Sunday, March 31, 2013

Travel tips

The more I'm traveling, the more travel tips come to my mind. Here are a few:

Bring clothes you can leave behind to make more space in your bag (tip from Jane S.)

Consider buying a few basic clothing pieces that you can wear out over the course of the trip (Rivers P.)

If you are having a really good time somewhere, change your plans and stay there (Greg T.)

Consider navigating by cell phone. Get a beefed up international plan, so that you can take advantage of tools like Google Maps for public transportation and restaurant reviews on Yelp. It's easier and you look less like a tourist.

Get an external battery for your phone. You will need the extra power for Google Maps.

Bring good shoes (that are not white athletic shoes) and good moisturizer. Your feet and skin will thank you.

Look for off the beaten path things to do. What hobbies do you like at home? Look up yoga, dance, or cooking classes for a chance to meet locals and learn something new. Check out sites like to find new friends that share your interests.

Be creative with your overall strategy. For example, I'm planning to FedEx some of my things back to lighten my load.

Don't plan every detail. To me, the most important thing to know is where I'm sleeping and how I will get there. The rest will work itself out.

Try new food. One of my favorite things is to go grocery shopping in a place. You'd be surprised at the random things you'll find.

Take breaks. Long days of traveling, especially for long periods, can be exhausting.

Success in Amsterdam

I'm pleased to report that day 3 in Amsterdam was a success. I walked about a mile from my hotel and visited a number of museums and shops.

First was the Van Gogh Museum. The line was wrapped completely around the side of the huge building where it's located, so I kept moving. Maybe I'll see it another day.

I headed next to Rembrandt's house. The home has been restored to look as it did when Rembrandt lived and worked there. It was stunning. Below are a few photos.

I also visited a photography museum called FOAM. FOAM was interesting and less expensive, but should definitely remain lower on the priority list if you're thinking of visiting.

I stopped by a few department stores. Metz & Co was closed for the holiday, so I went to V&D. They had an amazing cafeteria inside the store that included a big juice bar. I had a salmon sandwich with a fruit smoothie. Next, I checked out Bonneterie.

For a sugary snack, I stopped by Puccini chocolate store. The chocolate there was really amazing.

Last, but definitely not least, I stopped by Van Dobben for dinner. I tried these croquettes that I'd heard about. The experience reminded me of a cross between Johnny Rockets and Gus' Fried Chicken. I sat on a bar stool near the counter. The croquettes looked like fried cheese sticks on a piece of bread. They were quite tasty, but their hot liquid contents made me curious. I unfortunately Googled the meal while I was eating and learned that they're made of the less important meat parts from animals. Think of a hot dog that has somehow become liquid. Wow, that sounds bad... But believe me, they were tasty.

On my walk back, I passed a store whose specialty is American food. You can see a photo below of all the packaged goodness.

Now I'm at my hotel. It's midnight here. We had daylight savings time today. I've already slept about 3 hours and look forward to even more. After about 3 weeks of travel and countless time changes, I'm starting to feel a bit tired.

Oh, and by the way-- everyone was helpful today and nobody lectured me. :-)

Where are you from?

Growing up, nobody ever asked the question, "where are you from?" Never. If they had, I would have said, "Oklahoma" just like most everyone else in Oklahoma. We would have moved on to the next topic seamlessly.

When I moved to Upstate New York for college, this suddenly became the question of the day- every day. I would answer, "Oklahoma" and inevitably the person would say, "No. Where are you FROM?" For a long time, this totally confused me and it upset the person I was talking to.

I eventually realized that I was being asked what country my family heritage was from before America. There were many more recently immigrated families in the northeast than in the center of the US. Those families continue to identify closely with their family heritage because either their parents or grandparents were born in another country.

To this new question, I had no answer. Part of my family had been in Oklahoma for 6 generations, before it was even Oklahoma. A number of relatives are suspected to be Native American Indian and across the board, there are almost no family records with any concrete information. We were from Oklahoma, plain and simple.

A few years ago I did some DNA research to see where else in the world my family might be from. I will come back to the results later. This process has led me to enjoy it when people guess where I might be from.

In both England and Ireland, people assumed I was Irish. In the London airport, I had an entire conversation with a saleswoman at a makeup counter. When paying, you must show your boarding pass. When she saw mine was to Dublin, she said, "are you going home for the weekend?" I've never been so shocked. I've been guessed wrong before speaking before, but not after. When I arrived in Ireland, I could see why people would peg me for Irish. I have fair skin and dark brown hair that many of the Irish have.

In Germany, everyone assumed I was German. I was stopped a few times for directions, in German. I guess this was maybe due to my height.

During one of my later visits to the airport in London, an Australian guessed that I was either Swedish or Canadian. In fact, a few people have guessed Canadian.

In Sweden, it was assumed that I was German due to my height and dark hair. Although I don't typically think of Germans as having brown hair, it seems more common there than in blonde Sweden.

Last June when I was in Norway, everyone guessed Norwegian. I was stopped for direction in Norwegian. At the airport, the staff even switched from English to Norwegian to speak to me.

A few years ago in India, I was assumed to be German. In Spain, people were totally stumped.

The one thing that nobody has ever guessed? American. Isn't that odd? I hear from the guessers that I don't have a distinct accent from any place. Plus, what do we (Americans) "look" like exactly? I assume that I don't have a specific look and that my height may throw people off a bit. It may also help that I'm good at figuring out what someone is saying to me, even when I don't speak the same language.

As proud as I am to be American, blending in everywhere here helps me to travel undetected. I don't get asked for money. Nobody is trying to pick pocket me. Nobody is trying to sell random junk to me. It's nice. Really nice.

The ironic thing about it all-- part of being from the US is about being a mixture of people who have immigrated from around the world. It only makes sense that my slightly less distinct (and more blended) look would fit in with so many different groups.

And if you were wondering the results of my DNA tests, here they are. My mother's side was very conclusive and my father's was just the opposite. I would guess this is because his side is the most likely to be native to the US.

Mother's side: (these showed up as strong guesses according to the DNA)
...and a few other European countries

Father's side: (these showed up as very weak guesses)
United States - this one was the most clear winner

Keep in mind that they are only a guess, since people have been migrating around for hundreds of years. Regardless of where I am from originally, it's so nice to be able to roam the world and fit in a little with so many different people. I look forward to more guesses in the days ahead!

First impressions

I'm going to be honest. The first 24 hours in Amsterdam were not great. If Amsterdam and I were on a first date, I would have called for the bill by now.

I came to visit because I heard that Amsterdam is a hub for digital marketing in Europe and I wanted to see it up close. I'm not sure about the digital marketing part, but what I do think is that this may be a culture that I don't mix well with.

I hope that I'm speaking too soon and that tonight I will have fantastic things to report. But as for now, things look a bit bleak.

Upon arriving to the Amsterdam airport, none of the ticket machines would sell me a train ticket into town. I kept getting messages like "card declined" so I was certain that I didn't know how to use the machine. After trying many machines and searching the airport, I found what I thought would be a helpful ticket person. She explained to me that they are a high security operation that doesn't take American credit cards. She went on to lecture me about my inferior card. Thank goodness I had a little cash. I paid and left ASAP.

I caught the first train into town. From there, I was to take a tram to my hotel. Passengers were lined up to get on the tram. Each person would buy a ticket from the driver as they entered. Just as I was entering, the driver decided to shut the door on me and my big backpack as I was half way in the door. Suddenly I was outside in the cold, waiting 20 minutes for the next one. Eventually, I made it on a tram, but the thing only dropped me about a half mile from my place. This left me wandering through the dark streets in the cold, trying not to get hit by one of the random bicycles zooming past.

I'm staying at a four star business hotel that I got through bidding on The staff was friendly and I learned that although Internet is free here, a new password is required each day.

That night, I had dinner at an Italian restaurant in my hotel. Given that this is a big city and I'm at a business hotel, I was able to order my meal in English. The ironic thing was that the waiter (who was fluent in English) continued to speak to me in Dutch throughout my meal, as if trying to make a point. I'm okay with a foreign language (obviously), but a bit less okay at the point he was trying to make... Whatever it was.

After dinner, I made an attempt to have one drink at the bar. This may have been the biggest mistake of all. I had barely started to sip on my wine when an old Scottish man of about 65 pulled up a chair next to me. I'm pretty good with all different accents, but this is the first version of English I could not understand. He reminded me of all of the Scottish characters portrayed by Mike Myers over the years. It was like we were talking over a staticky phone line, where you understand 25% of what's said and try to guess at the other 75%. What I do know is that he owns a trucking company, he hates social media, and he was approached by a prostitute (who it turns out was much too expensive in his opinion). He also suspects she may have been a police officer, so he was glad he decided against the offer. Oh, and he was married.

This lovely dialogue was interrupted by a much too eager younger man. He was about 30 years old, around 6'4" with chin length blind hair. He seemed a bit off and his skin looked a little greenish to me. The first thing he said was that he was there to save me. He then let me know that he was local, which I assume is relative since he was staying in the hotel. Next, he asked if I needed someone to keep me warm at night. After declining his much too generous offer, I turned back to the bar, my back facing him. He stood directly behind me for a few minutes like a puppy that's unsure of what trick to do next. A few minutes later, he came back with his Internet password. He claimed not to know how to connect to the Internet and needed my help. I helped him and went back to trying to finish my wine ASAP.

The Scottish man begged me to stay longer which made me want to leave even faster. I quickly headed through the hotel to the elevator. Out of nowhere, I hear the Dutch guy yelling, flailing, and running through the hotel after me. (Tip: this is freaky-- don't chase a woman through her hotel). He was upset that he didn't know my name and wanted to volunteer to go sightseeing with me the following day. Of course I declined this also too generous offer.

In hopes that I could rest, I stayed in my hotel the entire next day. I slept in and called for room service. I asked if it was too late for breakfast and ordered a ham and cheese lunch sandwich and a glass of water. The woman on the phone explained that I can get water out of the bathroom sink and that she wouldn't be bringing me water. Keep in mind, this is a 4-star business hotel. As such, I paid over $17 for a ham and cheese to be delivered. When the food arrived, she did bring me water and explained that she brought it since I don't understand that there is water in the bathroom. I explained that the cups in the bathroom don't seem super clean. She then went on to lecture me that if I would only wake up earlier and remember when breakfast ends, I could have breakfast next time. Awesome.

After enjoying my super high class ham and cheese, I headed down to the local super market. I wanted to be sure to pick up my own breakfast this time. The grocery was okay more or less. It was listed as a high end grocery online, but seemed more like a dirty Kroger on the inside. In the international aisle, they had Jiffy peanut butter and a box of macaroni and cheese. It's good to know what food we're sharing with the world...

As I walked up to the check out line, I noticed a sign that appeared to say "credit card only" so I *nicely* asked the cashier "do you only take credit in this line?" She replied by yelling at me in an annoyed voice, "We only take DUTCH credit cards here!!!! DUTCH credit cards!!" "Okay," I said, "I have cash." "DUTCH credit cards!" was her response. I went one line over to another checker who was willing to accept my cash.

Upon re-entering my hotel, I felt a sigh of relief. That is, until my door key stopped working. I took it to the front desk to get it fixed up. The front desk looked at me (and my bags of groceries) and started in on a lecture. If only I wouldn't keep the key near my cell phone, it would have been fine. I responded that it was not near my phone to which the staff person responded "well, this is a *magnetic* strip you know." Yes, I do understand the magnetic strip key concept. Just fix it. Stop lecturing me!

I'm awake now and am hoping to have a much more positive day to report. Keep your fingers crossed.

Waving Goodbye to Stockholm

My last day in Stockholm went by quickly. Greg and I had another Swedish meal complete with seafood and risky mayonnaise. Turns out they are big into crawfish in Sweden.

We then visited the Swedish Culture House. It's a public building full of various exhibits. They had an interesting photo exhibit and a giant machine that makes music when you touch it. Greg is playing it in the photo below.

Soon after, we headed to the train. The train goes directly from Central Station to the Stockholm airport.

The airport was peaceful with interesting Scandinavian looking furniture. Below us a picture of a couch in the airport that's designed to look like a baggage claim, complete with luggage pillows.

Next stop, Amsterdam...

Saturday, March 30, 2013

IKEA beer and raw eggs

My third day in Stockholm turned out to be just as adventurous as the two before. Since I was in Sweden, I got the idea to visit an IKEA. It turns out that the first ever and largest ever IKEA is near Stockholm. Greg and I made our way to the free IKEA bus that picks up near our hotel. The front of the bus read "Happy Easter" in Swedish and sped away just as we walked up to it. That definitely wasn't very happy for us.

As a side note, despite the fact that many people in Western Europe are not religious, they are HUGE fans of Easter. I saw more chocolate bunnies and eggs here than I've ever seen in the US. But, it seems that folks here all get a week off of work for the holiday.

After the bus drove off, we headed for the train station. We took a crowded train to a part of the city that seems to have people from all over the world living in it. It was really interesting to see so many different cultures all together there. And, they still had some snow!

From there, we caught a bus. The IKEA is so big that it's a stop on the bus route.

Upon arriving, we rode up to the 5th floor of the building to the IKEA restaurant for lunch. They always have good, cheap Swedish food - and this time they had IKEA beer! After eating, we wandered through every level of the store. I recognized furniture, rugs, candles and even shoes that so many of my international friends have all over the world. It's amazing how big IKEA really is.

They even sell kitchens. In Germany (and possibly other countries), a kitchen is not considered part of the furnishings. You have to bring your own. I'm talking about the fridge, the kitchen cabinets, the dishwasher (if you're lucky enough to have one), and even the SINK. I cannot imagine how much harder moving would be if you had to install a kitchen every time!

After IKEA, we came back to our hotel to change for dinner. We decided to go to a nice Swedish place near the opera house. I had a shrimp dish and Greg had a beef dish. This meal turned out to reveal an issue that I'm fearful I may encounter a lot on my trip: raw eggs.

Earlier in the day, I explained to Greg that I seem to have an allergic reaction to raw eggs. He wondered what in the world they would be in. The answer is mayonnaise, icing, drinks, and more. The list goes on and on. Typically fancy restaurants use raw eggs for a reason I don't understand. And unfortunately the staff at most restaurants are usually uninformed that the eggs are in the food. When I asked if the meal contained raw eggs, I was told "absolutely not!" Then when I saw the meal, it had boiled eggs with a side of mayo. So I asked again, but this time I was more specific. I asked about the mayo. To the servers surprise, it did have raw eggs. Luckily, I wasn't exposed, but even having the mayo on my plate made me not want to eat.

After dinner, we headed to the Grand Hotel. They have an amazing bar with a piano player. Everything about the place makes you never want to leave. The pressed ceilings, the chairs, the eye candy. We ordered Argentinian Malbec and listened to the music. I had hoped to get a pretty cocktail, but their foamy tops made me suspect more eggs.

The one thing about wines in Europe that has really stuck out to me-- Every restaurant or wine store has wines from ALL OVER the world-- except the US. There are no California wines anywhere to be found. You can find liquors such as Jack Daniels anywhere, but no wines. I wonder if its because wine in the US is more expensive, but I'm not sure.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Mojitos with a side of Swedish fish

I have arrived in Sweden! For those who know me well, you know that this was a bucket list item for me. I relate to the Scandinavian culture more than almost any other outside of my own. Often, I feel that I relate for reasons that I don't fully understand. That's why this part of the trip is so special to me.

I met up with my friend Greg here. Greg was my next door neighbor in Memphis. He is a geographer whose recent move to Norway was featured on the House Hunters International TV show.

We are staying in the Viking Radisson Blu hotel near the center of Stockholm. We have easy access to the subway and have been exploring shops, restaurants, and various old parts of the city. The city is amazingly clean and beautiful. It's still quite cold with ice and snow on the water surrounding the city.

Last night, we attempted to emerge ourselves in the local culture by attending a salsa dance class at a Cuban restaurant. What I've learned is that this is the sort of thing that no tourists ever do. It's a great way to meet locals since at a dance class you're constantly rotating dance partners.

We showed up about 2 minutes late and were one of the last to arrive. The teachers asked which level we were and explained how and where to hang our jackets-- in Swedish. That's when it hit me. The one thing that I didn't think much about was that the lesson might be in Swedish.

As I was hanging my coat, I thought to myself, "this is really going to be an experience-- taking a salsa lesson in Swedish..." But, by the time I returned, the teacher had switched to English. The advanced class was still taught in Swedish. At first, I felt a tiny bit disappointed to not hear another language, but then also thankful that I would understand what I was participating in.

Our lesson had 6 women and 2 men. Our teacher was a man too, so about half of the time, I could dance with a partner. The other half, I tried to follow along and remember my place in the dance line. For Greg, I think the experience was great. He was the more advanced of the male students and was able to meet each of the other 5 women.

Our teacher was from Africa with a native language of French. I can imagine that learning to teach in Swedish was quite a bit of effort on its own, much less switching to English at the last minute. He was a great teacher though and we both appreciated him accommodating us.

After the lesson, I was starving. The dance floor bar (which was in the basement) told me that the kitchen was closed. So I went to the bar upstairs to see if I might have more luck. I asked the bartender the same question and he asked the owner who then examined me closely. I flashed a big smile with a "please feed me" look and he agreed to make one more dish- for me. I had a great shrimp scampi and a mojito. While I ate, I talked to the bartender about random things, like the word for "fork" in English.

Eventually Greg and a nice woman from our class joined me at the bar. They were hungry too, but were told no. We sat and talked for a long time about all sorts of interesting topics, all sipping on mojitos. Our new friend guessed that I was German. The interesting thing about me traveling in Europe is that nobody is ever able to guess my nationality, even after talking to me. I will write a complete post on this topic later.

Our new friend shared all sorts of interesting cultural things with us. We learned which regions around Stockholm are known to be snobby and why. We learned about Swedish stereotypes toward the Norwegians and the Finnish. They are very similar to US stereotypes held by those in big cities about those from the country.

We learned about how hard it is to get an apartment here and how college students apply for dorm housing about two years before they go to college. In Stockholm, rent is held by the government at a reasonable level. In turn, there is little incentive to build new apartments. The result is that many people wait in line for an apartment for years before having the chance at one. The landlords are also able to be quite picky about who moves in and will often turn away renters for silly reasons. (This reminds me of the housing market in Malibu!)

We also learned about just how safe it is here and how a young women almost never feels in danger. This is of course a foreign idea to me.

Lastly, we learned about the process to get a drivers license here. It sounds incredibly time consuming, complicated, and expensive. They also use universal signs here that don't have words on them like "stop" or "yield" so drivers have to memorize all sorts of extra things.

Some may view my travel style to be a bit unusual, but my main interest in any country is learning about the local culture through its people and food. I'm much less interested in learning about a city only through its tourist destinations. Think of a tourist who learns about Memphis only by visiting Graceland. It's just not the same.

We are just about to head back into the city today. Who knows what we might find or who we might meet!

Cambridge and the Goblet of Fire

I had a really nice time touring Cambridge with Nick. The campus is old and beautiful. It's full of traditions that are hard to explain or to understand until you see them in person. Before visiting, I was told that it was just like Harry Potter. At the time, that seemed confusing and strange (and a bit of a cop out, honestly). Now it makes sense.

Nick lives in Darwin College. The college describes the community (sort of like a dorm) that he lives in. It doesn't describe the program that he's studying in. But these communities have libraries, bursars, chapels, and living areas.

Nick studies sustainability and we visited his office at the engineering building. We had the chance to meet and talk to many of his friends. They all have engineering backgrounds, but are from all over the world-- and are a wide variety of ages.

We had one meal in a giant dining halls with long tables. It looked just like Harry Potter. I learned about this special way of boating down the river called punting and saw the beautiful lawns that sit between the old buildings. We had lunch at a local pub where I tried bangers and mash. It was very tasty.

I also had the chance to wash my laundry in Nick's dorm. This was a huge relief to say the very least as my bag was full of many more dirty clothes than clean ones.

On my last night in Cambridge, we spent a few hours in another perk of Darwin College, the bar. It's called DarBar and on Monday night, they sell Beck's and Stella for one pound. It was a great chance to meet more of Nick's friends and see what life is really like for Cambridge students.

A number of people asked if I was in graduate school or if I would be going back soon. Even though I've already completed my formal education, an experience like this really makes you wonder...

On the last morning, Nick met me at my hostel for breakfast and then walked with me to the train station. I caught a train into a London airport. It required me to switch trains three times before arriving. I flew a budget airline that was operated by another airline that was also operated by another airline. Many passengers had a challenging time figuring out where in the airport to check in. Luckily, I found everything on the first try and since I got to the airport early, I took the time to eat lunch. I had a Tennessee burger (it had bacon and a side of barbecue sauce) and a little Ben & Jerry's to remind me of home.

I had a great trip to Cambridge. If anyone asks, I will now tell them it's like Harry Potter.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Child's play

Yesterday I left Cologne for Cambridge to visit my brother Nick. Steffi took me to the train station at around 11 AM. I took one train one stop and then switched trains. The second train took me directly into the Dusseldorf airport. We were in a bit of a hurry, so Steffi advised me to purchase my train ticket from the train company website. While on the first train, I did just that. It work perfectly and I received a little PDF of the ticket on my phone. When the train's ticket checker came by, I was ready with my eTicket. Unfortunately, the old guy was not pleased. He started yelling at me that these tickets must be "printed -- PRINTED --- PPPPRINNNTED." I just stared at him wondering what in the world he wanted me to do right now. Eventually, he just walked away. The funny thing is that each time I have traveled internationally lately, a random old German has lectured me extensively about something irrelevant.

When the train arrived at the airport, I made my way to the gate with just enough time to grab a sandwich and some Vitamin Water. The water was much more tasty than in the US. I wonder what's different in their recipe. To board the flight, we walked out on the Tarmac (where it was snowing). This seems to be a theme in Europe. They are a big fan of boarding the plane from the outside. It certainly feels very exciting. Luckily, that was the only excitement. Not only did Air Berlin have better take offs and landings, they weren't selling scratch off lottery tickets or cigarettes. When I exited the plane, the very nice flight attendant handed me two chocolate Air Berlin hearts.

Just before exiting the plane, I checked into the London airport (Stansted I think) on Foursquare. Foursquare had lots of tips from frustrated travelers who were frustrated about the immigration process at this airport. I assumed it must have been random and headed into the airport. The line at immigration was very long with only a two workers processing non-EU citizens.

When I finally got got to the front of the line, the woman who processing people seemed immediately unhappy. She had already kicked two people out of line before me... something I've never actually seen before. I hoped it would go well. This is how our conversation really went:
Immigration: You didn't fill out your occupation.
Me: Oh, I'm so sorry! I didn't see that field.
Immigration: If you would read the form, you would see it.
Me: I'm so sorry. I must be overlooking that field. Can you point to it?
Immigration: Read the form.
(I scrambled to find the blank field and scrawled in the word "Marketing" and handed it back to the agent.)
Immigration: How long will you be here?
Me: Two days.
Immigration: Why are you here?
Me: To visit my brother.
Immigration: Why is your brother here?
Me: He's in graduate school.
Immigration: So, you are returning to the US in two days? (Said in the voice that showed she definitely thought I should be going back ASAP).
Me: No, then I'm going to another country (Let's call it Country A - I will save the name for later so as to not spoil the surprise for my readers).
Immigration: Why are you going there?
Me: To visit a friend.
Immigration: And then are you going BACK TO THE US?'
Me: No, then I'm going to another country (I'll also save this name).
Immigration: (In a skeptical voice) Do you already have a plane ticket for this?
Me: Yes.
Immigration: I'm going to need to see it.
Me: Well, I don't have it printed, but I can show you my itinerary.
Immigration: (looking at the itinerary on my cell phone) This ticket isn't leaving from Country A. What's going on?
Me: I'm also going to another country.
Immigration: Fine, you can come in.

Whew... That was the longest conversation I have ever had with immigration. There must really be a giant flow of young American women trying to sneak into the UK from Germany. :-) We are a dangerous bunch with our Burberry jeans and Lululemon hoodies. Oh, and apparently Foursquare knows everything...

Unfortunately, my extended chat with the immigration agent caused me to miss my train to Cambridge. I caught the next one an hour later. Sitting on the train next to me was a tall, young guy from Holland. He was also going to Cambridge. When I asked what was taking him to Cambridge, he immediately (and with no hesitation) said, "I just failed out of my own college. I was partying all the time trying to make new friends in a new place. But it back fired and I failed. I'm now going to Cambridge to take an English class. I want to be able to put something on my résumé for this year besides working at McDonald's." I wondered what the poor guy's parents must think and how in the world he could spill such information to a stranger.

From the train station, I took a taxi to Nick's dorm. The lives in what I would simplify down as a dorm, but is actually called Darwin College. It's a very interesting old place that overlooks a little river. We took a long walk around to check out Cambridge and eventually met up with two of his OSU friends for dinner.

After dinner, I took a cab to my hostel. I walked up to the counter and spoke to a gruff woman in her early 40s. She seemed very unhappy or something... Something negative. She drilled off information about the hostel. I attempted to casually ask two questions, one being the time of breakfast.
Me: What time is breakfast served?
Hostel: Don't ask me this. It's not time yet. I will give you this information when it's time. Just wait.
(The hostel worker gives a long sigh)
Hostel: So, let me tell you about breakfast. It is served from 7:30 am to 9:30 am.
Then as she wrapped up my checkin, she asked about my room.
Hostel: So, you are staying in a double room. By yourself. Is that correct?
Me: Yes.
Hostel: Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
Hostel: Are you sure it's just you?
Me: Yes.
Hostel: So nobody else is going to visit you?
Me: No.
Hostel: Well, if anyone visits you,you will have to check them in at the front desk. They cannot just go into your room. They must be checked in.

I definitely had my fill of strange people for one day. Time to sleep.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Small world

Today was my second day in Cologne. I slept in late and when I woke up, Steffi and her roommate were making an awesome German breakfast. This means there were different kinds of bread, boiled eggs, and toppings. The toppings ranged from cheese to jelly to meats. The idea is to mix and match things with the breads.

In the middle of the day, Steffi and I rode the train to visit the cathedral in the city and walk along the river. Afterward, we went in search of hot chocolate and out of nowhere, we bumped into Steffi's parents. What a nice surprise! Steffi grew up here and has never just bumped into them before.

This evening, I went to the grocery store to pick up a few items that we don't have in the US. Being a foodie, one of my favorite activities in a foreign country is an extensive grocery store trip. I love to see different fruits, candies, and especially different chip flavors. I'm eating a newly acquired package of Haribo candy as I type this.

In preparation for another big day ahead, I'm taking it easy tonight.

Planes, trains, and automobiles

After my exciting adventures in Dublin, I was off to visit friends in Germany. I booked a flight from Dublin to this tiny airport called Maastricht from there. I knew I'd be taking a bus and three trains to Cologne (Koln) where my friend Antje would pick me up by car. Throughout the day, I often felt like Mr. Bean because I only had 3 hours of sleep the night before.

I flew with a budget airline called Ryan Air. I had heard it was a strange airline, but experiencing it was much more odd than I anticipated. First, we had to board the plane by walking out onto the Tarmac. The plane boards like a cattle call where you can sit anywhere unless you pay a fee (they're big on fees) for an assigned seat. Luckily, I had an assigned seat in the front row. Unluckily, it was covered it water from rain blowing in the door.

When we took off, it became clear that the flight staff felt very proud to have their jobs. Not that I blame them, but you would think they would be more proud of a different airline. Once airborne, they started selling all kinds of food. Their carts looked like someone had dumped out a vending machine on them. In addition, they were selling cigarettes and SCRATCH OFF LOTTERY TICKETS. No joke. The plane's landing was no less surprising when we hit the ground with a huge thud. I heard other passengers saying that Ryan Air always has these landings and they've just had to learn to cope with them.

When I got into the airport, the challenge to get to Cologne started. While I was waiting for my luggage, I fired up Foursquare to check in. A message popped up, "Congats! You haven't been to The Netherlands in two years." My first thought was that Foursquare must have been broken. My total airport commute would be two hours to Cologne. How could I be in The Netherlands? I was looking around for clues. Everything was finally confirmed when I saw the wooden Dutch shoes in the airport gift store. I really was in The Netherlands and wow, I was REALLY tired.

Despite my fatigue, I made the bus and the three trains on time with no issues. At the bus stop, a college student asked me if I was also on spring break. This may end up being the highlight of the trip.

My friend Antje picked me up at the train station. We drove to her new house were I was able to visit her husband Thomas and their new baby, Emma. Everything was great. Emma is so sweet. Meeting me was her first English lesson. Thomas made us some tasty German waffles and cherries, and we talked for a few hours. Their new house (that is really nice) was built just a few months ago. It's a special kind of house that was completed in one week or less. After the first day, they were given the keys to the house. Talk about good German engineering!

After a nice German dinner complete with breads, cheeses, and meats, Antje drove me to my friend Steffi's apartment in Cologne. I know Steffi from Memphis where she was an intern at FedEx a few years ago. Steffi had just completed her school's final exams earlier in the day. As a result, a big group of her friends were going out to celebrate. We went to a huuuge bar that is built in an old factory or warehouse space. It's probably the largest bar (and most crowded) that I've ever seen in my life. It was also an experience to see so many young people. In Germany, you can legally start drinking at 16 (although i think the club was 18+). I had a great time meeting Steffi's friends, trying the local beer, and dancing the night away.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Goodbye Dublin

My last day in Dublin was nothing short of eventful. It included a few pubs, fish and chips, and sushi. But, I wanted to do something a little different. At first I thought of going to salsa again... But I ended up at another place, the Laughter Lounge.

The Laughter Lounge is one of Dublin's best comedy venues. It reminds me a lot of the standup places in LA. There was a famous comic from the UK performing and then about 5 other local comics.

I sat on the side, somewhat visible to stage, but not right up front. Most everyone at the event was local (something I find very interesting to experience). When the tables started to fill up, two nice guys asked if they could sit at my extra chairs.

When the show started, it immediately became clear that there's a lot of audience "participation" in the show. The emcee would tease various audience members relentlessly (but in a funny light hearted way). At one point, he asked if there were any foreigners in the audience. One woman in the back raised her hand, Katia. Thank goodness I hadn't been outed. The emcee went on to discuss how charming Irishmen try to be and how often foreign women fall for it.

I felt like I had dodged a big bullet until the two men at my table were coming back from a smoke break outside. Without thinking about it, the two walked right in front of the emcee while he was doing a bit. It was clearly an easier path than wading through the 300 people in the audience, but the emcee was very offended. Suddenly, we were no longer safe from the lime light.

First, he insulted the poor guys. I would explain this in more detail, but its a bit much strong language for my blog. Anyway, then he asked my name. Despite giving my first name (and nothing more) he noticed my accent. He asked where I'm traveling from. I told him from the US and that I live in Memphis. He was very impressed that I live in someplace a little different than the typical big cities such as New York.

Then he asked which of the two guys I have the misfortune of "dating." When I replied "neither," he asked how I know them. I said that they just sat at my table and I just met them. This set him off on another tirade about the two guys being huge jerks. (They were actually really sweet.)

He started to tell me not to let their Irish charm fool me. He said its only because I'm foreign and that they each have STDs and then he predicted which disease each one has.

He then asked why I was in Ireland-- for work or travel. I said travel and he expressed relief that I'm not stealing jobs from Europeans. Then he asked what I do. He was very impressed with Internet marketing and asked what industry I work in. When I said banking, he brought up Ireland's negative relationship with banks. He joked that it's like I kill unicorns... The last baby unicorn in fact... And that I eat it for dinner.

Keep in mind that this was in front of about 300 people. I don't know how well it comes across in my writing, but it was really hilarious. I enjoyed every minute and am so happy to share. I'm not sure however if the poor guys at my table would agree. He relentlessly teased them all night and even got another audience member to smack one of them on the head. Poor guys!

I found a video of the comedian, Keith Farnan, here:

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Getting with the program

The past few days have been great, but I've been a bit off time wise. One thing I've learned for sure here is that you must eat on time if you want good food. Otherwise, you may be stuck with something less desirable. Many pubs only serve food during specific hours. This has been a bit confusing to me. Also, most shops here close at 6 PM. I tried to go into a dressing room at a store here and was told simply that the dressing room was closed (in my mind it was just out of order). As I started to look for an alternate dressing room, the annoyed clerk explained that the store was closing. It definitely makes me feel spoiled in Memphis, where I can get lunch at 3 PM and shop until 9 PM.

Despite a few hiccups related to timing, yesterday was a very fun day. I started off by going to take the Jameson whiskey distillery tour. It was interesting in that there was a live person explaining the distilling process. I was a bit disappointed though. Of the 40 or so people on my tour, the guide only picked 8 people to do a full tasting. Being from Tennessee, it seemed certain that i should be selected for this task. The volunteers were able to compare Jameson to Jack Daniels to Johnny Walker (while the rest of us ogled at them). At the end, the 8 participants received a diploma on being trained whiskey tasters. The whole thing was such a cool concept, but I think they should really rethink the 8 part. Everyone should get a tasting. If you come to Dublin and can go only with Jameson or Guinness, do the Guinness tour. Everyone gets to try everything there.

After the tour, I took a long walk. I stopped by Kavanegh's pub in search of food. I sat at the bar for a long while without being served. While I was waiting, I read through the tips on Foursquare and found that only men were supposed to be sitting at the bar at this old fashioned place. Eventually, someone came to tell me that they were no longer serving food. With that, I headed around the corner to a sandwich shop / cafe called The Mad Hatter.

After lunch, I checked out the Celtic Whiskey Shop. I was so impressed at the huge volume of different whiskeys they have there. There's even a big representation from Tennessee and Kentucky. They also had wines from all over the world. The only surprise was that they had no wine from California or anywhere in the US.

I also passed by a number of chocolate shops and candy shops. People really seem to love their sweets here. Below is another hot chocolate from today and an unusual drink I saw in a candy store. I made a quick stop at some point for a Guinness at the original Temple Bar. They had a live band that was playing Irish music-- until they switched to Johnny Cash. It never fails that I can hear music that sounds like home wherever I go.

For dinner, I went to an amazing fried chicken place called CrackBIRD. Apparently, the place started as a pop up restaurant, and has now bloomed into the real deal. I had chicken tenders and these little fried potatoes with a dip made with creamed feta. One of the things I've really loved about Ireland is their use of cheeses.

After dinner, I attended a salsa lesson put on by Salsa Dublin. It was a fairly large event with multiple levels of classes. It was all locals, but interestingly they were from all different countries. It reminded me a lot of the international crowd in Memphis (in fact a lot of things about Dublin have reminded me of Memphis). The class was fun and I had the chance to meet a few new friendly people.

I'm going to head out soon in search of a real Irish breakfast. Hopefully, I will finally be with the program today. I'm hungry.