If you are not very familiar with geography, you might know cologne as something you can use to smell good (or at least better).
Fun fact: Eau de Cologne was invented in Cologne.
If you don’t know the difference between the different smell improvers: it is all about the alcohol. I know, alcohol is not the answer – except in this case. Eau de Parfum has more alcohol and a stronger smell than Eau de Toilette. And Eau de Cologne would be the lightweight of the group.
So if you still don’t know where Cologne is: it is in Western Germany. It has a rich history, and quite an interesting story when it comes to the happenings of the second World War. I promise I will not convert this into a war-stories blog. But if you do have any interest in it, google it a bit. Most significantly though for me is how the cathedral withstood the tests of time (and WW2).
Strolling through the city
I had one day (11am to 11am) in Cologne and I only one “must-do”: see the cathedral. With it being rainy on the first day, I didn’t want to go up the cathedral tower just to have no view from the top. So I decided to take a stroll through the city and see some of the other sites on my way there. I passed the Basilica of St. Cunibert on my way to the river. That is the Rhine river. A mythical river you hear of in stories and songs. In real life it is also pretty impressive. The Hohenzollern bridge that crosses it is quite a sight to behold and the entire fence between the tracks and the walk path (this is on the bridge) is covered with padlocks. By some strabge stroke I ended up taking a photo of one with my name on it. For the record: I was looking for a (any) name that I recognised, so yes I was lucky.
I spent a while sitting in the park on the river bank: Rheingarten. The rest of the afternoon was spent strolling through little streets and I passed the old market and the historical city hall. Finally, I arrived at the Cologne Cathedral.
This Gothic style cathedral is currently the tallest twin-spired church at 157m. It is also suggested to be Germany’s most visited landmark, and for good reason. No matter from which angle you approach it, this impressive structure is bound to take your breath away. Or at least have you look twice . I’ve seen quite a few cathedrals by now, and it is definitely in the top 3. First off, I should mention that I add a photo to show you of which building I am speaking. However, no photo can do this place justice.
In the 12th century the Archbishop of Cologne acquired some valuable relics; possibly through some questionable channels. It being pretty much ancient history, we won’t give ourselves a headache about that now. Either way, these relics had to be housed in a appropriate fashion, so obviously a new cathedral had to be built. Construction started in 1248 and the eastern side was done in 1322. In the middle of the 14th century construction started on the western wing, but luckily we do have some constants through the ages. One of these are delayed construction work. So by 1473 the construction work was halted and for the next about 400 years a crane topped the western tower. It wasn’t completed until the late 1800’s.
Sixty years later the cathedral were hit by 14 aerial strikes, but it survived the war. Good thing I think, because at current rates, crane rental for another 400 years would probably not be worth it. After some repairs (good and bad ones) and more recent renovations, this magnificent building is something to have on your bucket list.
I didn’t go up the tower as it can apparently easily take 30 minutes to reach the top. Now I have been climbing a lot of stairs, but to be safe I’d rather allow 45 minutes to include breathers and moments of severe regret. Seeing that I only had about an hour to spare before I had to leave for my train, I decided to keep that on the list for another time.
Some facts about my stay
- Days: 1
- Budget: €84 (for accommodation, food and sightseeing).
- Actually spent: about €60
- B&B: DJH Youth Hostel Cologne Pathpoint. I was in a 6-bed room with a shared bathroom. Lockers require a €1 or €2 coin (whih you get back). Breakfast was included and they are very willing to let you store your luggage there (I did for a couple of hours after I checked out
- Local food: I think this is perhaps more a Germany thing in general, but the waiter suggested I try currywurst with a curry sauce and fried potatoes. It’s good…!
- Distance travelled so far: about 980km
Although I didn’t go up the tower, I still got to experience quite a bit of the city. The people were friendly and the atmosphere was lovely. I would definitely visit again.
Next up: Bruges
While I was planning my trip, a major consideration was car museums. I’ve been to the Ferrari museum in Maranello and it was an experience of a lifetime. So while planning my itinerary, I had to see the birthplace of Volkswagen: Wolfsburg. As it was close enough, I decided to make my stopover in Hannover.
Now I should mention that Hannover does not advertise well – I mean, compared to other cities, this one looked rather dull on paper. Then again, for one night I didn’t really care so I could see an hour or two of the city after my adventure in Wolfsburg.
The plan was to stop in Hannover and drop off my bag in a locker before I could head off to Wolfsburg. For the most part, I actually stuck to the plan (yes, this is a noteworthy feat). The only challenge was the link between my reading and basic math skills. See, I would figure out that I locked my stuff up in a (very) short term locker only after I actually locked it. These lockers are €3 for two hours and once you open it, the session expires (large locker price, seeing that my backpack was about 7mm too big to fit through the ridiculously narrow door of the small locker). After about a five minute extremely intense inner battle, and some very basic calcualtions, I decided to go back and move my bag to a 24 hour locker – at €5 this made sense.
With about a 15 minute delay (official reported cause: baggage delays) I caught the next train to Wolfsburg. Literally. I had two minutes to get to the platform. My neighbour was a very nice German girl – well, we spoke a full 10 words. Her English was about as good as my German, so I could gather she lived in Berlin and that she was heading home. For the rest we pretty much smiled a lot, and tried to nod at the one or two words that we could figure out.
I can tell you a bit about the history, but I am convinced if you are reading a blog, you know how to Google, so I will not be boring you with that. Just in short, this is where the VW Beetle was born. Where evil genius (a.k.a. Adolf Hitler) met automotive engineering (connecting a name to this is a bit more complicated, so I leave it there) this iconic car was created: the “People’s car”.
Today, Wolfsburg is a bit more than just a Volkswagen factory. It is home to the Phaeno Science Center, which is quite an imposing building just as you exit the station.
You can also find the VW Autostadt here. After some careful research and reading a lot of reviews, it seems like this is more a place to visit when you collect your newly acquired Volkswagen. Seeing that I already paid my train ticket, I figured buying a car would be an unnecessary expense (also perhaps an unaffordable one). So I decided my visit would be spent in the AutoMuseum Volkswagen.
Being a little bit stingy, and slightly disobedient towards my GPS, I ended up walking the long way around. I would say it was the scenic route, but honestly I cannot lie to you like that. Basically I can now tell you where to go to rent a car if you ever need one in Wolfsburg. However, after about 1.8km and some very uneventful sightseeing I finally reached the museum.
It needed its own heading. It was that awesome. Yes, perhaps it is due to years of being influenced by my car-enthusiast brothers. Whichever way, this was worth every moment (and the €6 entrance) and I spent almost three hours here. There are various models of the beetle and the microbus, several engines and a section that looks like Friday night at the drag races.*
*Drag races: in my frame of reference this is a Friday night event (referred to as “drags”) about 40km from my home. It involves fast cars, loud music, some drinking and quite often a braai (for anyone not familiar with the term – you would probably call it a BBQ).
The museum also boasts with some race car models, some more recent Volkswagen models and a whole collection of vintage bicycles. Not entirely sure where the bicycles fit in, but it was still pretty awesome to see. Inbetween the cats and bicycles there are small displays of things like old headlamps, engines and factory models.
Back in Hannover I got my bag from the lockers and headed out of the station to find a tram. Between the ticket attendant and myself we agreed that it would be best to buy two day tickets (if anyone needs a day ticket, you can have the second one which is not yet validated). By this time I was quite exhausted, but the day would not be complete without getting lost once more. I couldn’t find where he directed me to and ended up walking to the next station. Still, it was worth it to take the tram to the B&B.
With the idea that Hannover was not the most interesting stop, I ended up taking a nap first before heading out. Sadly Hannover is a bit misrepresented. I picked a direction and started walking and as far as I went I saw beautiful places. Even more importantly, this place had an amazing atmosphere. Everywhere people where outside having a drink or sitting and chatting with friends.
I ended up having an iced coffee and a super tasty sandwich at Teestübchen – a cafe that has tables and lawnchairs packed out on the Ballhofplatz.
To conclude (based on my title, I suppose this is necessary)
If you judge Wolfsburg on what I saw alone, it would be unfair. But even just that, I really liked the city. Considering the museum alone – off course I loved it!!!
However, Hannover was a pleasant surprise and I would most definitely visit again. Personally I think I prefer it over Hamburg.
Some facts about my stay
- Days: 1
- Budget: €105 (for accommodation, food, sightseeing and a locker).
- Actually spent: about €75
- B&B: Hotel Schwarzer Bär. A basic room with a shared bathroom, but still very comfortable. They have a wonderful breakfast and it is accross the road from the tram stop.
- Distance travelled so far: about 680km
Next up: Cologne
Ps. I will check all the photos once I am back home and if necessary I will replace them with better ones. While I was uploading photos to my phone tonight (through my super cool new USB connector) I accidentally formatted the SD card with the first week and a half of my trip. Don’t ask how it happened – it is a very long story resulting in a “I’m not really sure”. Turns out the “super cool” connector and my extreme technological ineptitude was a very bad combination. So I will try to recover those, but for the mean time the photos on my phone will have to do.
Okay maybe a bit dramatic – that is where my trip began. Still, it was pretty awesome.
First off, I was surprised by how much German I understood – don’t get me wrong, it is still extremely little. But at least I was not completely lost and confused by the world around me. The station was easy enough to navigate and it was quite easy to get on the S-bahn to Berliner Tor. This is the station closest to the hostel I stayed at.
So you get out of this little station and… well no first you need to find the right exit. So I headed back in straight through and then: …when you get out of the station you walk under this bridge which we would have typically avoided back home. I mean it looks dodgy – all graffiti and gloomy. Not the most comfortable of situations for a paranoid South African.
If by chance you don’t know a South African, let me tell you: we (I generalise yes – maybe that is just me) have this deep rooted sense of discomfort bordering on paranoia. Now I believe that is a good skill – it keeps you aware of your surroundings. By being suspicious of everyone and everything, you are more vigilant. It also ensures that you have this mini panic attack when you walk out a train station and come face to face with this particular bridge.
Then a guy with a suit and briefcase walks past you. A kid on his kick scooter and well everyone else exiting the station. So after laughing at myself for perhaps being too paranoid (in this instance) I went ahead to the hostel.
The check-in staff at the hostel did not help at all to salvage the reputation of Germans being ‘somewhat’ rude. If you are German: rest assured, I have now decided that this stereotype is not true for you all. I’ve met some super nice people up till now. I can also say that it is clear I have some German heritage. It’s like German Shepherds (haha, see what I’m doing here) – so cute and fluffy and amazing, but you do not want to be on their wrong side.
Hamburg has your typical big-city-feeling – I suppose this is to be expected from a city with around 1,7 million inhabitants. It is big and it is busy. Still there are spaces where it is so peaceful that you almost feel alone. And inbetween the concrete giants, you find these pearls from an old world that has long since been surpassed.
I spent about an hour lying in my room deciding on my next step before I headed to the train station with no specific destination in mind – I had a rough idea of the neighbourhood I wanted to find. After a bit of aimless strolling, I had one word whirling in my mind: steel. This was a city of steel – literally. Amazing steel structures everywhere.
Here I want to interrupt myself to just give you some insight into how I envisioned this trip. I will be travelling (including my time in SA) for 86 days, which is quite a while. Also, it was a rough year and I want to have a bit of a holiday – not just run around to get to see everything.
So my goal for this trip is not to see every tourist spot or landmark. That does not mean I will not go to the touristy places (you will so see posts on the Eiffel tower)! However, I was set on relaxing, experiencing, getting a bit lost and seeing things as I go.
So I followed the steel bridge, and by luck decided to go straight ahead, which lead me to this amazing tower:
Hauptkirche St. Nikolai
The information board in the ‘courtyard’ says the following: ” St. Nikolas’ Church, built on the site of a former 14th century church destroyed in the Great Fire of 1842. New building 1845 – 74 to plans by architect G. Scott. Destroyed 1943 – 44, leaving just the tower and outer walls. The ruin is maintained as a monument against war.”
This monument is intended as a place to remember the victims of war and tyranny. It also boasts with the highest church tower in Hamburg at 147.3m high. There is a glass panelled lift with which you are taken to a height of 76m with breathtaking views over the city and trust me it is worth every cent. [€5 for adults, €4 for students. Incl museum and lift]
Next stop, Miniatur Wunderland…
Described online as the largest miniature or model railway attraction in the world. If I am very honest – I was sure this was one of those model-train-nerd places (sorry!). However, a lot of internet sources rank this as the top thing to do in Hamburg, so I went despite my reservations. And oh how wrong I was in my assumptions. This was truly one of the most fascinating museum (for lack of a better category – maybe exhibit?) visits I have ever had! I was like a little kid – pressing all the buttons, getting excited about the flashing lights and taking hundreds of seemingly identical photos. You basically travel through miniature models of USA, Scandinavia, Germany, Italy and Switzeland (I hope I am not forgetting any place). So if you have about 2 – 3 hours and €15 to spare: GO!
Another top listed sight is the old warehouse district in the Hamburg port. The area was built in the 1880’s and is now classified as a historical monument. Buildings with oak-pile foundations, canals that fills with the tides and steel bridges (told you it is everywhere) – it is really something to see. I wandered between the buildings the whole morning and if it wasn’t for thinking I might starve, I would have stayed longer.
Miniatur Wunderland is located in this area, so you really have no excuse to miss it.
So, was Hamburg worth it?
YES!! It did most definitely not disappoint. The city itself is busy in places, but there is something for everyone. I think for now I am happy with what I saw, but if I would ever find myself in Hamburg again I won’t be hiding out in the hotelroom either.
Some facts about my stay
- Stop on trip: #1
- Days: 2
- Budget: €180 (for accommodation, food and sightseeing for 2 days).
- Actually spent: about €143
- Hostel: A&O City. The biggest hostel I have seen. Really nice though, with a decent breakfast and only about 300m from the S-Bahn station.
- Local transport: I only used S-bahn because it provided easy enough access and it is included with the Eurail pass.
- Distance walked (according to the “very credible” Samsung tracker): 11km + 13km
- Local cuisine tried: Labskaus. It’s weird, but I like it.
Next up: Hannover
As an interlude post I figured I will shortly describe the practical side of using the Eurail (or Interail for that matter) pass.
In my previous post I told the tale till where I got on the train. Now that part is hardly something that confuses anyone. What is somewhat confusing is how the rail pass works. See the websites describe how you need to get it validated and what you should fill in on your travel diary. It does not describe things like where you should sit. For a South African rather new to public transport, these are the basics you need to cover! So for anyone looking for information on the practical side of how this works – let me try to elaborate:
- You get your pass activated before you get on the first train. Now I bought mine pre-activated, but I got it stamped anyway (just to be extra sure).
- You look for the train on the station boards to get the right time of departure and which station. Now in my opinion this is straight forward in Italy, Sweden and Germany (at least what I have seen up till now). It was not so straight forward in Portugal – but maybe I just didn’t get the system.
- You can check the Rail Planner app to see if reservations are required. If not explicitly required, you could get away without it. In Germany you can apparently not reserve a seat on a regional train. For the record, I asked a DB official (at the ticket office) who told me that it is not required to reserve the IC or ICE trains in Germany, even though the app said “reservation recommended”. Now I’ve never been one to spend money if it isn’t necessary – and worst that could happen is that you don’t have a seat (so you have to stand for the trip). So if you want my opinion: get a train that starts at or soon before your point of departure, and get on that train as soon as possible.
- If you do have to reserve, like I first had to for my train between Cologne and Brussels, you can do it on the train company website. Tha Rail Planner app does offer a reservation service, but it is worth to first see if you can do it directly with the company. Why? Well for this trip through the app it was €20; the same reservation on the DB website was €4.50 (you simply look for the journey and select the “seat only” option next to the booking button).
- As for knowing if a seat is reserved – well I can only comment on what I have seen on the five German trains I was on. Above the seats there are these digital displays that shows a name or “reserved” or something (if there is some text, take it as reserved). If the screen is blank – grab the seat!
*I will try to update this post with information from different countries as I go along.
For now, safe travels
You’re off to Great Places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So get on your way! – dr. Seuss
I love dr. Seuss, but I’m sure he left out the crucial point of preparing for your trip. Or maybe his character had better planning skills. Either way, for me the day before leaving is usually so crazy that I almost forget about the trip itself.
This is what happened to me on Monday. My ferry was set to depart at 18:45 and I wanted to be there around half past five. I only had a few things to do… like pack. Now what I haven’t told you yet is that I was packing for a three month holiday and I was set on only taking my backpack.
*34 because we were out till 3am and I was too tired to get up at seven.
Early Sunday morning and I had a list as long as my arm of things that needed to be done. So I did what any reasonable person would do:
- Made a list
- Did something entirely different
I ended up booking two more hostels, made lunch and went to the park for my friend’s farewell.
After a long (and some might say tearful) goodbye, I headed home just in time for my laundry slot. With it being exams, I didn’t do any the past week and a half – so I needed to do laundry before I could pack.
T-11 hours (so 8am)
I managed to only sleep 15 minutes longer than my last (of 3) alarm. With clean clothes, I could finally start packing. Now came the challenge. 1 hiking backpack. 86 days travel. Longest in one place: 7 days. Air travel that might require a maximum weight allowance of 7kg (haha, not a chance). After packing out every piece of clothing I have, carefully selecting each piece and rolling them (apparently this saves space #traveltip) I squeezed everything into my bag. And no packing session would be complete without the process of weighing, doubting, unpacking and repacking (with no change from before). So take two ended in a somewhat satisfactory result. I just needed shampoo (which by the way, I already bought months before and forgot about).
T-8 hours (11 am)
An hour later than planned, I headed to the mall with a simple threefold mission. Transfer money between accounts, buy data, buy shampoo. An hour later (record time, I should add) I had enough money in my account for rent, bought data enough to support a small village forever, bought a travel wallet and got shampoo (and a toothbrush, new hair brush, cappuccino and a lunch box). So yes, I went slightly off script there, but I was still on time.
T-4 hours (3pm already)
I only had lunch and 2 hours had passed – still not sure how that happened. But I had 4 hours before departure left , which meant 2 hours before I had to be on my bus. And I still needed to clean, pack the last things, clean a SD card (or seven) and make space on my phone.
If you think that seems ridiculous – you are right. I’d also have you know that I got to most of it – just not emptying my phone’s memory. That is really no big deal though. Apart from a permanent notification saying “Storage space running out; some system functions may not work” (I am sure it is nothing).
T-… oh who I am kidding? I am running late
With 15 mins left, I was still drying dishes and taking out the trash and putting away my laptop. I was more stressed than before my exam a week ago. But I made it. In fact I had to wait for the bus about two minutes. And I have not yet remembered something I left behind. Off course the connecting tram was cancelled and I waited ahout 10 minutes for the next one, but that gave me time to get a water (okay, I just realised I lied – I did forget my water).
Ferry from Gothenburg to Kiel, Germany
Best decision ever. *
*Perhaps this is a good time to inform you that I am easily excited. Everything is pretty. And a lot of decisions can (and will) be described as the best ever. Descriptive words like awesome, amazing, fantastic (etc.) will also be common – refer back to the fact that everything is pretty.
Anyway, I am really glad I decided to go with the ferry rather than, well anything else. Boarding was easy enough; finding my cabin slightly more challenging. There are a lot of cabins! So after lying on my super white bed, then lying on the couch (I was tired from running around like a beheaded chicken the past two hours, okay) I finally made my way out to the sun deck. And this is where I spent most of the evening. Two guys from Germany (father and son) shared a beer with me and I got to see an amazing sunset over the Baltic.
A bit about the ferry: I travelled with Stena Germanica going to Kiel. If memory serves, it was something like €75 for this trip with an inside cabin. Drinks were expensive, as expected. But the store was superbly cheap – well that is if you compare prices to Sweden. There was wifi onboard, which I could not connect to – in all fairness though, I think the fault was with my phone not the wifi.
The next morning I was lazy to get up, but I finally made it to the deck in time to see us arriving to Germany. Another hour and a half and we were disembarking. I was in Germany.
Kiel train station
I cannot really comment on Kiel. I saw the port and the train station. Walking between these two is quite possible – I mean I did it with a 10+kg backpack – but there is a free bus also. I only saw this when I actually crossed the road to the station…
The people working at the DB counters were super helpful and the station is quite easy to navigate. Within 20 minutes I was getting on my first train – pass validated (again), basic German skills activated and all hyped up for the trip to come.
Check back on the next post to see about my next stop.
We all have that childhood dream – becoming a doctor, having a Ferrari or even just a pony. I think one of my first dreams were to visit Greece. I have been playing Zeus (a computer game where you build your own empire) and fell in love with the mythology. When I got (much) older and finally got my first opportunity to travel, I went to Italy. I know, it seems strange to dream about something for years and then not grab the chance when it comes, but I was travelling with a friend and we found the middle ground.
Another two and a half years and I am living in Sweden with a residence permit allowing me access to the Schengen area. And I still haven’t gotten to Greece. I have however just kicked off the most amazing trip you (or then me) can ever imagine.
So I will try to keep you posted as I move around. Being on trains a lot should give me a chance to jot down some ramblings. But first I’d like to tell you about the trip in general.
How it got started
When I got the opportunity to move to Sweden, I saw one huge perk: three months summer vacation with open access to Europe. I have been saving up for ages with no specific plan. So this was it. I was going to see Europe.
I started planning in January and quickly realised that three months only sounds long. If you want to visit the whole Europe that means very little time in each city. So I had to trim and skim and sadly eliminate some places until I got a rough plan of which countries I could get to.
The overall route
After a careful (and a bit sad) process of elimination, I decided I will visit Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Austria and Czech Republic. Yes, Portugal is in cursive – the trip was still too long, so I moved that up a bit and visited Portugal early April. I will tell you about it sometime.
And as you will notice Greece is again not on the list. For now the plan is to do that next year.
Inbetween all this, I wanted to make time to go home to South Africa. Now, I haven’t seen my aunt and uncle in a year, so that was a priority. I also wanted to visit the coast and I’d need to say hello back in my home town. So I picked two weeks overlapping my brother’s school holiday (so we can visit the South Coast as a family) and looked for flights from anywhere in Europe. Finally it was decided: I will be flying from Amsterdam to Cape Town to visit my aunt, then from there to Durban for our holiday and then we drive up back home (close to Johannesburg). So a mini SA tour squashed inbetween.
Planning the itinerary
Everyone has their way of planning for a trip. I like to plan for ages on random trivial things and then do the important things in the ‘final hour’. This is thanks to both my somewhat short attention span and amazing ability to procasternate. Anyway, I started by finding the top things in each country to do (sorted into cities). Then I looked at the easiest way to make a round trip around Europe.
Okay I am lying. I wrote and edited, scrapped and rewrote, and edited again. But I finally got a plan that would have me in Amsterdam on time for my flights, Brussels to meet a friend I haven’t seen in ages, Turin for another friend’s graduation and somewhere nice* for my birthday.
*somewhere nice: this was the very specific requirement I had. I also did not want to travel too much and wanted to be able to either relax or go out and have fun. So yes, pretty much anywhere. Initially I planned for Paris, but after reconsideration I will now spend the weekend in Aix-en-Provence (France).
My first important step was to decide on travel mode. I took hours, days even, to weight the prices and durations. I prefer train over bus – it has more room and you can get up and walk somewhere; and it is faster. Now if you are wondering if the rail pass is worth it, let me give you the long and short of my considerations and why I decided to buy it.
- I had the option of Eurail or Interail as I am a non-EU citizen currently living in Europe. Interail is (somewhat) cheaper if you buy anything up to a 2 month pass. There is however no 3 month continuous pass as with Eurail.
- Youth passes are cheaper (we know that, right). The thing is, you have to be 27 or younger the day you activate the pass to utilise this. So if I would buy a three month pass, I could use the youth pass. If I would buy a shorter pass, I would probably validate it after my 28th (shhhhh) birthday.
- I calculated costs for most of the journeys I want to take. Seeing that I want to travel a lot, this amounted to quite a huge sum.
Everything considered, the Eurail pass made a lot of sense for me. I would like to suggest that you take the time to first see what the value of your travel would be before you buy it, as it is not always cheaper to buy the pass. Offcourse I was extra lucky as there was a summer sale on and I ended up paying €780 for my 2nd class 3 months continuous youth pass (say that 3 times fast) with shipping.
I was writing exams until Saturday and departed Monday night. Now keep in mind it was the end of our school year, so Saturday (whole day after the exam) was dedicated to a social with the class. Sunday afternoon was spent saying goodbye to friends and laundry afterwards. So in short: I did not get to much. Up till now I have booked places for half of the trip, but I need to do the rest soon. Mostly I plan to stay in hostels – it is affordable, but I prefer to stay in them for the atmosphere. If you haven’t tried it yet, you really should! I’ve also reserved my spot on the chocolate and cheese train in Montreux (Switzerland). The rest I’ll take as it comes.
So now you know my general plan, welcome to my trip! If you follow along and want me to share something specific, give me a shout and I can add that in the upcoming posts. Same goes for any questions about my planning or itinerary in general.
As always – thanks for reading!
The dictionary definition for this is “very strange; bizarre; unusual; unexpected, or not natural”. I often get called weird – usually by friends that say it almost as a compliment. And I take it as such. I like to be different; to be weird. It means I am not like everyone else, right?
This one is more difficult. We hear the word “foreigner” and immediately have this preconceived picture of what that may be. I am South African – we all look like foreigners to someone, as we have people from all over the globe. For me, the term “foreigner” has always been a way to refer to tourists. Listening to news, you can argue this term refers to people not belonging in your country. Then you move to Sweden and it all makes sense. I’m not saying every Swede conforms to the stereotypical “Swedish” look, but I know for a fact it is clear that I am a foreigner. I look different, I sound different and I think different.
Frances Mayes – “Splendid to arrive alone in a foreign country and feel the assault of difference. Here they are all along, busy with living; they don’t talk or look like me. The rhythm of their day is entirely different; I am foreign. ”
We all live in this little cocoon. Your own little world. As we step into new places – new jobs, new cities, new countries – we expand our understanding of just how different we all are. You think you have it all figured out. The way we do it is how it is done everywhere. Then you realise that on this other side of the globe they do things completely opposite to what you are used to – and it works.
We can call it strange…
Depending on where you are from you might find them driving on the “wrong” side of the road or using the metric system – and this will be weird for you. Personally, these don’t matter much to me. Yes it is different, but this is a fact we have been familiar with for very long. I’ve mentioned some habits that you form here in Sweden in my previous post, 70 Days in Sweden. When I just arrived, most of these things seemed ludicrous. It is extremely antisocial to be stuck on your phone – staring at it as you walk to the bus, ride the bus, get off the bus… you get my point. Now, it makes sense. The bus is one of those places you have to “kill time” – it is literally a means to an end.
There are a lot of things that us as foreigners might find strange. Most Swedes I’ve come across in a public setting are not too keen on talking to strangers. However, this is not a set-in-stone rule – stuck in the same crowded bus where the door doesn’t want to close, and the lady next to you might jokingly comment on it (you probably might not understand her, but you will know she is joking, as she is laughing). Swedes don’t necessarily apologise for bumping into someone, especially on public transport. It’s crowded, and you have limited time to get on or off…
Then there is the concept of being cashless. As a born and bred South African this one threw me. If you don’t have cash back home, you might struggle at some shops. You don’t have coins for the car guard and you need to return the 20 bucks you owe your friend for the drinks they paid for last weekend. In Sweden there is “Swish” and a lot of stores actually specify they are cash free. It’s different. It is also difficult to do without a Swedish bank account that I can use for internet banking and Swish (which I still need to figure out).
But is it so different?
After the initial “what?” moments, you start seeing the similarities. You realise that the person next to you at the bus stop probably won’t look up at you, but if you would ask them for directions or to help you find the right bus, they will help you with incredible sincerity. I was standing at a very busy terminal this weekend; everyone scurrying past each other on their phones, headphones in their ears. This guy came rushing past the crowd, tripped and fell. Everyone around him suddenly stopped, came out of their ‘bubbles’ and helped him up and out of the street. They helped him straighten out and pick his things up, and then everyone continued again with their day.
For me, a very common question is “but how do you find the food?” – personally I don’t find it much different that in South Africa. Meat is expensive, alcohol is extremely expensive (comparing to back home) and “organic” is a big thing. Lactose free milk, ecological veggies and soda’s are quite expensive (which at least in my case is getting me to scale down on those super unhealthy treats). In restaurants, even fast food places, normal water is usually free. So, I find it… healthy. But not in a “ugh, which green smoothie are you drinking again today?” way – more wholesome. The foods you like or even love in a less serious-illness-causing form.
So is it difficult to settle in Sweden?
Short answer: no.
I don’t find it difficult at all – I suppose it depends on your affinity to change. You can buy the same sort of things at your local stores that you can find anywhere else – you just need to explore the different stores a bit to find your favourite. Most public signs are given in English, or in the few cases it is not, you can usually deduce what it tells you. Trains will typically give announcements in Swedish and English, and if not you can ask anyone around you and they will try to explain.
That being said, there are some things you have to keep an open mind to. I know every site you read and person you ask will refer to Sweden as being perfectly “English-friendly”. If you come from a native English-speaking country (so UK, USA, Canada, Australia… you get the picture), you might find that you want to disagree with this. Although navigating won’t be a nightmare, keep in mind that Swedes aren’t all native English-speakers. This is a second language, and most people will be completely proficient. I have found some older people that cannot speak to or understand you at all – they will smile and politely make you realise that they can’t help you. In general though, the Swedes will try and figure out what you are saying even if it takes a bit longer. This just leaves the challenge of shopping with all labels being printed in Swedish. Tip: Google translate has a function where you take a photo of the text, and then select all text to be translated. This will help that you don’t buy too many wrong items. Worst case, just ask a shop assistant – they are unbelievably helpful!
The weather is something to get used to, but they have a saying about that: “there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing”. So I am still in the process of figuring out the clothing issue, but in general the weather isn’t that bad. It’s cold. And wet (well, at least here in Gothenburg). And it gets dark early. I think the trick is to just find a way to see those in a positive light – personally I love the rain, and the sun is usually too bright for my eyes, so it is just the cold I have to get used to.
At the end of the day, remember that you are a foreigner. You are allowed to not get the whole recycling thing yet, to forget your umbrella and get completely drenched and to take the tram in the wrong direction. You are even allowed to complain about the bad weather. I mean, I’ve been freezing for weeks and the locals are now pointing out that it is getting colder. It is part of the fun. Just don’t let anything get you down, and if does meet up with a friend for a drink (even if it is over Skype).
Let me know if you had any similar experiences and how you are dealing with settling in your new city.
That dreaded day that is usually preceded by weeks of planning and packing. Wrapping valuables and labelling boxes. A couple of fights and tedious conversations with a moving company that you are still not sure knows exactly where you are moving to.
In my previous post 70 Days in Sweden I said I was planning to do a series on my experiences moving to Sweden. If you are new to my blog, catch up on how and why I ended up moving to Sweden in my post Time out.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step
That is the common variation of an old Chinese proverb. My single step changed into a sprint on 8 April 2017. This is the day I found out I got my scholarship. I remember the details quite clearly: we were visiting my aunt and uncle, I was being absurdly socially awkward by sitting at my laptop with bulky headphones listening to a podcast about ‘Studying in Sweden’. I was quite anxious as everybody have received their feedback and I still haven’t, when I realised that I didn’t check my mail that day. Turns out I got the mail on the 7th already…
After reading the mail and retelling the story to every person present, I had this moment of panic. Would this be a wise decision? I had a great job, a comfortable life and family and friends that I adore. I also had no knowledge on Sweden, except that we have a Volvo and that I knew it is cold. It took me four days to send back the (very simple) acceptance form.
In the next few weeks I became a Google app’s worst nightmare – I had around 40 tabs constantly open with different blogs and websites about how to move to and survive in Sweden. I read up on customs and habits and things to expect (which in all honesty was not all very accurate). Then someone told me that Sweden is extremely expensive, and so started the dig into how much you need to live “comfortably”.
For the record, it is quite possible. I will share some financial insight in a future post.
After about a month I realised that I first need to get to Sweden. So, I booked a flight. I was also fortunate to have my mom book her flight with mine – yes, she was joining me to help with the move. The plan was to spend the first week getting me settled, see a bit of Gothenburg and then early the second week to go to Stockholm for a bit of sightseeing before she had to leave again.
A major concern was that we didn’t know much about my apartment. At the end of April, I got an offer for an apartment with a kitchenette of approximately 18m². I knew that accommodation is really expensive and very scarce, so I accepted it. Rather blindly. I didn’t know an address, move-in date or what exactly an 18m² apartment could entail. I just knew it’s small.
Not knowing when I would get my apartment had one risk: we were planning to stay in it for our time in Gothenburg once we arrived in Sweden. Not having an apartment would mean that we had to book accommodation (which is insanely expensive). By the time I was thoroughly stressed about this, I finally received my tenancy agreement mid-June. At least by then I had a hundred plans of how to possibly arrange furniture in an apartment this size and I searched every website possible to find possible floor plans. And the move-in date was before my arrival.
The dreaded Residence Permit
This is one of those things that gives people sleepless nights. If I am being honest, I have almost no insight into the process and I had no trouble whatsoever. My greatest concern was that I waited a week longer for mine that the other scholarship holders. The visit to the embassy started as a horror show. In the middle of a very busy city (Hatfield, Pretoria) at 3pm on a Monday afternoon – I got wrong directions from a car guard, drove over a red traffic light (okay, it just turned) with traffic police looking at me and drove around in circles for almost half an hour because of the one-way streets. Finally, I found the right building, but with no clue where to turn in, I ended up driving on a sidewalk (as the road was a one-way in the other direction) to an art shop parking lot. From there I walked around the grounds for 15 minutes only to find the embassy nearest to my car. Next time I will know.
Once inside, it was the smoothest process ever – I waited for five minutes, had my photo and fingerprints taken and then I was off. Well, I first stopped in at the art shop. Three weeks later my card was ready for collection.
If you are interested in moving to Sweden, you can always visit the Swedish Migration website for more info. They have quite a lot of guidance and great links.
Probably one of the scariest words. Not so much when you think about it, or even say it, but actually filling that document in and then submitting it for signatures was probably one of the scariest moments in my life. Here I was in a well-paying job with a lot of benefits, and I was giving that up to become a student (again). Goodbye dental and pension fund. Okay, the pension I kept, but it was still terrifying.
It was my comfort zone. I can go on about comfort zones forever, but the point is, I had my hole. I knew where I was supposed to be, what I was doing (most of the time) and most importantly I had the security of a permanent position in a country with a very volatile economic climate. In my notice month I was working harder than I ever. I wanted to hand over in a way that my projects wouldn’t suffer and I was trying to complete some things before I left.
My dad had two pieces of advice:
- The first time is the hardest. Resigning will always give you an “uncomfortable” feeling, but it gets better.
- They will blame you anyway. If you don’t get to handing over everything ‘perfectly’, they will blame you. And if you do, and the next person drops the ball, they will still blame you. Moral of the story: relax.
Unlike with a typical move, my moving day entailed getting on a plane with two bags – 46kg. Okay, my mom was coming with and so I confiscated some of her space. Still, this seems a lot until you start packing.
The reason for my move was to take up my studies again, so I would obviously need to bring some textbooks. I brought five – in my defence, I am busy with my first study period and have already used two of them.
I would need clothes. The “warmer” stuff I was planning on getting here in Sweden, but everything else had to come. Jeans and underwear as we all have our favourite brand and I know which ones work. Tops, because I cannot go naked. Shoes was a point of contention – I initially had two pairs of boots and a pair of pumps. Then I remembered that I might need sneakers, bought a spare pair of pumps, found two pairs of great boots in the back of my cupboard and just had to bring my slippers. You can see how this ended up making my packing space quite limited.
I also had to bring those much-loved jerseys, a poncho, a rather expensive trench coat (which is now looking like a good-for-summer item) and a whole selection of scarves, hats and gloves.
Toiletries, I figured, can be bought here. But medicine was a must have. So, I packed my pharmacy, my make-up case (it should last me about two years) and a small selection of jewellery. A couple of hand bags, an extra backpack and some electronics. Okay a lot of electronics. Two cell phones, two laptops, three hard drives, two cameras and a camcorder. And a flashlight. It should get me through.
We packed, and re-packed. Then unpacked and shuffled. It was frustrating and aggravating. Finally, we had four checked bags and two backpacks loaded to capacity.
The only thing left to do was to say goodbye.
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Until next time,
Today I have been in Sweden a total of 70 days.
Mankind is continuously trying to explain human behaviour. We understand theories and laws and “rules”. We like the boxes – ticking them, placing others in them and trying to think outside of them. One of these often contemplated general rules is how long it takes to form a habit. Recent studies suggests this magic number is 66 days – this is to have a habit become automatic. Looking at “easier” habits, like drinking a glass of lemon water in the morning you can argue to be accomplished sooner. More “complex” habits can take up to eight months.
What does this have to do with my 70 day mark? Well, I have to argue that moving to Sweden from South Africa comes with its fair share of new habits. I also have to agree to some extent with the study – some habits are in line with your way of thinking and therefore easier to adopt. Other habits are so different to what I am used to that I suspect it will take quite a bit longer than two months.
Over the next couple of weeks I will post a series elaborating on everything from weather to buying groceries. In this post however, we’ll only touch on some appetisers as I’m reliving my first 70 days.
Moving to Sweden
Moving is always stressful. So much to do; so little time. I had a bit more than three months to really plan. The curveball: I could bring 46kg. Throw into that mix that I have only been to Europe once before (not Sweden though). For those of you that don’t know South Africa – we have a lot of sunshine and nice warm weather, don’t get (real) snow in large areas of the country and rain is something typically limited to a season. So what do you pack – swimwear and sundresses or a parka you bought from the Russian import shop?
I opted to bring mostly jeans and tops and get the warmer clothes here. In hindsight, this was a good choice. In the past 70 days, days have gotten shorter by about 5 hours, temperatures dropped from early 20’s to around 14°C average and it rains at least 3 days a week. Don’t get me wrong, I am absolutely loving the weather but it takes some getting used to. Something else to get used to is how warm it is indoors. This brings me to some habits I have developed:
Habit #1: Never leave the house without checking the weather first. Preferably the hourly forecast on your phone. Added effort is opening the window and getting an idea if you should add another scarf.
Habit #2: If the weather says rain (anytime during the day) take the rain coat. Don’t hesitate – you will need it.
If no rain is predicted, take the small umbrella in your bag. Just always take the umbrella.
Habit #3: Layer. Yes like an onion, or Shrek. This does though mean that you have a whole undressing session when walking into a building. I haven’t mastered this yet, but I am catching on (I am also up to at least three layers).
Living in a new country
We all have those favourite stores – for groceries, for clothes, a favourite restaurant or even pharmacy. Then you get here, and you realise that IKEA is probably one of the most amazing places you’ve ever visited. It is also almost an hour by bus to get there, so I should be safe on the budget end of things. Getting used to new stores (and figuring out labels in Swedish) was one side of the story – the other side is getting everything you bought back to your apartment. See in South Africa I have my car waiting outside. Enough boot and seat space to take home half of the mall. If I want to take an extra sweater, it is no problem just leaving it on the back seat “just in case”.
Now I travel by bus. For my state of mind this is brilliant – it keeps me off the road and thus my road rage is far less (no, sadly not yet gone – I still end up in busy shops behind trolleys and baby strollers). Thing is, you can only take what you can carry. Like one of those 60 second game shows, but you pay.
Habit #4: Buy groceries often and in moderate amounts. One bag – preferably a nice sturdy one.
Habit #5: Always take your shopping bag with you if you might possibly pass by the shop. Otherwise you end up with a hundred rather costly space fillers in your apartment.
Habit #6: Figure out the English names for the things you want to buy. I’m not talking about confirming if the red thing you are holding is in fact a tomato. I bought filmjölk instead of milk twice. For those of you that don’t know: filmjölk is found with the milk. It sounds to the newbie like it could be “full milk” but in reality it is sour milk. A great alternative to yoghurt; not so great in coffee.
Habit #7: If the local bus service has an app – get it. It will give you a good indication of the bus schedule and any delays. In Sweden (at least up until now) I have found the public transport to be quite on schedule. O, and check the schedule when you plan your day – maybe while you are busy checking the weather.
Doing the laundry is also a rather new thing for me. I know, I have been spoilt in this most my life, but it is not the act itself that gets me. It is understanding the machines (which are in Swedish) and planning your laundry times so you will have clean clothes to last you. I think I have this figured out now. I am always in clean clothes and I have only shrunk a shirt once (maybe twice, I haven’t checked it after washing it yesterday).
Habit #8: Plan your laundry times – if possible, book ahead for the next two weeks.
Random tip: If you shrink something, you can save it! Wash it in hair conditioner, then stretch it back to size and lay out to dry. There are a lot of how-to sites and YouTube videos explaining this better.
Fitting in and making friends
This one is easy:
Habit #9: Get earphones. Plug them into your phone. Listen to something or nothing, as long as you have the earphones in your ears. Stare at your phone whenever in a public setting.
Habit #10: Always talk on the phone using your earphones. Speaking on the phone with it held against your ear is a clear sign that you are likely not Swedish (if the darker hair and skin and lack of Swedish skills didn’t give it away).
I know this is quite strange to newcomers – apparently Swedes are very antisocial and prefer the company of their phones. This is true… in public places. Walking around the mall or campus or on the bus, most people will be on their phones. Probably reading up on something or doing something with data. For context, data is unbelievably cheap compared to rates in South Africa. However, if someone tells you that the Swedes are cold, you can call their bluff. I’m not going into details now – I’ll elaborate in one of my upcoming posts. They are however not as “polite” as some people may expect – saying “sorry” to move past you or because you bumped into each other (regardless of who was at fault) is rare. They aren’t being rude per se, they are just minding their own business.
So, I have been here 70 days
I am still getting used to some things, like the weather. I have already had some great experiences. Every day is an adventure, and if you go out and take a new turn, you will end up seeing something amazing – be it a lovely park or a spectacular or building or a quant shop. I have also made some amazing friends. People from all over: Sweden, Italy, France – well from all over Europe – but also from Africa, Asia and even one or two from the Americas. In a week I will be writing my first exam and I’m not ready (so at least I know I am already back into being a student).
I have gained some great new habits, like walking everywhere (it’s a lot of walking), not drinking a lot of soft drinks and doing yoga often. I am also drinking a lot of coffee and having fika regularly. Yes, I count the fact that Swedes LOVE coffee as a big plus and I will elaborate on fika soon. I am still working on the recycling thing, but I am now in the habit of turning off lights wherever I go (I mean, some public restrooms have a light switch inside and it is usually off when you enter, so I think they are trying to send a message).
Back to the question: is 66 days enough to form a habit? Well I now go nowhere without my earphones or shopping bag. My weather app gets nervous when I even look at my phone and I am shuffling laundry times like a pro. Using public transport changed from an absolute experience to just something you do (yes, sometimes even without thinking about it). I’ll have to check back later on the recycling thing though.
It is quite a fascinating experience – moving to a new country. And I think Sweden is turning out to have been a great choice. If you are thinking of doing the same (or if you already did) let me know of any topics you want me address in the series to follow, or tell us more about your own experiences. Keep an eye out for my next post on the process of Moving to Sweden.
Have a fantastic week!