My Christmas Tree Tour of Eastern Europe

Hi All,

A little delayed I apologize, but I’d like to share with you the tale of my journey through Eastern Europe over the holidays. Keeping with my tradition of travelling to cold places in the Winter, my 2016 holiday trip took me on a 9-day journey through Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.

I had originally planned on making this journey by myself but I was fortunate enough to enlist some company for the Poland phase. A couple days before I set off I met someone who was considering taking a holiday journey themselves but hadn’t yet worked out the details. After explaining my trip, I invited her to come along. Given that she didn’t yet know me that well she decided that is was a good idea! If nothing else, she at least learned how to play Crazy 8s on the trip so she can’t complain!

Poland has been on my destination list for awhile. A country with 38 million, I’ve always found Poland interesting because of its history; particularly in the 20th century. Throughout this period, they were in a constant struggle for survival and independence. They fought off a Soviet invasion in the Polish-Soviet War of 1919-1921. They were occupied by the Nazi’s from 1939-1945, a period in which 6 million Polish citizens died. After the Second World War, they were under Soviet rule until 1989. Trying times. And throughout all these occupations, the Poles always fought tooth and nail to regain their independence. Truly admirable folks.

The first 3 days of the trip were spent in Krakow. It is a nice city for walking around in and Emma and I took in a wide variety of establishments: bars, coffee shops, sushi places, jazz clubs. Much more cultured than if I had been on my own!

One of the cooler things I did here was head down into the Wielicazka Salt Mine. The salt mine opened in the 1200s and only closed in 2007. It was stunning down there. Like a city under the Earth. And everything was made out of salt!

img_0258

I guess the mine has 4 churches. As appropriate place as any for praying!

img_0257

Pass the salt?

img_0260

A Polish treasure. Salt of the Earth that guy was.

While we were in Krakow, Emma and I took a day trip to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps where 1.3 million Jews were killed during The Holocaust. One of the reasons I wanted to come to Poland was so that I could visit this place. Honestly, I don’t know how to describe my experience. I didn’t take any pictures. And I don’t really have any words either. It was a tough day.

Our next stop was to the Polish capital of Warsaw. It had a unique feel for a European city as it was more like a modern big city than one with an old rustic charm.

 

img_0281

Warsaw’s entry into the Christmas Tree Pageant.

 

After seeing Emma off, I made an 9 hour bus trip to the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius. Lithuania has a population of roughly 3 million and was part of the old Soviet bloc. I’ll admit, this place was a bit of a miss (or should I say mess?). There wasn’t really much to see. Plus after enduring an insanely ruckus New Year’s Party in the hostel I was staying in (it lasted till 4am), I was asked to leave! The plonkers wanted to give my bed to someone else! Good riddance! I was sure to give them an appropriate review.

I did however, enjoy the New Year’s celebrations. I guess the thing to do is to run into the empty square below and set off your own fireworks. The police were heavily discouraging this behaviour. I can report that there were no fatalities (that I know of).

img_0418

New Years in Vilnius.

After spending two days in Vilnius, I boarded a 5-hour bus (just a short skip) to Riga, the capital of Latvia. Latvia, another former Soviet bloc country, has a population of roughly 2 million. Riga was a really nice city. Not a lot of major things to do and see but it was a great city to just walk around in.

img_0477

Riga Christmas Tree entry #1

img_0480

Entry #2

Perhaps the most exciting story occurred on my flight home and I’ll conclude this entry with it. It was a 9am flight or something like that. Not super early but certainly early. It’s a 2 and half hour flight so not super long. The first hour ticked by without incident. Well, some old bitch sat in my aisle seat forcing me to sit in the middle seat. I could have asked her to move I guess, but think about the optics. First World problems anyway. I digress. Anyway, an hour into the flight a man about 7 rows up from me starts making a big fuss. I’ll refer to him from now as IDR (Infinitely Drunk Russian). So IDR starts yelling about something. He’s speaking Russian so who knows. He then gets up and starts punching the guy in front of him. Standard. He calms down a bit and then later on he starts choking the passenger sitting next to him. Typical. After calming down a second time, he tries to smother the passenger next to him with his jacket. He’s getting inventive now. After that he just opted for yelling and screaming until the place landed. Maybe he was tired or something. In any case, he got super arrested. But I mean, who hasn’t had a bad day right. I hope he’s doing okay now.

Till next time!

Matt

Two New Scotians Tour the Retro Version!

Howdy,

It’s time to fill you in on my recent trip to Scotland! Scotland, Edinburgh specifically, was my intended destination when I first moved over here before fate whisked me away to Cheltenham. I had always intended to come back for a proper trip. Scotland is home to roughly 5 million of the UK’s 65 million population. The country is probably most famous for, at least in North America, for providing the historical context for Braveheart. The country is also well known for its infinite beauty as this entry will illustrate.

I had some very special company for this journey in the form of my favourite redhead Jennifer Bishop! Scotland was the last stop of a whirlwind tour for Jen which consisted of stopovers in Iceland and Norway! The primary theme of her trip was hiking up steep things and we managed a few climbs during our week together.

Our adventure kicked off in Edinburgh, Scotland’s charming capital city. This marked my first return since I first landed in the UK last October. Hard to believe its almost been a year now that I moved here! There will probably be a separate entry in a months time where I attempt (and likely fail) to sum up my first year in the UK and what it’s meant to me. Stay tuned.

Our first day in Edinburgh consisted of hugs and giggles as well as a quick tour around Edinburgh to take in some of the obvious sites such of Edinburgh Castle and of course, a walk up to Arthur’s Seat.

img_1173

Let the Adventure Begin!

Our trip was only 7 days so to keep things efficient we had planned out most of what we wanted to do ahead of time. Basic idea was to rent a car to drive and camp our way around Scotland.

The first stop of the trip was Loch Lomond for a few hikes and a walk around Loch Katrine. Everything we looked at here was stunning and we easily could have spent the entire week here.

received_959698450778

 

Next, we hiked up Ben Nevis which is the largest peak in the UK. As mentioned, Jen is a seasoned climber and this was a relatively small peak for her but it was my largest ascent. I proposed the idea that we run up it to make it a bit of a challenge for her but she politely declined. The trail up to Ben Nevis is well trodden and we saw 100s of fellow hikers making the climb. And a lot of young kids as well. It’s nice to see parents getting their kids out for this sort of thing. May have been less crowded if we were climbing a hill in the US. One of the first things I noticed when I moved to the UK is that mostly everyone is in decent shape. Also, they tend to not eat like complete shitheads (though there is an abundance of biscuit consumption!)

The climb up Ben Nevis stirred up a bit of a desire (it doesn’t take much with me) to climb other peaks. I have a career break planned for sometime in the not too distant future which will likely feature a trip to Africa and possibly a jaunt of Kilimanjaro. Though I have heard that altitude sickness makes it pretty unpleasant…

Our next destination took us to the Isle of Skye which is one of the islands off the coast of the mainland. I am really going to have to just let the pictures do the talking here because the place is absolutely stunning. It has a distinct Middle Earth feeling about it. I kept expecting a fuck tonne of orcs to pour over the mountains. Then I’d look behind me to see Aragorn charging up on horseback, stopping to toss me and Jen a couple of broadswords, give a stirring speech before we were all engulfed in a 4-day long battle killing off legions of orcs. Seriously, my entire time there it felt like this was a real possibility. Fortunately (unfortunately), this did not happen.

 

received_959697547588

Blending in

 

 

received_959698435808

I’m in this picture as well!

 

 

13880398_959703710238_3133426823110187646_n

Old Man of Storr / Classic Bishoping

Now for a Travelling with Matt story. While on the Isle of Skye we went to check out a beach. Both being Nova Scotians, we are accustomed to being close to the water and a beach has a natural pull on our souls. When we arrived we drove through the narrow parking area looking for a spot to park. Well, I guess it was a busy day or something because there weren’t many spots available. I got to the end of the parking lot empty-handed and had to turn around. Just a couple point turn and I would be on my way out and on the search for other parking options. So I back up to turn around and in the process come quite close to the ditch in front of me. No problem, I’ll just pop the car in reverse and all will be sorted. Unfortunately, I was driving one of those fuckers where reverse and 1st is the same position (almost all cars are manuals in the UK). There’s a button you have to press to switch between the two. Well, I forgot about the fucking button this one time and found myself unhappily in the ditch. Jen, of course, found all of this hilarious while I was quite flustered. After a few failed attempts of trying to back out, we enlisted the help of 10 or so travellers to help shove us out. The cast included a 70-year-old woman who fell during the effort. Don’t worry. She was alright and also found the whole thing fucking hilarious. The funniest part of the whole thing is that the Isle of Skye is fairly small and has a couple of well combed over tourist spots so we kept running into these folks over and over again. There were the middle-aged German couple and our personal favourite, Infinite Calf Guy and his family. I reckon ICG could have pushed the car out on his own…

Our final destination was Glasglow which is Scotland’s largest city. Nothing too exciting happened here. This was simply the place both of us were departing from. Though Glasglow did have a distinct Halifax feel to it. I may have to get up there for a race sometime.

 

img_1227

When is the next adventure, Jen?

 

Hope you’ve enjoyed!

Take care.

Matt

A Journey Through the Low Countries

Howdy!

Sorry for the delay but it is finally time to share my stories from Amsterdam and Belgium. This entry features a lot more pictures than usual so something for the lazy among you to look forward to! Now this trip came directly after the London Marathon so for the first couple of days I wasn’t feeling my most spry! There is actually a fairly humorous story of me almost missing my flight out of London which I will save for a separate entry in my new section “Travelling with Matt” which offers my comedic take on incredibly frustrating events that are borne out of my inability to plan appropriately ahead of time.

My first stop was the Netherlands which is perhaps one the World’s most loved countries. Who can hate these folks? With their progressive social policies it is easy to convince yourself that it is the 21st century when you are among the Dutch. They were the first country to legalize same sex marriage. They are perhaps best known for legal prostitution and their infinitely progressive drug policy. The Dutch are also famous for cheese, bikes, wooden shoes, windmills, orange (the colour), and tulips. Yeah! Tulips! About 500 years ago or so there was a short period of time where there was utter confusion about the intrinsic value of a tulip bulb. Complete nuttiness. Any economic nerds out there should Google it.

My time in the Netherlands was spent entirely in Amsterdam. It is definitely a complete gem with its beautiful canals. A very European city. It also offers the full spectrum of experiences from a calm and measured dose of cultural and history to a complete and utter shit show involving a fistful of ???????? and door to door visits to establishments that offer naked recreational experiences. Perhaps I shouldn’t comment on which end of the spectrum I lie.

There were a couple highlights of my time in Amsterdam. The first was my visit to the house Anne Frank hunkered down in during WWII before eventually being captured. It was both very interesting and very sad to see the place. But the girl’s spirit is something that is truly remarkable. That someone could continue to be so positive in the very worst of situations is inspirational.

Another highlight was that my trip happened to align with Kings Day which is a National Holiday in the Netherlands which celebrates the birthday of  King Willem-Alexander (yes, other places are still doing this King / Queen thing). In any case, everyone gets the day off to walk around the streets wearing orange and drinking Heineken. It was an unique experience for sure!

My next stop was down to Belgium. Now the Belgians are quite famous for their food and drink offerings: waffles, chocolate, fries, and of course beer. The beer in Belgium is considered to be the best in the World. Now there is no debating its good but I have fallen in love with English ales. The Belgian offerings didn’t measure up in my view. Maybe I just didn’t drink enough….

I did some hopping around in Belgium as there were a couple of places I really wanted to see. My first stop was Brugge. A very picturesque historic town.

IMG_1005

The Belfry

I spent a couple days here mostly taking it easy. Walking around. Drinking coffee. Reading. My usual travel routine.

The remainder of my trip was a make shift 20th century war tour. Belgium’s geographical position has made it a constant battlefield in Europe’s biggest wars.

My first stop was down in Ypres where some of the larger battles in WWI were fought. Canada became a country in 1867 but it is often said that they became a nation during the battles fought in Belgium and France during the First World War. It was the fierceness and bravery of the 425,000 folks we sent to war (60,000 of which never returned home) that helped distinguish Canada from the British Empire. As a Canadian I am both fiercely proud and infinitely sad of the sacrifice of our soldiers in helping to restore peace to Europe.

My first stop was Hill 62 which is a trench system that has been preserved since the end of the war. The most haunting thing about this place wasn’t the pile of rusted shells, the eerie darkness of the tunnels, the broken down wagon that was likely used to move bodies away from the front, or the uncountable blast craters from German shelling. It was the singing of the birds. I can only imagine they continued to sing during the war or else John McCrae wouldn’t of wrote about it.

IMG_2308

IMG_1014IMG_2315IMG_2316

I also visited the Tyne Cot Cemetery which is the Commonwealth burial ground for those who fought in the Ypres Salient. About 800 Canadians are buried here. Many of the graves are unmarked presumably because the remains could not be identified. The few graves that were marked showed that the solider was in his early 20s, usually not old enough to have obtained an undergraduate degree, when they died. That’s hard to imagine. I can only contrast with what I was doing with my early 20s. And I thought at the time I had a lot on. That I was struggling. Perspective is a very powerful thing. They call those who came of age during WWI the Lost Generation and there is nothing that underlines that more than a walk through this place..

IMG_1027

IMG_1028

My next stop was all the way across Belgium to Bastogne. Bastogne is best known for the Battle of the Bulge which was  the last major German offensive during WWII. It was the Americans bloodiest battle of the war and the town has many shrines, museums, and monuments commemorating the Americans who fought and lost their lives there. The gruesomeness of this battle is depicted in the HBO Series Band of Brothers. The entire series is excellent and if you haven’t seen it you should.

I spent a couple of days taking in the history and getting some much needed relaxation. I stayed in a bed & breakfast just outside of Bastogne in a place called Tenneville. It has a population of 80 or so. I was the only guest and the man who ran the place was a gentle giant named Carl. I could of stayed for months.

As I said, my main motivation here was to take in some of the history. I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

IMG_1058

Mardasson Memorial

IMG_1091

The Ardennes

IMG_1092

Foxhole outside the town of Foy

Over the course of this trip I became aware of a level of fatigue that I have been accumulating over the course of 2016. I told myself when I got back that I would start to “simmer down” a bit. That was about 7 weeks ago and I can report that I have failed miserably! Summer is a lousy time for slowing down any way. Maybe some time in the Fall! Though probably not!

Take care.

Matt

IMG_1070

Helsinki Hilarity

Hello there!

I plan on posting an entry soon about my goings on in January. Honestly, it has been a relatively quiet month. The British do a “Dry January” where they stay away from alcohol and live a subdued lifestyle to compensate for the indulges of the holiday season. I seem to have naturally done the same. I do have some things lined up over the next couple months that I am pretty excited about though. I will share those next time!

I want to flashback to last month and share a story from Helsinki that didn’t make it into my Helsinki post. This story falls into the category of “Misadventures with Matt”. I assume I whetted your appetite for such tales with my Christmas story. Well this one takes place not 48 hours later right after I landed in Helsinki and again relates to finding accommodation.

My time in Helsinki was my first experience using AirBnB. I was renting an apartment from this chap Mike who was out of town for the holidays. I was instructed to meet his friend Pekke outside his apartment. Mike was kind enough to give me fool proof instructions to get from the airport to his apartment. They were indeed fool proof as I successfully got from the airport to his apartment without any issues at all. That isn’t the story here though it is shocking enough to warrant mentioning!

As I approached the front gate to Mike’s apartment I easily spot a Rob Ford physiqued man standing in front of the gate. I ask Rob if his name is Pekke to which he mumbles a quick yes and turns away and stares into the gate. I find his standoffishness a bit concerning but quickly shrug it off. I was riding pretty high on excitement at that moment as I was two hours removed from the Canada/US hockey game. After about 15 seconds of awkward standing around he comments on how terrible the weather is. To this I enthusiastically reply “Yeah the weather is great! It’s exciting to see some snow!”. I mean, who knows when I am going to see the stuff again so I was pretty excited about it. He seems a bit confused at this and starts fiddling with his phone mumbling something about how the key pad to open the gate is not working. After another painful 30 seconds, a man that looks like my dentist back in Halifax approaches the gate. He opens it up and Rob and I follow him. The apartment building is under construction so it is in a state of disrepair but I don’t mind. I am looking forward to quickly tossing my stuff into the apartment and turning around to go to the hockey game! So I follow my dentist and Rob into this tiny service elevator. Given Rob’s circumference and my luggage, it was fairly cramped and I was a bit concerned at the possibility of getting trapped in there if something went amiss. I guess my dentist and Rob felt the same because they suggested that we take the stairs. So we tramp up about 5 flights of stairs eventually arriving at the “apartment”. My dentist opens the door up and coasts inside followed by Rob and myself. It is at this point that my dentist looks at me and asks “Who are you? What are you doing here?”. I reply “I’m renting the apartment from Mike…?” My dentist looks infinitely perplexed. He replies “Well that isn’t here.”. I respond “Oh….. Well this was very entertaining. Take care!” and turn and exit the apartment.

I would be very entertained to have access to the stream of consciousness on those two during this whole event.

Who is this guy? Why is he so chipper? Is he following us? Why is he following us? Why is he getting into the elevator? Fuck, we don’t all fit in this elevator. He is following us. Why is he following us? Why is he in my apartment?

In any case, I go back outside and text the real “Pekka” and get myself quickly and properly situated.

More updates soon!

Take care.

Matt

Hockey In Helsinki

Howdy!

I’ve returned from my holiday hockey binge in Helsinki. This was an amazing trip and I am not really sure how to begin explaining everything that happened.

Let’s begin with Finland itself. The extent of most Canadians knowledge of Finland is that it’s the birthplace of Teemu Selanne. I must admit I didn’t really know that much more about Finland before coming here other than the fact that they seem to consistently win bronze medals at International Hockey tournaments. As a Scandinavian country it also has a good reputation of properly taking care of its citizens.

Finland has roughly 5.5 million people and is bordered by Russia to the east, Sweden to the west and Norway to the north. For a large part of its history Finland was actually part of Sweden making it a relatively new nation by European standards. I was surprised to learn that most of the people there speak English. I thought there might be a bit of a language barrier but that turned out to not be the case at all. One interesting thing I learned is that Finns drink the most coffee per capita in the World. I am not sure why this is the cause especially since the coffee isn’t much to write home about.

Now let’s talk about the hockey tournament! The primary reason why I went to Finland was to watch the World Junior Hockey Championships. My other option for the holidays was to go back home to Halifax. Given that I had just left two months ago I figured it would be better to wait to make a trip home sometime in the Summer. I am sure some people haven’t even noticed that I’d left! So I didn’t make it back to Canada for the holidays but a good bit of Canada made it out to Helsinki! There were easily more Canadians at the hockey games than any other nationality (even Finnish). There are tour groups that come over when the World Jrs. are abroad. A lot of retirees but some young folks as well. This tournament really is a prized Canadian holiday tradition. Going to the first game (the Boxing Day game against the US) was a surreal and once in a lifetime experience. British and Canadian cultures have minimal overlap and I haven’t met a single Canadian since I moved. To be able to interact with so many Canadians after having spent two months away from home was truly unique. I will never forget it. I met some fairly memorable characters. There were the six dudes in plaid onesies with C-A-N-A-D-A spelt out on their chests. There was the fella in the red suit (where do you buy such a thing?). But my two favourites were Larry and Peter, two retirees Newfoundland. I could always find those two within an arms length of an intoxicating beverage dispensary chatting up a different collection of pretty young ladies. A truly charming pair. They both worked in the travel industry and had some pretty interesting tales to tell. I’ll never forget them! I also ran into someone from Sackville and someone I went to high school with! Crazy!

IMG_0746

Also, I am apparently the only Canadian on Earth without a Team Canada sweater.

Unfortunately Canada put in an underwhelming performance this year. I made it out to all the preliminary games but didn’t get to see the epic quarter final show down against Finland. I didn’t have tickets and I didn’t even get to see it in a bar because I came down with a brutal migraine. I’d never had one before. They are not a lot of fun. Like 14 Mike Tysons in his prime trying to punch his way out of one side of your head. That probably isn’t an accurate analogy because Tyson in his prime could successful complete that task. In any case, back to Canada. Not enough star power, poor coaching and abysmal goaltending doomed them. It was nice to see Leafs prospect Mitch Marner come on later in the tournament. Displayed some serious skill. He may not have a gold medal to his name but there are surely a few Stanley Cup Championships in his future! I made it out to watch the semi final games. The atmosphere for the Finland Sweden game was incredible. That’s their big rivalry and the crowd was nuts! It was nice to see Finland win that game and the entire tournament for that matter. Especially since another Leafs prospect Kasperi Kapanen scored the OT winner in the Gold Medal Game! The future is bright! I’ll just ignore the fact that the Leafs top prospect William Nylander got knocked out of the tournament in the first game with a concussion. I did cross paths a couple of times with the Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello. I would have preferred to bump into Shannahan who was apparently there as well.

I did do other things in Helsinki other than watch hockey. Helsinki itself doesn’t have a large number of tourist attractions but it is a very nice city to walk around in. The highlight was having my friends Rory and Nadine join me for a few days. We all ended up spending New Years in the Senate Square which is in front of the Helsinki Cathedral. There was a live band playing and a firework show. It was a New Years well spent indeed.

IMG_0763

IMG_0771

After Rory and Nadine left I took a trip over to Suomenlinna which is a fortress island just off the coast. It has similar feel to McNabs Island in Halifax.

IMG_2245

I had a constant battle with the weather in Helsinki. It got increasingly cold during my stay. Given that the UK doesn’t have bad winters, I did not bring any heavy duty winter clothing with me from Canada. Actually I don’t have any heavy duty winter clothing period because I guess I don’t know how to take care of myself. In any case, by the end of my stay it was about -25C so my days involved walking around town and ducking inside somewhere every 10 minutes to unthaw my feet. It’s a good thing I didn’t make any plans to go further up North because I would of surely died.

The Finnish people themselves were quite lovely. Very nice and very polite. Drivers actually stopped and let you cross the road! A rare occurrence in the UK. In fact, the walk lights always seemed to be green whereas they are almost always red in the UK. I did end up meeting a fair share of characters. My favourite was perhaps the one guy we bumped into on New Years. He laughed at everything I said including my rude inquiry about his homeland “what the fuck is Lapland?” When we left he got down on one knee and kissed my hand. They really are friendly!

The trip also saw its fair share of misadventures. Perhaps the most amusing being getting locked out of my AirBnB apartment. I later learned that the locks to the front gate were changed at some point during my stay. A pretty unfortunate thing to have happened but it did lead to some amusing moments. Rory and I first discovered this after we returned home at a mature hour and were not able to open the front gate. A key pad in addition to the lock made us think that perhaps there was some code that we needed to input. We did have a code but it didn’t work and I am not convinced that the key pad was anything more than a decoration. Unfortunately the gate went from the ground all the way up to the ceiling so there was no way to get over it. There was however some give to the bottom so I ended up kicking it in while Rory crawled underneath. He was almost killed in the process but fortunately he made it through alive. The issue with the door was eventually resolved but only days later. It adds a bit of excitement to a trip when you aren’t sure if you are going to be able to get back into your room every time you leave.

This trip ended up being something really special. It has left me feeling recharged and refocused for the first time in as long as I can remember. I am looking forward to what 2016 has to offer. It will without a doubt be an unforgettable year.

Take care.

Matt