Europe 2016: Rome: An Idiot Abroad

Everyone has heard the saying “when in Rome…”, but it is usually followed by an expectation that the person addressed is going to do something new and out of the ordinary. Now, I usually start to write these posts by considering the strangest and most memorable events that I experienced within the city, and Rome blessed me with an abundance, and as usual, they were not what I’d expect.

I could start with day one, at a water park called Hydromania. And yes, most people would do the cultural stuff first, but ain’t nobody gonna keep me away from water slides. 

Cue a few hours later, and there I was enjoying a relaxed swim in one of the pools, when suddenly a wave machine kicked in, along with, bizarrely, some drum and bass, and suddenly we were in the middle of some form of pool party held entirely in Italian. What started as entertaining quickly turned seedy when we realised that there was a dance competition going on, voted entirely by teenage boys, in which the winner was always the girl in the skimpiest bikini. Not wanting to be associated with this kind of thing, we left to be more mature on the watersides. But even there, we witnessed a group of 20 somethings stealing rubber rings for the largest slide off of children. Ah well, we tried.

I could also mention the last night, when we went for food at a quiet pizzeria in a nice square…in full view of what revealed itself to be an anti-Islamic protest. 

I could even mention our darkest moment, in which we realised that the only place to get a beer in our near vicinity was a McDonald’s. Let me tell you, waiting forty minutes for a McBeer is definitely not something that I will remember fondly. To top off our shame, we were then sat drinking them at a beautiful fountain that became the site for a touching proposal. The couple, and the audience, clapping and elated; us, left feeling cheap and ashamed.

My time in Rome was truly amazing, despite the fact that I was an idiot and let my shoulders get so burnt that the back-packing part of my back-packing holiday became quite painful. I’m currently sat on a train dreading the commute from Venice station to our hostel with our bags.

Fortunately, this couldn’t overshadow how incredible Rome is. Sites like the Vatican and the Colliseum have been on my wish list for years, and whilst the former confirmed my expectations about the pretentious, self important nature of the Catholic Church, the latter was truly awe inspiring, and I’m glad that we decided to take a tour around it.

Combined with more great pizza and ice cream, Rome is definitely my favourite site so far. Although I did learn that just because the pasta was made in Italy, it doesn’t mean that it is necessarily good. Don’t eat near the Colliseum, unless you want budget pasta that tastes like it was flavoured with Heinz spaghetti hoops.

Anyway, onwards to Venice, the city of Romance. Hopefully it’ll be just as nice going platonically with a mate, or I’m going to have some awkward conversations when I get home…

Europe 2016: Milan: Getting a Pisa Italy.

“Do you guys ever get heat like this in England?”

You know your day isn’t going quite as you’d pictured it when you’re sat, stuck to the floor of a hostel by your own sweat, arguing with two Australian girls about the virtues of 18 degrees as an optimum temperature.

It was 37 degrees, and no, we weren’t used to it at all.

Milan was my first experience of Italy, and brought with it my first proper experience of what it meant to be truly fucking boiling. 

Even so, Milan was an incredible city to visit. Visually, the buildings were stunning, with the cathedral and the castle standing out as highlights on the landscape and the heat was too nice of a change from England to really complain about. 

But as with every city on our travels, there was the usual collection of odd occurrences and inconsistencies that made Milan memorable in different ways.

For one thing, they seem to have taken advice on opening hours from episodes of Garfield, with a strong aversion to tourist attractions being open on Mondays. This didn’t really effect our visit, as we only missed out on a trip to the aquarium, but it was odd all the same.

Then there was the annoyance of possibly the worst money making scheme ever conceived. Basically, a group of African men toured the city with thin pieces of string, which they would try and put on your wrist with the words “good luck from Africa”. At which point, the befuddled tourist would realise that “good luck from Africa” apparently costs about 5 Euro and results in a lot of shouting and the tourist never paying up.

Most horrible of all, as delicious as the ice cream was (and God was it good), the price and what it gave you varied every time I went to the same place. I think they were just messing with us at that point.

Plus, everyone appears to want a tip for basic activities. Hell, this morning a train station employee wrenched a €2 coin from my heartless, uncharitable hands, because he had done us the service of doing his job in directing us to a train (which we had to pay a €20 reservation for anyway). I know you need to respect workers, but I half expected the toilets to have tip buckets for flushing adequately.

But then, everything costs in Milan. Upon arrival at the hostel, we paid a “City Tax”, as well as an air conditioning tax, and our first restaurant bill came with an “eating tax”.

…now, it may be an old fashioned view, but I thought that the fact that you were going to eat the food was a given. Maybe next time I’ll throw the pizza at one of the string-bearers as a true sign of good will from Italy, or possibly use it to wipe my arse.

Despite this, I would heartily recommend Milan, and I can’t wait to see what Rome will be like. As I write this, I am en-route there after taking a stop in Pisa to see that tower that everyone is always going on about. 

It was quite nice, actually. Plus it gave me a pun for the title. I’m not even the tiniest bit sorry.

Europe 2016: Frankfurt: Man-children on the dark side 

As different as some of the cities on my route have been, in general I have always felt comfortable and welcome regardless.

Indeed, in Frankfurt, I was taken aback by all the people who seemed genuinely happy to see us, marking each encounter as a new and exciting welcome to the city.

I could see it in the man I met this morning, so happy to see us because of the prospects of our phones and our wallets, escorting us down the street and helpfully trying to relieve us of them.

Mitch saw it in the guy who slapped him in the face and spat on him, and told him to “go back to the UK”; clearly delighted to have a chance to take some action in line with his tested prejudices and world view.

We both saw it in the multiple people at the station who asked us for money just in the time that we were sat on the platform awaiting the train, a look of longing in their eyes as they regarded us.

Ok, so if I’m honest, parts of our Frankfurt visit have been utterly shit. Mitch was bitch-slapped and spat on just for having the indecency to be sharing the same oxygen as a bigoted midget with insecurities far surpassing his stature; Both of us were followed by a man who simultaneously won the award for most persistent and aggressive pursuit and (thankfully) for being the world’s worst pickpocket. And as bad as it sounds, both of us were fed up of being asked for money every few seconds by people who wouldn’t take no for an answer; meaning that we wearily refused to give change to an honest woman who probably really needed it. 

As well as this, I had a fight with a loose paving stone that my ankle lost, so I’m slightly limping now. *cue violins*.

These instances aside, I did enjoy Frankfurt, as it gave us the chance to be complete and utter man-children. We frequented a pool with water slides and wave machines, and even took the time out of our cultured lifestyle to go to the zoo and see all the pretty animals. 

Oh, and there was a teensy bit of drinking involved, but the fact that I can’t remember some of it means I can discount the drinks that memory omitted, therefore leaving me sure in my conviction that I drank very responsibly indeed. 

But c’mon, it was €1.25 a beer! I’m slightly ashamed I went to McDonalds, but that was drunk Matt; sober Matt would never do such a thing.

As I write this, I am on my way out of Germany towards Zurich, after finally being successful in catching the correct train. I have no idea what to expect from Switzerland apart from a lighter wallet. Hopefully that’ll dissuade future encounters with other contenders from the annual “worst-thief” awards….

Europe 2016: Berlin: Great Expectations 

The other day I found myself considering my route through Europe, and what it was that had drawn me to want to visit certain locations over others. Immediately, I had to concede that a large part of this decision was practicality, as I’ve already had to scrap Montenegro because it is miles out of our way. Rule one of travelling: picking a destination just because you like the name is not always going to work.

In fact, upon reflection I realised that Berlin was the only one that carried with it any sense of expectation on my part, excluding possibly Rome. Anyone who has been through the British school system has been taught to death about German history, even if these days many Germans would like to pretend that they have only been a country since about 1989.

And in many ways, Berlin delivered as a cultural staple of our trip, allowing me to see many of the sights that I had read about so many times, such as the Berlin Wall, the Jewish memorial, and the Reichstag. 

But as with German history, the great parts of it are often unfairly overshadowed by the bad, and despite its merits I departed the station en-route to Frankfurt with two of my fingers pointed accusingly up in the air. You may soon tell that I don’t even have much enthusiasm to write this post.

Berlin has been the only stop so far that has felt like more than a chore than an enjoyable experience, and whilst this is not the fault entirely of the city, please allow me to indulge my frustrations and irrationally slag off a whole city anyway. Are we sitting comfortably?

Right, here we go then.

Firstly, fuck the metro system. Fuck it sideways with a rusty replica of the TV tower. Fuck it until it’s positively numb, with every bit of valid currency that it refused to accept for no apparent reason, and find particularity painful places to put the rejected small change.
Mitch and I had booked a hostel on the outskirts of Berlin because it was so much cheaper (and it showed, thanks to 3 sleepless nights induced by the worlds worst mattresses), and this would have been ok if the metro system hadn’t been so temperamental. Every single time we tried to buy a ticket, it spat all of our money back at us, until we were forced to just fare-dodge-and-hope every day. On the upside, this meant we didn’t spend much on transport, but you made me a criminal Berlin. Not cool. 

Also, I realise that football is an inevitable evil, but did they really have to shut down half the city to accommodate a projector smaller than the average fan’s national ego? As a result, our 10 minute walk to the station ended up becoming a never-ending march around a perimeter fence, until we were miles from where we needed to be. Seriously, I think the Russians had an easier time getting into the centre of Berlin than we did last night. All of this came after being rejected from an attraction that we had spent all day finding with no apparent explanation at all.

Berlin is in no way a bad city, and I was enchanted by some of its quirks (such as a whole shop dedicated to traffic light mascots), and even our shitty hostel was redeemed by being situated on a gorgeous lake. But it was marred by bad experiences, culminating in a key-related disaster last night that left us in fear of being robbed.

I know Berlin is a beautiful place, but right now I’m tired, and frustrated, and hopefully I can think on it more fondly with some distance: like you do with secondary school, or a terrible relationship.

Europe 2016: Hamburg: Fat Fucks in the “Sober” City.

We stood in quiet amazement as, prompted by her input, the machine spat out packet after packet of cigarettes, at a rate that reminded me of that career mother in England who is currently lovingly awaiting her 13th source of income. 

Welcome, my friends, to Hamburg. 

Whilst this happy customer had chosen lung disease as the means of her demise, our actions in Hamburg pointed more in the direction of a slow death from obesity, diabetes or heart disease as we became fully-fledged food tourists.

As I like to think any reasonable person would upon arriving in Germany, I immediately tried a currywurst; a food which I am now convinced is something divine and Godly. In fact, I’m amazed I ate anything else at all. But we did. Part of me feels bad for going somewhere different and exercising my gluttonous side, but unfortunately we were unsuccessful in pursuing more traditional forms of tourism, as attractions like the Hamburg Dungeons and the Miniature Village were, unreasonably, in German.

Hamburg is by far the most beautiful city that we have visited thus far, although I have to acknowledge that we didn’t stray too far outside the centre. Like most major cities, Hamburg is built on the water, but it somehow felt more an elegant part of the scenery as opposed to something that had been forced on top of it, like an urban blanket covering something shameful. Mitch and I didn’t fully take advantage of the river tours, but nonetheless it was nice to stuff our faces with something pretty to look at. 

As well as the aesthetic, I found myself getting excited (probably unjustifiably) by the little quirks and differences presented by my first German city.  

For example, a mechanical toilet is something that I never considered necessary, but then again I’m not German. After mimicking the average procedure of a pay and display car park to enter the bathroom, I wasn’t ready for electronically locked cubicles and self-cleaning toilet seats, and promptly required a currywurst to calm myself down.

Ok, so I may be exaggerating my own excitement a little bit, but it was nice to see just how different a city could be revealed through the most ordinary of things. 

Whilst the Brexit vote didn’t follow us around in the same way as it had done in Brussels, we were still able to see the beginnings of something quite tense in the attitudes of Germans towards it, with one man even holding an English sign lamenting the state of the U.K following the referendum. Whilst all this was hard to witness, it didn’t taint my impression that Hamburg was a beautiful and vibrant city, with a lot to offer.

It is a fact that Bristolians are drawn to each other by a force stronger than a Nokia 3310, and it is also a fact that said bristolians are drawn to alcohol by a force stronger than…two nineties Nokias. 

Seriously, look it up. These statistics were certainly proven true in Hamburg, where we ended up going “for a few” with some fellow farmer-folk, which was cool, even if we did see a seedier side to the city.

Also, a word of warning: don’t drink too much German Beer, as you may end up getting “Game of Thrones” drunk. And trust me, you don’t want to know what that means.

Anyway, onward to Berlin, where we may actually be able to do some more conventional touristic activities. But then again, this is us we’re talking about.

Europe 2016: Brussels: Right Place, Wrong Time.

I woke up on my first morning in Brussels to the news that my country no longer wanted anything to do with the European Capital.

Yet over the course of my time in the city, I felt nothing but welcome.

I don’t want to write here about the EU Referendum, or why I believe that my country made the wrong choice, or why I feel bad for those people in England who are bearing the brunt of the blows dealt out by the senseless few empowered by our newfound “national pride”. Partially, because I don’t want to go blue in the face. And predominantly, because I feel like it’s nothing that anyone reading this won’t have heard before. 

Instead, I want to talk about a city: A city where drivers are entertained at traffic lights by busking circus performers, who don’t seem nearly as worried as I was that the green man is more of a guideline than a rule:

A city where their greatest tourist attraction is “the pissing man”; basically a urinating infant, which looks a lot more questionable in souvenir form without the running water, as there is no indication as to what exactly it is that he is doing:

A city where the weather has a personality disorder that means that it can’t decide whether to adhere to God’s forecast to Noah, or make it ridiculously hot so that it can laugh when your chocolate melts; and so it does both 3 times in the space of an hour.

If I’m being honest, Brussels does not have the touristic pedigree of Amsterdam, and what it does have can be explored very quickly. But more than the place, I sided with Brussels for the people. The majority of my experiences in the City sound like the setup to a terrible joke, with my second night being aptly summed up in this way:

“Two Englishman, some Canadians and a Brazilian walk into an Irish bar in Brussels….”

Ok, so I may not have worked out a punchline beyond “and got royally off their tits on alcohol”, but in stark contrast to Amsterdam, everyone I met was interesting and open. In fact, I think I became too social, as I made the mad decision to willingly watch a football game, and I don’t even regret it because Irish football fans are beautifully nuts and make “Gary and the Lads” from Bradford look like pathetic, overgrown bald children in comparison.

In fact, this topic of national pride was the only cloud that hung over the experience, with most asking us about the situation in England. This audience consisted of everyone from Texan and Columbian students, to political scientists from Brazil. A homeless man selling the Big Issue equivalent even said “everyone in Europe hates you now”. And it was disheartening to see all the EU flags and know that our star had stopped shining.

All I know is, I don’t hate Europe. My time in Brussels proved that whatever has happened, and whatever will happen in the future, it’s not going to stop me from finding new and exciting people who are worth every second of my time, and who can never be fully appreciated through the words that I write. And I know that as I travel onwards to Germany, I’m only going to meet more.

Hell, maybe I’ll even find new jokes, and better punchlines for them.