Complacency in Croatia

I feel Iike I’m missing something with Croatia.

Everyone harps on about it, but I’m just not feeling it.

Perhaps it’s because I’m here in autumn and didn’t go sailing or to the islands, or perhaps it’s because Bosnia spoilt me to bits, making Croatian people feel unfriendly, food average, sights mediocre, coastline not a dent on New Zealand, and price for learning all of the above – quite expensive.

So about Dubrovnik, don’t get me wrong wandering around the old city walls were a very pleasant way to spent my last day travelling with the gypsy.

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But…. and there’s a but, I just feel like I’ve seen it all a thousand times over in Europe.

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It was seriously a bit like – oh look there’s a nice fountain, oh look there’s a nice plaza, oh look there’s a nice church, oh look there’s a tour group fresh off the cruise ship with the earphones in following a lady with a flower and generally looking bored and miserable.

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I actually hate myself for saying all this. I know I sound so ungrateful. I know I should be excited to be here. I know I should be amazed. I’m just not.

And in many ways Dubrovnik reminds me a lot of Venice in the sense it’s no longer a real city.

It’s all for show, it’s all for the tourists and the only signs of real life I got while wandering the old city walls was this woman hanging out her washing (thank you to the gypsy for this covert photo).

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And, this man and best friend fishing.

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As for my last night travelling with the gypsy… It was spent in a stoney silenced standoff after we got into a fight over how he was logistically going to get to Romania.

Luckily we mended frayed nerves by the time he boarded his bus to Romania and me to – appropriately named given the circumstances – Split.

I spent the next two days in Croatia’s second largest city thoroughly enjoying my own company and walking for miles in every direction happily camera snapping.

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The city felt a lot more lived in than Dubrovnik and my favourite daily escapade was strolling around the local fruit market munching on pomegranate seeds.

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I also devoured a lot of seafood given I was near the sea and travel by the golden rule – if you can’t see the sea don’t eat the seafood – though I wished I hadn’t after I counted a good dozen of these osmositised rats on the walk home.

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And just in case you’re blind.

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But the one thing that was truly outstanding about Split was the quality of the hostels for the price, with hot showers complete with nozzles actually attached to the wall, big beds, overly helpful staff, huge lockers and for the first time in a long time – camera Skypeable wifi.

But I think the fact I’ve now reduced myself to writing about the quality of Croatian hostels is perhaps a sign I should just stop writing about Croatia full stop.

The Balkans with the gypsy

I’ve mellowed.

Seriously, if someone said to me this time last year you will travel the Balkans with an Australian guy who has issues with border staff wherever he goes because he looks like a gypsy, I would have laughed them off.

Yet here I am, in the Balkans, with the young Steve Jobs lookalike I met and detailed in my blog about Amsterdam.

Our grand plan was to meet in Bulgaria and go from there – where, we weren’t quite sure.

But within hours of being in Sofia which gave off the vibe of ‘big heartless city’ our decision was made – Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Given our fleeting visit to Sofia the only positive thing I can report is that it was home to a fantastically cheap gold mine of an opshop, where I scored myself a vintage Lacoste cardigan.

The gypsy on the other hand was like a cat on heat and came away with a a leather jacket, a shirt and four vests, though he still spends most of his time wandering around in 7/8s trackpants with a hole in the arse, shit kicker boots, a wife-beater singlet so low you can usually see his nipples, an undone denim shirt, a Fendora hat and brand new oval Ray-Bans – even when he’s inside.

Back to our decision to go to Bosnia and Hercegovina… Getting there was a bit of a mission and involved an all-night train in a triple bunk bed six-person sleeper cabin, followed by an all-day bus to Sarajevo.

So technically I’ve been to Serbia too, though only a few hours and all I have to report is I was desperate to pee but didn’t have enough local currency to use the toilet.

Many cross-legged hours later we arrived in Sarajevo map-less (the city isn’t on Google maps) and struggling to locate our hostel thanks to owner’s illegible directions.

But that’s my only complaint about Sarajevo, which is the most heartbreakingly beautiful place I’ve ever been.

The city’s history is incredibly rich, with more than 100 mosques and Turkish-style bazaars lining cobblestone lanes dating back to Ottoman rule, grand Austo-Hungarian European architecture, Communist concrete slab buildings and Yugo cars from the heydays of Tito, and of course, the physical and psychological scars left over from the 1992-95 siege of the city.

The remnants of the war are impossible to ignore and made up a massive part of our free walking tour with an amazingly grounded and passionate 27-year-old local called Neno.

To detail a few – on the pavements you often spot these splotches of red resin which mark where a mortar shell killed more than three people.

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Then there’s the World War One and Two Memorial which still bears the scars from three years of shellings.
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But the most moving for me was this memorial to the more than 1,000 children who lost their lives during the siege.

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The green shapes symbolise a mother trying to protect her child, the fountain bowl is made of mortar shell casings and is covered in the hand and foot prints of their loved ones’ left behind and the roll-call on these spinning cyclinders make a baby rattle sound when you move them.

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Spinning the cylinders we stumble across an infant with the same name as our guide, prompting Neno to recall how he spent three-and-a-half years of his childhood hiding in a basement with about 20 other people, how he still sucks on sugar cubes out of habit as he use to steal sugar during the war and how after the siege ended even their family cat refused to eat the food aid supplied by the international community – hence this tongue and cheek tribute nearby.

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Then, after the tour when we were climbing the hill slopes to get a panoramic of the city we stumbled across this war graveyard – the final resting place to some of the 10,500 Sarajevans who lost their lives.

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It messes with your head, made worse by the fact while we were up there three local lads asked the gypsy to take photos of them and once he agreed promptly rolled out a flag carrying the letters BMNP, which we soon discovered was an acronym for the Bosnian Movement for National Pride.

Sensing our disgust the bigoted teens tried to explain they weren’t Bosnian Nazis – though their organisation stands against jews, gypsies, Serbian Chetniks, the Croatian separatists, homosexuals and blacks.

If anything it was a brutal reminder that 17 years after the war it is a fragile peace – international troops continue to patrol the streets, there’s soft borders dividing the country along ethnic/religious lines and the country has a three-way revolving presidency.

It was a grim moment, made grimmer by the fact once they left the gypsy managed to stand on his new Ray-Bans, after stupidly placing them on the ground while taking photos.

And, he had only just started to emerge from that day-long depression when this crafty local jipped him into buying a clip-on earring as a ring.

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I’m still regretting my decision to break the news to him and even my shout of a cup of tea didn’t soothe his anger.

Luckily Bosnian food did the trick and hands down Sarajevo served up some of the best food of my 10 months of backpacking, for instance:

For breakfast: Burek – a filo-pastry pie filled with either meat, feta, or feta and spinach. Delicious but seriously bad for the shape of my arse.

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For dinner: cevapi meat fingers.

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For dessert: tufahije – baked apple stuffed with walnut paste.

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And in-between meals – Bosnian coffee, particularly this one, lovingly crafted by a local called Mustafa, who was so excited about my interest in his country dusted off piles of guidebooks for me to peruse while he nervously brewed my coffee.

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After Sarajevo we decided to visit Mostar, famous for its 1566 Stari Most bridge, infamously blown up by the Croats during the war and reopened in 2004.

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It is seriously beautiful, particularly from the banks of the river as you peer up at the local lads working their magic on tourists, racking up enough tips (usually at least €25) to jump from the 21-metre height.

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My problem with Mostar was how massively tacky and touristy the shops and restaurants surrounding the bridge are.

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But you can’t blame them for milking the Stari Most, it’s their life blood given their industries and factories were destroyed during the war and walking around town the physical scars remaining are far more obvious to see than in the capital.

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And, as much as the gypsy and I had our fair share of moments in Bosnia, without him I would never have ventured here and never have discovered the country’s top attraction – the people – who are the most helpful, friendly, generous and unassumingly warm folk I have stumbled across during my trip.

Berlin with the Frenchies

It’s impossible for me to write about my time in Berlin without writing about ‘the Frenchies.’

The Frenchies were two Parisians I was fortunate/unfortunate enough to share a couch with for three nights, also staying at the home of my kiwi friend Kate and her German boyfriend.

One Frenchie was a really sweet guy (though he liked to sleep way too close to me), while the other was this runt of a man who liked to wander around in his boxer shorts, sunglasses and bandana.

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Golden moments from him included: the morning he greeted my friend in the kitchen with an almighty morn horn, his random story about how as a child he fed his dad’s computer work to the Mac trash can because he imagined it was saying ‘nummy nummy, feed me,’ and how he somehow managed to kick me, fart in my face and cup my boob while sleeping.

Luckily the wine and fromage they brought with them from Paris made up for the disturbing/disturbed sleep, such as the morning they got home at five am after their first epic night of clubbing which consisted of them getting lost in the train system for two hours and then when they miraculously managed to find the club one spent the next two hours spewing, the other sleeping, before miraculously finding each other and coming home.

Their second night out took the cake though – arriving at the Boys Noize concert (the whole reason they were in Berlin) only to discover it had been postponed.

As for how I spent my nights, I have to admit I didn’t actually go clubbing, staying at home with a nice glass of wine in the rubbish weather was too tempting.

Besides I doubt I would have got in – I don’t sport a rank enough haircut or weird enough clothes to pull of Berlin hipster and I didn’t particularly feel like queuing in the rain for two hours to be told as much.

Instead, my biggest night out consisted of drinking Vodka Ahoys (putting a small packet of powdered drink sachet crystals in your mouth and then chasing it down with a straight shot of vodka) at a dark and dingy local jukebox bar.

Luckily I’d lined my stomach well that evening, including with a third of a pavlova that did not want to be made.

I say that because on our first attempt we learnt you can’t stick whizz egg whites and on our second attempt – which we lovingly bet by hand – the pavlova rose so much in the oven it hit the grill plate.

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Luckily we were able to cut the top off and disguise the crater with cream, although I also turned the first batch of cream into butter with the same devil-child of a stick whizz.

It was worth the hassle though, given the utter joy it gave pavlova virgin and Kate’s significant other George.

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He’s practically a kiwi now, especially since he took up playing rugby, and while I’d be the first to admit I’m not the biggest fan of the game, I did quite enjoy watching him play a team so crap the ball once came down and hit a player on the head.

George’s team ended up winning 110-nil.

But what intrigued me most about German rugby was the post-match ritual where they all hold hands and run towards the crowd in a show of support for their fans.

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That just wouldn’t happen at home.

As for the actual tourist sights of Berlin, I was incredibly lucky that the two days we went biking around the city, the weather was perfect for sightseeing.

And, in no particular order here’s my top five attractions:

1. The 1.3 kilometre longest surviving stretch of the Berlin Wall – the East Side Gallery.

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And randomly this little slice of New Zealand near it.

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2. Visiting the Reichstag – the seat of German politics.

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3. Getting lost and disorientated amongst the 2711 concrete columns of different shapes and sizes set amongst 19,000 square hectares of uneven ground that make up the moving Holocaust Memorial.

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4. Spotting my beacon of navigational hope in Berlin – the TV Tower (I’ve recently discovered I’m actually ok at navigating via buildings, map-reading skills still evade me).

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5. But hands down my favourite attraction was Templehof – the old abandoned airport which is now a giant recreational space, and for me – my new favourite running track.

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And finally, I’d like to thank Kate for taking this photo and to both her and George for having me.

It was an amazing five days which went too fast and before I knew it I was at the airport having an almighty fight with the check-in staff of Bulgaria Air, who almost didn’t let me board the plane as I didn’t have proof of an onward journey out of Bulgaria.

Granted, if I had read section 13.1 of their general conditions on their website I would have known that, but I didn’t, and I didn’t foresee any issues given New Zealanders don’t need a visa to visit Bulgaria.

But my main beef with Bulgaria Air was how they refused me time to access wifi to make my own arrangements and bullied me into buying a €120 one-way flight to London, which I seriously doubt I will ever use.

As for why I decided to travel from Berlin to Bulgaria – that’s a whole nother story.

An ode to the Volkswagen Beetle

My first love was a 1969 Volkswagen Beetle called Bogart.

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We had the best of times together, when I drove him people would wave at me, smile and regularly stop me on the street to tell me about their love affair with the Bug.

Sad to report though… I took Bogart for granted and cheated on him with a Honda Civic.

I will never a forget him though, after all, they do say the first cut is the deepest.

So I decided to visit his hometown of Wolfsburg in Germany to reminisce.

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In a nutshell, Wolfsburg is Volkswagen and Volkswagen is about all Wolfsburg has going for it.

The main attraction here is the Autostadt, the over-the-top home of the Volkswagen group, set amongst 28 hectares of rolling hills and lakes.

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s beautiful, but in the words of my old high school journalism teacher it was ‘wanky’ – and primarily targeted at people with loads of dough to come and have a pleasant stroll while they waited for their brand new cars to be extracted from one of the car towers – which I like to think of as more of a giant car vending machine.
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My main beef with the Autostadt is despite the fact the VW Beetle was the longest running and most manufactured car in the world (until surpassed by the VW Golf), with more than 21 million of the original Bugs rolling off production lines until 2003, there’s crap all information about it.

In fact, the only interesting things I saw at the Autostadt concerning the Beetle was this 1936 replica of the Hitler-ordered Porsche prototype for the ‘people’s car,’ which ultimately became the VW Bug.

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Come to think of it, the jewelled golden bug, the millionth to roll off production lines, was also pretty cool.

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Back to moaning about the Autostadt though… my other beef was there was crap all information in English, to the point I went on a German-speaking factory tour.

I ending up leaving the Autostadt dazed and confused and wondering where the hell they hid all the old Bugs.

A good hour later I found them, across town in the VW Museum, which after visiting the grandeur of the Autostadt was like travelling to a third-world country.
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But even though the museum is in dire need of some TLC (or arguably a bulldozer), it did house what I was looking for, though some of the most interesting Beetles I walked straight past as the signs were only in German – such as the Bug given to Hitler for his 50th birthday.

And, even though I opted for the classic look on my Beetle, my favourite Bugs in the museum were the ones dressed up like you’d dress up a Barbie doll.

For instance: the wedding day Beetle.

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The wicker basket Beetle.

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The postage stamp Beetle.

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And – the hot air balloon carriage Beetle.

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All the Beetles made it hard for me not to cheat on Bogart again, but luckily there were signs to ward me off whenever I got tempted – and trust me I was tempted, not only to stroke one but to steal one and flee the miserable city of Wolfsburg along with it.

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Two days at Oktoberfest

What goes on tour stays on tour apparently.

However, that would make for a pretty boring blog post, so here’s my memoir/what I remember from my two days at Oktoberfest.

I remember wanting to dress up as a beer wench, until I discovered the privilege would set me back around €150 – the equivalent of about 15 steins.

I prioritised.

And, I remember our first day started out sensibly, lining our stomachs with a feed of bacon, eggs and bread before we ‘Prost!-ed’ our first litre steins at around 10am on a Thursday morning.

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Not long after I remember getting very excited as the guy selling giant pretzels came around.

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And, even more excited when I got my hands on not one but two of them.
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Clearly that was too much carb for one person, so without much convincing I got my wingman to gift it to the cute Dutchman wearing traditional lederhosen (leather shorts with H-shaped braces) and a green checkered shirt sitting in front of us.

Later that day, when I somehow managed to lose all my travel buddies, we shared a sneaky pash – I’ll come back to that later…

As for my travel buddies, a long time later I managed to find two of them – one riding shotgun while the other lay crawled up in the fetal position sleeping against a random shed outside the beer hall.

In fairness to him, his drink may well have been spiked, as I vividly recall the very seedy greasy Italians sitting next to us trying to make us drink one of their beers – something I was warned about given we’d booked to come on the so-called ‘Italian weekend.’

So at 6pm on a Thursday we were all in bed.

Thankfully Friday went a lot better and our first steins went down surprisingly well.

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Then, about a stein-and-a-half in, I remember spotting who we nicknamed ‘Big Guy,’ because he was truly a giant of a man, coming out of the toilets.

The significance of this for me was that Big Guy was friends with my dutch sneaky pash from the day before.

Call it dutch/stein courage I decided to go say hi, and, things were going swimmingly until Big Guy told one of my friends my sneaky pash had a serious girlfriend – of eight years.

Oh well, at least I got to roll out my German novelty phrase of ‘Sie sind ein Arschloch’ – ‘you’re an asshole’ on him.

As for confrontation number two of the day, it came a few hours later when a really drunk scrawny weed of a man accidentally walked into another group of dodgy Italians near us, who seemed to be at Oktoberfest for two reasons – to get laid and to start fights.

They were like a powder-keg waiting to explode, so when the weed walked into them, it was all on, and, all that seemed to be between them and the weed was my sister to another mother (ok, not quite the same ringtone as ‘brother to another mother’ but that’s what she is).

So, while she was trying to rescue him, I was trying to rescue her.

The problem was my reaction time was a bit delayed, so by the time I came in with an almighty echoing slap across the face of possibly the biggest guy in the group, the confrontation was nearly over.

The massive guy just stood there giving me this look of – ‘I can’t believe you just did that’ – my subconscious did the same.

Luckily, we were about to leave anyway, it was way too packed in the beer hall, to the point the beer wenches used whistles and had burly bodyguards to help them part the crowd, besides, there was currywurst and a carnival ride with my name on it.

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As for day three, we were too late out of bed to get into the beer halls so we opted for currywurst and people watching – such as the sleazy old drunk guy trying to pay a homeless woman for sex and a homeless man scouring the rubbish bins for leftover rotisserie chicken carcasses.

Given that and the fact I’d somehow managed to lose half a toenail during the festivities, I was well ready to bid farewell to Oktoberfest – besides I had another last-minute €120 train to catch.

This time that wasn’t my fault, my car ride to Wolfsburg fell through at the last minute.

But no ridiculously expensive domestic train trip was going to stop me from making my somewhat of a spiritual pilgrimage to the hometown of my first love.

And, when I get over what I found when I got there, I will write about it.

Getting fed to death in Germany

It didn’t take long for Germany – the home of organisation and efficiency – to rub off on me.

Being forced to pay €120 for a last-minute six-hour train trip from Belgium to Mannheim will do that to you.

So opposed to being the usual one day ahead of myself, I am now a week.

Luckily my first three days in Germany were cost neutral, thanks to the German Physio I met in Morocco refusing to let me pay for anything.

It blew me away, this guy took two days off work and borrowed his parents car so he could show me the highlights of his region, and like with Spanish guy – I sincerely hope one day I can repay the favour.

On our itinerary was: the Hambach Castle – which has come to stand for the cradle of German democracy.

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The very cute town of Heildelberg.
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Many a wine tastings in the Rhine Valley.

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And, hanging out in his very quaint hometown of Speyer.

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My only complaint was that he didn’t stop feeding me.

Breakfasts of eggs, muesli, bread and cheese, lunches of onion cake (pretty much quiche), afternoon teas of small windowless buildings of cream cakes and dinners of pig stomach, liver-meatball-like-objects (both surprisingly tasty once you get over the fact it’s offal), wurst (sausage) and on my last night – antelope from Africa.

Yes, antelope from Africa.

Illegal but delicious.

That meal was shared with his parents, who despite the fact they don’t speak much English and I speak kiwi, went surprisingly well.

The wine helped, as did the ice-breaker of me locking myself in the bathroom and the revelation our parents’ share the same occupations and music taste.

They also seemed to genuinely like the pavlova I made, even though German Physio thinks it’s called ‘pavalover.’

Going off on a slight tangent… I have to say German Physio’s English is fantastic, apart from his pronunciation of vegetables as ‘wedge-a-tab-uls’ and his sometimes interchangeable use of ‘he’ and ‘she’ which makes it sound like he’s friends with a lot of transvestites.

For example: ‘my friend, she couldn’t go backpacking like you because he’d have to bring all of her high heels with him.’

On the other hand, I know he found my English very hard to understand.

I know because of the way he often cocked his head to one side and looked at me with a totally perplexed look on his face and would simply say ‘what?’

In fact, the word ‘what’ came up so much in conversation I taught him other alternatives such as:
‘Huh?’
‘Come again’
‘Could you please repeat that?’
And finally, for when I speak thick kiwi – ‘I don’t understand you.’

All in all, it was a truly lovely three days and I could have got used to being fed to death if Oktoberfest wasn’t calling.

And lastly, I want to thank German Physio for my new favourite quote – ‘always be yourself unless you can be a unicorn, then always be a unicorn.’

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The Belguim bulge

Any longer in Belgium and I might have contracted scurvy.

Never in my life have I eaten so much crap.

Delicious crap though – chocolate, waffles, icecream, cuberdons (purple goey-centred jubes), a beer or five to wash it all down with, and of course, fries smothered in sauce to try and absorb the beer.

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But I was prepared for this, and, like many other travellers, I unashamedly came to Belguim to eat and drink my way through the country.

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Given that, I decided to skip the big cities and headed for Bruges, Ghent and Ieper.

I’ll start with Bruges – the so-called and hackneyed ‘Venice of the North.’

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Yep, it’s nice, but it’s massively touristy and I swear half the backpackers only came here so they could say they were ‘In Bruges’ after the movie – which I have to admit I haven’t actually seen yet.

However, I do now know where all the scenes were shot thanks to taking the ‘In Bruges’ walking tour, though it was really more of a product placement for local eateries.

To be honest, the best part of Bruges for me was hanging out with a Texan backpacker called Buck (no shit), even though our uneventful flirting ended when a fellow kiwi backpacker, who quite fancied him, convinced him (while I was in the bathroom) that I had a Russian boyfriend.

Given this occurred at a Belgium beer tasting, I was well pissed, and well pissed off, so I left them to it.

Besides, I was quite excited about going to bed in my pod bunk, complete with a mustard-coloured privacy curtain and not one, but two power points next to my reading lamp.

I can honestly say I have not been that excited since the hostel in Amsterdam gave me a towel and then proceeded to replace it with a fresh one every day.

But as enticing as the freedom of being able to charge my electronics whenever I wanted, I only stayed one night in Bruges as the allure Ghent, sold to me as ‘Bruges without the tourists,’ was too strong.

The description was right, though I actually think Ghent is more picturesque than Bruges.

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My hostel also felt like a home and was packed with an eclectic selection of male backpackers.

As an aside, seriously where are all the female backpackers? I’m not complaining, I’m just curious.

I’ll detail three of my new travel buddies.

Travel buddy number one was a crazy Croat, who dragged us out on our first night to what he told us was a free African rock concert, only to get us horribly lost in the Opera House stairwell.

It took half an hour and the opening of every door in the stairwell to find the concert, which much to my surprise was more like a Belgium version of Mumford and Sons than African rock.

After that we sat around drinking beer in the courtyard of our hostel talking about each of our countries’ strengths – i.e. New Zealand: sheep, rugby, Lord of the Rings, Flight of the Concords – when out of nowhere the crazy Croat pipes up with – ‘I’m a good lover.’

It was quite awkward and not long after he stumbled his way to bed and was never to be seen again.

Travel buddy number two was a Spanish teacher in town for a technology workshop, which funnily he didn’t realise was taught completely in Dutch.

Turns out we make good travel companions – he had no idea where he wanted to go, I had no idea of how to get to where I wanted to go – so I pointed and he navigated.

And, even though English is his third language, during our day together we only had three lost in translation moments:

1. Me – ‘what’s your favourite food?’
Him – ‘stick with tomatoes.’
Translation – steak with tomatoes.

2. While drinking coffee in the square overlooking this very random flea market.

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Him – ‘this market must be popular with all the muesli people.’
Me – ‘what? Who are muesli people.’
Translation – this market must be popular with all the Muslim people.

3. Me – ‘are you ok with a vegan buffet for lunch?’
Him – ‘sounds good, I love bacon.’

The next day he had to go back to his workshop, so I spent the day with travel buddy number three – a hardcore Australian bloke who has been travelling for the same amount of time as me but via push-bike.

Amazingly, I convinced him to come on a day tour of the World War One battlefields around Ieper and I was seriously grateful for his company, as even when you put our ages together we were still a good decade younger than anyone else on the tour – in fact two were so frail they required chairs to sit down at all the sights.

Please don’t mistake me for having a crack, it’s just I seem to have an uncanny ability to get myself on tours with the elderly.

As for Flanders Fields, it was a sobering day which really makes it hit home about what it must have been like fighting in a war for a distant motherland on the other side of the world, only to be laid to rest in a cemetery like this one.

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But what upset me most, was that apparently a diplomatic scrap over who would pay for the personalised epitaphs on the graves means no New Zealand graves carry one, depriving families of a chance to give a sense of the boy/man lost and the loved ones they left behind.

But whoever they were – lest we forget.

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