn’t that impressed with Zurich from a tourist’s perspective, but it was still a pretty neat city.  I ended up going out at night, seeing the old town, dipping my feet in a river where locals commonly swim, and moseying through the business district.  I’d say the average person could probably skip Zurich, especially because it’s even more expensive than Interlaken, but I was glad I stopped by for a few days.

I left one topic out of my last blog post because I want to dedicate a significant amount of space to it.  The fact that Europeans are so much skinnier than Americans nearly liquefies my brain when I ponder it every day.  Let’s try to add everything up.

One of the first things I noticed when I came to Europe is that there aren’t many diet foods, including diet soda.  Yes, they exist, but not to the extent as in the States.  I’d say 90% of the soda I see people drinking is regular.  And I’m not sure if all Europeans could even identify whole grain bread since hardly any place has it, including grocery stores.  Everything here is made with full-fat butter, none of this margarine stuff.  OK, so Europeans eat hearty meals that are calorie laden.

I don’t have any statistics, but I’d be willing to bet that the average European drinks at least as much as the typical American.  Don’t believe me?  See my beer and energy drink story from my Warsaw, Poland post.  I constantly see old guys cracking open a beer in the street before noon.  Alright, so Europeans drink at least as much as Americans.

I’ve worked out in a gym in every country so far except Poland and the Czech Republic.  I’d purposely go during what would be a busy time in the States to see how many people work out, and I’ve never seen a gym even a quarter as full as my club in the States.  Health clubs here are also good amount more expensive compared to back home, which doesn’t help matters either.  Got it, Europeans aren’t exactly gym rats.

Now let’s take a look at the things Europeans have going for them in terms of maintaining their physiques.  As I said in the last post, there is no doubt whatsoever that people here are far more active on a day-to-day basis.  When is the last time you walked around for a couple of hours in the States?  Which Bush was in office then?

Then there’s that whole portion size thing.  I drank a milkshake in Amsterdam that cost me $5.00 that wouldn’t even make the kids’ menu in the States.  I’ve ordered two entrees at plenty of restaurants, and it’s not like I’m stuffed afterward.  Sometimes I see the silverware and I wonder if it’s from a doll house.  There is no question that Europeans aren’t conditioned to want more, more, more like we are in the US.

I also think it helps that it’s so hot in many of these countries and there is not much air conditioning.  When you’re really hot, do you really feel like wolfing down a huge meal?  Not usually.

These are the main themes that I’ve observed while over here.  So let me get this straight – smaller portions, a significantly more active lifestyle, and a little heat are all that is needed to more than offset eating like complete crap, drinking a lot, and not working out in a gym?  I still just can’t believe this is true.  Am I missing something here?  If so, please let me know in the comments.  I’d also be curious to hear your opinions.

Now I’m off to Venice and Rome.  I’m really excited to visit Italy since I’ve heard so much about it.  I’ll snap a lot of pictures and get back to you soon.

Yanks and Skanks

“Your life has the potential to be a wondrous journey filled with exciting moments and astonishing experiences.  It can be a thrilling ride if you are open to exploring all that is available to you.  Adventure is the result of your willingness to live with a spirit of enthusiasm.”

Thanks for that quote Chris!

After spending almost a week getting a contact high in Amsterdam, I headed back to Germany to meet up with Michaela again.  This time we tackled two towns – Bamberg, a town of 71,000 where Michaela currently lives, and Munich, one of the bigger cities in Germany. The latter is the most posh place I’ve visited so far.

In Bamberg Michaela wanted to show me traditional southern German cuisine, so we went to a restaurant close to her apartment.  We both ended up chowing down on this delicious dish:

The white ball on the left was similar to a potato meatball, but it had a more gooey consistency.  The pork fell off the bone, and it was very tasty.

We also saw the cathedral, town hall, and a building where Three Musketeers was filmed.  The city was very easily walkable, and it was mostly filled with middle-aged people who liked to hit up the bars.  Here’s a shot of the cathedral:

Once we saw the sights in Bamberg, Michaela and I caught a two-hour train to Munich, a little bit farther south in Germany.  This place had a different feel than Berlin because it isn’t as big, but you could certainly tell there is a lot of money there.  I saw several Ferraris and Porsches driving around the streets of Munich, and nearly everyone was very well dressed too.  Some of the stores even sell traditional southern German clothes:

Guess how much those dead sexy leather pants cost.  Give up?  $250.00, ouch.

We hit up the Hofbrauhaus, the most famous brewery in Munich.  It was unbelievably crowded when we arrived at 11:00 pm on a Sunday.  Michaela wasn’t kidding when she said that the people in southern Germany really like to go out.

The next day we decided to check out the Nymphenburg Palace just outside the center of the city.  It was surrounded by an impeccably kept park with four small castles.  Here’s a pic of the main castle:

Here is what the inside of the smaller castles looked like:

I’m pretty sure King Ludwig II used gold bars as party favors.

When I was in Amsterdam I ate at one of those sushi places similar to the one I showed you guys in the food post.  I ended up eating about $30 of sushi, and it didn’t even fill me up.  Fail.  Well, in Munich I got revenge on the sushi gods.  Michaela and I went to an all-you-can-eat sushi restaurant for dinner one night, and I ended up dominating 30 plates of food:

The plates closest to me are the ones that I ate.  Muhahahaha!

Throughout this trip I’ve constantly been thinking about the differences between Americans and Europeans.  These contrasts aren’t necessarily bad, they are simply unlike what I’m used to in America.

The first difference that I noticed right away in Poland is that the women dressed much less conservatively than in the States.  If you have it, show it off.  Michaela confirmed that this is the case in eastern Europe.  To be clear, I don’t think the Europeans are skanks (hence the title of this post), but it rhymed too well to omit.

There’s no doubt that Europeans walk and use a lot more public transit than in the US.  To be fair, I think Europe is much more conducive to these things, but it’s still worth noting.  I once read that the average American is only willing to walk two blocks before they have a preference to drive.  That’s such a joke to Europeans.  I would say I walk an average of about two hours each day.  On the days when I take a walking tour of an area, it could be four hours or more.  I’m absolutely certain that all this walking contributes to how skinny everyone is here.

Another big difference is the personal space that others afford you.  In Poland I was standing on the sidewalk looking at a restaurant’s menu.  When I was done, I turned right to continue walking.  I nearly kissed the guy who had silently snuck up next to me with his girlfriend to look at the same menu.  Geez man, give a brother some space.

There’s something else that happens to me just about every day.  I’ll be walking on a street or sidewalk in the same direction as the other pedestrians.  Then someone walking in the opposite direction that is approaching me will continue to walk on a path that is sure to collide with mine.  I clearly have the right of way since the other party is walking against the flow of pedestrian traffic.  They will get closer and closer until I’m practically stepping on their toes before deciding to change course at the very last minute.  Hey buddy, you couldn’t have decided which way you wanted to go 10 feet ago?

Another thing that people will do is just stop walking smack dab in the middle of an insanely busy foot traffic area.  It’s not like they look back to see if anyone is coming, nor do they make any effort to get out the way.  Part the seas, Moses wants to send a text message.

And then there’s customer service.  I’m actually surprised that these words exist in most of the European languages.  I knew that service in the restaurants was bad when I went to Spain, but it’s more terrible than I remember.  Waiters don’t frequently ask you how your meal is going, and it can literally take 20 minutes to get your bill after you’ve asked for it.  Michaela also told me that retail stores are not very likely to give people refunds for merchandise if something goes wrong right after you buy it.  So much for brand loyalty.

I think the most infuriating moment of the trip so far took place in a Burger King.  Michaela and I were waiting in line during a busy time of day.  The person in front of us finished ordering, and then the cashier actually told the person in the line to our right to come to our line so she could take his order before ours.  Instant rage.  It didn’t even make any logical sense.  I was blown away that the cashier would actively do something like that.

There have been plenty of instances at the beginning of the trip when I was in line for something, and if I didn’t go up to the window or cashier when it was my turn, someone else would pass me and step up ahead of me.  Following the When in Rome concept, now I do the same thing to others if they are too slow.  Over my dead body am I going to let another 140 lb. European dbag skip me.

You see people chatting or texting on their cell phones here, but about one-quarter as often as in the States.  Michaela told me that she has 200 total minutes on her cell plan every month.  There are no free nights or weekends either.  She also has a land line that she uses, but not a ton.  And everyone here uses What’s App for texting, and it’s free.  As a result, she only has 200 text messages in her monthly package.

One thing that I’ve noticed, especially when I go out, is that people aren’t loud like they are in the US.  I guess that singles me out even more as an American.  You don’t ever see groups of people yelling or screaming like you would in the US, even if they are drunk.

Europeans treat napkins as if they were made of gold leaf, and all water as if it came from Mount Fiji.  Every single place is stingy with every resource you can think of.  Nearly all toilets have a water-saving flush option.  You only get two napkins with your meal at a fast food restaurant, and one packet of ketchup for your fries.  Every place is moderately lit at best because electricity is so expensive.  I’ll order a drink and it will come with three ice cubes.  Really?  You couldn’t spring for six cubes in that $12 drink?

A few other random differences: not that many places accept credit cards, you should always keep $0.50 in coins on you to pay to go to the bathroom, and Europeans could invest more money in deodorant.

I know I’m being pretty sarcastic in this post, but it’s just because I’m not used to these things.  I’m sure if I lived here for six months like I did in Spain, I’d be used to them by then.  It definitely makes me appreciate many things back home, including air conditioning and ice-cold beverages.

I’m in Switzerland now for a few days, and I’ll probably write another post early next week.  Hope you have a great weekend!

Amsterchill

“The happiest people don’t have the best of everything, they just make the most of everything.”

I know, I know, the title of this blog post isn’t very creative or original.  I just had to do it.  Take the most liberal, laid back city you’ve ever been to, and make it three times more chill.  That’s Amsterdam.  It’s a place that’s almost too chill, if that’s even possible.  And while it wasn’t my favorite town to visit, it was the most interesting so far.  After doing a walking tour, a bike tour, seeing the Anne Frank House and Van Gogh museum, I feel like I have a decent idea of what the city is about.

I wasn’t more than five minutes after I hopped off the tram to walk to my hostel that I saw a girl on the back of a bike smoking a joint while her friend casually pedaled along the bike path.  Welcome to Amsterdam.  As you have probably heard, smoking marijuana is so commonplace that the smell of it actually got annoying by the end of the trip.  There are 200 sanctioned coffee houses in the city, which is another way of saying weed shop.  At its height there were over 700, but the government wants to place less emphasis on smoking a J these days.  Go figure.  Here are a few shots of what the coffee shops are like:

Yes, you can pick out which bud you want to smoke as if you were choosing between chicken alfredo and spare ribs.  I talked to one of the coffee shop workers and asked him some questions.  He said that people who aren’t used to smoking regularly pass out in the coffee shops.  The most people he had do this in one day was a dozen.  He didn’t seem that fazed.

Biking is undoubtedly the most popular way to get around the city.  I thought Berlin was a bike friendly city, but that was nothing compared to Amsterdam.  I saw more 80-year-old grandmas, men in business suits, and girls gussied up to go out riding bikes then I’ll ever see again in my life.  I forget the exact statistic, but Amsterdam is home to roughly 700,000 people and 800,000 bikes.  If you don’t look where you’re going, you’re certainly going to get clipped by a biker.  The other thing that’s crazy is that mopeds and scooters can also ride in the bike lanes.  I’m glad I don’t have to play real-life Frogger anymore.

Look closely in the upper left part of the picture.  Yep, those are all bikes too.  Some other fun facts about bikes in the city – over 100,000 are stolen each year, about 15,000 are thrown into the city’s canals annually, and most people pay 50 Euros for their bike lock, but about 20 Euros for a crappy used bike.  People will paint their bikes crazy colors to avoid having them stolen, but that doesn’t always work.

Speaking of canals, the city is arranged in a series of circular roads that have canals in between them.  The water is completely circulated every three days, so they didn’t smell at all.  They say that there are three parts to the canals – the bottom third is dirt, the top third is water, and the middle third is bicycles.

On the walking tour I met a girl named Rachel from Delaware, and we hung out a few days.  She’s pictured in the middle next to our tour guide Maddie on the right.

Rachel and I decided to attend a live s*x show on the recommendation of some of my friends.  I censored that last sentence so hopefully this post doesn’t end up in your spam folders.  We paid about $30 for the show which lasted around 75 minutes.  I know you’re wondering if there was actual penetration onstage, and the answer is: yes.  One woman wrote the name of the club on a volunteer’s bare chest with a permanent marker, and let’s just say she didn’t hold it with her hands.  The performance was moderately entertaining, though I’m not sure if it was worth the money.

We also wandered through the famous Red Light District of Amsterdam.  You can’t take any pictures, sorry guys.  In this area there are dozens of scantily clad prostitutes that are perched on chairs behind glass doors, beckoning you to chat with them as you stroll by.  There were women of all demographics, including Amsterdam’s oldest hooker who is in her 80s and has a waiting list a couple of weeks long.  Yikes.  The Red Light District was certainly one of the most bizarre things I’ve seen in an urban setting.

I ended up eating a few traditional Dutch foods.  The first was a fast food shop called Febo.  It’s deep fried croquets with filling inside.  What you do is walk up to the little compartments and deposit your coins, and then you open up one of the small doors and grab your grub.  I had one that was chicken, and another was beef.  Not the healthiest thing on the planet, but I’d recommend trying them.

Another common food in the Netherlands is French fries, but they are served in a paper cone with different types of sauces.  You can choose from ketchup, mayo, garlic, or onion sauces, and the last two are based on mayo and milk.  Fried food slathered with incredibly fatty sauce?  Sign me up.  The rest of my dinner the night I ate these was an over-the-counter enema.  Not really, but I did eat only peas in a pod from the grocery store after that.

The bike tour that Rachel and I did took us through some of the more scenic parts of the city, including Vondel park.  It’s a tough call, but I think this was the most beautiful public park I’ve ever seen, and it was huge – 120 square kilometers.  There were tons of people there in the middle of the day when we rode our bikes around for 10 minutes.  I’d frequent this place over Bradford Beach any day.

Blah blaaaaah bbbblah Anne Frank Museum blah blah blllllahh blah Van Gogh Museum, blllllahh blaaaah kinda cool blah blahhhhh bllaahhh.  Ok, so I did see both the Anne Frank and Van Gogh Museums, but I couldn’t take any pictures in either one.  Yes, they were somewhat interesting to see.  I can’t imagine living in Anne Frank’s room for two years and not being able to go outside.  I’d be stir crazy after a week.  The Van Gogh Museum wasn’t bad either.  I don’t really understand how some of his stuff looks amazing, and a number of his works look like they were painted by a five-year-old.  I guess I got an “F” in art appreciation class.  I think that walking around the streets of Amsterdam for a few hours is more captivating than either museum, and the price is free.

I’d highly recommend a trip to Amsterdam just to experience its incredibly unique culture and feel.  While I can write all day and show you a lot of pictures of the city, it’s just something that you have to experience in person.  I was there for six days and five nights, but I think you could see the highlights in three full days.

I’m heading back to Germany to see a few more cities with Michaela, and then I’ll be going to Switzerland, Italy, France, and Spain.  Some of you have been asking when I’ll be back in the States, and I’ll return on Wednesday, September 13th.

Is there anything you want to see in the blog that I haven’t covered yet?  Let me know in the comments, and I’ll do my best to write about it and include some pictures if that’s possible.  Have a great day!

Hail Germany

“The finest steel has to go through the hottest fire.”

After Prague disappointed, I had high hopes for Germany.  Thankfully the country exceeded nearly all my expectations.  Bryant, the guy who I had explored Prague with, joined me for the first two nights in Berlin.  My friend Michaela who I met when I studied abroad in Madrid eight years ago was kind enough to meet us in Berlin and serve as our tour guide because she was born in Germany.  A huge thanks to you Michaela, you did a fantastic job showing us Berlin and Hamburg!

Starting off in Berlin, the three of us rented bikes and did a tour of the city after going to a dance club the night before.  Biking through the city was crazy fun, and I’d highly recommend doing it.  It was also very practical because Berlin is a huge city, and it would take far too long to see all of it on foot.

I can’t help but think that Michaela looks like some sort of fairytale character with her long hair, lime green shorts, and messenger bag while she rides a cruiser bike.  Disney, you want the rights?

First we stopped at one of the two city centers called Alexanderplatz, which also has a shopping center below.  Notice how everything is very clean, simple, and organized.  Most of the city is like this, and that’s one of the main reasons I liked it so much.

Next we checked out the Holocaust Monument, which is a series of concrete slabs that ascend in height.  The ones in the middle are pretty tall, about 15 feet high.  Bryant and I went hopping from one to another and snapped a few pictures.

After that we headed to the Brandenburg door, which was a beautiful sight.

Then we went to see the Reichstag, which is the main government building.  That was also impressive.

We were feeling pretty sleepy from the night before, so we laid down in a park right next to the Reichstag where there were a bunch of people hanging out.  Like Bryant said, it kind of reminded me of Central Park in New York.  What was supposed to be short stop ended up being a two-hour nap to the sounds of Bryant’s iPad.  No regrets, it was a great way to relax that afternoon.

Of course, we had to take a look at the Berlin wall.  The part that was still standing actually didn’t have much graffiti on it, which really surprised me.  No matter, I’m still glad that I saw it.

After partying hard until 7 am the second night, Bryant had to take off, but Michaela and I continued our bike tour of the city.  We went to an area of the city called Hackesche Hofe that had a lot of shopping and restaurants.  The buildings were constructed just after 1900, and were absolutely beautiful.

I think the thing that I enjoyed most about Germany was the diversity of its population.  You can picture a melting pot similar to Chicago as you walk through the city streets.  A lot of people also speak English, which makes it easy to navigate if you don’t have a native friend to help you out.  For example, Michaela and I met up with some of her friends who are not from Germany, and they were awesome to chat with for a few hours in a beer garden on a Thursday night.

After checking Berlin off the list, we headed to Hamburg, a city where Michaela lived for six years.  Hamburg is a lot smaller than Berlin, so we were able to explore it on foot.  We went to a bi-annual festival that was literally across the street from our hotel, which was pretty slick.  Several of the food pictures from the last blog post came from that event.

A couple of Michaela’s friends had mentioned a special restaurant in Hamburg, so we decided to check it out.  The concept is that you eat your meal in complete darkness the entire time, which should enhance your other senses.

What you do first is choose from one of five menus that are purposely vague.  For instance, mine simply said that it was food from the Alps and that it was based on cheese.  We opted to go with the four-course option, and then we were guided to our table by Manuel, our visually impaired waiter.

It was really weird having to move so slowly to do anything, but I thought it was a phenomenal experience.  I also think that your remaining senses do compensate more when one isn’t working.  Time passed very quickly in complete darkness.  I’m normally not bad at guessing how much time has elapsed, but I was off by almost an hour at the end of dinner.

At one point, Manuel cleared some things from the table, and I said “Thank you.”  “’Fo sheezy my neezy,” was his response.  Hold up, what the heck did he just say?  I’m sitting here in the middle of a pitch black restaurant in Germany and our visually impaired waiter just spit a 90s Snoop Dogg lyric back at us in perfect English?  I asked Michaela if she heard the same thing, and as he was halfway across the restaurant, Manuel yelled, “That’s right homie.  Welcome to the Bronx.”

We ended up talking to Manuel for a while at the end of the meal, and he was a really interesting guy.  His story is kind of like Eminem’s, but he’s obviously different because he’s visually impaired.  Manuel writes his own rap beats, is 36 years old, and got married three years ago.  I asked him my standard million questions, including “Is there anything positive about being visually impaired?”  He wasn’t offended, and answered, “I see the world as it is, not as it appears to be.”  He went on to say that it allows him to not be affected by a lot of things that would normally influence someone with regular sight.  That definitely puts things in perspective.

The next morning Michaela and I walked around the city and saw the port, which was a great spot for people watching.

Among other things, we also checked out the town hall.

That night we went to some of the local pubs and dance clubs, and there was German techno still thumping when we headed back to the hotel at four in the morning.  These Germans can party hard for sure.

I’ve been in Amsterdam for several days, and then I’m going to back to Germany to meet up with Michaela again to see more German cities.  I hope you guys are doing well back home!

Prague is…meh. Bonus food pics inside!

“Good is the enemy of great.”

Since I stayed a couple of days in Budapest, I only had two nights in Prague, Czech Republic.  It turns out that was plenty of time to catch the highlights of the city and experience the night life.  The first evening I did a pub crawl with about 30 dudes, which was exactly what I had in mind when I signed up.  The second day I did a walking tour with my buddy Bryant who I had met in Krakow, and that was pretty much it for Prague.

There have been a lot of people who suggested that I check out Prague, but I honestly wasn’t super impressed by it.  Yes, it was a decently clean European city, and there were plenty of sights to take in.  However, the people were not friendly at all, and they didn’t seem very willing to help tourists.  The night life also wasn’t anything special, but to be fair, I was out on a Sunday and Monday night.

The hostel I stayed at was the best yet.  It was closer to a hotel, and the air conditioning was ice cold.

On the walking tour Bryant and I saw the oldest bar in Europe.  It looked about 500 years young when we walked inside:

We also walked up to the royal castle which was a pretty slick sight:

I’ve been looking for an excuse to post a bunch of pictures of some of the food I’ve eaten so far.  Since I don’t have much else to say about Prague, I’ll treat you guys.

Traditional Polish dumplings with “gravy,” which actually turned out to be oil with bacon in it.  I got several different kinds which included spinach, meat, salmon, and mushrooms.

“What do we have in this showcase Bob?”  “Showcase one contains a smattering of confectionary delights Rod!  Snickers always satisfies, and you can tame your bratty kids with M&M’s.  And when the lights go out in your bedroom, you can always bust out the Maltesers.”

Rye bread with two different toppings: lard with bacon, and cheese with onions.  The former was pretty gross.  How can Polish people eat that stuff?

Sour cream chicken with gnocchi and cheese in Hungary.  All of their dishes were very rich and hearty, which explains why they were a little less svelte than other Europeans.  They also love to put sour cream on everything.

I didn’t even have to ask them to make me a light saber substitute for an ice cream cone.  And that was a small, not even a large.

Flaming shots of absinthe in Prague.  Yes, they were still on fire when we drank them.

This sushi bar in Berlin, Germany was really entertaining.  You sit down in front of the plates of sushi that are constantly rotating in front of you and select what you want.  The plates have different colored rings on them to let you know how much each one costs.  How do they keep track of the age of each piece of sushi?  Each plate has a small garnish that they change every hour so the chefs know how long it has been in rotation.

One of the best parts about Germany: three new kinds of Red Bull!  Blue is blueberry, red is cranberry, and silver is lime.  Too bad they weren’t sugar free.

A pretzel with cheese from a street vendor in Berlin, Germany.  Delish!

This doesn’t look like anything special, but it tastes amazing.  It’s half apple juice, half sparkling water.  It doesn’t taste nearly as sweet as regular juice, and the carbonation gives it a light feel.

These are hash browns mixed with eggs and onions with a little applesauce on the side from Berlin, Germany.  They were a lot more filling than I expected.

The best way I can describe these is that they are similar to deep-fried doughnut holes sprinkled with powdered sugar.  They were served hot at the festival where I bought them in Hamburg, Germany.

Currywurst from Hamburg, Germany.  It’s like a huge hot dog that’s sliced up and served with a sauce that’s a mix of ketchup and curry.  It tasted better than it sounds.

In Germany they call this the Bobbit machine because they put the currywurst into that vertical tube, and it slices up the entire thing in less than five seconds.  I wish I had taken a video of the worker using the machine, but I was too slow.

Orange juice and ice cream, a common dessert in Germany.  It tasted like a dreamsicle, my favorite combination of flavors.

A freshly made crepe filled with Nutella and raspberries.  This was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever tasted!

I’m publishing things a bit behind since I’ve already been in Germany, and I just arrived in Amsterdam today.  I’ll publish a post on Germany in the next few days.  I hope your week starts off well tomorrow.

Budapest 1, Rob 0

“Do what you want with life before life does what it wants with you.”

When I was in Poland, several people suggested that I take a quick stop in Budapest.  I researched the city a bit and decided it would be a solid detour, so off I went.  I’m definitely glad I made that decision.

I checked into the hostel, and Tim the owner ran through the litany of things that travelers could do and see in the city.  Thermal spas, terror museums, cathedrals, and other historical sites made the list.  How could I see even half of this stuff in just three days?  On the second day I decided to extend my trip another night.  Not because I wanted to see the city, but because the night life is freaking amazing.

I only did two walking tours of the city, and that was it for touristy stuff.  No museums, no art galleries.  I don’t care, and I don’t regret it at all.  What I didn’t see of the city, I made up in partying…hard.

If I could choose one picture to sum up the night life here, this would be it:

Party time in Budapest!

Faith, the girl in the blue dress, actually went to UW-Madison.  I also gotta give her props because she won the dancing contest on the party boat that night.  We ended up heading to a place that Lonely Planet voted the best bar in the world after the party boat.  I don’t agree with them, but it still ended up being an amazingly fun night.

You could say that the hostel I stayed at was focused on partying.  Check out this pic of the freezer:

I wish I could say we drank all of that in one night...

On Friday I went with some people from the hostel to an indoor water park that turns into a nightclub from 10 pm until 3 am.  That was definitely a good time.  The following night even more people went to a massive outdoor party in a thermal spa.  This was a preparty for the biggest festival in Europe which starts on Sunday.  This really crappy picture doesn’t even begin to do it justice:

Spa party!

Techno dance party with Cirque-de-Soleil style show in a thermal spa?  The only way this could have been more up my alley is if they served Muscle Milk protein shakes at the bar.

Since this isn’t a full disclosure blog and I didn’t snap a ton of pictures when I was out each night, let’s just say that I’m going to lock away those party scenes in what’s left of my memory bank.  I do have some other entertaining photos for you though.

Getting some ice cream

Here a few friends and I decided to grab an ice cream cone.  From left to right, Cassie is Australian, Alecky is from New Zealand, and Richie is from Fresno, CA.  Bobby, he also thinks Frenso is a craphole.

Look closely at his pants

Look closely.  I always unbutton my pants when I’m chillin’ on a park bench in public too.

The walking tours did provide some decent shots of the city.

Before we went into the giant spa scene, we came across this girl who had partied a little bit too hard.  She was literally wallowing in the mud in a park and was puking her guts out.  She was oddly alone, so her friends definitely sucked.  A couple of us paid for a taxi and got her back to her hostel to make sure the staff took care of her.  Kind of a buzzkill, but she was in rough shape.

Partied a little too hard, did ya?

The trip was totally worth it just to see this hostel worker’s rad mustache:

Check out that mustache!

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to figure out how I want to articulate this next part of the blog, but I’m not sure it’s going to come across correctly.  Just try to stick with me.

One of the things that I truly enjoy about travelers is that they don’t care much about what others think.  They do their own thing, and they are OK with that.  I believe that surrounding myself with people like this has led me to adopt this mentality, and I absolutely love it.  It really frees your mind when you don’t have to worry about others’ perceptions and opinions.  The less f**ks you give, the easier and more enjoyable life becomes.

What could this mean for you?  You can do whatever you want to do, and be whoever you want to be.  The only thing holding you back is…you.

Do you want to do something that doesn’t seem consistent with what your friends are doing?  Does it seem like it would be a little weird?  Excellent, all the more reason you should do it.  Being different isn’t a bad thing.  In fact, the more unique you are, the more confidence you have in yourself, your beliefs, and values.  So be a little weird, be different, be yourself.  Even if people judge you, you don’t need their approval anyway.