Reflections on Trip 2
Baltic Cruise and Northern Europe
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Finally, four months after my last one, I have another Reflections on Trip post. Some of these are really deep, while others are definitely not.
On our trip I encountered many people from many countries. I talked to kids from Israel, France, Spain, Lebanon, Mexico, Kuwait, and a few other places. Everyone used English. Even when the Israelis were talking to the Mexicans or the French with the Spanish, they spoke in English. In some regards, I think it's awesome that I am a native English speaker because I can communicate with a multitude of people. On the other hand, I feel like I am lacking something in not knowing another language. I would like to be able to carry a semi-sophisticated conversation in another language. I know some Spanish, but I feel that I would need to really focus on learning it to become fully conversational in it.
English has been the Lingua Franca for so long that language education is not a high priority in the American culture at large. Additionally, American has only two land-neighbors and only one of them, Mexico, speaks a different language (though you could argue that the Canadians do in Quebec). For a very long time, it has not been necessary to learn a language other than English to survive in the States and so it hasn't been seen as a priority. Most other places in the world many well established national languages coexist within very small spaces. Europe is the only example of this phenomena that I have been exposed to, but I do believe that we are missing something here in America because of our lack of exposure to a plethora of foreign languages. Most children in Europe begin learning English at a very young age (most of the time 1st grade) when they still have the ability to learn languages quickly. Here in the States, many kids don't start learning a new language until middle school, high school, or even college. I think we should inform our decisions about when we begin to teach language to children with the ever-increasing global context in which we find ourselves.
There was one instance on the cruise that I really appreciated being a native English speaker. A kid from Mexico was trying to tell a kid from France that the game we were playing (dodge-ball) was fun. He pronounced fun incorrectly, more like "fan" but I understood him. The boy from France did not. I said what the boy from Mexico had said with an enunciated American accent and the Frenchman (or Frenchperson to be PC...bleh, that sounds awful) understood.
Cultural exchange gives insight into not only other cultures, but our own as well. We can't understand why our culture is unique if we don't know what alternatives exist. On our trip, we experienced many different cultures. In Sweden and Finland we had a taste of the Scandinavian culture. We were able to contrast that with the Russian society. On the ship we ate dinner with a couple from Germany. We experienced the Baltic States, Denmark, England, and Iceland and in each place we had a unique experience. I can truly say that I have experienced a small portion of the culture of each place we went on this trip..
There is no reason for the United States not to switch to the metric system besides the fact that we are lazy. Sorry, sometimes the truth hurts. We are in the good company of Liberia and Burma on the Imperial/English/Customary/Standard System. (I mean seriously, we can't even figure out what to call it.) Let's reallocate the funds that we give to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) year and put it towards transitioning to the metric system. Why do I choose the EPA to cut? Well, the EPA attempts to stem climate change (whether or not that’s a thing or not is a discussion for a later time) by creating regulations. Instead, let's invest in something that will not only save millions of gallons of paint per year that are currently used to paint two different measurement systems on cars, thermometers, yard/metre sticks and rulers, measuring cups, etc. but also save thousands if not tens of thousands of man-hours spent ensuring that software products look good with both the English and the Metric standards. So let's get to it. Defund the EPA and reallocate all of the funds to a new department, the DMC (the Department of Metric Conversion).
Because the various nations we went to on our trip have different currencies, I found it difficult to understand the relative price of goods. For example, 1 USD = 8 SEK (Swedish Krona). I had to divide by 8 to determine the price in a currency which I could understand, USD. The exchange to the Russian Ruble was even worse, 62 Russian Ruble to 1 USD. It's very difficult to divide by 62 in your head on the fly.
I figure that if you live in a currency system, Euro, Ruble, Krona, whatever, that you think in that currency. A candy bar has always been ~10 SEK for the Swedes, it is only weird for foreigners. I wonder if you ever really get used to a new currency. I guess I’ll have to live abroad to find out. What a shame (not).
I have T-Mobile as my cell service provider on my iPhone. I have the $30 plan with 5 GB LTE data (unlimited 2G), unlimited texting, and 100 minutes talk. T-Mobile uses GSM technology which works all over the world so I was able to get cell service in most places we went. Of course, I didn't use it much because international roaming is extremely expensive ($0.50/text, $1.50/minute talk), but I did use it a few times in situations where we needed to communicate rapidly. Overall it was nice that we had the assurance that we could contact people if necessary. One quirk about the $30 plan is that it doesn't give you data roaming. I actually think this is a good thing because it's extremely expensive to roam internationally ($15/MB) and we were able to get WiFi in many places so it didn't ever really matter.
The nicest T-Mobile feature is WiFi Calling. Basically it uses your WiFi connection to make a call rather than the cell tower. You can make calls and send texts over the WiFi network using this feature. It is extremely useful, especially internationally because calls and texts made with WiFi Calling are charged against your account as if you were in the States (not roaming internationally).
iMessage and FaceTime are Awesome
Apple products are great. While on WiFi, I was able to communicate via FaceTime Audio and iMessage with many of my friends. I had a long phone conversation via FaceTime Audio which didn't count against my T-Mobile minutes and I sent many texts via iMessage. It's great having those technologies instead of relying on cell service.
Since we spent 4.5 days In Stockholm, we bought a pass called the Stockholm Card which allowed us one-time entry into most of the major museums and attractions. Buying those cards was one of the best investments we made. By going to two or three museums or paid attractions per day, we were able to save money by having the cards. Although the cards weren't cheep, museum entrance fees are very high (I think they were normally between $15 and $25 per person, it is Scandinavia) so we were actually able to save money. I would recommend the Stockholm Card to anyone who plans to stay for a few days in Stockholm and who doesn't mind going to two attractions a day.
In London we got London Passes which are very similar to the Stockholm Cards. Because we spent a longer time in London than we did in Stockholm, we were able to easily recoup the cost of the card. Most of the major attractions in London were included in the card. We also took advantage of the included day pass for a hop-on-hop-off bus. The cards came will a little booklet with a description of each attraction included with the pass. We used that book to figure out what attractions we wanted to see while in London. I would recommend the card if you are staying for an extended period of time in London.
The British Rail system is really good. Combined with the Scottish rail system you can get anywhere on the main British island. We made four trips by rail. Some of the trains were nicer than others because the trains are operated by private companies. The government has a very heavy hand in their operation. I can't imagine how good the train system would be if the private companies truly competed with one another. Despite its flaws, the British Rail system gets the job done.
Traffic Lights and Traffic Circles
In Europe, and I think most of the rest of the world, traffic lights go to orange before turning green. This gives drivers an opportunity to get ready to go before the light turns green. One benefit is that if a driver isn't paying attention to the light, there are two color changes that occur before someone might beep at them. This reduces the number of people who don't go when the light turns green. Additionally, if the driver is paying attention, they can go immediately when the light turns green. Europe is also full of traffic circles (roundabouts). These are much more efficient than stop signs because, unless someone is coming. All four way stops could be replaced with a traffic circle. Traffic circles do introduce one slight inefficiently in that those on the primary road must yield to someone already in the traffic circle, even if that someone came from the secondary road. However, this is mitigated by the fact that if there are no cars in the traffic circle, the driver does not have to stop.
Traffic circles are also much better for the self-driving-car future. It is much easier for an autonomous vehicle to assess whether or not a traffic circle is clear or not (it only has to analyse two directions and one cross walk whereas at a stop sign, it has to analyse three directions and two cross walks).
The People You Are With Make All the Difference
The most important thing I learned on this trip it would be that your level of enjoyment depends greatly on the people you are with (having a good attitude helps, but it is a heck of a lot easier to have a good attitude if you like the people you are with). I’ll give you three examples.
- I spent a good deal of time during the cruise with the Ure's and the Vicks. The Ure's are a Mormon family of eight (six kids) from Utah. The Vick's were a family of four (two twin girls) from New York (state, not city). All of them were genuinely nice people who were a pleasure to be around. We played a lot of games and, although we were very competitive, we didn't get mad when we lost (I mean, when they lost ;)). They made my evenings very enjoyable.
- In Klaipeda, we took a "countryside" tour where we went around to a few different villages with our guide, Diana. It was not a site-heavy tour, but it was one of the most memorable because we were able to really get to know Diana. We walked through a park and had a picnic lunch. Then, as we were driving back to the boat, she asked if we wanted to stop at her house and meet her son, Ignas. We got to know both of them and I felt that that was a more salient experience than some of the tours we did.
- The Icelandic people, at least the ones we came in contact with, are extremely nice. I described in my earlier posts how we had problems with transportation to our hotel (you can read about it here). Everyone, from the man at the rental car place to the employee at the hotel went out of their way to help us. Maybe it was due to the fact that tourism is a huge industry, but it sure didn't seem like it. Everyone seemed to genuinely want to help us out.
These are just a few examples of how the people I was with made a difference in my experience. I can give you negative examples too, but I won't.