Monday, January 10, 2011

My New Favorite Place

Since December 28 I have been in Spain.   I started in southern Spain, Seville, then Cordoba, then Granada.  These are very old cities with old churches, mosques (the Moors lived here for 700 years), small, lovely plazas where even in January people are outside drinking the excellent coffee and exquisite chocolate they are famous for.

I spent my days walking around these cities and seeing buildings such as the Mezquita in Cordoba, a mosque that could hold 20,000 worshippers and the most beautiful building I have ever seen.  I also saw the Alhambra in Granada, a lovely 500 year old palace with gardens.   After about 10 days in these 3 cities, I came to Barcelona.

This is my new favorite city.  It has the 13th century neighborhoods of small winding streets and city walls, (where I am now staying), but also a great modern architectural scene, beautiful plazas everywhere to hang out in, interesting shops and better food that southern Spain.  Barcelona hosted the Olympics n 1992 and has fabulous infrastructure, buildings and neighborhoods like I have not see anywhere and is very progressive, still adding subway lines, new parks and maintaining the old things in a lovely condition.

With all the talk of the financial problems in Spain, I thought I would see some evidence of stress.  So far nothing.  People seem very prosperous, there are 800 Euro baby strollers everywhere, people seem to have lots of time and money to hang around cafes and lots of things to buy.  Of course, there is no need for cars in many parts of Spain and people often say they inherited their home, so there is not a lot of basic expenses built in. 

I had never heard of Antoni Gaudi, who is an architect who died in 1926.   But I love his work and have visited some of his buildings here.  There is a cathedral that he designed that has been under construction for over 100 years.  It is a people´s cathedral and is being built with contributions.  It had a couple of recesses when Fascists destroyed the plans and for other reasons, but it is plugging along.

Tomorrow evening I will take the bus to Madrid.  There is a bullet train that takes two hours and a half, but it is expensive.  I am taking the 9 hour bus.  This will I will not only save the bullet train fare, but I will sleep on the bus and not have to pay for a place to stay!

Friday, December 31, 2010

More on Sweden AND Malta

I flew from Sweden to Malta, which is a tiny country of about 400,000 people south of Sicily.  It consists of 3 islands, two of which are inhabited.  It was a British colony until 1964, when it became independent and is now part of the European Union. 

I flew on Ryanair, which is how I got from Berlin to Stockholm )for only $15!!)    Malta is interesting, but not exotic, people speak Maltese, but many know English.  Not surprisingly, fish is a big part of the diet.  Much of the main island is taken up by villages and farms.  The capital is Valletta.  I stayed in a small fishing village for four days and near Valletta for two days.

The new thing that I did was to Couchsurf for the last two days that I was there.  This is a concept I learned about in Peace Corps.  There is a website,, where you sign up.  You list a lot of information about your interests and travel and indicate whether you are willing to host people at your home or if you are traveling and want to find a place to stay.  When you stay with someone, it is free.  Of course, you don´t choose to host or stay if you are not comfortable.  There are reviews and comments for each time you stay with someone.  In Azerbaijan, some of the volunteers hosted Couchsurfers and so I met a lot of interesting people who were traveling around the world,   I learned a lot from these people.

Before you go somewhere, you look at profiles for the locations you want to stay, contact someone and ask if you can stay with them.  I stayed with a young Hungarian couple with a baby.  They make a living in Malta by lifecoaching, teaching yoga and dance.  They are Bahai and have made friends there with other Bahais.   They are a talented couple who have lived in different countries over the past few years.  Ireland was nice, but too cold.   They wanted to live in an English speaking country that was warm, so they just pulled up stakes and moved to Malta. 

But back to Sweden for a minute.   While I was there, I took a tour of the Reichstag.  This is theSwedish  Parliament.  Ordinarily, I wouldn´t have been interested, but I was struck by how pleased Swedes seem to be with their government.  They commented that they don´t really understand why people in other countries seem to be so angry with each other and their government.  Also, I know the Swedes are firm Socialists.  I wanted to learn more about their system.

A lot of Swedes commented on how they are firmly in control of what goes in in their government.  Of course, there are only 9 million people, but Illinois has about 10 million and there is a lot of unhappiness over the way things are going.

Swedes have one house in their Parliament, having voted in the ´70´s to reduce from two houses.  They just eliminated half of their representatives overnight.  They said it saved money and they didn´t feel they needed two houses.  They also don´t elect their Prime Minister--the speaker suggests someone and the nominee is voted on by the Parliament.  About half of the Parliamentarians are women (they shook their heads about how few women are in our Congress) and people become eligible to run at age 18.  They have one 18-year-old in their current Parliament.

The Prime Minister can be removed at any time by a vote of no confidence by Parliamentarians.  Since there are currently 8 political parties represented, compromise is essential to do anything.   Many times instead of voting yes or no, representatives abstain, which is considered fine.  An average of 82 percent of the citizens vote.  When asked at the tour what are the controversial subjects, the guides initially didn´t come up with anything, but citizens in the audience, after thinking, said that there is some controversy about changing the medical insurance program to include full dental and to have assisted suicide become an option for the terminally ill.

They are very proud of what they call the welfare state.  That is a good word in Sweden.  Health care is adminsitered locally by private doctors.  Normally, there is a nominal copay for going to the doctor, but for the hospital, there is no bill.  They are proud of the fact that a medical appointment must be provided for non-emergencies within three days and surgery must be performed within 2 weeks.   Sweden spends half of what America spends on health care and cover all their citizens.  Swedes are healthier and live longer than Americans. 

New parents can stay home and be paid for about 6 months.   Employees cannot work more than 40 hours, except for those in Parliament.  If a business needs someone for more than 40 hours, they need to hire someone else.  I saw this as a problem in Azerbaijan.  There was a huge unemployment problem, but it was common for someone to be hired to work 11 hours a day 7 days a week.  I don´t know why this was allowed when so many people were out of work.  Besides, the person was burned out quickly and usually had to quit. Many Swedes seem to agree that new parents must be supported to have healthy citizens and that people need time off to have a good life.  So it is institutionalized.

They were also proud of the fact that they have over 100,000 Iraqi refugees living in Sweden as well as refugees from Somalia.  One of them was a barista at my hostel.  He hadn´t learned English yet, but appeared to be fluent in Swedish.  Swedes told me that they don´t understand why the US doesn´t allow Iraqis who have served as interpreters for our troops and have put their lives at risk to emigrate to our country, the way we helped Vietnamese who helped us in that war.

Many Swedes seem to be happy about being in the EU, although they have kept their currency, the krona.  They say being in the EU helps their businesses expand to new markets and they can move to other countries to work and live with no paperwork.  It also helps their businesses to hire the best people.   They have also seen an increase in tourism and like the fact that they can have more of an impact on international matters. 

Now it is New Year´s Eve and I am in Seville, Spain.   The flight from Malta was $54 on Ryanair.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010


I don't like winter and am not a big fan of Christmas.  Probably because I spent most of my life in Chicago and it is very cold and unpleasant there in the winter.  The wind is like a knife and subzero temperatures can last for a couple of weeks or more.  Christmastime is stressful for many, with too much to do and involves buying a lot of stuff.

But I am enjoying this winter time in Stockholm.  There are a couple of inches of snow blanketing everything and a very light snow has been falling most of the time for three days.  It is very pretty, but not very cold and not windy at all.   Very few people are driving anywhere--most are walking or taking public transportation.

Stockholm occupies 14 islands-- a few tiny-- and most are a few square miles.  There are attractive bridges connecting them--no interstate highway type bridges--with sidewalks on each side.   They have an old city section, with buildings from around the 1600s and  a huge park that was the royal hunting grounds.  The rest of the city has very tasteful low-rise buildings, no real eyesores except a Ramada and Sheraton Hotel. 

I have been walking around the city for six days now.  I have looked in the shops because I am enchanted with what I am seeing although I am not a person who ordinarily enjoys shopping.  While Swedes are out in the shops, they are carrying very little.  Most of the outings seem to be about looking at decorations, meeting in cafes with friends and buying some food or decorations.   Kids are being pulled through the center of the city on sleds and dogs are everywhere, mostly wearing little coats.    Today I saw a couple with a medium-sized dog approaching an escalator in a department store.  At the bottom, the dog paused, the woman scooped him up and dropped him off at the top.  They did this two more times before they arrived at the shoe department, where the dog napped under a chair.

Most of the goods in the stores look beautiful and interesting and very artistic.  For example, children's toy stores are popular and they are filled with lots of books, puzzles (especially world map puzzles), wooden toys, such as railroads, blocks, dolls, (but no Barbies--these are little girl and boy dolls like Pippi Longstocking), quality action figures of zoo animals, warriors, and doll houses and furniture.   Young girls do not dress in sexy clothes and most women wear sport clothes and are slender and athletic-looking.

There are computer and phone stores, of course, but there doesn't seem to be much interest in all the electronic equipment that Americans have.  People seem to do a lot of reading--book stores are everywhere-- and almost everyone speaks English, but with a Minnesota accent!

Swedes are known, of course, for their beautiful modern furniture and home designs.  Turns out there is a lot more than IkEA, which is a Swedish company.   For a country that is smaller in population than Illinois, they have a lot of companies doing business in the international market--a few that most consumers know about are IKEA, Ericsson (cell phones), Brio, H&M, Electrolux and Astra Zeneca (drugs). 

Walking around different neighborhoods (the city is only a little over 1 million people), I am really impressed.  The quality of life seems good, people look healthy and fit, I don't see any rundown neighborhoods or even cars in bad conditon, most people take public transportation, the buses are new and gleaming and run on natural gas, escalators stop running when no one is on them and start again (slowly) when one steps on them.

I don't see much of what we refer to as "stuff from China".   Swedes seem to buy less and of higher quality.  I am sure some of the IKEA stuff must be made there, but many of the goods here are made in Scandinavia and Germany.

Tomorrow I leave this beautiful, snowy place and fly to Malta, if the Stockholm airport weather cooperates.

Friday, December 17, 2010

What I Couldn't Say Before

Just like someone serving in the armed forces, when I was in Azerbaijan in the Peace Corps, I lost some of my free speech rights.  This is because we are not supposed to get involved in political issues in our country and we are not there to criticize or even praise the government.

So when I spoke about Azerbaijan, I didn't say that a huge and frequently discussed problem for Azerbaijanis is the corruption in the government, the lack of a free press and freedom of assembly.  The problem takes a few forms--many students in primary and secondary school as well as in universities are expected to pay or can pay teachers bribes.  Some are for nothing in particular, others are for better grades or for not attending school (to work) and be counted anyway.

Others are to get jobs (a teacher is commonly expected to pay up to 5 years salary to get a teaching job), keep jobs, get a drivers license, stop police harassment, get a break from the armed forces, a better assignment or to get out early.  Some doctors pay enough bribes that they don't need to really study.

Some people appreciate the convenience that the bribes afford them--are you a university psychology major and not good at statistics?   Pay and get a passing grade.  Need an A instead of a B?  Pay and get it.   But others hate it.  When I held English conversation groups, the participants chose bribes as their most popular topic of conversation.  This situation is a major reason that many Azerbaijanis are highly skeptical of democracy--bribes were reportedly minimal in the days of the Soviet Union. 

I never realized how important freedom of the press is in America.  Government and business try to get away with a lot of stuff, but in the end they can't, because someone will squeal.  In Azerbaijan, the press is tightly controlled.  The newspapers and TV report on nothing controversial.  Americans and those who can read English or Russian on the internet know that the 12 year old son of the  president of  Azerbaijan owns over $40 million of real estate in Dubai, but regular Azerbaijanis have no idea.  Conservative Muslims find their mosques shut down and themselves in jail.   Those who try to have community meetings without the approval of the local government find their meetings broken up. 

Azerbaijanis are not upset enough about these problems to do much about them.  They even approved a constitutional amendment to let their president stay in office indefinitely.  Part of it, I am convinced, is that even a bad situation like this could be a lot worse.  When the Soviet Union fell, the country completely fell apart.  No electricity, gas, everyone out of a job, no currency, no government.  The first two presidents couldn't provide much of anything and when a former Soviet official who was the former head of the KGB appeared on the scene, they threw over their president and accepted him. 

After his death, his son became president.  Azerbaijanis have most of the basics and don't want to go backward.    We volunteers felt smug about this difference between Azerbaijan and America at first, but then we realized that we have corruption too, some in the same form and some different.   People in Chicago know that both Mayor Daleys had corrupt administrations, but they keep electing them.  New York had a law that the mayor could only have 2 terms, but Michael Bloomberg ran again and won. 

We gain advantage for our own children in schools, not by bribes, but by excluding the poor from our neighborhoods through zoning and economic segregation so we don't have to compete with them.   We don't want to watch news or read articles that conflict with our opinions.  We say we don't like the moral values of different groups of people, but we don't really know any of them.

So while I was bursting with the news early on, now it seems like a weak postscript to my Azerbaijan experience.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Hats with Earflaps

I am in Sweden now and am staying in a hostel, like I did in Berlin.  I had never stayed in a hostel before and didn't know what to expect.  But since I will be traveling for almost 6 weeks,  I didn't want to spend money on hotels.  

Actually, it's fine.  I researched a hostel for Berlin before I left Azerbaijan.  The one I chose had a location better than most hotels, I could walk most places, it offered free walking tours, a wealth of resources, like computers with internet, a library of travel books, knowledgeable employees and guests with advice about what to see and do, and an opportunity to meet other people.   They pointed me to a laundromat a couple of doors down and gave me advice on how to get back and forth to the airport and to navigate the transportation system, all advice having a basis in cheapness.

With that experience under my belt,  I researched another hostel for Stockholm.   This one is different because Stockholm is different.   Because it is a smaller city with a more conservative outlook and in a colder and much more expensive place, the common areas of the hostel are different--and much bigger.  People don't eat out as much, so they have a big industrial kitchen and communal eating area.  There a living rooms on each floor with books and wifi and movies every night.  In Berlin I was out getting half-price California rolls or pho; here I had a sandwich. 

I flew from Berlin to Stockholm for $15 on Ryanair.  They have a lot of add ons, like preferred seating, checking a bag, buying a soda or sandwich, but I didn't pay for any of that.  I even had to stuff my purse in my bag, since the rule says only one piece of carryon is allowed; otherwise the charge is 35 Euro.

We arrived in Stockholm at an airport that is far from the city.  On the bus ride in to the city, the countryside was flat and snowy--it reminded me of the opening scenes of the movie Fargo.  The sun set about 3:30 p.m., but the city is lit up and  looks pretty and Christmassy.   Stockholm is made up of 14 islands, the oldest of which I will look at tomorrow.    There is an old city, a palace and the park is made up of the former royal hunting grounds. 

The first time I saw women in Berlin wearing knitted wool helmets with earflap and braids hanging down, I thought it looked pretty crazy, but now I am used to it and may look for one for myself tomorrow.  The navy watch cap is getting some strange looks.   The Swedes like the knitted helmets too.

Monday, December 13, 2010


I didn't know what to expect from Berlin. I really like it. Because it is the capital of Berlin with over 4 million people, I expected highrises and a corporate look. That's not it at all. It is a low rise city due to a spongy soil, so 4 or 5 stories is tops. This makes the city quite pedestrian friendly.

Everything looks very clean and well maintained, but the best thing is the public transportation. There is little auto traffic here because of the excellent tram, huge and extensive metro system and buses, some double decker. Most of the time, however, I walk.

Berliners call themselves 'poor, but sexy'. Because most corporate work is in other German cities and expats apparently keep a low profile, Berlin is cheap, cheap, cheap to travel and live in. Music, art and tourism keep people busy. There are over 175 museums. It is full of young people who are artists, musicians, free spirits or just people who like a balanced life.

Consumerism is at a minimum, with luxury brands looked down on by many as mindless and conformist. One of the first things I noticed is that I have truly not seen an obese person in Berlin. I was surprised, because drinking is popular and on the 'obese country list', Germany is near the top. Maybe because of all the walking, but even middle aged and older Berlin women look like they can crack walnuts with their thighs.

Berliners seem proud of the fact that anything seems to go here, such as nude or alcohol free nights at clubs, dogs in shops and restaurants, and apparently universal acceptance of gays. People appear to be friendly. In Azerbaijan, every day I met people who thought I was Russian and spoke Russian to me. Here everyone thinks I am German and tries to start up conversations.

I started my trip with a walking tour of about 7 hours, which was free, tips accepted. It gave me a lot of ideas for what to do on subsequent days. The tour was totally in English and I was with a few Americans, but mostly Brits and Australians. We came across an anti American protest about the death penalty and in particular one American citizen on death row. The international community apparently thinks this guy's trial was unfair and biased. They also point out that countries that still have the death penalty have major human rights issues. Besides America, countries executing the most people are China, Saudia Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.

Since the walking tour, I have visited the German Democratic Republic (Communist) Museum, which was really interesting and hands on. It showed homes, cars, consumer goods, clothing and other everyday objects from East Berlin. I also visited the Sunday flea markets, the Christmas markets (basically a big carnival with food, hand made goods, alcohol, ice skating and rides), Hitler's former bunker (a paved over apartment parking lot) and a fabulous bookstore full of English books (haven't seen such a place in 28 months).

Before I go I want to see the Brandenburg Gate again, some of the art museums and the Reichstag, the Parliament building.

Friday, December 3, 2010


I'm leaving my town in a few days.  This week I have been visiting a lot of people to say goodbye.  It is difficult.   I know a few of my friendships can continue and a few people will even come to America.  But for most people I know, I probably won't see them again.

Recently, visas to Azerbaijan for most foreign travelers are limited to 7 days instead of the former 30 days.  This has really taken away the incentive for family and friends of volunteers to come to Azerbaijan. 

I have published 77 posts to this blog and plan to continue for a little while so that I can cover my readjustment to America.   But before I go back, I will visit Berlin, Stockholm and Malta for 6 days each, then go to southern Spain and maybe Morocco for 16 days. 

My daughter, Kelly, came to Azerbaijan for three weeks in September 2009.   While we were traveling in Georgia, she wrote this in her Facebook blog:

I met a Hungarian traveler today who's taking 6 years of vacation (wish I could do that...) and travelling the world through Couchsurfing. He's been on every continent except Antarctica (which he is planning to get to) and has only about 60 more countries to visit until he has been to every country in the world.   We met again later in the day while I was eating dinner outside so I invited him to sit down with me.  He had so many stories about the different places he had been.

He told me a story someone had told him:

"A young man cared very much about the world, so he decided one day that he was going to change it.  The young man worked very hard for 10 years, and eventually he realized that he could not change the entire world.   So then he decided that if he could not change the world, he could change his country.  For the next 10 years, he worked for his country before realizing that he could never fully change his country.

So he decided to work for his city, and worked for 10 years for his city, but it did not change much.  Then, the man decided to change his family.  By this time he was 70 years old and did not have the means or the energy to change anything else.  In his old age the man realized that when he was young, he should have started by changing himself.   By changing himself into what he wanted to be, he could change his family, and his family could change the community, and then the city, and then the country, and then the world."

This story encouraged me to keep being who I am.  As Ghandi said, "Be the change you wish to see in the world."   I may not be able to change the world in my lifetime, and I'm not out to.   Not everyone understands words and listens to speeches.   But they can feel your actions.