Droppings from the Road #8: Utrecht

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:40 pm by Benjamin Ross

Noticeable drop off in English skills once outside of Amsterdam.  And by “noticeable dropoff,” I mean English skills are still overall quite proficient, but not like Amsterdam where it’s seamless.

Utrecht is like a smaller version of Amsterdam, but probably 5% of the tourism Amsterdam has.  It has canals, quaint old architecture, coffee shops that sell marijuana, and red light districts, but more of a local Dutch feel.

Utrecht’s city center is stunningly beautiful.  I spent a good chunk of time meandering through the canal-lined main street which runs right through.  Lots of outdoor eating and drinking establishments right up against the old canals.

Utrecht’s red light district is literally on a canal, with prostitutes stationed in house boats (pictures to come once I get back to Chicago).

Transportation between the 4 cities in the Ranstad (Amsterdam, Utrecht, Den Haag, and Rotterdam) is like gravy.  Trains run on the half hour, and journeys are under an hour.  You could easily stay in one city, and day trip to the other.  Or likewise, live in one and commute to the other.

One reason the overall English skills are so good in Holland is that English TV shows aren’t overdubbed.  So for example, if you watch “Family Guy” in Holland, there will be Dutch subtitles, but the audio is all in English.  In the few bits and pieces of Dutch TV I caught, I noticed many commercials are partially in English as well.  Thus, from a young age, the Dutch (at least those who have television sets) grow up constantly bombarded with the sounds of the English language.

Been seeing a lot of Chicago Bulls hats in the Netherlands.  Not sure what that’s all about.


Droppings from the Road #7: Amsterdam

Posted in Uncategorized at 4:38 pm by Benjamin Ross

English proficiency here is rampant.  Have yet to encounter anybody in Amsterdam who cannot converse in English.  Pretty sure the percentage of people who don’t speak English is higher in Chicago than it is in Amsterdam.

One funny thing I’ve noticed about the Dutch (and I like this) is that when as a tourist, you do something completely ridiculous or stupid, they aren’t shy about telling you.  They don’t sugarcoat it (like we do in the US), and they don’t get angry, but they politely inform you that you are a moron, and point out the obvious solution to your simple problem.

Amsterdam is one of the most picturesque walking cities I’ve ever been to.  Spent the first day, just meandering around all the canal zones.

When traveling, I generally try to avoid those places heavily trafficked on the tourist route, however Amsterdam is a great spot to be a tourist.  Lots of museums, everything costs money to get into, but nothing was overpriced.  Amsterdam History Museum was a good way to start the visit with background.  Van Gogh Museum was well worth the paltry 14 Euro entrance fee.  I was somewhat disappointed with the Anne Frank Huis.  It has been converted into a museum with little feeling of what the house was like after the war.  There is a many informative exhibits, but not a whole lot of new information for anybody who has a) read the book and b) has a basic understanding of Holocaust history, which is presumably the exact demographic visiting the museum.

There’s a sizable Chinatown in Amsterdam, but it is quite touristy and like all the Chinatowns I saw on the UK, doesn’t have much to offer.  This is one thing (Chinatowns) which I have decided N. America definitely does better than Europe.  I did meet a Chinese couple from Wenzhou who were running a falafel shop in the city centre though and had a chat about Chinese life in the Netherlands.  The falafel was surprisingly good as well.

Saw a Japanese guy wearing a Kansas Jayhawks hat.  Rock Chalk!

Dutch tap water is possibly the cleanest I’ve ever tasted.

In Holland, trams and buses are used for travel within the city centre.  Subways are used to get in and out of the suburbs.  Spending a day riding around the subways is a good way to obtain a feel for the non-touristed parts of Amsterdam.

Mystery of the trip thus far:  How Dutch people manage to stay thin.  Yes, they ride bikes everywhere, and yes they seem to maintain fit, active lifestyles, but the food I’ve had thus far is some of the richest, creamiest, high-fructose-corn-syrupy deliciousness I’ve ever eaten.  Oh, and everything has sprinkles.  Also, rule of thumb:  If it looks like a waffle, eat it.



Droppings from the Road #6: Manchester

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:55 pm by Benjamin Ross

Manchester is possibly the hippest city in England, London included.  London is posh, trendy, and expensive, and Manchester seems to be the spot for those with angst against the bustling capital (or who are inherently too cool).

Center of Manchester’s hipness seems to be the Northern Quarter, which feels like the Brooklyn of England, if you will.

Although Manchester is dark and cloudy and post-industrial (like the rest of Northern England), it has a vibrancy to it which I didn’t feel in Birmingham or Leeds.

Manchester also has my favorite of the 3 Chinatowns I visited (the others being London and Birmingham).  While the latter have an overboard Disneyland, touristy feel (everything red, lanterns everywhere etc.) Manchester’s Chinatown is simply a couple blocks of the city center which happen to be inhabited by Chinese people.

Ate my first fish and chips in Manchester.  It’s over-hyped, but a tasty entrée nonetheless.  Washed it down with a Guinness, which was surprisingly chilled.

Like Leeds, Manchester was full of interesting stuff for industrial history buffs.   Lots of old mill buildings and canals to explore.  The city has done a fine job converting its old industrial infrastructure into residential and commercial space and incorporating it into the modern landscape.

One random convenience of England is that just about everything (sandwiches, beer, airline tickets) comes tax included.  The price advertised (or on the menu) is the price you pay.

Next stop:  Amsterdam



Droppings from the Road #5: Leeds

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:57 pm by Benjamin Ross

Leeds is pretty small.  You can walk across the city center in well under half an hour.  It’s all very compact and walkable.

I found that Leeds has considerably more remnants of England’s industrial past than Birmingham.  Lots of old mills and industrial buildings now converted into housing and commercial use.

Leeds Armoury is a fantastic collection of historical weapons, armor, and other objects of war.  I’m not a big weapons buff, but it was quite engaging regardless.  If you are a weapons buff, I’d make a special trip to Leeds to see this collection.

Not to be over-judgmental, but Northern England can be a depressing place.  Lots of clouds covering post-industrial landscapes.  Locals seemed to feel the same way.

I got a chance to see Leeds play Manchester United at Elland Road Stadium in Leeds.  It was my first proper English football match.  Lots of droppings…

While there is much animosity among American sports fans (don’t get me started on those Raiders), the English have an authentic hatred towards the fans of opposing teams which extends well beyond the superficialities of the game.  (The Leeds fan next to me was screaming “Fuck you, you fucking cunts!” the entire first half without any hint of irony).

The stadiums are also flanked with riot police with full helmet and gear.  Opposing team fans have to sit in a cordoned off area, and can’t leave the match until the home fans have all cleared out.  This is done to prevent riots.

Presumably also to prevent riots, alcohol is not allowed into the stands.  You can buy beer in the concession area, but you need to drink it before returning to your seats.

Concessions (food, drink, beer) are modestly priced.  No price gouging as they do in the US.  A solid pint of decent beer went for 3.5 pounds.  I’ve been to sporting events in the US where 10 oz cups of Bud Light go for $9.50



Droppings from the Road #4: Birmingham

Posted in Uncategorized at 5:31 pm by Benjamin Ross

The “h” in “Birmingham” is silent.  “Birmingham” with the pronounced “h” is in Alabama.

Birmingham is the second largest city in the UK.  Doesn’t seem like many people outside the UK realize that.

I don’t think I’ve been to any other major city (Chinese cities excluded) where so many people have told me its lame and not to go there.  Even Brommies (the locals) generally describe their city as “boring.”

Granted I only spent limited time in each city, but Birmingham seems to be every bit as ethnically diverse as London, if not moreso.  Many people of different skin tones and languages and accents.  South Asians, Arabs, and Chinese appeared to be the biggest groups.

Enjoyed the Digbeth area, an old industrial corridor which is now seeing some signs of gentrification.

I’ve occasionally heard Birmingham described as the “Detroit of the UK” on account of its post-industrial blight and blue collar history.  From what I saw (which was limited to the areas near the city centre) the urban blight of Birmingham isn’t nearly as severe as in American cities such as Detroit, Philadelphia, and Cleveland.  I did encounter a few areas where I was hesitant to walk around alone, but these were nothing like say, North Philly or the West Side of Chicago.

Class lines in the UK do not seem to align with racial categories as finely as they tend to do in the US, and you tend to see more poor white people in the UK.  (Like the previous dropping, this is purely a surface observation, entirely unscientific)

Visited “Birmingham Back to Back” a small museum consisting of Birmingham’s only surviving “back to back” houses.  These were Birmingham’s housing for the working poor from the 1840’s until the 1950’s, and consist of tiny rectangular houses jammed up against another with a courtyard in the middle.  Back to Back house used to cover nearly the entire city centre (the tour guide, an elderly man, grew up in one),  but in the late 1950’s, the government cleared them all out, similar to the “slum removal” programs of the similar time period in the US.

Birmingham allegedly has more canals than Venice.  Some have been turned into pleasant canal walks.

I expected there to be more historical stuff to see about the Industrial Revolution.  Either they don’t have it, or I completely missed it.

next stop:  Leeds



Droppings from the Road #3: Oxford

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:44 pm by Benjamin Ross

My classmate Brian from UChicago did a masters at Oxford so he put me in contact with some of his old Oxford mates.  Got a wonderful tour around the campus and various “colleges” all the while trying to grapple with an understanding of the British university system.  It’s quite different from what we have in the US, with students affiliating with a particular “college” around which many of their social activities are centered.  The system doesn’t have many analogues with the US, and you’d probably just have to go to Oxford for a spell to get it all figured out.

Oxford’s architecture is exactly what one would expect from a world-class university founded in the 13th Century.  I could post a few pictures…or you could just google it and view from thousands taken by professional photographers.

Oxford appears to be high on the pecking order of Chinese tourist destinations in the UK.  For the majority of my morning campus walk, I was surrounded by camera-wielding Mandarin speakers.

Visited Turf Tavern, a popular bar among Oxford students, and perhaps even more legendary is the back patio where Bill Clinton legendarily smoked marijuana (but didn’t inhale).  They even have a plaque to commemorate this historic event.

For a town its size, Oxford is a complete and total pain in the arse to drive through.  Cramped streets, pedestrian malls, and few car parks render driving inefficient, as most of the city is laid out for pedestrians, not vehicles.  Most European cities understand that the best way to encourage people to walk and use public transportation is to make driving difficult.  Few American cities have figured this out, nor care to figure it out for that matter.

next stop:  Birmingham (with a silent “h”)


Droppings from the Road #2: Cardiff, Wales

Posted in Uncategorized at 12:36 pm by Benjamin Ross

Cardiff is a fine medium sized city.  The city centre consists of a massive pedestrian mall, ideal for strolls.  Lots of people, shops, and atmosphere.  Cars and “car parks” (parking lots) nowhere in sight.

The signs are bilingual, and so are the train announcements, but that’s about all the Welsh I saw/heard.  Being the largest city in Wales, I’m assuming Cardiff is also the most anglicized.

Cardiff Castle is a bit of a disappointment.  Too much grass.  Not enough castle.

Accidentally ran into a cricket match between India and England.  Apparently this is a pretty huge deal if you are a cricket fan.  The stadium was located in the middle of a giant park.  Indians were showing up in full force supporting their squad.  Would have gone inside if not for the 60 pound ticket price.

Walked through Butetown, lots of Africans and Middle Easterners, and white people telling me I shouldn’t be walking around there.

Below Butetown, the Docks district makes for fine strolling as well.

Starting to realize it’s much easier to eat healthy for cheap in the UK than the US.  Been lovin’ the ubiquitous and multifarious sandwich boxes and fresh fruit.  There are also a lot less fat people here…coincidence???

next stop:  Oxford



Droppings from the Road #1: London

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:47 pm by Benjamin Ross

This city has some of the best signage I’ve seen anywhere in the world.  Signs, maps, arrows, circles indicating walking distance…I didn’t even need a map to get anywhere in Central London.

Spent an afternoon wandering around the ethnic neighborhoods on the East End.  Whitechappel and Hackney were particularly interesting, especially the Muslim market outside Whitechappel Tube.  Saw vendors simultaneously selling burkas and lingerie.

You’d think it wouldn’t be of much use in London to ask a guy with a baseball cap, a camera, and “Chicago 2016” shirt…you would think.

Apparently the word “windbreaker” is an Americanism.  Either that or most of London’s H & M employees are clearly in the wrong profession.

Density, density, density.  London is a model for how a densely-packed urban core is supposed to properly function.  Pedestrian and tube access is superb.

Congestion charge!  London drivers must pay a fee to drive into the city centre, and the result is that traffic flows much better than cities of similar size.    It also encourages people to ride public transit.

The Tube!  All around best mass transit system I’ve ever ridden, other than possibly Tokyo.  Didn’t ever wait longer than 1.5 minutes for a train, and the signage makes it a cinch to navigate.

Docklands museum is free and would be well worth a good 15 pounds.  Transport museum is 10 pounds, and barely worth 5.  London Museum is also free and quite interesting.

Seems like all purchases in the UK are tax included.  Makes calculations more simplistic than the US where tax is added on to the price, and varies from state to state and sometimes even between different types of goods.

In Beijing, when the Olympics was 5 years away, you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing without Olympic flare and people talking about the games.  The London Olympics are next summer, and if not for the countdown sign in Trafalgar Square, I never would have noticed.

London’s Chinatown was a bit disappointing.  Felt more disneyland than ethnic enclave.  Reminded me of Montreal’s Qurtier de Chinois.  British Chinese food is pretty similar to American Chinese food.  I was however, able to find an excellent spot for 刀削面  (Shanxi “cut noodles”) near Leicester Square Tube.  Big brown sign says 正宗兰州拉面.  Tiny English letters say “Noodle Bar.”  Highly recommended.

next stop:  Cardiff, Wales




Posted in Announcements at 2:50 am by Benjamin Ross

It’s been a long time since this blog has been updated, and I’ve received several comments asking whether or not this blog is dead.  There are several reasons I could give for the lack of material of late, but ultimately after wading through the first year of a PhD program, the blog has unfortunately been dropped several tiers on the priority list.  That first year however culminated in a 2 day preliminary examination which finished last week, and to exploit this spurt of freedom, I’m in Europe for 18 days.  It’s my first time here, and I’m going to be traveling through the UK, the Netherlands, Belgium, and France, trying to learn what I can about these countries as well as the roots of urbanization and the industrial revolution.  Rather than spend travel time on long posts, this trip I’m going to try posting scattered comments and observations at each stop, then when I get back to the US, posting polished photo essays.  I’m gonna try posting every day or two, so hopefully this blog will finally pick up some much-needed momentum.  First stop:  London

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