While I’m traveling, I am always interested in the simple things. I love discovering those items or spaces so thoughtfully designed or naturally occurring that they work well with less. Less waste, less energy, less effort. There’s plenty of examples to learn from within different cultures, histories, and landscapes.
Today, I’m beginning a catalog of these clever items that I think are worth remembering, worth considering, and worth taking back home, wherever home may be. I hope these act as an inspiration to see and seek simplicity in everyday objects.
[This post is the first part in a four-part series on my recent trip to Southeast Asia]
Bangkok is a feast for the senses and a city of cities. I just scratched the surface and can only share my brief experience as one that made me want to go back. Bangkok was swept from a sleepy trade town to a scandalous city during the Viet Nam War (or, as they say in that end of the world, the American War) and has grown into a modern metropolis. It has architectural, cultural and culinary delights worth traveling for. For all its sites, the best way to experience it, in my humble opinion, was through its streets.
Streetside sightseeing is my preferred way to explore a city. By keeping away from the main tourist strips and diving into side streets (in Bangkok, the intricate Soi system), back alleys and the less-trodden parts. On these walks, you can discover the everyday grit and atmosphere that defines a city as much or more than its brightest monuments or minds. Plus, it totally free.
We arrived in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve, spilling out of the BTS airport line and into the warm evening air. The streets were disorienting in so many ways. The traffic flows in the opposite direction. (We tried catching a bus and ended up crossing an intersection five times). The sidewalks are jammed with …life. The waxing and waning strips of asphalt theoretically separating pedestrian and vehicular life are vibrant. There’s commerce, there’s love, there’s children’s play, there’s poverty, there’s chess, there’s fighting, there’s drama, there’s worship, there’s fruit, there’s greenery, and of course, there’s food. Oh, the food!
Berlin is undeniably cool. It’s a city exploding with culture and subculture after a century of divisive politics that changed the world. It’s modern yet gritty, full of change-makers and fun to explore. I spent a weekend there in October, my second time to the German capital.
Each time I travel, I try to minimize my budget, my impact, and my stress so I can better enjoy myself. Traveling is amazing, but it’s not without its challenges. In my journey to live simply, I’m trying to travel simply as well. Here are my takes on traveling simply in Berlin, saving you money and adding to your time.
Traveling Simply: For the Budget
The large Turkish population in Berlin brought with it a delicious food tradition. The city is filled with great spots to enjoy falafel and halloumi. In fact, if you do a quick search for ‘cheap eats in Berlin’ (an important pre-departure step for any trip), the lists are limited in German options and packed with tasty, budget-friendly Turkish ones. Search for the lists, or just keep an eye out for a Turkish restaurant with a line and join in.
Venice is a marvel. It holds the heavy weight of an empire, full of marble and fine art, on pillars imposed on a lagoon long ago in the time of Barbarians. The whole city seems to be floating, and in many ways, it is.
Water is essential and yet a dilemma for the city. Water allowed a faux-city of fishermen to evolve into an empire that connected East and West. Yet, the city floods annually, creating an on-going challenge to protect the impressive infrastructure from damage and decay. It is difficult to imagine how marble was shifted into place from neighbouring islands, piles and boats to act as waterproofing of palaces. It’s a wonder to see and even more fun to navigate. No cars or even bicycles can cross the city, so you have to enjoy on foot, which allows you to take in impressive architecture, explore quiet canals and bump into locals in tiny passageways.
After four beautiful days in the Most Serene Republic, I came away with a feeling of awe. I encourage you to visit as it’s a top destination for good reason. As climate change causes sea level rise, Venice’s floating illusion may not last. Get there soon, and try a few tips and lessons from my trip.
Traveling Simply: For the Budget
Venice is known to be an expensive city. At first, I thought it was tourist-trap inflation, but after arriving, I realized the challenges and costs of living in a place that floods nearly a third of the year and where everything has to be carried by hand or trolley. With this in mind, the prices are fairer, but they are still high. I discovered that, with a little planning, you can still enjoy the city on a budget.
The other day I was walking home when a woman standing outside of my building stopped me and asked for help. She had a kind face that was toughened from what seemed to be a difficult life. She spoke to me in Hungarian asking for money or food, but then translated to the internationally understood hand signals for these essentials. I repeated, “No, sorry” and “Nem, bocsánat” and moved to walk past her and into my building. When people ask me for either, I never give cash directly, but if I have some food with me, I’m happy to share. Having none and thinking of the work I wanted to get done that afternoon I was about to continue on with my day.
She repeated that international sign for food, and then gestured to her belly. Only then I realized that she was quite pregnant, maybe five or six months. At that moment, I also pulled out my iPhone to stop the podcast I was enjoying. The two movements combined reminded and humbled me of my incredible luck in being born to a loving, wealthy (by world standards, not North American ones), Canadian family. I tucked away my iPhone and mustered my minor Hungarian to offer to buy some food for her at a nearby restaurant.
We walked together down the street. We continued to talk and negotiate in broken English and broken Hungarian, her “hús” (meat), “krumpli” (potatoes) and me “nem pénz” (in my poor Hungarian the words ‘no’ and ‘money’, though it should really be something like nincs pénz, but I’m learning). She shook her head at the Gyros place (fair enough), and we continued to the corner grocery store.
I’ve been in Budapest for just over four months, seeing autumn into an unseasonably and certainly unCanadianly mild winter. Though my Hungarian language skills are still lacking, I don’t consume nearly enough pork (i.e. almost none) to manage Hungarian dishes, and my Hungarian travels outside of Budapest number only two, I have been soaking in the ebb and flow of Hungarian life. In these days, I’ve begun to distill a few things that are, to me, uniquely Hungarian.
You Say Goodbye, and I Say Hello
But we both mean ‘see you later’. I did a number of double takes as I would leave a shop or a restaurant and say “goodbye” or “viszlát”, and they would reply with “hello!”. In Hungarian, the greeting ‘szia!’ is similar to ciao and aloha in that it can be used for greeting or parting. Hungarians have adopted the most popular English-language greeting ‘hello’ into their own daily language with the same dual use. Though it takes some getting used to, it makes it really easy to pretend I speak Hungarian when entering anywhere in Budapest.
I never thought I’d say “I’m going to Prague for Christmas” but that’s what happened this year. Just a seven hour train ride from Keleti Pályaudvar to Hlavni Nadrazi and we arrived in the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic. This was the second time that I have been outside of Canada for December 25th. I am lucky as I most often spend Christmas in Cape Breton with my family or, in recent years, in cozy Manitoba with the Robinsons. Being abroad at a time when most people’s hearts are at home is strange, challenging but full of new opportunities.
Prague has been at the top of my ‘To Visit’ list for years. I’ve heard magical descriptions of the city’s impressive and well-kept architecture hugging the Vltava River, it’s inexpensive and delightful food and drink and rich cultural scene. Prague was as promised. In December, the city was vibrant with Christmas markets and the bustle of happy faces with mulled wine and chimney cakes. We explored and celebrated and discovered Christmas abroad. Here are some reflections on what made this expat holiday a happy one.
One of my true joys of Central European living is train travel. It’s efficient, economical and civilized. Plus, everything is so much closer here. Derek and I hopped on a train from Keleti Station and in less than three hours we were on the metro leaving Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof station.
We arrived for 28 hours in the Austrian capital to wine, dine and checkout architectural points of interest. Just like all the cool kids do. Obviously. In preparation for our trip, I was brought back to the travel tricks of pre-3G travel: researching restaurants from home.
Yes, it’s simple and nothing new. I remember the days before cell phones and (gasp) before internet. I held my first cell phone when I was 22 and living in France. It was smaller than my credit card and could do much less. I note my familiarity with these quaint times to preface that I understand that my idea of researching restaurants from home is nothing novel; it’s how people have traveled for pleasure for most of recent tourism history.
However, with the convenience of 3G and TripAdvisor, I had lost the discipline to properly prepare my dining plans before departing. I would land in a new city or town, and rely heavily on online reviews and maps, supplemented with reception directions and extra-old fashioned street meandering for menus. I’ve had some great meals, some overpriced ones, and many meals an hour or two later than I would have liked. This method lends itself to deciding where to eat when you’ve already decided it’s time to eat. A situation that’s unpleasant for everyone: hangry (def: state of anger caused by lack of food).
But not this time. In Vienna, I planned. It was delicious.
When Derek and I planned to leave Alberta and then Canada for two years in Budapest, it seems like a great distance for quite some time. We’d be far from familiar faces and family feasts.
However, in this modern age of globalization and …Facebook, for good or for bad, our communities are now more distant-but-connected than ever before. This weekend reminded me of how small the world can be, as I met up with three friends from three different times in my life, here in my new city of Budapest. The meet-ups centered on local food and drink, of course, which took me on a tour of some enjoyable spots in the city.
Coming from Cape Breton via London, a family friend was in the city filming two episodes of a fantastic CBC series. The television show is set in World War II Paris, and I’ve been told that Budapest plays that role particularly well. I don’t think I’ve seen him in well over five years so on Thursday, it was a treat to catch up. To add to the experience, we caught up over delicious food at a Hungarian restaurant Pozsonyi Kisvendéglő in the XIII district. This was my first experience with the gigantic portions of Hungarian plates. My friend ordered bone marrow, after a previously delectable experience at this restaurant. I had pike with parley potatoes. In Canada, this meal would have been the equivalent of 2-3 servings. And man, it was tasty – the fish, even deep fried, was flaky and fresh. Over beer, house wine and Palinka, we caught up on Canada, the UK, our siblings, our careers and European lives so far.
I love to travel and I have made visiting new communities, cities and countries a priority for my paycheck. I’m lucky to have been able to travel across Canada, parts of Europe and now live in Budapest. I’ve made mistakes and I’ve learned a few things along the way. I love experiencing a new landscape, culture and language. There’s nothing better than getting a taste of a new town. Literally. Culinary tourism may now be an overused term, but it’s the way to my heart.
My most standard menu is to indulge my over-active sweet tooth. However, I also have a romanticized version of cafe-culture and a daily caffeine addiction that must be fed. So, by blog recommendation or foot traffic testament, I like to try out coffee shops. I’m no connoisseur and I’m not hip enough for most barista bars, but I have found one way to simplify and enjoyably explore Budapest cafes:
One Drink at a Time
In a world with almost unlimited choices, it can be overwhelming to compare and contrast your experiences. It can be a struggle to navigate foreign language menus. It can be intimidating to keep up with new city’s pace or protocol.
As always, my advice is to keep it simple. Don’t try to taste every caffeinated variation a city has to offer. And give up trying to order the drink that will make the local hipster barista’s scowl mellow momentarily. Pick One Drink that a) you enjoy and b) is probably found in most cafes.