Tag: Travel

November Books

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) – Tom Vanderbilt.  Traffic is full of interesting stats about how and why Americans drive the way they do.  Vanderbilt tries to figure out why Americans behave the way they do inside their cars: tailgating, road rage, aggressive driving etc.  It is fairly dense and reads more like an academic paper with a little humor thrown in for good measure than books like Freakonomics or Outliers, but is worth checking out.  Among other things, the book looks at why people say “I got stuck in traffic” or “I got hit by a car” rather than “I got stuck in people” or “I got hit by a driver.”

I really enjoyed his thoughts on merging from two lanes to one lane.  An easy example is a construction zone on the highway.  Usually about a mile ahead of the lane closure, drivers will see a sign that says “left lane closed 1 mile, merge right.”  Do you merge right away or do you wait until the end and try to move over then?  Many people move over right away, but Vanderbilt cites a study that shows that it is actually better to merge late because it fully utilizes the available road space up until the last minute.  The study found that there were fewer accidents and quicker communes if people merged late.  As a late merger myself (who has been yelled at by both friends and family for it), it was great to have my ideas confirmed by an actual study.  Check out Traffic if you are interested in reading about America’s traffic problem.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)Anthony Bourdain – I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, so I had to pick up Kitchen Confidential.  Bourdain grew up wanting to cook and Kitchen Confidential details his rise from a cocky, inexperienced line cook to a successful head chef at a NYC French restaurant.  Kitchen Confidential is billed as a look behind the scenes of restaurants in New York City during the 80s.  Bourdain battles drugs, the mafia, spiteful and dumb owners and many other problems in his quest to be a good chef.  From seeing his show, I hadn’t realized how deep into drugs he was in his past.

While I enjoyed many of his war stories about crazy owners, chefs and his escapades as a young, drugged out cook, I was really interested in his chapters about cooking, traveling and the restaurant business.  Bourdain spends a chapter explaining how to spruce up home cooked meals so that they taste (and look) more like they were created in restaurants.  There are a few chapters on what makes or breaks restaurants and how to spot a failing restaurant from a well run place.  I was most interested in the chapter about his first trip to Japan.

Bourdain talks about being completely immersed in a foreign culture where he couldn’t communicate.  After the first few days of wandering around, he finally works up the courage to walk into a noodle shop and point to what the guy sitting next to him was eating to order “whatever he was having.”  Bourdain’s story about being worried what others would think, but then deferring to the rest of the people made me think of a time I was in France for the Confederations Cup in 2003.  We were in a restaurant where nobody spoke any English and simply pointed to another table to say “we’ll have that.”  It ended up being a great meal.  Bourdain’s book is a quick read and shows how he launched himself into TV stardom.  It’s well worth the read.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett.  The Help pulls the lid off of a social circle in Jackson, Mississippi during the heart of the civil rights movement, but tells the story from the perspective of the maids who work in white family homes.  The book is very well written and a fun read, even though it deals with some heavy subjects.  Stockett makes you feel like you are listening to the thoughts of each character, using unique metaphors throughout the book.

Some of the chapters are a little slow to get through because Stockett uses the dialect that some maids would have used in the 60s.  It’s a little hard to get used to, but by the 2nd or 3rd chapter, you are up to speed.  It’s completely worth it.  Without spoiling the book, it was interesting to read about some of the double standards that white women had in the 60s.  White women were perfectly happy to allow their maid to touch their child when the maid was cleaning, feeding or clothing their child, but they would not let the maid sit in the same room to eat or use the guest bathroom.  It seems like a convenient suspension of segregation that, looking back, does not make any sense (not that segregation made any sense at all.)  The Help is a really good book and potentially one of my favorites for the year.

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Travelogue: Beata’s Trip

Note: This is a guest post by one of my best friends, Beata Rak.  After graduation, Beata moved to London, got a job as a tour guide and bartender at her local pub and has traveled around Europe and the Middle East.  After living in London, Beata is moving to Australia to continue her adventure.  Here are some of her favorite memories from Europe.

Today I fly out to Egypt and I begin my six weeks of travels. I have been living and working in London for about 8 months and wanted to save all my travels for the end of my trip, right before my big move to Australia. I am going to Egypt, Budapest, Berlin, Munich (OKTOBERFEST), Interlaken, Zurich, Paris, and Krakow. I haven’t written a single thing about where I have actually been or done while living in the UK, so as a personal record for myself and travel advice for all my friends, here is my UK wrap up.

St Patrick’s Day

This was celebrated, where else, but in Dublin. I have now been to Dublin twice and each visit was on St. Patrick’s Day. It is really fun. Two years ago the weather was horrible, rain, snow, sleet: everything in one day. All the hostels were booked so a group of 5 of us shared a hotel room by the airport. My best memory is of my friend walking around with a video camera asking the Irish what St. Patrick’s Day meant to them, and all replied “freedom from the English.” (This is not what St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of, but the Irish love to constantly emphasize their freedom from English rule.)

This year’s trip was a little different. I was smarter. I knew I didn’t need a hotel/hostel room. The airport would be enough. I flew in early St. Patrick’s Day morning, changed at the airport bathroom into a ridiculous green outfit and stored my bag at an airport locker. I then went to the city centre to meet my friend Carly who arrived by ferry. We then met my friend Meredith at her hostel, ate the hostel’s free breakfast (I’m sure the free breakfast was for the residents, but oh well!) and got ready for the parade. Parade was crowded and hard to see anything, but you were celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with the IRISH!!! How cool is that? It didn’t matter that all you saw was the top of a Lucky Charms float, and waited another 20 minutes for the next attraction. Everyone is dressed up in costumes and starts drinking at 10am. The best way to describe it: A mix between a Wisconsin vs. Michigan game at 11:00 and State street on Halloween. Insanity.

After the parade we went to a bar where we heard tradition Irish music. This was awesome. The Irish are so much fun. You just want to get up and join in their tradition folk dances. The end of the night was spent partying in TEMPLE Bar, which is basically an overpriced area of bars. If you go to Dublin, cross the river and you will notice a pint of Guinness is half the price. A fun memory involves my tourists. At the this point I had been a tour guide in London for about a month and a half and I had at least 10 people come up to me on the street in Dublin and yell “London tour guide!”  Then at about 3 am I took a bus to the airport, where I joined about 100 other fools dressed in green to board my 8am flight back to London.  I recommend that everyone experience this festivity even once.
CRUFTS, The World’s Largest Dog ShowBirmingham, England

My friend used to work at the Dog Kennel and was given free tickets to Crufts, the World’s Largest Dog Show, which is hosted in Birmingham every year. At this point I had adopted the philosophy of saying yes to pretty much everything, so when she invited me on a trip to Birmingham for the Crufts, I immediately said yes. This would definitely be interesting. And yes it was. We stayed with absolutely the nicest people. A friend of her’s played host for the weekend and he was amazing. I truly am impressed with British hospoitaly. Everyone is always offering a couch or bed for you to sleep on.

We saw a bit of Birmingham and I am not a fan of the city. The downtown area is clean and nice, but small. Everyone says that the bullring is awesome.  It was a nice shopping centre yes but I wouldn’t go back. I did enjoy our night out by the college. There is a university in the area and our host invited us to his friend’s gig. The band was awesome and the bar was cool. I was told Birmingham had good nightlife and this I am sure this is true. I enjoyed the one night we went out.

But now for CRUFTS, the highlight of the weekend! Dog people are weird. Very weird. There is this whole posh dog society that I had never known existed. And you know the phrase that dogs kind of look like their owners? SO TRUE. Big hairy people would have big hairy dogs. Petite ladies would own poodles, etc. The coolest part was seeing all the different varieties of dogs. Some dogs are so cute!!! But it broke my heart so see how expensive they were and they fact that people could pick a champion female dog and another champion male dog and pay money to have them mate so that they could have the best dog ever. The whole idea just seemed weird. Especially because there are so many stray dogs in kennels that need homes. I don’t understand why people would pay 15,000 pounds for a dog just because it is pure bred.  We watched a few competitions. They measure a dog’s tail, see how fast it can run, and do dog tricks like if they can find a hidden ball. It was all so odd. It really was just like on TV.  Crufts, an experience as I said, but not one I would recommend or repeat.
Stonehenge – Summer Solstice

This is without a doubt one of the coolest things I have done here. So Stonehenge is a site of these ancient rocks about an hour and half outside of London. Like the pyramids, no one is exactly sure how they got there. These huge stones are in the middle of nowhere and have been there for thousands of years. The stones are a huge tourists attraction, but they are not allowed to be touched. You can look at them from a distance. EXCEPT for the summer solstice. To celebrate the longest day of the year, or the shortest night a huge festival is held by the stones, and you can go right up to them, and touch them and everything. It is an ancient ritual to celebrate there and it is continued to this day. It was so cool, druids playing the drums, hippies wearing white, pagans dancing and us. A group of fools with lots of food and liquor. The idea is to stay up till sunrise. Partying from sunset to sunrise, or perhaps playing drums and dancing to the summer Gods who are about to bless us with a nice summer that will produce a good harvest. My friend and I succeeded to see the sunrise, but some people fell asleep. The experience is hard to describe. You are overwhelmed with the number of people, while at the same time shocked at how calm everyone is. There weren’t drunk fights, or people puking everywhere. Everyone was there to enjoy the experience. And a lot of people were there to truly celebrate the ritual. You can tell they had been doing it every summer. This is the only day of the year I would recommend going to Stonehenge. If you go any other time you will be disappointed, because it is only a pile of rocks. Don’t waste your money, or more importantly your time.

Oxford and Cambridge

So before I went to Oxford and Cambridge I sort of pictured two college campuses with tons of parties with hot posh British boys. Even though this is not how the universities are, they are absolutely beautiful and everyone must see these cities. First of all both schools do not have a campus. Both cities are filled with university buildings where the lectures are taught. These are the colleges, so there is the college of literature and law, etc. They are scattered all over the city and there isn’t any sort of quad or student centre really. The cities are gorgeous though. The nightlife is calm. People are out partying yes, but not like what you have on like Madison’s campus for example.

Oxford is beautiful. Gorgeous. We even saw boys playing croquet!! How cool is that. I went with three of my friends. We saw some boys playing and sat down to watch them. Then we started to take pictures. Then a huge crowd formed behind us. They were all taking pictures as well. Poor boys, they became a tourist attraction! A professor in Oxford wrote Alice in Wonderland and the story supposedly takes place there so we visited the Alice in Wonderland shop. There is also a very pretty river walk filled with trees and most of the buildings are covered in IVY. If you have a picture of Oxford in your head, it probably looks like that, except prettier.

Cambridge was very similar, but out of the two I think Cambridge is prettier. We stayed with a friend of a friend who is an absolutely amazing host. She is a tour guide on the river so she took us on a tour.  We went punting on the river and had our own personal guide. We learned a little bit of history about the very prestigious university and observed the many students who had just finished exams, rented their own boats and drunkenly were punting down the river. Then of course it started to rain, but this is England and it rains all the time, so what better way to end the tour than at the local pub. We had a laugh then parted our ways. Cambridge is breathtakingly gorgeous. Visit this city!

Stratford upon Avon, Cotswolds, Burford

One Sunday I decided to leave London and visit the Cotswolds which are cute villages outside of London. I took a day trip there with Viator tours. My group consisted of 7 people from Japan who did not speak a word of English, and American couple and a mother and daughter also from America. The group was interesting. As I did not speak any Japanese I hung out with the Americans. They were all nice, but at one point I was talking to the American mom and telling her how I was going to take a 6 week backpacking trip in a few months. She seemed very concerned, as I was a girl doing this alone. I told her it was perfectly safe and that I had done it before so I was not worried at all. When the sun was setting she came up to me and asked, “So Beata when it gets dark right about now, what do you do with your backpack? Do you just camp somewhere by the road and continue walking in the morning?

I thought she was kidding. But she wasn’t. She literally thought I was going to WALK from one European country to another with a backpack. And what is funny, the American couple thought the exact same thing. Oh Americans, sometimes we are so silly. I explained to them I’d be flying, taking buses and trains, and sleeping in hostels. Anyhow back to the villages. SO BEAUTIFUL!

We visited Burford, which I was very excited about because I talk about Burford on my tours. The villages are very pretty and picturesque.  There are rivers and lakes running through them, and they are very small. We visited about four different villages and you could walk each one in about 15 minutes. They are also very quiet, so a nice escape from London. On the trip I also visited Stratford Upon Avon. This is where Shakespeare was born. Super cool. I love Shakespeare and could not help but think of Mr. Bertenshaw when I was there. This teacher probably had one of the greatest impacts on my life. As I kept walking around the town all I kept thinking about was Mr. Bertenshaw jumping up and down and saying, J C. Juliet Capulet, Jesus Christ. I have to say though, learning about someone or something in school and then seeing it in real life is a pretty amazing feeling. We saw the building where Shakespeare was born, the house his daughter lived in and the church where he is buried. Definitely recommend a day trip from London.


I loved Scotland and wish I had lived there for a bit. It is such a cool country and the people are amazing. I spent a week there and started in Edinburgh, which is a beautiful city. It looks like it comes straight out of a fairytale. I did the free walking tour there. When I do the tours in London I always hear about an amazing guide in Edinburgh, Grant, who wears a pink hat. So I went on his tour, and turns out he had been on my tour in London. What a small world. I also ran into a lot of people in my hostel, who had just been on my tour the week before. (Apparently I am a mini celebrity in the backpacking world!)

I then went on a 3 day haggis adventure tour with Busabout Tours. Recommend it very highly! This trip was awesome. I had a very outgoing guide Kyle who made the trip super fun. I met the three most amazing girls from Australia and the trip was ideal. We went to Loch ness and visited Nessie, the lock ness monster. Now, obviously I did not see her but we took a boat over Lock ness and watched all the sonar devices. Apparently the sonar will often get signals that are unexplained, and this is where we get the idea that there is something in the water. There are stories that villagers have seen a massive animal in the water but nobody really knows if it is true. The town where the loch is located is called Inverness and it small, cute and quaint. The Australian trio and I attempted to go out and meet some of the locals. This didn’t last very long as it turned into us and the bartender sitting at a table, then getting invited to a big party, which consisted of a total of 4 people. Instead we hung out with the group at the hostel bar and watched the most entertaining dance off I had seen in my life.

The next day was spent visiting the highlands. We went to the Isle of Sky. To say that the Scottish highlands are beautiful would be an insult. They are breath taking. I had no idea the extent of this beauty until I had seen it, a mixture of beautiful cliffs, lakes, and mountains. We also saw many castles, including the one from the movie, Maid of Honor, with Patrick Dempsey. We also saw lots of men in kilts playing bagpipes. I did not try haggis but I did eat a deep-fried mars bar, two of the famous Scotland dishes. The Mars Bar was yummy, but you really can’t eat more than half of it, it is sooo rich.

As for the haggis, as yummy as I hear it is, I really cannot bring myself to eat it. It is diced sheep liver, intestines, and heart etc, cooked in a sheep’s stomach. Apparently delicious, but not my cup of tea. I ended my trip to Scotland with a music festival, T in the Park. This was fun. I saw Kings of Leon, Maximo Park, Franz Ferdinand, and the View. What is funny is that the night before we went out to a bar and met some guys who claimed to be in a band. I was like, yah right, sure. Every guy says that. Well the next day at the festival the band really was there. I felt like the biggest idiot, I missed an opportunity schmoozing the band to meet some of the headliners. Oh well…..next time.  Scotland is a country filled with a lot of pride to be Scottish, they blame everything on the English, just like the Irish. The entire trip was filled with stories of battles and of William Wallace, (Braveheart) we even saw his memorial, which is HUGE. I loved Scotland and for sure recommend going.

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August Book Reviews

I read three very different, but interesting books in August.  All were non-fiction, but had to do with completely different areas.

Soccer Against the EnemySimon Kuper.  Kuper is an English journalist who covered soccer at the start of his career, moved to finance and economics but got bored and moved back to soccer.  This book is similar to Franklin Foer‘sHow Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, one of my favorite books from last year.  Kuper travels around the world attending soccer matches right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Each chapter could stand alone as a short story, but they flow together well enough to create a narrative about soccer around the world.  My favorite chapter in the book was the one about Dynamo Kiev, the biggest and most successful club in Ukraine.  Dynamo has turned into a huge business, not just a soccer club.  Any foreign company that wants to do a joint venture in Ukraine tried to partner with Dynamo for tax reasons and because everyone in Ukraine knew Dynamo and would be more likely to support the project.  It’s interesting to see how sports teams become bigger parts of an economy and become “Més que un club” or more than a club, which is FC Barcelona‘s motto.  If you like soccer, check out this book.

The 4-Hour WorkweekTim Ferriss.  I had skimmed this book a year ago, but had not gotten a chance to read it carefully.  Whatever you think of Ferriss, the book contains so some worthwhile time management skills, business strategies and ideas that make you reexamine your lifestyle.  Ferriss tells the story about how he went from an office job where he worked many hours per week to creating a product that lets him travel the world and only requires him to work as little as four hours per week.  I agree with his ideas that “mini-retirements” should be spread out throughout life, rather than working your entire life to retire when you are in your 60s and I enjoyed hearing how he has used the new global supply chain to launch a product with minimal up front costs, but he lost me with his story about how he won a gold medal at the Chinese National Kickboxing Tournament and has a world record in Tango.  While Ferriss comes across as a bit of a loner who believes that the ends justify the means in pretty much all facets of life, it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the book because of the arrogance of the author.  I’m confident that if you read the book, you’ll find at least a few of his ideas worthwhile.

A Pint of PlainA Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish PubBill Barich.  I started this book because I had just gotten back from a week in Ireland, visiting, among other things, a few Irish pubs.  The book is about Barich’s attempt to find a traditional Irish pub to be his “local.”  The book starts off well, but is pretty slow and delves too much into each pub’s individual history for my taste.  His chapters on how Ireland has changed in the last 5-10 years as a result of globalization are interesting, but the most interesting take away from the book was his stat that bars in the UK that change formats to and Irish pub see 3x greater turnover than from before the format change.  There is something powerful about the Irish pub that makes it successful all over the world.  I wouldn’t bother reading this book.  Instead, check out your local Irish pub or go take a trip to the real thing in Ireland.

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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.