Friday, December 31, 2010

Roll on, 2011


It was a great travel year.


April: Prague, Dresden

May: Kiev, Lviv

June: Several trips around the Black Sea

July: Vienna, Bratislava, Amsterdam, Brussels, Prague

September: Moscow

November: Istanbul

December: Milan, Cologne, Munich, Karlsruhe... and still on the road as I enter 2011!


Not to be omitted are the 160km per day 5 days a week that I commuted 10 months of this year... But that is over with and what remains for now is pleasure travel! Roll on, 2011. :D

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Day 4-6: Experiencing Cologne and awesome day in Munich

Amazing how expensive public transportation in Germany is. In Cologne, a ride longer than 4 stops is going to cost you all of 2.4 Euro. A day pass (and that means until 3am next morning, not 24h) will take out 7.1 Euro out of your wallet. That’s enough for a wine, some fruit, camembert and brie, for instance. Or in Russia that would get you through a not very long café visit.


For some reason, a day pass in Munich is cheaper which is surprising it as it is considered to be Germany’s most expensive city.

Nevertheless… my two remaining days in Cologne were quite great. First of all, a whole lot of walking around (and saving money on the way, ho ho!). The thing that immediately springs to eye is the sales have started – tons of people shuffling around, looking for good deals on clothes, Christmas decorations and the like. Actually it was pretty hard to maneuver those crowds. Upon entering a store, it was obvious things weren’t much better inside, so I decided to leave shopping for when I’m finally in Berlin.

In the evening my CS host and I went out to see The Tourist in a movie theater with home-like atmosphere (I thought) and greatly positioned comfortable seats, some rows are 45* to one another with big space between them, so it lets your legs be free in doing whatever they please. The Tourist itself is not a great movie, however if one enjoys travel and particularly Venice and Paris, then it’s pretty eyecandy.

The next day I visited the Ludwigsmuseum that has several on-going exhibitions including Australian art (my least favorite section), some XIX-XX centuries photography, Pablo Picasso, Vasily Kandinsky, Roy Liechtenstein, a Mark Rothko and some other contemporary artists. It’s definitely worth a visit if you are into modern art, but I suggest you skip the Australian part.

In the evening we had a nice dinner in one of the joints down Zülpicher strasse, I just happened to eat a Funghi pizza yet again (sometimes I’m pretty close-minded when it comes to food, my choice mostly fluctuates between a mushroom pizza, a tiramisu an apple strudel). To top it off, I ordered a Kölsch yet again and even drank with gusto. All in all, Cologne makes an impression of a lively modern city with a variety of things to do and is definitely worth visiting and perhaps for some also worth coming back to.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Day 2-3: Second day in Milan, Italy + arrival in Cologne, Germany

After the generous and humungous Christmas dinner that we had on December 24, everybody slept in and crawled downstairs only at about 11am. So did the four hungry cats who immediately received their treat for the morning.

After a long and rushless brunch I set off to walk around Milan again - this time the rain thankfully decided to stop for a while, so it was nice enough without having to talk out the umbrella. As expected (and yet it keeps baffling me each and every time), all stores and most of restaurants and cafes were closed and at first it seemed the city has died out, because nobody was around Santa Maria delle Grazie or Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio at all. It was myself, two Chinese tourists and an older lady of unidentified European nationality.

All of the action was predictably centered around Duomo and neighboring areas, and by action I mean people slowly walking by and gazing at others which certainly had its charm as well. I also went inside Palazzo Marino for a free short exhibition and must say it has a fascinating interior. The same might be true for the building of La Scala, but from the outside it looked like any other building you would just pass by without giving it a second glance. That's exactly what I did on the first day and only later realized what it was. It's pretty bland looking, much less interesting than the Opera theater in Lviv, Ukraine, for instance.

But still Milan was another opportunity to get to know Italy a bit better and I did just that, mostly thanks to the hospitality of my CouchSurfing host. I should at one point write an ode to CS.

In the evening it was time to leave for the airport and I did just that, Milan Express is definitely a nice way to travel to Malpensa (even if a bit overpriced). My flight to Cologne, Germany was on time and it could easily be the only flight on time in a week or so, because all Germanwings, Airberlin, etc. flights were delayed at least briefly, it seemed. That was a pleasant surprise, and I could not yet again contain my excitement as the plane turned to the take-off strip. Also, it was the third flight in 3 days and all three times I was seated conveniently (KRR-SVO- aisle seat with an empty middle seat, SVO-MXP - entire last row to myself, MXP-CGN - exit row aisle seat), knocking on wood and hoping that Deutsche Bahn will deliver as well.

Cologne-Bonn airport is just a 15-minute S-Bahn ride away from downtown Cologne and a contrasting 2.4 Euro compared to Milan's 11 Euro. Having arrived, I landed in the welcoming arms of another great CS host who graciously hosts in his 30-th floor apartment from where you can see the Dom and basically the entire city. He is a cameraman, so we had nice chats on the subject, he showed me a couple of clips of his and his friends' work as well as some filming locations in Cologne itself.

Next day was Sunday when, by the lovely tradition, all stores were closed yet again :) but the two of us had a long walk around town. The Dom looks pretty great (especially from the Hohenzollernbrücke), is similar to Stephansdom in Vienna and St. Vitus Church in Prague. I had my first taste of Kölsch and although I'm clearly not a fan of beer (except for kriek, of course), it wasn't that bad, especially in a typical German setting on a winter day.

In between shuffling through snowy streets, we stopped by the Ludwigsmuseum and I once again made sure I love contemporary art, so that's where I'll be heading on Tuesday.

The weather was perfect, about zero degrees throughout the day, neither cold nor hot, post-Christmas atmosphere and thus a great day in general. Topped with a viewing of The Inglorious Basterds in German it was just plain fantastic.




Saturday, December 25, 2010

Day 0-1: Leaving Russia is a challenge + arrival in Milan, Italy



Well, I gladly set off on my journey!

I was pretty worried about checking in my baggage all the way through Milan, so I decided to check it in only through Moscow to claim it there and check it in once again. But as luck would have it, Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport lost my baggage in the actual airport and it took them 1.5 hours to find it, because apparently it was traveling around all over the place.

I had a chance to see most of Terminal D though and already have some critique: too much glass and that wouldn't bother me unless sockets weren't only available in a couple of corners around the place (where you literally have to sit on the floor), so if your laptop battery is old or dead, you'll have to surf standing up or and sitting down on ice cold floor. MTS offers free Wi-Fi.

When the second flight started, I felt that common and all-encompassing joy that can only mean one thing: I'm on the road again! Note to self: Italian flight attendants smell divine.

Milan greeted me with rain and it rained through out December 24, too. It was a bit late (about 11.30pm) when I arrived into the city itself, darkish, raining and I couldn't figure out how to read the map, so I stumbled into some bar where by coincidence met my Couchsurfing hosts! That was both weird and funny. And fun.

I dedicated most of Dec 24 to walking around the center (passing Duomo at least 5 times), did some rich people watching, was amazed at how unappealing La Scala is and then went off home to help make and then gobble on the Christmas dinner. In attendance were two Italian gals, one Italian guy, one Egyptian guy, 4 cats and yours truly... A house party in several languages with a few courses, Russian music and Italian hospitality. Great night!

Merry Christmas to all!


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Pre-trip jitters

My trip is about to start and I’m having last minute jitters.

Of course the weather is a big part of it. Just reading the news online and taking a peek at evening news is enough to raise my eyebrows in despair. I feel for all the travelers who have founded themselves stranded in different parts of the world. Somebody I worked with can’t get out of Texas, Houston (destination: London, UK), a lot of people were forced to spend a night in Frankfurt, Germany or Paris, France. Eurostar queues in England seem to be devastating and there’s no guarantee that they will score a ticket for the date they want.

I just checked arrivals/departures for Moscow Sheremetyevo Airport, it appears the same flight that I’ll be taking on Thursday was cancelled yesterday although Milan Malpensa was not closed. The flight from Krasnodar to Moscow was a bit late yesterday as well as today, albeit (and thankfully) only slightly late. Also, just for comparison's sake, I checked Airberlin’s departures for today – none of the flights are on time, some delays are over 2 hours.

My big concern is to take off on time from here. When I booked my flights back in September, 2 hours 50 minutes seemed like the perfect stopover time, especially after 10-12-hour night stopovers that I had on my last trip to Europe this summer. But now I’m not so sure anymore. I also will have to check in my baggage twice, it’s not possible to check it in for both segments (as the second flight is a code-sharing flight), but I wouldn’t dare do that as both Aeroflot and Alitalia are not known for being fantastic with baggage. ;)

Anyway, although I’m not feeling especially perky right now, I’m sure it’ll work out in the end, there’s always another flight, I guess. (I’m going out on a limb here.)

At the same time, I feel great if a bit overwhelmed about the trip anyway. Milan! Cologne! Munich! Karslruhe! Berlin! Oslo! Stockholm! (And potentially also other destinations.) This trip can bring nothing but good experiences, new connections and hopefully friends, meet-ups with old friends, holiday spirit, some shopping fun.

I’m halfway through with my packing. I still have some things to iron (argh) and a couple of clothing items I haven’t decided on (basically the dilemma is, do I want to look cute or warm?). I’ll be taking some presents for a couple hosts and friends and although they look small, all of that adds weight… But what can you do, eh? Christmas is Christmas.

I have said goodbye to some friends already, also a couple of meet-ups are planned for tonight and tomorrow. I’m getting a little bit sad about this (and don’t recognize myself, to be honest), but with all the communication means this days, we’ll all stay in touch maybe one or two will come visit me in Berlin.

Anyway, I hope all’s well with those who are preparing for their trips as well, let’s hope the weather will improve and let us all have a good time wherever we will find ourselves.

Useful reads:
Holy Crap, What Have I Done (Pre-trip jitters)
Preparing to Travel To-Do List

Friday, December 17, 2010

4 tips on packing for a trip


Efficient packing is key to budget travel and especially backpacking. It is by far one of the most dreaded activities for most travelers. Or am I just coming up with an excuse for my own dreading? Anyhow, all of this just feels like hard work:
  • making yourself come up with a list
  • eventually coming up with one (time in between can last between half a day to a couple of weeks)
  • washing/ironing
  • buying some stuff (including presents for several people you're going to see)
  • actual packing
  • agonizing
  • making sure you don't forget anything
  • forgetting something
I guess the last point is optional. I'm usually pretty meticulous and a bit obsessive (once I get into it), so it's hard to forget something. I check if I have not forgotten the most important things (passport/visas + money + tickets + insurance + electronics) at least 3 times before leaving, 1 time on the way to the airport and 1 time once aboard.

There are several online packing list generators that make the process a little bit more fun and the most handy of them is packwhiz, it allows you to create your own list based on several criteria (e.g. weather, destination, gender) and customize it as your heart desires. You can also search the lists of other travelers who opted for making their lists public.

It needs to be said I am not a big fan of backpacks (except for small ones that can only fit in a laptop and a few necessities), I prefer a suitcase, because I'm in favor of staying longer in one place than jumping around between several destinations. I am now in the process of preparing for my 2.5-month trip to several European countries, 5.5 days to go and all the range of clothes is as always a issue. The winter is only three weeks in, but it's already obvious it's not going to be a piece of cake with all the weather challenges it has presented thus far.

If asked for advice concerning packing for a trip, I have a few things to say:

Take lots of socks of different types because seriously, you never how much chance there's of your feet going wet or cold - rain, snow, own bathroom. And it's not great when you realize you have wet feet, and two other pairs are still wet and the other one is dirty.

Considering going shopping on your trip and even have an approximate list of what to buy? Yeah, right. We all know how that turns out. You're more likely to buy more than to buy less, so be prepared to get rid of some old stuff. Normally I'm ready to part ways with at least half of the stuff I take with me on the trip. So be prepared to get rid of some old stuff if you want to fit all new stuff in. You don't have to throw it away either, second-hand shops are plentiful almost everywhere, Goodwill locations less so but possible to come across.

Have at least one go-out outfit with you for... obvious reasons. You don't want to buy tickets to the premiere of a movie or book a table in an arguably posh restaurant and realize all you have is Caterpillar boots and a tank top.

A first aid-kit is a necessity and you probably know your weak spots. Typical first aid-kit is something like this: band-aid, painkiller, nose spray, cough/sore throat drops, if you have prescription drugs, it might be useful to fetch the actual prescription.

My personal golden rule is probably to underpack than to overpack. There's almost nothing you can't buy everywhere in the world especially when it comes to such (sometimes heavy) stuff as toiletries.

Useful reads:
Packing list on Wikitravel
Packing Light on Globotreks

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Off the beaten path: Rheinland-Pfalz, Germany

Several pictures from my first trip to Germany back in 2005. October seemed like the perfect time to be there.









Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Off the beaten path: Gettysburg, PA, USA

While not exactly an unpopular place to visit, Gettysburg certainly can’t boast the same level of fame as the bigger cities of the United States.

Famous, quite predictably, for the Battle of Gettysburg of 1863 and Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address of the same year, it is a favorite place for American history buffs and students of surrounding schools who seem to be obliged to visit the battlefield with a tour guide as part of their studies.

So what is there to do in Gettysburg, PA, a town with the population of roughly 8,000 people?

First of all, the Battlefield/National Military Park itself, including the cemetery, the Pennsylvania State Memorial, cannons and the like. Several companies offer guided tours of the battlefield. Needless to say, the high season for the battlefield and thus Gettysburg is July, 4 as well as a couple of weeks before and after this date.

Each year the battlefield sees the Civil War Battle Reenactment and being part of it is supposedly not a very easy task to accomplish, you have to be experienced in events of this kind and preferably a member of an actual reenacting unit.

In addition to this, July, 4 or the week after normally sees Gettysburg being the host town for the Bike Week which is quite an event in its own right, it seems not dozens and hundreds, but more like thousands of bikers flock to the town to have several days of booze-filled bliss and live performances, be sure that hotels, motels and campgrounds will be booked months in advance for this period. Also, if your accommodation unit happens to be located on Cunningham Rd, please be advised you won’t get much sleep during the event, since it’s the main road artery for bikers to enter and exit Gettysburg.

For fans of guided tours, there are ghost trail tours available throughout the city. Narrated by ‘professional storytellers’, they are interesting for kids and young adults – however, some grown-up have been noticed in showing a particular interest in ghost tour as well. Many a local might also share with you some stories of their encounters with ghosts of Gettysburg.

Fans of teddy bears, rejoice and prepare to be delighted because Gettysburg is home to Boyds Bear Country or Boyds Bears, heaven for anyone who likes plush. The store is a three-storey barn literally stuffed with bears of all colors, shapes and sizes – it’s highly unlikely you’ll leave the store without having purchased something. Surprisingly enough, bona fide store visitors and notorious collectors are not kids, but grown-up men and women who like Christmas bears, Halloween bears, Nascar bears, baby bears, merry-go-round bears and so on. It’s a fun way to spend several hours. The store has a nice food court (with pastry to die for) and every once in a while a country band will do a live performance on weekends. Triple chocolate cookies are fantastic.

A great place to dine would be Tommy’s Pizza, right in the center of Gettysburg, a family-run pizza/sub restaurant frequented by a whole lot of locals and visitors. In operation since 1973, it’s a good place to visit if you like American-style pizza and subs. White pizza, stromboli and a veggie sub would be my personal choices (for 3 separate meals… hopefully) at Tommy's.

And before I forget:

It seems the best month to visit is September, the weather is not as hot and humid as in the summer anymore and fall starts gracefully in Gettysburg

Located within comfortable driving distance (1-2 hours) from Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, MD. Camp David is not far away… if you should dare go there. Gettysburg does not have public transportation, nor does it have a Greyhound bus link, if you choose to take a bus, your nearest option might be York, PA, you can get a taxi from there to Gettysburg ($70 in 2006).

As per personal experience, bike seems like a comfortable means of transportation around the town.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Off the beaten path: Karlsruhe, Germany


Karlsruhe is known to Europeans for being the base of The Federal Supreme Court of Justice, it is almost always left out from travel itineraries of people who undertake trips to Germany. However, in recent years it has gained some popularity due to the fact that it was elected to be the host town of Virtual Tourist’s Euromeet 2008. More than that, the idea of VT, one of the first travel-oriented sites and communities on the web, was actually conceived in Karlsruhe.

This town is worth visiting for anyone interested in off the beaten path travel, mingling with locals for a bit and forgetting crowded tourist spots for a while.

The most famous places in town are Schloss, Marktplatz and

Rathaus, the former and the latter two are located within 3 walking minutes from one another.

Schloss Karlsruhe was built in 1715 by Karl Wilhelm in the middle of nowhere (more precisely: forest) as his summer cottage of sorts and later became his residence and the political hotspot of the state of Baden. Initially, all streets led to and from the Schloss, so if you reach the top of the tower, you’ll see them going off in different directions like rays from the sun. Nowadays the palace is home to Badisches Landesmuseum surrounded by a huge botanical garden with a pond and lots of nice places for lunch or rest.

Marktplatz is home to Karlsruhe's most famous landmark, the Pyramid (right across from the Townhall) that was built over the tomb of Margrave Karl Wilhelm. Rather small and boring, it’s worth maybe for taking a single picture of it and walking on.

The street separating Marktplatz and the territory adjacent to Schloss Karlsruhe is Kaiserstrasse which is the main shopping strip in Karlsruhe featuring some very nice buildings, only to be contrasted by dozens and dozens of stores, from Karstadt to H&M, Pimkie and the like (another place worth visiting for charging your card – EKZ located at Ettlinger Tor).

Karlsruhe has one of the best independent movie theaters I ever had the pleasure to visit – Schauburg, located not far from the Badisches Staatstheater (which I would not necessarily recommend visiting, maybe only to get an idea that balet, for instance, is better in other destinations). The program is very diverse and almost everyone will be able to find something suiting their cinematic taste. Every once in a while they’ll have a Sunday brunch with a Q&A with German film directors. The interior is very nice as well. Ten meters away from Schauburg there’s a fantastic Italian restaurant where you’ll have quite possibly the best pizza in town.

Best way to experience Karlsruhe: walk around, sit down for a drink or meal, walk some more, have dinner, have a stroll before going to bed. You might also consider visiting the zoo, located directly across from the main train station. Anyone interested in modern art and technologies should stop by ZKM.

And before I forget:

centrally located Bierakademie is a hit with locals

Baden Baden is just a 40-minute tram/train ride away

Strasbourg is an hour-drive away

the nearby town of Ettlingen (10 minutes away by S1 or S11) has a fascinating little old town, it’s a nice place for a leisure afternoon

also you might want to check out Durlach, one of Karlsruhe’s boroughs and climb 600 stairs to the top of a hill to check out a splendid view of the town

best time to visit, according to my personal experience, seems to be September-October, the day might start off with as low as 6C, but it'll be a sunny 25C before you know it.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Introducing Sweden: Kopps, Fucking Amal


Kopps

A 6-employee police station in a small village is about to be shut down due to lack of work and 4 police officers go to extreme measures to retain their positions.

While the synopsis might not convince you it’s a movie worth watching, you better do if you don’t want to miss out on camp and rural jokes. This film is living proof to the fact that you don’t need to have a huge budget to generate laughs from your audience. The movie features several digs at Hollywood, an odd love story that is both sweet and well, odd and will most definitely have you laughing out loud with certain regularity.

The plot is both simplistic and ridiculous and that’s exactly what’s fun about it. Interestingly enough, the music suits the rural sites like cows tied to poles incredibly well. This film also speaks to those who at one time or another had nothing to do during work hours - think Office Space set in the countryside.


Fucking Åmål (Show Me Love)

Two female teenagers navigate through the late stages of puberty and deal with such issues as peer pressure, trying to fit in, popular vs. unpopular, same-sex attraction and accepting said attraction.

A brilliant production from Lukas Moodysson. Another representation of life in rural Sweden, this by no means is a comedy, but instead a realistic portrayal of teenage angst and sexual awakening. Although this is a feature film, it could easily remind one of a documentary or maybe even of a home video due to the grainy film. But it all adds up nicely to the charisma of the movie which devotes a great deal of time to exploring how important it is to fit in and how irrelevant it becomes at a certain point.

Great acting accompanied by a true-to-life story of attraction and exploration. Worth watching to anyone including those interested in reminiscing on their first love story or relationship.


Saturday, November 27, 2010

Why it is okay to change your travel plans

Here’s the story. For my Christmas/New Year trip this year I had a plan in my mind: I would go to Italy, then spend 5 full days in Switzerland and then go to Germany for a week. Now, I’ve never been to Switzerland and I’d obviously heard some very nice things about it, so the idea of going to this fascinating country was very tempting.

I applied for a visa, was given one and then let the topic rest a bit, as it was a bit too early to decide what and where I wanted to do (early October, 3 months in advance) – the important thing was plane tickets and I’d already purchased them at a good price.

I had several locations I wanted to visit in Switzerland: Geneva, Lausanne, Montreux/Vevey, Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, Zurich, maybe Basel. Initially, I wanted to cram all of that into 5 days. Which was quite unreasonable as I later realized - I did not want to visit all those cities just to cross them out on my list and several hours/half a day is just not enough for me to fully enjoy the experience of visiting a new town.

So I talked to several friends who’d been there and started playing around with locations that I wanted to visit (keep in mind I don’t ski). Geneva and Lausanne? Lausanne and Lucerne? Geneva and Lucerne? Lausanne and Interlaken? Geneva and Zurich? I was looking at affordable hostels here and there, but in the end nothing felt right. Nothing at all. I spent at least two weeks stressing out about my itinerary and then for some reason I thought of Cologne and some other German cities and then, within a day, I booked all flights/trains for my prolonged stay in Germany. It took me only two hours to come up with a updated travel plan (Cologne, Munich and a day trip to Brussels) and I’m very satisfied with it. You know why? Because it feels right! And I want to be there asap. With Switzerland, I was lost and felt discontented and there was quite a risk of me not being happy about my trip in general. And that's so not what I want to remember about the great trip that I was supposed to have.

So what conclusions I can make for myself (and hopefully others) based on this example?

  • it’s okay to change your travel plans
  • if a destination doesn’t feel right at the moment, then switch over to something else because… why risk being unhappy with a trip?
  • try booking hotels and hostels via booking sites that foresee cancellation free of charge (booking.com, hrs.com) in order to avoid losing money in case you change your mind or there’s an emergency
  • at the same time, if you for instance booked a hostel via hostelworld.com (and they normally charge you 10%, it most definitely is non-refundable) and now hesitate about going to your selected destination, it’s best to lose the 10% (which is normally not much.. 3-5 euro, but of course that depends on your choice of accommodation) than end up hating your trip, right? It’s important to be wary about money, but at the same time there’s no need to be overtly fanatic about it
In other words, travel and be happy!

Friday, November 26, 2010

Next trip: Thailand or Germany?


The moment I quit my job, I started thinking about my next trip. You know the usual data mining, flights, hotels, things to discover, the whole nine. I had already had another trip planned that I was happy about, but who can be satisfied with one trip if you can have several?

The thing is, I really want to go to Thailand. I want to see Bangkok and then, as it was eventually decided, Krabi and Phi Phi Island. Initially, I also wanted to go to Hongkong (or maybe Kuala Lumpur, or Phnom Pehn), but decided against it because I realized one country would probably do for my first official visit to Asia.

I found reasonably priced tickets, thought things through, came up with an approximate itinerary, booked accommodation in Krabi Town and then we found out my mother has some health issues she needs to take care of. Maybe she's going to have a surgery in December. And maybe not. My sister and grandmother are both willing to take care of her... but do I want to find myself 10 flight hours from home and know my mother just had a surgery and worry sick about her without being able to attend to her? Not really. So even though it's not yet clear how things will progress from here, I've decided to stay home simply because family comes first.

The funny thing of course is that those tickets are still available online, I mean it's just 5-6 days before I would be setting off and these cheap tickets are still out there, on emirates.com! Very, very tempting!

Instead, my new Plan is: I have tickets to Milan on Dec 23 and from Berlin on Jan 7, which was how I originally planned to spend the holidays. But now that I quit my job, there's nothing stopping me from stay longer in Europe and finding good use for my one-year multiple entrance visa to the Schengen zone. So I'm in talks with the airline to rebook my flight back from Berlin to Mar 3, 2011 and basically my trip would look like this:

Dec 23-25: Milan, Italy
evening flight to Cologne, Germany
Dec 26-28: Cologne, Germany (with a day trip to Brussels, Belgium)
night train to Munich, Germany
Dec 29-30: Munich, Germany
day train to Karlsruhe, Germany
Dec 30-Jan 3: Karlsruhe, Germany (with a possible day trip to Strasbourg, France)
night train to Berlin
Jan 3-Mar 3: rent an apartment/room in WG in Berlin, Germany (undertaking trips to Stockholm, Copenhagen and ..?)

Right now, I'm very very happy with this itinerary. So maybe Thailand is not going to work out this time, but instead I'll spend some quality time in Europe, attend the Berlinale and enjoy the spirit of Berlin for a while.

Life is good. Travel when you can!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Istanbul Chronicles: Bosphorus tour, fish sandwich, bagels

Day 5

Took another Bosphorus tour and finally had the famous fish sandfish. The fish itself tastes great (straight out of the water onto the grill), but the bun and the half a kilo of raw onions? Not so much. Fresh pomegranate juice is a must here though. Also sesame bagels are a must. Bagel lover will be my next nickname.

On Sundays, it seems, everybody sleeps in at least until noon. Sunday night, however, turned out to be even busier than the night on Friday, a lot of trade going on, lots of people shuffling around, the city was vibrant.

All in all, a really cool and unusual trip, never expected to enjoy it so much. Lots of walking (hills all around), chilling, gazing, interaction with people, cats galore and memorable minutes and hours.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Istanbul Chronicles: main attractions, Turkish delight, shopping


Day 4

Again a lot of places visited and revisited. Grand Bazaar, Spice Market, Fish Market, Istiklal Street, Taksim Square, Gulhane Park, Golden Horn bank, lots of water-pipe smoked, Turkish delight consumed and also a dove took a shit on my head as we approached the Grand Bazaar – good times.

Much as I enjoy being here, I must say that I’m amazed at the amount of crap that is sold everywhere. You know, the made in Turkey stuff. It’s pretty awful. But lots of people are buying stuff, so I guess it must up somebody’s alley. Also, souvenirs are of a very low quality, lots of stores are splattered around and yet it’s just too complicated to dig out something decent. However, we then found some stores with hand-made jewelry, clothes, etc. that we were content with, but there are only 4-5 of them in the entire city.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Istanbul Chronicles: Topkapi Palace, meditation, service, blondes in Turkey

Day 3

I just love sitting down on the small fountain square between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, it gives me this feeling of uh… completeness. I even succeed at making my talkative friend shut up for a while and try to contemplate the beauty of things around us. :D

Today we also went to the Topkapi Palace to get an idea how sultans lived back in the day and turns out, those people were not much different from all the Russian tsars who enjoyed bling from gold, sapphires, rubies and the like. I’m not a big fan of looking at all this fancy stuff, so we mostly walked around and marveled at the architecture from the outside. Then we sat down at the most expensive café in Istanbul (according to our bill anyway) and enjoyed some staring into the Bosphorus, its boats and ships.

The cool thing about Istanbul is, it’s flooded with French, German, Italian, Bulgarian people, but not Russians. We met maybe 3 or 4 couples altogether during our entire stay. Also, most locals working in the tourism industry and around it speak very decent English, all waiters we met also possess sufficient knowledge of French, Italian and some for-fun Russian.

There was some pestering involved on our first day here (Turks do seem to like blondes), constant attempts at compliments and flattery, invitations to come in and buy some stuff, go out to dinner, etc., but all of it pretty harmless, or maybe it’s only so if you’re friendly and have a sense of humor about. By the end of our trip, it all felt natural and turned out to be part of the appeal of the city. Local vendors seem to be good-natured and like a good laugh, saying something harmless and yet hilarious as you pass by that makes you crack up.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Istanbul Chronicles: Bosphorus tour, Blue Mosque, Beyazit


Day 2

Nice home-made breakfast on our hotel terrace enjoying featuring some people watching / city slowly waking up. It’s nice to see locals slowly going about their day without hurry or stress.

Went inside the Blue Mosque, the interior is fascinating and unusual to a European eye or simply someone who has seen too many Catholic and Orthodox cathedrals.

Then took a 1.5-hour long Bosphorus tour where one is able to see the contrast between the wealthy and the poor of Istanbul – great way to recuperate and spend time with purpose after a long walk around town.

Went to the Museum of Modern Art, visited the Body Worlds exhibition (http://www.bodyworlds.com/en.html) where actual people were used to create mesmerizing images (and by images I mean actual exhibits made from defunct human flesh and bone).

Then walked around Beyazit and Taksim for the longest time shuffling mostly through crowds and enjoying the unique atmosphere the new town. Also had some tea, coffee, smoked a water pipe, added some wine to the combination a bit later in a couple of restaurants down the Istiklal street. Things aren’t so great with alcohol around here, apparently Islam is not big on alcohol beverages in general, but even the most tourist-oriented of places can’t boast a good selection of wine.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Istanbul Chronicles: Sultanahmet, fat cats, expensive dining out


Great first day in Istanbul

After a tedious check-in and passport control at the Russian side, we finally took off and the 1 hour 40 minute flight to Istanbul lasted a mere second due to us blacking out as we gained the altitude and expert piloting… only to be followed by a rough landing. We arrived at our hotel at 6am and amazingly enough, we were allowed to check in at the time (originally they said we were supposed to check in no earlier than 12.00pm).

The room turned out to be pretty great – a solid new three star hotel with a terrace for breakfast and an occasional smoke for my friend (5 days, 4 nights, 60 euro per person, I kid you not). We caught up on some sleep (our bodies and brains ached for it) and went on to have a day-long stroll about town seeing most of the major attractions in Sultanahmet and around it, starting with the Blue Mosque and Basilica Cistern and ending at the Spice Market (where we found ourselves by accident and it was quite an experience… not for the faint of heart).

The most enjoyable thing was the awesome mood the reigned in and around us – the weather, the people around, the nice conversations that were started out of the blue, the Mosques, the ever present Istanbul cats that have no shame and yet are sweet and fantastic looking (are they sort of like cows in India or what?), we also particularly enjoyed the calls to prayer that at certain times are heard anywhere and everywhere though loudspeakers.

We then went on to have a great and overpriced lunch at 4pm on our way back to Sultanahmet.

All in all, a good start of our first trip outside Europe and America.


Tuesday, November 9, 2010

2010 Trip #5

Leaving for Istanbul in a couple of hours. I have done my reading and preparation, but no obsessive planning - I have sort of let go and wonder what will come out of it.

I'm going with a good friend who is a loud and talkative type, I hope to retain my sanity during these days. :)


Sunday, November 7, 2010

Coming back to real life

I feel so content at the moment.

I worked for 13 months at this job and for 13 months I spent 4-5 hours every day getting to and from work. Can you imagine that? 20 hours a week, 80 hours a month and so on. Imagine how much time was lost. Of course at first I tried reading books and I did read quite a few on the train, I also made an attempt to refresh my French, but I guess that's not what my brain wanted at 06.30am. Eventually I gave up trying to do something productive with this time and tried to sleep (on my morning ride) and it proved to be almost impossible, I have a thing about falling asleep in any kind of transport, maybe because once when I fell asleep in the car as a passenger we got into a car crash.

Getting back to the subject and without further ado I must say that due to all this time on the road I sort of fell out of life for some people.

In these four days that I've been off work I've finally started to feel like I am alive again. I went to a family lunch at my grandmother's. And yup, I don't even like family events, but I like to know that I choose to go or not to go depending on whether it feels right at the moment, not because I'm so bloody tired that I don't want to see or talk to anyone. That makes a huge difference.

In these four days I was also reminded that I have friends and buddies and former colleagues that I can trust, have a meaningful conversation with, who I can support or be supported by. I almost forgot what it's like, simple interaction that feeds the mind, in this year+ that I've been commuting. I had time to talk to my college classmate for an hour on the phone and not feel pressured by time, sometimes when she called me previously I didn't even pick up the phone - it's not because of her, it's because I was so drained I felt like if I started talking to her, I would be even more exhausted.

I was heavily supported by a couple of friends during my last two weeks at work and during the time when I realized I had feelings for a co-worker, now a former co-worker. They've been there for me and it has meant a lot to me.

Today I had lunch with a couple of people I like, one of them who quit a similar job in the company, only she quit half a year ago. She and I then had some alone time and it was a pleasure to talk to her and see where she is in her life right now and tell her where I am. Also by accident we met this crush of mine, the former co-worker... That was quite a coincidence. Later in the day I went out with a friend and accidentally met a former colleague from the job I had before the last one. I wonder how accidental or coincidental that actually was... What I know is it gave me an incredible awareness of things around me.

Tuesday night I'm leaving for Istanbul. Before that on Monday and Tuesday I'll probably see a couple of people I enjoyed interacting with before I fell out of life. And I know I'll enjoy it anew.

I really feel the decision to quit was a great one. I'm coming back to life.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

How I quit my job - Part 1

I am of the opinion that your job should not define who you are. Just like age. Or sexuality.

Moreover, I've come to realize that being unhappy at one's job tends to influence one's life as a whole and if it truly is so and has been for a while, it's time to move on to other things.

My discontent at work started in early August, I'd just come back from vacation and the thought of coming back was unbearable. Sure, most people get that feeling, however it was a feeling that did not evaporate in a week or two, but stayed with me till the very end influencing how I function completely.

First of all, it needs to be said I commute at least 4 hours a day. Actually, if I calculate right, more like 5. I have (correction: had) a 8.30-5.00 job, I was leaving the house at 6.05am and coming back at 7.30pm or later (7.00pm if I was very lucky). I took the train in the morning to a small town where the company that I worked for is located, then took a half-hour walk to the factory or a slightly shorter bus trip always preceeded by waiting for 10 minutes in the wind. In the evening, I went back with somebody who had a car to the outskirts of my city only to use public transportation once again and be strayed in traffic for another hour to finally get home.

In other words, it was a fairytale.

The job itself was not fulfilling. My boss, GM of the company, was afraid to confront a member of the management team and this person ended up ruling the company, that made a lot of people miserable. Also, he was supposed to be my only boss, but I ended by being bossed around by a lot of people and my manager did nothing about it, they all could freely load me with assignments and when I pointed at that, he'd pretend to be willing to do something about it and he did not in the end. Honestly, I don't feel like reciting all reasons for leaving because it would just send me back to being frustrated, so I'm just going to say that the job made me miserable and that's not something I want to remember 30 years from now - boy, I was so overworked in my 20's, I put int so much overtime, I got calls from my boss at midnight, at 6.30am, I was really unhappy and did nothing about it. Nope, thank you.

And I do realize that most people in this sad world are unhappy with their jobs. I don't think it'll be an exaggeration if I say it's about 80-90%. Most people don't do their jobs for fun or for the selfish act of trying to be happy, most of them try to make a living. But I am positive that I can't be miserable for long and I know I can do better than being stressed all the time.

So between the beginning of August and the end of October there were maybe 3 or 4 days when I did not feeling like resigning. And those were not really job-related reasons, if I remember correctly I interacted with colleagues a lot on those days, so that means the boss was away on business trips.

There were several last straws the came with a series of VIP visits that I had to put together although I'm not the even the travel coordinator or event manager in the company. The visits were back to back, we had over 40 visitors altogether, all set up for different dates, meetings, agendas, etc. I had to juggle all of that while my boss kept only complicating the matters by re-inventing the wheel and micromanaging.

I'd written a template for my two weeks notice a while back, all I had to do was to put the date in it. And on October 21 I did just that.

Human interaction

People. If you think about it, there are so many odd things about human relationships. Two spring to my head at the moment.

First of all, it's how different people have different opinions about the same person. For example, you think somebody is just fantastic, caring and fun to be around and then you find out somebody else (and I mean somebody whose judgement you would by all means trust) thinks the same person is mean, not pleasant to deal with and not somebody they would turn to. Or you think somebody is not responsible, passive agressive and your friend thinks they are sweet and comfortable to be around...

Does this mean we're all the same? We're all the same and it's just that we all encounter one another under different circumstances that end up shaping our opinions of each other? After all, yes, we all want to be happy and content and there's good and bad in everybody, so is it just that oppotunities decide on who we'll be friends/amicable with or who we will try to avoid?

Secondly, it's how there are people you like, love or respect, are attracted to and then something happens and you don't or aren't anymore. This has happened with my love interests in the past. I really loved somebody in the past, it was completely unrequited and sad for me and then after I'd gotten over it (took me a long time), I was able to realize that I can't even respect this person right now. She's not really somebody I would look up to or even want to be friends with... Ok, I was very young when I was madly and deeply in love with her, but this still makes me question my judgement. Or is it just how the human brain functions? We idolize somebody we love overlooking their bad parts and then when love is gone, it seems there's just the negative that's left? Are we really so blind?

Another example from only several months ago. I found myself being attracted to somebody, very much. The feeling/emotion was mutual. We had sex a couple of times and it wasn't great. Maybe I should've waited a little bit, but I guess I felt it wasn't worth it. I was the "top" in the sex that we had and while I made it clear, I was very, very eager to be on the receiving end as well, that didn't happen. Also, there were several aspects about the whole thing that turned me off. So basically, it was like a switch, I went from being 'on' to being 'off' in a matter of hours, maybe even within one hour - after feeling strong attraction for that person for several weeks.

I think it's all very weird and, ok, she wasn't reciprocating and ok, some things weren't perfect (although I imagine other people would be turned off as well), but why did I feel instant repulsion? I would've thought it'd be more or less gradual, but nope, it wasn't. So the question is, why does it take us (or is it just me?) so relatively little to go from from one thing to its complete opposite? What is the brain-functioning behind this?

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Just basically am at a crossroads in my work life at the moment. Ideally I'd love to quit my job, go to Istanbul, Turkey in November and then to Italy, Switzerland and Germany for Christmas and New Year. And then to start looking for a job in the middle of January.

However, of course I'm afraid I will quit my job, spend money on travel and then will not be able to find a job in January... So the question is, will I be strong enough to leave?

Monday, October 4, 2010

How unfortunate...

I had a very unpleasant day at work today. My boss came back from his two-week business trip and one of the first things he told me was how great my colleague in an identical position at our affiliate was. He added that it's not that I perform badly, but that this colleague who is twice as old as I am, she provided just another level of service. That wasn't exactly the worst thing a boss has ever said to his direct report, but it was like a blow into my face.

I strive for perfection. I am quite organized, at least in terms of work - I prefer everything to be done well in advance, I am fast at what I do and efficient. Deadlines, I like to have my stuff ready well ahead, while for instance always comes up with solution/information on the very last day. I'm sorry to have to praise myself, but it's something that has been attributed to me by other people as well. I do value the work that I do. So when he came in and said that somebody else was just damn fantastic, it really hurt me. Maybe I shouldn't take it so close to heart, yes. But I guess I'll go as far as saying that I know that nobody else in our company could do my job better than I can, I'm pretty responsible and most other people just lack that.

That being said, according to my own opinion and now I have confirmation from two other people, I've sort of failed to established authority in my position. Typically my position is viewed as one with power and if used right, I could influence my boss and suit my own interests. I don't think that that's what I want though, I don't want to manipulate somebody and make other people look bad just because I want it. I prefer honesty and I don't like playing games. Unfortunately, in many work environments that's not possible and playing game is a sure-fire way to survive and go up the career ladder. I was told I'm naive in that sense. I think it'd be fair to say that it's even stupid. But I truly want to be appreciated based solely on my performance and some under-carpet movements.

Most my colleagues will go around naming every little thing that they've done while I just do it silently most of the time. My boss doesn't know how many translations I actually do and how fast I am. It's my fault. I should notify him every time I do something, but I would feel really stupid if I did. But in reality, it's even more stupid that I can overcome myself and do that.

I don't think I'm a doormat, but I do a lot of work for other people. Mostly translations that are not related to me at all, a lot of follow-up work that isn't my responsibility (although I admit that this is arguable, follow-up is fine as long as it's a business necessity and unless I don't have to do other people's work), some assignments that are not related to the field in which I work. But if I was really firm and strict like my predecessor was, I'd be able to brush people off and get some respect from them. But like I said, I haven't managed to do that, it seems. I feel almost as bad about it as my boss's comment earlier today.

I've been with this company for a year and have attained a certain image of a reliable worker but somebody who can be pushed around, I believe, now I reckon I'm goign to have to make people re-consider their opinion of me. I'm not really a yes-person, and yet time and time again I find myself "helping" other people istead of doing something that is my direct responsibility and should come first even though it might be less important on the large scale.

Also, as I've been obsessing a little bit about Guiding Light and its story I'm yet again reminded that I have had almost no luck with women except for one fling with a young girl. All of this, plus terrible weather are not helping me to feel good about myself. I feel a bit like a waste and more simply put, like a used condom of sorts... I know, not a pretty picture and yet it's not that far from the real one. I now have to consider whether I want to stay with this company and commute 4+ hours a day, getting up at 5.40am every morning... or whether I should take a 2.5-month break and have a rest before having a trip to Europe around Christmas and then starting to look for another job.

On the one hand, it sounds perfect, but on the other hand, I'm scared I'm going to run out of money and I won't be able to find a good job. I think yet again I'm at a crossroads in my life.
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