Europe: Summary

Australian colours, just north of my hometown. Same colours as near Madrid, but with more fields and fewer orchards

I’ve been back for a week, and I feel like I should do a summary post to tie things off in a bow before this blog quiesces again. I have no interest in having a general blog – the travel blog served three purposes: as a memory aid because I’ll never remember it all; to let folks know where I was and what I was doing; and to be some vicarious travel for folks back home.

The blog itself had some ups and downs. It takes an hour or so to do a blog post, and with the online editor there are limitations, especially around images. As a result, there were several times I had to break a post over several entries… and according to the stats, sometimes people were only reading the second post but not the first. This is why I started saying “continuing on from the last post…” but that didn’t change the pattern. Ah, well.

Back with the cats, snoozing in my bedroom

For the summary post, I want to go through each place I visited and do a good thing(s), a bad thing, and something that genuinely surprised me. For places I was only at for a couple of days, things might be a bit thin, but that’s the pattern I’m going for.

I also wanted to review some favourite images, but the online media browser in the website blog editor only loads a dozen images at a time… and unloads earlier ones as you proceed… and I’m not doing that to skip through hundreds of photos when selecting each photo. The perils of a free account, I guess. So the photos in this post are some I’ve taken since coming home, and can work maybe as an Australian comparator.

Disclaimer: This is being written stream-of-consciousness style, and is the viewpoint of a tourist who sometimes only spent a couple of days in a place. Don’t take it too seriously πŸ™‚

Let’s get started.

London

My first port of call and my base of operations as I spent my half-year bouncing back and forth from a friend’s spare room. Being of an anglo culture myself, the UK was easy to move around in. One good thing about London was the pub culture – not the boorish drunkards having a punch-on when the footy is finished, I didn’t see any of those myself, but that there are pubs everywhere. And people just use them as a place to meet. And they function as easily accessible public toilets. Well, not Accessible public toilets – they’re usually behind a flight of stairs, but accessible as in you don’t have to pay or to buy something to use them. And if you just need to sit and take a break, there’ll be a pub nearby. And at night, you’ll hear cheery farewells from people departing for home.

On the bad side, it’s also ridiculously expensive, even for Europe. Some of the cultural attractions are free, which is great, but if not, then you’re forking out a huge wodge of cash. Eating out cost 50-100% more than it does back home. Before I started on my Europe trip, I realised I had to switch off my “count pennies” meter in my head – the trip was going to be expensive, period. And I definitely needed to do that when doing things in London. It confuses me even more because the median British wage is well below the median Australian wage back home – the people here earn less than we do.

Something genuinely surprising was that London is an incredibly intricate city, with wild amounts of interesting stuff in it. I was there on an off for six months, and I still hadn’t exhausted the standard tourist checklist. There is just so much to do and see in London, it’s ridiculous. I knew that there was stuff to do, just not the immense amounts of it. Obviously it’s a big draw for tourists, but I was still finding random new things just before I left, like the Wallace Collection. Just sitting there in the heart of London, free for all comers.

The United Kingdom

Zooming out a bit, let’s have a look at the UK in general. I visited the four main countries of the UK, but none of the dependencies (Jersey, Mann, etc).

For me, a good thing was that it was a very similar culture, and I never felt foreign there. There were plenty of cultural differences, but these weren’t major, and I never had to fear about something I said being taken the wrong way. Brits are very good at understanding subtext. It was a very comfortable place for a foreign Anglo to be. I have two main complaints about the UK below, but apart from that, it was a great experience being there. I’ve mentioned both ad nauseum in the blog, because they’re both omnipresent, but they do belong in a summary like this post because yeah, they did suck some joy out of being int he UK.

Probably the worst thing for me was the food, particularly in England. I always thought that the ‘bad food’ thing was a joke, as England and France have always been rivals, and since France was known for good food, England must therefore have bad. But no, food is genuinely bad in England. Home-cooked food was fine when I had it, and there is the occasional lucky draw when eating out. But early on I had learned that I need to evaluate the eatery before dining there. So many times I ate somewhere and regretted having eaten at all. This was much worse at the start of my journey when I was having my depressive episode which killed my appetite and motivation. So when I did eat, having a high chance of eating bad food just totally destroyed any joy of eating at all. I lost 23kg in the past six months, most of them in those first few months, all without intending to lose weight. I needed to lose the weight, but the depression plus the shocking food combined to make it ‘effortless’. I wondered if it was the depression making the food taste bad, but no, I went to both Ireland and Germany while having the depressive episode, and the food in each were fine.

A genuinely surprising thing about the UK is how much of a chore it was to drive there. I already expected the cities to be difficult – pre-automobile streets aren’t very wide – but I didn’t expect them to do things like put two-way traffic on one-lane-wide city streets. Out in the country it was worse – the drivers were politer than back home, but the roads were always congested (there’s a lot of people there) and the roads were tight in with generally no shoulder, no overtaking lanes, and a roundabout slowing everything down every few miles. If you run into a group of bikes or a tractor, that’s it for the next half hour, you’re going at their speed. They say you can’t tell when you drive from the Republic of Ireland into Northern Ireland, but it was immediately obvious to me, since the country roads lost their shoulder and now had tight-in curbs…

England

Zooming back in again, looking at England specifically. A middle-sized place between ‘London’ and ‘UK’. England is incredibly varied. It has a complex history, and it shows. There’s so much regional variation that you never get bored. And like London, there’s so much to see and do. And because of this variation, there are wildly different things you can point at and say “that’s English”. Do you like old ruins? England has them. Do you like picturesque villages? England has them. Do you like the footy? England has tons of it. Do you like technical gadgets? England has a strong boffin community. Do you like X, Y, Z? England has it. I’m not aware of there being skiing, and of course it doesn’t have ‘big country’ driving, but apart from that, England probably has it. Do you like diving for lobsters? Country walks? Tinkering with doohickeys? It’s all readily available in England.

And the cities in England are wildly different. The cities back home only have superficial differences, and a stranger isn’t going to notice much difference between them. But the feel of the cities in England is very different. You really get to see something new when you hit a new city. Obviously London is in a class of its own, but comparing cities like Bournemouth, Bristol, Bath, Oxford, Manchester, York, plus the ones I just drove through… they all feel quite different. There are definitely common elements, but they also have their own distinct flavours.

One bad thing about England is that they can’t help themselves from picking fights… with everyone. Yes, the stereotype is that the English are very polite, and yeah, that’s true. But they also mock everyone. “It’s all a bit of fun” except it’s not. It’s not like the rivalries back home, where people from one city might have a go at another. Those rivalries don’t have teeth – I can’t see a Melbournian refusing to hire a Sydneysider just because of where they’re from. But the rivalries in England… sometimes do have teeth. Brexit is the massive example, but it shows up elsewhere as well. And yeah, they pick a fight with everyone – the English mock the French… and the Germans… and the Irish, the Spanish, the Poles… and when they run out of foreigners, there’s the other countries in the UK, whom all get a ‘just kidding but not really’ serve. Then within England there’s the north versus the south, or mocking folks from the west country. And then of course there are significant class issues as well. It’s so weird that it’s generally a polite country… but they also have to ensure you know who is top dog. There is a definite pecking order.

One surprising thing was just how much stuff is out of order there. Everywhere has the occasional thing that is down for maintenance, but anecdotally it just seems to be higher in England. I didn’t really notice it in the other UK countries I went to, though I wasn’t there that long for them. English people just seem to accept that stuff is down and things will be awkward for a bit.

I do have a lot of positive individual memories of England, but if I’m searching for notable themes, I’m struggling a bit. I feel like I’m sounding overly negative about the place, when in general I had a good time there. There may be an element of ‘forest for the trees’ – such a similar place culturally, I may only be able to pull certain themes and not realise others?

Edinburgh / Scotland

Edinburgh was the only place I visited in Scotland, so I don’t really have a wider Scottish experience. And Edinburgh was stunningly picturesque, at least the inner old city. Step out of the train station and it doesn’t matter which direction you look in, it’s gorgeous. It’s very walkable and small. As I mentioned in the posts, Edinburgh has a unique reputation that I’ve never heard from any other city: I’ve never once heard any visitor say “yeah, I had a bad time in Edinburgh”. Everyone gushes about it. It’s a wonderful town.

I don’t really have a notable bad element to say about Edinburgh. I’m sure that those who live there could furnish a few, but I didn’t encounter any myself. So a story from a native Ediburgher I heard 25 years ago: it used to be called Tinderbox City, and if you sat outside a fire station, you could tell when it was about half an hour past pub closing time. The drunk fellers would stumble home, put the oil on to heat to cook chips, then drunkenly fall asleep and the oil would boil over. Cue firetrucks.

As already mentioned, the surprising thing was just how beautiful the old city is. It was breathtaking when I first saw it – and it’s pretty small as well, so you can see half of the old city from the centre of the ‘bowl’ where the train station is.

Cardiff / Wales

Cardiff is sort of the only place I visited in Wales, apart from a couple of castles. It’s the only place in the UK where I encountered frequent bilingualism. And not only is the Welsh language a gentle, rolling thing, but the Welsh accent in English is a lovely, comforting thing to hear.

Again, I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel for something bad as I only spent a couple of days there, but the hills of Wales did not make friends with my economy-optimised car. Going up one hill I’d dropped down to first gear and was still losing speed. I later found that there was a button to turn economy mode off and get a bit more oomph, but it was pretty funny being in a modern car and struggling to go up a not-that-steep hill.

Similarly, I don’t have a genuinely surprising thing about Cardiff, though finally I hit a city where the water was high quality. At the time, one surprising thing was that driving on Welsh motorways, they actually allowed you to see the landscape – you aren’t corralled by trees bordering the roads. Turns out that this is more of a ‘north-ish of London’ thing rather than a ‘not English’ thing, but at the time my driving had so far been pretty dull because I couldn’t see the landscape change around me in the south of the country.

Streetscape – my surburban street back home

Dublin

My first trip to Ireland was supposed to be a week in Dublin then a week driving around the island, but I got Covid on day 1 of the drive and had to isolate back in Dublin. So my first trip to Ireland was a week in Dublin, and then a week in a Dublin student-accommodation-cum-hotel.

Dublin was where I first felt that society was relaxed. I mentioned up above that the English are always picking fights. In Ireland, apart from the divide with Northern Ireland, there just didn’t seem to be any appetite for social jockeying. It’s not a wealthy place, but the people seem content. The city itself is like a big country town rather than a grand capital. It just felt like a chill place to be.

I don’t really have a particular negative for Dublin. There’s not a lot to it that I saw – it is a city of two million, but it’s not a major tourism or activity hub. There are apparently some issues with crime and poverty, and though I didn’t experience these directly, I did walk in some areas that might warrant a bit more caution at night. But I can’t really say if this perception is fair.

One surprising thing for me was that there were rainbow flags all over Dublin, hanging out of so many windows. I don’t know why the concentration seemed higher here than elsewhere in Europe – maybe after finally checking the power of the Catholic Church, they’re enjoying giving them the finger? There were a number of scandals with the Church in the 1990s and 2000s, and Ireland was the first country to actually formally investigate priests’ kiddie fiddling. So maybe it’s a bit about rebelling from the conservative mores of the Church? No idea, this is all pure uninformed conjecture. But there were a ton of rainbow flags.

Ireland

My second trip to Ireland was to actually do the drive around the island that covid stopped on my first trip. I took the hire car and literally picked up in the same car park in Carlow where I self-diagnosed covid. And I’m so glad I did.

Again, Ireland just struck me as a country at peace with itself. There is obviously the divide with Northern Ireland, but most Irish seem to have moved on from that and are just getting on with life.

The country itself is gorgeous, and I could really spend a month exploring all the counties. A week wasn’t enough.

I don’t really have a bad thing to say about Ireland. Probably the only thing I can say – it doesn’t have a lot of money, so skilled people still emigrate for work. The recent downturn in the big tech companies also caused pain given the high amount of tech workers in Dublin. I was talking to a bloke in Carlow who said his daughter was a nurse earning more in Australia for an 8-hour shift than she did for the regular 12-hour shifts in Ireland. The Irish Diaspora is still a thing, it seems.

The surprising thing about the drive around Ireland was the drive itself. After driving on narrow English highways, driving in Ireland was a dream. I was expecting lots of narrow roads, but instead every highway comes with a massive shoulder that is the width of an extra lane. No getting stuck behind a tractor for half an hour. Driving was a pleasure again.

Also, the Shannon river in Limerick is a bit scary.

Belfast / Northern Ireland

Not with the rest of the UK because I visited it on my ‘Irish’ trip… plus, well, it’s not with the rest of the UK because of Brexit… passport control is between NI and Britain…

Unlike some of the other entries where I don’t have anything notably bad to say about them, for Belfast I don’t have anything notably good about the city itself. It was just a city, for the most part. There was an awesome art museum that I went to, but the city itself? Didn’t leave a particular positive impression.

The bad elements of Belfast are obviously the sectarian violence that still happens there. Again, I didn’t experience this personally, but I saw the precautions – the giant ‘peace walls’ to divide ‘nationalist’ and ‘unionist’ communities. While not as bad as it has been in the past, it’s clearly still an issue because they’re still building more wall – apparently there’s 5 times as much wall was there was 20 years ago.

Surprisingly, there’s a section of the city named after the Titanic disaster. The Titanic museum is there, but that section of the city is literally called the Titanic Quarter. It’s not a particularly old residential area – it has a spartan modern development look about it – but it’s still odd.

Amsterdam / Netherlands

I visited the Dutch twice, but the first time was basically straight from the ferry to the hacker camp and back again, so didn’t experience anything particularly Dutch apart from the highways. Amsterdam was my only time actually out and about in the Netherlands. And I remember the food there being amazing. I don’t know if this is because the food there is particularly good, or if I just got lucky with the random places I tried, but apart from one meal, everything I ate there was incredibly tasty and bursting with flavour. Amsterdam itself is a city attached to the tourist artery, and is heavily focused on that. It’s very clean, very pretty, and also feels a bit like a fishbowl – there for gawping at. The red light district there is almost literally a fishbowl – you’re there to look at the goods behind glass…

The bad thing about Amsterdam was the latent racism. Not that I encountered any personally – I was just a slightly fatter version of the tall, white locals. But all over Europe there’s things here and there recognising past atrocities, whether from colonialism or national socialism or whatever. And it generally sounds genuine. But the stuff I saw in Amsterdam recognising their role in similar was presented in a very much “I was told I had to say sorry” way. The bit that really sticks in my mind is the half-arsed “Indonesian” (Dutch East Indies) room in the massive Rijksmuseum, where most of the items were stone carvings pulled from the same temple. I went to several other museums outside the country who all had similar-sized rooms, but with highly-varied stuff from the various cultures in those islands. There’s some half-arsed apology in the Rijksmuseum room about how it was hard to find artifacts, but it’s a very “sorry, not sorry” approach. I did notice this in places other than the Rijksmuseum, but that’s where it was most obvious.

One surprising thing in the Netherlands was found in the hacker camp, rather than my visit to Amsterdam. There was a supermarket at the hacker camp, and they only took some local Dutch credit card. Yes, the Dutch have a local credit card that is basically only used in the Netherlands. The rest of us had to scrape together whatever euros we could find in order to buy food – apparently the idea of international credit cards (eg Visa, Mastercard, Amex) was lost on the vendors at this event with lots of foreigners coming. In Hong Kong they have a local ‘credit card’ as well… except it’s not a credit card, it’s the public transport card. Everyone uses the octopus card there like a credit card, loading it up with credit. But the difference is that vendors with octopus card readers can also take payment from other credit cards. This was only a problem at the camp, and not in Amsterdam (given its reliance on tourism). So… the Dutch have a Dutch-specific credit card that ‘everyone has’.

I didn’t miss Vegemite (had a supply in London), but I did miss meat pies, “pink matchsticks” pizza (shredded ham), and dim sims

Germany

Apart from the trees below, I don’t have a strong positive theme for Germany that is specifically about Germany as a whole. I was comfortable there and the locals have enough English for this monoglot to get around comfortably, but the “they probably speak better English than you!” that I was told by several people… was patently not true.

A crappy thing in Germany is their addiction to the cash economy. So many vendors don’t take cards, so you have to carry around cash. And the ubiquitous cash machines charge a hefty premium on foreign cards. And you have all the problems that come with handling cash. It felt like stepping back in time.

The most surprising thing about Germany for me was that they are a forest people. Their cities are loaded with trees. If you think you can put a tree somewhere, in goes a tree. Right in the heart of Berlin there’s a roundabout with three sides. The parliament is on one corner. The Brandenburg Gate leading to a major avenue is on another corner. And on the third corner is a large woodland. It wasn’t just Berlin either – same in Hamburg, and the cities I subsequently trained through. As an Anglo man, Germany is seen as “Those guys who started and lost both world wars, to us, the Anglos” plus “They do lots of fine engineering and industry there”. Their love of forest walks doesn’t figure in. There are so many trees. My hometown has a lot of trees for an Australian city, but it pales in comparison to German cities.

Berlin

One thing I kept being hit by in Berlin is how geopolitically important the city has historically been. It has had a crazy history, and I can’t think of a city that had anything crazier than the East/West Berlin period where it was the focus point of two superpowers. It’s been the seat of power for so many major events in Europe. Maybe not on the scale of Vienna or Paris, but it rubs shoulders with them. Combine being a city in flux with also being the current capital, and there’s also a lot of cultural and artistic presence in the city as well. It’s a sort of London Lite, in that despite spending a month there, I was still finding new major things to see and do. The food was great in Berlin as well, something I was worried about given the German reputation for it (unfounded) and my miserable experience in England.

On the down side, Berlin seems kind of… lifeless. In other cities when I’m out and about being a tourist in the day, there’s plenty of people in the streets doing their thing, even in non-tourist cities. Berlin seemed kind of empty. Grand boulevards stretching into the distance, but few people to fill them. I liked it myself since I’m an introvert and don’t really like people, but still, it felt a little lifeless. Not soulless; it definitely has a soul. Just a bit empty. Like the city is zonked.

I was really surprised by the train platforms… and how they don’t have ticket gates. you just go straight from the street to the platform, and they trust you to have a ticket. It’s pretty chill. There’s even one train platform that doubles as a pedestrian bridge to get over the river. Germany also had a ‘post covid’ deal where you could get a single ticket for 9 euro that would cover all transport anywhere in Germany, except some premium services. 9 euro ticket for 3 months, of which I only got the last 2 weeks. Trying to kickstart the tourist economy again, I believe.

Another surprising thing learned in Berlin but not about Berlin was that there is a cadre of black Namibians who are culturally German and don’t speak the local language. Brought over as kids to East Germany and grew up there, then were shipped back at some point. I saw a video of one woman, about 18, who only speaks German since her mother was one of the kids raised in Germany and refused to teach her daughter the local language. So she’s a black Namibian who feels culturally German and feels that this place on the other side of the world that she’s only seen for a couple of weeks is her real home. Identity is a weird thing.

Hamburg

Hamburg was more like an organically-grown city rather than Berlin’s grand boulevards. It was ‘just another city’, for the most part. Nothing in particular stood out as notably good, apart from the German predilection for trees. Near my hotel was a massive park, half of which was woodlands. In the middle of suburbia. They love trees here.

Similarly, nothing stood out as particularly bad either. Hamburg struck me as just another city. Decent place, and it’s an old city so there’s some interesting historical stuff there, but nothing stood out.

My biggest surprise in Hamburg wasn’t really about Hamburg, but when I remembered I had a fear of heights… while zooming up a standalone lift shaft inside a bombed-out church steeple to a height of 70 meters. I’d just been watching the wind and rain blow through the life shaft – it was totally exposed. Whoops!

I went to Chadstone Shopping Centre yesterday – the ‘biggest in the southern hemisphere’. I love that claim – we’re really only competing with three other decent-sized economies for that… anyway, these are the sails at the bus yard there

Spain

I visited Spain in the late Autumn… and the most positive thing was absolutely that I was warm again. It was lovely being warm again – something I also enjoyed on my return to Australia. The colours of Spain are similar to the colours of Australia as well – hot yellows, and parched greens. It doesn’t help that the literal colours of Spain are red and yellow – warm colours, that just make you feel warmer when you’re out in the heat and the national colours are festooned on things

The bad thing for me in Spain was that I had a bad run of food. It was really unexpected, given they’ve got a decent reputation for it. I had few nice meals eating out in Spain, though when I visited with a friend she had us in good places. But when I rolled the dice, I generally was out of luck. Unfortunately, the only really tasty meal I had in Barcelona also gave me massive food poisoning. The rest of the food I had wasn’t regretful like was so often the case in England, just a bit disappointing.

The surprising thing about Spain for me was how much the environment felt like home – the warmth, the yellows and greens, and the light. All felt similar to the homeland.

Barcelona

I was in Barcelona for a while, and I got lucky with a hostel room having a balcony in La Rambla, one of the streets where ‘everything happens’. Barcelona is also full of narrow alleys, which I absolutely adore. In the tourist quarter, these alleys are generally clean and safe, and fun to explore.

Sadly, there looks to be a lot of poverty in Barcelona. It feels like a tired and old city. A tired old dame, maybe a little exhausted. I loved exploring it and it is beautiful, but I’m not sure I’d want to live there.

Surprising for me was that there was a cultural centre directly across from my hostel balcony, and almost every day of the week that I was there, there were multiple parades that started there, or at least, came down La Rambla. The parade ‘giants’ were clearly well-constructed and made with pride, with lots of fabric to twirl around to the musicians that accompanied them. The parade starts would also be heralded by cannon shots that rattled the windows of my hostel room to the point I was worried about them breaking. I chased one of the parades to its endpoint, another cultural centre a little ways off. When they need to move the ‘giants’ back… they parade them back…

Madrid / Algete

Algete is a satellite town of Madrid and is where my friend lives. She took us into Madrid on the Sunday, and I got to see the car culture. Spaniards like big cars, it seems. Madrid seems to be like a ‘big country’ city – everything is half an hour’s drive away. In the centre of the city they have crazy six-lane roads and roundabouts. Certainly the cars are bigger than I saw elsewhere in Europe

Madrid has significant air pollution, which was why my friend’s family had moved out to a satellite town, and on certain days you can apparently see the haze from there. It wasn’t too bad when I visited, though. I wouldn’t really experience air pollution directly for a few cities yet…

On the surprising side of things, Madrid Airport is massive. How big? Well, I arrived at Terminal 3, but my friend was at Terminal 4. I’ll just walk, says I, since my other friend was to arrive soon at T4. It doesn’t work that way says she. I wander through the airport to eventually find the shuttle bus (requiring at least two info desk questions at different points) and hop on the bus… which then leaves the airport, and gets on the freeway… for a while. It’s big.

Porto / Portugal

Porto was the only place I saw in Portugal, and it’s stunningly pretty. It clings to the side of steep, steep hills, and there is literally a cable car at one point to take you from a bridge down to the docks. The colours of Porto are blue and white; nice cooling colours for the Iberian heat, unlike Spain’s red and yellow (same with Catalonia). As Porto is off the main tourist track, it’s also very cheap for Europe. I really loved my stay in Porto, and would like to have stayed longer.

On the down side, it seems that getting around Porto is a bit difficult. If you’re walking, there are steep hills everywhere. And the roads are single-lane, so easily blocked. Woe betide you waiting for a bus if that happens. There is a tram down on the narrow strip of flat land down at the water, but there isn’t much of a metro. You’d get good leg muscles and decent cardio living here.

Surprising was the local ‘delicacy’, the franceshina. When you hear local delicacy or specialty, you think it’ll be some fine food. Not so the franceshina – take a toasted meat sandwich of some kind, then put a blanket of melted cheap cheese over it, so you can no longer see it. Maybe some gravy on it. It was… not good, and I love stodge. The other food I had in Porto was fine, though.

Helsinki / Finland

Helsinki was an interesting place to visit – another ‘big country town’, but a bit cleaner than Dublin. There were so many birch trees in Finland that I now associate the tree with the country, even back in England. Finland, like Ireland, is a country without a lot of money, but it’s doing well with what it has. We went to a sauna while we were there, and I could see that after taking off their big puffy jackets, the Finns were just as svelte as any other continental European.

Finland struck me as stark and colourless. I was musing on how muted the colours were compared to the Iberian countries I’d just visited, when our local friend we were visiting said that he loves this time of year with all the colours out. Even the flag and national colours are stark. Just like in Portugal, it’s blue and white. But in Portugal, that blue and white is patterned intricately, weaving hither and thither. In Finland, the blue and white are stark, solid blocks. They love their flag, too – it’s everywhere, just less obvious than in other places as it kind of blends into the background.

What really surprised me was the Finnish language. It sounded totally alien to my ears. It’s in a language group with just Hungarian and Uralic, and doesn’t sound like anything else. I only speak one language, but I’m able to at least place most European languages and some asian ones. But Finnish was just utterly, utterly alien to me. Tall, white, blue-eyed people who look like me (northern Europeans, basically), but whose mouths emitted an utterly unintelligible jibber-jabber.

Streetscape of the main commercial road near me, with the skyscrapers of the CBD in the background

France

Obviously, the food was good in France. I didn’t always like what I tried, but that was because I didn’t necessarily like the dish itself, rather than the food being poorly-made like in England. There were some interesting things on offer, and the one that sticks in my mind is the entree that was a poached egg with beans in jelly.

I didn’t really get thematic negatives from my less-than-a-week in France. I certainly didn’t encounter much of the aloofness that the French are famous for – maybe the odd person or two, but that’s no different to anywhere else.

The surprising thing was the trains – the French do trains well. Apart from the food, the Eurostar was great, and the trains to and from Lyon also ‘just worked’. No clicky-clacky of the rails, not expensive, and pretty fast. Paris-Lyon is about the same distance as London-Manchester, but that journey was made in 2 hours rather than 4.5.

Paris

Paris reminded me a lot of Berlin in terms of architecture – lots of midrise terraced apartment blocks in the central city, and they all have a uniform look to them. I liked it. It’s also drowning in art galleries, and I only got to visit a couple of them.

With only a couple of days in Paris, I didn’t really find any negatives. The reputed aloofness of the locals wasn’t evident, though to be fair I really only hung around the tourist areas.

Really surprising for me was that more than once in Paris, it felt like I’d stepped into a movie. The dimmer lighting at night, or walking through the catacombs, or a couple of other places, it just felt like I was in a slightly surreal movie world. It’s pretty easy to see why the world loves to visit this city.

Lyon

Like Hamburg, Lyon felt like ‘just another city’. It definitely has its own flavour, but as a city for living in, I’m not sure how you’d differentiate it from others.

Lyon does feel kind of tired, though, and there seems to be quite a lot of homeless here. I don’t know if that’s actually true, or if my hotel just happened to be near where a lot of homeless congregate.

I loved stumbling across the ancient Roman amphitheatre. It was big and still evidently in use; just not on the day I visited. Nearly two thousand years of entertainment going on there, and I choose to believe it’s been in use for that throughout!

Milan / Italy

The food in Italy was generally great as well, such a nice ‘holiday’ from the fare back in Blighty. The most consistently good city for food during my trip was still Amsterdam, but Paris/Lyon/Milan all had excellent food as well. The gelato in Milan was second to none, of course. It’s interesting that I’m not a foodie by any stretch, yet food played such a prominent role in this trip.

On the down side was the omnipresent air pollution. It was hard yards for my subsequent days in Milan. People were still coughing from it indoors in airconditioned areas.

And I’m going to put down air pollution again for the surprising aspect to Milan. The only previous time I’d personally seen air pollution close up was in Shanghai, but even then it didn’t make me cough up a lung. I would see air pollution again at the next location…

Istanbul / Turkey

Istanbul is an old, old city, and there are lots of things to visit in that vein. It doesn’t have the intense variety of London, but it is old in its bones and has heaps of its own variety anyway. It’s also weird to look at the river to a city and have to keep reminding myself that it’s not a river, it’s a strait between two seas. Looking over it, you’re ‘looking at Asia from Europe’, which is kind of true but not true. Also, if you like shopping, then get thee to Istanbul. There are a crazy amount of market stalls there.

On the downside, it’s a pretty slummy city that seems hard to get around in, in terms of public transport. The old city is pretty walkable if you don’t mind hills, but you definitely need a map. It’s also a very masculine city – the streets are full of men hanging out outside shops and whatnot. It’s not to say women are completely absent from the streets, but it’s a very manly place.

And the most wonderful surprise of all goes to Istanbul – the city of cats. Cats everyhere. And the people clearly love them. These aren’t mangy, scrawny alleycats. They’re all healthy looking, though of course there’s the odd nicked ear here and there from catfights. They’re generally friendly as well. Once you start looking, you see little cat food bowls everywhere. Possibly the best part of Europe, all these cats…

England revisited

And that’s basically everywhere I visited, but I want to talk more about England because I feel unduly negative about it above. Let’s just do some quick-fire bits about places I visited

  • Whitby: the fishing village with the abbey up on the bluffs overlooking the town. Inspired Dracula… and the town let’s you know it. Lots of goth clothing shops here, too – with more variety than I saw in London.
  • Melbourne, Yorkshire: just a ‘single road’ village-ette. A little boring. Humourously doesn’t have street numbers, only house names.
  • Melbourne, Derbyshire: the quintessential English country village, with mostly period housing and its own green belt. Beautifully quaint little place, and I’d never ever have enough money to buy a house there…
  • Manchester: fans of the exposed brick aesthetic, but what really struck me about Mancunians was their panache. They really know how to cobble together something that looks good from stuff they found in an op shop. Well done them.
  • Cotswalds: an idyllic rural area, where I stayed at a quintessential English country pub.
  • Oxford: hates cars. Unfortunately when I visited, I was carbound. Seems like a nice place if you can get a park. I couldn’t.
  • Bournemouth: A beach resort town, and the area I stayed in was basically wall-to-wall hotels. Outside this area, it just looks like another town. Corfe Castle (the one with too-narrow arrow slits) and the Tank Museum were near here
  • Bristol: Just a nice city. Used to be a trading hub, but not so much anymore. Seems like a nice place
  • London: Just… so much stuff. So much stuff. And full of tourists. And for good reason. Six months of on-again off-again visiting and I would have only been halfway down the standard tourist checklist. Maybe two-thirds.

Prominent Memories

So what is it that sticks in my mind the most about my visit? Well, a few things. I’m going to list the crappy things first as I don’t want to end on a downer.

Dishonourable Mentions:

  • bad back throughout, which was literally crippling at first.
  • growing awareness of England’s terrible food.
  • having food poisoning from the only realy tasty meal I had in Barcelona and spending an entire day throwing up in a hot hostel room.
  • breaking down and crying for no reason in a doctor’s room (twice), due to depression.
  • getting covid in Ireland, ruining my first road trip (and the previous day had been my happiest in years. what a comedown).
  • week of no sleep at the campgrounds due to a really bad snorer who whimpered after every snore.

Honourable mentions

  • The happiest I was in the entire trip was the first day of my first road trip in Ireland. Irish main roads are really good, the sun was out, the temperature was perfect, and I was skuttering all over Kildare looking for cool stuff to see and do (Kildare hedge maze, fantastic). Perfect driving conditions, and the promise of travel just the way I like it: book that night’s accommodation in the morning, and explore with the car. Also good, but not as good, was going back a second time and pickup up the journey from the carpark where I had to halt it from covid. Fuck covid.
  • Also fantastic was the offer of a close friend’s spare room to use as a base of operations, so I got to spend time with him, too. For a few months, we did a weird circular thing where we kept missing each other as one was travelling when the other was not.
  • Sitting on top of Corfe Castle, sun out, a gentle breeze going, looking out over the period village below and the farmlands to the horizon. A glorious day.
  • Continuously accidentally stumbling over famous history in London. Turn a corner, and there’s something famous that happened there. Or something ancient. Apart from Berlin, I didn’t really stay in any other cities long enough to get this ‘consistent’ feel, so I don’t know if it happens in other European cities as well… but it feels like this is somewhat unique to London and maybe one or two others.
  • Visiting Sachsenhausen concentration camp in Berlin. I wouldn’t say it’s a happy memory, but it’s a notable and important one.
  • Stepping out of Edinburgh train station for the first time and getting the 360 degree fairytale view of the city; picturesque in every direction, with the castle up on the bluff, too.
  • The surreal, movie-like quality that sometimes hits in Paris. I’ve never felt anything like that anywhere else, period.
  • Stumbling across something that looked like Hobbitton on a military fortification island in Helsinki. Lots of mounds with little doors hither and thither.
  • The cats of Istanbul were a very pleasant surprise. There were oodles of mosques there, one around every corner, but it’s the cats that will be prominent in my memory.
  • Eating my hotel breakfast on a little porch in Porto. The hotel breakfast wasn’t particularly good or bad, just normal, but there was something romantic about that little porch.
  • Lucking out and getting a hostel room with a balcony overlooking La Rambla in Barcelona, and then chasing a parade through the side streets, trying to get ahead of it to find out where it was going.
  • The serenity, almost emptiness of Berlin. I don’t know if it was just the area I stayed and hung around in, but apart from a few hotspots, the place was a little empty yet still enough soul to feel laid back.
  • The bright lights of the winter festival in Galway. Even though a small town, it was street after street after street of bright lights chasing away the winter dark.
  • Quite a few castles (and their arrow slits). Corfe holds a special memory because it was my first and also a perfect experience. Blarney gets an honourable mention as while the keep isn’t big, the grounds have lots of stuff to see as well. But I loved them all.
  • Seeing the Russian tank spewing out tons of black smoke at the Tankfest at the Bovington Tank Museum. Apparently that’s just what they do, and it’s not that this particular one was in poor nick.
  • The Sensory Gardens in Carlow, a series of twenty-something different gardens to smell, feel, see, taste, and touch, primarily for the use of special-needs people, but anyone can go.
  • The very civilised feeling of ferry travel across the sea, between England and the Netherlands. In summer with mild weather at least – not sure what it would be like in crappy weather, but in good weather it felt very civilised. None of the nonsense of air travel, just roll on your car and head up to the deck to while away the hours.
  • The Thames Barrier flood control gates. Viewing it was considered ‘home’ for me. It was probably the most-photographed thing during this trip. Good ol’ Thames Barrier!

I have plenty more positive memories if I think about it, but the above are the ones that come to mind without any effort.

And with that, we’re done. I can tie up the trip with a neat little bow. I did so many things that I have trouble remembering them all – part of the reason why this blog exists! Happy to be ensconced back home though.

Epilogue

Because I apparently can’t get enough of travel, I’ve done a road trip to Adelaide to visit my mother, and stopped off in Mt Gambier. So let’s finish things up with a small photoessay…

This is limestone country… and full of sinkholes. This one has had a garden put into it
It’s also timber country, and I’ve driven through hours of pine plantations on approach and departure. This picture of the orderly lumber stacks next to the shady trees just spoke to me for some reason
There’s even a sinkhole next to the Town Hall. No danger, it seems – it predates the hall
And if you look very carefully, you can see a shopping trolley grazing at the bottom of the sinkhole. I kept quiet so as not to spook it
The Blue Lake is as blue as the famous Blue Stone of Galveston
I’ve seen a lot of ‘love locks’ in my recent travels… and these are a disturbingly orderly presentation of them…
On the road again. That is only two hours’ worth of bugstrike, too – I cleaned the windscreen off not that long ago…
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