Ah, work-related travel… Anything is better than those single-day trips to Brussels I was made to take at some point, but I′m sure that everyone who travels for work is struggling to strike a balance between being fresh and alert in the morning and seeing as much of an unknown city as possible during the limited leisure hours. I stayed in Rome for four days and three nights, with a very busy schedule, but not only the organizers made sure that we see something, but also I was blessed to have a companion who has lived in Rome, as well as a colleague who grew up there and generously shared tips before I went.
I was prepared that if I do not manage to see the famous landmarks, at least I will enjoy charming urban landscapes.
Yet I managed to see everything I wanted – Rome is really easy to navigate, walkable, and has efficient public transportation, given its size and Mediterranean culture.
The best excuse to explore more of one′s country of residence is teaming up with people who are there for a very short visit. This is how I set out to explore the famous South-Eastern areas on a warm and lazy Sunday. Specifically, the fish market of Marsaxlokk has become a popular tourist attraction, and as for Birzebbugia, I did not know what to expect at all.
My first impression of Marsaxlokk was that it was shockingly hipster. I realized that I hadn′t seen such a concentration of hipsters anywhere in Malta. Whatever their lifestyle, the faux-lumberjack look is not popular with the Maltese at all. Accordingly, hipster men were in a company of colorfully dressed women, who would otherwise not stand out as much. There were many elderly tourists, too, probably English, given how much they had undressed for the bright but still not so generous Mediterranean sun. And some local families, too, looking for a bargain.
I was among, apparently, around 170 people who signed up for a free tour by Nature Trust Malta to explore Babu valley (Wied Babu). When people sign up to an event on Facebook, one must divide the number by three and extract a square root to know the realistic number of attendees, but hiking tours in Malta are different. When people click they will attend, they actually show up and bring their friends. This is the scale of the ‘invasion’ in Wied Babu.
It has become a tradition for me to seek a Mediterranean escape around this time, when Southern countries get ready for the carnival. I did not grow up with a similar tradition. There is a festival (called Užgavėnės) with scary masks and pancakes, but it is very different from the colorful costumes and street music of the South. I grew up hating Užgavėnės with a passion. My first experience of it was at primary school, when older kids stormed our classroom with cans of paint and threw it at our faces. I spent the next hour or so trying to rinse my eye. In middle school, we were paraded to a nearby forest in makeshift scary costumes to make campfire and play games – a tiring and quite pointless trip. And let′s not forget that people still make derogatory masks depicting Jews and Roma in the Lithuanian version of this festival, two generations after the genocide of these populations. Needless to say, the only tradition I respect from the Lithuanian festival is making pancakes.
Last year I spent the carnival days in a small town in the region of Murcia (Spain). Although it wasn′t quite warm, it was sunny enough for the whole town to be on the street. The local school paraded its children, dressed in various costumes. Parents didn′t have freedom to choose the costume – it was decided top-down. In my friends′ son′s class, all boys had to be nutcrackers, and girls had to wear ballet costumes.
After the procession ended, many girls were sitting around and posing for photos with these short skirts and heavy make-up, which in the adult world would be considered ′slutty′ if seen outside of the carnival. Mothers, many in hijabs, proudly took photos of them with their cellphones.
“…And if you′re planning a stag party, have a nice stag party,” a flight attendant said on my Amsterdam-Prague flight. To me, putting the words ′nice′ and ′stag night′ in one sentence is a sign of out-of-the-box thinking taken to the extremes, but I smiled to myself. This sounds very Dutch. After all, Amsterdam ran an information campaign for purchasers of substandard drugs to seek medical help immediately. What else could the service industry wish typical tourists in Prague, I wondered, remembering my first trip there in 2011. “May the content of your stomach be easy to clean?”
I went to Prague to attend a conference, and decided to stay the weekend after with friends. I was highly motivated to bust the myths I created for myself last time and to enjoy a completely different experience.
My first year in review post on this blog was weaved of songs, the second one was written as an ABC, latertwo – as questionnaires, and this year I published it as a comic. Yet I could still spare some words about what the year was like beyond trying to ‘make it’ as a freelance journalist. Continue reading →
Two annoying cliches I keep hearing in my travels are: “Are you saying you’re cold? But you must be used to it!” and “Lithuania? Is it cold over there?” Northern location plus climate change mean that it may or may not be cold in the Baltics. It depends on winds. I never ask Americans if they have tornadoes all the time. But if you happen to be traveling in the Baltics when it’s cold, it’s always good to be prepared. The ever-changing weather in late fall and winter comes with many dangers.
Over the past decade I had a chance to go on many business trips, where staying in hotels (from fancy ones in Japan and Slovenia to a shockingly bad one in Cambridge) was either inevitable or preferred by the company or institution that paid the trip. My own favorite way is to stay with people, but unless I have close friends or family in a distant location, I feel bad about staying with hosts and having close to no time to interact with them. Companies or conference organizers tend to book hotels by default, so over the years I developed some general insights about hotels as a ‘species’.
I must admit that I dislike hotels as a concept – the sterile, impersonal and hyper-structured accommodation, which barely differs across countries. To be fair and listen to the other side, I searched for travel blogs and articles that are positive about hotels. One in the Huffington Postpraises comfortable beds and 24/7 room service. I believe these things, apart from features available only in luxury hotels, are welcome additions, but not necessities for most people. Comfortable beds are neither universal nor unique to hotels. Another article is more convincing, citing several ways in which professionalism and safety can make travel more comfortable. Still, they hardly outweigh the disadvantages. Continue reading →
Coffee is said to be more addictive than weed, but it is one easily accessible and unregulated drug that people can enjoy around the world. I was never a fan of coffee until I started working at a newspaper at the age of 20. My parents were used to drinking pour-over coffee, and even when they got access to machines they never appreciated those. In my family coffee was something people could drink at any time and in any shape (culturally, serving coffee in the evening means that the party is over), so first encounters with Italian culture, where you′re not supposed to drink cappuccino after a certain hour, were quite a cultural shock. Yet this is nothing compared to the shock of one Italian academic, who moved to Oxford 20 years ago and told me that not only she could only find olive oil in pharmacies, but you could actually see a spoon through the surface of your coffee!
Lithuanian coffee culture has changed tremendously over the years. We inherited a kind of careless attitude, where cafes used to go for instant or serve something similar to what we typically get at conferences. However, the nascent middle class was craving to show off its cosmopolitan identity and started to shame everything about food culture that separated this region from the most sophisticated traditions of the west. Now central Vilnius is littered with home-brew cafes, to the point that one foodie called it “the Vatican of coffee”. Coffee culture in Lithuania is more or less like in the Francophone space, with high prevalence of grand cafe serving the convenient middle ground between espresso and americano – just as I like. Continue reading →