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Dave's Mostly Tinkering, Occasionally Reporting

Back To The Web

June 12, 2013 · 1 minute read

Yes, I’ve decided to write again!

Not that I have an audience yearning to hear back from me, or that I am any good at it. But I have time on my hands (sort of). And what better to do with that time than to ramble online with indelible digital prose. And for similar reasons, I’m hopeful a few other souls out there will have more time on their hands than they know what to do with, thus inadvertently stumbling on and occasionally lingering here long enough to create an illusion of readership.

Mostly Tinkering, Occasionally Reporting

As has often been the case, I will continue Tinkering on daily basis. However, as of now, I will use this platform to start Reporting on some of my personal experiments and thoughts on a variety of topics some of you have come to know me for (and on occasion avoid me for), such as health, fitness and movement, behavioral psychology, and other random and occasionally philosophical musings.

Anything is debatable.

“Why the Gear? A meaningful yet minimal symbol of Tinkering, in my opinion.”

Of course, I’d love for you to pitch in early and often. This is a collaborative experiment, like almost everything in life. I do expect this blog to evolve rapidly. This is your opportunity to shape it.

And with that brief introduction, let’s kick it off.

Unlearning, relearning. (a.k.a Epilogue)

July 31, 2011 · 3 minutes read

I had no plans of writing an epilogue, but after letting my thoughts ferment in my head for a while, a few ideas stood out and I decided I would share them. There must be something to take away from this trip after all. It will be brief.

Minimalism
It’s unbelievable how much stuff we accumulate over the years. I especially realized this a few days prior to leaving for my trip as I vacated my apartment in Montreal (I am moving to Toronto in case you were not aware).  I decided to donate or throw 80% of what I owned, and was left with 2 small boxes of “stuff”. The bigger realization came after my trip; I had travelled for a month and lived off less than 9kgs of belongings (including the backpack, the iPad, and the super thick guidebook). I could have continued for another month or even a whole year with that same backpack. Maybe we grow accustomed to all the junk, then fool ourselves into thinking it’s essential.

Randomness
In a world where we have to constantly set goals, 5yr plans, organize our days efficiently so as to not waste precious minutes, etc. It’s obvious that we are missing out an element of randomness. But it may not be as apparent as you go through your daily routine. At least, it wasn’t for me. Over the course of my trip, it’s now obvious that I enjoyed myself several times more during unexpected events than I did during the ones I had previously planned. It would be a little stupid to say that I should plan on including more randomness in my life. Instead, maybe we’re better off avoiding micromanagement and leaving some moments free of any plans or expectations.

(dis-)Comfort
Comfort is amazing. It feels so good. I’m talking about the state of mind rather than the physical sensation. As expected, I didn’t have much of it during my trip. Anytime I would start feeling comfortable in a city (generally by day 3) I’d have to pack my bags and start all over again in the next city. It turns out this is not so bad. Yes, it’s true that I was discovering beautiful Europe, but I had no home, no friends, and no bearing points nonetheless. And I think that it is this discomfort that pushed me to do stuff I would have never had the insight / courage / openness (or other appropriate noun) to do had I been in the comfort of my home city. We are very adaptable. Maybe being outside of our comfort zone pushes us to act faster, learn faster, grow faster.

The Nomadic Life
This one is just awesome. Every three days, changing cities, changing beds, changing environments, changing people, etc. Definitely no time to get bored. If only life could go on at such a pace. Not much to say other than this was way more fun and exciting than anticipated. Just arriving in a new place would get me all excited about all the opportunities to come.

People
I encountered all types of people during my trip. Towards the end, I was always eager to start conversations with all strangers who were open to it. Maybe, it would become another several hours long intense chat that leads to a friend, a lover, a business opportunity; or maybe I’d have to find another creative way to gently express my epic boredom, and then smoothly run away as far as I could. But I’d give a hundred experiences of the latter for a single one of the former. And you’d be surprised how easy it is to start a conversation. No need to think too much about it and analyze it, just go! Quoting Forrest Gump and his mom, meeting people (and, of course, “life”) is like a box of chocolate. Assuming chocolates’s appeal is universal, maybe it’s best to dig into that box and pick as many chocolate pieces as we can.*

* Please, this is a metaphor about “meeting strangers”! Don’t go gorging yourself with chocolates because I said so.


This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here

Final Stop… for now. Seville!

July 3, 2011 · 5 minutes read

And just like that, I arrive in Seville, my last stop before the end of my eurotrip. I get a good feel about this city. It’s relatively big, but far from being as touristy as Barcelona or Madrid. Most of the tourists are Spanish, so it’s definitely more authentic. And everything is so badly indicated it’s great! The same streets can have several names (some up to 5), which means maps are useless. And all the must-see monuments are tucked away in small paved corridors. They don’t stick out like a sore thumb like in other major cities. So going to find these spots was similar to a scavenger hunt; you have to search for clues on the streets, get hints from locals, and use orienteering skills on a map that looks more like a 1 year old’s drawings.

On my way to Seville, I approached both bartenders in the train’s cafeteria in the hopes of getting some recommendations about things to do and eat. I get a map drawn on a paper tissue and seven names of foods, with a very brief description consisting of the sentence “this is very typical food you must try” repeated several times and a few English words like “chicken”, “seafood”, and “fried”. But I had no clue which was which, the only way I would find out was by ordering it. And that’s precisely what I did. In the next two days, I scouted for typical tapas bars and ordered all seven plates not knowing what to expect. I ended up eating deep fried ground chicken, gambas, deep fried fish and calamari, lamb cooked with whisky, jamón Iberico (special Spanish ham), and the most unexpected, a bowl of small snails. I was pretty hungry prior to ordering Caracoles, but I quickly lost my appetite once the waiter placed the bowl in front of me, shouting its name proudly, as if surprised I had ordered it! But I wasn’t going to back away. There were maybe 200 small snails in that bowl, and I could have described them as cute if I weren’t going to eat them. Having antennas, two small eyes and a mouth, and anti-sliding high-tech material on their sole definitely didn’t not make them appetizing (although it did make them look “cute”). One by one, I would pinch them, extract them from their shell, then chew on them. It didn’t taste like much – at first. It did have a weird light aftertaste though.

All throughout the trip, I got a good number of warnings regarding the weather. My train registered an outside temperature of 42 deg C in the shade late in the afternoon, and the expression I heard the most – by far – during my stay was “mucho calor”! (very hot) I would keep on sweating even through the night! By day two, I was so exhausted from the heat that I would end up visiting air-conditioned coffee shops more often than memorable monuments! Nevertheless, I really enjoyed my time here. An old man I quickly ran into one night, said it best. He was Maltese but had moved to Seville 27 years ago and managed to speak Spanish, Italian, Arabic, and German in the span of 3 minutes. He said he loved Seville’s charm, its laid-back culture, and the friendly atmosphere that ran here.

Two words are enough to describe Seville’s laid back culture. They are almost sacred around here. SietaMañana (NapTomorrow). The first, because the city falls asleep between 2pm and 6pm. It’s too hot to do anything anyway. The second, because that is the best answer to anything. A problem needs to be solved? Mañana. Work needs to be completed? Mañana. No wonder they were one of the last cities to break free from the Muslim’s rule, they must have procrastinated their way out of it.

Seville

Peeking at Plaza España

I managed to visit several impressive monuments during the two days, such as the Réal Alcázar, the cathedral and Giralda, Torre del Oro, and the Plaza España. But what I enjoyed the most was Palacio Lebrija, countess Lebrija’s personal palace. You wouldn’t even notice it if you walked in front of it but it’s interiors are beautiful. This relatively small palace, tucked away in Seville’s winding streets, houses architecture and art from so many places and times it’s enchanting. You’ll find Roman 3rd Century, Portuguese and African 17th Century, Philippines and Mexican 18th Century, and Spanish, Japanese, and Chinese 19th century works as well as many others. Casa Pilatos’ multi-color Muslim mosaics were also a beautiful feast for the eyes.

Seville

Muslim Rainbow

On my last night here, I opted for a last minute concert. This one took place outside in the gardens of the Réal Alcázar fortress. It was a mix of Spanish and classical music. Before the concert, as I ate a snack on my own, I was approached by three young locals asking me if I wanted to sit with them (they would turn out to be Italians and brazilians studying in Seville). I’m not sure which part of an exhausted, unshaven, and sweaty man motivated them to invite me over, but I found it to be very generous of them. Unsurprisingly, they turned out to be great people and I had lots of fun spending the night with them in a local bar. I am certainly going to miss all these random encounters.

Seville

Devil’s window, can you guess why?

Here’s a small interlude on the details of my flight out of Seville, towards London to catch a flight back to Lebanon:

“RyanAir, Fly Cheaper!”
The airline I chose to fly with. They’re definitely missing the asterisk (Fly Cheaper!*) that should say: “only at first glance” or “please be advised, this is an optical illusion”. You can certainly find cheap flights, but by the time you board the plane you will have been charged for all sorts of extra fees, taxes, and surpluses, most of which are mandatory but not included in the initial price, precisely for that unique optical illusion effect they strive for. e.g. Fee for check-in, for checked baggages, for payment, for more than one bag (“Is that a wallet in your pocket? I’m sorry sir, that is an extra piece of luggage, we’ll have to charge you!”)*, etc. They might as well charge a fee for showing up, since they’re so keen on making you feel unwanted!

* Dramatization.

Enough ranting! It must be that I’m sad about ending my eurotrip. I would cry, but I’m so dehydrated from my stay in Seville that I’ve got no more liquids to dispense**. Somehow, it feels like I have been vagabonding in Europe for ever, but, at the same time, not for long enough. As I write this, I am sitting on the terrace of my Lebanese home, overlooking the horizon and a beautiful sunset. All these cities I’ve blogged about already seem so far away. One month was definitely too short. Next time I do this (because there will be a next time), it will certainly be for several months – at least. This will give me the time to chill longer in each city as well as visit more places. In the meantime, I’ll have to take care of a few minor things such as starting my first job, moving to another city, etc.

Seville

Sunset over Seville

** Dramatization. Again. As you can see, I’m trying to set a dramatic tone to my last post.

See you all sometime soon(-ish)…


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Ditch Your Friends & Head Over to San Sebastian!

July 1, 2011 · 3 minutes read

Unbelievable as it may sound, I finally made it to San Sebastian in once piece and with all my stuff. I had initially planned to stay here for less than a day then move on to Madrid. But since I was running out of time, and I didn’t think 1.5 days in Madrid would be enough to do anything worthwhile, I just decided to chill out in San Sebastian instead. I had a good time, but did not do any major activities or visits. So expect this post to be short.

It was sweltering outside. I had my backpack and daypack on me, one on each side, walking the streets looking for a hostel. I walked into a penśion that turned out to be full. But they are happy to refer me to another neighboring pension. This next one is also full, and finally refers me to a spot with a vacant bed. And this is how I am initially acquainted with the friendliness that runs in San Sebastian, the first of many such experiences. As soon as I get my room, I take off my clothes, put on my swimsuit, run to the beach, then jump in the fresh water! What a great relief! Then, I just hang out on the beach for a while until it’s time to eat. At which point I head to a seafood restaurant, my plan being to gorge myself with as much seafood as I can! Over the next 2 days, I will eat every meal in a seafood restaurant, and will have fish, shellfish, fish soup, calamari, and fish cake (I’m kidding about the last one). The calamari was prepared in “ink” (a thick black sauce); and since almost everyone spoke only Spanish or Basque I was never able to figure out what the was. Real octopus ink? I can’t think of any seasoning or food that is pure black.

San Sebastian

The beach getting deserted at 7pm

Even though very few people spoke a language I understood, I was still able to meet and befriend many locals, a testament to this friendly city. I spent an evening with a fisherman on the port that was hoping to catch a big prize (unsuccessfully). With very basic expressions, he was able to convey to me his discontent with how “things are turning out” in the fishing industry: pollution, over-fishing, monopoly of big corporations, etc. He also referred to how many of these issues never exited in the “good old days” . Cliche indeed, but true nonetheless*. I also had a long chat with the pension owner about people’s avoidance of the unknown or the uncertain (e.g. The need to plan a trip in detail). During the day, I was also approached by a stranger asking if I needed help after noticing me walking the same street three times. I was offered a free coffee when I had no cash on me and the coffee shop did not accept credit cards. I was given a public transit pass by a stranger having noticed I was struggling to buy one (my credit card was refused). I had a fun evening with a waitress who spoke only Spanish as we tried to communicate in different ways, sometimes with funny outcomes. And more… All these random encounters make solo traveling such a special experience!

* Talking about the old man, not his complaints. I’d rather not venture into political territory.

The next day, after a good night’s sleep (the first in a few days), I start my day at the aquarium. Hitting the beach before 3-4pm on such a hot day is lethal; you may die of dehydration, heat exhaustion, and skin cancer all at the same time. The aquarium was lots of fun, especially the part where you get to see a shark up close and personal. I’m adding diving with sharks to my bucket list for some other trip. In the afternoon, I sat down in a park overlooking the beach and the horizon to write**. At dinner, I meet two artists, a Dutch and a Quebecois, traveling across Europe combining pleasure and work to make the best of it. I spend the rest of this pleasant night with them.

San Sebastian

I found Nemo!

** This stuff doesn’t just appear from thin air on the net, there’s hard work and sweat that goes into it! 

This quickly sums up my stay in San Sebastian. It was not very eventful, but the people I met made it very worthwhile. The next, and final stop, is Seville. I can’t believe I am approaching the end. This whole month flew by so quickly. Even though I am looking forward to heading back to Lebanon and getting some downtime, I want to keep on vagabonding! Anyway, let’s keep these reflections until after my trip. I’ll have more than enough time to dwell on the “what if’s”.

Hasta Luego!


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Driving Me Crazy!

June 28, 2011 · 7 minutes read

What a trip it turned out to be! I got more than I expected from the Pyrénées. The past two days have been just a little crazier than anticipated. If I were to summarize it: I (re)learned to drive even though I’ve been driving for 5 years, I had to improvise a place to sleep, and I had to play catch-up with my backpack. here’s the long form if that doesn’t make any sense:

On my train over to Toulouse, I was fortunate to have the company of a Costa Rican couple and an Australian girl; all three of them on a  eurotrip. Meeting random people on my way to random places makes the rides much more interesting. Prior to starting this trip, I had planned to use this downtime to read more. I guess that will have to wait a little longer. Once I arrive in Toulouse, my first priority was to figure out what the hell I was going to do here (in the Pyrénées regions to be precise). I head to the tourism office, take 2 maps, 3 guidebooks, and connect to the internet. I then spend the next hour looking at all possible itineraries trying to find exciting things to do. This is what I come up with: on day 1, rent a car from Toulouse, then drive to the Pyrénées Ariegoise passing through several small French villages highlighted as “plus beaux villages de France” (most beautiful villages of France), then find a cheap place to sleep in one of them. On day 2, head to the other side of the mountains, towards Orlu, and hike in the nature reserve where protected species are located. This way I’ll get to drive across beautiful winding roads (as I had previously dreamed of doing), enjoy the outdoors and the big mountains, see some rare creatures, and experience the life of villagers.

Now that you have the “plan”, let’s talk reality! First off, I need to get a car. At the train station I find 5 car renting companies, and luckily all except one are completely sold out, the last one having only one car left. Thinking that I am starting my trip on the right foot, I head over to the car, and surprise! It’s a stick-shift car (manual transmission)! I have only really driven automatic cars, except for learning the basics of stick-shift driving 5 years ago for a couple of hours in total. Since there are no other available cars and I am certainly not canceling my trip, I’m left with the only option of relearning how to drive a stick-shift. After a few lousy attempts on my own (I wasn’t even able to start the car), I call up my “expert” friend, who, after laughing for a good 5 minutes, is kind enough to give me some free telephone lessons. I then proceed to spend the next hour in the parking lot practicing! Once, I summon enough courage to hit the busy streets of Toulouse, I venture out of my parking lot and thus my 400km adventure begins!

After only a few hiccups such as stalling in the middle of the street, shifting down to the wrong gear which causes the motor to rev up to 6-7k RPM, and other such minor mistakes, I finally find myself driving along those highly anticipated winding roads of the Pyrénées. I open all the windows, enjoy the fresh air, marvel at the magnificent scenery, and keep on driving alone on the small streets for the next hour or two. Time flies by. My first stop is Saint-Lizer, a small village perched on a hill, with only a handful of tiny one-way streets. This village is also the proud location of a single restaurant! I stop for a while, order my regular espresso, and mingle with locals. Next stop is Saint-Giron; this is the “big” one, where all neighboring villagers come to hang out. They have a (regionally) impressive number of hotels: 3! I’m talking two or three-story buildings with a maximum rating of 2 stars. I’m lucky enough to arrive on the night of a celebration. It’s Saint-Joan’s day, and all locals aggregate in Saint-Giron to celebrate over a big burning wooden statue.

Pyrenees

Once upon a time, in St-Girons…

I spend the night enjoying the festivities with the locals, and stop to eat at a restaurant. I notice something surprising. Anytime someone is about to leave the restaurant they say goodbye to everyone, friends and strangers alike. This will happen again for lunch the next day, and, even better, it also happens every time I cross someone on the streets. I think this is amazing! When the time comes to go to bed, I do the round of the 3 hotels, and encounter another slight problem. What I thought was perfect timing at first (coming on the night of a celebration) turned out to be the worst timing for other reasons. All rooms were booked – all the affordable ones at least; I didn’t need a 3-bed room at 3 times the price. So here’s where I had to improvise: I park my car along the river that passes through the village and convert it into my home, with the bed in the back, “cupboards” in the front seat, nature as my bathroom, my only towel as a sheet, and my daypack as a pillow. Done! Who needs a hostel anyway?! I specifically choose the riverside to have a nice spot to wake up in!

pyrenees

My car, My home

The next day, I wake up to the sound of my neighbors – the neighboring cars parking, that is. I quickly clean up my home, then set off on day 2 of my trip. Today, Saint-Giron has a big street market with all sorts of vendors setting up shop on the streets of the village. This is always tempting! I pass by the fruit vendor that has cut up many fruits for tasting. I eat one of each, and consider this my (free) appetizer. Then, I get a meat stuffed pastry, a plate of couscous (cooked in a huge ~100L casserole) and finish up with some traditional home-made sheep yogurt. I then set off driving towards Orlu and its nature reserve.

Two hours later, and after passing by a few other villages, I arrive at my destination. I meet a Dutch who lived in Nigeria and now works in France, and strike up an interesting conversation on the experience of traveling. Then, I walk through a wolves reserve and witness the feeding of the wolves. These creatures are impressive, very smart, and have a rigid hierarchical structure (with an alpha couple, beta male, and lambda subordinates). Next, is the main “attraction”. I hike for an hour along a trail leading to an open area in the mountains where a lot protected animals can be seen. After a while, I skip the path and venture inside the forest instead. I climb trees and boulders (big rocks), cross a river, and drink from some “tap water”. I also manage to walk right into a pile of manure the size of a basketball (dung, excrements, feces, poop, the stinky stuff… Whatever you want to call it). Pyrenean chamois, one of the protected species, somehow lay these huge droppings even though they are a relatively small animal (the size of a deer). Luckily, I am close to the river, and spend the next few minutes doing laundry the traditional way.

Pyrenees

Tap water

Once I arrive at the top, I meet a local hunter* scouting the mountains with magnifying glasses. I approach him and he shares with me another pair of glasses he owns. We join forces on the quest to find Pyrenean chamois**. Sadly, a virus has swept the region, so a large number of them are perishing. Locals have teamed up to do a count and assess the damage. It’s not looking good. After a little less than a hour, and a long conversation on the history of the region, it’s time for me to head back. I say goodbye to my new friend, and wish him good luck! At the bottom of the mountain, I see a rock climber on a boulder and can’t resist the urge to join him. I postpone my departure by another 30min and climb with him. He is Catalan, and doesn’t speak any English (or French). So we’re left communicating with hand gestures, sounds, and face expressions. It was a pretty fun sight.

* The type that protects endangered species, I don’t even know why they call them hunters.

** Yes, I omitted to tell you this is also the tale of how I became superhero!

The next morning, as my trip in the south of France ends,  I hop on the train heading towards San Sebastian, Spain. Having woken up in a hurry, I didn’t have time to eat or drink anything (not even water). And unfortunately for me, the train I was on didn’t have any form of catering. The train agent I ask tells me I should have the time to hop off and grab a drink at the next station. Naive as I was, I get off at the stop and quickly buy a drink. As I turn back towards my train, I hear the familiar sound of a pressure valve releasing its pressure, the train doors close, and it starts moving. [Help me out here, and use your imagination to picture the following:] Having a filled plastic glass in each hand, I start running towards the train franticly, splashing all the liquids over myself, and shouting whatever words come out of my mouth. The train had left with my bags and my ticket…***

*** On the bright side, at least my bag won’t be caught on the train without a ticket!

So here I was in Tarbes (don’t ask where that is), with nothing other than my phone and my wallet. So what’s the first thing I do? Go have lunch, I’m hungry! Just kidding, I actually go talk to the information center to get this sorted out. After a few negotiations, we manage to get my bags out at the next station and book a seat on the next train out of Tarbes. I will pass by that station and pick up my bags, then continue on to San Sebastian. Now that all this is cleared, I can go have a filling lunch! And just in case you thought that wasn’t enough, my connection was an hour late, and the following train didn’t have a functional AC on the hottest day of the summer so far (above 40 deg. C.). I will skip the description of how much I sweated, but you get the picture.

So that about covers most of my short but tumultuous two days in the South of France. I almost did drive myself crazy, and got what I wanted in the process: an adrenaline fix! Next stop is the very relaxing beach front of San Sebastian (North of Spain). I expect it to be a little less agitated, so you won’t have to worry too much!

[Once again, I already left San Sebastian but am late in posting updates. The next update should come out soon. Don’t be so demanding, I’m on a summer break here!]


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Sun, Sea, and Sagrada!

June 26, 2011 · 5 minutes read

[I am posting this a few days late, I haven’t had Internet access since]

Antonio Gaudi is a genius, and La Sagrada Familia is the greatest structure ever built.
That is all.

I had to let that out! I was bottling in all my excitement and needed to share it with someone. Later in the post, I’ll try to describe the stupendousness of what I saw (and yes I insist on using such a big and weird-sounding word to make my point). But let me tell you beforehand how poor of a job it will be. I doubt great writers could describe the experience faithfully (because it is an experience), so don’t expect a computer engineer to come close it.

Let’s wind back time to when I arrived in Barcelona. Welcome to the Mediterranean, where the sun shines, the seaward wind blows, nature abounds, roads are chaos, drivers honk and curse left and right, the heat is exhausting, and I’m smiling. I feel at home!

I decide to take a small detour while heading to my hostel to walk along the sea and a few major streets. Along La Rambla (the Champs-élysées of Barcelona), I come across an open-air market with lots of locals as well as tourists, Mercat De La Boqueria. You’ll find almost anything to eat here: meats, seafood, fruits, vegetables, spices, sweets, etc. It’s all very appetizing, and I decide to pick and choose a few foods to eat on the spot. I start off with a freshly cut coconut from a fruit vendor, then have some grilled prawns at a grilling stand, and finished it off with a weird looking dark purple fruit that looks nicer than it tastes, a pitahaya.

Barcelona

Merchant of colors

La Rambla is a very lively street with lots of restaurants, cafes, tourist souvenirs stands, caricaturists… and scammers. I almost got sucked into one of their games. They are very adept at making you feel you can easily beat the game and make money fast. They even let you win the first few rounds so that you gain the confidence to throw in more money. Then somehow, you’re loosing everything you put in and more. Don’t worry, I didn’t play, I just enjoyed watching others getting duped. At that point, I remember having read many times that Barcelona has a lot of scammers and thieves running around. And I was even reminded on several occasions by waiters not to leave my stuff laying around on the table. This made me a little paranoid, I’d catch myself checking my pockets and bags every few minutes uncontrollably.

I walk down to Mirador Del Colom, a monument dedicated to Christopher Colombus. then along the port Vell, and into the winding roads of Barri Gotic and El Raval regions in central Barcelona. The interiors of central Barca alternate between very charming, and dirty and sketchy. As a tourist,  you have to hope you end up making all the right turns to find yourself in a beautiful plaza with nice fountains and restaurants with outdoor terraces. One such plaza is Plaça Reial where I had dinner in a good seafood joint. As I sat on the terrace, I was treated to some live street performances of music, magic, and acrobatics. Really, you can’t ask for better than delicious fresh seafood and free entertainment.

I also visited Mont-Juic. This little hill at the west of the center has a great view of the whole city, and houses a majestic castle of the same name. Looking over the tall walls surrounding it, I found it funny to find climbing bolts drilled into the stone. Now I know there are people out there who understand me and my need to climb any structure I walk in front of! And, of course, how can I experience Barcelona without heading to the beach. I walked along the coast on the sands, going across one public beach after another (and an outdoor gym?) until I stopped and had a dip in the sea. I then laid down to rest for a while and roast evenly on both sides.

Barcelona

Aim for the stars!

The highlight of my visit, as you’ve probably guessed, was Gaudi’s masterpieces. Understanding Gaudi is easy, he grew up very close to nature. During childhood, he was sick for long periods of time and instead of playing with kids he would spend his time observing others and nature. The latter was his muse. You won’t find any straight lines or angles in his buildings. Everything he designs is functional, nothing is superfluous, just as in nature. The first of his works I enjoyed was La Sagrada Familia, an unfinished cathedral. And for a first experience, it was a mind blow! This structure is the culmination of all his previous works and learnings. As I entered the cathedral, I had this eerie feeling of entering a forest. And that’s how he intended it to be. Columns remind you of trunks as they branch out into smaller and smaller columns and their shape shifts. The ceiling is made of leaves-like moldings that let’s in the right amount of light. You can see that he hasn’t left any part of the design untouched, from railings designed to mimic climbing plants to staircases spiraling like a shell, or honeycomb like pavements. La Sagrada Familia is still being built a century after it started according to Gaudi’s plans. Construction is expected to end in 2026, the date at which I’ve already booked a flight back to Barcelona.

Barcelona

La Sagrada Familia

After spending 2 hours admiring the cathedral and learning about Gaudi’s techniques, I was hooked. I planned to visit as many of his works in the next two days: Casa Milà or La Pedrera, a beautiful apartment building converted into a museum that boasts a winding attic with arches reminding of the skeleton of a large snake (think of the hollow interior of a thoracic cage). Cascada De Gaudi, a magnificent fountain in Parc de la Ciutadella.  Parc Güell, the best city parc design in my opinion. It doesn’t stand awkwardly in the middle of the city, but really feels like an extension of the forest, blending with its surroundings, as if it were dug out of the grounds. Here is a quote by Gaudi himself that summarizes his vision: “Originality consist of returning to the origins inasmuch as original is that which, with its means, returns to the simplicity of it’s early solutions”.

As for local delicacies, there wasn’t anything as extravagant as my previous episodes, except maybe for a grilled whole calamari. The whole thing, including head, midsection, and tentacles, was grilled and served plain with 3 lettuces for decoration. This was the chewiest meal I’ve ever eaten. I might instead add this to my short list of workouts because by the end  of the meal my jaw was sore. I also ate fresh grilled fish, a paella (that I will have to try again in Seville, its birthplace), and tapas, a Spanish culinary invention that is perfectly designed for my eating habits. Those fortunate enough to have had a meal with me can testify of my habits of tasting from everyone’s plates to “sample” the restaurant’s food. (some may argue that they are unfortunate, ignore them).

On my last day, trying to figure out the next leg of my trip, I looked at a map of western Europe and noticed three green patches at the border of Spain and France… I like green! It is the Pyrenees, the great mountains of the south of France. Suddenly, I start imagining myself driving along winding roads in the mountains, hopping from one village to another, and hiking on peaks. And just like that I decide I will be going to the Pyrenees. I search for the next train out of Barcelona to a city on the border of the mountains, Toulouse.  Early next morning, I hop on that train with no plans other than: in Toulouse, I will rent a car and drive “somewhere beautiful”, then find a place to sleep.

What will transpire is a little different…


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Relaxation, Deutsch, and Potatoes in Berlin!

June 21, 2011 · 5 minutes read

Achtung! Right off the bat, I’d like to warn you that I woke up at 6:13am today, something I haven’t done in years. I’m not sure how my brain will react to this. Also, I’ve taken in so much German in the past few days that this post might be a complete mess. You have been warned.

Berlin might have been my most relaxed stop so far. Apart from a single guided tour and very few landmark visits, I lived a typical Berliner lifestyle during the 3 days I spent in this city – or as close to it as a Lebanese with a North-American lifestyle might get; which in the eyes of the German might be quite far off. But since most of you have no clue what I’m talking about, I can pull this off. (I’m not sure if I even have a clue at this point, much of it is foggy as I daydream and my eyes fixate on the patterns of the seat in front of me).

Let me tell you first about the major spots I visited before talking about my impressions. Similarly to Munich, a big part of Berlin has been renovated or rebuilt after the war. You’ll find a nice mix of traditional and modern design meshed together within a small region (e.g. Branderburger Tor and Pariser Platz) or within the same building (e.g. Reichstag a.k.a. the parliament). I especially liked the Reichstag, which is, as far as I know, the only parliament open to public visits. When it was rebuilt, they included a glass ceiling and dome that open up on the offices – a statement that the German government will remain transparent. Walking along the streets of the city you’ll find partial remains of the Berlin wall or markings on the floor that trace it’s previous locations. The most memorable section I got to enjoy is the East Side Gallery; a long stretch of “refurbished” wall decorated by paintings and graffitis from various international artists. It’s a beautiful mishmash of colors and text ranging form a simple message of peace to more elaborate allegories. Another noteworthy structure is the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, with it’s maze of concrete blocks intentionally designed to make you feel a little claustrophobic.

Berlin

bruderkuss

Berlin

Face of the revolution

I also covered the Haus Am Charlie Checkpoint museum and the Stasimuseum. The first is located next to Charlie Checkpoint, the iconic American checkpoint. It houses stories and artifacts from some great escapes (from East to West) as well as failed attempts that have led to imprisonment or even death. The latter is located in the old housing facilities of the Stasi. It displays many tools used by the Stasi to spy and control the population, as well as the propaganda used by the SED (socialist party). Both show the amazing feats of creativity and desperation Men are capable of in harsh times. The Stasi would find ingenious ways of placing cameras and microphones to spy on people. Some examples include, cameras behind jacket buttons (in times when cameras were barely portable), infrared scanning devices in briefcases, or pieces of mesh stored in jars to preserve the scent of people. As for the SED, they would develop a youth program to educate (read brainwash) the children on the superiority of socialism and the dangers of the western world. And finally, the most ingenious and courageous are a handful of Eastern Berliners and their helpers (individuals that would risk their lives to help escapees cross the wall). I was especially impressed by the one-man submarine invented to cross the river, the modified cars designed to hide a person under a seat or the hood, and the sheer courage – bordering on insanity – of the people who attempted to cross the border simply by climbing over the wall and running through the field guarded by riflemen and automatic motion detecting guns. One man was able to make it West this way even though 100 pieces of shrapnel had punctured his body. Luckily they all missed his vital organs and arteries.

Berlin

America’s two lasting marks on Berlin

Berlin

Your Neighbourly post-communist architecture

I was also lucky to be hosted by an amazing young German couple. I got my own room (first time since London) and got treated to some good home made dishes! In other words, luxury for a backpacker! It’s also thanks to them that, for once, I wasn’t as much a tourist as I was a random Berliner simply hanging-out around town. I got to attend a Parkour meetup and train with local traceurs (Parkour practitioners) of all levels. It was a lot of fun and had a very friendly vibe to it. As always, I tried to leave a mark by pulling off my signature move: Busting my ass attempting a jump… I have two nice scars to show for it!* I’m ashamed to say it, but I was very sore the following two days even though my workout was pretty light. This is only the second time that I take part in any type of sport during my trip. I have a feeling that by the time I get home I will have turned into a vegetable. So don’t be shocked if you don’t recognize me as the muscular drop-dead sexy man I used to be 🙂 (please, don’t take me too seriously).

*Hello to my fellow Parkour mobsters in Montreal who are quite familiar with my signature move!

Ater the workout, a small group of us (8 germans and a clueless foreigner) went home to chill out, eat some typical Berliner street food (Döner Kebap),  play games, and speak a lot of Deutsch, fast!** The next day, I was treated to a delicious grandmother-recipe home-cooked meal for dinner: Eir In Süß-saurer Senfsauce. I can assure you that preparing it is much simpler than the name suggests. I ate this potatoes and egg based dish with my two hosts in their cosy living room, listening to some German soap opera! Now, let me take this opportunity to talk to you about the very special meal of the trip in a new episode of The Blaspehmies. I ordered a pörkeleisbein at a typical German restaurant. Now, doesn’t that sound appetizing? let me brake it down for you, it will help. Pörkel-Eis-Bein = Pork-Ice-Leg. That is, I ordered a pork’s leg+ankle boiled***; and just in case that wasn’t intense enough, I insisted on having the über 500g portion. The only word I could come up with to describe this meal is “interesting”. While savoring it, I wasn’t even sure if I was eating meat, fat, skin, or joints as it all tasted the same once boiled for long enough. And of course, there was the customary side of potatoes. Germans eat potatoes with almost everything. Look out for potato ice cream, it might be on it’s way soon!

** I skipped on this last one.

*** Don’t ask me what happened to the “ice” part. Even the Germans I asked have no idea.

By now, you’re probably wondering why I woke up this early and where I am heading next. Get pumped up, because here comes some exciting change! I landed in Catalonia. Sun, sea, and fresh seafood here I come! no more grey skies, rainy days, and cold nights (that’s what I had for the past week). I’m throwing away my shoes and shorts, putting on my flip-flops and bathing suit, and exposing my pale feet and torso to some quality roasting. I’m in Barça!

Tschüß!


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Discovering Prague, Or How to Become a Real Man

June 17, 2011 · 7 minutes read

I feel like a complete nomad! I don’t have any reference point, be it a home or friends traveling with me. Both my bed and social circle are changing every few days. I’m on the train from Prague to Berlin, and this time I am sad to leave a city for a different reason. As expected Prague was beautiful, but what was special to me were not the monuments I visited as much as the many people I met along the way. But before I get carried away, let’s start at the beginning.

I arrived in Munich on Monday night, and headed to my special hostel not knowing what to expect. Remember the 40-bed dorm? You should have never let me sign up for that! Upon checking in, I receive a free Jaeger shot! That should give you a pretty good idea about what this hostel’s about. Of course, I take the shot then head to the dorm. the best way to describe it is comparing it to some sort of contemporary or avant-gardiste exhibition room. Piles of clothes and shoes laid everywhere and were hanging from all sides. If I tried to describe the mess it probably wouldn’t give it justice. Instead, I’ll talk to you about my attempt to sleep. With 40 people in the same room, it was almost certain to have some movement at any time of the night. Either from people returning after a night out at 2-3-4am or others waking up early to make the most of their visit at 6-7-8am. But let’s forget about this and enjoy Munich instead.

I decide to take a guided tour of this Bavarian capital to make the most of my half-day. And out of all the people, I end up with an American couple who’s daughter is marrying a Lebanese, and another Texan girl who has Lebanese family! I’ll give you a brief run through of the tour, but expect to get a little confused with all the weird sounding names. What’s spectacular about Munich is that after WWII, only 3% of buildings were left intact. This means that a lot of the iconic buildings I visited have been restored, and that’s the case with almost all of Munich. A good example of this is the municipality building that was restored in a unique way, combining the classical remains of the pre-WWII building with some ingenious modern architecture.

Munich

Post-war Bavarian marriage of old and new

Other symbolic buildings include the Neues Rathaus (new town hall) and Altes Rathaus (old town hall) in the Marienplatz square. I also visited the very famous beer gardens; these are big spaces (both indoors and outdoors) where germans meet to drink beer and eat local food.  The Hofbräuhaus, for example, can house 2,300 people. If you thought you were a man, think again. Here women trying to cut down on drinks order a pint of beer, the rest have 1L glasses… Refilled a couple of times! (not to say that I quantify manliness by the amount of beer one drinks, it just felt like a dramatic way to make my point) It’s not for nothing that Bavaria has the highest beer consumption per capita. Next on my must-see list is the Englischer Garten one of the larger city parks. Yea it’s green and fresh and all, but all these “details” fade away when you realize locals sunbathe completely naked!*

*Wouldn’t you like to know if I joined them? You’ll have to find out for yourself! this blog is PG-13.

Munich

Darkness engulfs Marienplatz

For lunch, I head to the Biktualiemarkt where a large number of food stands and bakeries set up shop around a big open space with lots of benches. It is customary to buy your food then sit down with total strangers at a table and start chatting away! It’s a very open and friendly culture. On this episode of The Blasphemies, I decided to follow locals around the market to find out what they ate. I chose the foods that seemed to be eaten most often: Lebarkäs (cured ham), Sauerkraut (fermented cabbage), Weißwurst (white sausage), and pretzels. I had a great lunch outdoors in the company of three German women.**

**Don’t get any ideas, they were three times my age.

Next stop was Prague. And similarly to Lucerne, it was a city stuck in the past. If you walk around Staré Mêsto (the old town) or Pražsky Hrad (Prague Castle) you’ll find yourself imagining how people lived several hundred years ago. The castle in fact is more like a whole village, with a big gothic cathedral at the center, a basilica, a convent, a royal palace and houses. Even the Nové Mêsto (new town) built in the 14th century is too old for it’s own name. On day 1, I did a usual walking tour of the city on my own (no guided tour this time – to mix it up). I especially  enjoyed looking at the whole city from atop the castle. Imagine it covered with a red veil. I also walked on the Charles Bridge, a very busy pedestrian-only medieval bridge lined up with street musicians, souvenir stands, and painters.

Prague

Prague’s Red Dress

I know I’ve already complained a lot about the swarming tourists, but trust me nothing compares to Prague so far. I’ve never seen a city so jam-packed with tourists, a human tsunami is an understatement. At times, it was downright unpleasant. This is too bad, this city’s charm is eclipsed by the torrents of people flowing around the major spots. Also, I almost never encountered any locals. And the few I did encounter, were not very friendly. You can definitely feel they’re getting tired of all these tourists taking over their town. Two other visits are worth mentioning: the sex museum and the medieval torture museum. Both require a significant imaginative effort: you’re shown tools and devices and left to wonder what their applications could have been. In some cases, there are more similarities than you would think between both museums.

Prague

Human Tsunami

I came to Prague wanting to watch a classical music concert. And so, on my first night, I went to the Municipal House to enjoy a rendition of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons. It was an amazing performance, and only my second time listening to a live classical music performance! I was reminded of how captivating it is! I’m sure the elder Asian sitting next to me would agree: I was impressed by his intense dedication to taking in the music; he listened with his eyes closed, and seemed to be in a deep trance. It turns out he was indeed in a trance; a trance called sleep, at least until his wife woke him up angrily right before the end of the show. He did applause with lots enthusiam though.

After that, I really wanted to watch another performance on the following day, but had already planned to leave in the afternoon. The city of Prague, on the other hand, would have it differently: on the next day, I was informed there would be a complete transportation strike. In other words, no trains coming in or leaving the city, I was stuck in Prague wether I’d like it or not. And of course, I did like it! This is great,  it takes off the burden of decision making. I would be able assist to a second concert, as it was decided by a higher authority that I was staying an extra day! I ended up watching an opera for the first time (Tosca at the State Opera House), equally captivating. Although, I have to admit, it’s more of an acquired taste (a musical taste that is; the other type of taste I will talk about next).

Let’s talk food! I’ll start with the easy stuff. I had the classical Czech goulash. Then I was recommend to try some venison (deer), as it is also a Czech specialty. So I went hunting for some around town – in vain. It turns out they are quite elusive! However, I did manage to catch an apple strudel instead! They, on the other hand, are quite tame. Mine didn’t seem to like moving a lot;  it laid there, freshly baked, waiting to be eaten. Very good! Now let me tell you about my main course. Yes, my only main course, because this thing was so massive it’s probably enough to feed an entire family for a week. But of course, in the Czech Republic it’s your average meal. I had wild boar ribs! Not your typical westerner wimpy ribs, I’m talking about the real thing! I literally had half a boar’s chest on my table. It’s a good thing I was sitting alone on a 4-person table, it wouldn’t have fit otherwise. And no, it wasn’t beautifully trimmed to look esthetically pleasing. It was dripping with fat and still had joints and blood vessels attached. Remember that analogy about real men? Yea, I think my T levels doubled after that meal!

Before I let you go, let me tackle the point I made at the start. Somehow, my visit to Prague was different. I enjoyed discovering the city, but I enjoyed meeting people even more. Maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been traveling on my own for more than a week now (in Paris and London, I was alone for the day but would meet up with friends on evenings).  It seems I craved some social interaction because I ended up meeting more interesting people in those 2 days than in the past 2 weeks. Sitting alone for dinner one night, I struck up a wonderful conversation with a stranger also eating alone. Somehow, that conversation lasted for 3 hours and hit every imaginable subject. On  another occasion, I met an older couple and had another long and interesting conversation. I also became “good” friends with two receptionists at my hostel, and was even referred to as “the friendly guy” by one of them. Weird what being alone does to you! FYI the people I met came from Norway, the USA, Costa Rica, and the Netherlands.

Munich

I got the blues leaving Munich

Is it me, or are these posts getting longer? I wouldn’t mind reverting back to “Prague was beautiful, I also met interesting people. Heading to Berlin now!”. Well, I’m already in Berlin. And I’m starting to get a little tired of passively watching structures and art, I hope you don’t think less of me because of it :). I am going to try to do more and see less in Berlin. Please do send me recommendations if you have any. Until next time!


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

City-Hopping Switzerland!

June 13, 2011 · 7 minutes read

And I’m back after a visit to luterburnnen and schirmertorweg, flying face to Jungfrau, feasting at Goldener Anker, and wandering in Glentschergarten Lowendenkmal. That should sum up my last three days in Switzerland. Are you sure you’ll be able to keep up?

Switzerland

Wait, where am I?

Last time I wrote, I had just arrived in Geneva. And I planned to visit 3 cities in 3 days. Three very different cities. First, Geneva, the capital of social goodness with headquarters to such organizations as the UN and the WHO. Then, Interlaken, the typical but not-so typical swiss village known for extreme outdoor sports. And finally Lucerne, a trip back in time to the 14th century. In a sense, this mini-trip across Switzerland perfectly embodies my vision of what my full eurotrip is about: meeting up with friends (Geneva), going wild (Interlaken), admiring the beauty Europe has to offer (Lucerne).

On my first and only day in Geneva, as I’m walking around the city, and especially the Old Town, it feels weird. It seems as though something is missing. Ah, yes! The millions of people running around in all directions! I just went from spending 10 days in mega-cities with populations in the millions, to little old Geneva with it’s 250,000 inhabitants. This is so peaceful, and after 10 days of chaos (in the good sense), is a welcomed treat. The next surprise is how expensive everything is! And I will unfortunately keep rediscovering this over the next 3 days. This one, on the other hand, is not very welcomed…

In the short time I have to visit, I get a good understanding of Geneva, but you should already know this: Swiss watches, Swiss arm knives, Swiss chocolate, Swiss banks, and social goodness. I also visit the main cathedral, Cathédral St-Pierre, and again experience a peaceful moment as I am one of only a few tourists inside. But right before I enjoy this moment, a thought crosses my mind. As I remember my visit of the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, it now feels a little different. I can’t get over the thought that we (the tourists) were all being herded like a bunch of sheep. Hundreds and hundreds of people in line, following orders from guards on our sides, walking along a well determined enclosed path, forced to visit the same areas in the same order. I much prefer my latter experience, free to roam wherever I please.

Switzerland

Swiss and Citroens

Another highlight of my stay in Geneva is the visit of the UN headquarters. I take a guided tour of the offices and conference rooms and learn more about the history and structure of the UN. As is my tradition in these situations, I will skip sharing what I’ve (attempted) to learn and tell you that Google is your friend. An unfortunate event did occur as the tour went on: a man collapsed of apparent exhaustion. We continued the tour as he was tended to by paramedics. Our guide discretly tells me with a worried look on her face: “I fear the worst”. Thirty minutes later, as we walk past the same spot, the man still lies on the floor, the paramedics are still performing CPR…

Switzerland

Tired of walking, I started hallucinating…

The guided tour marks the end of my first day in Switzerland. I head to the train station for my next adventure. But before I move on, let me share a few words in the section that I will now call The Blasphemies, or “Exploring Europe through Gustation”: I had to try Swiss cheese and so I headed to a typical Swiss restaurant for a tartiflette on my first meal. Then, I indulged in some Swiss chocolate and truffles for desert. Great success on both accounts!

I arrive at the train station with some time to spare, this has more to do with my lack of understanding of the transportation system in Europe than my punctuality (duh!). No train in sight, I wonder if I made a mistake. But I soon learn a new thing about the Swiss: with great watches comes great punctuality! My train, scheduled to leave at 18:10, arrives at 18:07 and promptly departs at 18:10. They are very serious when it comes to time! (They have also sold a Patek-philippe for 1.4M sfr; 1sfr = $1.2 approx.)

During the ride from Geneva to Interlaken, I admire the breathtaking countryside from my window. A mix of tall mountains and endless green fields with small villages here and there (pic). Interlaken is one of these villages. I thought a population of 250,000 was low, I was now heading to a village with a mere 5,000 residents! I can’t really explain the feeling, but jumping around areas of such different scales makes me realize how vast the world is. As I arrive, at my destination, this place seems to be buzzing with more energy than expected. For one, I come on the last day of a big rock concert, and second, since Interlaken is known for it’s extreme sports a lot of people come from around to get an adrenaline fix in this beautiful setting. You can try paragliding, sky diving, bungee jumping, canyoneering, rock climbing, rafting, and many more. To make the most of my day, I decide to sleep early. This is my first night in a hostel. I am in a 6-bed room with a German girl and two American guys.

Switzerland

Your typical Swiss village

I wake up early the next morning, and step outside the balcony and realize how beautiful this all is. I am in a tiny typical swiss village, surrounded by some of the biggest mountains around (Eiger, Jungfrau) – a few still covered in snow – along a small river, with fresh air and wilderness all around. For the first part of my day, I sign up for a paragliding flight. My tandem partner and I drive up to an altitude of 1300m, strap on a big gliding parachute, wait for the wind to blow in the right direction, then start running fast down a very steep hill (not quite jumping off a cliff, but it’s so steep I can’t even see what’s in front). The parachute catches the wind and lifts us off the ground. This is surreal. Within seconds, I am in the middle of the sky, fresh alpine air blowing in my face, strapped only by a harness. I’m flying! This is as close as it gets anyway. How’s this for “free to roam wherever I please”??

The next part is even better. My partner starts “looking” for wind tunnels. These are pockets of air flowing upwards. He tells me it’s an art that requires the mastery of 4 senses. You LOOK for the edge of clouds (a sign of high winds), FEEL the direction of the winds, LISTEN to an altimeter that beeps when we gain height, and SMELL?? Suddenly, a refined smell of cow dung fills my nostrils… We found the wind tunnel! Of course, as mother nature shoots the air upwards, she doesn’t discriminate between the fresh scent of flowers and the less appealing, but no less natural, scent of bovine flatulence. As we enter the tunnel, we start flying in circles and gain height rapidly, exactly like big birds, such as falcons, do! After just a few minutes, we are at a height of 2000 meters, among the clouds, we get out of the tunnel and just glide around the beautiful nature, past a small mountain, above a big lake, over huge forests, and then back into the village! Unreal.

For the next part of my day, I rent a mountain bike and decide to ride to the next village, Luterburnnen. It takes me a little more than an hour to get there as most of it is uphill. I won’t go into too much detail here, but just picture a lone biker, on small roads, in between two very steep mountains with waterfalls blasting out from them. I take the time to stop a few times to refresh with water from the rapids along which I am biking (ice melted from the mountains), and rock climb a few interesting walls I glimpse along the way.

Switzerland

Your typical Swiss town

Two meals are worth highlighting for another episode of The Blasphemies. the first is a not-so-fine cuisine meal referred to as berner-wurster; apologies to the Swiss if I am butchering its name. Get ready for this: It consists of a melted cheese injected sausage, wrapped with bacon, and fried! How many of you got a heart attack just reading that? the second is more of a delicacy: an ostrich steak with a special Swiss potato dish. Delicious!

My final stop in Switzerland is Lucerne. As I arrive at night and head to my hostel, I get this feeling of excitement entering a new city and checking out my new room and fellow travelers. This time I’m with an Asian young man, and an old Russian architect in his sixties – that talks a lot! On the next day, I wake up early and head towards the city center. I just stepped back in time! (pic) It seems as though Lucerne has been stuck in the 14th century. Most of the streets are in cobble stone and the city is surrounded by a fortified wall with towers. I shouldn’t even call them streets, they are more like small passage ways between houses. Wooden bridges connect both sides of the river. As I walk through them, I notice the smell of the aging wood. I also find fountains at every corner, and the water is so clean I am told fishes are dying. (maybe all this “kills 99% of bacteria” craze isn’t all that good?)

Switzerland

A trip back in time

As I ride the bus back to my starting point, I realize for the second time that no one checks for tickets. So I decide not to buy one and develop instead a fail proof technique in case I get caught: a clueless and lost face expression combined with a mumbling of random words with a thick accent from no apparent region. I have yet to test it’s efficacy…

And that raps up my city-hopping in Switzerland! The next major stop is Prague. On my way there, I decided to stay half a day in Munich since it is right in between there and Lucerne. I am starting to enjoy city-hopping. Time seems to run slower. Geneva and Interlaken seem far away now that I am in the train leaving Lucerne.

Guess what? I found a 40-bed dorm in a hostel in Munich. What do you think?
Switzerland

Smile at life


[This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here
]

Haussmann-City, Sometimes Referred to as Paris

June 11, 2011 · 7 minutes read

Disclaimer: I have received indirect death threats from my many friends living in Paris to ensure I would blog positively about their beloved city. Nevertheless, and to the detriment of my safety, I will aim to remain objective.

My stop in Paris starts off at the Gare du Nord train station. The second I step off the train I hear people speaking French left and right. For some reason it feels odd. I guess I have never lived in a purely francophone country. Montreal is bilingual (if not more, due to all the international residents) with a Quebecois accent and lots of English mixed in with French. And Lebanon is bi-or-tri-lingual depending on the region, with a thick accent and all sorts of spoken mistakes.

On my first day I start off my tour as usual: after waking up, I take a few essentials in my daypack (rain coat, guidebook, water, and iPad), skip breakfast, and start my long walks to explore the city. I generally organize my routes the previous day, taking suggestions from friends and my guidebook (LonelyPlanet Europe).

Day 1 starts off at l’Arc de Triomphe, I walk along the Champs élysées, towards the Jardins des Tuileries, north to the Palais Royal and its gardens, then Place Vendome, and I settle down in a restaurant in a nice corner to have my first meal of the day. After a week, I’ve become used to skipping breakfast, it saves me time! When I’m done, I head towards the Louvres and its famous glass pyramid! I go in and explore 3/4 of a floor on paintings, drawings, and decorative art and belongings of French monarchs. Damn, those kings had money to spend! We’re talking about crowns with 295 diamonds worn only once. And of course, I walked in front of the iconic La Joconde (a.k.a. Mona Lisa). It wasn’t a pleasant experience. Here are two metaphors to clarify what I mean. Read 1 if you are Lebanese, read 2 otherwise.

1) If you’re Lebanese: Imagine yourself skiing in Faraya on a warm and sunny Sunday waiting in the mess to board the lift at the bottom of Jonction. Well this image feels so pleasant and peaceful compared to the battlefield that is waiting to see Da Vinci’s masterpiece.
2) If you’re not Lebanese: Don’t bother imagining anything. You can’t get close to a mental picture of this mess.*

* Actually, I couldn’t think of an event that was universally recognized as a soup of swarming humans, so I got lazy instead and wrote the above 🙂

Moving on, I check out L’Opera from the outside and start strolling in the bustling streets of Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain. There are many beautiful small restaurants tucked away here. Even a bunch of Greek restaurants with lots broken plates at their entrance in the Latin Corner. Apparently, the tradition of breaking the kitchenware is undertaken by the owner in order to share his satisfaction (and his poor financial skills, in my opinion). For dinner, a bunch of friends and I decide to sit down at the renowned Leon De Bruxelles to eat a Belgium specialty, moules et frites (mussels & fries). I finish the night at a bar with friends then call it a day.

Paris

Eiffel Power

Day 2, my traveler’s ambition goes up a notch. I’m on my feet at 11:30am** and keep on walking until 10:30pm. That’s 11 hours of continuous walking punctuated only by a quick lunch and coffee break. I was very proud but very ignorant as to what was coming. To sum it up I started at the Champs de Mars***, walked in front of the Eiffel Tower, visited the Trocadero, the Musée d’Art Moderne de Ville, the Egouts de Paris (Paris’ sewers), an underground visit of the sewers of Paris and their history. Yes, even sewers have a history, quite an interesting one I might add. Napoleon said the renovation of the sewers would be his biggest contribution to Paris and would go unrecognized. Next stop was the Notre-Dame cathedral perched on the Iles de la Cité island, an impressive structure with intricate sculptures and detail on the outside, and intimidating ceilings and ornaments on the inside. Then, I hopped onto the neighboring island, Isle Saint-Louis, to taste what some people call the best ice cream PERIOD, Bertillon. Some of you may shout blasphemy because I never eat this “kind of stuff”, but you’ll have to excuse me, I’m on a eurotrip. (and also: you ain’t seen nothing yet). This stuff was heavenly! And to be fair I had bought another type of ice cream the day prior and threw it out after eating only a few spoonfuls, I’m not used to eating this “kind of stuff”.

** Considering I have been sleeping at 4:00am every night for the past week, this is a miracle in my opinion.

*** Have you heard of the “running of the bulls” in Spain? Well Paris has a similar event that takes place quite often on the Champs de Mars (leading to the Eiffel Tower). I call it the running of the tourist-catchers. At the sight of a new tourist bus arriving, the very professional “street salesmen” stampede across the Champs taking down every one in their way to arrive first at this new gold mine. They carry with them countless grossly overpriced Eiffel Tower figurines.

Paris

Paris in Love

Small interlude: At this point, I had seen a good portion of Paris’s architecture. It was magnificent, but to be honest it was starting to get a little repetitive. Almost everything is Built according to Haussmann’s typical Parisian style, and all streets started to look alike. Don’t get me wrong, it was all beautiful but just a little too much of the same. Maybe it’s just me, but It needs a little more variety. And on top of that the people designing all the parks seemed to have some sort of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) that we’ll refer to as Obsessive Mathematical Perfectionism Disorder, or OMPD for short. All the parks were laid out in perfect geometrical shapes, trees were aligned in all directions and trimmed into the shapes of spheres or cubes, flowers were positioned to form intricate embroideries, etc. Again all too “square” for my taste. I need a little more randomness and wildness (it must be the hunter-gatherer in me that is getting restless)

But then I start visiting different areas. I get out of the metro in the Barbes region to experience the other Paris, the Paris of the less fortunate and less fashion concerned. A good reminder that everything is not as it seems. Kids here were playing football/soccer (pick your version) in sandals with an empty plastic bottle, whereas kids on the Champs-Élysées were playing on their Nintendo dressed up in Channel clothing. From here, I walk to Montmartre. Ah! I finally get my long awaited fix (I’m talking about architectural variety). This is a charming corner of Northern Paris, on a hill (hence the “Mont” in Montmartre), with tiny streets and lots of small coffee shops and boutiques on the sides. Luckily, I also get to enjoy a beautiful sunset in this corner of Paris.

Just in case you forgot, this is still day 2. And I’m not even done! But I’ll cut it short to avoid boring you. The final thing I have to mention is dinner: 1Kg of top quality argentinian beef cooked rare. If a restaurant offers such a mouth watering challenge, I can’t refuse it. enough said.

Paris

1kg of beef a day keeps the doctor away

Remember the part where I said I was ignorant? Well, on day 3, I wake up and start my routine as usual, then get on with my walk. Just a few minutes in I collapse – figuratively not literally, don’t worry – I can’t feel my legs and I’m so exhausted I need to rest after walking up two stairs. I realize I had put my body in overdrive and now it was failing on me! Oh well, I couldn’t do anything about it, so I decide to take it easy and visit only a few spots today: The Tour Montparnasse and the Jardin de Luxembourg, another OMPD afflicted designer park, although this one is especially beautiful. Then, exhausted, I decide to do what most Parisians enjoy, sit down at a coffee shop and just stare. In Paris, you’ll find that a lot of coffee shops have all their chairs outside aligned and facing in the same direction towards the streets, instead of the regular face-to-face with a table in the middle. This is perfect for staring! While indulging in a good espresso, as usual, and 4 macaroons, unusual but necessary in France, I spot a man doing Parkour in the park and decide to approach him when I’m done. Unfortunately, by the time I finish he was gone.

A few final noteworthy moments: visiting Le Marais, another charming Parisian corner, where most artists flock to get inspired and shop. Eating some French fine cuisine (beef liver) and the traditional baguette (blasphemy no. 3). Walking around the Centre Pompidou an avant-gardiste museum turned inside out: all components generally found inside a building are placed on its outer facade e.g. Elevators, pipes, stairs, etc. Listening to classical music in the subway stations.

It is only on day 4 that I realize I had planned to leave Paris the next day but I still hadn’t decided where or how I was going. As most of us do in school projects, I waited until the last minute to organize the next leg of my trip. And since I seem to be doing good at school/university there was no need to change any habits. I chat with a few friends, call up a few others, read some pages in my guidebook, and do some google searches. In about 2 hours, I lay out a rough new plan for travel. I will be heading to Switzerland for 3 days, one in each of Geneva, Interlaken, and Lucerne. Then on to Germany, Czech Republic, and the Netherlands. The beauty of Europe is: that on Thursday afternoon I decided to go from Paris to Geneva; I simply called up and notified a friend living there. 24 hours and a quick train ride later, here I am in his apartment, late at night on Friday, typing away on my iPad, regretting the moment I decided to blog, wishing I was sleeping on my comfy bed… Just kidding!

I think you’ve had you’ve had enough by now… I had a great time in Paris, by the end of the 4 1/2 days, it seemed as if I had lived there for years. This trip is turning out to be more than what I expected. Off to bed, I need to make the most of my 3 days in Switzerland. See you in a few days.


This post is part of a series on my 2011 eurotrip, check out the whole series here