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Eighteen Days Mostly In Eastern Europe

 BY GREG CASTILLA  –For 18 days last month, I and my wife, together with my two brothers-in-law, a sister-in-law and their respective spouses, visited eight cities mostly in Eastern Europe.

The cities we visited were Vienna in Austria; Prague, the Czech Republic; Berlin, Germany; Tallinn, Estonia; St. Petersburg, Russia; Helsinki, Finland; Gothenburg, Sweden; and Copenhagen, Denmark.

For 18 days, I learned so many things that I would not have learned simply by reading about these cities in the internet.

There is definitely a big difference between reading and experiencing.

St. Augustine once wrote, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only one page.”  How true.

The most significant thing that I learned is that I don’t know so many things about the world.

In Vienna, for example, the 8-seater taxi that took us from the airport to the hotel was a Mercedes-Benz. Little did I know that in many of the European cities that we visited, Mercedes-Benzes are often used as taxicabs.

In the Philippines, one has to be exceptionally rich to own a Mercedes-Benz. I still have to see a Mercedes-Benz being used as a taxicab in the Philippines.

I also realized that many of the taxi drivers were honest. When we took a taxi in Copenhagen going to the airport, the thought that the driver would take the long route – like what most taxi drivers in the Philippines do – entered my mind.

Every time we took a taxi, I could not avoid asking myself: What if?

But I was wrong. What I experienced was different from what I was conditioned to believe.

We had been warned to be extra careful in St. Petersburg in Russia because some tourists had been reportedly robbed and pickpockets are not uncommon. Scary, isn’t it? I took the warning seriously.

I removed my credit cards from my wallet when we went to St. Petersburg. I even did not bring my US dollars, thinking that if I were to be robbed, I would gladly give the few Russian rubles I had. Better safe than sorry.

But nothing happened. Many people think that in a place like St. Petersburg one can still get robbed or held up. But it’s not really true. One just has to be careful, vigilant and not do something stupid, like separating one’s self from the group.

According to our Russian tour guide, things have been safer lately.

Which brings me to our Russian tour guide who I thought knew the significance of May 1 (Labor Day) and could sing the Internationale, the anthem of the working class.

To my surprise, she did not know the significance of May 1 and could not sing .the Internationale. She even said that in St. Petersburg there is only one statue of Lenin.

I guess things have changed in Russia since the time of perestroika, a movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union associated with former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev during the 1980s.

Contrary to what I had thought, our Russian interpreter, who wanted to make us understand her culture, appeared to have a very limited knowledge of the Bolshevik revolution and its impact on the present generation.

But she admitted that corruption is rampant among the police and government officials.

Her honesty was admirable. What was important, at the end, was we respected each other despite our cultural differences. We were also able to relate to each other during the two days that we were in St. Petersburg. I was sure that saying ‘Thank You’ to her in Russian at the end of our tour had an impact on her because she smiled.

Expectations can make or break a vacation. I knew nothing about the places that we visited that’s why I was impressed with all of them, from the cobble-stoned Old Town in Tallinn (Estonia) to the Berlin Wall in Germany and to the bike-riding people of Copenhagen who commute to their work by bicycle, to mention a few.

Open-mindedness is important to appreciate the uniqueness, history and culture of any place. There is nothing as important as an open mind when one is traveling.

My only disappointment was I never had the time to really become friends with the people I met. There was no time to bond because we were always on the go – one disadvantage of being in a group tour. Although I must admit people were generally friendly.

Another disappointment was the lack of time. There were places that I wanted to see more. But because of our limited time, we had to cram more places into an over packed schedule.

The difference in language did not bother me as much. People had a way of communicating, either through the use of one’s hands or through their limited knowledge of English.

We were lucky to have tour guides. But when we were on our own, we managed to communicate and find our way. I observed that many Europeans could speak English.

After almost two weeks, I started thinking of the things I wanted to do at home: mow the lawn, start training for the Seattle-To-Portland (STP) bike fest, stain the deck, etc.

I wanted to go home. Home is still what I long for compared to the many beautiful places I saw.

Yet I went home knowing that I have learned so many things about people, about places. And this gave me a different perspective on how to view the world.

This family vacation has expanded my horizon in a manner I never expected.