Minsk: The first Russian encounter

When Eastern Europeans (including Russians) say Minsk they put a lot of stress on the 'i'. As a result, apparently, you have to say Miiiinsk, when referring to Minsk. So, I arrived in Miiiinsk at 7:00am. Seconds after leaving the train, a 'friendly' Belorussian already wanted to take care of me. Showed me where I could get an onwards ticket to Moscow and hoped I was going to use his taxi to get to a hotel. Wrong. I friendly declined and walked to Hotel Minsk. Meanwhile, my mobile phone didn't work, again.

It was mighty early and the hotel seemed to be closed. As a matter of fact, what I found out later was, that I was waiting in front of the doors of an office building and that the hotel was around the corner. How could I have known? A very large sign on top of the building said 'Hotel Minsk'. The doors I was waiting in front of, where directly under the large sign. If it was not the Hotel Minsk, why put up the sign? After going in and asking reception, the two guys there both pointed me in opposite directions. I decided to try my luck and just walk around the block, with luck!

I knew the hotel was reasonably expensive. I also knew there was something of a tourist office (actually just two friendly ladies) inside of the hotel, who most probably would be able to direct me to a cheaper place to stay.
Lucky for me, they did. When their first choice turned out to be fully booked, they sent me to a second hotel. When that turned out to be fully booked too, I convinced them into actually calling the next hotel before sending me of, to see whether it was full before I went there. Eventually, after calling three other (fully booked) hotels, they found me a hotel very much in the south of Minsk. Just 45 minutes by bus. Still, not really a bargain at 9000,000 a night.

The hotel was on several floors of a typical communist apartment block. One of many 24 story buildings thrown together on a large plot of land somewhere really in the middle of nowhere, it had no hot or even lukewarm water to ease the traveler in me. Still, I did have a bed for two, to ease my sleep.

Different

Prices and money in general here in Belarus totally warps your sense of cost. For starters, everything is charged in millions. Yes, millions of Belorussian Rubles.

Here, a Big Mac might be about 350,000 Rubles, when a bus ticket is no more than 6000 Rubles. To compare that to western prices, that would be like getting a bus ticket for $0.02 or a Big Mac for $100! Then, of course, Eastern Europe in general, and Belarus specifically is smoker's paradise. Cheap packets of cigarettes, for example Sputniks, at 60,000 a piece would make everyone a nicotine addict. Is that confusing or what?!

When I was taking a break in front of the Sputnik hotel (one of the booked ones I was directed too, by the lovely ladies at hotel Minsk), I had unpacked a cigar, to enjoy the Belorussian sun (some 30 degrees centigrade) to the fullest. I had started repacking some other stuff when, unknown to me, my cigar had rolled, of the bench, on the ground. I hadn't light it yet, so it was still a good cigar.

Just when I noticed it was missing, some guy, with the biggest smile I had ever seen, picked it up from the ground, looked around and asked if it was mine. Of course, I couldn't stop the man in his hour of joy and I made clear it wasn't mine. His smile widened even more and doing a little dance of joy, he walked on.

One thing I noticed when waiting in front of what turned out to be not the hotel Minsk, is that the people, the clean streets, the whole scenery, the atmosphere, reminded me very much of how I experienced Budapest when I arrived there in 1996. I spent a year there studying, and here, in Minsk, the general 'feeling' was very similar to what I experienced there. People are reasonably dressed, there doesn't seem to be much poverty, everything is well kept and there even seems to be a sense of pride in the people.

The people are not being allowed to own Dollars. This is part of a larger scheme, set up by the government, where the country's prime minister, Alexandr Lukashenko, takes pride in not accepting any loans from the West. His philosophy is that Belorus itself should manage to get out of the slump they're currently in. At first, of course, that resulted in major inflation, but it also resulted in the people much more having a sense of having to fix their own problems themselves. A feeling that is very hard to find in Russia, for example, where, when it goes bad, again, they feel the West will help them out anyway with a new set of loans, again. Maybe Mr. Lukashenko did take the right approach in not accepting any loans. The future will tell. At least, as I noticed, the people seem to have a bigger sense of pride in being who they are.

The people

All busses are crowded. Always. So when I took a bus to my hotel, with my backpack strapped on, more people than just me where annoyed at the size of the thing on my back. Bus tickets are little pieces of paper, that you have to put in a puncher, which will validate your ticket for the bus ride. However, only few punchers exist on any bus. Of ourse, as practical as Eastern Europeans always are, when you can't get to a puncher, you just give your ticket to the person next to you. If he can't get to a puncher, he gives his and your ticket to the person next to him. And so on. Until the tickets reach a person next to a puncher. This system works quite well. Until a ticket inspector enters the bus. Then, it turns out, about half of the people on the bus still need to punch their ticket, which of course is a major hassle for about 5 seconds and the couple of people actually next to one of the punchers. It also is a lot of fun.

Remarkably, next to every bus stop, small kiosks exist. Supplemented by small tents from which fruit, P&G and Unilever products, magazines and, oh right, I almost forgot, bus tickets are sold. Funnily enough, no kiosks exist where you can get a hot snack. No burgers, hot dogs or soups. Lots of banana's though, you can get.

So I finally had arrived at my hotel. I unloaded some of stuff and was ready to take a short tour of Miiiinsk. I had left the bad weather behind me in Poland and the 30 degrees outside did invite for some fine strolling around Miiiinsk. When I got back to town, the first thing I saw that struck me was a guy putting air into his car tires. With a bicycle pump.
He didn't seem to notice his work had no real effect on his tires.

Unfortunately, the bad weather did finally catch up with me. It had started pouring. Fortunately, the locals hadn't expected this change of weather either. All girls and young women, almost all dressed in see thru blouses where now trying to cope with the streaming rain pouring down on them. It took several hours for the weather to change again. And although the temperature had dropped several degrees, it still was warm enough to sit outside in any one of the large number of cafes, armed with plastic tables and chairs, functioning as terraces, out on the street.

Already I had noticed the difference in how people here treated me as compared to how they treated locals. Okay, I might have a godly appearance, but besides that, it is very clear that either they respect foreigners a lot or that they know that foreigners pack a lot of money, from which, by being friendly, they might be able to receive just a small portion.

Just before I went to bed, I tried to get a beer from the bar in the hotel. All the beer turned out to have been sold, most probably to the groups of young Belorussians and (funnily enough) Caucasians (that is, people from the Caucasus) hanging out constantly in front of the hotel, and they could only serve me French wine. I took a glass at a hefty 2000,000 and had a very friendly conversation with one of the nice looking ladies behind the counter. That same lady, only seconds later, when talking to some local customers having a (very late) diner at the table next to me, showed the most grumpy face you could imagine. Still, or maybe because of that, she looked very cute!

Not wanting to spend another couple of million on a glass of wine I decided to go out for a late night walk, trying my luck in any one of the other big, ugly communist apartment blocks in the vicinity. Only one 'place' was still open though. A very crowded 'shop', next to the bus terminal, selling everything from raw fish to soft drinks and beer. But again, no warm stuff. People, generally looking pissed (as in drunk) as hell, where forming a queue that started quite a distance from the entrance of the shop. The scene and more specifically the people, somehow reminded me of the images that where beamed into the world, when Lech Walesa was leading his people into Solidarity in Poland in the eighties. Grim, pale looking drunks, willing to fight for any cause, just to kill time. I decided to turn back and go for a nap. Hey, I could even watch Eurosport in my hotel room!

From Amsterdam into Belorus

My mum was so kind as to drop me off at Schiphol airport at 8:30am, mastering all traffic on your regular weekday morning. During the two days prior to my departure, I had been a bit reluctant to go to Russia, not knowing what to expect and considering the large amount of not-so-good travel tales coming out of Russia. I figured I was going to be in for a surprise.

Only days before leaving, I was considering staying home, doing ‘nothing’ with my girlfriend Julia, hanging out with my friends, taking short trips to I don’t know where and so on. But effectively, I knew I wanted to go ‘there’. I basically had no choice. It was meant to be.

So I arrived at Schiphol airport way to early. The plane was set to leave at around 11:00am, but that gave me some time to leave a significant signature. So, with 20kg+ of a backpack, a large camera bag and some more add-ons I headed off for the nearest toilet. With success, I might add. My vacation of a lifetime started out with the shit of a lifetime.

Arrival in Warsaw

The trip from Amsterdam, as always with LOT, went quite well. Staff was friendly, the food was good and on top of it all, the flight was on time. However, when I arrived in Warsaw, it turned out my travelers mattress had been lost.

After spending some time at the luggage claim office, I received $20 in cash to compensate for my loss. Immediately I figured it would have made sense if I would have lost my sleeping bag too! I mean, I hadn’t figured on using it any way, as with the mattress; I had taken them along just-in-case. If I could get $20 for an old mattress, maybe I could get enough for my even older sleeping bag to buy a new one!

I had to go through several offices before, at last, an older and friendly woman helped me to my $20. She was occupying the office where refunds were granted. However, in order to obtain dollars, we both had to go to another office on the other side of the terminal to exchange money. The week before, she had fallen of some stairs, and strained her ankle. As a result, my $20 came to me at a leisurely pace.

While I was talking to her, at the window of her office, a very skinny woman, approaching middle age, dressed with style, completely in white, turned around (she was standing next to me) and started talking to me and the lady behind the counter. She shook the whole time when talking, had a bad alcohol breath, and although she was speaking English, Theresa seemed to be Polish. She made no sense whatsoever. Before turning around, she was standing in a group with three other people. Two men and one woman. They kept on talking Polish with another, and every two minutes or so, the two men tried to persuade Theresa to turn around. After some 10 minutes, they walked over to her, we kissed our goodbyes and she was literally carried away by these two men. I went on to collect my $20.

I had planned to meet a friend of mine, Robert, in Warsaw. I hadn’t announced I was going to come, since I wasn’t sure up to close before leaving, when I would actually arrive. I figured I would just make a call from Warsaw after arriving and then arrange going for dinner and/or a drink. Warsaw has a nice Irish pub, so I figured it would work out just fine. To be able to call Robert, I asked my mobile phone operator to turn on world coverage before I left. Just the month prior to my leaving, the service had become free of charge, so I figured al would go smoothly. Wrong. I tried to make a call, it turned out the world coverage wasn’t turned on. Considering I most likely was going to need the phone a bit more in Russia, I spent close to the rest of the day contacting Mobistar and trying to tell them I needed world coverage and that they hadn’t turned it on. At least, this performance from Mobistar wasn’t much different as compared to the experiences I generally have with the company.

Mobistar have an international help desk number, available from outside of Belgium. Accept, it isn’t available from Poland. So I had to call my mum, and she had to solve my problems. A big thanks to me mum!

Moving on

When I finally was able to place a call to Robert, it turned out he was impossible to reach. I decided to get a train ticket to Minsk, leaving on the same day.
Some months before, with some colleagues of mine, I had taken a train back from Warsaw to Brussels. All airports were closed due to bad weather. Not only did we have a fun trip back (meeting a horse racing jockey of about 1m40 tall), but also did I know now where at the Warsaw train station I could get my international train tickets. Anyway, the 12m long queue standing in front of the tourist information office wasn’t very inviting either.

The train ticket was a little bit more expensive than I figured it would be at about $40. But I suspected they sold me a first class ticket. I didn’t have enough zloty when buying the ticket, so I had to find a cash point to make a withdraw. When returning, the ticket turned out to be some 10% cheaper. Hurray!

The Warsaw train station has several eateries on site. Some, more western-style, located centrally in the main hall. One, definitely what you would expect in a place like this, much more Eastern European. Of course, that’s where I had a zuppa pomodorova for less then $1. With a view on the Marriott hotel I was happily slobbering away my soup and some bread rolls.

I used a voice recorder to make notes on my trip. Already here in Warsaw, locals where eyeing me strangely, probably figuring I was some remnant of their state-controlled past, keeping track of everyone out of the ordinary and passing them on to HQ.

In the train, I had my first encounter with a local. Alex, a Belorussian was sharing my cabin. We started to talk and it turned out he was born on the Asian side of the Ural. During Soviet regime, you could study basically whatever you liked, but for some 6 years after finishing your studies, you had to work where the government wanted you to work. That is, unless you started a family and got children. So that is exactly what Alex’s father did, and he was allowed to go back to his place of birth, Brest. I didn’t really catch what Alex was doing himself. I think he was selling paint to large metal producing companies, or something. He did show me the folders, but my Polish could be much better so I returned his work related statements with a friendly smile.

Alex had a treat that seems to be common in Eastern Europeans. Whenever we where talking and I would say something he didn’t agree on, he would shake his head vigorously (without saying anything) until I would stop. Then he would explain why ‘it’ was not the case, starting of with ‘no, no, no, no, you see….’.

Alex got off in Brest, and I was left alone. Just before I planned to take a nap, someone was tapping the window of my cabin. Some old lady was trying to sell me eggs, bottled milk, chicken and cigarettes. I politely tried to decline, although she kept on offering stuff I didn’t need. Each time I said ‘no’ she tried to look even more sad, pleading for me to buy something off her. I resolutely kept on declining.

It took some two and a half hours to cross the border at Brest/Terespol. Because the Russian rail gauge is wider than the European one, the trains have to be put on different sets of wheels. In the past, travelers had to physically change trains. Now, luckily enough, you can sleep through the procedure as huge cranes carry the wagons from one set of wheels to another. It does however take some ninety minutes.

Then there is border control. The Polish controls where quite fast, although I was surprised by military personnel waiting on Terespol station, machine gun at the ready. The Belorussian control was a little bit more of a pain. I had to fill in a form (in Russian) stating what drugs, guns, etc. I was carrying and I also had to state the amount of money I had with me. The idea is that the (Belo)Russian government wants to avoid money flooding out of the country. If you enter with, say, $1000 and leave with $10,000 you obviously made some money while in the country. The government wants you to spend that money within (Belo)Russia again.
So if you plan on making some money in either Russia or Belarus, it makes sense to suggest you entered the country with even more cash.

So I was carrying $2000. The border-control-with-the-very-large-cap had to count it all. So I emptied my money pouch for the friendly officer and he started counting. Of course, it was all there.

My trip to Russia: 33.000km, 22cities, 250million people, one hell of a time

Unless you've trekked across Africa from north to south, sailed halfway around the world, or crossed the Arctic on food, you can not begin to imagine the size of Russia.

From June 24 until August 7 1999 I was on holiday, traveling through Poland, Belarus and Russia, I mastered close to 33,000km going places like Murmansk, Sochi, Vladivostok, but of course also Moscow and St. Petersburg. It definitely was a trip of a lifetime and I did have the time of my life. Meeting a bunch interesting people, shooting some 1500 pictures and basically learning a lot about humanity and Russians particularly. In short, it was great.

The one thing I realized during my trip was, that although at first its not easy to see, but that where you are now, just like anywhere else, people live, love, work, play, are inspired, hate, kill, steal, die, just like anywhere else. Although you might not think it, the whole world is one. Different but equal.

Before

My adventure actually started way before I even decided going to Russia. Originally I had planned on taking a holiday at the other side of the globe, the US of A. In April '99, I was still working for Procter & Gamble in Brussels. I already had announced I was going to leave, and I was planning for my 'major' summer holiday, not limited by a certain number of days I was allowed to leave for, according to the rules of slavery.

P&G here in Brussels have their own travel agency, and at that time it was announcing some deal, offered by United Airlines, to go to the States and back, to any destination, for 10,000 BEF (that's $250), including taxes. The ticket would have been valid for 45 days, making it possible for me to fly to, say, New York, then travel over land to San Francisco or LA and then fly back to Europe. Offering myself as a driver to Hertz or any other rent-a-car agency as a drive-back individual would require me to only pay for gas for my overland trip. So, all in all, traveling expenses would be very, very reasonable.

United made their offer public on a Friday morning. Both Sabena and American Airlines met that offer only hours later. I decided to take them up on the offer on Monday, after some planning from my side. All flights where booked up to September. However, not being turned down by this bummer, I tried getting cheap tickets via several low-cost airlines such as Ryan air, Iceland Air, some budget agency at Zaventem airport and others. However, the best I was able to get was a ticket for 17,000BEF excluding airport tax, giving me 37 days in the States. Needless to say, I opted out.

So I decided to go to Russia. Travel expenses are less, hotels and food are cheaper so what else would you want? Okay, the risk might be a little bit higher; Chechens willing to blow your head a part, people bashing your face in for an evening meal, etc. But hey! That's all part of the adventure!

A total of no less then six different types of visa exist for going into Russia. The best type to have is a business visa, since that allows you to go almost anywhere, without having to pre-book your hotels.

Yes, that means that for, say, the tourist visa, you legally have to specify where and when you will be staying in Russia. Before going there. Considering that the process for applying for a visa starts way ahead of your trip; When you need a tourist visa, you need to do some major planning quite a bit in advance.

Lucky for me, I was still working for Procter & Gamble. Since they officially have an office in Moscow, they can issue invitations, so that people working for P&G can visit Russia 'on business'. Some smooth talking with Janna Abdelhag at that agency left me with a loss of $80 and, three weeks later, with an invitation. Next step: The Russian embassy.

Mind you, not that I knew Procter officially had an office there. I knew some Russians working for P&G in Warsaw (I worked closely with some people in Warsaw) and asked them what possibilities existed for visiting Mother Russia. They pointed me to Janna Abdelhag who also arranges visas for them, for leaving the country.

Armed with my valid passport, passport sized photographs, a filled in application form, some cash and a telex number specifying the telex that was sent to the embassy with my details, I was off to the Russian embassy. Of course, they weren't listed in any directory, so I had to call them for the address. I called them, they gave the address, I went, it turned out to be the wrong address.

They had pointed me to a 'rue Robbie Jean', number 78 in the south of Brussels. I couldn't find exactly that street on the map, but did come close to it. Figuring I slightly misunderstood them (or their Russian impaired their ability to speak French), I was off. Only to discover there was no number 78 in the rue Robbie Jean. It went up to 52… Calling again, doing some searches on a map I had in my car, it turned out to be the 'Rue Robert Jones'. I finally arrived and waited some 90 minutes in line to have some babushka tell me I had to come back the next week and bring 4600 BEF ($120) in order for me to get back my passport and a visa. Having no choice, I did just that and yes, a week later (this time only having to wait an hour) I received all essentials and was released from my well-earned dosh.

Already that was a bit of luck, getting a visa there and then. When I handed over the registration papers the week before, I got a glimpse of the papers of someone next to me. On the paper, they ask for nationality and whether you're married or not. However, they mixed up their Dutch wording and, in effect, they ask for your nationality twice. So I filled it in twice (how could I have known?). So when I got a glimpse of the papers of the guy next to me, I noticed that the second time the papers asked for his nationality he had filled in 'married'. It dawned on me I had filled in my papers incorrectly and I was mere seconds away from handing them over to my babushka. Figuring that deciding, at that point, I wasn't going to hand them over would be very conspicuous, I handed them over. Still, I got my visa without any problems. My very first encounter with a typical Russian babushka (over weight, short, glasses, dyed hair, a sack painted with flowers for a dress) and Russian bureaucracy, ended quite okay.

The first time I was at the embassy though, I met a Belgian guy who was living in Moscow. I hadn't filled in the registration papers correctly and had to do it again. Having no pen, I borrowed one from someone else filling in his forms and we started talking. For about 45 minutes we waited in line afterwards, he almost continuously was complaining about Russia and Russian bureaucracy specifically. Point was, he is married to a Russian girl and has a Russian and a Belgian passport. Result is that in Belgium, he is treated as Belgian and has to get a visa for Russia, in Russia he is treated as Russian and he has to get a visa to get out of Russia. He actually told me that Russians have to get a visa too for going, say, from Moscow to St. Petersburg, but from a different, quite reliable source, I learned that that is a load of bullocks.
Mark and I arranged to meet, once I would get to Moscow. Matter of fact, he actually offered a bed. Knowing that Moscow is one of the most expensive cities in the world, I gladly took him up on the offer.

My visa used to be an A4 paper cut in two. Not A5 sized, but the A4 cut in two along the long axis. Twice a passport sized photo was attached to it, with exactly the same information on that part of the visa. As you can see in the picture above, my visa has been reduced in size along the way. When I noticed that, somewhere really in the middle of Russia, it had me scared shitless! Was I to get caught by a daily police check and put in a cozy Russian jail for the rest of my still youthful life?
More about that on the Rostov on Don page.

Arranging the trip

So my next step was to get to Moscow. I had planned to do a stop over in Warsaw, where I would be visiting a friend of mine, so I first thought of using the Eurolines bus service. They where offering ticket sales via the net, which made me happy. Entering the right page, I was told to call them. Suckers. Not being put down by this, I decided to call them. To find out that they didn't take American Express. Additionally, it's impossible to order tickets in Belgium for busses leaving from, say, Holland. Something I did have in mind. Anyway, they weren't as dirt cheap as I expected them to be.

Some surfing led me to a website of a German bus service, that had daily services all the way to Moscow, at lower prices than Eurolines was offering. They must have gone bankrupt, since I'm not able to find them on the web anymore. Anyway, I decided to take that service to Warsaw, stay there for a day and then take a train to Minsk and continue on to Moscow.

I had been trying to rent out my apartment during my stay abroad but without success. On the day before I had planned to leave, me being in Holland, I got a call from someone at P&G. It turned out someone needed a room for three months. So, I had to race back to Brussels, arrange a contract (the guy renting my apartment wasn't in Brussels yet, everything had to be arranged via an in-between) and make room for the guy in my apartment. However, the extra cash made it possible for my to fly to Warsaw and I decided on LOT polish airlines. A good thing was that they offered a ticket with an open return date. I could return from Russia whenever I felt like it. It seemed like the proverbial cat had landed on his feet.

Well almost. During my working for P&G, I had collected enough air miles to buy myself a return trip to Warsaw. Turned out they had neglected to add most of the miles to my total. That is, until after I got back from Russia…

Cost

Traveling in bits and pieces, the total distance traveled was about 32975 kilometers, at a total cost of $744.34.

Diksmuide: city of the dead

Diksmuide has one tourist attraction; an 84 meter high tower commemorating the dead of the first world war. We missed it completely.

Musing around the friendly city center, fully rebuilt after the city was completely thrashed during the first world war, we only managed to drink an ice coffee and visit one of the nearby war graves.

A second tourist ‘attraction’, that we also missed completely, is the Trench of Death, which, during the Great War, the Belgians where able to hold on to.

Rough and tumble

Totally overpowered by the numerous dead found along the way, mainly in war graves, the four of us decided to get drunk before starting our trip back. Still having in our possession three bottles of Johnny, a tray of beer and four pints of pure alcohol made that a lot easier than you might have thought.

The drive back to Brussels was an adventurous one. It’s only a 90 minute drive from Diksmuide to Brussels, but somehow, we where able to do it in 55 minutes. Strangely enough though, during the whole trip, cars where driving straight towards us, flashing their head lights. We did dial the local version of 911, warning that numerous ‘ghost drivers’ where active on the route to Brussels.

Not so belle Reims

World » France » Lille » Fort

Reims has two things going for it. Its the center of the Champagne region and its on the way to Paris.

When we stopped at a map of the city, armed with no more than the address of the youth hostel, we halted an elderly local, apparently just returning from his daily champagne binge, asking for directions.

Of course, the poor man couldn't help us out. But lucky for us, very loudly, he was able to stop a youth strolling by (HEY YOUNG MAN!) who gave us directions. The directions he gave, however, where wrong.

No, Reims is not the most interesting city in France. Industrialist and dirty, the old town of Reims did not survive the first world war. Luckily, (one of) the most famous gothic French cathedrals can be found in Reims, so a visit to Reims, albeit for a few hours, can be worthwhile after all.

Restored after the Great War, the cathedral used to hold the ceremony for crowning the new king of France during the middle ages.

So after taking a peek in the cathedral and a stroll around the square in front of it, you can while away the next couple of hours before your train or bus leaves with enjoying some sparkling champagne, originating from the region.

We spent the first hours following the signs supposedly pointing us to the tourist office. Moving through Reims in a spirally motion, we saw almost everything thrice, before coming across the last sign pointing us to the tourist office, with no tourist office in site.

Resuming our quest after accidentally stumbling into the tourist office, now armed with a map and directions to the local youth hostel, it turned out that all its 42 beds where already taken. Not only that, all low budget hotels where fully booked as well. Bummer. But hey, who would want to stay in Reims anyway?

Lille; night in the city

Founded around 900 AD, Lille got its name from its location. In between the rivers Deule and Leie, the settlement was called 'the Island', or L'isle in French. Later, this was shortened to Lille.

When driving in to town, we where expecting a similar tour as we experienced in Reims in trying to find the youth hostel. So, mere seconds after entering the city and encountering two youth hostel signs and the youth hostel itself, we simply couldn't believe our eyes.

We weren't fully disappointed though. The owner of the hostel repeatedly warned us not to mix with locals. According to him, this dangerous city consisted purely of blowers, junks and criminals. We, of course, happily turned on by the obviously exciting evening laying ahead of us, prepared for a night on the town.

Lille is the industrial center for the North of France and also houses an impressive range of universities and schools and thus a very large number of students.

Because of this, Lille has a myriad of bars and restaurants, also catering for the less wealthy (read: students). For under FF50 you can get a decent meal in one of the many budget restaurants scattered around town. Afterwards you can top it off in any one of the bars or pubs mainly located in the North of the city center.

We had dinner at a Moroccan place, serving good tajins, fine wine and lovely service. Encouraged by the hostel owners frank remarks on the local youths, we had no choice but to vigorously enjoy the challenges posed by the babes on offer. Encouraged by four darlings, constantly looking our way (and us looking their way) in the restaurant, we sought suave contact but where verbally bounced out of any discussion possible. We moved on.

The world famous architect Rem Koolhaas also contributed to the metropolitan atmosphere of the city, by designing the exposition center Euralille. Don't, however, be tempted going to Lille for that. The building is a sight for sore eyes. Not interesting at all.

Undiscovered Metz

Metz is a city you are likely to skip when travelling to France. It's small, and has nothing much going for it. However, it's a nice little town, definitely worth a stopover. Laying on the banks of the river Moselle, the main (there are two of them) city center can be found around the cathedral of Saint-Etienne. A gothic piece of masonry, built from the 13th to the 16th century.

We stopped in Metz for two reasons, the city is on the way to Nancy, and the cathedral was so obviously beckoning us when approaching the city, that, basically, we had no choice but to get a coffee in this capital of the Moselle department. Don't let the fact that the city is a capital mislead you. France is divided in so many districts, that almost every cities with more than 100.000 people is a capital (Metz has about 110.000).

Metz however, is a bit older than you might think. The city had already built up some significance before the Romans conquered France. Not too surprising then, that France's oldest church is situated in Metz, dating from the 7th century.

Doing the obligatory stroll past the city's tourist attractions, on the square in front of the cathedral, we where ushered in to a tent, set up to promote bread. Yes, bread. Our French isn't perfect, and to be honest we didn't listen at all to our guide as he explained all about the 50 or so different types of bread he had on display. After the tour, we thanked him and received, as a token of good luck I guess, a bun. It sucked.

The city has a big and cozy shopping district. In weekends, Germans flock to the city in droves, convinced that goods can be obtained cheaper and that shopping is nicer on the other side of their road.

Nancy: just what you fancy

Nancy, the capital of the French Meurthe-et-Moselle region, lies on the banks of the Meurthe and the Marne-Rhine channel. The first thing you'll notice when driving up to the town, by car or train, is that it doesn't seem to have anything going for it. Fortunately, this is a big misconception.

In Luxembourg, we where able to make a reservation for the hostel in Nancy. Entering Nancy, trying to find a tourist office, from the car, we asked an older babe, where to find the youth hostel. Surprisingly, she knew where to go. The hostel is some 10km from the center of Nancy. Don't think about taking a bus back late at night. You'll have to stay in the city, or take a cab back.

The setting of the hostel is beautiful. Sitting on the side of the hill, the small castle looks into a valley, with a big park all around. Definitely one of the better situated hostels you'll encounter. Just after checking in, we stumbled across a somber looking guy, sitting in front of the hostel, arms crossed, sunglassed, cap, fierce looks. The guy, of course, was Australian. After some good stories of a typical Aussie custom of driving in circles with a truck, towing a small car, trying to top it over, we decided to give the Muppet a ride into town.

The town has quite an impressive range of Art-Nouveau buildings and some nice museums to boot. As specially this year, now that it's 100 years since the start of the 'School of Nancy', 3 major museums run very interesting exhibitions.

When weather permits it, which is quite often, students from one of the universities, the oldest dating from 1572, can be found all around town studying artwork and making sketches of one of the many Art-Nouveau buildings.

The town not only attracts students. When hanging out on the main square, we where not only welcomed by numerous youngsters, trying to flex their verbal muscles in talking English with us (and us not understanding them), but also encountered Sticky. Sticky, as it turned out, was, as they say in France, as old as the highway to Rome and claimed to have served in several armies, ranging from the French, during the war in Angola, all the way back to the Turkish army, when invading Europe in the sixteenth century. In-between jobs, he claimed to survive by driving people around in his double Decker bus. Sticky seemed quite believable. Really.

The people of Nancy enjoy life, and the number of Restaurants and bars prove it. Restaurants are scattered all over town and getting good quality food is not related to the price you pay for it. Sure, the setting might be a bit better, the silverware might be actual silver or the waitresses might be a tad better looking, but in the end, the food is good anywhere you can get it. If you find it on the menu, the 'quiche Loraine' is a definite go!

Encountering a couple of local babes, aged 16 and 17 (we only found that out after they screamed for forgiveness), the friendly young ladies took us to an in-crowd student bar with live artists unable to stop drumming African beats.

When trying to return to the hostel, we discovered that it really is impossible to try and fit seven people and two bicycles in a Mazda 323, so we had no choice but to undress and spray the girls with genuine Champagne (16FF a bottle!) right there in the city center and lick our goodbyes. Dazed, but satisfied we left for our castle.

Nancy is a nice city to stroll through. Featuring a large, friendly park, La Pepiniere, with a free zoo to boot. Other things of interest are the Cathedral and the Notre-Dame de Bon Secours church, from the 18th century, with the mausoleum of Stanislaus Lesczynski, a local hero of the last century.

North of France

This trip's Tasteless Tacky Tourists are Benno Richters, Joost Hofstede, Harm-Jan Meester and Babak Fakhamzadeh.

Four men, united by their Veto, sometimes travel the European continent in search for enlightenment. Mere weeks before going to Luxembourg et al, they enjoyed France so much, having visited the cote d'Azur in the south, they decided to do the north as well. So, in a four day trip in May 1999, this time staying closer to home, the Masters visited Luxembourg, Metz, Nancy, Reims, Lille and Diksmuide.

Off to see the wizard

So there we were. Waiting in Brussels, poised to go. Only minutes away from a four day alcohol binge. This time looking at a mere 1500km drive, covering six cities in the north of France and north of France.

Featuring only one European capital this time Luxembourg, the start of our journey was an unavoidable stop on our way to France. Definitely the most spectacularly situated capital, Luxembourg is a friendly city with friendly people.

Stopping in Metz on our way to Nancy, both cities are proof that the more to the south you go in Europe, the more people like to enjoy life. As specially Nancy, with its large groups of youngsters 'hanging out' is a nice place to while away the hours.

Still, we were also looking for the 'classical' North of France. The industrialist north has never been known for its friendliness. The cities of Reims and Lille prove that very point. Both ugly, industrialist cities, at least Lille offers very interesting night life.

And then there is Diksmuide. This Belgian city was completely wasted during the first world war. Now, surrounded by war memorials, it reminds the visitor of the aggressive European past.

So, where to start? Well, in Luxembourg of course.

Luxembourg

The sleeping capital

The size of an insignificant provincial city, the streets bursting with bigger than life banks and spectacularly located, Luxembourg is one of the more stranger European capitals, providing refuge for a large portion of Belgians and Dutch, trying to evade taxes.

In the gorge between the old city and the new town, we found Luxembourg's youth hostel. Crowded with Canadians, we had a hard time getting through to the reception but we where able to secure a room.

Site seeing is no more than a quick trip around the old town and taking a look at the Casemates, a large underground defense system, where we were able to spent several hours, because of signs not totally agreeing with each other. After that, you can while away the hours in one of the bars in the city center and enjoy the nice and quietness of this European capital.

The start of a good holiday obviously calls for celebration. The four of us and Jack where going for it, until Joost gave out. Refusing his very nice Mexican meal, he opted for praying to the porcelain god during dinner.

The city center and old city, not more than several hundreds of meters across is lively and very friendly by day, the gorge, between the old city and the region around the train station providing for lively scenes by night.

After dinner, while enjoying some nice Bofferding beer in one of the pubs, we enjoyed lap-dances and a real spontaneous striptease by one of the locals. Okay, she was trying to impress her boyfriend, but we had the benefit. Too drunk, he ignored her, and she chose the good Harm-Jan instead. That is, until her boyfriend woke up and started to chase us, pissed and drunk, around the pub. Not being able to catch up with our athletic powers, after some twenty minutes, the nice lady started to go after us as well. She, realizing, that now, her boy was going to be unable to perform during the night.

We walked back to the hostel, being welcomed by the same hordes of Canadians we encountered earlier in the day. This time however, they dwindled down to a couple rapidly and, intoxicated by Jack and too much Bofferding and tired from the physical excersice in the pub earlier on, we where almost witness of a Canadian rape. On our last legs, as real Mounties, I guess, we were able to save the day, slam-dunk the bad guy unconscious and free the babe. She, however, had one of the ugliest faces I have ever seen. Next stop: Metz.

Brussels

No photos

The good

Bruxelles for the French, Brussels for the English, this city is characterized by its ‘Burgundian’ people. Translating to something like ‘flamboyant’, it basically means that the Bruxellois eat, drink and party more than their neighbors in the Netherlands or France.

And it suits me fine. Not only could you literally go out for a year, each weekend, without going to the same place twice, but also are there so many different style restaurants, its too easy to get fat during your stay in Brussels. In fact, a year after I came to Brussels, I had gained 6 kg.

But its true. the number of restaurants, bars, cafes, pubs, clubs and discos in the center of town seems to be larger than the number of people living in that same area. Then again, the area needs to cater for an absurd amount of foreigners with shitloads of money. People working for the EU, NATO or one of the many international organizations having its HQ somewhere close to Brussels.

It is a fact that there are more foreigners living in the Brussels area than there are Belgians. Of course, with the large population of Moroccans living in a couple of the suburbs, its not only due to Eurocrats in town.

However, this is less a bad thing as it may seem. Loads of inexpensive – but good – inexpensive eateries exist because of this, making it possible for you not having to blow all your cash on nothing but a meal .

The veggie scene is a whole different ball game however. The number of restaurants that cater for the green-spirited can be counted on the fingers of one hand. Still, even they serve a good grub.

The bad

In a country where a convicted child rapist and killer can walk, unescorted, out of the palace of justice and be free, during the preparations of his trial. In a country where it takes a month for a major food contamination to be made public, after which almost every meat product is taken from the shelves. In a country that has three language regions and six governments. In such a country there must be something fundamentally wrong.

There is. It is something that is an integral part of every Belgian. Something not totally unlike schizophrenic behavior. Every Belgian is either Flemish (Dutch speaking) or Walloon (French speaking). And then, even some only speak German.

Brussels is the only officially bi-lingual part of Belgium. However, the language on the street is French. So it is very common for two Vlamingen to speak to each other in French, without even knowing the other to be Flemish (and Dutch speaking) as well. My landlord spoke French with one of his tenants for years, before finding out the tenant too, was Flemish.

Then there is bureaucracy. Pure madness. Although Belgium is squeezed in between France, the Netherlands and Germany, some consider Belgium to be the most northern Southern European or most western Eastern European country. The former state owned bank ASLK/CGER (everything here has two acronyms, a Dutch one and a French one) up to one year ago had one computer per subsidiary for internal, electronic, communication. I don’t even want to start on the process you have to go through when trying to register as a resident. I mean, the police where able to lose my application forms. Twice.

And the ugly

This heading had to follow, of course. But this one too, is applicable to Belgium.

Particularly the south-eastern part of Belgium, the Ardennes, is riddled with hills or (very) small mountains, resulting in, historically, people sticking to their own valley for the bigger part of their lives. Without reason, the best circumstances for in breeding. And yes, the result is some VERY ugly mother fuckers. But, as it can go as well with in breeding, some VERY beautiful specimens. Big eyed, friendly faced, slender beauties are generally the rule in stead of the exception. At least, in Brussels. Beware, when venturing into the hills.

Delft

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Some 400 years ago, William of Orange, he who defied the Spanish and around whom the Dutch national anthem is centered, was shot in what is called the ‘Prinsenhof’ (the prince’s residence) in Delft. Two bullet holes in one of the walls still being a silent witness to what happened that long time ago. Since long a time a museum, the place has an exhibition on the former prince. For years, a cartoonist style representation of the shooting reconstructed the course of action on that black day in Dutch history. If you followed the pictures and reviewed the setting, the bullet holes should have been in the wall opposite to where they actually where. It took 12 years for the cartoon to be replaced.

A funny, but true, story for a town that is characterized by its relative large population of technical students. Of its 92.000 inhabitants, 12.000 study at the Technical University of Delft.

Student life is centered around the student organizations. You have to be a member to get in or join in their activities, resulting in some 45% of all students being a member of one of the societies. However, due to more pressure from the government (meaning less money for students), students have to study harder than before and the number of students being a member of one of the organizations is declining.

Forget having a good time in Delft for more than a couple of evenings, if you’re not a member of one of the organizations. Still, its a good thing that Rotterdam, Den Haag, Leiden and Amsterdam are all within short reach.

nice!

8 countries, 5 idiots, 4 days, 3 cities.

The beauty of Barca

A two week trip to Barcelona and Sitges.

Midnight train to BXL

On one of my business trips for Procter & Gamble, in January 1999, to Warsaw, Poland, getting back to Brussels, the place where I lived, was prohibited by very bad weather all over Europe.
No planes were flying anywhere. Together with a couple of colleagues, we took a train all the way back to Belgium. This is the phototour of that trip.

Note (January 2008): I moved the photos to Flickr and this page to inside my blog. It's interesting to see that, in fact, this 'project' was something of a precursor to a later project of mine, Portreat.
Also, the camera which I used was the digital camera of a colleague of mine (also on the train). It ate batteries like cats eat fish. In order to get as many photos on the camera as possible, I shot at the lowest resolution (VGA) and the highest compression. Hence the crappy quality.

What I saw in Warsaw

It was January 1999 and I had to spend a week of 'fun' in Warsaw, work related. I had gone there on a number of occasions, but this was the first time I was going to stay there longer than two nights. Not that it bothered me, not at all. I, generally, like business trips and this was no exception. It gave me a bit of time to relax, on the company's expense account. What more would you want?

It was a very cold January and I was glad I had brought mittens and a cap to keep me a little bit warmer, during the time I could walkabout the city streets. One of the things I encountered was a changing of the guards at the war memorial in the center of Warsaw.

Besides the quite impressive 'Palace of Science and Culture', Warsaw is also well known for its parks. The city has two very large and impressive parks. Unfortunately, in winter, they're rather 'cold', but still very nice for the palaces that can be found in them.

As in many Eastern European cities, when rightly lit, the already impressive buildings that are littered around the city, become even more impressive at night. And specially the old town of Warsaw, which was totally bombed during world war 2, but also completely rebuilt afterwards is very nice to walk through, either during the day or during the night.

Some of the pictures are of the Palace of Science and Culture at night. Being the tallest building in Warsaw and, formerly, used by state bodies, it was famous for its suicides. During the day, in the building, employees would start drinking (vodka of course) and would, when disillusioned just a little bit more than regular, throw themselves of the top of the building at the end of the day.

The building, a gift from Stalin, in recognition of the hardships the Poles had to endure during the 'Great Patriotic War', is a 'relative' of the seven sisters in Moscow.

For some strange reason, one of the things that's easily begotten in Warsaw's old town is art. Yes art. Scattered all over the place are artists, or self proclaimed artists, selling everything from paintings to sculptures to drawings to… I always wonder what they do with the stuff when it rains. They simply can not keep everything dry, can they.

Paris with Christmas

It's December 1998. I had started working for Procter & Gamble half a year earlier and also had moved from Rotterdam to Brussels. My then-girlfriend even moved in with me shortly after I had set up shop in the capital of Europe.

To my surprise, this capital was a very pleasent surprise. A friendly and diverse nightlife, internationally oriented and French quality restaurants at affordable prices.

However, our Christmas was going to be spent in Paris. With quite a bit of luck, we still found a nicely priced hostel with terrible breakfast but reasonable beds. And the weather was bad. really bad.

I guess we had hoped for snow, or at least a winter 'atmosphere'. But instead, it was autumn, through and through. Then again, I guess Paris with Christmas is still worthwile. Mainly because, I guess, its always worthwile.

We didn't do any of the standard tourist attractions, though. We just chilled mostly. Drank coffee in small cafes, enjoyed French and foreign food in tiny restaurants, laughed at the tourists (looking in mirrors) and visited Jim Morrisons grave, where it was forbidden to take pictures.

At Versailles, we only visited the gardens since the line of people waiting to get in the palace was just tooo long.

Holy mount

The village on the mount is Le Mont Saint Michel and quite a tourist hotspot but, it has to be said, very impressive.

We visited a couple towns in the vicinity of the holy mount.

Wonderful weather, great villages, a relaxed weekend.

pictures of Egypt

Just before I started working for Procter & Gamble, I went to Egypt together with a good friend of mine. Not only did we get mightily sick from drinking too many fruit juices, it also was a lot of fun.

We visited both Cairo and Iskandria, that is, Alexandria.