Aaand another trip, this one to the lovely Isle up north. At the behest of a great friend I flew in to take part in the seventh annual Congress of Polish Student Societies in the UK. My main drive was to compare British Polonia to the Polish diaspora I had grown up with in my native Canada, to meet people, to gauge how school in the UK might feel… aaand of course to scratch a few more countries off my list. My trip consisted of three distinct legs: Cardiff, Oxford, and Edinburgh. I wanted to squeeze the Isle of Man in there too but this would have just been too much. Next time.
From what was then home — Trikala, Greece — I took the train to Macedonia International Airport in Thessaloniki (€20 return, student rate). I know what you’re thinking: “But isn’t Macedonia a successor state of the former socialist republic of Yugoslavia? What’s one of Greece’s major airports doing stealing a name like that?”
Well, yes. And no. Not really. Kind of. See, “Macedonia” is the name of a historic and geographical region encompassing much of the southeastern Balkan peninsula. It’s been this way since the prominence of the 4th century B.C. Greek Kingdom of Macedon, which covered much of what is now the Republic of Macedonia plus a sizable chunk of northern Greece (and small bits of Albania, Kosovo, and Serbia). This Greek region is currently also called “Macedonia”, and encompasses three administrative regions: West Macedonia, Central Macedonia, and half of East Macedonia and Thrace, only adding to the confusion.
Both Greeks and Macedonians have claim to this land and there is a bitter feeling on both sides as to who gets ownership of the name. Matters are further complicated when people refer to folks like Alexander the Great as “Macedonian”. I mean he was — in the ancient sense — and his hometown of Pella is still in Greece, just north of the port city of Thessaloniki… but his Macedon hasn’t existed for almost two millennia. To weave around this diplomatic bump, Macedonia the country is officially called the “Republic of Macedonia” outside of and “FYROM” within Greece, the first two letters standing for “former Yugoslav”. And there you have it, a small geographical tidbit to brighten your day.
Now the trip. I first must spill some ink recommending my favourite bakery in all of Thessaloniki: Ο Φούρνος του Λάμπρου (“O Fornos tu Labrou”, or Lambros’ Oven). For under €2 you order an entire pizza, and they have as many types of cookies and cakes as you can count. Delicious!
And a note on Thessaloniki airport, though this applies to Athens as well: do not waste your time getting there early. Especially if you are flying within the EU. The flights always leave (miraculously) on time however, if you show up, oh, say four hours ahead of time, the customs officer will suspect you of being up to something-slash-not being right in the head. Showing up 1.5 h pre-flight is more than sufficient. From the train station (west of downtown) to the airport (about 15km away, on the other side of the bay), you can expect to travel 45-60m by bus. This is traffic-dependant, so in rush hour you’d probably want to leave an extra 30m early. Fare is negligible — something like €2 or so. If you have big bags though, take a taxi. Not much room on the city buses!
When you arrive in London, be prepared to wait some time before entering the country. Even though the process is automatized and very efficient, there are just so many people that you will likely spend at least an hour just waiting to pass through passport control. And it is a bit creepy — everywhere you go, there is a camera watching you. This is true in all of England, though. Regarding transport within the country, try and book any intercity trips via bus (the train will cost you an arm and a leg). Megabus is excellent and very affordable. Alternatively, carpooling might be even better if your route is available. Whatever way you decide to move about the country, just remember to look everywhere before you cross the road. For one, they drive opposite to what we North Americans are used to. For two, the streets in Europe are much more curvy than our grids. You’ll be walking when — suddenly! — road. And even more suddenly — car!! You’ve been warned.
Upon touching down, I immediately sped off to Cardiff to spend a day seeing Wales. It was… alright. Admittedly though, the weather wasn’t conducive to sight-seeing and I didn’t properly research all the things I could have seen. I made friends with an older German vegetarian at the hostel (£9/night) and we wandered the city a few hours as the rain picked up. I quickly discovered that Brits don’t like to be touched, especially by strangers. This is in stark comparison to southerners in, say, Greece or Italy, or even to the Slavs out east. You will not appease a Brit by calmly patting his shoulder or placing hand on her arm to show solidarity. They will twitch and wriggle a bit, but will be too polite to withdraw. Actually, this is a fun game over time: seeing how long you can make an Islander squirm before they finally pull back into their bubble.
The highlight of Cardiff was definitely a late night ghost tour of the famous castle, though arriving in the city at 2AM and seeing half-naked students, mostly girls (alright, only girls) laying on the street giggling as the effects of alcohol wound down… that was pretty funny. The closest thing I’ve seen to real Geordie girls, that.
Now why did I mention that my hostel friend was vegetarian? This is important, and stems from my own Canadian politeness: “Oh, yeah, sure, we can go to a vegetarian spot. Oh yeah, man — let’s do Indian, that’s a good idea. I mean I usually can’t stomach the surprise spices, but maybe this time it’ll be different.”
Yeah. I overpaid for pain, that’s what happened. Never again (I say now, but it’s easy to be brave in theory).
After Cardiff: Oxford. The only way to get there was train and it was tragically expensive: ten times as much, in fact, as the London-Cardiff journey, which is twice as long. This didn’t make any sense to me; I thought Oxford was kind of a big deal and everyone would be going there, ergo cheaper. Not so.
I wrote a separate post about what transpired in Oxford, but suffice it to say that it was an amazing, inspiring experience. Here’s the video invitation so you can get something of a feel of what it was all about:
After Oxford, I went directly to Edinburgh via London (100km, then 650km to the Scottish capital). This was a bad idea, especially given the lack of sleep suffered during my Oxonian weekend. A Swedish berry-based beer did not help things. By midnight after the conference, I had already met with a cousin living in London and was up on the bus when my stomach started rumbling. This is the second time something like this happened, the first being almost an exact replica in Turkey not a month prior. By the time I arrived in Edinburgh I just went right to bed, luckily this time at a friend’s place and not at a hostel with strangers. After a few days the sickness abated and I was back on my feet, just in time for my flight back home to Greece.
A note on Edinburgh: what a wonderful city! Oxford was a bit too small and, well, “short” for me. There aren’t many buildings over five stories and the city is literally just a university campus. Granted, probably the most famous campus in the world, but a campus nonetheless. Edinburgh, on the other hand, is like something out of a Batman story. All those gargoyles and cold, stone arches, and sculptures and buildings and shrines to the past cropping up everywhere you look almost foreshadow a Bat-Signal’s appearance in the clouds always blanketing the city. If it weren’t so cold up there, and so far away from the rest of the metropolitan hub that is England, I would strongly consider this a place to settle down in for a bit longer. As it was though, Edinburgh remains a place to revisit in warmer months, especially given its predisposition to festivals as the weather sneaks towards sunny. And any future trip up north will have to be marked by a visit to the Yellow Bench, a neat Polish restaurant I can’t believe I didn’t visit while walking past it.
Things I learned
When booking a trip involving something intense like a conference or a series of parties or lots of local travel (or all three), be sure to book a few rest days here and there just in case you need to heal. For me, this was Edinburgh — three wonderful days walking and exploring the city and blending in with the crowd, combined with ample time for recovery. You can get a feel for the vibe of the whole experience below:
Also, be sure to bring a change for each category of clothing for any trip longer than a weekend, ie. don’t just bring one pair of pants or shoes. There will come a time when you’ll need a second and forking out money on surprise expensive necessities is not fun. And two things to bring with you no matter how long your trip: a pair of flip-flops and a flashlight.
Now let’s talk money. This was an expensive trip: at just over a week, I spent something like £100 on travel within the UK alone. Arriving at Stansted airport, I exchanged money at a rate of €1=£1.4 — about £0.2 higher than the posted rate but still similar to how it was throughout the rest of the country. Returning to the eurozone, I exchanged my pounds back to euros at the outrageous rate of €1=£1.1. What does this mean in actual numbers? Well, I came in with about €465 and lost €56 in that first transaction. This was still better, I think, than gambling on a better rate in Greece. I was told later that you can get much better deals at the British post office or at Marks & Spencer (a department store). Leaving, I exchanged £179 for €164, a loss of about €15 , bringing my total losses in currency exchange to €70 (a lot!). In the future, I would do more research on where to get the best bang for my euro.
Add all this to a €150 Thessaloniki-London return flight, a €30 Trikala-Thessaloniki return train, €200 worth of food/gifts/lodging and we’re looking at $750 CAD spent in the end. Bear in mind I spent six nights sleeping at friends’ houses, saving a ton this way. However, the UK has enamoured me, strengthening my resolve of applying to British schools for graduate work in physiotherapy once this sport psychology master’s tapers to a finish. And of course, it’s upped my country count quite a bit:
Now a note on the Traveler’s Century Club
On telling some friends about my goal of joining the TCC, many immediately look at the mission in a negative light. This likely on account of two things. First, when I talk of my travels, it is often with joining this club as the underlying framework. This makes people think this is the sole reason I travel (obviously not so, but I am always excited at having visited another country and so this element of my story always receives an extra boost of energy when related).
Secondly, there is the semantic problem of what a “country” is. It is surprising how hung-up people get on the issue of Hawaii not being a “real country”, and even more surprising how difficult it is to actually define what a country is. When I was creating my geography quizzes a long, long time ago, I ran across the same problem and it took me a few months to finally nail down a solid solution: set clear standards right from the start and then stick to them — no exceptions! You let one exception in and, before you know it, you have a whole conga line of them piling in through the door.
And the TCC does just that. They’ve come up with a list of countries and territories that is detailed and comprehensive , leaving out nothing and taking all factors into account. If you think it’s easy to define a country, then I encourage you to clearly divide this list into countries and non-countries. And disputed territories are just one example of where borders get blurry! There are also dependant territories, the nation v. nation-state distinction, semi-autonomous territories belonging to old colonial superpowers (is Greenland a country?), areas that are — for all intents and purposes — uninhabited, territories with limited recognition, and the categorizational mess that is the United Kingdom. Is England a country? If no, why not? If yes, then how about Britain? If no, they why not? If yes, then how can a country be made up of other countries?
Say what you want about the glorious benefits travel, it was fantastic to return to Greece after a second intense trip in such short succession. I had time to mentally (and actually) prepare for a third great trip of 2014: moving to Germany, from where I now write. More on this culture shift soon; now, work. And a picture of Holi celebrations during our last days in Trikala : ).