9 Days in Europe

A view of Munich from the top of St. Peter’s church

A view of Munich from the top of St. Peter’s church

My first trip to Europe start at 5:45 am on Thanksgiving day. Pavel, a good friend of mine and I set out on the drive from Asheville to Baltimore where we would pick up a discount flight to London on Wowair. The plan was to use the Thanksgiving holiday to take an inexpensive trip to several European countries using discount airlines and Airbnb for accommodations. In hind site, it was quite an ambitious trip. We originally planned to visit 6 cities in 6 countries - London, Dublin, Bratislava, Prague, Vienna, and Budapest. We had heard about the ease of travel and Europe and thought it’d be no problem to hop between these countries. Reality set in rather quickly that it is not as easy as we thought. We ended up settling with London, Dublin, and Munich.

After 8 hours of driving to Baltimore, 5 hours of flying over the Atlantic, 1 hour layover in Reykjavik, Iceland, and 3 hours of flying from Iceland, we landed in the London Gatwick airport. Groggy and cramped, I woke as the plane landed. My heart sunk as I started to see familiar translucent squiggles in my vision. It was the beginning of an occular migraine. “Oh no, Not now!”  That was all I could think. I closed my eyes and prayed it would go away; these migraines always end badly. 

We filed with the other passengers into the Gatwick airport and headed to customs. My head throbbed more and more. As we got closer to the customs agents, I began to sway dizzily and unhappy things were happening in my stomach. Sweat drenched my shirt and inside I begged the line to move faster. We finally got through customs and security and picked up our luggage. We got to the train station where we would catch a train to the neighborhood of our Airbnb.

We waited and waited in the cold for our train. Suddenly, I began to heave. My head pounded and I was breaking into chills. I rushed down the platform looking for a bathroom- none in sight. I tried to find someplace out of sight, but to no avail. I stumbled over to the side of the platform and leaned over the railroad tracks. Up it came and down it went onto the railroad tracks. We hadn’t eaten for 20 hours, so pretty soon I was just dry heaving. Oh, it was bad, but I was relieved the worst was behind me.  

Now that I’ve shared the trauma of my arrival in Europe with you, let me get into the rest of the trip, which really was a nice adventure. This blog post about the trip is a sort of personal journal entry to capture some of the details of the trip.

Home away from home in London

We stayed in the late nineteenth century home of an extremely kind lady who lives in Alexandra Palace - a neighborhood outside of London. Alexandra Palace is a charming neighborhood of old row houses built at the end of the nineteenth century or beginning of the twentieth. We affectionately started calling her our English mum because of the way she worried over us like a mother hen. She made sure to keep us properly nourished with tea and “crusts” (toast) and scones. On one occasion, I asked for a little sugar for my tea to which she exclaimed in her delightful British accent “Oh no! Silly me! I forgot the sugar.” She huffed and puffed at herself, slapping her forehead and trundling over to retrieve the sugar from the kitchen counter. I think many people will agree that British accents are delightful to listen to - proper and composed. We joked that if we were to be mugged, we might would find it difficult to take the assailant seriously as they spoke. 

The Sites

There is something interesting to look at everywhere you turn in London. The architecture is amazing - a mixture of the old and the new. We traveled around by foot, train, and double decker bus.

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

St. Paul’s Cathedral in London

 

Food in London

I was extremely excited to finally get to try fish and chips in London. Our English mum recommended Toff’s, a place well known for their fish and chips. It definitely lived up to the reputation! This was no Captain D’s or Long John Silvers! 

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photo by Pavel R.

photo by Pavel R.

Weather in London

While we were there, the sky was cloudy about 100% of the time. I got to witness for myself what people say about overcast days in London. But I don’t mind overcast days. It lends a calmness to the day. There was more than enough rain and the cold penetrated the bones. But the stunning sights helped to keep the mind off of the difficult weather.

photo by Pavel R.

photo by Pavel R.

 
Over the Thames, photo by nice french tourists

Over the Thames, photo by nice french tourists

 
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Walking the streets of London, photo by Pavel R.

Walking the streets of London, photo by Pavel R.

Walking the streets of London, photo by Pavel R.

Walking the streets of London, photo by Pavel R.

 
photo by Pavel R.

photo by Pavel R.

London Brawl

One evening while waiting on a parked train to start up to take us home, a group of rowdy young men boarded the train. They looked to be in their 20’s to maybe early 30’s. It was clear that they were quite tipsy. A couple had beer cans in their hands. (In London, people are allowed to drink in public spaces, although it is banned on the transport). They were laughing and joking loudly. At a certain point, one of them said something that offended another in the group. Suddenly a fist swung and landed on a jaw. A full out brawl ensued with fists and bodies flying everywhere. I jumped out of the train and ran to look for law enforcement. None could be found anywhere. Then my eyes fell on a police officer or security guard talking to someone outside a store in the train station. I shouted at him that a fight was happening on the train. He looked at me for a moment then turned and continued his conversation. I went back to the train to find the brawl growing to a ferocious frenzy. Faces were bloodied and other passengers stood shocked, not knowing what to do. Finally a mob of police arrived and restrained the young men, wrestling some to the ground. It was quite an eventful evening and I was shaken into the next morning.

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“Silly Americans!”

We decided to go for a run in the Alexandra Palace neighborhood where we were staying. We jogged around a bit looking for the entrance to the park at Alexandra Palace. We jogged into the wrong area and heard a voice call out to us in a pleasant British accent “It’s the next one.” We turned to find a lady and her dog almost half a block away who must have been observing our foreign perplexity. I joked that what she really wanted to say was “Silly Americans, it’s the next one.” This started off a running joke about our guardian angels along our journey who would correct our ignorant foreigner mistakes with not so pleasant grace. We imagined the lady popping out from unexpected places as we missed a bus or asked a silly question or gawked at an impossibly complex train map and chiding us in her pleasant British accent.

Running in Alexandra Palace, photo by Gill - our Airbnb host

Running in Alexandra Palace, photo by Gill - our Airbnb host

Howth, Ireland

Howth was the next stop in Europe. We took a cheap Flybe plane to Dublin then rode a bus southeast of Dublin to a small fishing village called Howth. Our Airbnb was located right on the Irish Sea. As we strolled along the dock, I was amazed to discover that the Sea is literally green! I stared at it in amazement as a seal floated lazily in the water between the boats.

The harbor at Howth in Ireland.

The harbor at Howth in Ireland.

 
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The wind blew constantly over the shores of the Irish sea at Howth, flinging waves over the rocks and dampening our clothes with the spray.

We booked an Airbnb further south in a town called Wicklow. But we ran into problems. When we arrived at the host’s house at around 9 pm, she and her family were celebrating the airing of a tv episode about her Airbnb which apparently is very popular in the area. Cigarette smoke from their gathering permeated the house. We knew we had to find another place to stay. But before leaving, I mentioned to the host that I forgot my duffel bag on the bus from the airport. Upon hearing this, she wagged her finger and chided in her Irish accent “stupid boy!” She was smiling like a mother to her small son. I wondered if this was normal Irish banter. She was nice and understanding about our decision to leave.

We joked after the fact that she must be the not-as-nice sister of our English guardian angel. Now, whenever we would make a silly foreigner mistake of taking the wrong bus or asking an obvious question, we would imagine her in her Irish accent saying “stupid boy, you took the wrong bus!” Or something of the like.

I did eventually get my bag back, but it was not until we got back to the airport 3 days later to head to Munich.

Irish Sea coast in Howth

Irish Sea coast in Howth

 

Food in Ireland

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We knew that we had to have shepherd’s pie and that we did. It was absolutely delicious! As you can see, I forgot to take the picture before I started devouring the meal, evidenced by the empty spot in the bottom right. But fortunately I remembered before I did justice to the shepherd’s pie.

 
Trinity College in Dublin

Trinity College in Dublin

 
Cathedral in Dublin

Cathedral in Dublin

 

CCTV


We noticed that wherever we traveled in London and Ireland, there were cameras with nearby signs reading “this area is monitored by CCTV.” These cameras were literally everywhere - on the buses, on the trains, in restaurants, in grocery stores, and on every street. Perhaps our guardian angels worked in conjunction with CCTV. I joked that someone somewhere was watching our foreign traveller blunders, bowed over in a fit of laughter. Pavel retorted that there was actually someone watching the security monitors, rolling his eyes as our blunders played on the screen and asking when his shift would end.

 

Christmas Market in Munich

Munich (or München in German) is an old town with so much history. Founded in 1158, it still retains its old world character and architecture. Lovely multicolored row houses and cobblestone roads transported us way back in time with the exquisitely ornate St. Peter’s Church towering above us. Its steeple beckoned us, so we paid the 2€ to enter and climbed its 299 steps to the top. The corridor was remarkably narrow, requiring that those going up plaster themselves against the stone walls so that those going down may pass. We marched up weathered wooden steps past narrow windows and finally past the room holding the gears and pulleys that operate the tower’s bell.

Emerging onto the narrow ledge surrounding the steeple, we were greeted by an astonishing view of Munich’s beauty. Red roofs and church steeples stretch on and on into the distance. No bland flat roofs of Walmarts, Targets, and asphalt parking-lot oceans as we might would see back stateside. Just old beauty with occasional modern buildings nestled between centuries old edifices.

Munich Town Hall

Munich Town Hall

 
A view of Munich from St. Peter’s Church

A view of Munich from St. Peter’s Church

 
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In the Christmas Market, photo by Pavel R.

In the Christmas Market, photo by Pavel R.

 

The Christmas market is a delightful thing that happens leading up to and through Christmas. There are multiple ones across Germany. There are wonderful smells of sweets and spices and savory meats wafting through the frigid air. Festive lights and colors adorn vendors’ booths. Vendors display gifts, crafts, and food for visitors to purchase. There is such festivity in the air as gorgeous historical edifices flank the pavilion on all sides.

 
Munich Town Hall lit up for Christmas

Munich Town Hall lit up for Christmas

 

Dachau Concentration Camp

Entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp

Entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp

 
Inside the entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp, photo by Pavel R.

Inside the entrance to Dachau Concentration Camp, photo by Pavel R.

 
Entering the gates of Dachau, photo by Pavel R.

Entering the gates of Dachau, photo by Pavel R.

I was excited to discover that Dachau was less than 30 minutes from where we were staying. We definitely had to go. I had not realized the historical significance of Munich during WWII. Hitler and his supporters rose out of Munich. Right-wing sentiments were heavily concentrated there and from it rose the Nazi party. Dachau was the first concentration camp of the Nazis.

At the entrance to Dachau Concentration camp is a gate. Forged in metal on the gate are the words: “Arbeit macht frei” - work will set you free. For most of the over 200,000 prisoners who came through these gates worked, but the freedom never came.

I walked through the gates of Dachau concentration camp. What a heavy moment. Established in 1933 as a place of “re-education” for prisoners, Dachau eventually became a place for all the undesirables of German society including Jews, political prisoners, the mentally ill, and many more. Here, as WWII raged on, prisoners performed forced labor, were tested with diabolical medical experiments, and were brutalized. Shortly before liberation in 1945, over 30,000 people were crammed into the camp that was built for 6,000 prisoners. Daily, dozens of emaciated prisoners were falling dead from starvation and disease. I walked through the barracks and the expansive barren yard. I walked under the shadow of the ominous guard towers. I walked out of a place that over tens of thousands of people never got to leave - their bodies burned in the crematorium or stuffed into mass graves.

Dachau courtyard, photo by Pavel R.

Dachau courtyard, photo by Pavel R.

In the courtyard of Dachau, prisoners had to assemble and stand at attention each morning. Oftentimes, prisoners had to stand for hours at a time for punishment and they dare not allow a hair on their head to move or worse punishment could ensue such as beatings or being hung from their wrists for extended periods of time.

Toilets in Dachau Concentration Camp

Toilets in Dachau Concentration Camp

 
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Food in Munich

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We did not have much German food, only in the cafeteria of Dachau concentration camp and some Stollen (a traditional fruit bread) that we got from the grocery store. We did have Mr. Chen’s Noodle Bar - twice. It was incredibly delicious. They make their noodles by hand.

 
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I found Germany (or at least Munich) to be efficient, direct, well planned out. The train system is incredible. Trains torpedo into the station splitting the air and pushing it into our faces like a tidal wave. Not a second late, the train doors hiss open just long enough to allow scurrying passengers in and out. The clock is the master; the trains simply do its bidding, efficiently. Interactions with people are direct and efficient as well. On occasion, I needed to ask directions or get help with something. Responses typically were succinct and to the point. Across the board in the three cities we visited, people seemed to keep to themselves and were very direct in their communications.

As we walked the streets of London, Dublin, and Munich, I looked into people’s faces, but almost none returned the look. Everyone seemed to have their mission for the day and had no time for eye contact. Perhaps it is the culture of these cities, or perhaps it is simply the nature of a big city, a shared characteristic of New York, LA, or any other large city. These cities hum on day after day like a well oiled machine, everyone coming and going with steady regularity. Everyone’s eyes up and forward.

I thought to myself that many a southerner would find the directness of interactions to be jarring. Oftentimes at work, I’ll run into situations which my mother calls “going around the elbow to get to the thumb.” It’s when someone intends to tell you a piece of information, but gives you all the surrounding details a mile in each direction before finally arriving at the point. For example, someone might intend to tell me Jim will be late to work, but would say:

“Oh yeah, I was going to tell you about Jim…I meant to email you earlier, but I got sidetracked. You know it’s been...go, go, go all - day - long. Can’t seem to catch a break today. But yeah, he texted me...and I guess he just doesn’t have your number yet, what with him being new and all. Said he had to drive his mom home from the hospital. She had some kind of procedure. Guess it’s something that makes it so she can’t drive herself home. But yeah, I just wanted to make sure you knew so you wouldn’t be like “where’s Jim?” ‘specially with how you’re short handed with people. And we’re all struggling. And HR is doing their best...but he’s going to be about 15 minutes late today…”

This might go on for a few more disparate subjects that the speaker ties together with great talent. I couldn’t help but think that someone like this would be in for a rude awakening in one of these cities. The sentiment is “if you want information, you ask and you’ll get only what you asked for.” There’s no patience for beating around the bush or taking the time to infer what someone might want or need.

Airbnb house in Munich, photo by Pavel R.

Airbnb house in Munich, photo by Pavel R.

 
Running by favorite cafe in Munich, photo by Pavel R.

Running by favorite cafe in Munich, photo by Pavel R.

Final Thoughts

Prior to the trip, the goal and understanding was that this would be a low-cost trip to discover a few places we had never been before. These days, there are dozens and dozens of discount airlines that make travel to and within Europe amazingly affordable. We wanted to not do all the tourist-y things, but do what the locals do. We realized quickly that doing some tourist-y things is unavoidable because London Bridge, Frauenkirche, the Christmas Market, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the many other sites are just part of the cities. But I think we were successful in not missing the forest for the trees - going as a tourist and anxiously darting from site to site and not taking things in. We experienced the cities through eating at normal places where the locals eat, walking the streets, missing trains and having to ask for help, going in and out of buildings and letting ourselves get surprised by what we found. Staying in Airbnb’s helped because we got to interact closely with locals while staying in their homes.

Traveling to Europe was humbling. Being in Munich where English was not the assumed language to be spoken was humbling. It was so interesting to go to the cheese counter at the grocery store, or the bakery, or the bank teller and be greeted in German. I had to respond in English, and the kind man or lady would switch over into heavily accented and often stilted English. I was the one struggling to communicate rather than the other way around as we are accustomed to seeing with people coming from other countries to the US.

I am still processing the trip, but wanted to get my thoughts down as soon as I could. I don’t have some dramatic transformative perspective shift to speak of, but I will say that the trip did expand my view of people and the world a little bit more. This is the second international trip I took this year. In September I travelled to Ghana with my parents which was definitely transformative. I hope to travel more next year God-willing. I already have some ideas floating around in my head for Europe - maybe something further east. My family is also hoping to visit Ghana again as well next year.