Bye, Bye Bucket List

Barcelona sat right at the top of our bucket list. It was the first city in which Steve and I would spend a month as we began our new life as full-time travelers.

La Sagrada Familia and Park Guell awaited us. We couldn’t wait for the city to cast its spell on us as it had for several friends who spoke of it lovingly and longingly.

So why has this popular destination remained one of our least favorites after three years of travel?

Not the Fastest Start

Maybe it was the slow start. We were new at this whole world traveler thing. And we were on our own. No tour guide to fall back on. We were uncertain about the language, the metro, and the layout of the city. Every day for the first week we ventured a little further away from our apartment. First down the street. Then around the block. Then several blocks away. Weren’t we the great adventurers?

We finally worked up the courage to get on the Metro, not realizing what awaited us.

We knew that Barcelona is the pickpocket capital of the world. And Steve was well aware of the rule that you don’t keep your valuables in your back pocket. So he devised a foolproof plan to keep them safe. He put them in his front pocket. The pickpocket duo that relieved him of his cash, bank cards, and passport was able to circumvent his masterful security. You can read about that experience here.

Despite this setback, we did venture out to experience the magic for ourselves. As expected, La Sagrada Familia was incredible. We loved basking in the rainbow colors from the stained glass windows and marveling at the uniqueness of Antoni Gaudi’s creation. And we got to share it with thousands of other people.

pillars and ceiling detail in La Sagrada Familia
The amazing interior of La Sagrada Familia. Photo by Won Young Park on Unsplash.com.

La Sagrada Familia gets 4.6 million visitors every year (except maybe during a pandemic). That is over 12,000 people every day!

Gaudi’s failed planned community, Park Guell, was equally amazing and equally crowded. 95% of the park is free. Here you can wander along multiple walkways surrounded by greenery which is punctuated with unusual stone columns and porticos.

Unfortunately, you will also be fighting the crowds and trying to avoid trampling the wares of the vendors who take up a large part of the walkway.

The number of visitors to Park Guell is more than double that of La Sagrada Familia. 9 million people visit the park every year. That more than 24,000 visitors per day!

The remaining 5% of the park is the Monumental Zone. You have to pay to enter this area and the number of visitors is limited to 400 per half hour so you have a little breathing room.

Looking over Barcelona from the theater in Park Guell
Part of the theater in the Monumental Zone in Park Guell. Photo by Denise Jones on Unsplash.com.

Pretty much everywhere else we went was crowded except for two places: a little-visited but worthwhile park called Labyrinth de la Horta and Recinte Modernista de Sant Pau, an art nouveau complex that used to be a hospital.

You don’t stroll down La Ramblas, you move with the tide, all while trying not to be pickpocketed. Many people wear their backpacks in front to avoid this fate. And you can expect your metro rides to be up close and personal. If you don’t like crowds and noise, Barcelona is probably not for you.

Barcelona’s popularity has led to resentment and anger from the residents as they watch their city being overrun with tourists and the price of housing skyrocket as apartments are turned into vacation rentals. Perhaps this explains why this is the only city we have visited thus far in which the residents were unfriendly.

We had so looked forward to falling in love with Barcelona, only to be disappointed. Was this a harbinger of things to come?

You can find out more about the pleasures and problems of Barcelona in this post: 6 Things You Should Know Before Visiting Barcelona.

A Positive Turn of Events

After our first three months, which were spent in Spain and France, we needed to leave the Schengen area for at least 90 days. Since we wanted to return to the Schengen area after 90 days we wanted to stay close by. One option was to head north to the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. The other was to head east to countries like Bulgaria, Croatia, and Romania.

Here is a link to information about the Schengen area and what it means to travelers. Don’t be like us. We didn’t learn about this until three months before we were due to land in Barcelona, followed by two months in Paris. Fortunately, we had only booked 89 nights.

Eastern Europe wasn’t even on our radar before this. Besides being able to name a few major cities there and knowing the myth of Dracula, my knowledge of this part of the world was embarrassingly small.

Despite this, we decided to give Eastern Europe a try, mainly because three months in the U.K and the Republic of Ireland would be quite expensive.

So what did we think of our choice?

We loved it. The three months we spent in Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria were brimming with memorable experiences.

Some Highlights of Eastern Europe
Croatia

Zagreb, Croatia’s capital, is one of Steve’s favorite cities. It has several wonderful museums including the super unique Museum of Broken Relationships, a peaceful Botanical Garden in the middle of the city, and the exquisite Mirogoj Cemetery. It is also close enough to Plitvice Lakes National Park for a day trip.

Waterfall in Plitvice Lakes National Park
One example of the beauty to be found in Plitvice Lakes National Park

In addition to the Museum of Broken Relationship we enjoyed several other museums in Zagreb:

The Croatian Museum of Naive Art – this museum showcases the work of naïve artists of the 20th century. Naive art is art created by a person who was not formally trained.

The Nikola Tesla Technical Museum – this museum has historic vehicles including airplanes, an underground mine tour, and of course exhibits related to electricity.

Tortureum – Museum of Torture – Steve chose to visit this museum while I was at the naive art museum. I think the name says it all. Steve enjoyed his visit.

The Croatian History Museum – Not very large, but interesting. One of the displays that left a lasting impression on me was this sign:

A sign warning of danger from mines in Croatian
The sign reads: Do not approach, in this area is a great mine danger

A t the time of our visit there were still 12,000 signs in Croatia warning of the dangers of 38,000 mines left from the Croatian War of Independence (1991-1995).

The Museum of Illusion – not a must-see, but a fun diversion.

Zagreb has many other museums so you are bound to find a few that pique your curiosity.

You may also enjoy a Croatian Homeland War tour. Ours was three hours long and gave us a fascinating look at the Croatian fight for independence from Yugoslavia from 1991-1995. It included a visit to a tunnel citizens used as a bomb shelter and a stop at the Memorial Centre of the Rocket Attacks on Zagreb 1991/1995.

Romania

We chose to spend a month in Bucharest, Romania’s capital. Here we discovered Herastrau Park (or King Michael I Park), a large park in the center of Budapest. It is half the size of New York’s Central Park and loaded with cool things to see.

Bucharest is also the home of the world’s second-largest building, The Parliamentary Palace. Only the Pentagon is larger.

A visit to the Ceauşescu Mansion brought the dark reign of Nicolae Ceauşescu to life. The mansion is filled with opulent touches the belied the communist beliefs Ceauşescu promoted.

A private theater with upholstered walls
The theater in the Ceauşescu Mansion

Other things to see include Cărturești Carusel, an amazing beautiful bookstore

Interior of the Carturesti Carusel bookstore in Bucharest
The stunning interior of the Carturesti Carusel bookstore

and two distinctly different cemeteries:

Bellu Cemetery – the largest and most famous cemetery in Bucharest covering 54 acres.

Heroes’ Cemetery – this small cemetery of 281 identical graves is not far from Bellu Cemetery. The graves are for demonstrators killed during the 1989 revolution that put an end to communist rule.

On a happier note, Bucharest is a great location from which to visit Transylvania and explore cool castles like Bran Castle and Pele’s Castle.

No visit to Bucharest would be complete without a visit to Therme. This wonderful water complex combines spa features with waterpark features for an affordable, fun-filled, relaxing day.

Here is a video by Grounded Life Travel that will show you all the Therme has to offer.

Bulgaria

I am in love with this country. In 2018 we visited three cities here. Each place has its charm.

One of our favorites was Bulgaria’s second-largest city, Plovdiv. It is a city of seven hills (one now gone as its stones were used to build roads). There are also Roman ruins everywhere you turn and more being discovered all the time.

Byala is a tiny resort town on the Black Sea not far from the larger city of Varna. The peaceful two weeks we spent there after the tourist season had ended have left us with some of our memories.

There were walks on a nearly deserted beach (we did see a few fishermen and nudists), great meals at the Seagull, a restaurant with one of the most enviable settings I’ve ever seen, and the pleasure of falling asleep to the sound of the sea every night.

Boats at dock on the Black Sea
Boats on the Black Sea

Byala is also close to the country’s third-largest city, Varna, to the north, and the resort town of Sunny Beach to the south.

Sofia is the capital, and frankly the only reason we ended up stopping there was to fly out of the airport. We only spent five days there, much of it on the pedestrian Vitosha Boulevard. We loved the architecture and fell in love with a chain restaurant called Happy. The metro stations were clean and modern. We also had a great walking tour that brought the history of the fall of communism to life. You can learn more about this period of history in the Soviet Art Museum.

Front of a Russian Orthodox church in Sofia, Bulgaria
The Sveti Nikolay Mirlikiiski Russian Orthodox Church in Sofia
The Pattern Repeats

These experiences have repeated themselves several times during the three years we’ve been traveling. We felt so fortunate to be able to spend four weeks in the Galápagos Islands, yet that was the only place we have been where we were counting the days until we moved on. You can read about those experiences here.

On the other hand, we visited Cartagena, Colombia in the spring of 2019. At that time we chose not to visit any other Colombian cities. Then we repeatedly heard from fellow travelers how wonderful Medellin was. Yes, that Medellin. The city that not so long ago was plagued by the violence of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel, paramilitary groups, and guerrilla groups. We visited it in the fall of 2019 and we loved it. You can read about our experiences in 10 Things to Love about Medellin, Colombia.

The Lessons We Learned

Preconceived notions mean very little.

This world is huge. The more you see, the more there is to see.

We love exploring large cities, but many of our favorite places are places we had not heard of before we left the U.S. like Cuenca, Ecuador and Byala, Bulgaria.

Any place we visit will leave us richer, even if it is a place we would not return to, even if we are counting the days until we leave.

So bye, bye bucket list. You got us started on this amazing journey.  For that we thank you. Now it’s time to discover awesome places we have not yet heard of.

Stay safe,
Linda

Featured image by Victor Rodriguez on Unsplash.com.

P.S. Here’s a short article about the limits of a bucket list by AFAR magazine.

Is The Ugly American Dead?

We’ve all heard about ugly Americans. Tourists from the U.S. who talk too loud, wear garish clothes, compare things in other countries to how it is done in the U.S., and expect everyone to speak English.

A Case in Point

Many years ago I was sitting at my daughters’ soccer practice when a very loud man told a story of his experience in Paris. When he and his wife arrived at their hotel, their room wasn’t ready. They expressed displeasure about this and were upgraded to a suite. The hotel manager told them to help themselves to anything they wanted from the minibar.

He then bragged about how they consumed everything in the minibar. He was proud. I was appalled.

I Am What I Am

At this time the only foreign country I had visited was Canada. But I had heard about ugly Americans and how the rest of the world disliked us. I had also heard that some U.S. citizens who visit foreign countries imply that they are from Canada to avoid being painted with the ugly American brush. Again, I was appalled.

I vowed to never hide where I was from. People will have to take me as I am. If they have any preconceived notions, maybe I can help dispel them.

And as a side note: I don’t tell people I am American, I tell them I am from the U.S. Why? Because there are 35 countries in the Americas. All these people are “American” too.

Maybe We’re Not So Ugly After All

The good news is that after traveling full-time internationally for more than two years I believe the ugly American may be dead, or at least on life support.

During our ten months in Latin America and fifteen months (and counting) in Europe, there were only two times that Steve and I only felt we were being judged negatively for being from the U.S. (more on that below).

Most of the people we strike up conversations with have positive things to say when they find out we are from the U.S. Many have spent time in the U.S. and speak of it fondly. Others talk about how much they would love to visit it.

That doesn’t mean that some people didn’t have those feelings, but if they did, they either avoided us or were very good actors.

Many of our conversations have been with Uber and taxi drivers, who are often fluent in English and love to talk about the U.S. They know a lot about our politics and separated their feelings about our leaders from their opinions of us.

Not to be too mushy, but I often felt like we were welcomed with open arms.

Pandemic Unpleasantness

It wasn’t until we were in Budapest, Hungary during the COVID-19 pandemic that we experienced any negativity for being from the U.S.

The first time was when Steve went to get a haircut after businesses were allowed to reopen after being shut down for several months. When the barber and a few men who were in the shop found out he was from the U.S., they were understandably cautious and quickly putting on their masks. Then they discussed how poorly the U.S. was handling the virus.

The second time was a few days later when we were taking a walk. A few street cleaners stared at us and one woman coughed in our direction.

Neither was a big deal, but I am including them here to show how quickly positive feelings can turn negative because of something outside of our control.

You Get What You Put Out

I was reading a blog in which the author complained that the people in Quito, Ecuador were very rude, and bashed the city he had spent only four days visiting. Someone responded that he did not have that experience as a tourist. The author then replied that because tourists bring money, the locals are nice to them, but are rude to each other.

I did not see this rudeness during the four weeks we spent in Quito. The locals were extremely polite to us, and to each other. They often went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.

I felt compelled to add a comment of my own stating that I totally disagreed with the author’s opinion and you get back what you put out.

Putting In Extra Effort

I do find myself going out of my way to be gracious and not make assumptions based on how we do it in the U.S.
We were in one apartment where the neighbors were throwing loud parties every day beginning in the afternoon and lasting through the night. People were coming and going at all hours and had no consideration for those who were sleeping.

I could have gone to the guard complaining about the noise. Instead I asked what the rules about noise were in the building. Fortunately, he said any noise that bothers other tenants is not allowed. He knew exactly who was causing the problem.

He was our go-to guard as the partiers continued to disobey the rules until that wonderful day when they were evicted! We showed our appreciation for all that guard’s help with a bottle of scotch.

Except When We Don’t

I did have an ugly American moment of my own. We were in Panama City waiting for a prearranged Uber to take us to a ferry dock.  Since we were staying in a gated community I had sent directions, in Spanish, on how to get to us.

We used the app to watch the Uber driver pull up to the guard gate, then we watched him turn around and drive away. Repeated messages to him to turn around and to come back, again in Spanish, went unanswered.

I became frustrated because we had a time constraint. As I called for a replacement Uber driver I exclaimed “and he probably won’t speak English either”.

As soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew how entitled they made me sound. Luckily Steve was the only person who heard them, and it has not become one of our inside travel jokes.

What a Wonderful World

We have found most people to be friendly and helpful. Perhaps it is because we are seldom rushed and therefore more patient, Uber tantrum aside. This makes us more pleasant to be around.

Perhaps it is because we try very hard to be gracious and courteous, and learn some basic phrases in the local language, that has resulted in many positive experiences.

Seeing famous sites, strolling through great museums, and enjoying the vibe of each city are some of the rewards of traveling. But some of my best memories are of the interactions with the people we have met along the way. I hope that we have left equally positive impressions.

Happy traveling,
Linda

Featured image by Ayo Ogunseinde on Unsplash.com

 

 

Press One for English

Steve and I are pictured above with English language students in Strasbourg, France.

There is nothing like foreign travel to make you examine your beliefs. It used to annoy me when businesses offered a Spanish option on their phone menu. I was even more annoyed when they asked me to press one for English. I felt like many Americans. Why should I have to press anything? English is our language. If people want to live here they should speak English.

A Happy Surprise

Then Steve and I spent eight months in Europe and much to our surprise English was everywhere. From large cities like Barcelona and Paris, to the Bulgarian cities of Plovdiv and Byala, many people, especially those in the tourist and service industries, spoke English.

It was  good thing too because being able to communicate in the language of each country we visited would have required us to learn six different languages.

Even though English was virtually everywhere we made sure to learn and use basic words like hello, please, and thank you.

What surprised us the most was how well many of the Uber drivers spoke English. I’m not talking about the basics here. Many were able to hold intelligent conversations about politics and travel in English. This made me wonder how many people in the U.S. can converse intelligently in a foreign language. So I Googled it.

According to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 25% of Americans can speak a foreign language compared to 66% of residents of the European Union.

Unnecessary Advice

Common travel advice is to learn to say “hello” and “do you speak English?” in the language of the country you are visiting. If the person replies that they do you can switch to English. We found this quite unnecessary. Apparently we look American. Quite often clerks and waiters would begin speaking English to us before we Even said hello. Almost every restaurant we visited either had English on its menu or a separate menu in English. These would often be handed to us before we said a word.

Thankfulness

One place where we really appreciated an English option was with SIM cards. These have been the bane of our existence, with sometimes sporadic coverage and confusion on our part on how to make outgoing calls. Although one company that claimed to offer English phone support, but chose to tell us this option in very quickly spoken Spanish, did nothing but add to our frustration. Even with the easy to work with companies we still struggled a little, but is anything related to phone plans ever easy?

Other times we were thankful to see or hear English were in museums, grocery stores, and pharmacies. We were especially thankful for the strangers who stepped in to help us communicate, often without being asked

The Tables Have Turned

Our second year of travel has taken us to Latin America where English as a second language is far less common. Even in tourist areas we have had to rely on Google Translate to communicate.

Since we plan to spend 10 months in Latin America I have started learning Spanish through Rosetta Stone. It’s slow going, but also great to be able to communicate on a very rudimentary level in the local language.

Food for Thought

The fact that English is so prevalent in European counties makes me wonder what those of us in the U.S. are afraid of. From what I can see, being multilingual and offering services and menus in multiple languages hasn’t hurt our European friends at all. The more people you can communicate with the richer your life will be.

I do think if someone chooses to live in a foreign country he should make every effort to learn the local language. But a little help along the way benefits those learning English. And don’t forget, not everyone who is in the U.S. and doesn’t speak English is planning to stay. Some are tourists like us!

Happy traveling,
Linda