I am flying back to London today. The Prague airport was actually easier to navigate than I expected it would be. The passport checkpoint guard didn’t ask me anything — he just chatted with his partner in the next checkpoint, laughing, gave me a look, and then stamped me out of his country.
At this exact moment, I’m sitting in the Prague airport terminal, about an hour or so before the flight is set to go. And it’s completely empty for some reason — just a few workers occasionally wandering through.
At any rate, I figured that since today will probably be somewhat boring (just heading back to London, going to stay one night there in a hotel, and then take the train to Heathrow tomorrow to leave Europe), I would revisit some of my bests and worsts from the trip while they’re still pretty fresh.
Best Place I Stayed: Dillion’s Hotel off of the Belsize Park London Underground stop was pretty amazing. I had my own room there, a nice desk, relatively strong Internet, and though it was a shared bathroom, everything was clean and well-maintained. It was nice and close to a train stop, and there was a great little window by the desk that I could look out of while working. Add in the free continental breakfast in the morning and the excellent staff (they let me borrow a power adapter for free), and it was definitely the best place I put my head on a pillow.
Staying for a night with my friend and Tipoaa listener Harvey in Oxford was excellent as well — he and his mother were great and kind hosts, and their house, in an old stable on an old English manor, was beautiful.
And I stayed in about three hostels total on this trip, but the best one by far was the St. Christopher’s Inn in Berlin. I had a private room there, and the whole building was very comfy. They had a bar downstairs with cheap drinks and food, a “chill out zone” with quality chairs and Internet, and all of the staff were very friendly and helpful, all for an astoundingly cheap price. I liked it so much that after one night, I booked a place with the same franchise in Prague. That place wasn’t quite as good, but it was also really excellent as hostels go.
Worst Place I Stayed: I’d been recommended Airbnb.com by a few friends (which is an Ebay like site where people can post and buy rooms), but the one room I booked there was sketchy as all get out. It was in the worst part of London that I had been, on the top floor of a dirty and scary projects-like building. When I got there (after having to call the guy a few times, which I’m sure cost me a fortune), the guy running the place told me he’d just moved in, and introduced me to another guy who he said was the former tenant, moving out that day. He apologized for not having any sheets on the bed yet — he just had to run to Ikea that afternoon and get some for me. I almost left my stuff there, then I felt like that was a bad idea and turned around in the hallway to take my bags with me to dinner that night.
I was exhausted when I got back to the place, but the guy wasn’t around yet, so I sat on a bed without sheets for a little bit, and then just passed out on it. The guy finally showed up later on that evening, with another friend in tow, and said they were going to drink together and I was welcome, but I just couldn’t do it — he put the sheets down and I closed the door and passed out in my clothes. The next morning, I picked my stuff up, said thanks as I walked out the door, and did not use Airbnb again this trip.
Best Sight to See: The Paris Catacombs, the Royal Observatory, Westminster Abbey, and 221B Baker Street in London, the Topography of Terror museum in Berlin, and the Lutherhaus in Wittenberg were all spectacular, and those sights were the main reasons I went on this trip, to see and learn things that I’ve never had the chance to in America.
But the Louvre has to top the overall list. I was skeptical about going there at all, but it is just so full of history and art and inspiration that I believe it’s the center, as much as there can be one, of Western culture. You could argue that Greece and Rome are more foundational in terms of place, yes, but the Louvre has most of Greek and Rome’s most famous works anyway. For the money and the time, it was the best thing I saw in the past month.
Worst Sites: The trip to Brighton was worth it, and I don’t regret it, but there wasn’t much down there that I really had to see. The Tower of London was kind of jokey, but I got to hang out and make a video with Turpster, so I’ll call that a win.
I’ll say the Prague Castle was probably the worst — it was beautiful to look at, but it was such a pain getting up there, and everything was closed when I got there. On a different day at a different time, it would have been much better. But my personal trip there wasn’t very good.
Best Thing I Ate: Oh man, I ate so many good things on this trip: The bangers and mash I had at a pub in Brighton, England, the pain au fromage I bought from a bakery in Paris, the crepe with nutella from a stand near the Odeon, the homemade moroccan lamb in Oxford, the venison pasty I had in a North London pub, the multiple currywursts I had in Berlin. But I have to say, maybe it’s just because it’s so recent, but the potato dumplings with pork I had near the Prague Castle were life-changing. They just soaked up that creme sauce so incredibly well. I want to get home and try to make some. They were so simple and so incredibly good.
Worst Thing I Ate: I apologize to Harvey and his mother, and I thank them again for their hospitality, but the blood pudding they excitedly served me did not appeal to me at all. I at least gave it a shot.
I also had a terrible chicken sandwich from a Pakistanian place in Paris. And I thought I’d really enjoy a kielbasa from a food stand in the middle of Prague, but I did not. I think it was undercooked, and honestly I have no idea what kind of meat it was.
Best Thing I Drank: I drank a lot, but no question, the Dopplebock I had at the 300 beer bar in Berlin was the best. The best. Such a beautiful dark beer — it’s no wonder monks would live off of that stuff.
I also had a lot of good hefeweizens in Berlin, which are my favorite kind of beer. And in London, I became a fan of an ale called Doombar. It’s a little unfashionable to like, I guess, because it’s sort of a commercial beer rather than a hip microbrew, but it was everywhere and I liked it. The Guinness there, too, is just as good as everyone says, but I’ll have to go to Ireland to get the real thing some day.
Worst Thing I Drank: I don’t really like tea, and when I told a bartender one day that I was extremely thirsty, and I was American, and could I just have like a bucket of soda because I missed 7-11, he told me the best he could do was a big glass of iced tea. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t what I wanted at all.
At my first meal in Paris, too, I didn’t know where to go or what to do, so when I finally found a restaurant and sat down and finally deciphered the menu enough to know that I was ordering some pork, the waiter asked me what I wanted to drink. I was in France, so I knew I had to drink some wine, but I didn’t have a lot of money on me and I didn’t know if they took credit cards. So I told him to bring me something red and cheap, and that’s what I got: Wine that was red and really cheap. Tasted like it, too.
Best Women: Maybe it’s just because I was away from home for longer and longer as I moved across the continent, but the women got more beautiful the more I went west: London, Paris, Berlin, and then Czechoslovakia. Czech women are gorgeous, but they’re also annoying: One of the bartenders at my hostel bar, when I told her that I was staying in a room there, said sarcastically, with a Czech accent, “Okay? That’s nice, thank you for telling me that. But it’s still the same price.” Chill out, lady.
I have to say, French women were the nicest to me. They’re all beautiful, and whenever I talked to them, they chatted back with me in that beautiful accent.
Not the Best Women: Sorry, London. You’ve got some good looking women but you’re bringing the average down. The nicest girl I met in London was from Boston.
Coolest Dudes: Berlin. German dudes are awesome. When I was on the train from Paris to Berlin, there was a guy in front of me who looked like he could have been a spy who’d left the trade to join private industry. He was dressed in a great suit and glasses, an older guy, and most of the trip, he chatted across the aisle very animatedly with another guy he’d just met in German. There was a woman behind me talking in Spanish who had an argument with the train conductor, and this guy stood up, walked over to them, and translated and mediated between the two, in perfect Spanish and German, solving the argument. Later, behind him, there was a old couple from Texas riding the train, and he chatted with them, too, in German-accented English, completely charming when he didn’t have to be. I thought he was a superman of some kind — if I grow up to be that guy, life accomplished.
The male bartenders in Berlin bars were awesome as well, always ready with a drink recommendation or change for the train when I needed it.
Least Coolest Dudes: I didn’t meet a cool bartender in England. It’s a shame, because I did meet some cool Tipoaa listeners. But English gents didn’t get along with me very well. I met a nice lady with a great Zelda hearts tattoo, but she shut me down pretty harshly when I complimented her on it.
Best Thing I Got Right: Bringing my iPad was the right decision. I went back and forth on it, because I worried it would be too heavy, it would break, it would get stolen. But I took very good care of all my stuff on this trip, and the iPad was super helpful when I had wifi and just wanted to sit and relax, or when I wanted to play games or read. I would certainly have regretted leaving it in LA.
Worst Thing I Got Right: Yup, it was expensive, like I expected. Really expensive. I don’t really want to share how much this trip costed me, but one dream I had for a little while was that my freelancing gig would basically pay for me to just tour around the world, writing from wherever I happened to be, and this trip would be a test balloon for a life like that. But it’s just not sustainable, either in cost, or in my own sanity. I need to have a local life, with friends and a little regularity. And I need to save back up all of that money I just spent.
Best Thing I Got Wrong: I actually didn’t get this too wrong: I am glad that I didn’t buy a $2000 camera. For one thing, it would have painted me as a tourist way more than I wanted, and for another thing, it would probably have been awkward and heavy to carry. But I thought for a while that I would just need my iPhone for a camera, and eventually my friend told me to take his Panasonic Lumix. This little Lumix has been my favorite piece of tech on this trip — it takes great pictures at a moment’s notice, and has put together an excellent photo collection for me to share, both here on the blog and when I get back in person. I am glad I took my friend Dan’s advice and stole his camera for this month. There were a few days there when the battery on it wasn’t charged, and I had to use the iPhone, and I can tell from those days that just using my iPhone would have been a big mistake.
Worst Thing I Got Wrong: I hate to say Tom Bihn, because they so kindly provided me a bag, and it is a really awesome bag. It’s a solid backpack with plenty of great pockets, and I’m amazed at how much it fits in there — if you need a backpack at all, Tom Bihn is the way to go. But the problem is that I thought I needed a backpack for this trip, and honestly, I didn’t. There were no actual times when I had to tour around with all of my clothes on my back — there was always a locker, or a locked room, or some secure place for me to put my stuff when I went out. The few times I had to transport all of my clothes from one place to another, my rolling suitcase would have worked fine, and actually would have let me fit more in it.
I don’t want to say anything bad about Tom Bihn, as those folks are great. But if I could do it again, I would have just brought my usual rolling suitcase, and saved the backpack for people actually backpacking.
Books Read: The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach, Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, Reamde by Neal Stephenson, The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin and Eytan Kollin (the only one I didn’t like), and House of Chains and Midnight Tides by Steven Erickson. I did so much reading on this trip — iBooks is the best thing to ever happen to traveling, as far as I’m concerned.
Most Played iOS Games: Fairway Solitaire, Triple Town, Spellsword, Hookshot Escape, and just on the last couple of flights, I am totally addicted to Junk Jack.
iOS Games Made: None, unfortunately. I was really looking forward to this trip as a chance to work on my coding, and I got a few hours of the Antithesis update done on the train to Berlin, but other than that, I didn’t really see it as a very meaningful use of my time. Every time I opened up Xcode and started working, I figured that there was probably something better for me to do. Oh well — once I get home, the Antithesis update is my main goal.
Miles Walked: I have no idea, unfortunately. I know that on my biggest days, walking around London and Paris, I was easily doing ten or twelve miles a day, including three or four hours a day standing in place at museums and in queues. And I’m glad to say that in all my travels, I never took a taxi or a bus — it was all trains or walking. While I can definitely tell my walking has physically improved, I unfortunately ate way too many calories, just because I couldn’t pass up some incredible local delicacies. My legs are super muscular, but I think my midsection has gained a few pounds. Oh well — it was worth it.
Miles Traveled: Over 12,000. Flight to London from LA, lots of riding on the Underground, travels out to Oxford by car and Brighton by train, then down to Paris by train, lots of traveling on the Paris Metro, then over to Berlin by train. Out to Wittenberg and back by train, then to Prague by train. Finally, flight back to London Luton from Prague, to Heathrow by bus, and then to Los Angeles by air again.
Pictures taken: Over 1600. I don’t know the best way to share them — I’ve put quite a few on Facebook, but it didn’t seem like people were seeing them there. Maybe I’ll just put them on my iPad and show them when people want to see them.
Words Written: 62,000 here on the blog. Also worked on Joystiq and TUAW posts over the last two weeks, so I stayed pretty productive.
Best City: This is a tough one. I think I’ve told this story before, but when I was in college, I traveled out to LA, and about two weeks after I got there, I knew it was where I wanted to live. I was sort of thinking that might happen with this trip: That I’d find someplace so awesome that I would have to make it my dream to live there. That didn’t happen — I think I’ll still be more happy in LA than actually living in any of the cities I visited.
But while each city definitely had its charms, and there wasn’t really one I didn’t like (Prague has its issues, but I think it’s mostly because I visited on a busy weekend — if it was quieter and I had more time, I would have liked it much better, I think). Overall, my favorite city was Paris — it’s such an amazing place, just filled with art and beauty and history. The buildings are so long there — block after block of huge windows, long boulevards, and so many incredible cafes and restaurants. The Louvre, I think, is probably the most important single place in Western culture so far. And while everyone warned me about the French, I had no problems at all — they were very gracious hosts, and very nice to me even when we didn’t share a language. I don’t know if I’d want to live in Paris — it’s still a little too far away from the culture and the community that I really love. But of all these cities, that’s the one I most need to go back to: I want to visit a Michelin-starred restaurant, I want to tour a vineyard, and I want to just soak more and more of that amazing, legendary city in.
All that said, however, I’m going to tour Asia before I do that.
Best Moment: That is a tough one. Honestly, overall, I have been happier in the past month than I can remember being so often and so long. I’m not super sad all the time, but my life is busy and complicated, and sometimes all of the things I do drag me down a bit. Life in general can get heavier than I like, sometimes. But this past month, I almost never felt that — usually I was just excited, thinking about what I’d seen that day and what I was planning for the next. That was really nice — to have my goals every day be mostly my own, not dependent on something I needed to do or some commitment I’d made.
If I have to pick one, there was that moment in Berlin, when I was walking around the streets on my second day, looking for the square that honored artist Kathe Kollowitz. I made the decision to travel around in early Spring, and all of a sudden, out of nowhere, a rainstorm appeared. I had of course not brought my umbrella, and so I ducked underneath an awning and decided to wait it out.
It was so beautiful — the sun was still shining through the clouds, the rain came down crisp and clear, and various people from Berlin ran this way and that, trying to get out of the rain. And while I stood there, surveying the scene, it hit 6pm on the dot, and I heard not one but two churches ring their bells at the same time.
The sound and smell of the rain, combined with the gorgeous church bells ringing, and people bustling back and forth occasionally, and me just sitting on this little closed off porch early on an April evening in Berlin? That would rank as one of the best moments I had, on a trip full of them.