Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

Cyrus: Trouble in Paradise With Niscosia, Europe’s Last Divided Capital

In many ways, Cyprus is one of the most boring places I have ever visited.  I partially visited it for that reason… although things in Israel and Jordan turned out to be quite calm, I wanted to make sure I had some time to relax somewhere far away from Middle Eastern squabbles.  Cyprus, especially in April, is idyllically quiet, peaceful and lined with gorgeous beaches.  I strolled by flamingos hanging out in a salt lake in Larnaca, walked for miles on the boardwalk in Limassaol, got blown away by the wind and the beauty of Cape Greco near Aiya Napa (infamous beach and party town).  Along the way, I toured a few castles, walked some boardwalks and it was nice but I felt like I had seen it at all before.  Especially since I have visited Greece and Turkey, even the food, language and culture was familiar. However, one aspect of my trip to Cyprus was something completely new, different and totally bizarre… Nicosia: Europe’s last divided capital. Before coming, I was aware of some aspects of the situation.  I knew the country was split into a Greek and Turkish side but I didn’t really know what that meant.  I had a Greek-American friend who studied in Cyprus for a bit and she talked about peering over the border to the Turkish side which was plastered in flags, including flags painted onto the mountain side. She assured me that I could walk right across the border and that “things were getting better”.  But the Turkish guy who was studying on the Turkish side and he told me he could not cross to retrieve me.  But the directions seemed easy- he said, “I live right near the bus station, just go down, cross the border and you will see me.”  My Larnaca host who had been living in Cyprus for a decade gave me similar instructions, “From the bus stop, go down the hill and you can cross”.  I asked the man at the bus station and he made it sound similarly simple, “Straight then left”. I started happily marching forward but after five minutes, I found a surprising lack of signs.  I asked a couple people on the way, and despite being assured multiple times, “Everyone in Cyprus speaks English” (it was a British colony after all), everyone waved away my question.  They replied to my inquiry with feigned ignorance and vigorous, almost desperate, “don’t-ask-me” hand motions.  Eventually, beyond a patio with a dozen hanging magic eyes, I followed the “tourist information center” signs to a dusty basement where a lady paused shuffling brochures to instruct me to retrace my steps down the main shopping street. So I went.  Past the Greek grandpa’s nursing already-cold coffees, kids chomping on cheese pies and pottery shops.  “This can’t be right,” I thought, hunting for wifi to tell my host that it might take me longer than expected to cross.  But then I almost walked into it. Some cones, a tent, a small sign “Nicosia: the last divided capital” and two border officials playing Candy Crush. One barely lifted her eyes from her phone as she plopped my passport on the scanner and waved me onward.  I walked for about 25 meters through some abandoned shops, lined with barbed wire and “no photograph” signs then I was at another booth.  The Turkish officials had me fill out a small paper which they stamped and waived me forward to where Sercan was waiting for me expectantly.  On a similar shopping street but now the shops sold simit (round thin bagel-ish like breads sold from carts everywhere in Turkey), kabobs, Turkish SIM cards.  Instead of a time warp, I felt like a entered a culture warp… the street felt eerily similar but simultaneously different. As I tried to re-orient myself, Sercan (my host) explained some of the border crossing regulations.  Greek and Turkish Cypriots could cross the border freely (although some refused on principle).  Turkish citizens could not cross but members of the EU and other countries could visit both freely.  He had only been in Cyprus the past couple years but had no desire for the island to be united since he felt that would mean he could no longer go to school here. I continued to peer around as we returned to his place to drop off my bags.  It sounded like Turkey.  It looked like Turkey.  By the looks of the restaurants, it tasted like Turkey.  I just spotted a few exceptions: I saw very few Africans in Turkey but here there were many, either studying for university or doing hard labor.  Towering casinos (which aren’t allowed in Turkey) dominate the streets.  As we crossed the street, Sercan pointed...

Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Top Ten European Cities (Part II) & Thanks

Welcome to Part II of my top ten favorite cities from this 2 month trip around Europe.  If you haven’t yet, maybe start with Part I to get an overview of where I’ve been and see which cities make the top five.  The list will continue in this part and will end with a brief shout-out to people who have made this journey positively unbelievable. 6) Venice, Italy Yes its packed to an unpleasant degree with tourists and priced accordingly, but Venice is unlike any other place on Earth. On this trip, I’ve also been to Bruges, Belgium which sometimes pretends to be the “Venice of the West” but it has nowhere near the tragic charm of this sinking city. I’ve already written an ode to Venice and some suggestions to escape some of the tourists in your explorations, since I know that I probably won’t have the same experience of the city if I slept in and spent my day squished between Asian tourists, stuck in Saint Mark’s square. If you get out of the main tourist areas, the food is delicious and the prices weren’t as bad as I feared (the going rate for espresso at the counter is 1 euro… in Zurich, you pay $5). 7) Innsbruck, Austria Before this trip, I thought of Austria as rolling, technicolor green meadows, soaring Swiss Alps and boys in suspenders eating schnitzel. Maybe Julia Andrews and the Sound of Music are to blame. But when I landed in Vienna, I found a posh capital where everything was extravagant, perfect and no one would be caught dead in clothes made from bedroom curtains. Yes, the ornate town hall was beautiful, the Parliament impressive and the gardens ornate but I wanted Austria make me twirl around in circles. It took several weeks until I returned to this country but when I arrived in Innsbruck, I found the place that made me want to waltz with blue birds, breathing in fresh mountain air. As Austria’s third largest city, Innsbruck is not a nature destination but its a city sewn together with rivers and surrounded by mountains that put you in your place. All of its occupants learned to ski before they could walk, they wander the city streets in wool sweaters with pom poms on their winter hats and all humbly rumble off hobbies like “crossing the Alps on foot”, mountain biking, climbing mountains, bungee jumping… Innsbruck hosted the Junior Olympics so it has skating rinks and football stadiums and a giant ski jump to service these adventurers. Not only are the people amazingly adventurous but the town has something for everyone: cafes, bars and music venues to entertain its large student population, a picturesque Old Town, lavish churches and amazing nature all around. And everything’s just a 10 minute walk away (well to ski, you’ll have to spend 15 minutes on the train). I went to Innsbruck before Christmas so I enjoyed its Christmas markets and streets converted to “fairy tale lane” where witches and giants watched pedestrians from window seats. I learned they also celebrate Carnival in the spring, which could be a fun time to visit!  But anytime you want a dose of fresh mountain air, audacious people, cuckoo clocks and a walkable city center, you can’t go wrong with Innsbruck. 8) Paris, France It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the bias in my Paris versus Berlin entry and yes, I admit it, I liked Paris. It had warmth, energy, chaos and an intellectualism that a lot of European countries lack (Netherlands, Germany, Belgium). Yes, it’s dirty and yes, you see homeless people on the streets but Paris won’t be the same place without poverty… who would have inspired Toulouse-Lautrec, Salvador Dali and Pablo Picasso. I didn’t like the prices in Paris, but compared to Switzerland, eating fondue in France is an absolute steal. Although Paris is a big city and I won’t want to waste my life away on the tram, I think I could stay entertained here for awhile, exploring different neighborhoods, absorbing the energy of an intellectual and artistic crossroad and meeting interesting people. 9) Amsterdam, Netherlands If I just the city center, I would not like Amsterdam. The Dutch are very economically savvy people and they know most visitors will gobble up generic, overpriced fast food, cliché souvenirs and siren call of legal pot and prostitution. So that’s what it delivers: everything the typical tourist wants, easily accessible in the city center. I hate to break it to you but that’s not the real Amsterdam: locals don’t spend their weekends in the Red Light, most don’t smoke marijuana...

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

My Ten Favorite European Cities (Part I)

“What a long strange trip it’s been”… and although there was no hallucinogenic drugs involved, Jerry Garcia could not begin to understand the wild, spontaneous romp around Europe that I had.  What was supposed to be a studious two months making progress with my PhD in Loeben, Austria turned into explorations anchored in two workaway opportunities (helping a student prepare for her English exams in Passau, Germany and hippies on their love farm in middle-of-nowhere Belgium) turned into a lot of moving around, not always in the most logical manner. So 18 countries and 44-ish European cities later, I conquered much of the continent that I have publicly denounced as boring, over-priced and over-rated.  It’s definitely true for some places but overall, my appreciation for the region has grown.  Since I didn’t do as much writing during my travels as I should have, I figured I’d leave you with a list of my top ten favorite cities to travel and a brief mention of some of the biggest disappointments.  I’ll probably commit a travel blogger crime by linking some of the titles of my Facebook albums, but I know a picture is worth a thousand words so feel free to click. But first, here’s the grand unveiling of how the final trip turned out: (Vienna) Austria, (Passau & Munich) Germany, (Budapest & Szentendre) Hungary, (Ljubljana & Bled) Slovenia, (Trieste & Venice) Italy, (Plitvice Lakes, Zagreb & Dubrovnik) Croatia, (Budva, Kotor & Perast) Montenegro, (Neum, Mostar & Sarajevo) Bosnia, (Belgrade & Vrsac) Serbia, (Timisoara, Sibiu, Brasov, Sighisoara, Viscri, Valencii & Cluj Napoca) Romania, (Amsterdam) Netherlands, (Antwerp, Balen, Ghent, Bruges & Oostende) Belgium, (Deux Caps, Paris) France, (Berlin, Cologne, Dortmund) Germany, (Krakow, Wieliczka, Wroclaw) Poland, (Prague) Czech Republic, (Zurich) Switzerland, (Innsbruck) Austria, (Bratslavia) Slovakia DISCLAIMER:  For all of you amazing couch surfers whose city didn’t make the list, my top cities to travel don’t necessary reflect the cities where I made the best memories or met the most incredible people.  I’d mostly recommend these cities to slightly adventurous, twenty-something travelers on a budget and these recommendations apply to people who want cities easy to navigate independently, friendly locals and plenty of student-friendly free/cheap attractions. 1) Sarajevo, Bosnia The cities of Bosnia barely compare to its natural beauty but I still found Sarajevo a fascinating place to visit.  Every time I traveled through this country, my nose was pressed to the glass to see turquoise rivers, rolling hills on fire with fall colors, sprinkled with rustic farmhouses. It’s a wildly beautiful country with relatively nice roads that lacks Western chain stores and industrial sprawl… until you get to Sarajevo. When the bus first began to approach the city, the shoddily constructed apartments reminded me of Brazilian favelas. Even when I switched from a bus to a tram through some central city streets, I found crumbling and decrepit buildings covered in graffiti, barbed wire and pockmarked with bullet holes. The grassy hills on the city outskirts could have added color and cheer to the city but instead were blanketed with gravestones, which added to the eeriness of the place. I checked into my hostel, and the receptionist gave me vague recommendations to spend the rest of my day: climb through graveyards to a lookout from an old fortress (now covered in graffiti and inaccessible) and check out the mosques and markets in the Old Town. I grabbed the map and marched off with the goal of racing through these sites as quickly as possible since even doing work seemed more appealing than spending time amongst a depressing remains of a city that was under siege a couple decades ago. I don’t know exactly when and where it happened, but some time during my afternoon, I fell in love with the resilient beauty of this city. Maybe when I stood looking out on the city, trying to mentally erase the cemeteries from the natural beauty of a place nestled between hills with rivers running through. I stood for quite awhile, alone except for a few hungry crows, with silent tears running down my face, wondering how the world’s largest genocide since the Holocaust could happen during my lifetime. I tried to compose myself on the walk down the hill, distracting myself by peeking into metal shops, where the rat-tat-tat of artists resulted in ornate plates and Turkish tea sets. I landed amongst the Ottoman market, where the glow of mosaic lamps danced amongst the silver, spices and teas. The stalls exploded with goods from the East, greasy bureks enticed people into same cafes and the sounds of the muezzin call from the mosque kept the time. Eventually, the carpet covered stalls evolved into re-purposed Turkish...

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

Best of Europe: Paris versus Berlin

After going to these two cities, it seems weird to put them in the same sentence but many people do “as the best of Europe“.  However, their personalities are so different in strange and semi- unpredictable ways.  Paris, the City of Lights, exudes a romantic sophistication and elegance that Berlin doesn’t even pretend to imitate.  Whereas Paris is an iconic embodiment of a charm that nowhere else can emulate, Berlin is a work in progress toward an indeterminate end.   Rory MacLean comments, “Berlin is a city that is forever in the process of becoming, never being”. There’s tremendous attention to detail wherever you look… sculptures embedded into bridges that depict their construction, ornate iron gates with gold detailing, uniform blue roofs accented by carved detailing.  Paris is chic, a cultural hub but despite its classiness, it comes chaos and feels more like a Latin city than a traditionally European one.  People jaywalk, climb their motorbikes onto bumpy sidewalks and walls are covered with scrawled messages about unrequited love.  Everyone complains about snobbish Parisians but I was pleasantly surprised how strangers happily squeezed close on the train, offered up seats for old ladies and generally seemed more patient than people in cities of that size.  And they’re laughably polite… I love it when the metro announces “This is the final stop.  We invite you to leave the train”. Berlin has massive structures, stoic traditional buildings next to mismatched modern ones, wide boulevards and no space is sacred.  There’s construction, things crumbling and street art everywhere… even graffiti on street art sculptures.  As far as the feel I get from its inhabitants, despite its punk history and rebellious lack of respect for unmarked space, it’s still a German city and I find Germans to be a rather compliant, cold and unexciting bunch.  I love to people-watch but in Germany, there’s nothing to see… people patiently wait to march across the zebra stripes when the light changes even if there’s no car approach from either side of the horizon. Despite their differences, Paris and Berlin have been connected throughout the centuries.  People I’ve talked to naively linked them together as mutually “great European cities” and ancient conquerors created a certain rivalry between the two.  The chariot on top of Berlin’s landmark Brandenburg Gate was actually seized by Napoleon during his occupation of Berlin in 1806 and taken to Paris for a time.  Hitler wanted to obliterate Paris to the ground because he knew Berlin could never compete (fortunately, his soldiers refused to follow these orders).  The French still have some animosity toward Germans, rightfully so, given the World Wars. The point of traveling from city to city to eat, see and do different things.  People go to Paris for romance, culture, massive museums of classic pieces and bohemian artsiness.  People go to Berlin for cheap beer, crazy parties, punk culture and the witnessing the aftermath of a divided city.  Greater writers than me have written better things than I can about these places so I’m not pretending to have created a comprehensive guide.  But if you want to take advantage of the “greatness of Europe” by looking for the right things in the right places! Go to Paris… 1) To Eat.  It is not going to be cheap but French food is rightfully delicious.  Expect to pay at least 15 euros for your meal if you sit down somewhere, but its worth it.  The French attention-to-detail fully carries over to their approach toward dining, true for the dishes themselves and the atmospheric surroundings.  Paris is filled with brasseries that feel like a time warp to a Parisian golden age.  Some are cozy, some are charming but they’re usually filled with Art Nouveau decor, heavy wooden mirrors and sparkling chandeliers.  Fondue, crepes, croissants, ever-present fresh French-bread… everything that entered my mouth was delicious and I only sampled vegetarian and backpacker friendly basics.  While in Paris, make sure to eat macaroons, which Parisians have also made an art form.  These colorful circular French pastries have with sweet or tart fillings, sandwiched between two meringue and almond four based cookies.  Bakeries pimp out their pastries with shimmery gloss or gold sparkles in addition the rainbow colored base layers.  Eating these treats is also an adventure… the simultaneously spongey and firm exterior melts away to expose fillings with flavors that really packs a punch.  Per recommendation of my Parisian friend, I bought mine at Pierre Herme, which she liked because of both the quality and wide selection of adventurous flavors.  They are famous for ispahan (a rose, raspberry and litchi combination), mogador (milk chocolate and passionfruit blend) and their vanilla house blend but they dabble in everything from goat cheese to green tea to fig.  My photos from a macaron sampling session are in my camera flying through the air...

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

10 Things To Love About Cologne, Germany

Cologne is one of those cities that I didn’t mean to visit but ended up being more interesting than I expected. It doesn’t have much to offer in terms of tourist attractions: most people who visit snap a few pictures of the massive cathedral in between switching trains at the international station, conveniently located a stone’s throw away. If you’re a particularly ambitious Cologne tourist, you can climb the ~250 stairs to the tower of this lurking structure that took 400 years to construct. You may even walk across the lovelock bridge and snap a few pictures to the other side. But then you’re basically done. As the city was nearly destroyed during the Second World War, there’s very little notable or attractive architecture around town and only a handful of relatively generic museums. But what Cologne lacks in beautiful buildings (even the rathaus (town hall) and the opera are pretty ugly), it makes up for with spirited inhabitants with a strong city identity, different than you’ll find anywhere else in Germany. Do I recommend that you travel far out of your way to see it? Probably not. Even its residents admit that it’s the perfect place to live but not the most exciting city to visit. But if you happen to be in the neighborhood, I do recommend finding a local and talking to the special traditions surrounding this city. If you can’t find someone like Thomas (my host) to enlighten you, here’s a few things I learned about what makes this place unique: 1) Gnomes Everywhere! You’ll notice that the people of Cologne tend to be pretty lazy and legend has it that little house gnomes enabled their slothfulness. Supposedly, the heinzelmännchen used to do all the work of Cologne’s citizens during the day until a tailor’s wife tried to see these gnomes. She spilled peas on the ground to catch them by causing them to slip and fall. The infuriated trolls left and never came back… except to decorate the Christmas markets! Find the fabled fairytale creatures in full-force in the Old City Heimat der Heinzel – the “Home of the Gnomes” Christmas market where they take the ski lift to the top of a rustic beer hall, peek out at skaters sliding around the rink and judging matches of eisstockschiessen (a form of curling). 2) It’s Student-Friendly As home to the University of Cologne, the city has plenty of good bars, restaurants and bookshops to their 80,000 students. I scoured the downtown for a good café with wifi to hang out in and didn’t have much luck because they either didn’t have Internet or looked too fancy (Thomas later reassured me that although they might have linen tablecloths, the people of Cologne don’t judge so I could show up to the Opera in jeans and people won’t blink an eyelash. So the cafes may not be as fancy as they appeared to me). So I didn’t find too many neat spots to curl up downtown but the area near the university (Zulpicher Str. is where I mostly walked up and down) had plenty of cute bookshops, affordable and informal eateries and bars to chose from. Even better, the pubs operate on a student schedule so you’ll find places open until 6 AM even on weekdays. Thomas mentioned one, owned by a 63-year-old woman which is open from 7 PM-4 AM six days a week. 3) You Can Ride Public Transport For Free! I’ve never been in a city with this policy but inhabitants of Cologne have an automatic guest pass that allows a friend to ride for free: all the time that a citizen accompanies them, if I’m not mistaken. He said for certain hours on the weekend, the guest pass can extend to all your family members. Although this policy still seems a bit bizarre and too good to be true for me, it frees up extra cash that you can spend on beer instead of U-bahn tickets. 4) Its Past Is Left Up To The Imagination Cologne was a Roman city, developed in 50 AD, but it has very little visible history left since the Allied Troops killed 95% of the population and destroyed most of the city during WWII. You can walk paths paved by the Romans in “old town” by the river but you need to imagine what Cologne looked like centuries ago. The only remnant of real “history” I found was an arch left over from a Roman gate, near the cathedral. 5) It Has a Lock Bridge That Wouldn’t Break Having recently come from Paris where bridges have begun to break under the weight of...

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

Ecstatic Dance, Microbiotic Eating With Hippies in Middle-Of-Nowhere Belgium

“Help wanted: building an ecological project and humanity with permaculture and children playing in the gardens and trees, giving people a peaceful place for drinking tea, relaxing and community sharing… free energy, communication, natural food and consciousness… We welcome people with a positive mindset, believe in a sustainable world and are motivated to help this project thrive and shine”. “I like nature, peace, tea and thriving and shining.  Vegan meals won’t be a problem for me”, I thought, then promptly connected with and accepted an offer to volunteer at this eco-house in middle-of-nowhere Belgium. Since the host was new on workaway, I had very little idea what to expect- goats, farmland and moderately liberal hippies was my best guess. I arrived at the tiny train station, wondering where Nancy could be hiding on the small platform and hoping she could find me with my backpackers gear since I had no idea what she looked like and my cell phone was buried deep in my pack. Fortunately, she popped out behind a pillar with purple leggings, brilliant blue eyes, youthful but with the weathered skin of a gardener. She steered me to her enormous white van and clanged pots together as she made room for my bag in the backseat. Her very bouncy Sheppard appeared to me looking at me curiously, his half-black, half-white face angled for examination but he was too busy leaping around to really figure me out. Fortunately, “Mitch” liked me enough to share a seat with me on the ride home and Nancy told me that contrary to what his puppy energy suggests, Mitch was actually 30 years old. “He eats all macrobiotic like us, beans and rice and pea soup and vegan dog food with no sugar. He ate a piece of normal toast once and was so sick for 5 days that the vet thought he may die”, she explained solemnly, “I gave him love and miso soup and look at him now!”. Indeed, Mitch was the poster child for a macrobiotic diet, with his shiny fur, mischievous eyes and speedy legs. The ride to her house only took a few minutes, past suburban looking houses and flat farmland. We pulled up to a modern A-frame house with lots of skylights and large windows, whose modernity surprised and relieved me. “At least I wouldn’t be spending the winter in a rural love shack,” I comforted myself. But then I walked in the door and a colorful, semi-abstract painting of a nude, elderly and slightly rotund couple greeted me. As I got the grand tour, I started to learn hippies are far from free either. “We don’t eat sugar and we ask that you don’t bring it in the house. Our last workawayer loved to eat sugar and pasta. He didn’t follow that rule and it didn’t work out,” she clucked disappointingly and appeared to be praying for the salvation of his soul. “We shut the doors, especially the toilet door, to promote the flow of feng shui. We don’t like electricity and wifi waves messes with our brain. It just makes my energy go….”, she buzzed her lips and flapped her hands around frantically. Her tables were covered in crystals, dried, flowers and children’s art. I spotted a toy house in the corner and asked whether she had a kid. “Yes, Iaaz was my golden boy but he died”. She spoke about it so warmly that I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly through her accent until she directed me to a shrine in the corner of the room covered in old photos and a candle. “He died in a swimming pool. In May. I love to talk about it”. I wasn’t sure how to react so I passed along my condolences complimented her on what a beautiful boy he was and how happy he looked in the photographs. All of a sudden, the plastic playset in the background, which stood abandoned except for bunnies hoping around its base, seemed to lurk ominously through the morning mist, kind of a depressing thing to look out at when you wake up for morning breakfast. The thought of staying in his old room seemed even stranger. Macrobiotic Eating “Are you hungry? My partner Bernard will soon be joining us for lunch”. And sure enough, he arrived on cue. A tall, thin man with Beethoven hair and plaid bellbottom pants just a tad bit too short. He evaluated me with piercing blue eyes and didn’t say much throughout the meal except to help Nancy with occasional translations or clarifications. As she dished out assorted vegetable-based dishes, she explained some basics of macrobiotic living....