Things I brought back

There are few things more dispiriting than being subjected to the stories of someone else's holiday in excruciating detail, with every delayed flight, serendipitous encounter and historic ruin recalled as if it mattered. Those things are great to live through (except perhaps the delayed flight), but aren't nearly as captivating in facsimile form.

So with that in mind, I'm sparing you the predictable travelogue of my just-completed two-week jaunt around Central Europe (Vienna, Bratislava, Budapest and Prague) and Middle East (Dubai airport, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Istanbul) with the delightful Miss Melanie. Instead, you get quirky bite-sized observations. Enjoy.

- Central Europe seems to have been spared the worst of the continent's economic crisis, at least to the lay observer. In the cities we visited, there were few beggars, idle working-age people, abandoned buildings or cases of petty crime. Instead, there were plenty of tourists and businesspeople bustling around, and a cheery sense of optimism among people. While Austria and Slovakia use the euro (leaving things in the latter country remarkably cheap), Hungary and the Czech Republic have kept their own currencies and allowed them to depreciate against the euro over the past year (the Hungarian forint by 7 percent and the Czech koruna by 5 percent). Hard to see them rushing toward the euro-zone any time soon.

- The ageing of the population in the Central European places we visited is becoming evident. I was surprised at the frequency with which seemingly low-skill retail and service industry jobs were filled by older, well-educated middle class people. A fertility rate below replacement level (1.29 births per woman in the Czech Republic, 1.39 in Slovakia, 1.41 in Hungary and 1.42 in Austria) has left few young people to fill those jobs, and older people are stepping into the breach with surprising enthusiasm - or desperation.

- Bicycles are taking over cities, powered by bike-friendly planning schemes and government-run hire services. Travelling by bike is the best way to get around the inner urban areas of cities including Vienna and Budapest - the paths are smooth, separated from vehicle traffic, are close to the action and offer safe places for parking. In many cases, lanes of roads have been taken from vehicles and given to cyclists. As for bike hire schemes, they seem to be popular among tourists and locals, with key features being simple and stylish bikes, an abundance of collection and drop-off points, a relatively simple registration process and the lack of a requirement to wear helmets.

- Car-free zones are entrenched parts of inner cities. And it's wonderful. From the square around St. Stephen's Cathedral in central Vienna to the tram-dominated thoroughfare of Jaffa Road in Jerusalem's New City, people on foot are taking over cities, completely changing their character. While this may have met with some resistance at the time, the outcome is cities that are quieter, greener and more friendly to human activity. It also means that the space once set aside for cars - both roads and parking - can be put to more productive use.

- Cities that invested in preserving their architectural heritage are drawing huge crowds. The old city of Bratislava, for example, is exquisitely charming in the way it has maintained buildings, roads and town squares from hundreds of years ago. The city has found a good balance between maintaining the edifice of historic buildings while renovating the interiors so they are functional as modern restaurants, galleries and offices. In comparison to the drab greyness of the rest of the city - much of which is a product of the decades of communism it endured - the old town is small and delicate thing of beauty. Most of the other cities visited have seemingly put a lot of work into heritage, and the results are breathtaking.

- Hungarians love a good puzzle. It's no surprise that Ernő Rubik, investors of the famous cube, was from Budapest. Perhaps the most unusual experience on our trip was TRAP, the Team Race Against Puzzles, an hour-long adventure game that forced us to use our wits, and occasionally our strength, to defuse a bomb by solving a series of challenges. While our duo performed terribly (we were still far from the end when our bomb exploded) it was a wonderfully mind-bending experience. Turns out these things are all the rage in Budapest, and it's only a matter of time before they spread elsewhere. (Check out this terrific article to learn more about the phenomenon and the relationship with Mihály Csíkszentmihályi's flow theory.)

- Israel's overt security anxieties have eased in the past decade. When I visited in 2003, in the midst of the second intifada, the entrance to every public space was patrolled by no-nonsense security guards, methodically checking the bags and bodies of every person stepping inside. Nowadays, much of that physical security infrastructure has disappeared and security staff are more willing to joke around. Also now, you can travel on public transportation with a backpack without seeing other commuters gulp in fear. Why the change in mood? One person I spoke to attributed it to the effectiveness of the security wall blocking off the West Bank from (the rest of, if you wish) Israel. keeping out trouble-makers. Maybe. It could also be that would-be trouble-makers have turned their attention to other parts of the Middle East in recent years, leaving their frustrations with Israel on the backburner. Still, with gas masks being distributed to every Israeli citizen ahead of a possible attack from Syria, plenty of people are still on edge.

That's the lot, then.


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