At a non-descript cafe on the side of a non-descript street in Da Nang, I sipped a cà phê sữa đá and thought of a recent conversation I had with my mother before leaving for Southeast Asia. I was having a coffee then as well, and I had mentioned that caffeine tends to keep me up at night if I have it too late in the day. My mother made an incredulous face and said, “That’s because you don’t work hard enough. If you work hard like your father and I do, you can fall asleep right away.” To me, that was a strange thing to say because my mother doesn’t work (and has never really worked), unless you call unnecessary clothes shopping a form of employment.*
So there we were in Da Nang, proving her point. We were getting tired of constantly bouncing from one place to another and the Southeast Asian heat followed us around, quietly beating us into submission. A friend in Saigon suggested Da Nang as a quiet place to hang our hats for a while so we trusted her. The city itself doesn’t look like anything special, and is as unassuming as they come. But look a little closer, and there is an empty, beautiful beach lining its eastern coast, a lush peninsula to the north and some damn good food.
We did the required touristy stuff like checking out the Bodhisattva of Mercy on Son Tra peninsula (we called her “The Lady”) and spending the day exploring the Marble Mountains. While both of these places were pretty interesting in their own ways, what we enjoyed doing the most was chilling by ourselves during the day and getting the more local experience with our new friends at night.
Beaching was very much on our list of priorities so we made a beeline for a private beach on My Khe. Well, not really a beeline, because we skirted around the main entrance to the hotel and entered through the side entrance to the beach like a couple of sketchy mofos… I guess we kind of are. Don’t get me started on privatizing beaches in these developing countries. We had lunch at an overpriced but decent restaurant next to the beach, soaked up the cleanliness of it all and pretended for a moment that we were guests of this overpriced resort.
Our first stop in the surprisingly large country of Romania was Timișoara, a charming little city that was a perfect introduction to the country. It’s the third most populous city in the country, but it didn’t have a big city feel at all. Then again, the population is only a little over 300k which is like a small town to us since we’ve both been living in cities of millions for most of our lives. Timișoara is considered the cultural, economic, and social capital of Romania and the people who we talked to raved about the city. Anca, our new Romanian friend living in Belgrade, gave us a great recommendation for dinner our first night in Timișoara. I love meeting locals with great tips for tasty and cheap food.
Outside the bus windows, signs were all in Cyrillic, reminding us of our month in Russia. But this was a whole different place, where the languages are similar across borders but for some reason, only Serbia uses the Cyrillic alphabet. Belgrade was all about meeting people, sometimes in unexpected places. We arrived in the evening, looking forward to a week of some sightseeing, good food and a whole lot of down time.
We dropped off our bags and headed to a cute little bar for our very first Couchsurfing event, which was the weekly Belgrade CS get-together. There were about 25 people crammed into the upstairs section of the bar, and we ended up talking with two Serbian guys who gave us the rundown on what to see in and around Belgrade.
One of the first things we did was to check out a popular lesbian party near our apartment. We found it behind some type of office building and were ushered in by the slightly friendly butch bouncer. It was completely empty, and within a few minutes of us walking in the DJ started playing “Gangnam Style”, which probably was a coincidence… Or wasn’t. We stood around the table we were ushered to and looked around the sad, empty place until two women walked in and sat in a dark corner drinking and chain-smoking like they were exchanging state secrets. People eventually started trickling in, and one or two people got up on the stage and played around on the stripper pole for a bit before shyly running back to their group of friends. All-in-all it was probably one of the most boring lesbian bars we’ve come across on our travels and there wasn’t any eye-candy, so we called it a night and went home to watch movies instead.
Sightseeing is all fun and good, but we were craving good food, after having had the same sort of food (meatballs, meatballs and more meatballs) for the past few weeks. We had read online that Belgrade was a foodie paradise in the Balkans and we were ecstatic. Unfortunately, this is a lie. I guess if you had to pick a place with the best food in the region, it might be Belgrade just because it’s a big city and there are so many offerings, but it isn’t a city I would go out of my way to visit for the food. At all.
We arrived in Groznjan on a cold and rainy day and we left on a colder and rainier day. The original plan was to take a cab to the bus stop in Buje and hop on a bus to Rovinj, but once we climbed into the warm, dry taxi we decided to splurge and pay the extra $35 to have the driver and her teenage daughter take us all the way to Rovinj. This saved us a 2+ hour wait in the rain at the Buje bus stop and a potentially wet walk to our apartment once we arrived in Rovinj. Sometimes it’s just worth it to spend the extra dough.
The rain stopped by the time we arrived in Rovinj so we dropped off our bags at our AirBnB apartment and went out for a walk to explore the old town. Since we stayed in the heart of the old town we were able to explore a good amount of it the first evening.
The old part of town, where most tourists stay, is quaint and charming. Its pedestrian streets are all slippery stone, perfect for killing the hordes of elderly cruise tourists who descend upon the small town every summer. If you do manage to survive the walk through town then you can enjoy listening to the romantic saxophone musician who plays everything from Broadway show tunes to The Jackson 5 while you dine al fresco with your beloved.
My only brush with Belgium prior to visiting was the chicken waterzooi my mother would make for dinner sometimes. In the ‘80s, my uncle was an editor for a Japanese newspaper and was stationed in Brussels for a while, and my cool cousins grew up speaking French and, I assume, eating lots of quality chocolate. The waterzooi recipe came from a Belgian friend of my aunt’s, and was something she brought with her when the family was transferred back to Tokyo. Its light cream broth with a hint of tanginess from the lemon always reminds me of home.
With four days to spend in Brussels, we scoured Couchsurfing for the perfect host to spend that time with. We found it in the form of a tall, stylin’, chain-smoking Belgian named Flex who quit his cushy fulltime job to work for himself and to enjoy a more flexible schedule. Flex lives in a beautiful apartment in the hip neighborhood of Saint Gilles, which reminded us of Park Slope (Brooklyn), but with a lot of cool Art Deco architecture and a much more happening scene during the work week.
The first night in the city, Flex took us to an outdoor market where we bought freshly-made Moroccan wraps and a bottle of cava to share on the steps of the Saint Gilles Town Hall. It was a Monday night and people were packed into the square eating and drinking late into the night as if they didn’t have work the next day. We finished the night with Belgian beers at a nearby bar, Moeder Lambic.
I caught a glimpse of one of my cousins here, a beer lover (well, alcohol lover) who would’ve undoubtedly sat at one of the wooden tables savoring the bar’s offerings. When we left the bar after midnight, there were still a good number of Belgians there. Seriously, Europeans know how to have a good time.
Besides their beer, Belgians take chocolate very, very seriously. Flex pointed us in the direction of the Grand Sablon neighborhood where all of the big chocolatiers are clustered. We realized that we’ve already had most of these chocolates in Tokyo or New York: Wittamer, Neuhaus, Pierre Marcolini, Godiva… But we also realized that they were much cheaper in Belgium so we sat down at Wittamer for dessert and I caught a glimpse of my aunt walking through the neighborhood with her sons in tow.
To be perfectly honest, Germany wasn’t really a country that interested us. It was just an obstacle in between Eastern Europe and the more desirable countries lying along the western coast… And a rather large obstacle at that. Covering more than 137,846 square miles (357,021 km²), Germany is massive. As we traveled through Russia and Eastern Europe, travelers we met along the way raved about Germany. “Really???” we would ask. But they convinced us, and we changed our original plans to take the quickest route through Germany and decided instead to spend a little more than three weeks making our way around the country.
We spent our first night in Munich in a gorgeous apartment of a Couchsurfing host and woke up the next morning to breakfast on her balcony including her homemade hummus and jam. We made plans to meet up later that night and made our way to our Airbnb apartment. As we walked through the city with our big packs, I started to notice the German smile. The response to every brief moment of eye contact resulted in a smile. Not one of those grim New York smiles where only your lips twitch slightly as you eye the stranger suspiciously, but a full-on, warm, eye-twinkling one. I like you already, Munich.
We dropped off our bags at the apartment and went out to the farmer’s market we had passed through on the way there. It was in a small square, where vendors were selling their products from their trucks. We’ve been noticing that European fruit and produce look and taste better than in the U.S., and the stuff at the market looked divine. To make things even sweeter, most of the things there were organic (or “bio”, as they call it here), although we’ve been eating non-organic for the most part since the E.U. has higher food safety regulations than the U.S. (pesticide use and genetically-modified food bans to name just two). We bought lovely food and had a light lunch in preparation for the biergarten dinner we had planned that night.