Tuesday, 15 October 2013

That's all, folks!

We have now been back in Australia for nine days, and are reasonably settled in our old lives.  Europe is well and truly behind us.  But the weather here in Canberra reminds me of our final days in Europe; it's been just as cool here lately as it was in Brussels a couple of weeks ago.

As at today, 15 October 2013, the blog has been viewed 6,801 times.  Australians have viewed it the most, at 1,626 times over the last few months.  Strangely, the next country to view the blog the most has been the US, with 963 views (I say strange because I have only a couple of Facebook friends there and no family).  The UK is close behind with 913 all time views.  Next comes Finland at 849, and Germany at 711.  And my blog sparked some interest in Russia; it was viewed there 299 times.

It's great to travel, but then there's also the old adage 'there's no place like home'.  Appropriately, near the end of our long journey, at our hotel in The Hague, the following was written on the wall above the dining room: 'Love to travel but don't make the road your home'.

If you've been a regular reader of my blog, then thanks for following it.  I hope you've enjoyed it as much as I've enjoyed putting it together.  And if per chance you really like my work, then look out during 2014 for 'To Vegas with Love'.  Meantime....that's all, folks!

Saturday, 12 October 2013

We came home

After 15 weeks away in Europe, we returned home to Canberra, Australia on Sunday 6 October.  Two days later, we returned to work.

It was great to have a welcoming committee when we came home.  Our two daughters, Sophie and Jessica, and grandson, Harvey, came to greet us.  Sophie and Harvey came from Melbourne.  It was also lovely to be greeted by beautiful spring weather.  It was the middle of a cold winter when we left in June.  It was so much better returning in spring.  Last year, we returned from Europe in winter.  Not nice.  This time, it was not nice to be welcomed home by a garden full of weeds, and a lawn mower that refuses to work.

Speaking of work, I returned to my job on Tuesday 8 October.  It is now the following weekend.  My first day back was by far the worst.  I felt lost.  I felt totally disconnected from my work.  I think this disconnect is worse the longer one is away from one's job.  You even forget how to do things.  After so long in Europe, I began to feel I had a new life and no longer worked in Canberra.  Travelling thousands of kilometres and having so many varied experiences does nothing to help prepare you for the day when you finally put away your passport and resume your 'former' life.

Each day back at work is better than the previous day.  Soon, I'll be back 'in the swing of things'.  Post-holiday blues is something that happens to many people, and I'd been expecting it.  The blues were much worse last year.

Shortly, I'll do one final blog post with some statistics.

We arrived home to beautiful spring weather.
Weeds galore have invaded our garden during our absence.
Spring is in the air.  This is some of our lavender.
A nearby blue pacific in its glory at this time of year.
Our neighbour's may bush, which blooms in May in Europe, but September-October here.
I returned to work for the first time since June.
My grandson, Harvey, at Canberra's annual Floriade event.
Harvey and I took a ride on the Ferris wheel.

Friday, 11 October 2013

Dubai Again

On 3 October, Jean and I flew from Brussels to Heathrow, where we changed planes and flew on to Dubai.  We landed the following day.  We went to Atlantis, the famous hotel at Palm Jumeirah.  Afterwards, we went to the Dubai Mall where, like when we came through en route to Europe, I had a camel milkshake.  Later, we visited the Deira City Centre.  Later still, at the Dubai Mall, we tried to meet up with a friend in Dubai on business, but couldn't make it.

It was strange to be in Dubai again, after our first visit of three and a half months ago.  When we came in June, we were on holiday, and Dubai was glitzy, glamourous, and impressive.  And we were impressed.  But in the meantime, I've been in Europe.  And so often in Europe I asked myself if I would like to live in the city or town we were visiting.  Sometimes, the answer was yes.  But then I'm a European kind of guy.  Unless I found the expat community, I think I could be very lonely living in Dubai.  I often think of what a colleague who lived in Dubai for some time told me a few years ago.  You can be taken in by the glamour, but if you scratch a little beneath the surface, you find a society that's not so nice.

Atlantis at Palm Jumeirah 
Not far from Atlantis is this mosaic of 'The Palm'.  Atlantis is situated at the top.
In the background is Dubai's famous seven-star hotel.
At the Dubai Mall is this souvenir shop with the pictures of the sheiks.

Thursday, 3 October 2013


Our European holiday is nearly done.  It's time to look back on the last 15 weeks in which we have visited close to 50 towns and cities.  Our trip has been, as Mark Twain might have said, a 'grand tour' of Europe.  

After three nights in Dubai, we started our European holiday in Wales, visiting family and friends.  We then toured France, Monaco, Spain, Italy, Vatican City, Greece, Turkey, the Greek Islands, back to Italy, then the four German-speaking countries, followed by the Netherlands and Belgium.  From the time we left Aberystwyth in Wales on 6 July until we arrived in Brussels a couple of days ago, we had travelled nearly nine and a half thousand miles or over 15,000 kilometres.  

During this time, we've had many highlights.  We will never forget the Festival of San Fermin at Pamplona, with the running of the bulls.  The whole experience was just mind blowing.  Touring the ancient ruins of Pompeii and Ephesus as well as ruins in Rome and Athens were big moments along the way.  We toured an ancestor's castle in Switzerland, visited Hitler's Eagle's Nest in Germany, and saw Ann Frank's secret annexe in Amsterdam.  We saw the Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo in the Louvre, and the Statue of David in Florence.  And we won some money at the casino at Monte Carlo.

Along the way, many other great moments came along.  I climbed the world's tallest building in Dubai, the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy, and an active volcano on the Greek Island of Santorini.  We rode a camel in Dubai, a donkey on Santorini, bikes along the Rhine, and a gondola in Venice.  We were delighted to see the Pope speaking to the crowd above St Peters Square, and to see the Heads of State of all four German-speaking countries in an Austrian street.  We saw the spot in Rome where Julius Caesar was cremated in 44BC.  At Ephesus, we followed in the footsteps of Cleopatra, St John the Baptist and Paul the Apostle.  And near Ephesus, we saw the very house that is accepted as the house in which Mary, mother of Jesus, lived and died.  I was especially impressed by this.  Of all the world's teeming millions of Christians, how many can say they've been to Mary's house?

Of course, catching up with old friends and family has been a big highlight.  They know who they are.  And our reunion with our Sydney friends Eli and Bruce in Athens after 15 years was an unexpected bonus.

There have also been lowlights.  Along the way, I've been stung by a wasp, kicked by a donkey, had a near collision with a donkey, and had four head colds.  Jean hasn't been a casualty but has had a couple of colds too.  We had unbearable heat briefly in Dubai, mild weather in the UK, unrelenting heat for six weeks in the Mediterranean, and regular rain in Central Europe.  

On the Continent, we travelled mostly by train.  Within the Greek Islands, we travelled by ferry.  And we took six flights within Europe.  We've toured countless churches, cathedrals, museums and other sites, taking 14 guided tours.

What have been our favourite places?  We both really liked Rome, Venice, Vienna, Santorini, the Italian island of Capri, and Amsterdam.  Jean really liked Athens and Sorrento too.  I thought Biarritz in France was a great little spot.  And we both liked Monaco.  The place we liked the least was Naples.  We hated it.  Numerous sources told us the mafia have attempted to take over the contract for the rubbish collection but have failed.  They now stand over the rubbish collectors who barely seem to collect.  Naples is a shameful mess.

But on balance, our grand tour of Europe has been grand indeed.

Yes, we cannabis: Part 2

This shop has cannabis plants growing..

Mind your language

We native English speakers have a great deal to be thankful for.  We can travel and, to a large extent, not bother learning other languages.  With so many English-speaking countries in the world, and with so many of their citizens travelling to Europe, Europeans have had to learn English to sell their goods and services to the arriving tourists.  And the Europeans have, on the whole, done a great job, achieving a reasonable fluency in our language.  We native English speakers are lucky indeed that we can travel there, not bother to ask 'Do you speak English?', but just launch into English and expect a response!

Perhaps other world travel destinations are the same.  I don't know.  My experience here is of Europe.  European hotels, restaurant wait staff, railway station clerks, and tourist information officers all speak quite good English.  (Information on signs and in restaurant menus is often available in English.). But Europeans are not only catering to the world's native English speakers.  Millions of arriving tourists come from China, Japan, Korea, the Middle East or Asian countries who insist on using English.  Traditionally, the French objected to the spread of English.  But even the French now know they can't object to a Chinese person speaking English because the retort would surely be "How would you like to speak to me in Chinese?" 

And because people all over Europe have learned English so well - they tend to have many years studying the language at school - they then use this skill to go on holidays themselves.  Thus, French people will use English to check into their Greek hotel.  An Italian tourist in Vienna will order beer in English.  A Spaniard will ask for directions in English in Germany.  And an Austrian couple in Venice will sell their unexpired three-day travel pass at a discounted price to foreign tourists using English.

There are today many more Eastern Europeans travelling than in the past.  Many are from Russia.  The Russians have a reputation of having little English if any, and who often insist on using Russian.  Trouble is, who else speaks Russian?  With so many Europeans having a working knowledge of English, an assumption is that one can communicate with any visiting foreigner in that language.  But it's not always the case.  I felt very sorry for the Polish couple who couldn't figure out how to use the Paris Metro, and who were being told how it operates by a well-meaning young French woman in English.  The Poles had blank faces.

Of course, the levels of English fluency in Europe are very annoying for people who have studied a European language and would like to practise it.  You ask a question in a local language, and back comes a response in English!  You immediately think 'So, is my German rubbish?'  I'm one of those people.  But the good news for people like me is that the main tourist trail is really only so thick.  Sometimes, if you go just a few kilometres back, you enter the 'local' world, where only the local language is spoken.  Here, you find out your German is not rubbish after all.

So, who in Europe speaks the best English?  My personal definition of being 'absolutely fluent' in a language is to be completely relaxed speaking it.  In the past, I found the Danes to be incredibly good.  But we didn't visit Denmark on this trip.  Our experience now tells us that the Dutch have the greatest fluency.  Bilingualism seems even to be a part of Dutch identity.  You can blurt out a question in English to bus drivers, police officers, shop assistants, and any person in the street.  If you're in Amsterdam, you may as well be in London.  But the country that deserves a prize is surely Greece.  Greeks will be just as helpful as the Dutch, but the prize should go to Greece because their tongue is nothing like English and their alphabet is utterly unlike ours.  And if you're having a donkey ride on the Greek Island of Santorini, and the donkey stops, just yell in English "Go!".  And the donkey will continue.  A fellow Chinese rider yelled "Go!" In Chinese, but the donkey didn't move.

So, if you can speak English and you're planning a trip to Europe, don't panic.  You'll be understood virtually everywhere you go.  Even Greek donkeys know that English is the international language.

Last day in Europe

Today is our last day in Europe.  Tomorrow, we return to Dubai briefly, and will arrive in Australia at the weekend.

After our visit to the European Parliament this morning, there were only one or two more things we wanted to do on our last day here.  These involved taking another look around the shops in the streets surrounding the Grand Place, and buying the package of several boxes of Belgian chocolates that we noticed yesterday.  The other was to find the famous little Manneken Pis.  We found the latter standing at a street corner behind a small wrought-iron fence.  The little fellow was made in the 17th century, and is a fountain.  Water pours from a certain part of his anatomy, which probably adds to his fame.  We later learned that the little fellow is actually a copy because the original kept getting stolen.  The original is now held in some palace.  Afterwards, we found the aforesaid chocolates.

We had some lunch, had a waffle and soon afterwards had coffee in the Grand Place.  Later, we had dinner near our hotel, which is in the 'new' bit of Brussels.  Jean had mussels.  Mussels in Brussels.  So did half the restaurant.  When you have mussels, the waiter ties a bib around your neck!

This is not yet the end of the blog.

The Palais Royale
The famous little Manneken Pis was created in the 17th century.

Variations of the little Manneken Pis are everywhere.
The Grand Place
Galeries Saint-Hubert
A street near the Grand Place..
..and another..
At the Grand Place is this curious bronze relief - don't know who it is.  People were rubbing their hands all over it in fhe same way people rub the statue of St Peter in St Peters Basilica, Vatican.  
Jean and I having a 'last day in Europe' photo at the Grand Place, Brussels.
Jean having mussels in Brussels.
Says it all.

Visit to European Parliament

Today is our last day in Europe.  We spent the morning at the European Parliament.  

In any national parliament, there is typically one chamber that an MP sits in.  For example, an Australian Member of the House of Representatives sits in the one chamber in Canberra.  Or, a British MP sits in fhe House of Commons within the Palace of Westminster and in no second chamber anywhere else.  But with the European Parliament, although there is considered to be 'one parliament', there are actually two locations where there is a chamber in which the MEPs may sit.  One is here in Brussels and the other is at Strasbourg.  There is also Luxembourg, but no chamber there.  We learned to our disappointment that refurbishment is taking place of the chamber here, so we couldn't get to see it.  We were invited instead to visit the Parlamentarium, a museum to the European Parliament.

We toured the exhibits, and it was all very interesting.  You went through the history of the EU from its humble beginnings as the pooling of German and French coal and steel industries in the 50s to the sophisticated institution that it is today.  I like the EU.  I think it is a logical and practical answer to so many centuries of war and conflict.  They might have their disputes, and they might have some problems with the euro, but they'll work it all out in the end.

The European Parliament at Brussels

A billboard picture of the European Parliament
This display shows the three locations of the European Parliament: Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg.
A large interactive map of Europe lay on the floor.  This pic shows the top half of the Italian Peninsula to the right, Spain to the left, and the UK to the top left.
This pic shows Greece to the right.
Jean and I walked across Europe, retracing our footsteps of the last 15 weeks.  Jean looks to the Continent from Britain.
The euro

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

More scenes of Amsterdam

A public loo for men
The Skinny Bridge, which opens up for passing boats.

Along this street is Anne Frank's house.
A gondola in Amsterdam.  Who would have thought?

An Amsterdam info man helps a tourist.

A market 

Parking for 2,500 bikes