Monday, December 29, 2008

Whirlwind Tour

My internet access over the last couple of weeks has left a lot to be desired. I have been traveling almost constantly since December 15. It took me 19 hours door to door from my apartment in Copenhagen to my friends' place just outside Amsterdam. I slept a bit on the train, and thankfully nothing was stolen.

Our flight from the Netherlands to Barcelona was at some ungodly hour I can´t even recall. We didn't sleep the night before, and took a train to Eindhoven at four in the morning. Discount airlines suck for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones is their association with airports in the middle of nowhere.

For the first couple of nights in Barcelona we stayed with a friend of mine from high school. He was wrapping up his stay in Europe as well, and showed us as much as he could in 48 hours. I have to say, I had never really thought about going to Spain when I thought about traveling around Europe, but I loved it. I almost felt like I could live in Barcelona. It reminded me a good deal of Los Angeles because of the weather, the terrain, and the atmosphere. It was better in some ways, thanks to good public transit and Gaudi artwork sprinkled all over the city. No Mexican food though. Very tragic. I really fell in love with the place after only four days. I will be back.

Marrakech was next. I have never been somewhere like it. Hell, I haven't even read about somewhere like it. It was the most hectic place I have seen, heard, or smelled. All three senses work overtime in a place like Marrakech. At all hours, the streets are filled with people, motorized scooters, beggars, urchins, trash, animals, smoke, and loud noises. One only manages to take their eyes off the insanity in the middle of the street because of what is on the sides of almost every street. Hundreds of shops line the twisted and unmarked rues, from old women on dirty sheets to large well-lit stores. Many places sell the same sorts of things: leather goods, handmade wooden tchotchkes, scarves, spices, teapots, bootleg movies, exotic pets and everything in between. In the main square people rush to hand you monkeys or put cobras around your neck so they can demand payment thirty seconds later.

Good shopkeepers spot Westerners from a mile away, and start calling out to you in many languages. Monsieur! Est-ce que tu veux?, Hola Amigo!, Good price! Morocco was a French colony, so knowing some Francais goes a long way, but I got to practice my Spanish too.

Then comes the bartering. At first, Marrakech is so cheap that it almost doesn't cross your mind. They use the dirham, which is about 1/11th of a Euro. A tall glass of the best tasting orange juice I have ever had was 90 euro cents. We got ripped off because we paid 13 euro for a 20 minute cab for three plus luggage when we first arrived. You quickly learn that nearly every price in the city is not only negotiable, but that the first price you hear may be 500% of what you could ultimately pay with some skillful banter. There is a certain etiquette you have to figure out, but once you have it down buying things becomes quite fun. If you ask for the price of something in a shop or stall, it is generally assumed that you are genuinely interested in it. If you end up not buying the item, even after a large drop in the item's price, it is seen as rude. Then again, this could just be another negotiating tactic.

Needless to say, I did all my Christmas shopping in Marrakech. I thoroughly enjoyed the rest of the city as well. Excellent cheap food abounds, but it is a third world city. My friend got sick while we were there, and I think it was probably the water or something. We rode camels, checked out the sites, and wandered. I loved my few days, but it's unlikely that I will return anytime soon. When I do, I certainly won't stay in a hostel.

Madrid was next. We saw almost none of that city. We stayed with my friend's family and celebrated Christmas with them and their two beautiful kids. It was very nice to have some semblance of holiday tradition for my first Christmas spent out of the country. I am by no means religious, but I do enjoy this time of the year for spending time with family. We ate well, relaxed, and played with the children. I am sad to have not seen Madrid, especially the Prado. I'll be back though.

I am now in Lisbon, and have been for a couple of days. I love this city. I can't help but compare it to San Fransisco. Seven hills, on the bay with a Golden Gate-esque bridge, trolley cars, and pretty decent weather. Every sidewalk and street is paved with these little cobblestones, often in cool designs (slippery though). There are statues and arches and fountains everywhere. It reeks of the Enlightenment. Also, it's pretty cheap compared to the rest of Europe. There are museums everywhere it seems, and good views to be had from castles and skyscrapers alike. It doesn't hurt that we are staying the best hostel I have ever been in. It's called the Living Lounge, and feels like a hotel. Great design, very clean, big bathrooms, free DVDs to watch and internet to use. I'm almost tempted to leave a review of this place on the site we booked with.

Tomorrow we head to our last stop, jolie Paris. We will be there through New Years, and probably spend too much money. Our good friend who is about to begin a semester abroad in London is going to meet us there. There isn't a city I would rather be in to end this journey and this year. I will probably spend 6 hours or so in the Orsay alone. We'll be on the Champs-Elysées or the Sacré Coeur for the actual countdown, hopefully with a bottle of champagne in hand. I can't wait.

That's enough. I might throw up some pictures in a couple weeks when I get back to my real computer.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Internet Is Evil

Recently, I spent some time chatting with a friend of mine back in Berkeley while she wrote a 20 page final paper. Like me, this girl is a big fan of procrastination. So she decided to start writing this paper a little more than 24 hours before it was due. She chronicled this marathon writing spree on her blog. I have to say, she held up remarkably well under the intense pressure. What could have been like a time-lapse car crash turned out to be a pretty interesting look at the modern college experience. I have to wonder though: did my chatting with her help by occasionally taking her mind off the assignment and allowing her to relax? Or was I a distraction? Either way, if she ends up doing poorly on this, I think we all know who is really to blame. That's right, The Internet.

Admittedly, now that I rely on it, I couldn't live without it. My love of instant gratification has been fed too often by this evil entity. Sports scores, news, pictures of friends, restaurant reviews, lolcats, etc etc etc. Once they are at your fingertips 24 hours a day, you get addicted. Psychologists are even considering adding Internet Addiction Disorder to the next edition of the holy bible of psychological disorders, the DSM. When I was a young kid, the Internet was just hitting the scene. I still remember the horrible noise of dialing up over a 56k connection. Downloading a handful of songs over Napster or Audiogalaxy was something you did overnight. But now kids are growing up with an Unlimited Distraction Complex the likes of which the world has never seen. And it's only going to get worse. With Blackberries, iPhones, and other assorted gadgets, people are increasingly connected wherever they go.

If it hadn't been for the Internet, my friend could have written her paper in peace, attention completely zeroed on her topic. Then again, how would she have done research? She was writing about the Dark Knight, and there certainly haven't been any books published on that film yet. See, like the HAL 9000, we depend on the Internet so much that, even when it hurts us, we can't turn it off. If we try, it will jettison our bodies into space or something. In a rare attempt to learn from past experiences, I started the 20 page paper I am currently writing a week before it was due. I was proud of myself at first. But the Internet combined with my body's unfamiliarity with a stress-free writing environment has foiled my plans at early completion of this godawful paper.

Because I started so early, I didn't feel the Fear: the stress that comes with knowing you have to write a page an hour or you will fail whatever class you are taking. It is that Fear that has kept my procrastination system workable over the years. In fact, I get the feeling that my subconscious is undermining my attempt to write this paper without the Fear. Every time I get into a good flow of writing, something draws me to read the Times or Politico or bash. With around 36 hours left, the Fear is only just starting to creep up my spine. Luckily, it is doing its job and my attention is improving by the hour. But, as you can see, I was drawn to write about this on my blog instead of writing about the Germanic influence on ancient Roman internal policy. See, the Fear works best with single-digit hours remaining.

I'm happy we have the Internet. It has entertained me and informed me better than anything else ever could. Because of the Internet, I can write term papers about ancient Roman history without ever touching a book. But it is still Evil, and it will probably bring about the downfall of the human race or something.

At least we'll be able to watch it happen on YouTube.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Onward and Upward

In less than a week, I will leave the country I have called home for the last few months. Early next week, I will travel to the Netherlands to meet up with a couple of friends from California who have been studying there through the same program I am enrolled in here in Denmark. Together we have planned an extraordinary adventure to cap off what has been nothing less than a fantastic semester abroad. Our journey will take us to Barcelona, Marrakech, Madrid for Christmas, Lisbon, and Paris for New Years. Once this trip is over, I will have been to every major European country and Africa for the first time in my life. While I am somewhat sad about leaving Denmark, the upcoming trip has me so excited that I can't really feel bad about anything.

Luckily, the job I have been working at here has prevented me from burning through my life savings in this outrageously-expensive country. In fact, all told I have probably made some money. Gotta love these social welfare states, eh? I fit right in the sweet spot of the system, avoiding the insane taxes (38% is the base rate) by not making quite enough money to be noticed. Unfortunately, due to a clerical error, the Danish government took 60% of my first couple of paychecks and have yet to return that money. I suppose if it's not in my possession then it's like savings.

Speaking of savings, I just read a Times article about the latest sale of short term securities by the Treasury. Investors scrambled to get the opportunity to... get 0% return in four weeks. I'm not economist, but from the tone of the article and common sense, it sounds like things are getting even worse. Maybe someone could explain to me how buying Treasury notes at 0% return is a better deal than just holding cash. Are the securities adjusted for inflation (which should be nothing at the moment anyway)? I have never taken economics very seriously. Why they give fake Nobel prizes to people in the field while ignoring mathematics bothers me. It dilutes the meaning of the award and gives people the impression that economics is scientific. Imagine if green florescent protein or anti-biotics just stopped working one day. I realize the analogy is far from watertight, but I'd really like to see a reproducible experiment in economics that goes beyond "when prices go up, people buy less."

I've got mixed up confusion about how I feel about the future. I have read somewhere that people my age are remarkably optimistic about it even though times are so bad right now. Maybe that's because we believe in America, and are young enough to know that we will see it shine brightly again. Pessimists will tell you our time is over and China will take the reigns. I find that laughable, but what do I know? I think of myself as a realist, and know that the best man for the job is about to take power in America. It's true, he has a bigger mess to clean up than we have seen in many decades, and more expectations resting on his shoulders than anyone deserves. But we have no other choice but to believe in him. For the next eight years (knock knock) Americans of all stripes are going to have to give things up to help us all. Based on his rhetoric, it sounds like Obama will stress personal responsibility and the power of the individual. He will find ways to put Americans at work for America. If we answer his call, we will rise from these ashes.

Now excuse me while I discuss long term savings plans with my Danish bank.