It took me four months of traveling to get to my favourite European city: Paris. I will take this achievement as an excuse to dedicate the fourth edition of `personal reflections` to ? my own project. Many people have been asking me what, how, where and why questions about `Us Europeans`, and upon completing one third of my itinerary, I feel confident giving some insight in it. Here`s the Us Europeans FAQ, I hope you will find it interesting reading material.
Why such a big trip?
..lists the questions most frequently asked by Us Europeans repondents - and replies to them as well
Leaving on this project, to me, was not actually a choice. Instead, it was a logical next thing in line. I like the idea of the European Union, I like traveling, taking photos, meeting new people. I like how people faced with one and the same situation will react to it in a completely different way, especially when these differences can be explained through cultural differences. How different ways of thinking can lead to two opposite answers, which both make just as much sense. The Us European project combines all of these things so I thought I should give it a try.
How did you get the idea?
People who know me like to tell me that I can`t ever stop thinking. So I guess I though about it a lot, maybe not as a ready-made project but in some random pieces that merged at one point. Well, how much can you actually explain about getting ideas? And after all, the idea is not very complicated, it`s just big in proportions because there are so many countries. I started planning the trip about four months before leaving, booked some flights, started putting together the website, announced my plans at work about 2.5 months in advance, took a Monday and Tuesday off work to pack my stuff and flew off on the first of August.
Who is paying you to do this?
I am. Because it`s something I wanted to do, in the way I wanted to do it. So I didn`t really see any point in doing it for somebody else. I tried to sell some formats to magazines before leaving but they were not interested so I abandoned most of that. I now focus on getting the articles published on some European websites so that more people will have access to it. Anyway, the daily budget is quite small, 30 euros per day, but so long I have been able to squeeze everything into that. The few flights are excluded because I booked them before leaving or the last ones within two weeks after leaving. They are all budget flights, the most expensive maybe costing 80 euros.
How do you get by with all the different languages?
I do most of the time. Lithuania and Latvia have been quite difficult, because I had no alternative whatsoever to English. The number of English-speakers in Spain was probably the lowest so far, but using some of the very little Spanish I know helped quite a bit. Having lived in France, I can speak enough French to do my interviews in French here. The coming month is actually going to be quite easy: just speaking French and Dutch. Next obstacles expected in Italy, Bulgaria and Slovak Republic.
Is Us Europeans much different in reality from what you expected it to be?
No, it`s not. Mainly because I hadn`t really made any expectations, because how to know what to expect of an entire year? I wouldn`t even be able to do that at home. I must admit that I also deliberately and by lack of choice overlooked the dimensions of the project, because I did not have a grasp of those. They are starting to become clear now, and they seem to be quite vast. Otherwise, I have done quite some traveling before and I know that going to a different place doesn`t make me much of a different person. I can be patient when needed and make bigger steps when needed, I think all of that combined is sufficient to undertake a project like this.
Do you miss home?
I do and do not. Home doesn`t feel very far away and maybe it even feels like time is standing still in The Netherlands: I am just making a one-year time travel and come back at the same time I left. I know that`s not how it works, but it still feels like that somehow. I will be happy to see everybody again in three weeks from now, including my young cousin Esmay who was only 2 months old when I left. Apart from that, I regularly stay in touch by e-mail and/or MSN.
Where do you sleep?
Youth hostels and at people`s places. I use the website CouchSurfing quite a lot. This website allows people to make a profile and then be approached by others with the question: can I stay at your place for xx nights etc.etc. I have only met nice people through this system so far. I also stay with people I met earlier on the trip: in Spain for example I stayed with a girl I met in Ireland and tomorrow I will meet up with a French guy with whom I spent two days hiking through the Laplandish forest.
How do you get from one place to another?
Bus or train mostly. Flights for the big distances, but I booked these in advance. Hitchhiking, I tried in Ireland but ended up walking lots and thought it would be a waste of energy to systematically use it as a mode of transportation. Finland was expensive for transportation and so is France. That`s quite annoying because it immediately means that I will have less money to spend on food.
How do you decide on your route?
Grosso modo I preplanned my route from beginning to end. I try to stick at least to how many days I am supposed to stay in each country. Factors taking into consideration while planning the route: taking the maximum advantage of cheap flights, avoiding winter in the north and summer in the south, starting with Ireland because it seemed like a good place to start (speak English, hospitable, and discount connections to Eastern Europe), staying in The Netherlands for Christmas and New Year for insurance reasons (not possible to stay away for longer than 6 months without going through all sorts of administrative hassle) and because it will allow me to see my own country with `new eyes`, just like I have tried to do with all the other countries. Apart from that, I also use this trip to visit friends, which means that some cities I would otherwise not have touched upon, now still include the planning.
Do you ever feel lonely, bored or tired?
Bored? No, too much work to do. I spend entire days walking around and even finding people willing to answer or to pose for a photo takes quite some patience and effort. Not everybody is positively amused when I randomly start asking them questions in the street and that makes it difficult to recharge myself at the beginning of each day. But for every person who is unwilling to answer, there is at least one other person who surprises me by how much time they dedicate to me. Lonely? No, there`s people everywhere and all the time. I even spent my birthday with friends, champagne and a nice dinner included! Saying hello and goodbye all the time to the people I`m staying with does get annoying because it sometimes feels like it`s all superficial. Nevertheless, I will stay in touch with many of the people I met on this trip, especially the ones I stayed with. Tired? I am now, because over the past two weeks, I have been traveling and changing places every single day. But the coming days are a little more relaxed so I will have time to recover.
Why do you only talk to young people?
Plenty of books have been written on the history of Europe. Talking to older people would for sure generate nice and interesting stories, but I am not looking for stories. I am trying to understand how a young generation of Europeans is dealing with the opportunities and challenges brought about by European integration. I truly believe that the opinions of young Europeans, aged between 20 and 30, will provide a good indication of how Europe will develop over the coming 40 years.
What kind of reactions to your project do you get?
Positive ones on the average, but ranging from admirable to `only reinforcing stereotypes`. Some people who are used to my usual writing style tend to find the articles a little boring and would like to see more of my personal opinion in there (read: irony and jokes). I will keep that for the end, the focus now is on collecting information. I will write some funnier stories when I actually know enough to make justifiable jokes about it all. Anyway, some people think my project is `amazing`, `crazy`, `impressive`, `courageous`, `hard to imagine`. Some people think I am too serious about it (especially when I am still typing reports while everybody else has gone to bed), others think I escaped The Netherlands for one big year of partying. I think it`s right in the middle of the two. It`s just another year among many.
Did you get into any weird situations?
The worst thing that happened was leaving a bus to go for the toilet, coming back and finding the bus gone. The whole situation was solved in five minutes, a friend picked up my bag at the terminal station and I took the next bus, but I felt impossibly stupid. But that was about the only time. Everything else ran pretty much according to plan, sometimes by adjusting the plan a little. Not weird but rather exciting was illegally climbing the outside wall of a Portuguese castle to get to the inside of it. I wasn`t expecting to actually make it but did! Walking around in a forest in Lapland and making fire and all was much fun too. Karaoke in Finland, food in France, football match in Northern Ireland ? plenty of cool stuff actually.
Which country did you like most?
I would say Sweden because thinks are practical there and I like it when things make sense. But a bit of tradition is nice as well, and Sweden does not have much of that. Finland was nice for the sauna and the autumn colours, Ireland for the green and grey colours. Everywhere was nice, I only had a hard time not finding proper food in the UK and seeing so many people with unsatisfied faces being monitored by CCTV cameras 24 hours a day. I hope that such is not representative for the future of Europe, but I do fear we`re moving in the same direction.
How do you manage to keep writing every day?
Discount phone operator Voipbuster provided me with a small wirelss internet device to connect to my laptop, so I have internet wherever I go. I can`t spend much more time online than just for uploading pages, because the thing devours bandwith. Being disciplined enough to post a story everyday. Well, doing this was the very reason for starting the project so not doing this means I might as well go home. Anyways, it sometimes is difficult to do interviews AND write stories every single day, which is the main excuse for the somewhat delayed postings of the past two weeks. But work goes on, even when the post is not there, I am still working on it.
Has this trip so far given you any of the deep insights you hoped for?
I didn`t leave for big insights but the trip is producing the kind of information that I`m looking for, yes. About the deep insights, I think I know myself fairly well and leaving on trips like this may stretch your thinking a little in the sense that you start filling up gaps in your way of thinking or in the way you have been thinking about things in the past. If those gaps are big, undertaking a trip like this may bring big surprises, whether pleasant or not, but I don`t think I have met another version of myself and don`t think I will have changed a lot by the end of the project. I am convinced though that this is an enriching experience and it I will certainly see completing it as a big achievement.
What will you do when you come back
Difficult to say. My old job was about the best I could expect before reaching the age of 35, but there are so many things I want to do and should be capable of doing. Whatever it is, it will have to be related with processing information, enabling people and/or companies to communicate better. Whenever I read the Dutch news ? developments back home are nothing less than blatantly depressing ? I also think about doing something in politics. Simply because I can`t stand it when people with bad intentions are left free to do whatever they want to do. Which is what is going on in The Netherlands and it makes me think of a photo exhibition I once saw in former concentration camp Dachau about propaganda and xenophobia, just to indicate how worrisome I think the situation is. Anyway, we will see what the future brings. I have another eight months of traveling ahead of me and will focus on the task at hand!
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