I love the airports. I know that many if not most people hate them, finding them tiresome and often chaotic, a nuisance you have to put up with on the way to your destination. Don’t take me wrong; I don’t like the airport food, certainly not the airport prices; I rarely, if ever, take advantage of Duty Free shopping; I certainly don’t like the long waits between the flights.
I love what the airports symbolise – the pinnacle of human ingenuity and organisation, planning and coordinating thousands of different activities of tens of thousands of passengers and staff, of a miniature, and sometimes not so miniature, city, except one with a transient population, and except that unlike in a real city, not much here can be left to individual initiative. It’s not that I’m enamoured with planning and control – as a liberal I’m not – but I admire a well-oiled machine when I see it; particularly one largely provided through the private sector and the market.
The airports are also the perfect symbol of the human desire for movement and travel, whether for business or pleasure. A desire realised. Again, thanks to the human ingenuity, this time of a scientific and technological kind, the possibility of travel is available – and affordable – to an ever-increasing number of people around the world. We are no longer bound to our place of birth; we can pursue dreams and opportunities wherever they are and wherever they can take us; for a few hours or for years. We are the most fortunate of all the generations of humans that have ever lived. Even if you detest the airports and detest flying, crammed as most of us get into the economy class, consider these things a cheap price to pay for getting there – wherever there is – and getting there relatively cheaply and fast.
Airports might all seem the same, but they are all different in their own eclectic ways. Iceland’s Keflavik International is located on the site of the former and one of the biggest NATO air bases, which means it’s literally in the middle of a desolate west coast nowhere, some 40-minute drive from Reykjavik, which it services. Krakow’s Balice does one better – it is still both a civilian (international) and a military airport, passenger jets and air force fighters cheerfully sharing the tarmac. Amsterdam’s Schiphol and London’s Heathrow are both giants, not just in the European but in the global terms, but Heathrow seems somewhat haphazard with its own bus system linking various terminals. Schiphol, by contrast, is very Dutch in its all-pedestrian nature, even if it can take half an hour to walk to or from your gate. Why no bicycles?
(Canal-side restaurants of Utrecht)
The ubiquity of women wearing jeans torn at the knees suggests either rampant promiscuity throughout Europe or a new fashion trend. In either case, it is bound to reach Australia next season.
In the northern half of Europe things generally work, whatever the things are. In the southern half they generally don’t, but its inhabitants nevertheless seem happier and seem to have more fun in life. I’m not saying that one is better than the other – we are all different and have different needs and priorities in life, so take your pick. Personally, my temperament is more northern; I’d rather live in the Netherlands or Iceland than in Greece or Italy, no matter how beautiful, sun-drenched and joyous the Mediterranean countries are.
What accounts for this great continental divide that splits France between the historic regions of d’Oc and d’Or and then moves east through, or perhaps just sout
Europe are a somewhat different kettle of fish, though even here you will note that Poland, Czech Republic, Hungary and the Baltic states are doing much better than the Balkans) Many have pointed to the Protestant-Catholic split, but this is not quite exact – the northern France and the western and southern Germany are, after all, as Catholic as Spain or Italy (i.e. nowadays hardly at all, but I’m talking about the history here). In any case, I believe religion is in turn merely a reflection of the underlying culture; there is a reason, after all, why the south stayed Catholic but the north (broadly speaking) turned Protestant. Maybe it’s the climate; colder, gloomier, wetter in the north and warmer, sunnier and drier in the south. Maybe it’s a matter of some deeper genetic and in turn cultural difference between the tribes who settled north and south of the Alps respectively. The whole libraries have been written to try to explain these national and regional differences. Sure, they are only generalisations, and as such open to many exceptions, but don’t let anyone tell you that they don’t exist. Curiously, those most hostile to the concept of national stereotypes seem to be the very same multiculturalist for whom diversity is the god. Maybe because stereotypes can be both good and bad, whereas multiculturalism sees all cultures as equal and equally good (except one’s own, which is usually much worse and can only benefit from the influence of other cultures). We can’t be judgmental about others, can we?
Anyway, why do I mention all this? Mostly because I like to think and read about these big picture and broad brush issues. But also because in my European travels last year and this time I have stuck to the north, though not because I think that the south is any less beautiful and worth seeing. It’s just where my family and friends live.
In any case, I give everyone this general European travel advice: if you’re travelling through the north you can pretty much do it all by yourself, whereas for the south I recommend organised tours, which take the stress of organising the logistics out of your hands. Trust me, you will thank me later.
(Old Reykjavik reflected in a lake)
How is the internet dating experience in Europe as opposed to Australia? you ask, because really you aren’t that interested in the regional cultural differences across Europe. Tinder, on the other hand…
Sorry to disappoint you. It’s pretty much like everywhere else. Certainly, as far as I am concerned, though for all sorts of reasons I’m probably not the best, the most average, and the most representative sample of one.
Pretty much like everywhere else, or in other words: there are a few matches, about three quarters of the women contacted don’t respond to your initial message (not enough time? too boring?), and of those 25 per cent who do, at least half seems not to have read your profile (so it’s not just the proverbial guys who only look at the pictures) because finding out in the course of the conversation what you have already said on your profile comes as a great surprise to them. Overall, and hardly surprisingly, if you are a tourist visiting a certain locality for days or weeks only, you are unlikely to land many successful matches – women, after all, don’t want to waste their precious dating time meeting strangers with a very low potential for the translation into a serious and meaningful connection. Maybe a handsome 25-year old tourist has a different experience – I don’t know, but to find out The Daily Chrenk will gladly engage (on a gratis basis) a special travel correspondent who fits the above description. Contact me if keen (and shameless).
(Black sand beach in Iceland)
In no other country I know is there as much public swearing as in Poland. I don’t mean TV panellists dropping the F bombs or newspapers printing unprintable headlines. I’m talking about men (for mostly men they are) of what you would charitably call a lower socio-economic and educational status swearing in their conversations, aloud, in the earshot of others, including women and children, and completely oblivious to the impropriety.
The main word in question is the quintessentially Polish “kurwa”, which translates as a “whore”, but with an impact somewhere between the F word and the C word. It is mainly used as an exclamation mark, a punctuation mark, or just a space filler, and I’ve heard sentences on my city walks where quite literally it is the every second word, a sort of a cross between the ubiquitous and versatile English “fuck” in all its permutations and the Valley Girl’s annoying and completely superfluous “you know” and “it’s like”.
(Monument to Viking explorers in Reykjavik)
For decades, Australia used to be a cheaper country to visit or live in than much of Europe, perhaps as a compensation for being so damned far away from anywhere. This is no longer the case – not the tyranny of distance (to borrow Prof Blainey’s famous phrase); Australia is still where it is, despite my fervent wishes it gets towed to a point in mid-central-northern Atlantic. Australia is now a pretty expensive place (and don’t even mention real estate prices), but is it now more expensive than Europe, as some of my friends have suggested?
Probably not, at least not in my limited experience. Scandinavian countries remain not just high taxing but also expensive; all this gloom and depressive darkness doesn’t come cheap you know. Most of the central and eastern Europe is still cheaper than the rest of the continent (and Australia), but in the wealthier and more integrated countries of the region – such as Poland – the prices (though not the wages) are slowly approaching the broad Western levels, whether it’s a new book, a restaurant meal, or a pair of sneakers. The broader Europe – say, the core of the European Union – remains somewhere in-between in terms of prices for an Australian tourist.
(Bruges market square)
The Dutch is a Germanic language, but whether it’s its inflection or the tone, it often took me a second or two to realise that people I was overhearing were not speaking in Polish. It was a very weird experience all throughout the trip. Not that people were not speaking Polish too, from a construction crew renovating a shop in a tiny, southernmost town in Iceland, through tourists in Luxor, to couples with prams on a tram in The Hague. And don’t start me on Poland. Though in Poland you also increasingly hear many other languages, particularly Ukrainian of somewhere between one and two million eastern neighbours who now fill job vacancies left by the Poles working all throughout the European Union.
Two places where I see no burqas. Almost. One is Iceland. The other one is Poland. Almost. On the cobbled streets of Krakow’s old city, I see an Arab man and his black-covered wife being driven around in a horse=drawn carriage that caters to the tourists. It is a surreal sight.
(Ghent old city)
Initially, before the trip, I was planning for at least one edition of “Polish Girls Gone Wild on Tinder”, to internationalise your favourite (you know who you are, you great many TDC readers) regular feature on the blog. Alas, to your great disappointment, I discovered that Polish girls and women don’t post any risqué photos on their Tinder profiles. But not only that – since part of “Tinder wildness” always lies in the written profile itself – you will be also disappointed to learn that Polish profiles never mentioned any sexual activity or miscellaneous rudeness (to the extent I couldn’t read the Dutch, German, Belgian or Icelandic profiles, at least not the ones not in English, and many of them are, no suggestive visuals indicated otherwise in these countries either). Hence, no European edition.
What conclusions, if any, can be drawn from that, I’m reluctant to say. As I keep reminding people, in part in my efforts to improve Tinder’s otherwise still dodgy reputation (hey Tinder, any form of
thanks or more substantial appreciation will be gratefully accepted), the profiles that end up appearing in “Girls Gone Wild on Tinder” constitute at most one per cent of the total, a mere drop of naughtiness in an ocean with plenty of fish (to mix the internet dating metaphors) looking for love or friendship. Maybe Europeans are more virtuous, or maybe simply better at pretending – take your pick.
(Krakow old market square)
In my four and a bit weeks in Europe I have taken over 3,000 photographs. Don’t worry, it’s nothing special; mainly just three different things photographed from different angles. Or so it seems.
(Cathedral at the Royal Wawel Castle in Krakow)
But how IS Europe? You know, the really big picture stuff – is it inevitably turning into Eurabia? Are we witnessing a re-run of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire? Is the social democratic model dead or at least dying due to the growing abundance of retirees and the shortage of workers and taxpayers? Is Europe, after so many glorious centuries, slowly retreating into international irrelevance? Will it become over the next few decades just one big museum and a continent-sized cabinet of curiosities good only for the Chinese tourists to gaze upon and photograph?
The short answer is: I don’t know. It’s difficult to form this sort of a broad judgment after only a few weeks of sightseeing – as opposed to, for example, a few weeks of meetings and conversations with leaders, opinion makers, and average people from all walks of life.
As my late grandmother used to say, things are rarely either as bad or as good as most people think. It will be decades still before any demographic or economic changes radically transform the European landscape, likely for the worse, to the extent one can fruitfully prognosticate. We are talking about slow historical processes here.
For now, the continent keeps moving on as before, yet adding a little more debt, a little more elderly, a little fewer children, a little more migrants to its mix every year. Enough of prosperity and enough of vibrancy is still there to give many if not most pretty decent lives. The relative, and sometimes absolute, economic decline of the south is made up in my mind by the steady economic advancement of the centre and the east.
There is more restlessness and unease, though, even if you don’t detect it easily as a tourist. In France, both the major parties, the Gaullists and the Socialists, have seen their worst electoral results in the post-war era. Likewise in Germany, with the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats, though the two parties have not been supplanted yet by any newcomers. From Brexit to Marie Le Pen, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany, and the nationalist governments in Poland and Hungary, the electorate is increasingly unpredictable and volatile. Though only in the Great Britain and the central Europe have the populist revolts resulted in major policy changes; elsewhere throughout Europe, the mainstream parties which refused to deal with the concerns of a large part of the electorate – chiefly around immigration and multiculturalism – now refuse to deal with the people elected on the basis of such concerns. Things probably have to get a lot worse before anything much changes (though in fairness, some major political parties did adjust their policies in response to the populist pressure, for example in the previously oh-so-liberal Netherlands).
Come and see Europe and do it soon, but not because the modern Atlantis will vanish under the waves of conquest or anarchy any time soon. Do so because it is a very pleasant place to spend some time and to reconnect with what, for most of us, is our Source.
(Amsterdam from the tower of Westerkerk; in the lower right corner a queue to the Anne Frank Museum)
(All photographs copyright Arthur Chrenkoff)