Reality Check-in

I’ve been home for almost 6 months. Right now, I figure, is probably as good a time as any to try to wrap up/wrap my head around this fantastic adventure Victoria and I have had living in Europe. Almost 6 months to reflect, yet I feel like I’ve hardly processed a drop of it. It probably didn’t help that I got off the plane and walked straight into what was undoubtedly the busiest summer of my life so far. While the province burned around us, the memories and highlights of an adventure unlike any other got pushed further and further into the back of my mind. Recently, however, as things have begun to quiet down, I’ve embarked on the process of mentally and digitally unpacking our time in Europe. So far, three things stand out to me.

1) Reverse Culture Shock

We’ve all heard the term used at some point or another, and we were certainly told to expect it coming back to Canada. However, as with most helpful advice, nothing can really prepare you for the actual experience. I could spend pages talking about all the ways in which we were “shocked”, but I’ll limit myself to the two the struck me the most.

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Number 1: Driving. Simply put, Europeans are good at it; we’re crap. Seriously. The mindset around driving in most parts of Europe is so different than it is here (I say most, because Europe is quite a big place; so while I admit this is a bit of a generalization, it’s based directly on my experiences driving in and through no less than 13 countries there). While we’re endowed with luxuriously roomy lanes on our roads, mostScotland_Kinlochewe_SingleTrackRoad Europeans make do with a strip of pavement that looks more like a bike lane to us. When your margin for error is smaller, you have to be better. Fact. There’s also a hell of a lot more traffic in their built up areas (ie. cities) than we have here. You think driving in downtown Vancouver is bad? Try Rome. Except don’t, because you’ll probably have a massive accident. So, smaller roads and more traffic. How can that coexist? Simple: smaller cars and faster driving (and if you’re Italian, having a flexible interpretation of what constitutes a “lane”). At first glance, it seems like reckless chaos. My first time driving around Paris I was a stressy, whimpering mess. I felt like I was the only one who could actually see the road lines because I was the only person driving in a lane. But stick with it, and you realize that there’s actually a method to the perceived madness. Drivers in Italy were even worse (or better?). And sure enough, upon returning to Canada it didn’t take long to spot a stereotypically terrible North American driver: a frazzled looking woman wrestling a huge minivan through traffic while inhaling a wrapper full of McSomething, paying too much attention to her phone, and breaking up – or participating in, it was hard to tell – a fight between her children in the back seat. I guarantee that if she were to try and drive in Europe, she would literally crash every time she went anywhere.

Number 2: Actually knowing how to do things. As basic as it may sound, it takes a lot of effort and learning to figure out how things work in another country. IMG_5596Banking, health care, insurance, taxes, transit, housing, shopping (seriously, where the hell do I find salsa here…), and the crucial difference between a cafe and coffee shop, just to name a few. Even by the time we left Rotterdam, we still honestly didn’t understand the process of registering and de-registering with the city, which is supposedly the first and most basic part of living there. Then anytime we travelled to another country, we’d have to learn many of these things from scratch again. Now, this isn’t meant to sound complainy, rather it’s meant to build and provide context for the tsunami of relief felt when we got back to Canada, and just intrinsically knew how to do everything. Something as simple as being able to unlock my front door on the first try (I struggled with our weird Dutch lock until the day I left), call Rogers to activate my cell phone, or enrol in MSP… These things were incredibly affirming for my basic life skills. 

2) Nostalgia/reflection

I’ll start here by once again deferring to my excuse of being stupidly busy all summer. I’ve only just started wading through the IMG_6782metaphorical barn-load of pictures and videos that we accumulated while in Europe. My Photos app tells me there’s over 6000 of them, in fact. So to say that starting this project was a daunting task is somewhat of an understatement. The point I’m trying to make, I guess, is that I’m only now remembering just HOW MUCH STUFF we did while we were over there. Most of it happened so quickly at the time that the details were forgotten almost immediately (fortunately, we’ve got a 2 TB hard drive full of memories to fall back on and fill in the gaps for us). As I reflect on our adventures, however, I’m realizing that just because I may have forgotten the details of a trip or event, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t affected by it. IMG_6248I believe that even if we don’t allow ourselves the time to fully process something through journaling, or creating an album or whatever, that our subconscious is still churning away behind the scenes. I believe that our experiences are absorbed immediately and directly into our very beings, subtly integrating into the complex mass of brain fibres that makes us who we are. And it’s during this process of thinking back over the past year that I realized what point #3 is.

3) Home hasn’t changed, but you have

It’s a tough pill to swallow. I think it’s because there’s absolutely nothing we can do about it. If you believe that your experiences shape you, then there’s no getting around it. It feels, when you return from your adventure, that your home town has been frozen in time since the day you left (especially if you’re looking at the Johnson Street Bridge…). It’s the little things that I noticed first; the way I drink my coffee, the way I style IMG_5930my hair, going to the grocery store every day or 2 rather than stocking up for the week.
But lurking in the background, bigger things have changed. Relationships are different: for example, living in a strange and foreign country in close quarters with another person and being all but forced into utter co-dependence… You better believe that has an impact on things. Fortunately for Victoria and I, we didn’t murder each other even once; in fact we came out the other side stronger for the experience, and I can’t imagine living our lives the same way we did before we left. Friends and family is an interesting one, too. Some connections take a bit of time and effort to re-establish, whereas others feel like putting on a comfortable old sock you haven’t worn in a while (sorry for the metaphor, old sock friends). And then there are others that I still haven’t even seen yet. No pressure guys. 

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Then there’s the lens through which you view the world around you. If your understanding of “the world” has changed, then ergo, so does the way you look at it. This is not necessarily a good or a bad thing, it just… is.

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As the months and weeks roll by, I’m constantly discovering new ways in which I’ve “changed”, and I imagine this will continue for quite some time. And with an important Canadian election just around the corner, I feel I have a new understanding of how such similar people can have such different views on the important issues that affect and define us as a nation. I’ve grown acutely aware of how the rest of the world sees us, and the importance of a global reputation. And so I’m ending this final blog post with a plug. Vote. Voting isn’t just a privilege – it’s a responsibility; and not merely to try and make our country the way we want it. More importantly, it’s the easiest and most effective way for us to participate in our country. Don’t take it for granted.

The more Canadians get out and vote, the more Canadian our Canada will be. Think about it.

And finally, a big thank you to all who followed along with us on our adventure either through this blog or the videos we made (and have yet to make…). Honestly, nothing made us feel better than knowing we had friends and family back home who cared, and took the time to keep up with what we were doing. You have our eternal gratitude.

Until the next adventure,

– Ted and Victoria

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Barcelona – City of Common Scents

If you were to visit Barcelona, and by some trick of the gods were only permitted to bring one of your five senses along, I would highly recommend tossing your ‘schnauz in your carry-on and forgetting about the other four. As beautiful as Barcelona is (and it is rather pretty), the best medium through which to experience its multi-faceted nature is undoubtedly, for me, smell. That’s not to say it smells over-strong, or that there is a particular odor or aroma that defines it, but never in my life have my nose and my brain had so many hurried and unresolved conversations within the span of one city block. First and foremost, there’s the smell of big-city-in-a-warm-climate. This one took me a while to work out (and obviously, to name) because it is so complex and dynamic, so I’ll try to break it down as best I can: one moment the smell of venting sewers fills your nostrils (though oddly, not in an overbearing or arguably even offensive way), but then an invisible breeze passes by, bringing with it the sweetly aromatic blend of spring blossoms and fresh greenery from somewhere nearby.IMG_7051

You continue walking and within seconds, the breeze dies, and you’re acutely aware that you’re surrounded by hot concrete, asphalt, and paving stones. Heavily distracted by the sudden nasal onslaught, you barely notice the flashing red hand at the opposite end of the crosswalk you’ve just arrived at. The moments that follow introduce the unmistakable smell (and sight – but that would be cheating) of 2-stroke engine exhaust trailing behind a haphazard fleet of scooters and mopeds, each in a bigger hurry than the next. Your brain is so busy trying to process the information being fed to it by your nose that you fail to notice that a green stick man that has taken the place of Mr. Red Hand. Halfway through the intersection a waft of raw, industrial scents draws your attention to the building renovations taking place on the opposite corner. Just when you think your senses can’t possibly accommodate another smell, the food shoulders its way in. Barbeques, woks, seafood, spicy olives, various other street food, lemons, and a myriad other indistinguishable aromas.

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But before my brain ever had a chance to fully process the aforementioned nasal proceedings, we arrived at the ever-buzzing Las Ramblas, the main street that cuts straight through the heart of the old town towards its terminus at the Mirador de Colom, a 200ft monument to Christopher Columbus overlooking the sea. At this point our preoccupation with smells all-but-disappeared, as we were confronted with a new reality: countless individuals seeking to separate us from our precious euros in countless different ways, few of which seemed honest, but luckily, even fewer appeared truly sinister. I suppose we can count ourselves fortunate that the only money we lost was to one of the many hideously overpriced restaurants that spread its tentacles out into the street in the form of temping, sun-drenched tables from which to watch the action of Las Ramblas unfold around you while enjoying a cold beverage or 6. Noble though our intentions were – merely having a quick drink to refresh ourselves before moving on – “a beer and 2 glasses of sangria” is far from a quick event at these streetside establishments. Immediately faced with a towering vat of lager, and Victoria and Robyn a litre each of sangria, we quickly agreed that maybe we weren’t in such a big hurry after all.

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Having vanquished our liquid opposition (and each made a trip to the washroom), we continued on with the other reason for coming to Las Ramblas: to secure ourselves a set of tickets for the La Liga football match taking place the following day. Unfortunately FC Barcelona was playing out of town that weekend, so our only remaining option was to see RCD Espanyol, the “other” Barcelona team. Upon finding the ticket office and learning that FC Barcelona tickets start at 250 euros a piece, we decided that a match between two mid-table teams was probably the right choice after all – especially since, more than anything, we were after an authentic cultural experience, not a round of celebrity-spotting from the nosebleeds.

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In addition to taking in a football match, wandering aimlessly through the old town, and cruising the pleasingly sandy Playa de la Concha, we also visited two of the more famous sites in Barcelona that draw visitors from around the world; the colourful Park Guell and the infamous Sagrada Familia, both creations of the legendary architect/designer Antoni Gaudi. Since hyper-touristy things generally don’t whet my appetite, it must be said that I wasn’t overly keen about either of these sites. Both, however, turned out to be well worth the visit. Especially the Sagrada Familia. It’s a cathedral, but at the same time it isn’t. Cologne, Prague, Paris; all of these places have huge, vastly impressive cathedrals, but (again, you’ll have to forgive my ignorantly obtuse Philistine-ism) once you’ve seen a big European Cathedral, you’ve pretty much seen them all.

The Sagrada Familia is different. Mainly because they’re still building it.IMG_7070 Construction started in the late 1800s, but my guess is, being Spanish, they just decided they’d get around to it later. The target completion date is 2026, marking the centenary of Gaudi’s death, but I’m not holding my breath. All kidding aside, though, it is a truly remarkable structure. From the outside, it’s sort of like looking back through time – the lower parts look older and weathered (because they are), while the higher portions of the cathedral look crisp and clean and new (because they are).

On the inside, my impression was that it’s 1 half cathedral, 1 half museum, and 1 half personal artistic expression. But that’s just the opinion of a self-admitted Cretin who can’t even add. I would recommend seeing it for yourself.

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In fact I would recommend Barcelona in general to anyone looking for a blend of culture, climate, and entertainment. As far as big cities go it’s safe, it caters to a variety of interests, and it’s relatively affordable. The food is good, the soccer is exciting, and people don’t take themselves too seriously.

Just make sure you keep your eyes open as you smell your way through the city, otherwise you’ll get run over by a flock of scooters, pickpocketed, then – worst of all – sold an overpriced beer.

Looking back to see ahead

It’s a sunny Friday morning, the coffee is piping fresh from my dangerously-hipster-esque Aeropress, and I’m at risk of stimulation overload as a result of the bountiful spring-related sensory input rushing in through the open balcony door to my left. Birds, lawnmowers, crisp fresh air, blue skies, bulbs forcing their way up through the earth. All amazing things, and a sign that perhaps the dismal oppression of “winter” has released its grip on Rotterdam. If you read my last post, you’ll understand what this last sentence is about, and why a set of quotations marks are well-employed therein. But this morning is about looking ahead, realizing that change is in the air, and that the inevitable march of time is speeding Victoria and I towards the tail-end of our sojourn “on the continent”. Love me some good quotation marks.

But before launching into a preview of what’s coming up next for us in our European adventures, I’d first like to immediately contradict myself and divulge some of the events from our most recent trip to Prague. Cause I do what I want. The overarching highlights, as I can remember them…. Being endlessly imprisoned in a ridiculously-proportioned sea of brown, a tennis ball, and NOT attacking any other tourists. Right, this might require some additional explanation. I’ll try to keep it brief. But will probably fail.

The sea of brown was an Opel Mokka. This is the European equivalent to a Buick Encore. Still have no clue what I’m on about? I’m not surprised, and you definitely shouldn’t care. But because I’m so interested in cars, I’ll give you a brief lesson (and yes, this will be a complete and utter waste of your time). Suffice it to say, it might be the most pointless, uninteresting vehicle ever made. Some bored engineers somewhere started with a small but purposeful 4-door hatchback/city car, shoved an air compressor hose up it’s a$$, and inflated it until it no longer resembled anything that made sense. The result is a tall, slow, wallowy, inefficient car-ish thing that somehow manages to be just as small on the inside as when they started, except for maybe an extra inch or 2 of headroom. But on the plus side, all the fettling with the body proportions have left the behind-the-wheel experience dynamically similar to piloting a bag of laundry. So if you enjoy driving, don’t buy one. Not that you were going to. Oh, and they got the name wrong. Instead of the Mokka, they should have called it 50 Shades of Brown. Seriously, there was so much brown inside that car, after a while you almost forgot that any other colour existed. But to be fair, it was decently comfortable, and despite my displeasure with almost everything else about the car, comfort’s a pretty important factor when you’ve got 2000km to cover in 2 days of driving.

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Despite the Mokka’s relative comfort, sitting in a car for that long leaves your muscles tensed and achy. Enter Mr. tennis ball. If you think foam rolling hurts/is amazing, then you should have a go with one of these yellow felty wonders. If utilized correctly, you can literally undo hours of punishment to your muscles in seconds – although the short-term cost is high, not unlike with a foam roller. So for those who like a little self-inflicted torment every now and then, you’re welcome.

To summarize thus far; the utterly ridiculous car got us there, the tennis ball kept us moving.

Now, hitting people. Sometimes I don’t know why I keep visiting crowded, touristy cities. But for whatever reason, I keep doing it, and almost always on a weekend. This habit, combined with my complete lack of patience for the hordes of inconsiderate halfwits that invariably clog up these public spaces (specifically the kind with no concept of spatial awareness or consideration for other human beings) means that, statistically, I’m probably going to end up attacking someone in a foreign city one day. There’s nothing I can do about it, it’s just science. Fortunately, Prague was not that foreign city, and after a little help calming down from Victoria (although some days I feel like she’ll be the first to lose it on someone…) we both managed to have a perfectly nice day wandering around a very pretty European city. It was even sunny and warm, which I wasn’t expecting. In fact, all of my ignorant western expectations were way off. I was half-expecting some bleak, crumbling soviet bloc landscape made up mostly of prostitutes and hockey players with mullets (I sincerely apologize if you’re a Czech person reading this). But it wasn’t. Things were modern where they needed to be, and historic and well-preserved in the places where it mattered. The people, for the most part, were perfectly friendly and I’m pretty sure weren’t all prostitutes. As far as I could tell, the infrastructure was great, transit in the city was easy, and the roads (that we drove on, at least) were, dare I say it, better than many that we experienced in Germany. It’s also a place where you can still get a delicious local pint for just under a Euro.

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So in short, a damn nice place to visit.

Oh, and what’s next on the horizon for Victoria and I?

Switzerland.

Yodel-ay-hee-hoo.

Norway: Great Country, or Greatest Country Ever?

The Norwegians have a lot going for them. They’re an attractive, hardy, winter-proof people, who aren’t shouty or showy – they just go about their Scandinavian business with a relentless efficiency and a reserved smile on their face. While I don’t claim to be an economist in any sense of the term, they also seem to have their economy pretty well sorted out. Or is it dialed in? Take your pick, really. The down side of this economic brilliance, however, is that a pint of generic, house-brand beer will put you back around $14 if you’re foolish enough to order one at a restaurant. Lesson learned. Food and drink, actually, were the only things that really appeared outlandishly expensive to me during our visit – transit, accommodations, hard drugs, ect. I found to be more or less reasonable. Or maybe I’m just getting used to how expensive things are in general in this part of the world. But here’s something that I’m learning this year: a strong economy and efficient city structure do not necessarily an interesting country make. I don’t want to sound “down” on the country I’m currently living in, but I’m going to use the Netherlands as an example of this. It’s probably the most well thought-out and efficient country imaginable: from the hyper-logical infrastructure and thoughtful layout of cities, the brilliant and modern transit systems, the very high standard of living, and of course the laughable abundance of excellent bike lanes, just to name a few of the things it does well; this place seems to have all the boxes ticked as a desirable place to live. Yes the taxes are a bit high, but most people seem to consider it money well spent in the grand scheme of things.

However, (and this may be somewhat subjective, but hear me out) Holland is easily the least exciting country I’ve ever lived in or visited. Once you’ve biked along a canal and seen a few windmills, you’ve literally done everything. Now, I’ll admit there’s lots of shopping, I’m assuming there’s probably a very prominent arts and culture movement going on here, but to be honest, I just don’t care. *Let me know when you’re done scoffing into your cognac and declaring me a hopeless Philistine, and I’ll continue*. I like the outdoors. Forests, rocks, mountains. Sports, recreation, adventure. In fact, simply being outside in a beautiful and diverse landscape – preferably one with a tangy ocean breeze – is something I consider both a joy and a necessity. With the exception of the odd football pitch, however, Holland has, and is, none of these things. Even the ocean is hopelessly shallow and doesn’t smell like an ocean. Its landscape is flat, soggy, and ceaselessly windy. For most of the year the sky is replaced by a lifeless, uniformly steel gray sheet of oppression, out of which water sometimes comes, and then things become even soggier. Owners seemingly encourage dogs to defecate on the sidewalks literally every time they go outside, probably because it’s the most exciting thing there is to do here (for both dog and owner). I’ve managed to restrain myself so far. Rather, in attempt to stave off the insanity, Victoria and I have developed a balance of both getting creative, and settling. For example: on the creative end of the spectrum, we started exploring Cyclocross in the absence of real mountain biking. On the settling end of the spectrum, we joined a gym out of sheer physical sluggery and boredom. Perhaps my needs and wants aren’t the same as everyone else’s, but the bottom line is this: despite its brilliance on paper, this country meets very few of them.

Enter, Norway.

While we’re still on the topic; dogs. I’ve realized that our canine friends can give valuable insight into the true nature of a place. In Norway, for example, all of the dogs I saw were awesome. In addition to being an obedient and loyal family member, each and every pooch looked like it served (or was capable of serving) a purpose beyond being another mouth to feed/fashion accessory. They struck me as the kind of animals that could look after themselves, and probably catch their own dinner or pull you free of an avalanche if need be. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not talking about wantonly huge and aggressive, I’m-compensating-for-my-small-penis dogs, or this-dog-matches-my-MMA-streetwear-and-tattoos dogs; rather, similar to the Norwegian people, they appeared to be a suitable and functional match for their rugged, wintry home, capable of telling you something about the country before you ever explored it.

And explore it we did, or at least attempted to. As has been the case with most of our trips so far, our time was limited and our schedules revolved around some sort of conference/work event. That said, one doesn’t have to venture too far outside of Oslo to feel a genuine engagement with nature. Forests, mountains, fjords. Outdoor sports, recreation, adventure. These are the things Norway specializes in, even (or perhaps especially) in the dead of winter. For all intents and purposes, the Norwegians invented cross-country skiing. And it shows. With over 2000km of prepared/maintained skiing trails in the area surrounding the Norwegian capital, you’re unlikely to get bored of the scenery anytime soon. Prefer to blaze your own trail? It’s not long until you’re in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountainous forests and frozen lakes. Even in the very heart of the city, Oslo is an achingly scenic and wild-feeling place, nestled between ocean inlet and mountain. I would actually liken its geography somewhat to Vancouver, though on a much smaller scale and with more surrounding wilderness features, in contrast to the endless urban sprawl of the lower mainland. So, better. But don’t get your knickers in a twist, Vancouverites – nothing can compete with the splendour of Canada’s West Coast, despite how generous my praise may sound. But Norway comes pretty close, and it hasn’t even played its trump card yet…

Korketrekkeren. In addition to being named by someone with a mouthful of thumbtacks, it was the site of the official bobsleigh course for the 1952 Winter Olympics. Following the games, its 2km length was converted to a fast n’ flowy sledding course and opened to the public. This is a brilliant thing in itself, but it gets better. Instead of having to hoof it 2km back uphill to have another go, you simply drag your sled – grinning like an idiot, heart still pounding with adrenaline – about 60 feet to a metro platform and hop on a train. 12 minutes later that train spits you out at the top of the run. Lather, rinse, repeat. Does it get any better than this?

No. And to prove it, I made a video

The Un-Vacation to end all Vacations

Va-ca-tion: “A period of time devoted to pleasure, rest, or relaxation.”

This is probably, more or less, what pops into most of our minds when we hear the word “vacation”. Likely somewhere tropical, lots of lounging around, consuming many delicious (and probably not very healthy) things. But hey; you work hard, so why not treat yourself, right? Well, Victoria and I recently turned this concept on its head.

After much beseeching and pestering from my lovely (and persuasive) sister, we caved and decided to book a “vacation” at a resort in the Canary Islands that she herself had visited during her most recent bout of world traveling. It’s in a beautiful location; the weather is still very pleasant during the winter – check and check. Sounds pretty standard so far. However, this was no ordinary resort. It is the (self-declared) #1 Sports Resort in the entire World. Club La Santa is its name, and no, it has absolutely no correlation with Christmas in any way. Other than it’s awesome. Imagine a place with facilities, equipment, and coaching for pretty much any sport or activity in existence. Then imagine it being located on a small volcanic island off the coast of Northern Africa. I’m talking super-duper volcanic – the entire island was basically destroyed/reshaped by extreme volcanic activity in the late 1700s. Now imagine a resort full of super-fit people from all around the world (but mainly Denmark and Norway – the ‘Scandis basically run the show there). Now you’re starting to get an idea of what the place is like. Fancy yourself a bike ride? They’ve got hundreds of Cannondale-supplied road, mountain, and time trial bikes available to use, a team of bike mechanics and instructors more or less at your disposal, a room full of spin bikes and computers, and organized events and races you can participate in throughout the week. Maybe swimming’s more your thing? There are three 50m heated outdoor pools, again with coaching, courses and events. Oh, and a huge private lagoon if you prefer an open water swim, or want to learn how to windsurf, kayak, standup paddle board, ect. There’s an Olympic track for the runnists/hurdlists along with areas and equipment for pretty much every track and field event imaginable. Even steeplechase – I didn’t know that was even still a thing, but apparently it is. There’s a soccer pitch, tennis/squash/padel/basketball courts, a traditional gym/fitness center, golfing area (driving, putting, chipping, and mini-golf), boxing ring, and not to mention numerous spaces where they offer countless different fitness classes ranging from aerial yoga (which I tried, and is terrifying) to something called “Insanity” (which I was too scared/exhausted to try).

All of these activities are included in the resort price, so in order to get your money’s worth, you logically try to cram in as much as you can while you’re there. For us, this meant an average of 4 different workouts/lessons/activities per day. Needless to say, by the end of day 3 we felt like we’d been hit by an exercise bus (whatever that is..). Fortunately, they also offer a “release and unwind” class. A more accurate name would be “50 Minutes of Self-Inflicted Torment and Misery”, but then I guess not as many people would sign up. Sure enough though, when the class ends and the foam rollers mercifully go away, you feel ready to do it all over again the next morning.

And you do. Again. And again. And again.

You might be thinking that this doesn’t sound like much of a vacation, and I will concede that it’s probably not everyone’s cup of tea. But if you have any inclination towards sports or fitness or exercise (or want to develop one), then I can’t recommend a better “vacation”. The clientele range from tiny children to elite athletes, to the elderly. In fact, during the sprint triathlon (which they host every week) I got absolutely smoked by a guy well into his 70s. A tip of my cap to you, sir.

The bottom line is this. A week at this place cost us exactly the same as an all-inclusive week in Mexico we did 2 or 3 years back (during which we split our time equally between pool and beach, taking liberal advantage of the open bar…). Both were fantastic vacations. But whereas after Mexico I felt like a fat, drunk mess, following this trip I feel more energized than I ever have in my entire life.

And isn’t that the whole point of a vacation?

****There will be an excellent video of this trip at some point in the future – in the meantime, we’ve just finished the final video of our trip to France. Please take a look! Our other Europe videos can also be found in the YouTube channel, Yeti Life. If you like them, please leave some feedback on YouTube, recommend them to others, and just generally help us get some exposure for our videos and Yeti’s new channel. We love making movies, and the more people we have to share them with the better! Thanks!

New Years Fright-Night

For nearly 4 months now we’ve been blown away by this place. Everything is so well organized, so logically laid out, so seamless – in other words, so Dutch. Other than the odd bike theft (or hit and run by careless idiot drivers…), we haven’t witnessed any signs of crime or even petty mischief. It all seemed too good to be true, and as it turns out, it was. Have you seen the movie, “The Purge”? No? Probably for the best, I heard it was pretty crap. Well, the basic plotline (as far as I’ve gathered from trailers, as I can’t be bothered to watch the movie) is that life is great and everything works perfectly all year round, but at a cost: for one night of every year, nothing is illegal and anarchy reigns. I am approximately 99% sure they based that movie on New Years in Rotterdam (or a number of other large European cities it would seem).

The explosions started at around 10am on New Years Eve, and continued on until nearly sunrise the next day. And I’m not talking about the little firecrackers that rowdy youths run around throwing at each other (although those were to be found in abundance as well); I’m talking bombs. I can’t think of any other way to describe the magnitude of the blasts. Many of them were shake-your-living-room big. Being rookies at New Years Eve in Europe, Victoria and I were completely unprepared for this. We realized around 6pm that we desperately needed to make a trip to the store before it closed early, and wouldn’t reopen until Jan 2nd. No big deal, we thought – it’s only 6pm. Wrong. I can honestly say that the 10 minute walk both to, and from the store were the most psychologically terrifying of my life – I’ve never been so on edge before. There were big groups of shady looking people milling about everywhere, displaying a variety of unnerving body language, taking up entire sidewalks and street corners. And there were explosions everywhere; most streets were partially to completely filled with smoke, looking like a sinister fog drifting in from the very depths of hell. There was broken glass and rubbish strewn everywhere, and of course, near constant explosions in every direction. I was utterly convinced that we weren’t going to make it home without being permanently blinded or deafened. Or at the very least, mildly stabbed.

But against all hope, we made it home undamaged, and I’ve never been so relieved to shut and lock our door to the chaos outside. Shortly after we got home, someone threw something up the stairs at our door from the street, making a “thunk” sound, followed shortly by a “boom!” sound. Right, time to duct tape the mail slot shut. More deafening explosions, this time less than a block away. It was somewhere around this time that I decided this must be how dogs feel during a big lighting storm. I wanted to close all the blinds, build a massive fort out of pillows and blankets, and hide there for the rest of the night. But I didn’t. Instead, I did what any brave, fearless man would do – I started drinking. Fortunately, this worked. After we polished off the first bottle of wine (it was New Years Eve, after all) we were feeling much braver and more relaxed indeed. It was also at this point that we started paying attention more to the events taking place outside. Yes, there were many loud scary noises and mischievous individuals prowling the streets; but there were also children and elderly people. I watched a small child – barely old enough to stand – screech in delight as her father lit an enormous explosive no more than 15 feet away from her. I saw a couple in their 70s laughing as they walked past a college-aged lad on a street corner struggling to light the business end of the most massive firecracker I’ve ever seen. Shortly after they passed, it exploded, and they laughed again. We began to realize that what we were witnessing wasn’t some sort of crime-filled anarchy-fest – it was just normal. It’s how people celebrate New Years here. This realization didn’t make us any less jumpy or startled by the near-constant auditory assault, but it did help us settle down a bit and steel our resolve to go the “Erasumbrug” in the city center for fireworks at midnight. So after a bit (ok, a lot) more liquid courage we bundled up against the cold, saddled up the Euro bikes, stashed a couple more road-pops and made for the bridge. Without even intending to, we instantly became a part of the mob. The bike lanes and sidewalks were swollen with people heading to the fireworks. The funny thing is, there was probably more stimuli and excitement on the way to the fireworks than there was at the actual fireworks display itself. And that’s not so say the fireworks were lame; they were actually a damn sight more impressive than the ones we get back home. All-in-all, a completely successful venture.

So we not only survived our terror-filled New Years in Rotterdam, we actually came to embrace the madness and enjoy it for what it was – a true European experience. Cause after all, isn’t that what we came here for?

*On a side note, we’re preparing to unleash a massive onslaught of backlogged video footage of our adventures over here so far. Please enjoy this brief trailer of what’s about to come down the pipe. All of our videos are going to air on our new “Yeti Life” YouTube channel, so take a look and subscribe to it if you haven’t already – it’s going to be an exciting place over the next couple months, I guarantee it.

Check out the Yeti Life YouTube Channel

What is Christmas?

Merry Christmas from House Hobby! Sometimes I like to imagine I live in the land of Westeros from Game of Thrones (I’d obviously be Jon Snow. Not up for discussion. Winter is coming, ect.), but most of the time I’m very content to belong to a household of two. This is the first time, in fact, that Victoria and I have truly established ourselves as a “household”, and are currently enjoying our first Christmas together on our own. Obviously, we’re missing family and friends and generally everything about home this time of year, and today we’ve been spending some time reflecting on that – on what Christmas really means to us, and what we want it to mean. For both of us, Christmases past have been largely defined by family gatherings and annual traditions (the good and the bad…), but this year we have, well, neither of those. So in some ways we’ve been at a bit of a loss as far as what to do for Christmas. Neither of us felt very interested in or excited about shopping and wrapping presents, so this year we didn’t exchange a single gift (unless you count gym memberships). Some of you might be thinking that sounds like a bit of a cop-out. Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t – but that’s your opinion, and to be honest, we’re not really bothered. Instead we’ve focused our efforts and resources in other areas, such as really experiencing Christmas where we are by spending time in some very festive places; letting the warm feelings of this time of year invade our senses, and permeate our very beings. It’s also been a great opportunity to create some new traditions, small though they may be.

For example, we’ve been working hard at creating – and perfecting – our own Gluhwein recipe (a heated, spiced wine loved by ze Germans) – something we can bring back home with us and inject into our family Christmas traditions. Of course, this requires a considerable amount of trial and experimentation; sometimes more than 1 batch a day is needed. Thirsty work, this. As I write, Victoria is in the kitchen working on a new home-made cinnamon bun formula that will hopefully get thrown into the annual mix as well (again, I’ll wager Leo didn’t crank out a perfect Mona Lisa on his first go – I’m expecting we’ll need those gym memberships). Charlie Brown Christmas music is tootling away merrily in the background, and a sideways glance from my computer reveals a window ledge adorned with festive plants and Christmas lights, next to our relatively barren Christmas tree (with 3 decorations in total – 1 from each German town we’ve visited so far). Victoria has been wearing a Christmas bow around her head all day (probably not a new tradition), and later we might take our bikes out for a cruise and wave to the other Christmas-day-exercise-ists.

It would be pretty easy (and justifiable) for us to talk about how sad we are to be alone and away from home this time of year, but instead we have chosen to seize the opportunity to build on what is already a fantastic time of year, and truly make it our own.

So in closing, we hope you have a fantastic Christmas, spent doing whatever it is that makes your heart full. But however you choose to spend your day, make sure to spend it with the people you love, with a spirit of gratitude and thankfulness – because if we’ve learned one thing today (being 9 hours wiser than most of you), it’s that those things are what really make Christmas great, no matter where in the world you are.

All Things German; Except One

Have you ever wondered who’s responsible for making decisions about what GPS maps are programmed into a new car? I know I sure have. I’ll admit, it’s not exactly a thought that keeps me up at night, but considering how many cars roll off the production line with built-in GPS systems nowadays, you would think there’d have to be some level of consideration and decision making involved here; because after all, what good is a GPS if you can’t actually use it? Logically, the maps included would correspond with the car’s destination market. For example, cars built in the United States should include maps for the United States, ya? Well it’s not always that easy. Thanks to increasing globalization, carmakers have production factories all ‘round the world, which build cars bound for a number of different countries – rarely for the one they’re built in (except for Chrysler with their clever advertising slogan, “Imported from Detroit”. How are things in Detroit these days, anyways? What? It went bankrupt and everyone left? Oh.). So it would seem the country a car is built in should have no bearing as to how it’s GPS is programmed. Yet the mystery goes deeper…

Are you bored yet? Ya you’re bored, aren’t you. Fine.

The point is, I don’t get it. Victoria and I recently had a lovely weekend road trip to Western Germany, and as such we had rented a car. And a lovely car it was; we got upgraded to a classy rig with leather-trimmed sport seats, electric-power everything, adaptive-Bluetooth-heated–braking-cameras… And most importantly for us, built-in GPS. What a blessing! This meant we could leave our slow, outdated, and clumsy TomTom at home (there’s a Star Wars reference here if you’re willing to reach for it). But it turned out that, like a hypothermic Luke Skywalker, we were completely screwed without our TomTom. The GPS system in our car (which we unfortunately didn’t test until well into our journey) only included maps for the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. That might not sound unreasonable to you, but all of these countries are tiny compared to Canada or the U.S (is Luxembourg even a real thing?). Plus, with the way trade and travel work over here, mainland Europe is essentially one big country. So our GPS being programmed with only these 3 microscopic countries would be the equivalent to buying a new car in Victoria, and only getting GPS maps for James Bay, Fernwood, and the Empress Hotel parking lot (which is about as relevant as Luxembourg). So to recap: no GPS, neither of our phones have data outside of Holland, and all the signs are now in German and look like they’re shouting at us (Achtung! Einsturzgefahr!). Oh, and it’s starting to snow.

Fortunately for us, things ended up working out in the end (as you may have already deduced from the picture above). We arrived at our first destination, Monschau, with nary a wrong turn having been made. And just look at the place! It was so small-town authentic, I was half expecting to get overrun by bratwurst-wielding, leiderhosen-clad, pig-tailed frauleins. But no, the only hazard in the town of Monschau was umbrellas. When you’re taller than most – and one of the few not holding an umbrella – you quickly become aware of two things. First: the streets are very narrow. Second: you only have two eyeballs, and protecting them from the many witless and highly dangerous umbrella-people should become your main priority. Seriously, I spent so much time dodging the stabby bits of umbrellas, I almost forgot to take in the sights that surrounded me. And since none of the vendors were selling welder’s masks or motorcycle helmets, I soldiered on, somehow managing to resist the urge to beat every eyeball-hunting street-menace to death with their own umbrella.

Let us take a moment to revel in my self-restraint. Ahh, Namaste.

If you ever find yourself in Germany around Christmas-time, I highly recommend you try the Gluhwein. Actually, you’d have to try very hard not to try the Gluhwein. The aroma given off by giant steaming vats of the heated-and-spiced red wine on offer by every second vendor is nothing short of criminal. Add to that chilly fingers and the stress that can often accompany a trip through a crowded Christmas Market (not to mention multiple umbrella-wounds to the face area), and you’ve got yourself an irresistible beverage that finds its way into your hands before you can say “Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung!”. Which is a real word. It means “speed limit”.

Many, many hours later we found ourselves in our nice, but rather bizarre hotel room in the town of Bonn. Despite being comfortable and modern, our room was completely slathered in a combination of thick, frosted glass and stripper poles. Plus, there were at least 3 other doors – other than the main door and bathroom door – scattered around our room that led to places that weren’t our room. Maybe this is a German thing? All confusion was forgotten the next morning, however, when we found a Paris-rivaling bakery just down the road from the hotel. Fueled up with pastries and caffeine, we hopped in our navigationally-challenged rental and headed for Cologne. It is truly an amazing town – home to probably the most impressive cathedral looking thing I’ve yet seen; it makes Notre Dam look like a hovel built by sick children. More pastries, Gluhwein, and “half meter” German meat-sticks for lunch. Some excellent live music, appropriately brassy and festive. More throngs of people, this time without umbrellas. Many hours on foot, many pictures taken (which, for the first time ever, I somehow managed to permanently erase ALL OF before getting them to the safety of a hard drive. Well, shit). Fussy German parking-ticket machines, requiring a visit to a series of even fussier German cash machines. Then a relaxing evening motorway trip back to Rotterdam with some good tunes, good coffee, and good company.

Good times.

But the mystery still lingered of the stubborn and confusing GPS system that refused to make sense, be otherwise helpful, or even a little bit useful in any way outside its country of origin. Then I happened to glance down at the steering wheel and really notice the Renault badge for the first time. Of course. We were in a French car – mystery solved.

Stuck in the Middle

“A lot can happen in a month”. This is the type of phrase that we, as clever humans, like to use quite often. We believe that it lends weight to whatever we’re about to say next, or adds an element of suspense or dramatic flair. In fact, I’d wager that’s likely the direction you’re expecting me to head after I’m finished with this seemingly unnecessary introduction. I’m preparing to regale you, the reader, with stories of unending excitement and outrageous adventure! “Get to the point already, you idiot!”, I hear some of you saying. “Don’t you realize that nobody has the attention span for this kind of thing anymore? Give us celebrity butt selfies, Upworthy-cat videos, or shut up!”

Ahem. Moving on.

It is also possible for very little to happen in a month. This is more in line with how Victoria and I have been feeling in the wake of our first two, enormously-adventure-packed months of living in Europe. And that’s not to say this is a bad thing: without taking the time to distance yourself from, and reflect on your adventures and accomplishments, I don’t think it’s possible to get the full experience, impact, or appreciation for the things you’ve done. When one chooses this noble path, however, one inevitably experiences that initial feeling of deflation, or PTSD (Post-Travel-Sadness-Disorder) as I’ve decided to call it. A not-so-distant bastard relative of the Vacation Hangover. I’m sure there are many more names for it, and its devious family members. But after a period of time life settles down into what feels, more or less, like normality. For us, this has taken a bit longer than it probably does for most. In fact, we’re still in a phase where we’re not really sure what “normal” is. Again, not a bad thing. But whatever state of “being” we’re in, things like routine and habit are slowly beginning to emerge, where before there resided a mixture of chaos and uncertainly. For example, I now know where to find the best stroopwafels (mmm, stroopwafels), and what time of day the spelt bread (mmm, spelt) comes out of the oven at our local food bazaar (mmm, bazaar). We eat breakfast at roughly the same time every morning. It’s usually every 3rd or 4th day that the recycling gets full and has to be taken out. The plants get watered on Wednesday. These things are probably excruciatingly dull to read about, and I apologize, but I’m trying to make a point. I can see, though, why few people make the decision to blog so extensively about their daily habits and routines; and for those who choose to do so, I can understand why they probably have no friends.

So, moving on, as I believe I’ve made my point (and I like having friends). Life has shifted more towards the routine, but not mundane – a canvas of normality, conservatively dotted with occasional new and exciting events, as opposed to a flock of unsupervised, ADHD mini-people running amok with the finger paint.

Most recently, we had a visit from my sister who, at the tail end of her own European adventure, injected a bit of excitement into our week. We did some shopping, found some terrific restaurants/cafes/breweries, bought a Kerstboom, explored more of our city, and did a day trip to Amsterdam. All of this felt very exciting. Then she went home, leaving half of her things strewn about our place. Guess what you’re getting for Christmas? A couple days later, Victoria and I joined a group of her work colleagues for a bowling and dinner night, which ended up being much, much more fun than it had any right to be. Either Dutch people are endlessly intrigued by Canadians, or we’re just way more entertaining and charming than we had previously thought. It’s probably a little of both. Tonight we’re heading to Gouda – the town, not the cheese – for their annual candle festival/tree light-up event: they apparently turn out all the street lights (it’s not a big town) and light thousands upon thousands of candles in all the windows. Perhaps I’ll have a chance to brush up on my fire fighting skills. Then the mayor reads a story to the town, and officially lights up the Christmas Tree in the square. How small-town authentic is that! The following day, we’re renting a car for the weekend and heading to the picturesque town of Monschau, nestled snugly in the foothills of the Eifel mountains on the border of Belgium and Germany – famous for it’s Christmas markets and… well, that’s about it. Then it’s a short hop over to Cologne to experience some real German charm and efficiency. We actually don’t know much about either of these places, if I’m honest. Some friendly, well-meaning people told us we should go there. So we are. That’s about it.

A few days back “home” to catch our breath, then we hop on the train and head to Berlin for a long weekend. Insert German WWII reference/dad-joke here. And then after that it’s Christmas! And then after that it’s New Years! And then after that…

And there it is, I can feel it again… The excitement is starting to build. The next round of travel and adventure has fallen upon us like a ravenous plague of locusts! Huh, that’s really not a very good metaphor. I’ll try to remember to never use that one again. Either way, unlike when we first left Canada, the excitement sort of snuck up on us this time – ALMOST caught us unawares.

The bottom line is, this post will hopefully be followed quickly, and repeatedly by those tales of “unending excitement and outrageous adventure” that we all love to hear about. Stay tuned.

A Tale of 2 Mountains. Or countries. Or…. something.

Colder, for starters. A lot colder. I know that shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but nothing really prepares you for the shock. The air also feels and smells incredibly different, like you’re on a separate planet altogether. The landscapes are similar yet somehow entirely unique – both countries are home to mountains of crumbling rock thrusting up from the earth, so raw and elemental it’s hard to tell if they were born yesterday, or painstakingly formed from the dawn of time. But where the mountains of Morocco are barren and cracked from the unrelenting oppression of the sun, their equally-rugged counterparts in Scotland are largely covered with a colorful patchwork of mosses, heather and sheep. Always with the sheep. That’s actually my strongest memory of the place. Remote boggy field? Sheep. Halfway up a cliff face, chewing on rocks? Sheep. Standing in the middle of a road, staring at you like you’re in their way? Sheep. The Pound Sterling may be the official currency in Scotland, but unofficially, it’s sheep. It just is.

Right. As I was saying, I don’t think there are 2 countries on the planet more different than Morocco and Scotland. Perhaps I’m stating the obvious, seeing as one lives in Africa and the other at the top of an island in the North Sea, but I suppose it’s the miracle of modern travel and the age we live in that allows me to so confidently declare this truth. The world is becoming a smaller place, and for those foolish enough to book a trip to Scotland in November directly after spending 2 weeks in Africa, it’s becoming a more physiologically shocking and confusing place as well. But I’ll leave it at that, lest my enlightened comparisons start to sound more like whinging than wisdom.

Scotland. Let’s see, let’s see… Yes, the driving. The driving! What a treat it is to drive in a country that (once you leave the motorways) has reasonable speed limits and logical rules and courtesies, such as the obligation to pull over and let someone pass if they’re capable of and interested in driving faster than you are. Constant signage makes it very clear that it’s YOUR fault if there’s a queue of angry motorists behind you, rather than branding everyone else as a reckless and aggressive driver for wanting to drive at a higher speed that’s both reasonable and within their capability, as tends to be the common reaction in Canada (so much so, that if enough people are reported to be doing 53 in a 50 zone on a given day [“won’t somebody think of the children!”] it’s at the top of the local news). But I digress.

So to recap: reasonable speed limits, driving rules based on courtesy to other drivers, and a borderline sensory overload of the most stunning scenery imaginable. Yes, Scotland is a wonderful place to drive, and driving is definitely the best way to see the most of what Scotland has to offer. Of course, driving on the left side of the road, and on the right (read: wrong) side of the car does take some getting used to – but after the first few buttock-clenching hours you do, indeed, get used to it.

There’s also considerably less food poisoning in Scotland than there is in Morocco, although this may have just been my personal experience. Ok, that’s definitely just my personal experience. It seems I’m incapable of visiting a hot and exotic country (or a New York Fries) without getting a visit from the “You-Shouldn’t-Have-Eaten-That” Fairy. Unfortunately for me, that witch chose to visit me on the eve of what was certainly the most important day of my budding career as an amateur mountaineer. I spent most of the night being subject to the effects – which are better left unmentioned – of a bad meal, and as a result I didn’t wake up the following morning… No, I wasn’t dead; however, waking up would require that I had previously been asleep. Which I hadn’t been. All night. So I started my day at 10,500ft with an empty stomach and completely devoid of fluids (and admittedly a bit tired from the considerable hike up into the mountains the previous day). A brief experiment prior to beginning my summit attempt confirmed that any food or drink that entered into my body would not stay there for long (again, no further details required, right?). Suffice it to say the odds weren’t stacking up in my favor…

They say that the mind has the ability to block out or forget experiences that were exceptionally horrible or traumatic. I can remember some of the thoughts going through my head during the ascent, but in all honesty, I can’t really remember the climbing. I can’t even really recall the physical feeling of it. All that I do remember is that the entire morning unfolded the only way that it possibly could have; one step at a time, each being a renewed mental and physical battle. And that 3 ½ hours later I was somehow standing, wobbly-legged and incoherent, on the summit of Jebel Toubkal, the biggest mass of earth I’ve ever climbed. Now, I know this probably sounds a lot like bragging – and it is – but more than that it’s a testament to the resiliency of not only the human body when pushed to extremes, but also of the mind. When I reflect back on that endeavor I can only conjure up hugely positive memories, which are no doubt amplified by the elements of challenge, perseverance, and achievement that I’ve both consciously and unconsciously associated with the experience as a whole. There were very few points during that day in which I was happy or enjoying myself, yet my brain refuses to allow me to brand it as a negative experience in any way. And herein, I believe, lies the illogical but undeniable appeal of things that challenge us; things that we know will be horribly uncomfortable. Whether we realize it or not, we want to struggle. We want to be miserable. We want to doubt ourselves, to question whether or not we’re even capable of completing the task at hand. Because without these things, where’s the sense of accomplishment? Where’s the pride in knowing that you’ve won your own personal battle, against yourself – against the part of you that wanted to quit? The part that said, “I can’t, it’s too hard.”? We need these things, I reckon. In order to be the best version of ourselves that we can, we need to do things we don’t like. That we don’t want to. That we don’t think we can. Will we always succeed? No, not likely, but to quote a very successful Canadian hockey player, “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

I think Wayne was a mountaineer at heart