London 7/27 – 8/2 – Past Accolades
As early as childhood, I wanted to go to England. As an American, it has always been fascinating to ponder where we came from – the country we fought a bloody war with to gain independence, only to become a mirror image of later.
The country of England is richly steeped in history, nobility, and architecture, and if you are visiting this country for sightseeing or historical insight, you will not be disappointed. There is so much to see and so much to do, you will never be able to see all the points of attraction during the length of an average trip.
There is a reason the castles, phone booths, and palaces are the stuff of wall decorations – they simply don’t make civilizations like this anymore. When you look up, you get the feeling great men built what is before your eyes. I have titled this sub-section “past accolades” because unfortunately I feel as though England is running on their past, and not much else. It is Western Europe’s version of New York City, and while New York City represents the crème of the crop of tourism in the USA, there’s a reason I moved out of there last spring.
London is even more expensive than NYC, something I thought I’d never say. It is not uncommon to pay the equivalent of $2-3 for a can of soda. The locals explained that rent (near the city center of London) can cost upwards of $2,000 a month for a studio apartment. The hostel I stayed in charged for everything – from breakfast, to towels to shampoo. I have now been to 20 states in the union and over a dozen countries, and have never seen this type of nickel and diming before.
Large areas of London are outright ghettos. The outskirts are sketchy at best, with litter, graffiti, and garbage everywhere. It seems surreal to stand across the street from the famous Houses of Parliament and see a trash can next to you overflowing out of the corner of your eye. Not unlike New York City, when you leave the comfort and awe of downtown it is not always a pretty picture. There are loud, agitated mobs of people always in a rush, and the ‘rat race’ is ever prevalent. England comes off as an ’employee culture’, where the old rules of work rule and entrepreneurs have an even longer shot to succeed.
The British people are cordial and have a neutral-positive view of Americans (though their contempt for the French is very transparent.) It seems that more than a few Brits in the countryside understand my sentiments expressed here, as I spoke to locals in Northampton (small village 60 miles north of London) who told stories of the “real England” in the old days. It appears those days are now a story of yesteryear, and are not coming back any time soon. To their credit, the countryside population were brimming with old-style hospitality.
The women were surprisingly polite, contrary to what I’d heard from other accounts. They will happily give you directions or recommend a place to go. Even those who are not interested will have a laugh and “play the game” for a minutes before going on their way. There are still beautiful girls in Western Europe despite the pervasive feminism there (probably more prevalent in the fat & ugly.) There is still a pinch of snobbishness in both men and women to support the stereotype of British arrogance, as I was confronted by an overzealous pedestrian being uber-territorial on two different occasions.
Unfortunately, the jet lag I experienced severely hampered my ability to enjoy this portion of the trip as I should have. (I will address this problem in my next book.) As someone who already adheres to a somewhat abnormal second-shift sleep schedule, the last thing I needed was to travel eastbound by 5 time-zones, making days shorter rather than longer. Waking up at 11:30 in Florida meant waking up at 4:30 pm in London, with most of the exhibits closing at 5:30 pm. Exhaustion played a part and tarnished (perhaps unfairly) my image of the city.
It’s going to take me a while to come to grips with the damage this trip did to my wallet. I must emphasize primarily this is not an ideal destination for the solo budget traveler!
BEST PART: Sights
WORST PART: Price
VISIT AGAIN: Maybe in the distant future
Amsterdam 8/2 – 8/8 – Utopia
The Netherlands in a country notorious (along with its Scandinavian neighbors) for being one of the happiest places on earth, and while I didn’t see a bunch of people galloping around with cult-like smiles on their faces, I do think this is about the best humanity can do in the world we live in, in terms of equilibrium and peace. The worst thing I saw in 6 days in Amsterdam was a cyclist curse at a driver for cutting him off (and he was probably a tourist.)
The streets are filled with people riding bikes, most people are bilingual, there is healthy diversity of ethnicities, and there is an enormous emphasis placed on personal freedom. Not the kind of freedom the United States of America parades on bumper stickers while it slowly drifts toward fascism, but a true freedom where the government leaves its people alone.
Personal choices like the free exercise of soft drugs has created a mellowed out society where people do not have to run, hide, or kill within a black market just to satisfy the common impulse to alter consciousness. Holland is a great debunker of the myth that THC is a gateway drug, as hard drugs are strictly illegal here, and are a very small problem. Prostitution is legal, making it easy for men to get laid and for women to make a great living. This is also a great revenue generator for the city and popular tourist attraction. Absolute freedom means many Dutch prisons are currently closing because there are not enough people in them.
Sightseeing is a nice experience due to the architecture and famous canals, but outside the city center/Red Light District of Amsterdam the list of things to do is scant. Venture out into the countryside and you’re likely to see nothing but windmills.
The women are friendly and really tall.
On a positive note, I had a great hostel experience at ‘WOW Amsterdam’ which made the trip quite a bit better. Accommodation (or lack thereof) can make or break a trip.
In a world without family I’d consider living here for part of the year. The caveat is I would have to travel even more frequently and just use it as a home base, because within a utopia it is easy to find stagnancy. It is against human nature to do the exact same thing all day, every day and expect not to feel a void. The Netherlands are no different, and that’s why there are a few Dutch people (3 or 4) who come off as unpleasant as its not a particularly “exciting” place to be.
BEST PART: Lifestyle
WORST PART: Things to do
VISIT AGAIN: Yes
Rome 8/8 – 8/14 – Ancient
Besides Athens, there will be no other city quite like Rome. From the Colosseum to the Vatican, there is no better spot for old-fashioned tourism. Standing in these structures is akin to having an out-of-body experience.
If you can manage to put your smartphone away for a few minutes (after snapping some great pictures of course) and just breathe in the air, you will almost be able to travel back in time and see lions and roaring crowds. In the case of the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel may in fact change your life. There are thousands of stories to be interpreted any which way you perceive them, and this applies to more than just Catholics. They take the rules very seriously there and do not allow any speaking, pictures, or revealing clothing.
Italy in general is a country that has not adapted, nor does it seem to have any desire to. Walking through the small village of Zagarolo over 60 km from Rome, you get a taste of exactly what small villages looked like in Italy a hundred years ago. They haven’t changed a bit. They speak only Italian and eat pasta, pizza, and bologna. They are not integrated or inclusive. The men wear wife beaters and the women speak in loud, exaggerated accents. Take this lack of an evolution for what you wish – it has its positives and negatives.
The costs of travel are reasonable. It cost only €12 to get into the Colosseum and €12 with my trusty student ID to get into the Vatican (20 for everyone else.), whereas secondary attractions in London cost about twice as much. The groceries were very cheap, if not too appealing to Americans (I can only eat sauce and high-calorie carbs so much before feeling like a fat ass.) The seats on the trains are more comfortable than airplane seats in the USA.
Pickpocketing is a huge problem here, as are annoying beggars and aggressive salesmen everywhere you go. They are not shy about getting right in your space, and reacting in a loud fashion if they do not get their way. As the descendant of Italian Americans, I can speak to the absence of civility, and caution any travelers about how much of a culture shock this can be.
At the train station, scam artists come up to the machines and forcibly offer to “help” you buy your ticket, then demand money after it prints. At tourist hot spots, salesmen pounce on you like vultures and follow you until you have said no at least 4 times.
Italian women are not friendly to tourists. This part of the trip is making Barcelona look really good right about now.
BEST PART: History
WORST PART: Beggars/Scammers
VISIT AGAIN: Probably not
BARCELONA 8/14 – 8/20 – Wild
Barcelona is an amazing city. In the same way I liked Amsterdam for it’s relaxed atmosphere and utopian feeling, I liked Barcelona for all the opposite reasons. Barcelona is not a utopia, but a free for all.
“Barca” (as the soccer fans call it) is among the most lively of party cities I’ve ever seen. I have drank in places like New York City and Los Angeles, and even those famous hotspots did not compare to a few nights spent out in Spain’s fiesta capitol. One night in particular a few of us hit up a club called “Opium”, which is literally on the beach. When I say there had to be 700 people there on a Sunday night, I am not exaggerating. We happened to be in Barcelona at the right time of year, during a yearly festival that is not taken lightly.
When not clubbing, we barely had to leave the hostel to find great nightlife. You could find us walking around the neighborhood of “Gracia” with small concerts on every corner. One night, I met a tall and charming Czech girl who liked my dumb jokes so much she actually uttered the words “I like you.” (This was very strange for me, as an American girl born only a few miles from me in Staten Island actually uttered the words “I don’t like you” unprovoked only a night earlier! Credit them both for their blunt honesty, and behold the difference in attitudes between Eastern Europe and “Jersey Shore.”) We then danced, and as I twirled her in her modest yellow dress, I made a promise to myself to visit the Czech Republic on my next trip overseas. (Lena, I would have married you if you’d have stayed out a bit later…)
The renowned architecture of Spain is based largely on the work of one man, Antoni Gaudi. For the best example of his style, the Sagrada Familia is a unique structure like no other you’ve seen before.
I also got the chance to get to a soccer game, where Barcelona somehow lost in a 1-1 tie (very different than North America where Winning % means more than total goals scored.) The atmosphere was really exciting, but it was hard to tell from the nosebleed seats. These were last minute tickets, but even the train to the stadium was buzzing largely thanks to our group.
It is impossible to assess the Spanish women overall because Barcelona was overrun with tourists. For a better sample, I might have been better off hitting Madrid or Valencia.
Lastly, for all the 2nd amendment advocates in the USA afraid their government is coming tomorrow, you should have a look at places like Barcelona and Paris (where I’ve been diverted to on my way home, and where I write this section from.) Not only are the police out in full force, but the military occupies the street (in Barcelona) and the airport (in Paris.) Men in camo gear armed with fully-automatic weaponry walk around grilling people and it appears to be business as usual. The right-wing gun lovers in the USA would have a heart attack if what I saw this week ever came to America, and I can understand the sentiment. It is intimidation of average citizens under the guise of “security.”
BEST PART: Nightlife
WORST PART: Tourists vastly outnumbering natives
VISIT AGAIN: Yes