Category: Travel

Travelogue: London

Note: I took a two week trip to Ireland, the Netherlands and England.  This is the third and final post in a short series about where I went, along with observations about how Europe and the UK compare to the US.  The first post is here and the second is here.

One of the main purposes of my trip was to visit my friend Beata who I met in the dorms my freshman year at Wisconsin.  After she graduated, she decided she wanted to see the world.  Instead of doing what most people would do, taking a trip for a few weeks or a month, Beata decided to live different places around the world, while getting jobs in each country.  Her first stop was London, where she got a flat and found two jobs, one as a tour guide and one as bartender at her local pub.  It takes guts to leave your friends and family behind and move to a new country where you do not know anyone.  I can’t put into words how much I admire her for deciding to make the move (and giving me a free place to stay when I want to travel!) and gives me inspiration to have the guts to try something similar some day.

Pat and I took the train from Amsterdam to London, traveling through The Hauge, Brussels, Lille and Calais before taking the chunnel to England.  It was amazing how quickly we were through the chunnel.  All of the sudden it got dark and then it seemed like 10 minutes later, it was light again and we were on the other side, off the continent.  The entire ride took a little under four hours on the high speed train.

We met Beata at her pub, right down the street from her flat and got to meet some of her friends and a few of the regulars.  Everyone was incredibly nice and we met people from South Africa, China, Ireland and of course England.  The most interesting conversation was with a guy from China who was living in London working for a large investment bank.  We talked about all sorts of things, but what struck me was how similar his attitudes were to my own, even on politics.  He said that he hoped that China would have a democracy at some point, but he did not think he could change anything, so why fight the system.  He also talked about the pressure that children in China face to be successful.  Because of the one child policy, he said that only children are under intense pressure to succeed because the parents only have one chance to see a successful child.  Obviously, since not every child can be successful, the kids that do not do as well have lots of problems adjusting to adulthood.

Over the next three days, Pat and I went on all of Beata’s walking tours of London and saw most of the touristy parts of the city.   We got to meet all of Beata’s friends from all over the world and everyone was incredibly nice to us.  We went to Abbey Road and took the obligatory picture walking across the crosswalk, Camden and walked all over north London.  We saw Oliver the last night we were there and ate incredible Indian food.  My favorite place was Brick Lane, an older area with lots of Indian restaurants, or curry shops to Londoners, pubs, bars and coffee shops.  On Sunday, there was a market with every type of cuisine from around the world packed with locals.  It turned out that it was Peruvian Independence Day, so there was a live Peruvian band playing outside of one bar.  We spent the day wandering around and seeing the city.  All in all, it was a relaxing end to a great trip.

The only part of London that I did not like was the ubiquitous use of CCTV, or Closed Circuit Television, that covers pretty much all of London.  Before I had gone to London, I could not completely relate to books and movies like 1984, Brave New World, Children of Men and V for Vendetta because the US does not have much CCTV, traffic cameras or nearly as many do not enter signs.  It was amazing to see how many places were “protected” by CCTV: the tube and tube stations, pubs, restaurants, sidewalks, roads and many other places.  Apparently, the average Londoner is captured on CCTV over 300 times per day.  While I never felt like I was any less free than in the US because of the use of CCTV, it was a little unsettling to have all of my movement recorded during my stay in London.  I can see how authors (and British citizens) in the UK could relate to surveillance themes in their books and movies.  I am happy that the US does not have as many cameras, but it seems that we are moving in that direction.  Chicago and its suburbs have tons of red light cameras, as does Phoenix.  These cameras record anyone who runs red lights and sends tickets in the mail.  We are still a long way off from being recorded 300 times per day, but it could be a slippery slope.  All in all, London was a fantastic end to a great trip to end the summer.

Travelogue: Amsterdam

Note: I took a two week trip to Ireland, the Netherlands and England.  This post is the second in a short series about where I went, along with observations about how Europe and the UK compare to the US.  You can find the first here.

Amsterdam is an amazing city that gets a crazy reputation in the United States because of its portrayal in movies and popular culture.  While there are areas that are about as crazy as it gets, the vast majority of Amsterdam is a laid back, historic, beautiful city.  In fact, if you did not know the red light district was there and did not wander into its few square blocks, you would never suspect anything.

We spent four days in Amsterdam, wandering around the canals, looking at old buildings and people watching.  We stayed about two blocks from the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum in a quiet neighborhood on the southwestern side of the city.  We talked with the desk clerk about what we should see and do in Amsterdam and he gave us a bunch of places to go.  Like most Dutch people, he spoke perfect English.  Unlike America where John Kerry was mocked for being able to speak French, most Europeans highly value being able to speak foreign languages.  The hotel clerk could speak Dutch, German, English, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, French and a little Arabic and he thought it was no big deal.  In the US, his mastery of languages would be extremely rare, but in the Netherlands, its not that rare: many Dutch citizens speak more than three languages.

I love to cook and eat good food, so one of my favorite parts about traveling is eating great local food.  The Netherlands does not have much traditional food to speak of, but has a long history of immigration and foreign food.  Indonesia was a Dutch colony and when it declared independence, the Netherlands allowed hundreds of thousands of Indonesians to immigrate.  One of the best benefits, at least for tourists, is amazing Indonesian food.

A traditional Indonesian meal called Rijjsttafel, or rice table, is the best way to experience this interesting cuisine.  A rice table consists of between 12 and 30 small portions of different Indonesian specialties.  Indonesian cuisine has lots of coconut milk, peanuts and curry used in a myriad of different ways.  My favorite dishes were beef satay with peanut sauce, a spicy hard-boiled then fried egg, Indonesian chicken soup and coconut milk chicken.  We went to two different places and both were really good, but the second place we went was simply amazing.  It was the rated as one of the top Indonesian restaurants in Amsterdam and we could tell.  We ate early and were the only people in the restaurant, so we were able to ask the owner/waiter lots of questions.  We could tell he loved talking to people who liked to cook and after a few questions, he stopped by and told us all about each dish and how to prepare them.  The food was great, but the owner explaining all of the dishes to us made the experience even more memorable.

The Netherlands is a biking country and Amsterdam has more bikes than people, but that has not stopped some from gaining weight.  The Dutch weight problem is no where near American proportions, but it is a growing problem that many have started to pay attention to.  The Dutch also have been revamping their health care system, much like the US is trying to do at the moment.  There is a newer story about how well the system is working that I saw on BBC World News while I was in London, but all I can find is an older Wall Street Journal article explaining the system.  Here is how it works:

Starting in 2006, the Netherlands has required all adults to buy their own health insurance, or pay a penalty. And insurers must offer policy to all comers, no matter how sick or old they are, WSJ’s Gautam Naik reports.

The government subsidizes policies for adults who can’t afford to pay premiums and makes “risk-equalization” payments to insurers that cover the elderly and those with some chronic conditions such as diabetes.

According to the BBC, this plan led to more competition and lower rates for Dutch citizens.  Insurance companies have to compete out in the open and have come up with many interesting ways of attracting customers.  Most companies now have gyms that are included in the health insurance plan.  Customers get swipe cards to use each time they go and work out and receive discounts based on how much exercise they are doing.  Saving money is powerful motivator for people to go to the gym and it would be interesting to see how it would work in the US.  Instead of trying to pass a massive health care bill like congress is trying to do now, it would be interesting to see a more open debate with more time to check out other options.  I will save my health care thoughts for another post, but I think the Dutch solution is a very innovative model for America to at least consider before implementing more changes.  Traveling usually helps showcase different perspectives on problems in the United States and this trip to Amsterdam was no different.  I am thankful that I was able to spend time in Amsterdam.  It is definitely one of my favorite places I have ever been.

Travelogue: Ireland

Note: I took a two week trip to Ireland, the Netherlands and England.  This post is the first in a short series about where I went, along with observations about how Europe and the UK compare to the US.

My friend Pat and I left from Chicago and flew into Shannon, a town that is pretty much only an airport, on the west coast of Ireland.  We talked to a guy on the plane, Liam, who was from the area who told us that the Shannon airport is a holdover from when planes from North America had to stop on the west coast of Ireland to refuel as they continued on to the rest of Europe.  It really is only an airport in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by green, rolling hills.  Liam told us that the hotel there “is only used by dumb tourists who do not know any better and book on the Internet.”  We thought it was pretty funny and he ended up giving us a ride to our first town, Ennis, about 20 minutes from the airport.  All of the towns we went to had live, traditional Irish music in most of their pubs and Ennis was no exception.

From Ennis, we went north west along the coast toward Doolin, a small town right on the sea.  We spent two days exploring the town, which is about 6 miles from the Cliffs of Moher, one of the most amazing natural wonders of the world.  We biked from Doolin with the plan of going 10k straight up hill to see the cliffs, but we ended up getting lost and biking closer to 20k up, then down then back up again.  It was completely worth it.  It was even more rewarding when we got to the visitors center because we were the only people who had biked to the cliffs.  Everyone else had taken huge buses or cars.  The cliffs themselves are stunning.  If you get a chance to go to the west coast of Ireland, the Cliffs of Moher are a must see.

After Doolin, we took a ferry to the Aran Islands, a group of three small islands that are unique for their rocky terrain and the unbelievable amount of pastures fenced in with stones piled on each other.  About 300 people continue to live on the small island where we stayed, making the time after the last ferry leaves a cross between extreme peacefulness with a bit of an undercurrent of “this would be an amazing place for a horror movie.”

After the Aran Islands, we took another ferry to Galway, Ireland’s artsy, third biggest city.  We happened to be traveling during the Galway Arts Festival, which meant that the entire city was packed with people and just about every bar had live music.  During the second day, we went to a pub to watch a hurling match between Galway and Cork.  We had never seen an entire match before, but we met two locals who explained the game to us and ended up showing us all around the city.  Our Irleand adventure ended the next day when we flew out of Dublin on our way to the Netherlands.

We met some great people in Ireland: Liam (Ireland), Kate (New Jersey), Sarah (Canada), Christine (Canada), Steve (Austrailia) and Jenny (Ireland) in Doolin, Sean and his wife (Ireland),  and Sarah (Ohio) in Galway and a ton more people who were incredibly interesting and fun to hang out with.

In Doolin, one of the people I met asked me why I liked to travel in Europe and if I could see myself living there some day.  I said that I could see myself living in Europe and really enjoying myself, but I could only come up with the food, soccer and a little more laid back lifestyle.  

I continued to think about this conversation and realized that the biggest draw for me to living in Europe is the cities.  The following is an excerpt from what I wrote during our stay in Galway:

There are so many more places in Europe where cities are amazing, fun place to live.  Kids can go to decent schools and there is little crime.  Bars, restaurants, shops and other cultural activities are all within walking distance and if not walking distance, they can be accessed by good, reliable public transportation.  In Europe, most well to do people live in cities, whereas most middle and upper class people in the US move to the suburbs as soon as they have families.  For example, the city center of Paris (and most other European cities) is where the well to do live and the suburbs or the Banlieues, is where the poor and immigrants live.  These areas experience many of the same problems as American central cities, but since they are farther away, they do not gain the same publicity as their American counterparts.

In the US, most families end up moving to the suburbs to avoid crime and find better schools for their kids.  I believe that this process leads to isolation and a focus on work, rather than family and culture.  Many people in the US get up, get in the their cars, go to work, get in their cars and then go home.  They may go days at a time without seeing or talking to anyone who isn’t a family  member or a coworker.

I have a feeling that many in my generation has started to reject McMansions, long commutes and the isolation that this lifestyle can breed.  I think that the biggest obstacle to more people staying is good, quality public schools.  Most people leave cities in the US when they have children because they want to give their children the best education possible and many cities have terrible pubic schools.  I would love to see more livable American cities in my lifetime, but the first step is getting better schools.  I am not optimistic, but am very hopeful that we will see some change in the future.

How Much is Fair to Tip a Tour Guide?

My friend (I can’t use her real name because her company does not like employees to talk about tips) graduated from UW-Madison this past May and decided to take a different path than most graduates.  Instead of setting for a 9-5 desk job, she decided to travel and get jobs wherever she ended up.  I truly admire her decision and hope I am able to do something similar at some point.

She is currently living in London working as a tour guide for free walking tours in central London.  She is paid a small wage per tour, but the bulk of her compensation comes from tips from tourists on her guided tours.

When she first began giving tours, she would wait until the end of the tour and then say “If you had fun, I will graciously accept tips.”  Some people would tip, but many would not and her Pounds per person rate was rather low.

Last week, she changed her pitch at the end of tours to “I work on a tips only basis, so if you had fun, I will graciously accept what you think this tour is worth.”  When she took a tour group past one of the many bus tours of central London, she would say “look at all of those lazy people on the buses.  They paid 30 pounds for their trip and all they do is sit.”

Her tips have increased by over 50%.

Her story is an interesting case of how small changes in messages to create a large change in viewer reaction.  The Nudges Blog talks about these types of issues every day.  She also uses anchoring to get people to think about what her tour is worth.  By letting her tourists know that people who are on the bus tours pay 30 Pounds, she is giving them an idea of what other tours are worth.  She is setting a high anchor for people so that when they are asked to tip, they base their tips on a known commodity.

Although her tips have increased, she is still looking for other nudges that will increase them even more.  See if you can help her out by posting your ideas in the comments.