David and Lili's World Tour


August 2015 - Belgium, Holland, Germany, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Sweden, and Denmark

The best time to visit Northern Europe is mid-summer so we timed this thing right, great weather! We visited friends in Belgium, Germany, Denmark and Estonia, stopping also in Holland, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Sweden. Ah Europe... so easy, so interesting, so organized, and now travelling around is cheaper than ever thanks to favorable exchange rates, AirBnb flats (instead of hotels), and long-distance buses (instead of trains). Having said that, Europe is not cheap at all, but we managed to stay on budget thanks to our AWESOME local friends. Warm thanks go out to Angela, Marie Noƫlle + Patrick, John + Alexis, Micha, Bastiaan + Mari-Liis, Allan, Nicolai, Carmen + Lindolfo, and Daniel!

We spent the most time in Copenhagen, the World's most bicycle-friendly city, and as bicycle enthusiasts we were keen. We timed our visit around the 2015 World FOOTBAG Championships, and as footbag enthusiasts we were keen. My bad knee does not allow me to play footbag net any more (my favorite sport along with ultimate frisbee and snow-boarding) but I was able to compete in one event called 2-square (competitive Hacky Sack), and I made the quarter-finals :) The last time I competed in footbag was in 1993, and the sport has evolved a lot, but it's still amazing. If you have never seen "footbag net" or "freestyle shredding" as demonstrated by the pros, check it out! Here's the official site with links to video: www.footbag.org - fun exercise :)

We also toured Amsterdam by bicycle, because the last time we were in this super-cool city we told ourselves, "We should return sometime to explore further by bicycle!" We highly recommend this program, and yes, there are great food deals away from the charming but touristy center.

Our favorite place in Copenhagen is a neighborhood known as Freetown Christiania, an official social experiment, a self-governing community right next to downtown. This neighborhood is famous for its hashish dealers on "pusher street", and indeed we saw a lot of people smoking a lot of hash, but there is much more happening here. Christiania is littered with artwork and inviting corners to sit and eat delicious vegan food. This place is cool, a kind of liberal utopia, a vibrant community in a socialist welfare state that functions remarkably well. Our favorite event at footbag "Worlds" was the party in Christiania. This is a very photogenic neighborhood, but we didn't take photos because they have a no-photo rule. Oh well. You'll just have to go see for yourself.

This is our vision of Europe: fun exercise while exploring, rich food (cheese!), a fascinating mix of cultures, efficient public transportation, plus some cool old buildings too. But, we quickly came to miss Asia, especially the raw humanity and the sense of adventure. Many people have written books about Western versus Eastern culture, so I won't try to spell that out here except to say that the experience for the independent traveller in the West is less colorful and more expensive. So with few exceptions, we avoided the touristy stuff and tried our best to simply hang out with local friends, and to explore independently: fun exercise.

We especially enjoyed Estonia where we stayed at our friend's remote house, complete with an old-school smoke sauna (and a swimming pond). In the nearby forest we harvested wild blueberries and chanterelle mushrooms. Oh yeah! Estonia borders Russia so many people here are seriously concerned about Vladimir Putin, but the mood is calm. The old collective farms from the Soviet days are crumbling relics, proof that Marxist Communism is dead. Democratic Socialism however, is alive and well, especially in places like Sweden and Denmark, where high taxes and strong regulations on corporations lead to widespread prosperity with low inequality. Have you fallen for the prevailing myth that Socialism equals Communism and is therefore bad? Well then, you haven't been to Scandanavia. Even many Americans have come to see that Democratic Socialism can be good economic policy (if well managed). On that, hey Americans, please go register as a Democrat so that you can vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries - or else you might just get stuck with Bush3 or (gag) Trump! We say, increase taxes on wealth / capital and spread that money around! We especially like the idea of a guaranteed minimum income.

In Europe, the number-one issue for which we heard people voice concerns is the immigration crisis. As world travellers, many people asked our opinion about the clash of cultures with Muslim immigrants especially. We even witnessed this clash directly in a small-town pub where the locals and the immigrants regularly have fist fights. The locals have real concerns, for which we are sympathetic, but none of these are addressed in recent EU government proposals (for example, here). This proposal is all good stuff (reform the EU to be better at handling increased immigration) but it tells regular people essentially, don't be xenophobic, and that won't work. For example, we heard several times that female Islamic immigrants are still wearing face-covering burkas, and that is not OK in Europe. People say, "If Muslims want to live in Europe, then they must adapt to European culture (which is quite liberal and increasingly atheist)!" Given that Islamic extremists have killed people in Europe for "sins" as benign as making cartoon drawings of Mohammad, extreme emotional responses in opposition to immigration are common (and easily understood). For the record, except for the "street sharks" in touristy areas, we have had nothing but good experiences with Muslim people. What we dislike is religious dogma and misogyny.

So here's our two cents on Europe's immigration crisis: first of all, Europe colonized Africa and the Middle East, and messed the place up horribly! Europe drew the maps that created landlocked nations, divided ethnic groups, put rival groups together, and then exploited the chaos to enslave the people and steal their resources, and then Europe bailed, leaving the mess in the hands of incompetent fools and ignorant tyrants. Therefore Europe now has a responsibility to make things right, and that includes taking care of immigrants and refugees. This does not imply, however, that Europe must accept Islam as defined by extremists. We would recommend that Europe pass a "cultural law" that prohibits face-covering burkas (promoting women's equality) for example (while explicitely allowing blasphemy and apostasy). To Europe we say, you created this problem, so you must be proactive in fixing it! Therefore the right answer is not to halt immigration (as many people now want), especially given the wars in the Middle East that are creating huge numbers of refugees at a time when widespread economic inequality (in many countries) is compelling more and more families to have zero or one child. The right answer is to urgently reform the EU.

The other top concern in Europe (from what we heard) is the crisis in Greece. Even the Germans we met agreed that the German government and the so-called troika are dead wrong in the way they are forcing Greece to accept soul-crushing austerity (without forgiving even one euro of the odious debt, even as interest rates on the debt have spiked). It is sadly ironic that Germany had its debts forgiven and was given free money (not loans) to rebuild itself under the Marshall Plan after WW2. Spot the hypocracy. We will have more to say about Greece soon (we plan to visit there next, after Turkey)... Meanwhile the mood in Germany can be summarized as, "Crisis? What crisis?" Germany is buzzing with efficiency, especially compared to Lithuania (for example), a country that cannot even afford to build rain shelters for most of its bus stops. The difference is the availability of capital. On this point too, the EU should be reformed urgently, or else the whole project could fall apart violently.

Obviously this stuff is important. Bad economic ideas cause human suffering, as with Greece (and America) today. Our report from Europe is good news and bad news, mostly bad news as right-wing and xenophobic voices dominate the debate while greedy bankers run the show. Furthermore, anxiety is clearly on the rise as everyone now knows the Euro is broken, but nobody is sure how to fix it. The good news is that Europe is still a great place to visit as a pseudo-tourist, especially for people who like to ride bicycles.

Cheers, David and Lili

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