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Musings

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On Being Able to Read and Communicate

MenuAfter spending a couple of months in non-English speaking countries, there’s something oddly comforting about removing that struggle.

Can I just say how amazing it is to be able to read a menu?  Because it’s amazing.  And being able to ask for stuff without having to worry about being understood?  The best.

Not that it’s all that difficult to get around as an English speaker in Europe; a surprising number of people speak at least a little bit of English.  This varies from country to country — in Italy, it can be a bit of a challenge outside of the touristy areas, but in places like Austria and Sweden, practically everyone speaks English.

Still, you can never assume that someone can speak English, and whether or not you’ll be understood is always a question mark.

It took a few days to wrap my head around the fact that I didn’t have to worry about that anymore.  In my first couple of days here, there’d be times where I wanted to order something, and I’d think “Oh man, how am I going to ask for it, though?”  Then I’d remember: I can just use my words.  And they’ll understand them.  Delightful.

Stockholm is not Cheap

Stockholm, SwedenI’m glad I’m only here for a few days, because this city will straight-up bankrupt me. Everything is so expensive here, it’s nuts. Most things seem to cost two or three times more than you’d think they would.

Want to ride the subway? That’ll cost $6.50 Canadian. For one ticket. A candy bar will run you two or three bucks. A regular movie ticket (i.e. not 3D or IMAX)? Twenty dollars.

They have an Abba museum here, and I thought, hey, that might be fun. I’m not a huge Abba fan, but why not?

I’ll tell you why not: a ticket costs 40 dollars.

They take credit cards here more than anywhere else I’ve been in Europe.  In fact, I went to a couple of places that were credit/debit only — no cash.  And I can see why!  If they paid cash for everything, they’d have to carry around fat stacks of bills like an extra in a rap video.

Is everyone a millionaire here??

On Grayness and Strudel Pipes

BerlinI mentioned how, in places like Rome and Vienna, it’s such a joy to walk around the city because of all of the beautiful old architecture everywhere you look.

Yeah, that’s not so much the case in Berlin.

Berlin

Not that it’s entirely lacking in eye-catching architecture, but mostly it’s just drab gray buildings everywhere you look.  Which is understandable, considering that the bulk of the city had to be rebuilt after the destruction of World War II.

Thanks a lot, Hitler.

Berlin

But of course, that assessment is unfair to Berlin — it certainly has a personality of its own, it just lacks the old-world charm of some of the other big European capitals.

Strudel pipes

There are also these bright blue pipes running all over the city, and every time I see them I chuckle; there’s a great bit in Patton Oswalt’s standup special Tragedy Plus Comedy Equals Time where he jokes that those pipes contain strudel filling.  I won’t spoil where that joke goes — you should just listen to it if you haven’t.

A Couple of Thoughts on Austria

Public transitThought Number One: After the bewildering nightmare of trying to get anywhere via bus or subway in Italy, taking public transit here is an absolute pleasure.  Everything is clearly labeled, there are maps everywhere, and when you’re on the bus, all of the stops are spelled out and called out, so it’s always absolutely clear where you are. It’s pretty much the polar opposite of Italy, and it’s amazing.

(And this is somewhat unrelated, but there’s litter everywhere in Italy.  Things are so much cleaner here.  So that’s nice too.)

Patience

Thought Number Two: No one jaywalks here.  Everywhere I’ve been in Europe so far (and especially in Italy), people really don’t care whether the little crosswalk guy says to go or to stop.  If there aren’t any cars coming (and, sometimes, even if there are) people just go for it.  Here, on the other hand, everyone waits very patiently, even if the roads are completely deserted.

The Romans are not Messing Around

SoldierIn what I have to assume is fallout from all of the terrorist shenanigans in Europe over the last few years, there are soldiers pretty much everywhere in Rome.

If you go anywhere that’s even vaguely touristy, you’ll find a military vehicle parked nearby and a couple of soldiers (sometimes more) standing guard, prominently holding very imposing-looking assault rifles. You’ll also find these guys at various subway stations.

The entire stretch of road next to the Colosseum is completely closed off to cars (other than police cars), with roadblocks on either side manned by gun-toting soldiers. It’s a scene you’d expect to see somewhere like Iraq or Syria, not in the middle of Europe. It’s a little bizarre.

Also: you don’t want to photograph these guys. I sort of figured as much as much, but this was confirmed when I saw a kid (he couldn’t have been much older than ten) snap a picture of one of the soldiers.  The guy literally stopped the kid and his mother and made them delete the photo while he watched.

A Couple of Thoughts on Naples

So confusingThought Number One: I take back everything I said about the Madrid metro being overly confusing; at least I could eventually figure out where I was going if I stared at the map long enough. Trying to navigate the train/subway system in Naples is a true test of your mettle.

Seriously, why is this so confusing?

Between the lack of maps at most stations to help you get oriented, the stations and lines that are outright closed with no particular warning, the complete absence of anyone you can ask questions, and general sense of disorganization everywhere you go (I even saw locals looking confused a few times), it’s bad. I’ve never had this much trouble getting around such a big city. The whole system feels like it’s expressly designed to confound.

Kinda sketchy

Thought Number Two: I like Naples so far, but boy is it rough around the edges.  Setting aside the comically terrible transit system, everything outside of the really upscale/touristy areas are in various states of disrepair.  It gives the place a bunch of character, and I haven’t really felt unsafe walking around anywhere, but so much of the city makes me feel like I’m in a Death Wish movie.

Yep, sketchy

Everything is (comparatively) slick and clean if you’re in the aforementioned upscale/touristy areas, but if you wander even a little bit off the beaten path, you’re suddenly back in 1970s New York.

On Zaragoza

MuseumNote: Thanks to a bunch of terrorist douchebags, the chronology of this blog is a bit messed up. This and the next few posts were actually written before that whole fiasco, which is why this is written as though I’m still in Zaragoza.

I wound up in Zaragoza pretty much at random; the initial plan was to go to San Sebastian between Madrid and Barcelona.  It turns out I’m a cheapo and can’t afford San Sebastian, so plan B it is: spending a few nights in Zaragoza, a medium-sized city about halfway between Madrid and Barcelona.

It’s not exactly the first place place you think of when you visit Spain (I hadn’t even heard of it until recently), but I’m actually quite enjoying my time here.

There’s a quiet to it that I find immensely appealing after the teeming hordes of Madrid.  It’s endearingly unflashy; unlike Madrid, which is just wall-to-wall tourists wherever you go, it feels like a place where real people live.

And yet it’s not without its more touristy pleasures. Statues? Yeah, it’s got statues.

Statue in Zaragoza, Spain

Old churches? And how.

Church in Zaragoza, Spain

Museums? Several.

Museum in Zaragoza, Spain

It’s very easy to head straight for the more well-known hotspots like Madrid and Barcelona, but I think there’s something to be said for going to a city like Zaragoza. It’s not as exciting, but you get a much better sense of how the locals actually live.

The Worst Kind of Twist Ending

At the moviesSince I began my travels, I’ve gone to a few movies. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you traveled halfway around the world just to go to the movies?? Well:

  1. Going to the movies is a huge part of my life. Always has been, always will be.
  2. When you’re walking around all day in the heat, there comes a point — usually around 3:00 or 4:00 — when you just wanna sit down in an air conditioned room for a couple of hours.
  3. Don’t judge the way I live my life, man.

I noticed that Wish Upon was playing here in Madrid (for the unaware, Wish Upon is a cheesy horror movie that kinda flopped in the States and didn’t even bother to come out in Canada). Being a fan of cheesy horror movies, I got more excited about this than I should probably admit.

The theatre where it was playing turned out to be on the outskirts of Madrid, so getting there was a bit of a challenge — it involved multiple transfers on the subway.

So confusing

An aside: trying to navigate the Madrid subway system is a baffling ordeal. Being from Toronto (which has, what? Two subway lines? Three?) my brain can hardly even comprehend the Madrid metro’s labyrinthine, multicolored spiderweb of about a dozen overlapping lines. It’s nuts.

So I’m at the movies, the trailers start, and I immediately notice that the English has been dubbed over in Spanish. “Huh,” I think to myself. “That can’t be good.”

And no, it was not good.  I just came from Portugal, where almost all English-language films (with the exception of cartoons) are presented in their original language and subtitled in Portuguese. I sort of figured I was in for the same deal here.

It turns out Portugal is the outlier in this situation; apparently the majority of Europe plays dubbed movies.  So that’s just delightful, obviously.  Thankfully, it is still possible to see undubbed movies — they’re just not as common.

Wait, What Country are we in?

On a bus to MadridThanks to something called the Schengen Agreement, most of Europe is essentially like one big country for travel purposes.  Completely open borders.

Of course, it’s one thing to know that theoretically, and it’s another to be sitting on a bus and realize that you crossed over into an all new country and didn’t even realize.  Because that’s exactly what happened to me recently — I was riding on a bus from Porto to Madrid (a punishingly long nine hour bus ride), and I was expecting some kind of cursory border check.  Anything at all.  But nope.

It’s super bizarre to be travelling to another country and crossing the border is essentially like traveling to another province in Canada, or to another state in the US.  No passport check, nothing.  I’m sure there was some kind of “welcome to Spain” sign, but I guess I missed it.

Porto Subway Oddities

SubwaySo here’s a weird thing about the subway system here in Porto: it seems to be run on the honour system.  There are no gates anywhere; there are machines to load up your swipe card with the fare for a ride, and there’s these little card scanners around each station that (I think) you’re supposed to swipe before you get on a train and when you transfer, but that’s it.  I’ve never actually seen anyone confirming that passengers have paid their fare. It’s weird.

I’m constantly paranoid that some gruff, no-nonsense ticket-checker is going to scan my card and it’ll turn out I did it completely wrong. I’ll try to explain that I paid a fare, but of course the guy speaks no English. I’m not entirely sure how this would end for me, but not well I’m sure.

Scanner

The other oddity is that, in a lot of stations, there are multiple lines that converge, and often the trains from the different lines will all arrive at the same platform. So you have to be careful about which train you’re getting on (even if you’re at the right spot!) or you’ll end up in the wrong place.

I mean, come on. That one seems designed solely to screw with tourists.  Of course I wound up on the wrong train at one point. How could I not? (By paying attention, you’re probably thinking. Shut up, you.)

On the plus side: phones get a rock-solid signal, even when the trains go underground, so that’s nice.