The First Annual “Passport Awards”!

Since I visited so many cities in such a short amount of time, it was difficult to process the unique differences they have from one another. But now that I have just begun my first flight home out of three (Moscow – Munich – Chicago – Cincinnati), I can finally sit down and think about what I liked most about each place.

We visited 9 cities, so I’ve created 9 awards, one for each, that embodies the essence of the city and hopefully conveys what it would be like to travel there to you, my curious readers!

1) The Hipster Eurotrip Award
It’s almost a rite of passage to go on the typical “eurotrip” through Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam, and Copenhagen. Every college student wants to meet attractive foreigners, drink cheap beer, and snap a few photos of historical sites to send to the parents back home, but one Eastern European city possesses all of this and more. Tallinn, Estonia, with its rustic old city charm, sweeps visitors back into a medieval era. Wandering the winding cobblestone streets during the day and indulging in cheap alcohol in one of the old city’s MANY bars at night is the perfect vacation. There are several spots to take gorgeous photos overlooking the city and plenty of souvenir shops. While there are tourists, locals live in apartments next to hotels and hostels, preventing the dreaded “tourist” feel some cities have. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can venture outside of the walls of the old city into modern Tallinn which looks identical to any bustling American city. While it may not be the best place for a family vacation, it is perfect for any college student who prioritizes partying over museums.

2) The ‘Mmmm’ Award
One of my favorite parts of traveling is trying authentic cuisine. The best places are usually low-key and difficult to find – usually recommended by a local. Although I had delicious meals in several cities, Göteborg, Sweden, takes the cake. The city’s famous Räksmörgås (shrimp sandwich) was delicious, as well as the country’s tradition of drinking warm wine around Christmas. Restaurants in Göteborg also serve delicious regional fare like salmon, elk, and moose. I’ll never forget eating (and microwaving) the “limousiners” candy at our couchsurfing host’s apartment. Food really does bring people together!

3) The Sizzle Award
In a region where cold prevails, inhabitants of this city got crafty and started creating their own heat. Helsinki, Finland, wins this steamy award due to the uniqueness of sauna culture! I’ll never understand why surrounding countries don’t adopt this tradition. Nothing feels better after walking through the frozen city streets than a sauna break. When I think of Helsinki, I’ll always remember the bitter cold that was present even in cafés and stores. It wasn’t the coldest place we visited, but definitely in the top three! Our host’s unwelcoming demeanor definitely added to the chill, as well! However, this wasn’t true of all Fins. Most were very pleasant which only makes sense that they would create a warm oasis in Scandinavia!

4) The Flying Duchess Award
I know absolutely nothing about architecture. I remember briefly discussing it in high school art class, but other than flying duchesses on cathedrals, I am ignorant. However, much like commoners in art museums, I know what I like. I thought I would like the architecture in Helsinki the best, mainly due to the popularity of the band called ‘Architecture in Helsinki.’ But surprisingly, St. Petersburg, Russia, takes home this award. Apart from the landmarks like the Hermitage and the Church on Spilled Blood, even the most basic buildings were gorgeous. Walking down the main street, Nevsky Prospekt, was like being in an art museum. I know the European cities are famed for their beauty and St. Petersburg is likened to Europe, but I think this city deserves more respect. Just don’t try to speak English! It’s like trying to communicate with the polar bears in Siberia.

5) The Sugar Daddy Award
Some places are better enjoyed if you’re rich – like Vegas, Paris, and Stockholm, Sweden. Although Norway is famed for being the most expensive country, it seemed like everything in Sweden was pricey. Luckily we had a host who made us dinner and breakfast for free! However, if I am reincarnated into a oil sheikh’s wife and revisit Stockholm, I would definitely indulge in the boutique shopping, exquisite food, and famed boat tours. Unfortunately, we experienced none of the above and stuck to seeing the city on foot and on a budget. I’ll never forget the solid 30 minutes we spent in 7/11 trying to count our change and buy the most food without going over. Nor will I forget the costly Saturday night in Stockholm in which I dropped at least $60 USD solely on alcohol in the form of 1 mixed drink, 1 shot, and 3 cheap beers. Friends don’t let friends drink in Sweden.

6) The Meatball Award
Quick! What comes to mind when you think of succulent and tangy meatballs? If you’re female and enjoy shopping and eating, Ikea should be at the top of your list. The store is known for its cafeteria-style Swedish meatballs. While we didn’t have the pleasure of visiting the worlds largest Ikea in Stockholm, we did enjoy living in a picturesque Ikea apartment in Oslo, Norway! This year, Oslo is taking home the Meatball Award due to its clean and crisp urban design. From the unique Oslo Opera House where you can walk from the sidewalk onto the ceiling in one simple incline to the strange and bizarre sculpture garden, Oslo embodies everything Ikea – simplicity, elegance, and a sprinkle of modern. The suburbs felt utopic, with linear buildings and trimmed hedges lining the streets. Downtown Oslo was a mix of old world Europe and grandiose Victorian styling. Everything seemed to fit perfectly together, just like the sterile display rooms in Ikea. However, with perfection comes predictability. After the initial beauty of the city, not much else remained. We wandered the streets in search of something to do, but found nothing. Perhaps because it was a weekday, but we were extremely bored during our time in Oslo. It may be nice for a brief layover or day trip, but definitely do not plan on spending more than a day in Oslo – just as you wouldn’t spend more than 2 hours in Ikea.

7) The Forever Award
I often play the “If you had to live anywhere else in the world…” game with myself. My final decision is based on several factors: climate, nightlife, walkability, and culture. As much as I’d love to return to Amman, I don’t think I could live there permanently because of the frigid and sweltering weather, the reliance on taxis and cars, and the family-based culture. I think Malmö, Sweden, is one of the few places in the world I could see myself living. This is surprising considering we never planned on seeing the city! Malmö is the third largest city in Sweden, so it isn’t small, but it feels much smaller than Cincinnati. It is connected by a bridge to Copenhagen, so getting to the city is a mere 20 minute ride away. That’s a definite bonus to a young adult like me! However, Malmö itself has plenty of bars and delicious restaurants, as well as gorgeous buildings and a pleasant harbor. It has a small city feeling with large city amenities. I’m not sure it is worth a stop while vacationing, just as no one in America would choose a summer trip to Cincinnati, but that doesn’t mean it’s residents aren’t happy! Sometimes the best cities to live in are those that aren’t flashy or modern. Who wants to rear children above a loud bar, anyway? Note to my father: this does not mean I agree with your motto of “The Midwest is the best.” I’m just acknowledging that happiness CAN be found in smaller locales!

8) The Hell on Earth Award
Ugh. Sometimes you go to a place that makes you never want to return. During study abroad, Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, was that place. During this trip, Moscow, Russia, was that place. Ever since I watched the TV show “America’s Most Smartest Model” in middle school and saw Andre, the Soviet model, I was obsessed with Russian culture. I was immensely jealous when my friend Elizabeth went on a family vacation there several years ago. I was so excited to see the country of my dreams! But then we arrived. I always described Reykjavik, Iceland, as looking like Soviet Russia based on pictures, but I should have just compared it to Moscow. Both cities are grey. Just grey. The overcast weather is dreadful and the people look perpetually sullen. Even the windows on the buildings have rust running down the walls like a woman’s mascara after a heartfelt cry. The entire city is just sad. I was excited to see the Red Square and the famous St. Basil’s Cathedral, but even its colors were drab in real life. While this atmosphere may put a damper on a vacation, the interactions with Russians was what pushed me over the edge. I know it is unfair to generalize, but unless we happened to exclusively talk to every rude Russian in Moscow, I think it is safe to say that they are unpleasant people – and that is putting it nicely. My favorite encounter happened en route to the airport when we had to board the metro with our luggage. I only had my large backpacking backpack that is bigger than I am. Tracy had a rollerboard and a large carry on. The trains were packed and it was unfortunate that we had to board the train, but we HAD TO in order to make our flight. We tried to be as polite as possible, but people were not pleased. One elderly woman turned to me and, although I couldn’t understand her, started speaking condescendingly about how I shouldn’t be on the metro. As soon as the doors opened at our stop, another woman who was in an apparent rush to get off, grabbed my backpack and shoved it, sending me flying several steps into the wall. Another incident happened as I was writing this blog. I am on the plane and have my seat reclined. The snack service was coming through and the man behind me tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for me to put my seat up. Why? I have just as much right to have my seat reclined as anyone else. I decided to pick my battles and put it up, but I had my friend watch to see when he was finished eating and, as soon as he was, I put my seat back down with a grin. Some people! Needless to say, Muscovites made our trip to their city very unpleasant and I am glad to say that I have no aspirations to return.

9) The Heaven on Earth Award
I didn’t know it when I first arrived, but Bergen, Norway, ended up being my favorite city and my most recommended. However, I would most certainly suggest visiting in the summer. Seeing it in the frost of winter was unique, but I would have enjoyed everything the city had to offer better in the summer. We didn’t hike, go to the observation point, or go on a fjord tour, but all of those activities are popular in the summer. However, we did get to enjoy the delicious food, gorgeous sights, and the mix of quaint and contemporary shopping. I’m not sure I would agree to living in Bergen, but it would make a great place to buy a summer vacation home and visit once a year. It was easily the most breathtaking place we saw and the people were the kindest. It’s kind of funny how we started at the best city and ended at the worst. I’ve always said that the Faroe Islands were the most beautiful place on earth, and that might still hold true, but I feel a bit unfair saying it when I only saw the city of Bergen and not its famous fjords.

If there’s anything this trip has taught me, it’s that renting a car and driving across the country is definitely the way to go. I’d love to forego the traditional Aruba honeymoon and, instead, take a month of backpack through several countries. However, instead of taking trains, Id rather buy a cheap car and travel around the region, sleeping in the car to save on lodging, and see the area from a true local’s perspective. I have a friend from Australia I met in Vancouver who took 3 months off to come to America, buy a car, and travel until he was ready to go home. That sounds like the kind of life I want to lead! Until then, I’m enjoying the free wine on my flight back to America. I never understood why my friend Allison glorified America so much while we were abroad, but now I fully get it! At the airport, Tracy and I accidentally waited in a line for 20 minutes, thinking it was for Lufthansa, only to find out that it was for an airline bound for Abu Dhabi! At that moment, I said “I just want to go to America!” and I truly felt it within my soul.

If I had to pick a favorite city, I’d have to go with Bergen or Tallinn. The combination of culture, beauty, and bars (in Tallinn’s case…) is what makes a city ideal for me. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to see Russia – few people do – and now I know not to go back! Or at least in winter.

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