Arabian nights

Egypt and Jordan? That’s scary. Why do you want to go to the Middle East? Isn’t it dangerous? Aren’t you afraid? Don’t forget your flake vest and helmet!
Those are some of the questions and comments I got about my latest trip. Ridiculous as they may sound, it is understandable why people have such thoughts. In just a few years, they saw the news about the revolution on Tahrir, the war in Gaza and the ongoing civil war in Syria that has lead to a major refugee crisis in the region that recently also spread to Europe. Yet I would say that if you know what you’re doing and where to go, this is a great time to visit the Middle East. Here is a list with a few reasons why that is the case.

Three good reasons to travel to the Middle East when every one else tells you not to.

  • Welcome!

Welcome is the word you will hear all the time when you travel in Arab countries. People everywhere will randomly start talking to you whether you’re in a bar, a mosque or just on the street. This will always lead to the following conversation.

Random stranger: Where (are) you from?
Me: Belgium
Random stranger: Belgium! Welcome!

Welcome can also become the shorter version of you’re welcome. Last but not least, when you arrive somewhere, in a hostel for instance, you will always be invited for a cup of tea called ‘welcome tea.’ Or as the Bedouins like to call it: Bedouin whiskey.

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The use of the word welcome is just one example that proves what kind of warm people Arabs are. Another word that is often used is habibi. The best translation in English would be sweetie. It is used to refer to friends, a word that also gets a wider definition in the Arab culture since people will call you ‘my friend’ or ‘brother’ even without really knowing you.

The third Arabic word that is commonly used is the word salaam, meaning peace. To greet each other, Arabs say ‘peace be upon you.’ Goodbye becomes ‘may peace be with you.’ It is ironic and yet heartwarming that peace is a word no one would ever link to the Middle East, and yet when you go there you will hear it all the time.

  • Yes, it is safe!

Tourism has completely collapsed in Egypt. When I was in Dahab, most restaurants and bars were completely empty and on the edge of going bankrupt. Despite the fact that Jordan is considered safe, tourism has also declined there. Unfortunately, people generalize the Middle East and don’t really know that there are plenty of places there where it is perfectly safe to go to.

If you don’t believe me, please watch this video. It is made by a Jordanian girl I met in Amman and her brother. In this video project they try to answer a question asked by many: Is Jordan a safe destination?

  • Authenticity

But if you still have this irrational fear of the Middle East, if you really believe people there are waiting to chop your head off or bomb you, I have only one advice: please don’t go. Because honestly, the best part of my trip was probably the lack of big groups of tourists. Travelers you meet in the Middle East are generally alone or in small groups and are motivated people who come to the Middle because they really want to.

Having less tourists makes your trip feel more authentic. While I was wandering around the deserts, I didn’t have a lot of luxury and yet you could say I slept in hotels with a thousand stars. Sleeping in a hut in the Sinai in a tiny  village next to the Red Sea, getting up to see the sun rise over the mountains of Saudi Arabia. How could you not rate any stars to such a night?  And also, you could actually see a thousand stars in the night. Same is true for spending the night in a Bedouin camp in Wadi Rum or climb Mount Sinai in the moonlight just to see the sunrise from the top. It will give you an experience you can not even imagine in our light-polluted, urban areas in Europe.

If you ever felt the need to follow the footsteps of Lawrence of Arabia in Wadi Rum or Indiana Jones in Petra, please do so. Now is as good a time as any, or probably even better.

But if you don’t feel that need, I won’t be the one convincing you.

 

 

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Poland for dummies

Seven months ago, I took a leap by moving from Paris to Poland. I hardly knew anything about the country, its people or the language. My Polish vocabulary was limited to hello, thank you and kurwa. I leave the translation of the last one for your own imagination.

My stay in Poland has been a blast so far and I was lucky enough to receive many visitors from Belgium. Most of them had no idea how the country was like, except for the obvious cliches which turned out to be false. But honestly, I also have to admit that even after seven months it is still really hard to understand this country.

First of all, Polish  people are a lot like Belgians. They have a low self esteem, yet combined with some sort of a national pride. They feel like they are the best drinkers in the world and love to brag about this. People also love to complain. They often feel like victims and are not always capable of much empathy. “Yes, hunger in Africa… but look at our roads!” People complain about the weather, about the roads or most likely: about politics. So far the comparison with Belgians.

Polish people have a born mistrust for authorities and they are not very consequent in whether they like their leaders or not. It’s easy to go from hero to zero. I learned a lot by watching Walesa’s biography. There is a scene where he gets arrested while the military takes over the government. When they pass a checkpoint where some people are standing, Walesa opens the window and expects that the people would cheer for him. Instead they start yelling and blaming that the state of emergency was all his fault. One of the policemen says to Walesa “You see, Poles are not easy to govern.”

Except for their own politicians, they also don’t trust the Russians. This is of course somehow understandable given the sad history Poland has. Older generations still remember well enough how it was to live under Soviet oppression. Only, it doesn’t stop with the Russians. They also don’t trust the Germans. Once again for historical reasons. Sadly enough Poland is a country that still mainly lives in the past, where history can be discussed with as much passion as current events. Where 2015 still sometimes feels like 1945. The low self-esteem of a small, sad country, a tool used on the huge chess board of the big powers is still very much alive and used by political parties.

Being a Western foreigner living in Poland, you’re like a celebrity. People don’t understand what you come to do in Poland, because they think it’s the worst country in the world. Everyone wants to know why you came to Poland. When I explain I came for a job, they mostly understand. Only recently, one guy answered “Is that all? You didn’t have a better reason?”
One thing you can’t tell about Poles, is that they have no sense of humor.

Poland is a socially conservative country. Women always go first in the elevator and always get served first. For me this seemed a bit weird, even sexist, but I easily accepted it once I realized you’re really never expected to cook or clean up at a dinner party. Then again, in Poland one female prime minister just succeeded another one. Poland probably has more women in leading positions than Belgium. As I said, a country of contradictions.
Poland is also a cultural conservative country. It lost much of its variety and multiculturalism in the Second World War. Before Poland had various ethnic groups, languages and religions. Today it is a mono-cultural country where 99 percent of the population is white, catholic and Polish. Despite big distances towns look similar and there is hardly any difference in accents. Someone from Gdansk talks exactly the same way as someone from Krakow.

But most importantly, Poland is a quickly developing country. The annual economic growth for the last two years was 3 percent. Digits that Western European politicians would kill for. Many bars, restaurants and museums I visited so far in this country didn’t exist until a few years back. Poland is filled with new highways and recently expanded airports. Most of the skyscrapers you’ll find in the center of Warsaw are 5 to 10 years old.

Most people I told I was moving to Poland, seemed to think I was moving to some retarded place. Some country where everything looks like Borat’s village. Many Western Europeans have difficulties situating Poland on a European map. Despite the fact that it is one of the largest countries of Europe. Recently in a quiz on Flemish television, participants could only name Germany as a neighboring country of Poland. Other guesses included countries such as Italy, Croatia and Bulgaria but not Lithuania or Ukraine. When I’m in Belgium people ask me if Poland does ‘already’ have this, or ‘still’ is like that. As if Poland is a country that is behind on some ranking of how the world should be. A ranking where Western Europe is on top. Everybody wonders if people understand English in Poland. Yet as you can read here, Polish people are better in English than Germans and by far better than Belgians. You can see how Polish people get their low self esteem and frustrations.

Poland is a divided country, a place of contradictions. A place of romantic patriots who don’t trust foreigners on the one hand, and liberals that believe in economic growth and progress on the other hand. A country that is changing quickly. Probably too quick for most Poles. There are several reasons why the previous liberal government lost the elections to a right-wing populist party, but one of them is definitely that not everyone is ready for a modern, 21th century Poland. Law and Justice supporters were not ready to accept former  Prime Minster Donald Tusk’s claim that Poland is now a normal European country, run by rules and not by shadow puppet masters. They still prefer to see a victimized Poland, run by EU bureaucrats and liberals who want to turn their country into a multicultural festival for vegetarians and cyclists. With this new government, they think they won their country back from the Germans and the EU.

Yet I remain optimistic about Poland. This government is temporary and will probably be replaced in the next elections. In less than one century, Poland survived both fascism and communism. This too shall pass.

So I will end this blog by sharing another video promoting tourism in this country. This one is titled ‘fall in love with Poland.’ Something I most definitely did.

Scandinavian stories

In July, while I was a bit bored, I did what I usually do when I’m bored: surfing to my favorite space on the internet. I’m sure you all guessed what I meant, namely websites with cheap flight offers. Thanks to Wizz Air and Ryanair I was able to take the challenge of visiting three Scandinavian capitals in three months. Stockholm, Copenhagen and Oslo.

I was very lucky. Flights were cheap and for Stockholm and Oslo I didn’t even have to take days off. I left the office on Friday, went straight to the airport and got to spend the night at my destination. Sunday night, I was back on Polish soil. Also I was able to find a good couchsurf-host in every city and nice people to hang out with. Despite the fact that I traveled by myself, I was never really alone.

Of course every city had its own characteristics and different spots, yet some things were the same everywhere. First of all everything was expensive, especially if you’re used to Polish prices. Subway tickets in Stockholm and Oslo cost the same as my lunch in Poland. Going out to bars and getting drunk was impossible because of extremely high beer prices. A friend of mine who lives in Norway often comes to Poland. Here in Poland he goes out for a good diner, has a lot of drinks, buys shots for friends and goes back to his hostel by taxi. The budget he needs for such a night out is the same as the one for a simple bar night with a few beers in Oslo. So crazy party nights were unfortunately off-budget for someone with a Polish salary.

Another similarity is that all Scandinavian countries are like the fairyland in the stories you heard as a little child. There is a king living in a castle who rules over a country with lots of forests and lakes. The king is popular and good to his subjects who are all happy blond people. When I once had a discussion with a Norwegian friend where I asked it there were republicans in Norway who opposed the monarchy, she had a hard time understanding the question. It looked like she was wondering why anyone would want to do that. Perfect societies like that without strong disagreements seem a bit scary to me. Yet no Scandinavian will ever agree with you that their countries are perfect. They will tell you about the dangerous neighborhood in Copenhagen, which honestly looks like a nice area compared to certain parts of Brussels or Paris, and the refugee crisis in Sweden, which as far as I could see was handled with a lot of solidarity, and many other things. The one thing I would add to that is of course the weather. Summers are really nice, but in winter you just want to kill yourselves. Which is what a lot of people unfortunately also do, given the huge numbers of depressions and suicides in Scandinavia.

Stockholm and Oslo were nice and pretty, but my favorite capital was definitely Copenhagen. It is the biggest city in Scandinavia, Oslo and Stockholm are just province towns compared to it. Because it’s so big, it also has a bigger diversity. On the East side of the center you’ll find fancy Christianshavn, where the canals and the hippie community in Christiana Freetown remind you of Amsterdam. On the West side you’ll find Norrebro, which is a the more popular, ethnic and less expensive part of the city that reminds you of Brooklyn in New York. Personally, I could appreciate both. Last but not least, Denmark has a beer and bar culture just like Germany or Belgium. No explanation is needed why I think that’s a good thing.

It’s funny how life gets you to places. Scandinavia was never high on my bucket-list, but I’m very happy that the cheap flight tickets convinced me to go there anyway. I got to discover a cultural area of Europe which was previously unknown to me. I’m far from done with it since I haven’t seen much of the best that Scandinavia has to offer: nature. There are still good and cheap flight opportunities to explore to the West Coast of Norway, where all the amazing views and the fjords are. Plans for 2016 are in the pipeline.

Scandinavia, we will meet again for sure!

 

Why you should (not) go to Paris

When you talk about Paris, everyone can picture a certain image or express an opinion about it even without ever having been there. For most people this image looks very positive. Paris is beautiful, romantic and culturally very sophisticated. La plus belle ville du monde. There is also a group of people who don`t like Paris, or think that it is overrated. Those people are often not understood by the Paris lovers, and seen as negative people who don`t appreciate beauty. Haters gonna gate.

I`ve always enjoyed provocations, especially towards people who believe in such a naive image of a city of 10 million people. But to be honest, my opinion about Paris is a lot more nuanced. After having lived there for half a year,  I`m still not sure whether I should love or hate Paris. That`s why I made this list with ten likes and dislikes, what to do and what to avoid doing when you`re in Paris.

LIKES

Restaurants & food.
Paris has many restaurants of all sorts. For people with a small (student) budget, Rue Mouffetard in the Quartier Latin is the place to be. The cobblestone streets and waiters who show you the menu on the street make it very charming. I lost count of the amount of cozy diners I had there.

Nocturne.
Every museum in Paris has one or two nocturnes every week. This means that the museum is open until late in the evening. Perfect time to avoid long cues and masses in front of famous pictures.

The catacombs.
For those who get bored with the snobby, romantic image of Paris like me, my advice would be to try to look for alternatives for this. Luckily those alternatives are also present. Despite the fact that standing in line for two hours is no exception, I really recommend the catacombs. The endless rows of bones and skulls are impressive. Poems on the wall complete this very special atmosphere

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Wandering around in a beautiful quarter.
Once again the Quartier Latin deserves to me mentioned here. Just like Le Marais, where a coffee on a terrace at Place des Vosges and a falafel in Rue des Rosiers can`t be missed. Less known is the artistic neighborhood called Butte-aux-Calles with its graffiti and above all the Basque restaurant Chez Gladines where a salad is a complete meal containing lots of cheese, bacon, potatoes, bread,… Last but not least there is Montmartre, where you shouldn`t make the mistake of only visiting the very busy  Sacré Coeur and Place du Tertre. Go and have a pancake in the red bar with live piano music, look for the only vineyard in Paris and take a break in Jardins Renoirs.

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Cheap beer during happy hour in Le Cristal on Friday night.
Definitely the least interesting thing for tourists because Le Cristal is a very simple but nice bar close to UNESCO. The happy hour on Friday night has more than once been the moment I was looking forward to all week.

Nuba.
Partying in the open air with a view on the Seine is something you should definitely do in summer. Despite what you could expect with this location, Nuba is not at all pretentious or expensive (well, at least to Parisian standards). There is a relaxed vibe and the music is a good change after the commercial music you can hear in every bar in Bastille.

Canals.
When walking next to or doing a boat tour on the Seine you can see wonderful things, but don`t forget there is more than just the Seine. Canal Saint-Martin and Basin de la Vilette are a lot more cozy. One of my favorite nights in Paris was a bluegrass concert on a boat on Basin de la Vilette. Only fifty people there, simple, cheap beer, a bit alternative and very nice people to talk to.

Parisian parks.
I`m not talking about Jardin du Luxembourg or Jardin de Tuleries here. Enjoy the view in Parc de Belleville or climb  Butes-Chaumont. Picnic is always a good idea, for instance at Champs de Mars right next to the Eiffel tower on a Friday night after work.

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Cinema and pancakes at Montparnasse.
Once the sun is gone, the countless neon’s from the cinemas and cafes in Montparnasse start lighting up. Tour Montparnasse is the highest skyscrapper in Paris and offers a beautiful view at Paris. Since Gare Montparnasse used to be the only train connection to Bretagne, there are a lot of creperies in the area. Crêperie Josselin is one I can definitely recommend.

Marching for the republic.
My most memorable moment was in my first weekend in Paris, where France showed it is at its best when they are attacked. Over a million people marching for freedom of expression is not something you can see every day. Republican values are deeply rooted in French society, something I always admired.
Liberté d’expression! Vive la république!

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DISLIKES

Bars & drinks.
Bars in Paris are expensive and pretentious. A good pub where you can go sit at the bar and have a chat with a friend is hard to find. Ordering a beer at a bar is not appreciated. A waitress will let you know that you`ll be served at your table, which can take a while too. And of course the waitress won`t be friendly.

Champs-Elysées.
Too busy, expensive and boring. If you`ve seen it once, there is absolutely no reason to go back.

Notre Dame.
The cathedral in Paris is a simple church compared to many other cathedrals. Totally overrated.

Admiration of the Eiffel tower.
When it`s sunny weather it can be a nice view, but when it`s cloudy or raining you can see that it`s actually just a huge pile of rust. The Eiffel tower is overrated, even though you won`t find a lot of Parisians who agree on this. Climbing it is completey unnecessary if you like it since you`ll see all of the Parisian skyline… without the Eiffel tower!

Selfies at the Mona Lisa.
Selfies as such are already ridiculous so don`t make it worse by making your way through hundreds of Chinese people with a selfiestick trying to make a picture with the most overrated painting ever. Get amazed by the paintings of Eugene Delacroix in the next hall. Also please visit the Louvre during a nocturne, during the day you`ll lose too much time. And don`t forget Musée d’Orsay which is a lot more beautiful, less big and busy and has a lot more French art.

Going out at Bastille.
Most bouncers are jerks who pressure you to buy an expensive bottle of cava, pints are ten euros and taste like piss, music is the same everywhere. Also, forget about entering the place if you don`t have enough girls in your company. Seriously, stay way from Bastille. If this is what you`re looking for, there are better destinations to go to.

Talking to Parisians.
At times they can be unexpectedly friendly (a nice `bonjour`, opening doors for you in the subway) but there is a reason why Parisians are not known as kind people. Pretentious, demeaning to Belgians, always pointing out your accent in French,… For the locals you`ll better stay at home. The arrogance is unseen. Good example is the idea to make Paris into the bike capital of the world. I`m sure Amsterdam or Copenhagen really have no reason to worry for losing this title but who in Paris even realizes that there are still cities outside la ville lumiere..

Ignorance.
Paris is not just romance and ‘le bonheur’ like certain commercials would like to make us believe. My biggest problem with Paris has very little to do with the city itself but rather with the ignorant way people want to see it. With some sort of admiration for keeping up appearances, pretension and selective blindness. Notice that you can only see rich, white people in expensive neighborhoods. Where are the immigrants, homeless and beggars? Well yeah, they just don`t fit into the picture.

The metro.
If you want to climb the Eiffel tower, see Montmartre and walk the Champs Elysées all at the same day you`ll be exhausted and will have been on the metro for most of the time. And that`s a shame, you`ll have no idea how the city looks like above the ground. Walking tours can be possible, certain things are very close to each other. Another possibility I can recommend is renting a bike with Velib.

Bureaucracy
This video makes every explanation unnecessary.

Ironically I haven`t become any wiser by making this list. There are just as much reasons to love as to hate Paris. Everything depends on your focus and what you`ll see or want to see when you`re there. In the end every place in the world is just what you make of it yourself.

“Au début, Dieu créa le plus beau pays du monde. Il le remplit de tous les miracles et les beautés et le nomma la France. Mais, pour le mettre en position égale aux autres pays, il décida de le peupler par les gens…le Français.”

I guess it is all just summarized in this one quote.

Couchsurfing for dummies

When I returned from Erasmus in Spain three years ago, I was looking for all kinds of ways to maintain the Erasmus feeling and lifestyle. I started traveling more, decided to meet Erasmus people in Ghent and wrote some articles about Erasmus life in my lovely city for the student magazine. All of these were nice ideas, but the best decision I made by far was to create a profile on Couchsurfing.org

For those of you who have never heard of this, couchsurfing is a social network for travelers, aka surfers, who want to stay with locals, aka hosts, who are willing to offer their couch (hence the `couch` in couchsurfing) to travelers.
The beauty of this initiative, often also the part people don`t understand, is that it is totally free and voluntary. You can bring a small present out of gratitude for your host (for Belgian travelers: hosts tend to appreciate your beer and chocolate!), but that`s not necessary and definitely not obligatory. The concept is based on reciprocity. Members surf while traveling and host surfers while they`re home. Personally I`ve hosted around 15-20 people and surfed in different places around the world. Still hosting someone is of course never obligatory. So if you live in a small room with no couch, or have flatmates or family who don`t want to host people, you can still use couchsurfing just for traveling.

One of the main concerns that is always raised by people who are not familiar with the concept is safety. Can you ever really trust a stranger in your house? The answer is simple. Yes you can. You really don`t have to be a naive, idealistic or crazy hippie to do couchsurfing. People I met through couchsurfing were very diverse, but the few things they have in common is that they were all nice people who liked traveling and meeting new people. One of the helpful tools the website offers is to write references or give endorsements to your surfer/host. If someone sends you a `couchrequest` and you can see this person has a lot of positive references and not a single negative one, you can be confident it is someone that will not rob, rape or kill you. Bad stories of inappropriate behavior exist, but are rare. I`ve met people who hosted hundreds of couchsurfers and never had any real bad experience. The website also offers some basic safety tips, most of which are just common sense.

Sadly enough, as you can also read here, some experienced couchsurfers are no longer happy about the website. Ultimately you can say couchsurfing has become the victim its own success. The impressive growth made the website into a big corporate company. The website has 10 million profiles, many of which are empty or were made for one backpack-trip some years ago and haven`t been used since. Not all new users totally understand what couchsurfing is about. They have empty profiles, don`t read the profile of the host and send requests like “Hey, I`m broke and I can`t afford a hostel. Please don`t let me sleep in the station and give us your couch”. For starters, here are some good tips to write a couchrequest.

Yet, these small annoying things don`t even compare to the benefits couchsurfing offers you. I have always been lucky and had experiences which I would never have had without couchsurfing.

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Sunset at the Sea of Galilee, Israel

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Local beer tasting with surfers and host in Brussels, CS summer event 2013

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Vrankrijk, famous squat in Amsterdam where I ended up partying with other couchsurfers at a queer night

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CS meeting New York 20 September 2013. Getting a free shot of vodka for my 22th birthday at midnight.

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Watching Yankees – Red Sox with my NYC host.

Last but not least, thanks to couchsurfing I met a lot of new people here in Poland. This way I was able to make my social network bigger than just the people I work with. There are a lot of nice CS events here such as bonfires, after-works meetings in sleazy worker bars on a Friday night or just hanging out at the weekly Monday meetings in a travel cafe in Gdansk. Couchsurfing is so much more than people sleeping on couches, in lots of cities around the world it`s a real community.

22 días en La Habana

Yesterday was a historical day for the American continent. After more than a half-century defined by mistrust and rancor, the United States officially reopened its embassy in Cuba. Of course many questions remain unresolved. Will the US embargo against Cuba be lifted? If so, when? And will all of this eventually lead to a democratic government in Cuba? We will probably only know the answers in years.

El Capitolio, exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC in Havana.

El Capitolio in central Havana, once the presidential palace, is an exact replica of the Capitol in Washington DC.

In August 2013 I had the chance of staying in Havana for 22 days. During this time one thing had become crystal clear. The US policy towards Cuba was complete outdated and no rational soul could argue that it still served any purpose today. The best argument for dropping it completely is the fact that it is constantly misused by the Cuban government to hide their own failures or to legitimize the repression of political opponents. Cuban pride and anti-Americanism are the glue that hold together the revolution.  No internet available? Down with the USA! Shortages of basically everything? Blame the imperialist conspiracy against Cuba!
Obama`s speech announcing the changing policy proves that he clearly understands this history and these sensibilities. He found the balance between the Cuban and American narrative, understanding why sanctions were implemented but making clear that they have failed for a long time now. An American president quoting Jose Marti, the one historical figure that unites all Cubans. It was once unthinkable and it deserves the most respect. Obama clearly understands diplomacy and knows how to sell it to his people.

Cubans are very divided. Polarization is huge. Main proof for this is the amount of Cubans who left the country. Miami is the second biggest Cuban city after Havana, often called the  capital of Latin America. Most refugees left behind their whole family. The revolution broke up many marriages. And those who stayed, acted in very different ways. Some people I met couldn`t care less about politics, which is understandable if you have no say in it. Others defended the regime, some of them in a quiet naive way believing every story told by the propaganda. But mostly the reason for defending the system was some kind of national pride. This reminded me about how the UK feels towards the rest of Europe. This typical island mentality: we are different than you, we are doing our own thing and you`ll never really understand that. Some other people clearly disagreed on the way things were going in Cuba but avoided openly discussing about it. After all, they really didn`t want to get in trouble. One taxi driver was the exception, he just lost it when passing by the parliament, according to him a house of puppets, and blaming the government for treating their people like slaves.

The main reason why people should watch out are the `Comités de Defensa de la Revolución`. Their offices can be found on almost every street corner and their sign says it all.  “We are watching you.” They gather intelligence about the people living in their neighborhood, making sure they are not doing anything wrong. When I discussed this with an extreme leftist friend in Belgium, she said that the USA is also spying on all of us. Even though I`m pretty sure that there is no NSA office in my street, she obviously made a point. But two wrongs don`t make a right. It terrifies me that this Cold War mentality is still alive and a legit reason for people to defend dictatorships.

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We are watching you!

The biggest failure of the Cuban revolution is definitely the potential it throws away by not rewarding talent. Doctors and engineers are driving taxis and Havana has the highest educated hookers in the world. The reason for this is very obvious: hookers and cab drives make a lot more money. The best source of income for Cubans are the tourists, which are often seen as walking ATM machines. But don`t get me wrong, no Cuban will every harm you. Havana is the safest city in Latin America. The tourism sector is so important to the economy and the regime is very well aware of this. Cubans know they`ll never get out of prison if they harm a tourist.

Nevertheless, change is coming to Cuba. New economic reforms are challenging the revolutionary ideals. Thousands of new shops and business open every month. For every success there is a failure, but those who do succeed can easily make as much money in a few hours than what state employees get in a month. The new shop that I will personally never forget was Cuba Libro, a very small English book shop owned by an American journalist living in Havana (for those interested, she also has a blog which is worth reading). The initiative was aimed at Cuban students who wanted to improve their English. Those who can not afford to pay for the books can just read them in the garden while having some ice tea. Great initiative in a country where access to information from outside Cuba is very limited. She didn`t like to admit it, but in the end we found out that she already had received visitors from the nearest Comité de Defensa de la Revolución.

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There is also an active civil society in Cuba. Personally I was volunteering for an independent church community which was not directly related to the government (although the president was a member of parliament…). This experience could have been better. Our contribution to the project was rather small and despite the fact that we did fundraising for them, they still tried to charge us for things that were already paid for. Unfortunately this led to arguments and in the end the trust between our group of volunteers and the leadership of the community was totally gone.

But despite this disappointment, I had an excellent time in Cuba. The island is stunningly beautiful. Sun, beaches, rum, cocktails, salsa, cigars and old timers give the country a beautiful charm. What else can you wish for? I recommend everyone going there as soon as possible. The Castro brothers will not live forever and combined with the changing US policy, Cuba could be a very different country in ten years. And if one thing is sure, it is that the Cuban people deserve an updated system. A system that preserves the achievements made by the revolution, such as an excellent health care and schooling, and combines it with an open and free society. A system that includes every Cuban, regardless whether he is a hardcore anti-communist billionaire living in Miami or a leftist revolutionary wearing a Che Guevara t shirt in Havana.

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Migration and Poland, a story of double standards

It is estimated that today 20 million people of Polish origin live beyond the borders of Poland, making it the sixth diaspora in the world. The USA has 10 million inhabitants with Polish roots. Lots of those live in Chicago, which is the second biggest Polish city in the world after Warsaw.
These facts explain why it`s no coincidence that the biggest museum recently opened in Poland is the emigration museum in Gdynia. This museum teaches us that the history of Polish migration is just as interesting yet tragic as the history of the country itself. It’s a history of escaping poverty and oppression, a history of people hoping for a better future for themselves, their family and their country.

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The museum of emigration is located in Gdynia`s old marine station, commissioned in 1933 and one of the pearls of the modernism style in which the whole city is built.

Migration, diversity and exile communities have always played a big role in the history of Poland. The predecessor of today’s Poland, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, used to be a melting pot of ethnic groups. Poles constituted less than 50% of the population. In the 19th century when Poland was divided by the Prussians, Austrians and the Russians, some of the most brilliant people in Polish history lived abroad. Pan Tadeusz, the famous national epic which denounced Russian occupation, was published in Paris in 1834 to avoid censorship. The most famous Polish musician, Chopin, also lived in Paris for most of his life and was buried at the famous cemetery of Père-Lachaise. In the 20th century, the Polish exile community in the USA played a big role in the restoration of Polish independence in 1918 and in the international protest against the breakdown of the Solidarnosc movement in the 1980s. It is definitely not exaggerated to say that Poland would never have been what it is today without its history of migration.

While many Polish people have come to Belgium since they are part of the European Union, I chose to go in the opposite direction. Many of my friends back home pointed out this irony, telling me that the locals here would see me as a threat coming to steal their jobs, women and social security. You see, irony really has no boundaries…
After one month I can say that this is definitely not the case. People here have always been friendly to me. I haven’t experienced any hostility yet. Most people speak English to me and if they’re not able to, they seem to feel embarrassed that they can’t help me rather than getting irritated with this foreigner who doesn’t speak their language.

Yet this doesn’t mean Polish people are open to all immigrants. It helps that I’m white and Western. If I would be brown and Muslim, things would probably be very different. Based on some conversations I had, this article in The Guardian and the sort of replies it received, it is definitely safe to say there is a lot of xenophobia and hostility towards migration in this country. Migration gets associated with ISIS and terrorism, making every asylum seeker crossing the European border a potential threat to the country. Recently, the government allowed some 2,000 asylum seekers to enter the country, which was seen as completely irresponsible by the people. Religion is often used as an argument, just as pointing to Western European countries which have ‘lost their identities’ and became victim to terrorist attacks such as the bombings in London and Madrid or the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris earlier this year.

In a certain way, I can definitely understand where these ideas come from. Terrorist attacks look scary on TV and it’s a natural instinct to think “thank God we were born here and not there” when you see misery in a foreign country. It doesn’t help for me to explain that I have lived in Western Europe all my life, that I lived in Paris when Charlie Hebdo happened and soldiers marched on the street, and that despite these sad facts I never ever felt threatened by terrorists. After all, chances are a lot bigger to get hit by a car than to get shot by a terrorist. Yet nobody is terrified when they cross a street. Once you do give in to this irrational fear, terrorism has won. It ‘terrorized’ you.
The other argument used against immigration might make more sense. Migration policies in Western Europe don’t have a track record of great success. Especially in Belgium where any discussion on this topic was always avoided, fearing that it would only encourage extremism and (Flemish) nationalism. It even led certain politicians to say that identity leads to the gas chambers in Auschwitz. Multiculturalism was the norm, until it was declared a failure. And did we prevent extremism to grow? Not really, it has only benefited from this lack of serious debate about how to handle migration, globalization and multiculturalism.

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Poster for an anti-immigration march in Wroclaw

So yes, I totally get that Poland does not want to follow our enlightening example. But this definitely does not mean that I approve the xenophobic attitude. A country of almost 40 million people with 3% economic growth, which is starting to take a more leading role in the European Union (as it should), has to be strong enough to allow migration and smart enough not to make the same mistakes as we did in Western Europe. It should take its responsibility in taking over some of the burden of Italy and Greece, countries that are drowning in the amount of refugees crossing their borders. It’s a question of European solidarity. The same kind of solidarity that makes Belgian and Dutch military do joint maneuvers with armies in Eastern Europe to deter Russia. And solidarity should always be a two way street.

But most importantly, this attitude is outrageous for two reasons. First of all, Poland has received a lot of solidarity and money itself by the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Poles had the chance to go work in Western Europe. Only in the UK there are currently 750,000 people living and working from Poland. And secondly, regarding their history, Polish people should know better than anyone else what drives migrants. They should know that migration is often not so voluntary. For some people it can be the only way out. People who see no other option than giving all their savings to human traffickers who put them on crappy boats with a big risk of drowning in the Mediterranean Sea.

If there is any nation in this world that should have some sympathy and understanding for immigrants, it should be Poland.

Open`er festival

When I knew I was going to live in Gdynia and started doing research, one of the first things I found was the Open`er festival. It can be found in many bucket lists of good festivals in Europe (such as this one which declared Poland as the place to be this summer for festivals) or travel magazines with tips about what to do in Eastern Europe. Obviously I was interested and once I saw The Libertines were playing this year, I knew I had to be there. The fact that Major Lazer was playing the same night was a nice bonus. Once I found a few colleagues who agreed on going, plans were made, tickets bought and a great party assured!
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Reviews and opinions about Open`er are contradictory. Lots of people living here find it expensive. To Polish standards, they make a fair point. A day ticket of 200 zloty (around 50 euros) is not really cheap. But for a Belgian who is used to ridiculously high festival prices (I won’t name any festival in particular) it seemed reasonable, especially considering the bands who were coming. Another complaint you can find in every review is about the beer. Heineken used to be the exclusive name sponsor of Open`er festival, which made it the only beer sold at the festival. Unfortunately many reviews don’t seem to know that this is no longer the case. I was happy to see that beers like Desperados, Paulaner but most importantly Affligem were also sold. And once again for very reasonable prices. The only disadvantage that remains is that you could only drink alcohol in certain areas at the festival. Having a beer while enjoying your favorite band’s concert at main stage was no option. And obviously, that sucks.

One element Open`er is truly known for is the fact that it is somewhat of a hipster festival. Unfortunately, subcultures are dead and replaced by conformity. The only ones who try to oppose this are called hipsters. And honestly, it`s not like they are doing a good job. Growing a beard, wearing big glasses and being a pedantic snob who goes to coffee shops with a MacBook while dressing like a hippie is just lame. Seriously, how can it be that the the line for coffee at a festival is ten times longer than the line for beer? I don’t think I need to tell which line I picked. And on that note, which festival in the world even has coffee shops in the first place? But then again, why should I care? The good part was that I always had a beer in two minutes, too bad for those idiots who were waiting for coffee.

I don’t know if you can consider this hipster, but Open’er is also clearly a festival that tries to be more than just music and bad beer. One of the first things I noticed was the fact that the festival is also used to promote art, fashion and tourism. There was a museum which contemporary Polish art, a fashion stage were cloths were sold and models were walking up and down the catwalk. There was even a cinema.

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But most importantly, the concerts at the festival were good and the atmosphere was really cool. Going to Open`er was an amazing festival experience. Crowds were also not too big, which made I could enjoy The Libertines from a perfect distance without being trampled by thousands of people. Also, you could still buy a ticket for the festival at the train station in Gdynia from where a bus brings you to the festival in 10 minutes. We never had to wait or stand in line for anything. When we left at 3 in the morning, we immediately had a bus to the train station in Gdynia. From there buses and trains left all night to every corner of the Tricity area. The organisation was really excellent, far better than certain other more expensive festivals. (Seriously, I`m not naming any festival, stop asking!)

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Parties in Gydnia always last untill sunrise. Since sunrise here starts at 2:30 am.

Oh, one more thing. Which I can`t stress enough. I saw The Libertines! One of my favorite bands, which finally starting playing concerts again and announced the launch of a new album. I can die a happy man.

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Moving to Poland’s Tricity area

Last week I moved to Poland. It was not the first time I moved to another country. In a few days, it will have been exactly three years since I left Salamanca, a small town in Spain where I had lived and studied for nine months. It’s a giant cliché to call Erasmus a life changing experience or the best year of your life, and in quiet some cases this is a lie or at least a big exaggeration. Not for me though. It is impossible to imagine how my life would have looked like without that experience. For those who are interested and understand Dutch (or trust Google translate), you can read more about that here.

This time, Poland was my new destination. After six months of living in Paris and working for UNESCO (about which you’ll find more here) the time had come to start my first real paid job. I was very lucky to get hired by such an international and challenging press agency as Reuters. There was only one condition: I had to relocate to Poland. Even though this was not my first time living abroad, this was new. This time I went for a job, which means the duration of my stay here is undetermined. Maybe I’ll get bored after a few months and just go back to Belgium. Maybe I’ll like it and stay some time until some new opportunity in another country comes up. Or maybe, as some of my friends fear, I’ll love it so much that I find a Polish girlfriend and get settled here. Who knows? All of these scenarios are possible. That makes it all very unpredictable, exciting and also scary. Another new element is the country. Before last week, I had only been a tourist for a few days in this country. My knowledge of the Polish language was (and still is) limited to a few words. And even though I want to make an effort to make myself understandable to the locals, Polish was never on my list of languages I wanted to learn. Neither was Poland on the list of places I wanted to live in.

So what I am doing here? Good question. Starting a new job, that is correct. But as it is still early to talk about that and maybe less interesting, I’ll write about the second thing I want to do here: exploring an area of Europe that is still unknown to me. And I’ll start with the place I live in: the Tricity area. This area consists of three cities: Gdansk, Sopot and Gdynia.

Gdansk is the biggest, oldest, most important and by far the most famous of those three. It has always been a crossroad, a port city where all kinds of cultures and nations living in the Baltic area met. This explains the rich architecture of the city center.

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Gdansk was also the stage for two of the most important events of the twentieth century: the start of the Second World War and the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Both stories teach you a lot about the Polish history, which is both tragic and heroic. Tragic because it has experienced terrible wars and oppression. Tragic also because it has always relied on its alliance with the West, which has never kept the promises that were made. Heroic because of the way this country and in particular Gdansk has always stood up against this oppression. In 1939, the battalion that was supposed to defend the Westerplatte peninsula next to Gdansk for two days fought for a week, waiting for the English support that was promised but never came. In 1970 and 1980, dock workers went on strike and made the communist regime in Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe collapse.

Gate to the old Lenin shipyard were the strikes in 1980 started.

Gate to the old Lenin shipyard were the strike in 1980 started and Solidarnosc was born.

After Gdansk, Sopot is the next city in line. This place is definitely more interesting in the present than it has been in history. It is the smallest, richest and probably coziest of the three cities. It has beautiful beaches, nice shops, bars, restaurants, a vibrant night life but what it is most famous for is the fact that it has the longest pier in Europe. A walk on this pier on a nice summer day is highly recommended!

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Last but not least is Gdynia, the city which has become my home. Since there is some rivalry between the three cities, I will have to prove the superiority of my new home. And honestly, it is less hard than what some people from Gdansk seem to think. Gdynia has a very impressive story to tell. No more than one century ago, it was just a little fisher’s village of around 1,000 inhabitants. In less than twenty years, it became a harbor city with 120,000 people living in it. Big modernist buildings popped up like mushrooms and by 1939, Gdynia was the biggest harbor in the Baltic area. Unfortunately, Nazi terror made a brutal end to this impressive growth and most of the population was expelled. Yet today, the legacy of the early days is still visible as the city tries to attract new investments. Once again new skyscrapers are built and new plans are waiting to be implemented. In a certain way, you could say that Gdynia is the Polish version of New York: a self-made city constructed by migrants who left their home in a quest for new opportunities and adventures.

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As you can see, Poland’s Tricity has a lot of interesting stories to tell and I highly recommend everyone to come and visit it. Before I started working on Monday I had one week time to discover the area, and I’m far from finished. So come to Poland’s Tricity area. Come and walk on the beautiful beaches, get amazed by the beautiful old buildings in Gdanks’s city center or the modernist buildings in Gdynia, get fascinated by the history and most importantly: don’t forget to bring me some Belgian beer! The invitation is yours.

PS: my dear friends in Paris, your goodbye present has found a nice spot on my cupboard.

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