Now firmly in Europe and no longer on the Silk Road, I was completely caught off guard by how sudden the changes would be. After being close to alone for so long, I was now surrounded by tourists. Everyone can speak English. Fancy mosques are replaced by fancy churches, and all the buildings — spires, statues, windows, paint — exude Europe. Crowded streets of hodge-podge clothing stores give way to wide streets of high fashion. Instead of small businesses’ neon signs fighting for attention, it’s billboard-sized screens. Pop culture, advertisements, posters depicting people of a far more diverse spectrum of skin colours and subcultures both mainstream and niche, promoting individuality, but also frequently flaunting flashier things, wearing less clothes, trying too hard. And no more marshrutkas, dolmuş, or minivans: it’s all trams. For better or for worse, I was very much back in the Western world again.
I’m satisfied that this is the end of my trip, and though I passed through some stunning locales most people would go out of their way just to see, I have to admit that my focus wasn’t all there anymore. My planning only took me up to Istanbul, and the places thereafter — all of which warrant another future visit — were really a bit of an afterthought: all I wanted to do was to see my friends.
Even more so, I just wanted to feel like a normal person again.
Saint-Pierre, St Pierre and Miquelon
A mere 25 km from Newfoundland lies a geopolitical curiosity. Canada shares a border with the US, and a maritime border with Greenland, but did you know it also shares one with France?
(the way home)
I enjoyed Benin so much that I stretched my stay an extra two days, cutting everything else from my itinerary. Instead of using them to go somewhere far, I chose to hang out — at the beach, at the badminton court, at Miguelle’s house, at my hostel with Firmin and Clementine.
With my French finally at a basic conversational level, it was all the more refreshing to get to know people better… tragically, just as I was about to leave. We coached Kesley through her interviews for a volunteer opportunity in Canada. Aubin and I exchanged music and learning materials related to informatics. Maman and her gang at the shop gossiped some more, teased me about potentially dating African women, while I dished right back to them. Lots of time killed on Youtube, huddled around a smartphone. I played a bit more badminton… and at least scored a single point. Watched a few telenovelas with Clementine and her family, then received a few bags of peanuts and tapioca flour to bring to her brother in Boston. I was killing time and enjoying company. I felt like I could stay… I really didn’t want to leave.
If you told me where I’d be now and who I’d be with way back in January, I’d… I don’t know! But if you asked me in April – well, look at the end of my last entry in my South America blog for a quick hint.
This is certainly not what I was expecting eight months ago, but it’s the most apropos way for me to end this trip.
After ending my South American leg with Oscar and Silvia, it only seemed fitting to end my Europe leg with them again, after we split up in Ecuador to head around the world in opposite directions. At their invitation, I spent 15 days at their home in beautiful Mallorca. Continue reading
Côte d’Azur (France, Monaco)
One last NUS friend to visit! I wasn’t able to meet up with Ivan in his native Serbia, but the Cote d’Azur more than suffices! Unfortunately, there are no hostels in Cannes, where he was staying with his sister. I stayed in Nice, the largest and cheapest city in the area, but a 1.5 hour bus ride away. Oddly enough for what may be the most expensive region in Europe, that bus only costs 1€!
It was five days of heading to the beach, walking around some very pretty Mediterranean towns, experiencing the famed rudeness of people from the region, ogling rich people with their expensive cars and terrifyingly wrinkly tans, and eating way too many pains au chocolat. All that leads to a pretty darn good time. We met up with Olympio in Cannes, walked at least three loops around Antibes, felt centuries out-of-place in the medieval area of Cagnes (which feels more like a lived-in open-air museum), dived head first into giant waves in Nice, and witnessed a double-rainbow framed by both Monaco’s palace and casino. Guess there really is gold at the end of a rainbow.
Oh, and somewhere in all of that, helped carried a grand piano up five flights of stairs.
Dublin and Inishmore, Ireland
Ireland is the last new country of my trip, and my final portion of solo backpacking.
Just like for Macedonia and Kosovo, I wasn’t planning on being here. The Schengen problem led me here, and it seemed an appropriate way to decompress from the emotional turmoil of the last little while and the funeral in Stockholm. While I had a week for Ireland, in contrast to Macedonia and Kosovo, I chose to keep the number of destinations low and spend more time in each.
I spent a couple days in Dublin (Irish: Áth Cliath), which is quite small. Admittedly I wasn’t in too much of a mood to see things. The rain didn’t help – it felt like a rain cloud was following me half the time! You can literally see that it isn’t raining across the street, or vice-versa. On a city tour, I learned a little more about the history – the shamrock (Catholics explaining the Trinity), invasions, countless failed uprisings, gaining independence from the UK in 1922, the Northern Ireland split due to religious causes (Rep. Ireland is Catholic, the North is Protestant), and the droughts that killed so many and caused many others to emigrate, bringing Irish culture and pride (see St. Patrick’s Day, a largely expat creation) around the world with them while causing Ireland to lose 20% of its population that it has never recovered from. Still, how mere religious divisions can cause wars is really lost on me. Continue reading
Pristina and Prizren, Kosovo
Before I start, a note — Kosovo (Albanian: Kosova) is recognised by roughly half of the world’s countries as an independent country, Canada included. Others do not support or outright reject the claim, continuing to recognise it as an autonomous province of Serbia under UN administration, as Serbia itself continues to assert.
Kosovo was never on my radar for this trip, but with three extra days lying around before I needed to head back to Istanbul, it seemed like a good opportunity to see what was there, especially since the only things I’ve ever heard about Kosovo are unfortunately news stories about war and tension. Kosovo is also Europe’s newest country, having declared independence unilaterally in 2008. Around both cities I went to, I found pro-independence and anti-Serbia graffiti. Yet oddly for an independent country, three flags are flown commonly – Kosovo’s, yes, but also Albania and USA. During Kosovo’s pre-independence days, Albania’s flag was flown for its primarily Albanian population wishing to assert itself from Serbia. America’s flag is flown due to George Bush Sr. and especially Bill Clinton’s support of the country during its more tumultuous days; both presidents have large streets named after them in Pristina, and there’s even a statue of Bill Clinton…with a shop named “Hilary” next to it! Continue reading
Bitola and Ohrid, Macedonia
On my way to Macedonia’s crown jewel, Lake Ohrid, I decided to make a little pit stop in Bitola for a look at the country’s second-largest (though still pretty small) city. Well, our bus itself took a long pit stop on the way there – there was an accident in front of us on a small road, with not enough room to u-turn.
At least we were stuck in some pleasant scenery. Being the only non-Macedonian on the bus was a little bit strange at first. As our bus stood waiting on the road, some of us went in and out to see the accident or just to get some fresh air. After a long time, a younger looking man, Antonio, struck up a conversation with me, curious as to what I was doing in Macedonia. He spoke some English – not great, but enough for me to understand kind of what he wanted to say; so we kept our conversation topics pretty basic. I appreciated the effort but I felt bad that I wasn’t able to reciprocrate in his language (or any of the other ones he speaks better – Albanian and Turkish. They have to learn a lot of languages in school! On multiple occasions when he wasn’t certain, he called his girlfriend, who spoke better English and also computer access to Google Translate! Aww. Continue reading
I’ll admit I knew absolutely nothing about the Republic of Macedonia (Republika Makedonija with a hard “k”, not a soft “c”) before coming. Well, other than the fact that Greece disputes their name, causing them to be admitted into the UN under the clunky provisional reference name of “former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia” (“FYROM” for short, pronounced like “fee-rom”), over the claim that most of ancient Macedon lies in current Greece. Oh, and I knew Macedonia’s flag – unique in design, one of my favourites around cause looking at it just makes me happy.
But I came here because of my Schengen area restriction. As a Canadian, I’m only allowed to travel in the Schengen area (the shared customs zone that encompasses much of Europe, where you can cross borders without having your passport checked) for 90 days within a 180 day period. There is no option to extend this short of applying for school or residency. With Sweden now on my itinerary as well as promises to meet people in France and Spain, all of which would use up the rest of my allowance, I needed to stay outside of the Schengen zone for at least a few weeks. Turkey was supposed to be my remedy for this, but with no desire to stay there, I opted to head to a nearby non-Schengen country. Back in Israel, Bernhard suggested Macedonia…so here I am! Continue reading
Okay, so I kinda lied at the end of my last entry. I had a five hour layover in Rīga, Latvia between Tallinn and Tel Aviv, Israel, and decided to take the opportunity to blitz through the old town. With the city about 40 minutes away from the airport by bus though, time was tight.
I certainly didn’t make it easy for myself by getting lost immediately after stepping off the bus. Turns out I had taken it too far – but no one told me where the old town was! There were hardly any directional signs either, like there were in Tallinn – and the ones that were there were all in Latvian. (Despite the proximity of Estonia and Latvia, and the fact that they are both tiny countries, their languages have absolutely nothing in common.) Continue reading