Tag Archives: europe

40 Before 40: Challenge #2

9 Oct

For my second challenge of my 40 Before 40, I have decided to take on one of my passions in life – travel. My challenge is to visit 40 of the 51 countries in Europe before my 40th birthday. One of the plus points of moving to Switzerland was that it is in the centre of Europe and a lot easier to travel around. Over the past few years, I have been to a lot of new places but there are still more on the list to get through!

I was shocked when I realised that there were 51 independent countries. I have checked with several sources and they all say the same. So it must be true.

Technically, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Russia and Turkey are transcontinental countries as they span Europe and Asia. Armenia and Cyprus are considered to be European countries, although they are geographically in West Asian territory.

Below is the list of the 51 European countries and next to the ones I have already visited I had put the date of when I visited. For some of the countries that I haven’t visited in the last 15 years or so there is just an approximate date.

So far, I have visited 25 out of the 51. I had better get packing my bags!

  1. Albania
  2. Andora
  3. Armenia
  4. Austria – August 17
  5. Azerbaijan
  6. Belarus
  7. Belgium
  8. Bosnia and Herzegovina
  9. Bulgaria – July 2008
  10. Croatia
  11. Cyprus – sometime in the 90s
  12. Czech Republic – July 2016
  13. Denmark – July 2016
  14. Estonia – May 2015
  15. Finland – May 2015
  16. France – December 2016
  17. Georgia
  18. Germany – June 2017
  19. Greece – around 2000
  20. Hungary – March 2014
  21. Iceland
  22. Ireland – June 2003
  23. Italy – May 2015
  24. Kazakhstan
  25. Kosovo
  26. Latvia – September 2015
  27. Leichtenstein
  28. Lithuania – September 2015
  29. Luxembourg
  30. Macedonia
  31. Malta – sometime in the 90s
  32. Moldova
  33. Monaco
  34. Montenegro
  35. Netherlands – December 2015
  36. Norway – March 2017
  37. Portugal – June 2014
  38. Poland
  39. Romania
  40. Russia
  41. San Marino
  42. Serbia
  43. Slovakia – August 2017
  44. Slovenia
  45. Spain – Sep 2014
  46. Sweden – Dec 2014
  47. Switzerland – country of residence
  48. Turkey
  49. Ukraine
  50. UK – birth place. That must count as being marked off the list
  51. Vatican City – May 2015

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Vienna: Days 6 and 7

21 Aug

Finally the weekend which means no need to get up early for school. However, the intensive German learning continued because we spoke for the whole weekend in the most part in German.

In my last post I was hoping for rain because the whole city was so warm and it needed to cool down. In true British fashion I will complain about the one thing that I was hoping for. It rained too much!

We left the apartment and it was already raining but only small showers. I had read in the free newspaper that there was an Oldtimers event near the Town Hall so we headed there. Just to be clear: there is a difference in what German speakers mean by an “Oldtimer” and what English speakers mean. In this case, I mean vintage car and not old people. My boyfriend is interested in vintage cars, especially British ones.

By the time we came out of the underground, it was lashing it down. I only had a rain jacket which turns out isn’t waterproof. We couldn’t find the event anywhere. Either it was cancelled because of the weather or we had gone to the wrong place. We then went hunting to find an umbrella so that I wouldn’t continue to get soaking wet through. By then I was pretty miserable so my boyfriend suggested that we go to the Sacher Hotel to try some of its world famous Sachertorte.

I was glad that we went, not just because I had an opportunity to dry off a bit, but also because the Sachertorte was delicious. The recipe was created in 1832 and the original recipe is still being used today. The actual price is relatively expensive but as it was a special treat and the surroundings were nice, it was nice.

I was slightly taken aback by the customer service. The waiter was not friendly when we arrived. All of the tables were taken and we were told “I don’t have any tables”. There was no sorry, or if you don’t mind waiting, we will seat you as soon as we can. I believe that this is just how Austrians are. They are known for being very direct with a little bit of arrogance on the side.

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It was incredible the number of people who were queuing outside the hotel to come in a try a piece of cake. I have no idea how many slices they sell a day there but they definitely make a tidy profit from it.

After that we joined a free walking tour. To make it a bit more difficult for me, we joined the tour in German. This is the first time that I had done a walking tour in a language other than English. I could understand most of what was said but at time it was difficult to understand what the tour guide was saying because the rain was beating down on the umbrellas. Even so it was good to learn some more about Vienna, the Habsburgs and the history.

In the evening despite the rain (and my protesting), we went running. Rather than go to the castle and back we found another route that was a bit flatter. I enjoying running in the rain a lot more than running when it is warm. I managed 9km but in the end I was a bit disappointed because I know that I could have run further. Anyway, 9km is better than nothing.

On Sunday we took a trip to Petronell Carnuntum. I had heard about this place from a student at the school. It is a Roman city about 45km away from Vienna. It was founded in the time of Emperor Tiberus and a significant military camp during the Roman Empire and it even had its own gladiator school. Some of the excavated wares were in unbelievably good condition. Even though the site is one of the most important sites in Central Europe, only 0.5% of the site has been excavated.

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The city is made up of 3 sites. One has a replica of a Roman villa that visitors can walk around, there is an amphitheatre which has a small exhibition and a museum. All of the sites are not together so we had to walk about 5km in total to visit them all. It was definitely worth it, especially as the entrance fees was good value to visit all the sites.

We had to be back in Vienna for 6pm because we had a table booked at Figlmüller. Figlmüller is home of the most famous schnitznel in Vienna. The Schnitznel is so big that it doesn’t fit on the plate. It was a good job that we booked in advance because the staff were turning away people every 5 minutes. It is so well-known that the tables are booked out weeks in advance. I love my food and I loved that schnitzel.

When we came to pay the bill the waiter asked me if I was American. I was wearing a Harvard T-Shirt so it was a good assumption. His second guess was Swiss. His third guess was Canadian. I told him in the end. He said that I had a little bit of a Swiss accent, which I have heard several times during my time here. I’m not sure what to make of that. I am pleased that people cannot guess my nationality from my accent because it means that I am not just saying German words in an English accent.

After eating a schnitznel the size of a plate it was time to go slowly home and spend the rest of the evening asking the eternal question: Why does the weekend always go so quickly?

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Bratislava, Slovakia

13 Aug

After arriving safely in Vienna, Austria, I took the bus to Bratislava. The journey is only about an hour and I arrived at my final destination at around 8 in the evening. My hotel was a short walk from the bus station which I was happy about. I wasn’t happy 5 minutes later when the heavens opened and a huge storm hit. The rain was coming down sideways. I had to take cover under a tree until it eased off a bit.

The hotel was lovely and in a really quiet part of town. I was especially pleased to see that I had paid online a lot less (almost half price) of what I would have paid for the room if I had gone directly to the hotel. This isn’t always the case when you book through a third party but this time it worked in my favour.

On Saturday I went out early because I wanted to go on a Free Walking Tour. This one was a tour of the Old Town and the Castle. The tour was well-attended and the tour guide was a local. It was a very interesting and a good way to see the city for the first time.

I was surprised that there was no entrance fee to get into the castle. When I was in Prague I had to pay an entrance fee to get to the castle and when we were in Edinburgh it was about 25 pounds each for entrance to the castle and so we decided not to do it. I think that Bratislava might be missing a trick here.

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The view from the castle was impressive. It was possible to see not only the whole of the city but also neighbouring Hungary and Austria. This is a strange concept for someone who grew up on an island to get their head around. It was interesting to learn about the history of Slovakia and how it used to be a very important place during the time of Royal Hungary. It was the place where Kings and Queens received their coronations.

I was surprised to hear that nicest parts of the city were pulled down during the communist era as more importance was placed on the beauty of Prague, Czech Republic which was then unified with Slovakia. Bratislava was thought of as more of the industrial part of the country so some horrible buildings were erected and some beautiful ones destroyed.

I find it fascinating that countries that are so near to us were ruled by communism for so long and during our lifetime. I have never been able to get my head around why people subscribed to it as an ideology when it is so clear that not all people are the same. The guide explained that there are a lot of older people who say that life was better under communist rule. I can understand that going from full employment, not having to pay for health and education and not needing to save from retirement would have its plus sides. I can imagine how these people feel with no savings to fall back on and not being able to make a living after communism fell.

In the afternoon there was a Communism Tour which I was interested in going on but in the end I decided not to do it. I think 2.5 hours about communism would be a bit too much. Instead I went on another free tour which talked more about the history of the city, the politics and the future of the country. It was good to be able to learn something about a place that I had not been to before and knew so little about.

On the whole the city was really charming and beautiful so I can’t imagine how nice it used to be. By the afternoon the city was full with tourists and hen and stag dos, which is not so nice. Luckily, by then I had seen the city in its best light.

One of the best things about Slovakia has to be the food. I was recommended to try the traditional Slovak potato dumplings with sheep’s cheese. I was a bit sceptical and the dish didn’t look so appetising but it tasted really good. They also had a creamy garlic soup which comes in a hollowed out bread cob. You eat the soup and then you eat the bowl. This was also delicious and it saved on the washing up! Saving the planet: one garlic soup at a time!

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On Sunday it was time to pack up and make my way back to Vienna on the bus, after wandering around the city for one last time in the morning.

I had to wait until 4pm to get into the apartment that I had booked. I wandered around the city centre for a while but it wasn’t so comfortable with my backpack. There were so many tourists though. It was hard to look at anything without getting in the way of someone photo. I have plenty of time to explore so I wasn’t so bothered. I will go back when there are less people.

I made it to the apartment. It is quite a way from the centre but it is quiet but well connected to the centre. The apartment is a studio and has cooking and washing facilities so it means I can save a bit of money on food and eating.

Sunday was perhaps not the best day to arrive. Like Switzerland, there are no shops open in Austria on a Sunday. I was desparate to find some milk somewhere because I hadn’t had a brew in ages. I walked to a train station that is about 15 minutes away. I finally found the “supermarket”. It was a tiny little thing in the corner of the station and it was so busy that there was a guard at the entrance to the shop limiting the number of people who were in there at one time! I got my milk and got the hell out as soon as I could. It was like living in the Communist era again!

Back home and with my tea, I am gearing myself up for going back to school tomorrow. Wish me luck!

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On the Road again

11 Aug

Today I set off to improve my German for two weeks with a holiday/German lessons in Vienna. I have never been to Vienna before but people have told me it is a great place so I am looking forward to it.

Of course, for a normal person two weeks away in one country would be more than enough. I am not normal. I fly to Vienna and then I take a bus to spend two nights in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital. The bus only cost 5 Euros and it takes an hour so I thought it was a good opportunity to explore another country, especially as the German course does not start until Monday.

I don’t know a lot about Slovakia but I am looking forward to trying the food and exploring!

If you have been reading my blog for some time you will know that in January I went to an extremely cold Munich for a week to learn German. Although my intentions were good, it didn’t work out as I had planned. The school did not have a group who were the same level as me so I was forced to change from group lessons to individual lessons. This wasn’t the aim of my week there because I would happily chat with the teacher for 1.5 hours and then I was in the city alone. The idea was to meet fellow students in the school and be able to go for coffee and so on with people and be able to practice my German with people.

The school in Vienna seems a lot more rigid and, although they haven’t 100% confirmed it, I get the strong impression that they have the level that I am currently studying. What is a bit strange and is concerning me a little is that they haven’t accepted my B2 certificate as an indication of my level, even though I only took the exam last month. They have made me take a test which lasted more than an hour long to put me in the correct group and when I arrive on Monday I need to have an oral test to doubly confirm what group I should go in.

Although it is thorough and I am confident that they know what they are doing, I am a bit nervous that I do not yet know when my lessons will be. How well or badly you do depends on whether your lessons take place in the morning or in the afternoon. I just want to do enough that I can have the lessons in the morning because that is so much better and it is when I can focus the most. A lesson in the afternoon means that there is much more of a temptation to laze in bed in the morning and then my productivity will suffer.

As I have learnt from last time, I have also packed some exercises, vocab lists etc so if I am not placed in the right group I at least have some additional work to do.

I am sure that the rest of the time will be filled with sightseeing and more local food sampling!

My boyfriend is also coming for a week to spend some time with me. In my post from yesterday I mentioned that we will be running a half marathon at the start of October. He will be about an hour or more faster than me! By chance he has found a 10k run to take part in while we are in Vienna. So the training really will be getting a kick start them. I would complain but in the evening we will be going to a restaurant to eat a huge schnitzel. So in the end it will be worth it.

As I did last time with my German learning experience, I will be taking my laptop and blogging all the way. Check back soon to see how I am getting on.

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Brexit: Will it ever happen?

24 Jan

7 months on from the vote and I am starting to think that Brexit won’t happen. Today there was a ruling by the Supreme Court that the government needs to consult with Parliament before triggering the process for leaving the European Union. The British government are convinced that the ball would start rolling at the end of March but now that is looking unlikely. It seems like there is no direction at all anyway. Maybe they have an amazing, radical plan that will blindside us all and we will all react like “Ohhhhh I see! Very clever!”. I would love that – really I would – but I can’t see that happening. Can you?

I won’t be shy to admit that I voted to remain in the EU. I am not some liberal, wishy-washy, wetter than a dishcloth person. In fact, on many issues, I am the exact opposite. If I was still living in the UK, I am convinced that I too would have voted to leave. However, living in another country and being able to open my eyes to new ways of life and new cultures made me change my mind. It is hard to describe exactly but somehow being an expat and leaving every thing that you know behind changes you emotionally and psychologically.

I don’t mean for this to sound patronising or big-headed, nor do I mean for it to sound as if I think that people who have not expatriated are somehow uneducated and neanderthal-like. Everyone is entitled to their own opinions and everyone’s opinions are based on their own experiences. My experiences are different to my friends, my family, my neighbours and anyone else that I might meet in life. For me, it made sense to remain within the EU based on the lack of a plan but also because together we are stronger. The EU is by no stretch of the imagination a perfect organisation but reform will only come from within.eu-1473958__340

Of course, part of my wanting to remain in the EU was purely selfish. Even though Switzerland is not an EU member state, my work and residence permit is valid because I am an EU citizen. There are rigourous conditions that someone wanting to work in Switzerland has to meet to get a work permit. If you are an EU national, it is easier to get than if you are a non-EU national. What happens then to British people working and living abroad when one of the conditions that you are allowed to reside there is suddenly whipped out from under your feet?

I felt sick to my stomach and nervous on the morning of 24th June 2016 when I woke up to the news of the result. This wasn’t helped when a colleague came up to me later that day and said “Well, you won’t be working here much longer!”. The rest of the day I had to endure questions like “Just how stupid are British people? and “What the hell are you going to do now?” I assumed that these were rhetorical questions and didn’t dignify them with a response.

7 months on I still feel nervous for the future, although people keep telling me that nothing will change. No one has yet confirmed what will happen to the British expats who have made the life-changing decision to move to another country. In the meantime, I will sit and wait for the answers and have to trust that my choice to live in another country to the one I was born will be negotiated well and fairly by the British government and our friends in Europe.