Only Planet

One Child, One Year, One Planet. A family of three traveling around the world...

You can contact us at werkingwells (at) gmail . com

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Prague, Czech Republic: A Postcard from Prague

Greetings from our first formerly-communist country on this trip, the Czech Republic. Prague is a beautiful, ancient city that has managed to not be destroyed through its tumultuous history. It’s about as modern as other places we’ve been in Europe and getting around is easy, but the Slavic language remains totally incomprehensible to us.

We’re here with Andy’s parents Mike and Phyllis, and they are getting up early and scoping the sights out, while we sleep in and then meet them later in the day to pick and choose among the best things to see.

They are great tour guides (it’s their first time here as well!) and we’re having loads of great food, beer and fun together.

Andy celebrated his birthday here, complete with chocolate cake in an incredible art deco style tea room.

Wish you were here. Must run, the Museum of Communism is calling…

Friday, May 19, 2006

Kristiansand Norway: On top of the world, living at the top

It must be hard for Norway to avoid feeling a bit smug, seeing as how it’s constantly ranked in the top three by the United Nations as the country with the combination of best life expectancy, education levels and income. Our expectations were high for this small country of 4.5 million people, where there is a 100% literacy rate, all Norwegians learn English, and your average taxi ride for six blocks costs US$12.

We came to Norway because a friend we met in Portland, Norunn, lives here with her daughter Victoria, and she extended an open invitation to visit her in Kristiansand.

Dylan and Victoria were in a playgroup together when they were a year old, and other than a short visit a few years ago we hadn’t seen or talked with Norunn until this spring, when we were making our plans to travel around Europe.

She was a great host to us, ensuring that we got a full dose of Norwegian culture, sights, and especially food while we were here.

Norunn encouraged us to come for Sytten Mai (17th of May), the national constitution day holiday, where the children take to the streets in the national costume, waving flags and singing songs. Interestingly, this is the only national day we’ve heard of which is not marked by military pomp and circumstance, guns, or veterans of wars. It was impressive to experience such a fun celebration of national pride.

Indeed the most energetic displays of Norwegian craziness were by the high school seniors called russ, who wear red overalls to identify them as the trouble makers they are, yelling in the streets, blowing whistles, spraying silly string, and throwing out their name cards to people along the street. But even they are not a permanent fixture, for once Sytten Mai is over, they hang up their pants and resume the orderly Norwegian life expected of them.

Some critics say that it’s social engineering that has brought about the high standard of living. Mothers receive a nine-week mandatory paid maternity leave; the payment schemes for job severance, child care and all the cradle-to-grave services boggle the mind; and the expenses for such an affluent country are truly stroke-inducing for those of us from countries where you can pick up a flat of food at Costco for less than a couple of bags of pasta here. Although we could get used to the fantastic scenery, the rocky granite coastlines and the clean orderliness of Norwegian cities, we have problems accepting the fact of a US$26 hamburger and fries, or a US$10 salad at McDonalds.

After learning that Norway is at the top of the livable countries list, we checked out the UN web site and discovered that we’d visited countries at both ends of the rankings. And that is one of the most incredible things about this trip: seeing the great range of what we can do as humans.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Dublin Ireland: Tragic angst need not apply

The rainbow stretching over the parking lot of the tiny Kerry airport was an auspicious omen for our arrival to Ireland. I told Dylan that we should watch out for the leprechauns guarding the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, but after the incident with the hamsters (or lack thereof) in Amsterdam, she wasn’t in a mood to believe me. We did find the gold, however, but it took a few days.

We decided to “go rural” in Ireland and rent a car so that we could travel at our own pace and not be on one of those huge bus tours through the Ring of Kerry and the Dingle Peninsula.

From Killarney we drove to Cork to kiss the Blarney Stone,

and then to Kilkenny before stopping in Dublin for a few days.

Although Ireland has been on the top ten list of countries I’ve wanted to see, there weren’t specific castles or historical sites beckoning me. I wasn’t even sure what the Ring of Kerry or the Dingle Peninsula offered the explorer. But what I saw kept me saying to Andy that this Ireland wasn’t what I was expecting, and he wanted to know what it was I had hoped to see in Ireland.

It wasn’t a thing, you see, but a feeling. I was looking for the Ireland of tragic angst. The Ireland of gray rainy days, ducking into a pub with your mates and hearing a band like the Chieftains merrily playing along. I was looking for the poor but scenic Ireland with tiny ramshackle houses, recently left by immigrants to the New World as they sought their fortune. I was expecting to see the Irish of the famine, with cheeks hollow and bodies bent from hard work and hunger. Not really the last one, but this was not the Ireland that Michael Collins, James Joyce, or even Van Morrison led me to believe existed.

No, this Ireland was filled with hundreds of new homes in every town, folks driving Mercedes Benzes and other fancy cars, and the girls were more than well-fed, more often than not sporting muffin tops dangling over their low-rise jeans.

Since the 1990’s when the economic powers of the Celtic Tiger became evident, Ireland has seen a surge in immigration, employment (it has one of the lowest unemployment rates in Europe) and development, which in turn feed the economy. In Ireland it is now possible to get a Mexican dinner in Cork and a Vietnamese meal in Dublin. We know, because we’ve had both!

We weren’t sure we were gauging the mood in Ireland correctly, but actually in The World Is Flat, Tom Friedman says that “Ireland today is the richest country in the European Union after Luxembourg. Ireland has a per capita GDP higher than that of Germany, France and Britain. Today nine of the world’s ten top pharmaceutical companies have operations in Ireland, as do sixteen of the top twenty medical device companies and seven of the top ten software firms.”

Believe it or not, Ireland had more foreign investment in 2004 from America than China did! Dell computers are the largest export from Ireland and Ireland hopes to double the number of PhDs in science and engineering by 2010. Even Subway sandwiches has lofty goals and hopes to have 2010 Subway franchises open in Ireland by 2010, a dubious side effect of all this development. The gold was at the end of the rainbow, but it wasn’t in a black pot, but scattered all over the country, as they scurry to modernize, develop and ride this Celtic tiger to its next stop.

It took a little more digging than I thought it would to find the Irish of yesterday, or more accurately the Ireland of Guinness advertisements.

Arriving in Dublin in a blinding rainstorm, we heard a radio report that Ireland has an unusually high number of suicides, so there must be some amount of angst. The news of the number of road fatalities that weekend was given in an Irish lilt, and we did eat soda bread, stew and boxty, a dish developed as a result of the famine, where scarce potatoes were grated and filled like a crepe, but with filling meats for us rather than the nettles which might have been served during the mid-1800s.

We’re learning that it’s painful to have too many expectations when we travel to another country. That traveling through a different land usually does not mean time traveling, and that the place you were inspired to visit because of the novels, music or history often does not match up to the modern reality. And why should it? Kipling’s India, Dickens’ London, and Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Minnesota just don’t exist like they did. Time marches on, but I can’t help to feel that something is being lost in the quest for globalization, because if Tom Friedman is correct and the world is becoming flat, then doesn’t that mean that it is also becoming homogenized? Or as Joni Mitchell sang, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” Perhaps for centuries travel writers have been bemoaning the march of progress in such scenic places as Ireland, while embracing the tools (jet travel and email are great). But for now we say, get yourself out there, and see the windswept coasts, the emerald green fields, and the ragged rock walls before they become somehow changed, like the other parts of Ireland we fear that we missed.

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

London, United Kingdom: It’s not easy being green

Our friend Amanda, who’s currently using our blog as a teaching tool for her 4th and 5th graders, emailed us with a question from her class, asking us what’s the price of gas in London? Good question class. Here’s your answer:

That’s 94.9 pence per liter. 94.9 pence is US$1.74. There are almost 4 liters to a gallon, so that ends up being US$6.96 per GALLON, kids. This is the most expensive we’ve seen. New Zealand and Australia were almost US$4 per gallon. Not only does gas cost a fair bit, but there is also a surcharge on cars found within the city limits of London during the prime hours (7am-6:30pm Monday-Friday ) of US$15 because there are so many cars on the road that they figure charging a lot will help deter drivers and relieve congestion.

Here are a couple of other interesting things we’ve noticed about London that you wouldn’t find in the guide books. It’s not the most environmentally green place. For one of the largest, richest capital cities in the world, there are a few things that leave us floored. There are signs that say recycle your cans and bottles but we’ve found no recycling receptacles anywhere. There are no trashcans in the Tube, but more than anything, I think that is an anti-terrorism measure. Trash is left in plastic bags on the side of the street, to be picked up every morning, and as far as we can tell there are no charges for the number of bags you leave. In Portland, we are charged by the amount of trash we throw away, as judged by the size of our garbage can, and a separate truck handles paper, glass, and other recyclables, which are free. In fact, there is a heavy demand among Portlanders for recyclable soft drink cans since they are worth money, but no such luck here.

There is no charge for water usage here. Britons are not on metered water systems, so no matter your use (refilling the hot tub every other day, having toilets that flush for 5 minutes, watering the garden during one of the omnipresent rain showers), no one is the wiser. And unlike other European countries, there are no charges for bags in the grocery store, like we found in Germany and Switzerland.

I guess I’m not the only one who’s felt like London is quickly becoming America. Andrew Sullivan wrote this article in yesterday’s London Times, which mirrored many of our thoughts, down to me facetiously calling the UK the 52nd state (after Canada—ooh, I’m gonna get some glares for that one…), though I wasn’t aware that some Americans loathe the US more than the British who were polled. Remember kids, play nice. It’s a small world we live in after all. Off to the greener hills and a wee bit of the blarney in Ireland.