Friday, May 24, 2013

Notes on Europe Travel - 2013

I was in Europe this March and April. I really wanted to write about everything. Looks I was a bit busy, so could not hit the keyboards.

Anyway, this is summary of all the things I wanted to write. There might be too generic things for people who are already immersed in western culture. But for a guy from developing country like me, almost everything was interesting, mind blowing or shocking. Also, so many things can be similar to other developed countries. Finally, most of it is my personal observation.

  1. The Background
    I mostly spent my time in The Netherlands, city of Delft to be precise. It is in southern part of the country, near Dutch government town The Hague. Delft is small very old and beautiful university town. From most of what I saw in The Netherlands, it is very clean and really well maintained even for European standard I guess.. City is quite small (with total population around 90,000). Everything is within walking distance. I loved it.

    One random weekend I visited Delft University of Technology, which is one of the major Dutch university for technical degrees. The huge library within the campus is very beautiful. Also probably because of the university, I could see too many Chinese people all around city (And less Indians to my surprise).

    There are canals everywhere. I loved walking on road parallel to canals (except when it's windy, obviously :D). City reflects the old architecture, with numerous historic building. It is perfect example of well maintained city.

  2. Schengen Agreement to European Union
    I got visa stamped. BOOM. Now I can travel to 26 countries in Europe, no checking, no questions asked. Just go wherever you want to (except UK). This is probably the most awesome thing about Europe. I can't be grateful enough to person who came up with this idea.
    Apparently I traveled five countries – The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Luxembourg and Germany. Yay :)

    Schengen Agreement was done in 1985 to abolish passports and immigration controls in common borders. The agreement only deals with travel, which allows a person to travel to another member country without visa. Later, I think Schengen Area was absorbed into European Union. You know about EU – free market zone consisting 27 countries.

    * Yes except United Kingdom – Schengen Visa doesn't cover it. Policy makers there still think that it has some kind of golden soil and everyone will flock there if they liberalize border controls. You might have heard about UKBA.

  3. Observation: Labour is expensive
    This is probably the most interesting thing I saw – labour is very expensive. It sometimes funny the way economics works. In India, there are 2/3 people in all big buildings pressing the buttons inside lifts. Yes, their job is to press button and taken the automatic lift up and down whole day. Parking spaces are more ridiculous. At Inorbit Mall in Pune (there so many malls like one) there are more than 20 people just doing nothing but allocating parking space. In petrol pumps, there are three guys – one for filling petrol, another for collecting cash and yet another for collecting payment via cards. Same with restaurants, helpers etc.

    This is exact opposite there. Almost everything is automatic. I travelled by Eurolines bus. Checking passenger tickets, doing check-in/check-out, handling baggages, driving – for all of these there was only one guy – driver himself. This is too generic I guess, but for me it was weird at first. Ditto with petrol pumps, parking spaces etc – that you have to fill petrol yourself, none is there in parking space. These are just examples. Labour is too expensive. Automate everything. Welcome to machine.

  4. Amsterdam: Sex, Drugs and the City
    I hate to give above title to city of Amsterdam. I really do. Amsterdam is beautiful cosmopolitan city with lots of canals, nice people, many public parks etc . Let me write more about the city. Soft drugs is legal, so is prostitution. Most of the locals I spoke to were a bit sad about it. One reason might be that everyone takes city wrong way.

    But, let's face it. Every city has some form of prostitution. And every city is not drugs free (except Singapore may be – I hear you get death penalty for that. Very costly.) So, all other countries are making their citizens criminal by making illegal to do prostitution and drugs (along with so many consequences). Holland is making it legal, and collects taxes. I liked it.
    But it is very tricky. You can sell drugs, but you can not produce. (I guess you can produce small amount of it for self use). So, where the hell does it come from? Thanks international drugs cartels.

    Place where drugs are sold is called coffeeshop (yes, together two words. And place to find coffee is Cafe :D) So, when illegal drugs enters one of the many coffeeshops, it becomes legal. (too much magic here :D)

    De Wallen is most famous red light district in Amsterdam. And this is also most crowded place in Amsterdam. No, all the people don't go for sex. In fact most of the people you see there are tourists who came to see scene which nowhere on Earth they could see. It's spectacular and very well managed. Quick google search must give you glimpse of the area.

    So, let's talk about city. So everyone does drugs? And goes to those red windows? This is what most people think after they hear it's legal. Answer is No and No. In fact most of the locals don't really care about it. City is perfectly normal as any other city until you head to De Wallen or some other red light districts. Drugs there is like cigarette elsewhere. Some might smoke, most of population don't.

    Another most interesting thing to me in Red Light District after Red Light District itself was that all the other normal business activities are adjacent to window girls. In fact, world's oldest stock exchange, Amsterdam Stock Exchange is next to De Wallen. Same with so many fast food joints, shops, restaurants, cafes, pubs and any business activity. And there is one big church in the center of De Wallen. At the end, prostitution is also normal business activity like massage parlor elsewhere.

  5. Income Tax rate is very high.
    This is another unique thing about Europe. Income tax rate is very high. In The Netherlands it can go up to 52% - which means sometimes you pay more than half of what you make to Government. Every country has similar rate – look at higher end tax rate in three biggest economies in Europe, Germany – 45%, France – 41%, UK - 50%.
    The reason for high tax collection is partly because Government functions as public benefactor. For example, Government takes care of you if you can't make enough to survive. Except in UK, education is virtually free. In fact, In Netherlands government pays money every year to students who go to college/university. I said high income tax, but people who have low wage pay way less tax. These are few example. Basically, system is more geared towards what you expect from socialist state. But with increasing debt, I doubt they will continue big public spending in future.

  6. God Save the Queen
    Fuck you, but God will save the queen and that's all it matters.
    If you grew up in republic state, I am sure you have read about French revolution. Not so with so many EU member states. In Netherlands, Queen's Day or King's Day (their birthday I guess) is biggest festive celebration every year. This again felt strange. May be just because I am from republic state.
    Next hint: Listen to national anthem of United Kingdom.

  7. Let's brew beer in Monastery
    If if think beer means all about those few internationally well known brands, you seriously need to visit Belgium. It's has more than 800 beer brands and about 178 breweries. That was indeed mind blowing.

    I hadn't really heard about Belgian beer before I went there, reason is simple – that most of those brands are not big international brands. Also, monasteries in Belgium brew beer, brand them and sell them. So, some of the great beers I tested were brewed in monastery. I heard monasteries there are self sufficient and don't need funding from state or public donation. What an idea.

  8. EU doesn't like US
    People in Europe don't like America. Generally we think that all the developed countries are similar. I was plain wrong. There seems to be lots of differences between two.

    It's true that US is notorious to some degree all over the world. But, that's limited to political sentiment. It's different in Europe. Except among technical and startups people, if you praise something about US, you will be frown upon. I was just too dumb to think all of the western world is same.    

    That's all I guess. Speaking English will do just fine everywhere (except in French/Roman dialect  speaking area may be. I had difficulty ordering food there) Weather was cruel than what I expected. On the other hand, people were more friendlier than expected. Overall, I had a great time.

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