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My favorite photos coming soon in a special Europe 2012 post.
My flight from London to Boston is running a little late. Airports are comforting these days. Thousands of strangers just sitting around waiting hogging the free wi-fi and eating pre-packaged foods that cost way too much. I’m writing this following a weekend in London. Before that, I was in Amsterdam and Belgium. This trip was 12 days but it was a short trip. I have 10 vacation days I could have used to hit another country like Germany or Copenhagen before heading back to America but I decided to spend my extra money on this trip on buying up some beers that are en route to the US in a few boxes. Amsterdam and Gent Belgium are not new cities to me. London is so I would like to start with that and then share some thoughts on the other places.
London is huge. Americans have an ignorance toward the UK. Yes, it’s an island and small compared to America and probably fits within Texas it’s so small but the UK is three countries. It’s also very populated. London has millions of residents. When buying Apple related magazines, I wondered always why Americans had 3 magazines and the UK had 4. Why so many for such a small country? Well, the English are very well educated and there are a lot of Mac users and there are more people there than the size would suggest. Yet, for how populated the UK is, there is still a great deal of farmland. Riding into London from Brussels via the high-speed train was remarkable. We were traveling very fast. The entire journey took 2 hours to cover hundreds of kilometers with no stops. Amazing actually to be moving so fast! Arriving in London is awe-inspiring. It’s the most modern city I’ve ever set foot in with gorgeous glass skyscrapers, shopping districts that are so fashion forward and a beautifully designed public transit system yet, the house I was staying in was built while Americans were still curled up around fires to stay warm. London is an old city with amazing history and traditions that go beyond 500 years yet the modern comforts feels like the future. My clothes were out of date and so was my luggage but, when you sit in a pub, the floors are hundreds of years old. This continued to amaze me.
The size of London is daunting. On Saturday, Alex and I walked for hours and basically sprinted around the city on a day transit pass and some very comfortable shoes. To see all of the main sights was truly a marathon. He lives in London but it’s quite a journey to get to central London. Also, London is so big that, if you decide to go to Camden for drinks, plan on staying all night because to go from Camden to SoHo is a commitment and one that is not easily done after drinking for a few hours with friends. Stay put is a rule for London shopping, partying or sightseeing. because you can easily spend all day in the Tube hopping around.
In America’s cities, communal meeting places vary. Sometimes you meet in a park or cafe. You might go to lunch with a friend or simply have them come over to your place. London homes are small and coffee isn’t that popular. There are 10 pubs for every 1 cafe. Most pubs serve coffee if that’s your thing but, I visited over 10 pubs in two days and they’re always busy. A pint costs 1-4 pounds and takes a while to go through when you’re talking to friends. Pubs are where you meet which, causes a conflict for people who don’t like beer or alcohol at all. Wine and mixed drinks are available but, beer is really what people drink at pubs. The pub culture of London is engrained to the core of social activities. At 16, you start drinking and it’s what you do while studying, socializing or reading the paper. Once it’s 11AM, the pubs start filling up and stay full until 1AM. They serve decent food and nibbles and many have televisions. There’s 2 on every corner and you’re never far from one of them. I found this to be the most interesting thing about London. English beer is the lager-style so that was unimpressive but, you don’t go to pubs to get drunk. You go there to socialize so low ABV beers are best for this.
English food…well, it’s hard to truly judge it. London is a multi-cultural city. I tried very hard to have English inspired food at pubs and restaurants and I did. The Sunday Pork Roast was nice and Fish & Chips was tasty. We had some seafood at a place in SoHo which was amazing and so fresh. I never had English Beef Stew but I did in Belgium and it was remarkably good but a bit too salty. The food in London was always delicious and completely blew my mind every time I took a bite. Of course, every meal goes great with an English Lager.
The people in London are friendly. They are not assertive or social outside of their group. This is like most cities though. I see it in Boston, NYC and San Francisco. When you’re surrounded by people, you’re less likely to strike up a conversation. Where I live in the woods, seeing another person is rare so you say hello. I was warned that it’s unusual that I bless someone after a sneeze or smile and say hello to someone next to me on the tube. “People don’t do that.” Alex told me. Oh well, I love saying hello to people so whatever.
This weekend was a lucky one as it was the 60th anniversary of the Queen’s position as…well, the Queen. The Diamond Jubilee spans 4 days and I caught two of them. There are concerts, pageants, parades and dozens of events. It’s a very big deal and happens very rarely. I was amazed at how extravagant the entire affair was. Alex was knowledgeable and shared with me the information about the royal family versus the actual government. They are closely linked but the family is in a different role than they were a hundred years ago. Seeing the palaces and government buildings was a lot of fun. Talking politics in the local pub was interesting as there is a very large gap between those who support the monarchy and those who don’t. I am impartial. It’s a proud feeling to follow the family and what they stand for. They are the leaders of the Great Britain and the Commonwealth. They stand for a lot and have held the kingdom together for many years. There is a rise in irrelevance but, the cost they incur to the nation is minimal compared to other costs so I say they stay around. No need to ruin a good thing. However, it’s weird to see such pomp and circumstance over a family who rarely does anything political. Either way, I don’t know very little but seeing the queen’s jubilee was fun and interesting.
London is very expensive. after the exchange rate, cheap beers were costing me $10. Watching my money closely, I spent $400 in only 48 hours and that’s with a free place to sleep. It was pretty atrocious.
I’d visit London again but would do so for longer. The theatre district made me excited to see shows and the museums I couldn’t tour. Allocating time and money to taking in London fully and then heading north to Bristol and then on to Ireland would take a few weeks and something I’d love to do in the future.
Amsterdam wears on me so much. I arrive very early and usually work the day I arrive. It’s a busy city with lots of bicycles and industry. There are too many tourists and the Euro exchange from USD is pretty poor. This leads to a pricey time where your’e surrounded by tourists and walking entirely too much. I’ve been to Amsterdam so many times that there aren’t too many things still to see. I just meet up with old friends or colleagues that live there and wander around taking photos. The city is beautiful and, I was there on the first weekend of summer so a lot of activity and markets were active. The food is always good but, it’s as if I don’t know what to do when visiting anymore. The most enjoyable part about the Netherlands is that I drove to Belgium instead of taking the train with a few colleagues. Seeing Holland by car was very nice. Wind mills and wind turbines line the highway. There was gorgeous sprawling farm land with wild flowers. Traffic was rough but it was a holiday weekend. I had a very nice time in Amsterdam for 2 days but the time in Belgium was much nicer.
Belgium is always nice. The dutch are very friend and the Belgians are a bit more reserved but, once you start a conversation, there are nice stories they can share. It is an extremely small country. Traveling from Gent to the seacoast takes 45 minutes. To Brussels, you’re half an hour away. Crossing the country can be done in 2 hours as long as you are not dealing with traffic. Despite its size, the Belgians are very meticulous to their craft. Textiles, firearms, beer and cheese are their specialities. When the Belgians build things or follow a craft, they do it extremely well and have repeatable quality that surpasses any other culture I’ve seen at least in European countries. They’re a career culture rarely switching jobs or trades. The cities are laid out very well with a nice mix of density, large city squares and parks. Sitting by the canal drinking wine is common and day trips to the forest are a fun past time. American 80s music seems to be universally popular. Brussels is too touristy but very large with many activities. Gent is great because it lacks a huge number of tourists while still having a large population so there’s always something to do. My favorite thing about Belgium is that someone is always willing to help you out. You may have to start the conversation but they are very dependable and friendly to outsiders. Of course, a close 2nd in best things about Belgium to the people is the beer. Beer in Belgium is so great, so delicious and so affordable compared to American beers. Spend 20 Euro and you can have many great beers that take hours to slowly get through given their high alcohol content. Even the large breweries like Duvel can, at a large commercial scale, make repeatable beer that’s very tasty and easy to acquire in stores. The strangest thing about Belgian beer is that there are a lot of Belgians who don’t know about the popularity of their beers.Most drink standard offerings like Jupiler (a popular lager in Belgium) and they know there are other beers but don’t spent the extra one or two Euros. I spent more time educating Belgians about their own beers. It’s not a big part of the culture despite the amazing selection of great beers always available at almost every bar. Each city has at least 5 bars serving amazing beers and most people are drinking Juplier or Duvel.
The food of Belgium is great. Frites are fantastic and the stews are delicious. Coffee is pretty good depending on where you go but it’s not the dishes that are most impressive. Once again, it’s the craft. The individual things that make up the dish are what make the food so good. Hand made mustard is a Gent specialty and it’s delicious. The same goes for great sandwiches with quality bread (mostly an inspiration from the close proximity to France). Delicious cheese is easy to find and their juice and bottled yogurt is delicious. It’s as if the individual parts of a meal are all carefully made on a small scale so you can create something great with the food in Belgium following a visit to the town square and after visiting close to a dozen shops or small markets.
Europe is so amazing. My experience for now is limited to only western Europe but the train network continues to wow me. I can get anywhere by train. There’s no need to fly or drive unless you really want to. I admit though that the country villages are better if you have a car but at $12 per gallon, the petrol in Europe is very high so road trips aren’t always easy. The one thing I have to say about Europe that’s the ultimate lesson so far is that humans are pretty incredible. You’re never far from a helping hand or a new friend. Each country and culture is different but humans are the same. We are all in this together and it’s a shame that are minor differences cause so many issues. Men in all cultures that I’ve met just want to eat, work toward a greater purpose and have sex. This is a universal fact and one that’s pretty annoying but I see is just how men are. We all have a craft and to discuss that craft with others is the greatest feeling.
I look forward to this trip and hope that next time I can add another country to my passport stamp.