One of the great things about Europe is its magnificent Christmases, when the frosty air is infused with a spirit of joy and celebration. From Scotland to Slovakia, a smorgasbord of culture is on display as each country celebrates with its own unique traditions.
This is the second in a series about the Continent’s various subtle (and sometimes not-so-subtle) yuletide differences that make each culture uniquely fun.
Some of France’s yuletide traditions have spilled over to the US, where we associate the word “Noel” with the holiday. In fact Noel is the French word for Christmas, stemming from the French phrase les bonnes nouvelles, which means “the good news”.
Paris, the City of Light, celebrates in a less red-and green-light gaudy way than big US cities. But don’t let that fool you into thinking it’s a realm of secular Scrooges: its neighborhoods often host popular Christmas markets that are as festive as any scene in New York City. The shoppers bustle under the glow of the light-strewn Eiffel Tower, radiating light like a beacon against the cold night sky.
In the countryside, where the culture of any people really resides and thrives, the traditions are stronger and richer. The warm tones of local choirs singing medieval carols can be heard emanating from candle-lit, thirteenth-century churches. Soaring abbeys host more elaborate performances of ancient music under their arches. The smell of burning wood emanates from the fireplaces and stoves of old farmhouses in the chiller Normandy and Brittany regions, while the southern areas of the country enjoy the more moderate temperatures afforded by their proximity to the Mediterranean. Epic manger scenes crowd around the courtyards in front of the great cathedrals, uncomfortably close to the commerce-heavy outdoor markets where locals score the freshest chestnuts and tastiest red wine while shivering carolers entertain with the old favorites.
In this strongly Catholic country, many families will attend the midnight Mass and return home to enjoy le réveillon, or the “wake-up!” meal.
And that meal is fantastic. Being France, the food is an integral part of the celebration—in fact it’s the culinary high point of the year for many. Delicacies like foie gras, oysters and escargots are popular aperitifs, while the entrée tends to be more straight-forward dishes like goose (popular in Alsace) and turkey (more popular in Burgundy).
Meat (including ham and duck) is paired with a good red wine and served with the ever-popular chestnut stuffing, a French favorite for generations. Chubby truffles are another beloved feature of most dinners. While the use of the actual Yule log has diminished somewhat, the French make a traditional Yule log-shaped cake called the buche de Noel. It’s a sugary delight of chocolate and chestnuts.
After the Mass and le réveillon, the children put their shoes in front of the fireplace hoping that Pere Noel (Father Christmas) will fill them with candy, nuts, fruit and gifts. As the kids drift off to sleep, the adults sit up late, hang goodies from the tree and polish off the Yule log. Before they turn in for the night, a softly burning candle is are left on the table in case the Virgin Mary passes by, a long-standing custom of this Catholic country.
From Bayeux to Arles, France revels in its ancient cultural traditions as it celebrates the Noel with that classically French combination of style and joy. Gift giving is less emphasized than the act of gathering and celebrating simple rituals with family and friends—and sharing a fine meal with good wine, of course.
It may be because I have just watched “Life of Pi”, or because once you go to India, if you loved it, you can hardly get it out of your mind. Anyhow, this week I would like to bring this article to your attention. It is an interesting series of suggestions for women travellers to India.
The author “found India both tough and rewarding in the same breath. And from time to time the experience can seem even more perplexing for girls (we are talking about a country where the metro offers a separate carriage for women), but India also has the potential to offer its female visitors even richer rewards (imprinted with henna and swathed in sari silks it’s impossible not to feel like a princess)”. Fantastic. I think the author has pointed out some interesting essential topics.
In the past 24 months, I have spent 7 in India, and I have grown a particular fondness for its thunderous character. I met fantastic people there, and I have also made some strange encounters. Based on my experience, it was interesting to read about the perceptions of a woman travelling around India, as it is undeniably true: sex makes a big difference in this country.
I have been lucky enough to be the guest of a big number of Indian families of all social strata: the rich, the poor, the excessively posh and the dirt poor. One time, I did not stay with a friend because the double bed provided at his house with no roof already had to accommodate six other family members. But apart for this case, one thing was clear in my personal picture: women and men in Indian society are very different classes of people. A man is advanced by a patriarchal society, and a woman is generally employed as a “slave in the house”, regardless of her social status. The only difference may be the number of maids she has. (more…)
Hitching a ride was, is and always will be evoking images of young, reckless, crazy travel. It is for adventurers, because you do not know who will pick you up and when you will arrive at your destination. And it is indeed for adventurous drivers too: our imagination is so full of hideous stories based on this phenomenon that, before you would pick up that random guy standing at the crossroad, you would definitely think twice.
Luckily, this kind of popular culture has not invaded the Asian media as much as the Western ,and seeing a foreigner at the side of the road generally does not ignite serial killer’s thoughts: on the contrary, it is quite easy to be picked up and helped out.
You may think that only someone with a very low civic sense or a very desperate need for money would be thinking of hitching in Asia. Sorry friends, but you are dead wrong: there are many people, surprisingly foreigners and local Asians alike, thumbing at the side of those roads.
Furthermore, in countries with a big exponential growth such as China, where transportation and fuel prices have doubled or tripled since the last decade, buying bus and train tickets to get around can be killer for low budgets. Hitching is on the contrary a great way to travel the extra mile, trying to have a more authentic experience observing what actually happens inside of those Asian cars you do not have to pay for. Sounds strange, isn’t it? Well, it is not, in reality: you just have to try.
The same opinion is shared by a young French guy I met recently; he arrived to China fromT urkey thumbing along the Caucasus andCentral Asiafor four months. He claims that he not only got lifts, but also met people and got to visit their homes, was invited for dinner or sleeping over, and overall he had a fantastic, genuine vagabonding time.
Westerners are not the only ones: the biggest number of hitchers I recently met is constituted by Chinese students in their early 20s to 30s. They complained that transportation costs inChinabecame unbearable, thus they are forced to hitchhike if they want to get out and travel their huge country during the summer holidays. Others just strike off toTibeton a pushbike!
To test if the great tales of hundreds of kilometers travelled at no cost was part of the Asians’ travel folklore, or if it was actually true, I had to personally give it a go myself. The equation worked out fairly well in favor of the road folklore: I was able to hitchhike and get lifts by several people. However, as I had to reach a particular destination in time to catch a train connection, I also had to resort to some private minivans I had to pay – sometimes less than the ongoing rate. Truck drivers seem to be the best bet to move long distances, although many of them – at least the Chinese – require you to make a money offer. Have clearly in mind how much you should pay for a bus or a train, and work your way around this fare, of course bargaining it down.
Sometimes you may be even lucky and get to hitch out of the ordinary, as it happened to me in Tibetan Kham, where me and a group of friends could flag down a local police car driven by two young officers who gladly took us for a 3 and more hours ride to the next town… where we got stranded for the night at the side of the road because the next chunk of highway had been submerged by a nearby river’s high waters! So keep clearly in mind that if you want security and reaching a place on a particular time, you should not attempt hitchhiking, especially in countries with roads as bad as the Asian. Of course, all of these unexpected problems would make the best travel stories, later… but do not say I did not advise you on the potential risk of natural catastrophe. For other risks, well, I do not think the Asian drivers would be one.
This article is the sixth in a series of posts explaining how to bring your music on the road and get to travel with it. Read the series’ introduction , Post#1 , Post # 2 , Post #3 , Post #4 and Post #5
In my last post I concluded that vans are the ideal mean of transportation for a touring band: more comfortable, more professional and, at last, a possible place to sleep when everything else fails on the road. I would like to expand the topic and give you some useful suggestions to get yourself and your van ready for touring.
First of all, most probably you will not be able to afford the luxury to buy a van, especially in Europe: unlike in the USA, they are expensive and have high road taxes and insurance to pay every year. Therefore, unless you are playing shows every weekend or own a booking agency, you will most likely resort to rent one for your tours or shorter periods of time.
Speaking of rentals, generally a van would cost in between 80 to 100 Euros per day. This is definitely not that cheap, especially considering the extra cost of petrol. However, you have to budget rental fees into your daily expenses and make them work according to your shows’ guarantees. If it may sound easier, some booking agencies also offer full rental packages including a backline and a driver – very handy to cruise the narrow European lanes for first timers – for a few Euros a day more.
When choosing a van, consider that smaller vans would require you to take out the last row of seats in order to make room for backline and luggage. For this reason, it would probably be wiser and easier for maximal comfort to leave friends and girlfriends at home, and travel with your bandmates only. For example, in Europe vans can generally fit a maximum of nine passengers, and you would be left with six seats only when loading luggage. On average, three to four bandmates, a roadie and an extra helper – a tour manager, merchandise seller etc. – would already make for a crammed van.
I will not suggest a particular kind of van as it would be just impossible to individuate the “best of”. However, besides comfort, your vehicle should be safe and sound. This means you should choose a reputable rental company or make sure you have some sort of insurance: it is not uncommon to rent old vehicles, and have problems along the way. I may tell countless tales of friends who rented a van in southern Europe, and had to abandon it somewhere in the North with a melted engine, having to cancel several shows in the process. This would waste your time and your earnings, as a tour is generally a matter of a few weeks only. For this reason, be well aware of what you choose and the people you deal with, as the rock and roll business is thriving with shady entities.
Get yourself prepared to travel light and bring the essential backline only; make space for it in the trunk, or practically remove the last row of seats, as I suggested. Another practical tip would be to pack the drumset by removing the kick’s outer skin, and insert the other drums in it, like if mounting a Russian matrioska. Consider carrying one half-stack and one amp head per instrument, and you should be good to go. And of course, factor some space for your merchandise box, the best source of earnings while on the road.
Now, prepare your favorite soundtrack on an Mp3 player and get a cable to blast it trough the van’s sound system, and you should really be all geared up to go. And in case you do your own driving, if a GPS is too expensive to rent or buy, remember to print out your own directions. Trust me, I would have been stranded in the Dutch or German countryside countless times if I didn’t!!
In the past article of this series I gave a spotlight on the major touring markets around the world. I said that Europe has the biggest draw because of its geographic compactness, good touring conditions, receptive crowds, and fans who actually buy plenty of records.
So, what are some helpful suggestions to tour in Europe with your band?
Firstly, try to get familiar with some of the booking agencies that may make this happen. There are literally dozens, bigger and smaller, and located in several countries, so just do some googling according to your band’s genre. In terms of independent booking, one of the best has been MAD Tourbooking based out of Germany, possibly the most “alternatively receptive” European country. Another good agency is Teenage Head booking based out of Kortrijk, Belgium.
You need to make sure that the agency – or yourself, when booking alone – is familiar with your flying needs, if any: there is no point in landing into Spain and have to pick up your van in Hamburg, Germany. Make sure to consider these logistics as you browse for international flights, assuming you are an American band looking for your first taste of European stages. For example, some of the cheapest fares from the USA into Europe would land into Ireland or the UK. Nevertheless, these two countries offer less security in terms of shows’ guarantees, as most of the promoters have to pay high fees to rent halls or clubs and make the show happen. If you have time, you may budget a few days traveling overland from the UK, or catch a low cost flight into Mainland Europe, but this really has to be timed and checked according to your schedule and the location of your last show.
Circular routes, for this reason, are ideal: Europe is small enough to be crisscrossed in a matter of days, yes, but gas prices are prohibitive, and travelling in a van crammed with people and gear will make such prices fluctuate even further. Trying to travel by train is an option you may consider, but this poses a big question mark regarding your backline: if you are able to manage getting a full backline in any city you will play, train travel in Europe is a very feasible option: consider the pretty affordable Interrail travel tickets. They allow unlimited train journeys in different areas of Europe, for a limited number of days, and can be used to catch overnight trains as well.
So, let’s say you will start your tour in Northern Germany: you may decide to play a circular route going to the Netherlands and Belgium, then moving down to France and Spain. To come back eastwards, you can play Southern France and Northern Italy, then hit the ex-Yugoslavian republics and cut up through the Czech Republic and back into East Germany: from here, easily close the tour where you started. This would maximize your appearances all over Europe, also giving you proper time flexibility to squeeze in some sightseeing, and make sure you will not waste any petrol money as you will never backtrack. This is, however, easier said than done as most clubs are picky when it comes to book bands on Mondays and Tuesdays, and you may have to accept door deals or difficult geographic movements in exchange for a place to play and a place to crash for that unlucky weekday night.
Petrol is also so expensive that you may consider leaving home your backline, and rent a car with a GPL fuel system: this would cut transportation costs considerably, but poses the problem of having a much reduced trunk space because of the gas tank’s size. Another reason why packing light is a must!! But realistically, factor that as long as you may easily borrow an amplifier and a drum set, you will have to travel with your own guitars: hard cases cannot be bent to fit a small car’s trunk space… and most extremely, you will not be able to deepen that new acquaintance you made at the show on the backseat of a little car full of equipment…
Based on my own experience, vans are always better. More expensive to rent, but more comfortable, more professional for a band image, and at last, an eventual place to sleep when everything else on the road fails. I will talk more about vans in a future section, as this topic is a very important one and should not be overlooked. Until then, take out the Euro map, and start drawing circles!!! You will succeed!!
In the last article of this series I mentioned that a band may decide to book their own tours, by themselves, using their own forces. This is totally right and possible, but is a long, dreary process presenting more than a few risks. Exactly like planning a Round the World trip, there are many things to consider. First of all: where to go?
This question – WHERE – seems quite biased; but try to think that, unlike travelling, touring is a process that verifies only when every piece of the puzzle is laid down perfectly on the table, showing a nice, neat picture. Of course, if a band has to hit the road, there will also definitely be room for improvisation and resourcefulness: independent, poor musicians are known to be able to sleep anywhere, from beaches to floors and van’s seats. But seriously, can we consider “touring” a wild holiday with friends around two mere shows booked on two different weekends? No way, as it will cost you a fortune for nothing. And therefore, you need to choose carefully where to go when you plan touring.
Europe is by far the favorite choice: great cities, good crowds, and especially short driving distances make touring the Old Continent a favorite experience for many bands. If you add that Europe has some of the highest paying clubs, an affectionate, record-buying crowd, and that a show deal generally includes catering and accommodation for the whole band, there is no doubt this is the place where bands want to go to sell their records and have a great time.
The United States and Canada remain the dream destination for many non-American musicians and bands because of their abundant rock and roll history and culture. Touring the USA is quite simple logistically: hiring cars or vans is relatively inexpensive, and you can easily travel to any state and city by driving for a few hours – or days. Unfortunately, such a big rock and roll culture has generated a situation where cheaper gear and transportation expenses do not match with the poor pay, scarce free food and drinks, and virtually nonexistent accommodation services for touring bands. However, it is fairly easy and direct to ask for a crash pad, and get one after every show.
Australia and New Zealand may be beautiful holiday destinations, but are not very well suited for independent rock touring. Australia is too big and has too few key cities which, if not taken over by flight, may result in endless day drives to hit cities where a rock crowd is very scarce. Melbourne and Perth are different, but still, they are thousands of kilometers far from each other. In terms of pay, it is decent, but it is not worth the effort when thinking of touring only in these two countries.
Southeast Asia is increasingly becoming an appealing destination among most independent music circles. A fistful of pioneering small agencies are bringing bands to play those countries where the music scene is alive and kicking: mostly Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and sometimes Bangkok, Thailand. As long as a Southeast Asian tour may sound great, consider it still is a financial suicide: there is generally no guarantee for any of the shows, and if it is true that you may sell t-shirts and tapes – for a fraction of their real retail price, note well – , you will most likely do it for the fans, without even breaking even. Still, the lure of touring in such an exotic part of the world keeps attracting more and more bands.
South and Central America has a long history of rock culture, and places like Brazil, Mexico or Peru have plenty of bands and fans. Similarly to Southeast Asia, touring this region is still attractive and interesting, but making a profit will be very hard. The long distances and the dangerous roads may be also better tackled by public transportation such as buses, making a tour of the region a real test of endurance. However, the wild crowds, la vida loca and the desire for rock and roll will most likely make up for all of the hassle you encounter.
Whatever you decide, you will need to prepare to put hard work on your booking effort, and include countless hours of email work and skype international phone calls. If this sounds like too much to do for your band, I guess you are still in the “local only phase”: do not worry, as after a few months/years of local gigging, the gut feeling to venture abroad will come as an unexpected stomach ache… do not tell me I did not warn you, then!!
The rising fortunes of the emerging economies and the lowering of barriers have given students a whole world of educational opportunities. Governments are investing in improving facilities at home. Meanwhile, students impatient to get ahead are already applying to overseas schools in droves, as this TechCrunch article explains: The Global Education Race.
Studying abroad is becoming a realistic option for more and more people. To be fair, there are still hurdles to overcome, such as immigration, financial aid, and academic recognition for courses taken abroad. On a positive note, increasing incomes and greater international integration are helping to close the gap.
Both host countries and the students’ countries will benefit from exposure to new cultures. Such interactions will lead to a more diverse food scene, at least. On a more practical level, cash-strapped universities are already welcoming these kids and the tuition money they bring. Foreigners often pay more than residents.
In any case, more interactions should lead to better understanding across borders. The classroom is a safe space to discuss issues, learn new things, and settle differences. So there is a “peace dividend” to be had.
Have you studied abroad? Do you see more foreign students where you live? Please share your stories in the comments.
Several months ago, Vagablogging reminded readers that STA travel was again accepting applications for their Summer Intern Positions and encouraged everyone to get out there and apply. Well, now the lucky winners have been chosen and have been on the road and reporting since the end of May.
This year’s itinerary is just as enticing as last year’s. The 2010 interns, Casey Hudetz and Natalie Webb, will travel through Peru, Brazil, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Turkey, Egypt, and Europe at large. Throughout this trip, Casey and Natalie will document their travels through photos, articles, and podcasts – all published on the STA Internship blog. STA Interns never fail to provide energetic and fun reporting. Follow them this summer on that trip you couldn’t make, or get ideas for upcoming travels.
STA has enjoyed a good reputation in the travel community. While their greatest target market is the student community, STA offers deals that extend to everyone. Check their website for regular flight specials or package offers.
Most travelers are familiar with the slew of European rail passes offered through Eurail or through your local STA agent. Travelers can purchase country specific passes, lump a few countries together on one pass, or even purchase a “global pass”.
Country specific passes are available for 17 European countries, allowing travelers to really get around and see a lot of one area. Eurail also offers select passes that lump together 2 to 5 adjacent countries on one pass. All of this is capped off with a Global Pass that combines travel in up to 21 countries on one pass. Country passes start at as little as US$45 and regional passes at US$299. The global pass starts at US$559. Travelers can run into the occasional “booking fee” as they use these passes to get around Europe, but these prices very rarely exceed 15 euros each. Considering transportation is a traveler’s main expenditure, these prices can sound quite appealing.
Sounds pretty sweet, however there is a catch. All of this travel must be done within a certain time limit, and on a limited number of days. With these passes, one essentially purchases a specific number of days in which to travel within a 2 month time period. Meaning, you only have 5 days within a 2-month time period to travel across 3 countries.
One could argue that this will rush your travels, as you try to capitalize on distance on such a short amount of travel days. In this way one travels at a sprint as they try to gallop across their specific grouping of countries, and it can put a damper on the spontaneity of travel. Train travel is the preferred means for travelers in Europe, as it allows one to take in the beautiful scenic countryside. It is also a classic backpacker staple that is not to be missed.
For some travelers these passes might seem like an easy escape from the hassles that come with maneuvering around a foreign country. However other travelers, myself included, enjoy the fresh experience of trying to make your way through new and complicated means of transportation.
I recommend these passes to the 25 and under traveler who is planning to stick to travel within Western Europe where train prices are significantly higher. These passes are generally aimed at the student crowd, and the 25 and under traveler gets a serious price break. Indeed, the prices quoted above are the bottom most student pricing. Costs double or triple from there for certain passes and combinations.
Additionally, train travel in Western Europe is continually increasing in price, as it is easily the preferred means of transportation. For travelers wishing to see, say, France, Italy, and Germany, these passes really are a great deal, considering one can’t even get from Paris to Nice on a second class ticket for less than US$100. Imagine trying to travel the length of Italy and France, and swing back around through Germany, and you’ve easily bought a Select Pass three times over already.
However, in Central or Eastern Europe these passes seem like a scam to those travelers who have done some research into the price of local transportation. Why pay US$299 for the Austria – Czech Republic – Hungary pass, when you can get across all three countries for around US$30 round-trip by taking advantage of the regional bus transportation?.
On one hand I feel these passes can help the right traveler, namely the 25 and under Western Europe traveler who may only be able to hit the road for a few short weeks. Otherwise, I feel they are not to be relied upon. They are only more economical in a limited area, and there are far greater experiences to be had by figuring the workings of local transportation and freeing yourself of limits and schedules.