Wednesday, 20 March 2013

Don't Call Them Eastern Europe

North Americans commonly misuse the term "Eastern Europe" to distinguish from the western European countries that are more ubiquitous with their romantic idea of Europe. Thus, Central Europe gets less attention from would-be travellers infatuated with glorious cultures such as French and Italian. Nevertheless, this region is characterized by a vibrant culture driven by remarkably creative and energetic youth. There is lots to see and do, and all within the confines of a cheap and safe environment.
Vltava River, Praha
The three headed beast of Budapest, Wien and Praha power the engine of Central Europe (well, I'm not actually sure where Central Europe proper is or if there is even an actual defined border for this region). I have a bad habit of calling cities by their local names. So to clarify: Wien, the capital of Austria and home of the wiener, is Vienna. Praha, the capital of Czech Republic, is Prague. Budapest, the capital of Hungary, is actually Budape┼čt with a "sh" sound.

Herein is a quick and dirty comparison of my time and impression of each of the cities. I am therefore obligated to give you the standard black-and-white warning message that "the views and opinions expressed here are solely based on my experience and are not stated as facts, nor are they intended to cause offence to the subject parties" and so forth and so forth...

In other words, don't sue me, don't hate me. After all, I'm only writing because you want to read me.

Architecture
Budapest, Wien and Praha are holdovers from the Habsburg Empire of the middle of the second millennium and, thus, share similar architectural styles. Winding streets in the city centres are arranged with colourful buildings of 7 or 8 stories, made of massive interlocking stone blocks that seem to jump out at you. One gets a majestic feeling walking around these cities.

Praha is definitely the prettiest city of the three. In fact, it has maybe the best mix of urban development, topography and green spaces I have seen anywhere in Europe. Its cathedrals stand tall and gothic dark, flanked by buildings with eclectic designs and adornments. Its picturesque river, the Vltava, splits the old city, Staremesto, from the hilly castle side, with grand vistas of the entire city.
Graben pedestrian street, Wien
Wien stuns through sheer grandness and scale. Viewing cathedrals and government buildings require physical exercise - many repetitions of neck craning and jaw dropping. But its open spaces provide the correct viewing angles as they are impressively large and inspire a royal feeling of happy-bliss. At street level, the sidewalks are clean and orderly, a byproduct of German efficiency.

Budapest has a beautiful city centre, characterized by a castle on a hill, overlooking a steady river and an old city. But the city still bears many scars from its communist days. These scars are bandaged within the city centre, but are clearly visible if you enter the suburbs, still blanketed by dull concrete housing. The lack of restoration of the suburbs of Budapest is reflected in Hungary's weak economy.
Duna, or Danube River, Budapest
Culture
Tourists on whirlwind Eurotrips might lump these cities into one category, which is understandable considering their geography, population and cultural similarities such as food. But I think Budapest, Wien and Praha are wonderfully unique. Its the same principle in which people may mistake Calgary and Edmonton for being the same kind of city, or Toronto and Montreal.

Budapest has an unbelievably youthful vibe. It feels as if all the old people decided to move out and let the youth take over. On the streets, in the shops and metros, young people are everywhere, walking with style and a sense of determination, as if they are busy conquering the world. Their spirit and energy has imbued a creative atmosphere that can be seen in its trendy shops and in its trademark nightlife attraction, the ruin bars, which have a rough and edgy feel, and are covered wall-to-wall with eclectic and retro objects.

Wien is the only of the three cities that escaped the Soviet influence of communism and therefore has enjoyed economic prosperity since WWII. Its wealth combined with German efficiency is evident walking around the city. Despite this, Wien has a young and creative energy that has helped to propel it into the rarefied air of one of the most desirable cities in the world to live and work, with one of the highest quality of life ratings. There are many wonderful coffee shops to gather and philosophize, cinemas to enjoy films, and museums to get your think-on.
Charles Bridge, Praha - busker with marionette
Praha is developing a reputation for being the Amsterdam of the east. In Praha, you can party cheap and party hard. I've heard anecdotally that you can get easy access to any drug you desire, and that there is a fairly casual approach to dating. It's easy to see why people party so much here - Czech beers and liquors are some of the best in Europe. Kozel is one of my favourite beers and I believe it is sold internationally. And the Czech national liquor Becherovka is 38% alcohol, but goes down super sweet and smooth.

My Experience
Unfortunately I had to rush through this leg of my journey. I could easily have spent much more time in each of these three cities. As usual, my personal accounts of these cities have nothing to do with the museums and cool buildings, but are defined by the people I met.
First time playing sports in a looong time. I really missed it
In Praha, I had the privilege of staying with someone who could lay claim to being "the most interesting man in the world." This ex-video engineer for the Rolling Stones, ex-army officer, now turned English teacher held a concert on his birthday in which he performed with his rock band. The day after, we participated in indoor beach volleyball, an event which he also organized. My friend could also lay claim to the title of "the messiest man in the world." Though his flat was a sight for sore eyes, it reminded me that his priorities lay in his passions: languages, music and people. I cleaned his dishes for his birthday! I also met up with a friend whom I met a several months earlier, and we had a great chat over our exciting working experiences since our first meeting.
Opera in Wien
In Wien, I stayed with a great Couchsurfing host. He inspired me to find homestays in Buddhist monasteries. Ironically, due to the uninspiring weather, I was able to find some really hip coffee shops to take shelter. Later on, squished in the standing room section of the opera, which is the thing to see in Vienna, I found one of those random encounters which I preached so much about. I made friends with a Latvian English teacher, and afterwards we chatted over McDonald's 1 euro burgers, then the next day over pay-as-you-wish Indian food.
Market in Budapest
Budapest was one of the few cities I visited a second time; also one of the few places I kept meeting really memorable people. I stayed at two different hostels and with two different Couchsurfers, each a fun and positive experience. But I actually did stuff too. By night I frequented ruin bars and, by day, ate at the train station styled market and sauntered up and down the Duna (Danube) River. I even splurged in one of the many secondhand shops. I also went caving, an awesomely fun adventure, and visited the famous hot baths, filled with people of all ages and minimal clothing, to escape the cold weather.

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Despite the harsh realities about Budapest, it is a really awesome city. I had an amazing time and will take away some of my best memories of my trip from here. Wien, while it is very posh and proper, especially compared with the casual "no rules" mentality of Praha and Budapest, also has something for everyone. And Praha is simply the place to be to go wild and live life to the max, but also provides enough space for quiet and contemplation.

However this, my dear readers, does not mean I am recommending Budapest to you. One lesson that has continuously repeated itself during my trip is that every place in the world is unique. So I guess what I'm saying is... go to all three!

One end of the Charles Bridge, Praha

Saturday, 2 March 2013

I Stayed For The Cats

Finally, after my whirlwind tour through eastern Europe and Turkey, I was ready for my second working stint, after teaching English in Moscow, and the first farmstay of my travels.
The beautiful Peloponnese in southern Greece
For those not familiar with the concept, a farmstay entails working on a farm for accommodation and food. It has been popularized by the online network WWOOF.org – World Wide Opportunities for Organic Farming, which connects farmers to eager helpers. “WWOOFing” is actually quite popular for many reasons. For myself, it allows a born and raised urbanite with zero relationship with earth and the fields which produce what goes on my fork, to get some real hands-on experience with farming, and witness first-hand the 100% natural and chemical-free circle of life. And enjoy its spoils, such as real olive oil, that which cannot be obtained in Canada.

My latest opportunity took me to Elea, in the rolling gray mountains of the Peloponnese, near the southern tip of Greece. This farmstay, like my teaching stint, was available on helpx.net, which connects helpers to help exchanges beyond just organic farming. However, I was initially recommended it by my friend Chris who met me in Istanbul after his farmstay here. The welcoming and warm family, Roberto, Barbara and their daughter Lorena are helpX veterans, having hosted many helpers in the past. I joined them and another helper, Leslie from France.
Non-stop olive picking for about 2 weeks
My main job was to help pick olives in a large orchard, rows upon rows of olive trees, as part of a five-person crew. The task involved a lot of cutting branches with saws, and ripping olives off of those branches with oversized mechanical toothbrushes. Although the physical labour was tiring at times, I was able to work at my own pace and the hours were never excessive. And here's the kicker - I got to be outdoors all day, surrounded by trees, mountains and sky, and not cubicle walls, prison-like in their oppression.

In fact, there was nothing oppressing about this life.
A cloudless morning for clear mountain viewing
For over two weeks I woke up to an amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea, surrounded by flat blue-gray mountains with white icing on top. Cats and dogs greeted me on the front porch. Also on the farm were horses, goats, chickens and rabbits. A natural soundtrack accompanied the morning show, played by roosters and songbirds, with no car engines to drown them out. It is a place that reminds you that, quoting the movie Water World, if you sit still, you can hear the sound of the world. It was a truly ideal natural escape. Cars weren’t the only modern amenity absent. With wood powered stoves for indoor heating and solar powered water heating, I had to adapt to a little less comfort in the home.

However, my connection to the innocent and entirely natural setting of the farm could have been severed by the presence of another overpowering technological connection  - the internet. Thankfully, the family once had it but was now rid of it, due to conflicts with their provider. Without it I was unshackled from the worst of soul-sucking distractions, and free to enjoy what was directly in front of me – blissful nature.
One half of the cats on the farm on a windowsill
Aside from working I did a lot of reading, some yoga, and hung out with the animals, particularly the cats. The family took us on some day trips to historic ruin sites in the Peloponnese. Oh, and they kept me very well fed! They cooked lots, I even cooked some. Best of all, everything was organic, and most of it was from our own backyard. Oranges and almonds may taste good anywhere, but there’s an added authenticity about picking it fresh off the tree.

I could really go on and on about what I learned and did in two weeks… alas, there is only time for the moral of my story…
Day trip to Monemvasia, with stunning views of Greece
Roberto and Barbara’s farm provided the perfect tonic for my travels, a much needed change of pace, and a foray into organic farming, developing a stronger connection with the earth. The main header of my Calgary blog says “finding tranquility.” I found lots of it here, however, like enlightenment and other perfect things, pure tranquility is hard to find. In my search I ventured from one side of the lifestyle balance to the other – urbanite to ruralite. But I gained an appreciation and a realization that I still crave certain aspects of urban life. Now my challenge is to strike a meaningful balance of both.

If you have always wondered where your food comes from beyond the freezers and aisles in your local supermarket, sought an escape from urban life or, conversely, a stronger connection with animals and the earth (or simply need a free place to stay and are willing to work), I highly suggest doing a farmstay (even purebred urbanophiles will benefit, I think, gaining an appreciation for the concrete and steel habitats in which they are adapted).

Farmstays are available all over the world, some are probably even a short drive from your home, and vary in stay lengths, from weeks to just a weekent. The recommended websites WWOOF, helpX and Workaway are not free, but do not cost much to use, especially compared to the money saved doing a farmstay. It’s an enriching and potentially life changing experience. I definitely recommend it!

A valley of olives and oranges
Flickr photos: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157632892487223/
Cats are king
Cat album: http://www.flickr.com/photos/11monthsandrew/sets/72157632896898230/