3 Things Travel Taught Me

1. ANTWERP IS STUCK IN 1994.

Antwerp is an interesting place to say the least. It is a port city in the north of Belgium where the clocks stopped working mid-1994. Here is an interaction we had with the girl at the hotel desk:

  • Me: Can you please direct us to the trendy district in town? We’re keen to wonder around.
  • Hotel chick: *Blank stare*
  • Friend #1: Yeah, all the tourist guides say Antwerp is the “capital of cool” but we can’t find the good shops and bars and stuff.
  • Hotel chick: *Snorts* Maybe it was in 1994.
  • Friend #1: 1994?
  • Friend #2: (Laughing) So we need a time machine to go back to 1994?
  • Hotel chick: (Not laughing) If you had a time machine, I would use it.

My two friends and I spent one night in Antwerp at the end of a trip to Amsterdam. It was only a short train ride away and we fancied some Belgium chocolate, Belgium beer and mussels. Which we got in abundance…

We also got a huge dose of 1994. Our guide books said Antwerp was a lively, styling city with high fashion and a district packed with funky bars and street art. Turns out we had old editions. In truth, the majority of the population were over 55, the rest were under 7, and they were all very happy to go about the city at their own, supremely relaxed pace.

The very first sign of 1994 was the cherubs. They were prolific. There were paintings and murals and statues in every shop and café and pub. It was very 90’s. It was also somewhat creepy.

Then there was the fashion. I wish I had photo evidence of this. There was denim on denim everywhere. I even spotted a pair of denim overalls (one strap down, of course). There were few hyper-colour t-shirts and mood rings at several market stalls (alongside more cherubs and piles of Spice Girl CD’s).

The final sign was the music. Our taxi driver switched on the “young people’s channel” for our trip to the airport. The playlist featured Celine Dion, Salt-N-Pepa and Ace of Base. We sung along and we loved it and we decided that 1994 wasn’t such a bad year after all.

2. HAGGLING ALWAYS ENDS BADLY.

Some people love haggling. Personally, I hate it. No matter the outcome, I end up with a revolting feeling in the pit of my stomach. Or a massive scar on the back of my leg. True story.

Marrakesh

If I do get a good deal, I am overcome with guilt and self-disgust. I feel like I’ve ripped off the humble shopkeeper who is just trying to make his way in a cruel, cruel world. He’s living in abject poverty, trying to feed and clothe and educate five young children and provide for his sweet, selfless wife. I am an aggressive, rich tourist who is putting him out of business. His wife will probably get no dinner tonight. Tomorrow, he might have to shut up shop.

If I don’t get a low price I feel ripped off. I like to think I am a ‘frugal’ person. In truth, I am a tight ass. Once in China I named my first price so low that the shopkeeper laughed in my face and refused to do business with me. She said I had insulted the quality of her products. So, when I pay more than I think I should, I am left absolutely fuming.

If I walk away having reached no deal, I get third degree burns. In Marrakesh, I was driving a hard bargain for two beautiful necklaces. We were at a stalemate. I was refusing to go up and he was not coming down. He was getting pushy and I started to feel overwhelmed by the heat and the general marketplace chaos. So I walked out of the little shop. At least I tried to. His fellow shopkeeper blocked my exit, desperately wanting to strike a deal with me. I tried to dodge him and in doing so, sidestepped directly into the scalding exhaust pipe of a passing motorbike. It literally seared an indent into my calf and I watched my skin coil back from the bright pink wound. Within 15 minutes it blistered into this:

Did I mention I hate haggling?

3. STEREOTYPES MEAN JACK.

The French are arrogant. French waiters treat English-speakers like scum.

I have been to Paris four times now. I have encountered one arrogant waiter. And he wasn’t even that bad. Most waiters in France are helpful and pleasant and they’re happy to translate a menu.

The Germans are efficient.

I found this to be true. Very true. The public transport in Berlin is second to none. The underground, the buses, the trams: efficient, efficient, efficient. Easy to use, frequent, quick, cheap. The restaurants? Efficient. Our drinks were plonked on the table practically before we finished ordering them. The meals arrived just 15 minutes later. This kind of service appeared to be the norm.

All Australians are good at sport.

The other day my British housemate said to me “Aussie’s are only good at sport because it’s sunny and you’re always outside playing and training. England is too cold and people can’t just go and play sport all the time. You guys have an advantage.” I fear this is a common misconception.

Australia has some world class professional athletes. This is true. Australia has a nice climate and it is nice to be outdoors. Also true. But there are actually loads of Australians who are terrible at sport. There are thousands upon thousands (millions?) of Australians who are completely uninterested in sport. They don’t play it or watch it or know anything about sport. In fact, lots of Australians are uncoordinated, unfit, overweight, inactive. Not all Australians are good at sport.

Antwerp is the capital of cool.

Refer to 1.

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