Monday, September 16, 2013

The West Bank

When we left Jerusalem, we had very little planned. Our plan was to head to Jordan for that evening via Bethlehem, but with dwindling financial resources and a lack of Jordanian visas made our plan seem more like wishful thinking. These are the types of adventures I live for!

After we arrived in Bethlehem, a cab driver offered not only to drive us to the Church of the Nativity but also to see Banksy's art in town. In street art, Banksy is a legend! From "Stonehenge" made from portable toilets to "Murdered Phone Booth" made from a deformed phone booth, Banksy is known worldwide for his work. What stuck me was how randomly placed some of his art was. One piece was on the wall dividing Isreal from the West Bank and another on a random garage. Nevertheless, the art was unique and thought provoking. Be sure to check out Banksy's documentary below!

After tapping into infrequently occurring WiFi in the area, we found a Jordanian Liaison Office in Ramallah, so we decided it was West Bank Road Trip Time! Here I would like to clear up a major misconception in North America. At no point in time was my well being in danger! Numerous people have asked me whether I felt scared during my time in the West Bank. The most reasonable response I could give was "of what?" Random people would stop working to welcome us to their city. When asking for directions, people would go out of their way to ensure we knew where we were going. Even when we wandered off the beaten path, people would not treat us any differently. I felt welcome! I challenge all my North American friends, if the opportunity presents itself, to visit the West Bank and get to know the people.

Reaching the end of our West Bank adventure, we were fairly irritated because of the steep amount of currency we had to pay to get a Jordanian visa and to pay the Israeli exit tax (around $130CAD altogether). After very little sleep, passing numerous unmanned checkpoints and having our bus ditch us, we were preparing ourselves to sleep on a bench on the border at sundown. Huge thank you to My and Gerogie for helping us out!

That's it for my Austria Adventure blog! Thanks for tuning in folks!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Bauhaus in Tel Aviv

During my excursion in Austria I had the opportunity to travel to Israel for about 120 Euros (approx $165) round trip from Budapest (5 hour drive from Graz). Without flinching I booked the flight and took off a week later.

Once I arrived in Israel, I was quick to notice how expensive it was. A beer at a grocery store could cost upwards of $4 and short cab trips were significantly more expensive. Travelling on a frugal student budget my diet exclusively consisted of pita, hummus and mango juice. It was fantastic! There are some excellent articles written as to why it is so expensive but some suggest that it may be the risky geopolitical nature of the country, inefficient economic monopolies and oligarchies, an 18% value added tax or a combination of the former.

Tel Aviv is a really interesting place to be. Its night life is some of the best in the Middle East, the weather is warm and it seems as though everyday is beach weather. Though at first it may be mildly unnerving at to see teenagers in the military walking around with a rifle, the atmosphere is a safe one and the people with the weapons are generally friendly (though be sure never to surprise them!).

The one thing I thoroughly enjoyed about Tel Aviv was the ample supply of Bauhaus architecture. The Bauhaus movement was one that began in Germany in the early 1900's emphasizing simple yet functional design. Apple products are known to have been influenced by the Bauhaus movement. Once the Nazis came to power in Germany, many Jewish architects fled to the British Mandate of Palestine to start a new life. One may find around 4000 Bauhaus designed buildings in Tel Aviv and most of which can be found in the "White City" which has been designated a UNESCO heritage site. When travelling to Tel Aviv, the Bauhaus Centre is an excellent resource to learn about the movement.

Another really interesting thing about Israel is that the firm Better Place operated there. This company came up with the novel idea of setting up an infrastructure that replaces an electric car's battery at a station rather than individuals having to go through the tedious process of having to charge it themselves. Be sure to check out Shai Agassi's TED talk on the topic! Although the company went bankrupt, it is great to see new ideas on sustainability being introduced.

One of the more bizarre experiences in Tel Aviv was haggling at the Carmel Market. While attempting to haggle for peaches, I asked the vendor how much a half dozen cost. He tells me "for you, a student, 26 shekels, 24 shekels, 22 shekels, what do you want?" Doing a quick foreign exchange conversion in my head (huge shout out UOIT Finance), I realized I was paying about a dollar a peach. Feeling ripped off, but hoping to leave with my dignity intact I offered him 20 shekels for the peaches. He told me in the most passive aggressive tone I have ever heard "young man, put the peaches down on the table and never come back to my shop again!" I really need to step up my haggling!

Huge thank you and shout out to my Aussie brother from another mother Nick Singh for coming out to the Middle East and providing the photos! More in the coming weeks!

Monday, June 24, 2013

Hitchhiking and Why You Should Do It!

Legally of course, I am not endorsing breaking the law! For all of those who need a quick refresher, Wikipedia defines hitchhiking as "a means of transportation that is gained by asking people, usually strangers, for a ride in their automobile or other road vehicle." Referring to my previous article about cultural differences (see article under this one) hitchhiking is legal in Austria whereas it is completely banned in Ontario (it is permissible in some parts of Canada). Actually, in most first and second world countries hitchhiking is legal. When a round trip from Graz to Vienna (2.5 hour trip one way) can cost 15 Euros when booking a bus well in advance to 80 Euros by train without a Vorteilscard (costing another 20 Euro which reduces ticket price by about 50%), hitchhiking looks like an attractive option. It is also a great way to meet interesting people!

Though there are wonderful websites that give great advice on how to prepare to hitchhike and where to stand, I will keep my recommendations limited to my experiences:

1) Have a cardboard sign- People need to know where you are going. Also, as bizarre as this may sound, a cardboard sign brings a level of legitimacy. If drivers know where you are going, they may be able to help you in other ways like telling you where it may be easier to get a lift, or if they can drive you part way. Be sure to have clearly written letters!

2) Do not hold a strict schedule- Weather and moods can vary by day and region. If you need to be somewhere at a particular time, be sure to leave well in advance if possible.

3) Be happy and playful!- You need to catch a driver's attention when on the side of the road. Jumping around an dancing is usually the easiest way. People feed off of each other's positive energy. Give them a reason to pick you up!

Happy Hunting!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Cultural Differences Between Canada and Austria

I have been asked to write a short paper for my German class listing differences between Austrian and Canadian cultures. I will attempt to be as objective as possible. Given that this is a short paper, I will keep it to points I find to be most relevant.

As I began my search for stats to support my arguments, I came across Canada's Centre for Intercultural Learning. Where has this page been during my whole time in Austria? First off, I had a solid giggle when the page suggested topics that may offend Austrians include the movie The Sound of Music. Though the reasons for it make sense (the von Trapps became wealthy in America while Austrians were rebuilding their country after World War II), the common response from Austrians seems to be "What is the Sound of Music?" (For all of my Austrian friends, see the YouTube video at the bottom!)

A "cold, initial attitude" of Austrians is also something I noticed. Though it must be noted, this is not true of many Austrians I came across in my time here and less prevalent with Austrians who get regular international exposure. While trying to spark a conversation on the bus for example, I often times will receive a blank, confused stare not because of what I am saying, but because of why I am talking to that person in the first place. 

Nevertheless finding someone who speaks English is not very difficult. The only people who do not speak English are generally the people I rely on the most: bus drivers and grocery store workers. It is not odd to find a person on your average day who speaks several languages in Austria. However most of the languages tend to be regional (ie Croatian, French, Italian, Hungarian etc) where as in Canada our most commonly spoken languages apart from official English and French are Punjabi and different forms of Chinese. 

Austrians are also much heavier drinkers. The World Health Organization has recorded that an average Austrian over the age of 15 consumes 13.24 litres of pure alcohol annually while Canadians consume approximately 9.77 litres. Given that central European countries have a rich and long tradition in brewing beers (See Reinheitsgebot) and distilling alcohols, this does not come as a surprise. Also, it is legal in Austria to have a glass of wine in a public place (ie sidewalks, parks etc) whereas in Canada it is not. 

Cultural Stereotypes are often a sensitive issue, and the website's analysis is quite interesting: 

"Many Austrians do not distinguish between Americans and Canadians, nuances in language, behaviour and culture are not detected, some believe that Canada is a state of the U.S. and do not know that Quebec is a province of Canada.  This is very similar to the fact that many non-Europeans do not see a distinction between Germans and Austrians. Both cultures are fairly sensitive to not being acknowledged as a unique and distinct culture, this perception can be damaging to relationships on either side. Interestingly, this similar experience and sentiment should offer a great opportunity to connect and build a relationship. Many Austrians feel that North Americans have little culture, or that the culture they have is really what's left of their emigrant ancestors. Some Austrians may also be unaware that there is more to Canada than igloos and lumberjacks."

Though I have not experienced any of this, the vast majority of exposure I received is with Austrians with international experience and international students. 

Vacation time is something that varies substantially as well. There is no shortage of bank holidays in Austria where I would go to school or go to the store only to find out everything is closed because it is a holiday. According to the Centre for Policy and Economic Research, Austria requires 35 days of paid holiday and vacation while Canada sits near the bottom of the list requiring only 10 days. The Austrians seem to hold dear that the job is a means rather than an end, and I like that. It should also be noted that it is not laziness. Depending on which statistic is used (IMF or World Bank), and average Austrian is as wealthy as the average Canadian when assessing Gross Domestic Product (Purchasing Power Parody) per capita.

These are the points that I found most relevant. Despite our differences, I believe there are more similarities. An average young Austrian grew up watching similar cartoons, eating similar food and shopping at similar stores. Although each culture has its advantages and disadvantages, is it clear to me that Canada is in dire need of more Buschenschanks!

Monday, May 6, 2013

English Study by Anna Berger

Greg asked me to write a short post about how it was like to grow up in Austria and learning English. First, I want to introduce myself a little bit. My name is Anna. I come from a tiny village in Upper Styria, where there are probably more cows than people. At the age of 18 I moved to Graz where I began studying for my Bachelor of History with English and History as my teachable courses.

I started learning English in primary school at the age of 9. It was not a big deal. We had one additional class a week, where we ‘talked’ in English. I remember that our teacher used to give us English names, so the teacher called me Anne which was okay, but some classmates, whose real names were Johannes or Hans-Peter where then referred to as ‘Joe’ and ‘John’, which I still think is hilarious. I did not learn a lot back then, but when I started lyceum (something like high school) English became more important. Most of my exams had to be written in the language. At the time I did not like it very much. Lyceum in Austria is divided into four years of lower classes and four years of upper classes. After the lower classes, I could choose to stay at the lyceum and study English further or move to a different high school that was concerned with business, technology, agriculture or vocational studies. I chose to stay at the lyceum.

During the four years of upper classes, I realized that I loved English and started taking additional classes on a voluntary basis. In one class we were prepared for the First Cambridge Examinations (exams for non-native speakers) and through this we were able to take part in translation competitions. At the age of 17, I won a bronze medal, which I am still proud of to this day.

In my last year I decided that I wanted to become a teacher. I spoke to my English professor who told me that I should be able to study English for a teaching degree from a ‘Hauptschule’. This is a school where students that cannot attend a lyceum, go to (something along the lines of a community college). I hope I don’t sound too unappreciative. My brother went to a ‘Hauptschule’ and he will be graduating from an agricultural college this year. Going to a ‘Hauptschule’ does not mean that you will never have the chance to take A-Levels (end of high school exam, like SATs in the US). Sometimes teachers there are even more concerned with their students than at a lyceum! Although I applied for teaching degree from a ‘Hauptschule’, I decided to study at the University of Graz and study a teaching degree there. (The Austrian education system is a bit complicated!)

When starting my studies, I realized that I had to work harder to be on the same level as my counterparts. I started to watch English TV and read much more in English. In my second semester I met some girls from America and Australia. This made me really started to appreciate speaking English and being able to make friends with people who do not speak German. A year later, a girl from Toronto moved in with me in the same dorm I am still living in today. English quickly became the language spoken at our flat. Afterwards, I had a girl from Albuquerque living with me, followed by a girl from Kentucky. I am not sure we would have been friends if my English had been worse. From these girls I learned how Anglo‑American cultures differ from the Austrian. It’s been a long process!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The Israel Dilemma

Wonderful news! I along with my Australian friend Nick will be heading to Israel in the next couple of weeks. This will be an amazing trip but with one major problem: I will not be able to visit numerous other Arab states after having an Israeli stamp in my passport. This might seem petty, but I have the serious hope of heading to India or Pakistan to work in the next couple of years, and this would hinder my travelling ambitions in the Middle East while I am there.

The countries that do not accept travellers who have previous been in Israel include:
1) Syria 2) Lebanon 3) Libya 4) Kuwait 5) Iran 6) Iraq 7) Pakistan 8) Saudi Arabia 9) Sudan 10) Yemen

Although Israeli stamps can be put on a separate page if you ask the customs officer, I also intend on going exploring in Jordan which is another stamp that indicates that I was in Israel (travelling through the land border).

What can I do? Well, not all that much. I can wait for my passport to expire but that will take many years. Another option is to have another passport. Americans have the option of getting a second American passport for situations like this, Canadians do not however. If one has duel citizenship then it is possible to use the passports at different situations when necessary. I might have to look into that EU passport after all.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Lviv Ukraine Travel Adventures!

During my second week of Spring Break (that's right, here you get two or three weeks), I decided to make a trip to Ukraine. The sole reason for this trip was an awesome Eastern European adventure. Ukraine is a former Soviet Republic. All I knew about Ukraine before my visit was Holodomor, the kick ass Antonov An-225 and the IMF bailout. I wanted to learn more about its contemporary culture. Given my limited budget and time, I decided against heading to Ukraine's capital Kiev during their harsh winter. Instead I opted for Ukraine's western cultural capital Lviv. So I took off with Chloe and the adventure began!

Apart from our bus breaking down, being held up at the border for hours and being dropped off in the middle of no where, it was a fun start. A friend told me that most Ukrainian experience I will have is driving on Ukrainian roads and she was not kidding. That coupled with a city bus that was filled to the brim with people while the bus driver counted fares made for an uneasy ride.
Lviv Protest
I found paying the bus fare to be an interesting experience. When
you got on the bus you passed your money forward to the bus driver
via other passengers and if need be, the bus driver would send back your
change via other passengers. Pretty cool!

The town itself was a pleasant surprise! Even with my limited student budget I was still able to experience the city's bars and gastronomic delights. The first place I went to after arriving was Coffee Manufacture. The waiter recommended I try a local specialty since it was my first time in Lviv. I was served Lviv Style Coffee (Кава по-львівськи) which included a strong cup of cappuccino in a metal cup with a shot of apple liquor on the side. It was surprisingly tasty!

That evening, Chloe and I ventured to a bar my brother Tom recommended called Kraivka. This place was madness! To enter this partisan styled bar, you need to say the password 'Slava Ukraini' or 'Glory to Ukraine' to the man at the door manning a fake sub machine gun otherwise you are not let in. Inside looks like a bunker with various activities to do! While you are waiting for your order, you can dress up in military uniform and go play target practice with Stalin's face using BB guns. The alcohols also proved to be quite interesting ranging from honey liquor to a liquor made of hops. Though it was a Ukrainian nationalist theme with an anti Russian undertone, it was all in good fun and even Russians in the bar were enjoying themselves. Nearing the end of the evening a Ukrainian kapela came out and played!

Lviv Book Market
Just when we though it could not get either more bizarre or awesome, we went to Mazoh's cafe. This place was named after the Austrian writer born in Lviv (then Lemberg) Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The term masochism (deriving sexual pleasure from the pain of others) is derived from his last name, so we knew we were in for something weird. When we walked in we heard the sound of someone screaming in agony. The place was covered in anything you may need for masochistic entertainment from leather whips to handcuffs.  The agonizing yelling came from someone getting whipped by the waitress after being served. After each whip, the waitress makes you say something silly like 'yeehaw' or 'meow, meow' to ridicule you. I was even told that natural aphrodisiacs were added to the food that was served!

Mazoh's Cafe
Further along in our adventure I learned that the kerosene lamp was invented in Lviv in 1853. To commemorate this, there is a museum and restaurant called Gazova Lampa (Gas Lamp) located in the middle of the town. Here we had our going away beer with a pickled beer platter where even the tomatoes were pickled! The menu had good Ukrainian food and a spectacular city view I would definitely recommend.

The Hipster scene is also alive and well in this town. Going to the bar House of Legends reminded me of some of the cafes and bars on Queen Street in Toronto. The room we sat in was artistically dedicated to the cobblestones in Lviv, and not in a historic way. There was a digital display running with the number of stones on the street while old communist shows intertwined with a 90's cooking show played on the TV to Ukrainian folk music. Other rooms had other random themes. In the summer you can sit an old communist car on the roof and get a view of the city while drinking. The real shame is I never had a chance to go to the Jewish bar across the street called The Golden Rose (Pid Zolotoju Rozu) where there were no prices,
you had to haggle to settle your bill. My finance education could have come to practical use!

To wrap up, Lviv is an awesome place to visit. If you have the patience to deal with long border wait times (almost four hours at 3am), a trip to Ukraine is particularly appealing on a student budget. The people were friendly and it always felt safe. I would like to send out a huge thank you to Volodymyr and his friends for allowing us to CouchSurf and showing us around!