Expectation v. Reality: Reflections on the UK, Ireland, Belgium and Norway

This four part series is a compilation of something both memorable and shocking for each of the countries we have visited. Alas, the first of an ever evolving set of self-reflective, preparation posts for the questions that I’ll inevitably get when I return home:

“What’s changed?” and “Do you feel any different?”

And I’m reminded of a quote by C.S. Lewis: Day to day, nothing seems different, until one day you look back and find that everything has changed.

This is more a fun, haphazard collection of preconceived ideas, romantic fantasies and expectations of easy living I had before and during the visits to the following countries, along with their earth-shattering thought replacements:

  1. There are absolutely zero downfalls of public transportation! – England

Or so I said, before visiting London, which is really a country in itself. Not only does it get uber smelly on the underground, which is always busy, even at 1pm on a Wednesday, but tube strikes are not uncommon. Have you ever been to London when there’s a tube strike going on? The giant sidewalks aren’t big enough for the throngs of people waiting for the buses that are already full of smelly people nor are the roads able to afford anyone unlucky enough to be driving a car during a tube strike any traveling space. The tube strike that happened in July cost London nearly $500 million.

New thought: Sometimes, public transportation and the throngs of people in your personal space actually really sucks.

  1. Every capital city is worth going to. – Norway

Norway, for at least one year out of the past five, was the most expensive country on the planet. And we were warned that Oslo is perhaps the most underwhelming capital city Europe has to offer (We’ve since found one worse). Go to Norway? Yes. Go to Oslo? Hell no. Save yourself. Go anywhere else in Norway. Don’t go to Oslo.

Pub dinner: $110
Oslo’s version of Chipotle: $38

How can I eat my way through culture when every time I take a bite money actually ejects itself from my wallet and self-destructs?

Please don’t visit Oslo. Seriously.

New thought: After a dozen or so capital cities, they all really look the same. Fly into a capital city, and establish an adventure base elsewhere.

  1. The United Kingdom totally drives in kilometers per hour just like the rest of the continent. – Scotland

One of those situations where I would have bet money that I was right and I would have lost the bet. Funny story, abridged:

We rented a car in Edinburgh and got on the motorway (highway for us Americans) and came to a sign that says 70, so we do 70 kph. We approach signs telling us speed cameras. Other cars flash high-beams and swerve around us. We think all those people are stupid and are all getting speeding tickets. Next day, we confirm Mark’s suspicion. The UK drives in MPH, not KPH. The clincher? Distance is measured in meters, as in, “Hotel, 800 meters ahead.” Way to be confusing, Britain.

New thought: UK (and Ireland) drive on the left. Rest of Europe, on the right.

  1. Ireland is the place to get drunk on the cheap.

With the reputation that Ireland has of being a nation in perpetual drunkenness, I definitely thought that it would be ridiculously cheap to drink here – say 2 or 3 euros for a beer.

Color me surprised, it’s not.

It’s about 5 or 6 euros for a beer, and more in the touristy Temple Bar area, which is definitely not acceptable for drinking on a budget.

The tour of the Guinness Storehouse did shine a bit of light on a Guinness pour: if you get your stout less than two minutes after you requested it, the bartender poured it wrong. There’s mad science behind all of this which Mark is slated to explain.

New thought: Get drunk in Prague. Cheaper and more interesting a crowd.

  1. Living above restaurants is awesome and I want to have the life Marshall & Lily have. – Belgium

Wow, I was dead wrong on this. We stayed at an Airbnb that was up 8 very dark flights of stairs. The building apparently had no lights. The entrance opened up into the street with a restaurant to the left and to the right. I’m not a morning person, and I am very used to a long wake-up period. Not so in Brussels. As soon as we opened the door people were milling about in front of it from dawn to the middle of the night. After our evening meal and drinks, near the wee hours of the morning, we had to push people out of the way to get to the front door. Once we traipsed up eight flights of stairs in total darkness, we thought we’d be in the zone to sleep, but we couldn’t, because it was so dreadfully hot we had to leave the windows open and thus gave us an earful of the drunken commotion happening below.

New Thought: Overhearing yelling, screaming, fighting and crying until 3 or 4 in the morning is definitely not my idea of a good time or a good stay.

Have you been to any of these places? What were your experiences? Send us a shout in the comments below.

Ciao

Travel Diary: An Adventurous Self-Drive into the Scottish Highlands

Exploring the Highlands, if only for a day, is a must for any itinerary to Scotland. Deceivingly, they look much closer than they actually are. This is because in order for the Highlands to be Highlands, they have to be mountainous, rugged terrain, that’s what makes them Highlands. Navigating a road on this terrain is no small matter, and neither is driving on it.

Most people opt for the road-more-traveled: a day trip in a coach where you are comfortable and a driver takes you right to the scenic area, you take a dozen snapshots and return to your home, satisfied.

That’s not how we travel. We like to do things on our own.

I would have loved to do this drive by myself except manual transmissions and I don’t always get along. In some cars, like Hondas, it’s pretty easy to figure out how to drive. But the car we had wasn’t a Honda. It was a manual transmission car on the opposite side of the road with the driver’s seat where the passenger seat usually is. So Mark had to do the driving. All six hours of it.

If you’re in Glasgow and you want to get a taste of the Highlands, go to Glencoe. You don’t need to drive to Inverness or even Cairngorns National Park, though both of those are beautiful beyond belief and you could spend a week in either location.

Glencoe is a good introduction to the Highlands that will leave you salivating for more.

Getting through and out of Glasgow is a pretty boring, but once you leave the area, the road starts winding and taking sharp turns, twisting and the roads are narrow. Not just American narrow, but barely enough to fit two cars around the corner. There’s no room for error. It’s difficult to shift, keep your eyes on the road, and take a sip of water, so for the driver, it’s generally a stressful drive. About 40 minutes north of Glasgow, we lost cell phone service and entered Loch Lomond.

One of the things we look for is a waterfall. Whenever we land in a new place, we immediately go on a waterfall hunt. We heard that a waterfall existed in Loch Lomond National Park (Which you have to drive through to get to Glencoe) but we weren’t really optimistic about spotting it since there were no exits off of the road. However, a lovely, poorly marked sign indicated a parking area for us to pulll off. We did, if for nothing else than to take a quick hike down to the river and take in some of the gorgeous scenery. What we found was Falls of Falloch, a lovely waterfall hidden nested back at the end of a moderate hike.

Falloch Falls
Falls of Falloch

Once we got out Loch Lomond, the scenery becomes much more dramatic and more beautiful.

Entering Glencoe
Entering Glencoe

The problem with doing a self-drive in Scotland is there is virtually no where to stop for a picture. Miles and miles of breathtaking, jaw-dropping lush green and towering waterfalls and there is nothing to travel on but this narrow two-lane road.

So when we finally saw a parking lot to stop, we slammed on our brakes for it. We missed it and decided to pull off on the side of the road, as it appeared to have a shoulder. We do not recommend doing this. Once we pulled over, the rocky terrain grabbed the tires and cut them to the left. The car sank into the mud. The entire left side of the car was in the mud. Tires spinning, clutch burning. I was definitely convinced we were stuck. We were hungry. Gas was nearly empty. It seemed like the beginning to a Stephen King novel. I tried to lift the car out of the mud (most European cars can be lifted by a person of moderate strength), but I couldn’t get a grip on what needed to be lifted up. So Mark trusts me to operate a left-hand drive car while he lifts the car up and out of the goo and…well, forty minutes later, we were back on the road.

Hellooo, Glencoe!
Hellooo, Glencoe!

Extraordinary right? I couldn’t get enough of it.

Another couple of hours later, we arrived into Fort William. I expected more of a town than It actually is, but on one side of the road is a row of bed and breakfasts, and on the other is a beautiful lake and mountains.

Fort William, where you want to stay if you're to explore all of Glen Nevis
Fort William, where you want to stay if you’re to explore all of Glen Nevis

We are looking for a place to stay, or get information, but things aren’t very well marked out. Apple Maps finally makes a comeback, as we haven’t had map service since Glasgow. What a relief. I find the tourist information center and the woman there recommends a park called Glen Nevis. Says it has some waterfalls and a few nice hikes, best part of everything? It’s free! Off we go to Glen Nevis.

Glen Nevis really is like walking into the wilderness of the Highlands. It’s one-way dirt roads with pullouts to let the other cars pass by. We drive 7 miles on this narrow, gritty dirty road all the way to the end and get out. There’s one waterfall at the end of the trail so we follow it. The trail starts out pretty easy but gets pretty dramatic. Water trickles over exposed rocks and the air begins to thin. Elevation gains are made quickly but the scenery is breathtaking. Strongly recommend hiking boots or strong sturdy hiking shoes.

Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won't do you any good on this trail.
Hidden waterfalls like these are beautiful yet hazardous on the trail. Nike frees won’t do you much good here.
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!
Pretty hard to contain my delight when there are little aquadrops everywhere!

The trail opens up into a field, where you’re in the valley of the Highlands and you can see the waterfall. It’s possible at the end, to get closer to it, and you can climb over the rocks, I recommend you bring food, at least a few snacks, to sit on the rocks and enjoy the picnic time and the view.

A little impromptu rock climbing!
A little impromptu rock climbing!

We brought cheerios and we wish we had brought more. Keep in mind this is a national park of sorts, so there’s no trash or rubbish bins. There’s a rope bridge, which looks a lot like a tightrope, you can cross, if you dare. It’s a bit scary, the first few steps, but as long as no one else is on it, shaking it or moving it about wildly, it’s an exhilarating experience. It’s also a lot higher up than it looks from the underside of it.

Mark turned acrobat on the rope swing I crossed with great trepidation.
Mark turned acrobat on the rope bridge I crossed with great trepidation. How about that view though?

However, once you get to the other side, there isn’t much to see, there’s a house, but not much after it. We thought we could get closer to the waterfall and wound up stepping into a bog and getting covered in mud up to our knees.

The hiking back as or seemed faster than it actually was to get to the waterfall. Maybe it was because I was tired or maybe it was easier after the hike there. There are plenty more things in the park to explore. It’s worth at least two full days, as there are waterfalls in nearly every corner and dramatic drop-offs everywhere you look.

That’s the beauty of the Highlands.

Waterfall spotting on our way back up the mountain
Happy hiking!