Traveling for a Selfie

Think back to the 1800s, about a century before the invention of the Internet; before electromagnetic and electronic technologies; before Faraday, Marconi and Bell. During this time, horses enabled long distance communication and travel. Fast-forward to 2014, an era of micro-absorbent travel towels, and apps that carry everything from your guidebook to your flight documents to your public profile displaying your every setting, meal, view, friend and feeling. This, my latest entry, spawns from the recent outburst of social media in travel.

I am aware of the irony involved in addressing this topic in a travel blog. I am not ashamed to say that I peruse the pages of countless explorers, artists, activists and foodies to help me make the most of my own journeys. I am definitely no stranger to Facebook or Instagram. And, I am the last person to turn down a good travel app – maps, currency exchangers, and restaurant locators to name a few. That being said, I think that a line must be drawn somewhere between being resourceful and feeling empty without a selfie from every place that you visit. Despite powerful marketing attempts to turn us into mindless, hash tag-posting consumers, we should pocket our cellphones, digital cameras, netbooks and earphones to be where we are!

I’m talking about REAL experiences from the very REAL life you are living right now! I speak for the senses you use to taste the fresh lemon sardines in Vernazza, Italy, to see Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia Museum in Spain, to smell the sea saltpans on the Mediterranean coast in Malta, and to rub the statue of St. John Nepomuk for good luck on the Charles Bridge in Prague! We should value the immediacy, engagement and authenticity of our REAL travel experiences, rather than feel tempted to impress and stalk users of social media platforms whom we often don’t even know!

All too often, I see tourists browsing through photos and scouring the streets for cafes with free Wifi to post the latest on their travels. In fact, it happens so often that we have even developed signature poses for these photo updates.

The Point and Gawk.

The Point and Gawk.

The Air Hug.

The Air Hug.

But Can You Make It Inappropriate?

But Can You Make It Inappropriate?

Miniaturize It.

Miniaturize It.

Nonchalant.

Nonchalant.

I’ll admit that I am the aforementioned tourist sometimes, sacrificing quality real time to send a message to a friend telling him/her what amazing thing I saw/did or to take a perfectly timeless photograph. But somewhere between another weekend in Paris and a day avoiding the rain in Belgium, you will experience the be all and end all of travel experiences; something so staggering that all you want to do is engrave every second of the moment you are in into your mind forever. Sitting thousands of metres atop Mont Blanc just before snowboarding down to the bottom or paddling through the caves in the Malta’s Blue Grotto were some of the many moments that have caused this for me. I know what you’re wondering now, Did I order an extra side of cheese with this post? The last thing I want is to drive you away with quotes about the enriching experience of travel that ring true as the word ‘yolo’. All I’m saying is, you can google a photo, snag one off a friend, check who tagged who and when another time.

As I said, the Internet and social media have their perks. We are able to purchase tickets and even select our preferred seats on nearly any plane, bus, train, or carpool out there. We are then able to flip through photos of countless bedrooms, lobbies, and dining areas until we have selected our accommodation, all at the tap of a button. Before we arrive, we can reserve day trips and tours to island hop or parasail or visit a famous sight/museum/building. However, is it possible that travel has lost its spontaneity because of our meticulous online planning? Why not show up and familiarize with the city before deciding where to stay or what to do? Or, instead of e-reviews, why not rely on the recommendations of friends who have traveled or lived there before?

Meeting new friends is another of many aspects of travel affected by the internet and social media. When all is said and done, there should be a happy balance between real presence and virtual presence; convenience and spontaneity.

I hope this provided some food for thought for those of you planning on “checking in” from wherever your next trip may be and a reminder to everyone to live the moment!

Phuket, Thailand

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Travelling in Southeast Asia is a bit different from traveling in Europe. There may be visa requirements for Canadian visitors to several places, like China, Vietnam, and Japan. I visited Phuket for a few days with my two friends, Jed and Will.

The Man With the Golden Gun, The Beach and The Hangover were added to my ascetic list of research homework for the week prior to my trip. And what a trip it was.

It began with my graceful acceptance of the award for most prodigious accommodation locator ever. Yes, in my head, the age old phrase “nanananana” rang loud and clear, but on the outside, I was a perfect Kate Middleton. My travel companions had fought me right up until the morning of our flight because I got them to agree to stay at a cheaper bungalow hotel on Patong Beach. What they didn’t know is that not only would it save us a small fortune each, but also that it would be a beautifully decorated hotel serving free breakfast and situated directly on Patong Beach!

Across the street from the hotel.

Across the street from the hotel.

On our first day in Phuket, we decided to hop on a boat tour to the Phi Phi Islands. We arrived at the dock at 7:00 a.m. As we crammed ourselves in between the coffee machine spewing sugar-water and the complimentary cheesies, one of the guides was blaring on about sea urchins and the astonishing protective capabilities of a pair of rentable flippers. We sipped the coffee until we were amenable and then quickly boarded the speedboat. Being the eager beavers we are, we volunteered to sit at the nose of the boat. We took our seats across from some first-timers and hid our phones in the cabin as we anticipated it would be a wet and bumpy ride. You have no idea. I flew out of my seat at a height that may have caused passengers of other boats to think I was parasailing; a height that would enable my 5 foot self to complete a slam dunk; a height that, upon landing, would easily shatter my tailbone; I think you get the point.

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As we pulled through the bay entrance, a narrow opening in the circumference of a towering limestone slab draped in trees and stalagmites, all of that jabber about broken tailbones seemed to disappear. Despite our guides’ stolidity on their hundredth visit to paradise, my eyes were wide open so as to survey every glimmer of the fluorescent turquoise water, every rumble within the caves, and every flutter of a fish fin. Every sight and creature was exotic and new and wonderful. In all my excitement, I failed to notice that a first-timer lost his cool on the way to the bay and the wind had forced a generous serving of his own white, lumpy vomit into his face.

No matter. I was lost in the Andaman Sea … No, literally. My friend and I decided to grab a pair of flippers and head from the reef to the shore of a tiny, untouched beach and the boat nearly left us there! Before we noticed our boat was leaving us, however, I caught a glimpse of a Moorish idol, also known as Gill from Finding Nemo!
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After feeding all our bananas to the monkeys who scaled down the cliff side for a visit, we headed to the Phi Phi islands for a meal of our own. Following a capricious dining experience with one very welcoming and well-off cat, we sped off to the island of Khai Nai for some dessert.
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I just want to take a moment here to stress the ecstasy inducing experience that is eating tropical fruit from Thailand, especially pineapples. To this day, it is the first euphoric memory and the first word that comes out of my mouth when anything Thailand is asked of me: pineapples. I sound ridiculous, I know, and I downplayed my reaction at first so as not to draw any unnecessary attention. It was only after I saw other people pretending to be part of certain tour groups in an attempt to get more free pineapple that I began realizing the significance of what I’d just discovered. Anyway, here one is.
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Aside from offering mouth-watering tropical fruits and a backdrop suitable for world-class yoga, Thailand also offers some much needed travel perspective. It is not uncommon to feel that the air is tense in many countries in Southeast Asia. Even in Singapore, one of the safest and least corrupt places I’ve been to, it’s easy to feel like you are walking on eggshells where the government is concerned. In Thailand, corruption is infamous; bribery of government officials, drug abuse and prostitution form a lot of the hearsay. While I was out enjoying Bangla Road in all of its Aussie-clad glory, or being treated by a humble worker to a tour of a temple in Phuket’s Old Town, I couldn’t help but contemplate the impact of my visit on Thai culture and politics. Should I avoid putting money in the pocket of government tourist companies? Or a bar owner that seems to be running something a little more dodgy upstairs? Or a Thai “massage” establishment? As it turns out, there is good and bad wherever you go; my resolve is to be well informed, responsible and respectful. Today, the Thai military leader has become president, presumably leading to a less corrupt reformation of the Thai government.

Bustling Adventure: 3 Days in Vietnam

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Chào Vietnam! My name is Cindy and I’ll be an exchange student in Singapore this summer. I decided to make use of the strategic location in South East Asia and embark on a small three-day trip before the semester starts. More about the first week of class in the next blog post. The first day in Ho Chi Minh reminded me of small cities in China, very busy and unregulated. A little scary to walk around with few streetlights and left and right turns everywhere, but soon enough I got used to jaywalking like locals.

After walking around the first day by foot I was able to cover most of District One; the financial and commercial hub of Ho Chi Minh. The many main attractions like Saigon Opera House, Notre Dame Cathedral, Central Post Office are heavily influenced by French colonial rule. The grand architecture though clashes with the scooters and the street vendors on the street that remind you that you are in Ho Chi Minh.

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Ho Chi Minh really is not a very walk-able city; anything beyond District one is impossible to reach on foot. In a city with about seven millions people there are four million scooters – almost the number of residents in Singapore! HCM really isn’t a place for a luxurious and pampering type of vacation, which is better left to either a resort in Phuket, or a big city with developed infrastructure. The trip however does offer a culturally rich experience. The second day, I hired a local tour guide and went around on a Vespa to other Districts in the city to see experience Ho Chi Minh like a local. I confess, the first few minutes were nerve wrecking, and there were times during the trip I thought it might have been a mistake to put myself amidst the crazy driving, but it is the fastest way to travel – even enjoyable once you’re accustomed. (Though, if you are really faint of heart, it might get to you. Still, if there is a time to take some risks it’s when traveling).

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The third day, I left the city and went to the Mekong Delta region, the “Rice Basket” of Vietnam. The soil in the region along the river is the most fertile and almost all locals here are involved in agriculture. I was hoping to visit the Cai Be floating market in the early morning to catch the small vendors, but by eight they had already cleared out, and only lone boats or wholesale boats were left on the water. Since the drive is about three hours from HCM, to catch the busiest time of the market, it would be better to find a place to stay in Cai Be the night before…  Even then, when visiting the market – I imagine – the landscape would have been almost the same centuries ago. Less the motors in the new boats of course, but the water, the houses, the buying and the selling of goods by the same families.

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N.B. I checked the price of tours online before landing in Ho Chi Minh, and must say, in this case do not plan everything before hand! At least do not buy tours, trips or vouchers before you get there. Tours that were $52 I found for $18, and $65 for $20. There is so much competition locally that you are guaranteed to find the tour you want for the lower price with vacancies for the next day.

 

 

 

 

Millionaires, Moths and Chicken Rice: An Intro to Singapore

Off the tip of the Malay Peninsula, barricaded from the Southeast Asian haze by skyscrapers and architectural marvels lies a thriving city-state and island country. I’m here squeezing the remains of a used teabag in what seems like one of the five or six homes not owned by millionaires…

I’m Sarah, an engineering undergrad at U of T with an incredible and overwhelming 13 months of travel experience to 21 countries and over 60 cities in Europe, Africa and Asia. This summer, I am working on a corrosion-based research project – go figure, Singapore’s busy port is also renowned for its ship repair services – in my field of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE) at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

I have boldly begun my exchange by dragon boating, traveling to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with the NUS rock climbing team, and much more. The following are my first impressions of Singapore.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

Cargo ships lining the Port of Singapore just before landing at Changi airport.

The first and most obvious spur of culture shock is the climate difference, causing me to throw in the sweat-ridden towel and submit to the dewy island air and temperatures that are never short of 20°C. Since my immobile and sticky beginnings, I have progressed to sleeping comfortably with only a ceiling fan and appreciating the detoxifying process that is an evening run. Nevertheless, when the will to beat the heat is hanging by the cumbersome thread of my lab-appropriate clothes, air-conditioning is hardly scarce. Dehydrated and weary, I still managed to make some new friends, some of which have migrated here all the way from Malaysia in a rare swarming.

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Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah and a Malaysian giant moth. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Otters, a white-faced saki monkey, a cheetah selfie and a rare Malaysian giant moths. In the spirit of abusing the privilege of writing a public blog and for the sake of having someone know the reason behind my future trauma-induced illnesses, look up the Malaysian/Singaporean giant moth swarming for yourselves.

Like other city-states I have visited, including Monaco, Vatican City and, debatably, Dubai, Singapore has an ultra-modern appeal attributed to its post-independence booming economy. Not even hiked up registration, taxes and insurance can prevent the Maseratis from flying in the face of minimalistic religious roots. Gardens by the Bay, near the man-made stretch of land carrying famous Marina Bay Sands Hotel, houses a grove of “super trees” that capture solar energy to put on an evening light show! Even campus is riddled with luxuries; rooftop infinity pools, free shuttles, terrace restaurants etc. In what I can only assume is an attempt to preserve these landscapes, there are strict laws prohibiting littering, chewing gum, eating on public transit, and even not flushing the toilet. I was greeted by my first vacant stare from a local Singaporean when I asked for a napkin with my meal. I have yet to see a napkin in this country.

Super Tree Grove

Super Tree Grove

Speaking of meals… My supervisor and new-found friends (not the animal kind) have been very helpful in feeding me and stoking my will to try Singaporean, Indonesian, Malaysian, Chinese and Indian cuisine like kway teow, laksa, kaya coconut jam, chicken-rice, and stingray! Despite finding the first actual use for my tongue scraper after eating my first mouth-full of chili peppers, I am now head over bowels in love with sambal chili. I have also had my fill of exotic tropical fruits and fruit juices, like the notoriously potent durian, whose smell renders it banned from many public places.

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left);  sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Laksa (top left); rice cakes (middle left); sesame peanut ball (bottom left); sambal sting ray wrapped in banana leaves (top right); sautee (bottom right).

Once, after I extinguished my tongue with some grass jelly, washed my hands, and tossed my chewing gum, I ventured out for a night on one of Singapore’s lavish rooftop nightclubs. With $30SGD entry and only $50SGD per alcoholic beverage, you’d be a fool to stay home!

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

View of Marina Bay from one of the rooftop joints.

Stay tuned to find out how I almost met my future spouse on a dragon boat, climbed my arms off at Asia’s largest rock climbing gym and planned a trip to the location where ‘The Beach’ was filmed!

A Reflection

Am I already writing my final blog for this semester? It seems like yesterday I just wrote my first blog in September when I talked about my excitement and expectations for my upcoming year abroad in Berlin. Because of the Centre for International Experience at U of T, I was given the amazing opportunity to blog for the first time in my life. I am happy I made that decision back in 2013. Blogging gives me the opportunity to reflect upon my experiences and think exactly about all I have done and what I have seen.

I am happy with what I have accomplished and how I have contributed to all the student blogs. From moving here in the summer, to the festivities at Oktoberfest, to dealing with the German bureaucracy, to explaining how the university system works, to my trip to Hamburg, to the differences between Canada and Germany, to the Christmas season, to the major sights, scenes and history of Berlin, to my trip to Poland and the UK….. I have tried to document and share as much as possible about what life is like here.

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

BMW World in Munich- Lucas and I checking out a sports car

Not much has happened the past two weeks. The highlight would be a trip down to Munich with my friend from Toronto who was still with me. We did a walking tour of the city and saw all the main attractions. The BMW World and BMW museum were amazing. All the latest technology is displayed and the museum took us through the history of one of the best auto makers in the world. I would highly recommend a visit there.

The Olympia Park, Munich

The Olympia Park, Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

In front of the Bavarian Victory Gate in Munich

A soccer game in Berlin was also seen. The Berlin team, Hertha BSC, plays in the German Bundesliga, the national German soccer league. They play in the Olympia Stadium, the same place where the 1936 Olympic Games were held. It is massive with a total capacity of 75,000 people. For Easter, I met some friends and we had an outdoor BBQ at the Tempelhof Airfield. This is a massive, abandoned airfield located just south of the city center. It was the location where the Berlin Airlift in 1948 took place, when American and British cargo planes delivered thousands of tons of food and supplies to West Berlin. Today, it is a gigantic park where hundreds of people go to walk, have picnics, BBQs, run, play sports, cycle or simply walk the dog. It is an amazing use of free space within the city.

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Olympia Stadium, Berlin

Tempelhof Airfield

Tempelhof Airfield

I would like to say one more thing about writing blogs and about my year abroad in general. I am really starting to see who I am, what I want, and where I come from. After reflecting on all the things I have done, I know what it means to come from Canada. I know I will miss my time here in Germany and all the friends I have met, but it all needs to eventually come to an end. I will never forget the experiences and great times I had overseas. I still have one more semester to complete and it goes until about July or August. Until then, I must focus on learning German and continue to enjoy Berlin and all the new experiences that will come my way. I plan to travel as well a bit more. I know the time will go by way too fast.

I want to thank the Centre for International Experience for giving me the chance to blog. I had a blast and as I said, I learned so much about what I am doing here through my personal reflections. To all my readers, I hope you enjoyed reading my posts. Hopefully you were able to learn something. Please feel free to contact me if any of you have any questions, I would be more than glad to help :)

I wish you all the best and the utmost success in the future! Take care and Auf Wiedersehen!

England, Ireland and Scotland

Red telephone box in London

Red telephone box in London

Abbey Road

Abbey Road

For the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to travel across the English Channel to the huge, more or less, island of the UK. I planned this trip with Lucas, a friend of mine from Canada. We both agreed to meet up at London’s Heathrow airport. I flew in from Berlin and he came all the way from Toronto. We saw various different cities and many great experiences were had.

View of the Thames River

View of the Thames River

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

Lucas and I in front of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre

The first leg of the trip started in the massive city of London. First, we saw of course all the sights that tourists must see: the Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, the Thames River, Tower Bridge, Buckingham Palace and so on. We even went to see Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and then took a trip to Abbey Road looking like goofs as we were tried to imitate the Beatles album cover. One night we attended an Arsenal soccer game. It was my first ever soccer game and it was very entertaining. The crowd was packed with fans cheering chants and going crazy.

Arsenal soccer game

Arsenal soccer game

There was one shock to me with going to London for the first time (or the entire UK for that matter): driving on the left side of the road. I remember staring at the traffic at one busy intersection, trying to grasp such a foreign concept. On one occasion, I almost got simultaneously hit by a car and then a street cyclist. They actually paint on the streets at crossing points: “LOOK RIGHT”. I guess this is for all the new people like myself to the city who are simply not used to such rules of the road.

A must for those new to the traffic rules

A must for those new to the traffic rules

Our travels then took us north to Manchester. After about 4 hours in the bus, we arrived in this industrial city. Firstly, there was already a change in the dialect. The people became harder to understand, even though they were speaking English. We walked around the city, looking at famous landmarks and buildings. Also, from the people we had spoken to, they were all fans of the Manchester soccer team and they did not like other football clubs. They made that very clear with us.

Liverpool was our next destination. This was my favourite city of our whole trip. It is a port city, so there was an amazing waterfront. Even worse than Manchester, the people here were almost impossible for me to understand. Numerous times we had to ask some individuals to please repeat themselves as we had no clue what they were trying to say. The Beatles came from Liverpool and hence we had to visit the Beatles museum. It was a great experience, taking us through the history of one of the greatest bands ever.

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

The Beatles Museum in Liverpool

To change up our mode of travel, we took an 8 hour ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. We were pleasantly surprised with the whole experience. We expected it to be simply a wooden bench and a loud engine while we were trapped for the whole trip within a metal hull. Instead, it was quite luxurious! There was a great on-board restaurant, a cinema, sleeping cabins, lounges and cafés. It didn’t even seem like we were on a ship, as the engine was so quiet.

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

The ferry from Liverpool to Belfast. Liverpool city skyline in the background

Belfast was a cool city. There is a great history and it is similar to parts of Toronto. Kind of like Queen Street West. We saw the Queen’s University, the harbour, an old jail and we were even there when the Belfast Film Festival was taking place. We saw a very strange movie and I am still trying to figure out what it was about exactly. It was probably the worst movie I have ever seen in my life. It was called “The Distance”. Look it up and try to watch it if you can.

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The Scottish Highlands- breathtaking

The last city on our list was Edinburgh, in Scotland. Comprising of a central castle on top of a hill, many old and beautiful buildings, parks, a rich history and Scottish accents, Edinburgh is a great city. One night, we did a haunted tour into one of the ancient vaults underneath the old city. It was quite creepy. The highlight of our stay was a 12 hour bus tour of the Scottish Highlands. We went all the way up to the northern part of Scotland and it was beautiful. There were mountains, rolling hills, lakes and little villages. We even saw the famous Loch Ness Lake where the mysterious monster is supposed to live.

Loch Ness Didn't catch a glimpse of the monster

Loch Ness
Didn’t catch a glimpse of the monster

Well, that was about my experience travelling to the UK. Much was seen, many kilometres were travelled, and now we are back in Berlin. I will show Lucas the main sights in the capital of Germany. Thus far, he is really enjoying the city. For me, my second semester starts next week. I had enough of a break- time to learn again! :) It is hard to believe that all of you back home are now writing exams and I am just starting. Just another difference I guess between the two university systems.

Skiing in Val Thorens

Hi again!

I’m writing this from Toronto where I’ve been spending my break living in Robarts along with everyone else.

It’s funny to think that just a week ago, I was skiing in sunny France. Actually, it’s sad, not funny. My friends and I were looking forward to our ski trip for months, and now it’s done and I don’t know where the time has gone! I guess all that’s left to do is reminisce.

I had never been skiing in actual mountains before. The view was beautiful… but also blinding. You couldn’t leave indoors without sunglasses or goggles on. The weather was perfect, if not too warm. Every day we’d eat lunch on a rock and just hang out in the sun.

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It was cloudy and windy just one day, and because of that, many of the slopes were shut down. As someone that’s used to skiing in Canada, it was a bit funny.

Skiing was admittedly difficult. My friends were used to skiing in the mountains so they were better than me and I struggled to keep up. I still managed to have fun, though, and not kill myself, which is always good. And the mountains were gorgeous!

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Unfortunately, it was a ski trip organized by a student committee so the accommodation wasn’t great. The walls were so thin it felt like there were constantly people in our room. What can you do. Luckily, we didn’t spend much time there. We were too busy, between the slopes and student events at night.

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Outdoor club

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Bundled up on the slopes

From hearing stories from my friends who are also studying abroad, it seems like going skiing is some sort of rite of passage, something you have to do while on exchange. I’m not sure that that’s true, but I sure did enjoy myself!

It was nice to have a short break before delving into my final essays. If you need me to find me, I’ll be crying over my computer at the library.

Good luck everyone!

– Veronika

 

Why you should befriend a Parisian

Hi everyone!

The past two weeks have been an absolute blur of play rehearsals and classes, so I can’t report much from London. However, last weekend I managed to get away for a few days with my friend Grégoire to stay with his family in Paris.

I’ve been to Paris a few times before, but I’ve never had a Parisian show me around. I felt like I was doing it right this time – staying in a French apartment, gorging myself on croissants and bread and cheese and wine. And who can resist a good pastry?

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Not me. In between all the eating, we walked around the city, basking in sunlight. We avoided most of the tourist spots, but we did go up to Montmarte, one of the highest points of Paris from which you can see the city.

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Montmarte village is one of the older parts of the city, with artists, musicians, and French restaurants everywhere.

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It’s very quaint and traditional – definitely go if you’re in Paris!

At night we walked around the city, undisturbed by the hoards of people that are there during the day.

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Seeing the Eiffel Tower sparkle never does get old.

The highlight of the trip was going up the Arc de Triomphe, something which I’d never done before. If you’re a student, you get to go up for free! The walk up is a struggle but it’s worth it in the end. You can see the whole layout of the city…

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Champs-Élysées

Cue this music… www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAMuNfs89yE

We were pretty content. Even the Parisian who is not easily impressed.

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But the best part was the sunset. We just stood there in awe for however long it took for the sun to set.

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I’m not sure there’s anything that could top that sunset.

Every time I go to Paris, I uncover something new just when I thought I had seen everything.

Til next time,

Veronika

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Some Differences between Germany and Canada

From the eight months being away from Toronto, I would like to dedicate this post solely to the differences I have noticed between Germany and Canada. Both countries are very similar in numerous ways, yet there are still some large disparities.

I’ll start with auto transportation. Most of the cars here are much smaller than in North America- and I mean extremely small. There are no pick-up trucks or SUVs for example. I rarely see large sedans on the streets; mostly just compact models. I think this has to do with the streets themselves. Most side streets, especially in smaller towns, are very narrow- there is literally only enough room for one car to fit. I don’t know what happens when two cars meet head on, I imagine they would need to drive halfway on the curb in order to pass each other. In comparison, my neighborhood in Toronto (North York), the streets allow that even with cars parked on both sides a large truck can still easily pass through.

The Volkswagen Up!

The Volkswagen Up!

Almost ALL cars use a manual transmission. Every single car that I peek into has a stick shift. This is true even for the typical family van, something that is almost unfathomable in North America. There are of course different kinds of cars as well which come from European manufacturers. Ford and GM are rare to see, where as makers which are not seen in Canada, such as Peugeot and Skoda, are common. Furthermore, there are specific models here which are not available on the North American market. Volkswagen makes the Polo and Up!, both of which I have never seen back home.

Normally what we have back home

Normally what we have back home

The 18-wheelers that are in Germany look totally different from those back home! They are much smaller. Their fronts are completely flat, almost as if there were squished.If I could give them descriptive words I think ours look much more “mean” and “intimidating.” I find ours look better. They’re more serious looking ready-to-haul-a-heavy-load trucks.

The version that is used over here

The version that is used over here

Oh and one more thing- the gas prices. If you think our prices are expensive in Canada, try coming here. It is crazy! While we complain at $1.25/litre, here the average is at about 1.60 Euros/litre. And don’t forget, that is in Euros, even more than the CAD. Perhaps that is another reason why the cars are much smaller.

Many people, especially in Berlin, roll their own cigarettes. They buy the rolling paper, tobacco and filters separately, then simply make them themselves. It is cheaper that way. I have noticed there are a lot more smokers here as well. In comparison to Toronto, many people are smoking on the streets. Smoking is allowed in the bars and clubs in Berlin. I find that disgusting and afterwards all of my clothes smell.

There are cigarette vending machines on the streets. You only need an ID to “prove” your age and then you can buy a pack of cigarettes. I assume underage kids take advantage of such a system. Furthermore, there are advertisements for cigarettes. Unlike in Canada, where the advertising of cigarettes is prohibited, I regularly see ads in magazines or on billboards.

A typical cigarette vending machine

A typical cigarette vending machine

What else can I say? The German computer keyboards are different. I especially get confused with the “Z” and “Y” keys when I use a public computer which are switched around. You can buy alcohol pretty much anywhere. There are no specific stores such as the LCBO or The Beer Store. Also, the alcohol is much cheaper here, but hey, it is Germany after all; they are known for their beer! Open drinking in public is also allowed.

There are many smaller, privately owned stores, such as bakeries and cafes. It is more common for people to go to a cafe to enjoy a coffee outdoors and buy a dessert. It is more common to buy bread from a local baker than go to a massive grocery store. There are no Wal-Marts for example.

Everything is closed on Sundays. And when I say everything, I mean everything. Tough luck if you forgot to buy some groceries on Saturday; you would have to wait until Monday morning. There are many more casinos too. Unlike back home, where there are the massive ones, such as Casino Rama or Casino Niagara, here there are little ones located all over. In most situations, you need to pay to use the public washrooms. Whether in the mall or on the side of the highway, 9 times out of 10, you need to pay about 50 cents to use a washroom.

"Sunday Shopping"- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

“Sunday Shopping”- I took this picture during the Christmas season. An advertisement showing that a mall is opened on Sunday.

The clubs and bars are opened much later, unlike our 2am closing time in Toronto. In Berlin for example, certain clubs are opened all weekend long, not closing until Monday morning. Germans like to use the 24 hour clock; it took me a while to get used to this. Their electrical sockets are different as well. They use 220-volt system unlike the 110-volt system, which is what we use. I needed to buy an adapter in order to use my electronic devices.

What the plugs look like over here

What the plugs look like over here

Well, those are some of the major differences I have noticed during my time here so far. There are some smaller observations, such as the fact that cashiers sit while working, or that there are barely any STOP signs in side streets. Yet I think I covered the most of them. The next two weeks I will be traveling the UK with a friend of mine from Canada, so there will be lots to share with my next post. I hope you learned something from this one!

The layout of a German keyboard

The layout of a German keyboard

Berlin: A Must-See

If you ever find yourself in Europe, deciding where to travel to, consider Berlin. It’s one of the most visited cities in Europe but there’s nothing overrated about it. And for such a busy city, the pace of life is surprisingly leisurely.

If you don’t know where to stay, I recommend looking at places at Airbnb. You can find a place almost anywhere in the world, it’s much nicer than a hostel, and cheaper than a hotel.

So, if you happen to find yourself in Berlin, navigate yourself to the Berliner Dom. It’s the largest cathedral in the city, and it’s quite a sight. I’ve come to think of it as a better version of St. Paul’s in London.

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There, you can pay 4 euros to go inside and marvel at this beauty…

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.25.42 PMIf you’re feeling adventurous, you can also climb all the way to the top, where you’ll get an amazing view of the city.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.25.52 PMUnlike St. Paul’s, nobody will rush you along. You can take your time and catch your breath.

Near the cathedral, there are a bunch of museums in a cluster called Museum Island. We only visited one of them, The Pergamon, but the rest were quite impressive from the outside.

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Of course, you must also see the Brandenburg Gate. You can take a 20 minute stroll down Unter den Linden, one of the main streets, to get here from the church. My friend and I did this walk three days in a row, watching the sun set at the end of the street by the gate. By the time we got there, it was usually night time.

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One time, it wasn’t.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 3.18.22 PMAnd then there’s the sight that everyone comes to see. The East Side Gallery – part of the original Berlin Wall. The piece of the wall extends over 1km and it makes for quite a nice walk on a sunny day. There’s far too much art to capture and it changes daily, with people adding their own contributions to the murals.

Friends will be made, laughs will be had.

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Once you’ve covered all the tourist bases, you have to have a picnic in a park. It’s the Berlin way, after all. Perhaps you’ll be lucky and you’ll end up in a park next to a flea market, where a jazz funk band accompanies your lunch and there’s not a cloud in the sky.

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 2.26.56 PMAnd then if you have time, check out the Berlin Zoo.

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Just go to Berlin. Trust me, you’ll have a blast.

Talk soon,

Veronika