The Birthday Countries
Over the last few years, I have developed something of a travel tradition that is maybe somewhat unique. Each year, I try to spend my birthday in a new country. I call these the "Birthday Countries."
Thus far, I have been able to travel to a new country for my birthday since 2013, but this year (2017), it could not be done. This was due to the calendar of my job, so I had to have an early birthday gift. For those who read the blog, you will know that I spent my time in Luxembourg and Portugal. If the calendar had worked out the way it did in the past, I probably would have started my holiday a bit later and would have spent my birthday in Portugal. Instead, I arrived in a Portugal about a week before my birthday, but that is no problem. It was still a marvelous trip.
Even though the calendar did not quite work out in the most ideal way this year, I am still extremely thankful and grateful that I had the opportunity to visit those two places. They were fascinating with many things to see and do. There are still many things that I did not get to see or visit, but I hope to return in a future visit, particularly with Portugal.
How I choose which countries become "Birthday Countries" can be a surprisingly long, laborious, and time-consuming process. In many cases, this process starts a year to six months in advance of the actual trip and can be a source of frustration. Essentially, plans are changed and edited constantly until everything seems to match up since all kinds of hiccups can occur, such as price, layover times, inopportune departure days or times, visa issues or other documentation, and everything in between.
When I first decide on a "Birthday Country," I first look at a map and figure out the places that have not been visited yet. I then look at the cost and practicality of getting there (I love traveling, but it is paramount to be reasonable and not completely spendthrift). In addition to the cost of getting there, I also look at how many flights, layovers, and hours a journey will take. Ideally, a nonstop flight is best, but more often than not, I will be required to have at least one connection with a 3 hour or longer layover depending on the final destination. However, the most important criteria that I use is what kind of historical sites does the country have. I am a huge fan of history and art, so the more type of that material a country has, the better. Once I have a general idea of what I might want to do, I then deliberately hold off on that trip and keep it listed in a file that I will utilize later in the year. I then plan other trips while keeping the "Birthday Country" in the back of my mind.
If I have to be honest, this process does not always happen the way I would like. As I have racked up countries over the years, it has gotten a bit more challenging to find more countries that allow for relatively easy access. Nowadays, I look more at whether I have been to a country or not, and how practical and expensive it is to get there. Luckily, there are still many countries that are within relatively easy reach for me, but that list is dwindling, and I find myself more and more often needing to look at the possibility of very long flights and equally long layovers. However, I always knew this would happen as I hit more countries. It was inevitable.
The "Birthday Country" officially began in September 2013. Since I had most of September off, I decided to spend the month in Europe. I was not in only one country for a month though. Instead, I was actually doing a professional development course in Hungary for about a week before moving onto Slovakia for a brief period and then to Austria. Therefore, Austria was the inaugural country of the "Birthday Countries." What made it extra special was that Austria would be my 30th country, and it would also be my 30th birthday. I fondly remember Austria as the "30/30" country.
In this case, the criteria that I typically applied to choosing a "Birthday Country" worked perfectly. I had never been to this place, and it was extremely easy to get from Slovakia to Austria. Plus, Austria was a country that I had been fascinated with and really wanted to visit for a long time. In addition, the professional development course ended in early September, so I still had time to explore a bit of Hungary and Slovakia before arriving in Austria a couple days before my birthday.
To this day, Austria is probably my favorite "Birthday Country." I absolutely loved the cleanliness, history, art and architecture, and the beautiful weather. In addition, unlike my other travels, I spent 8 days in Austria checking things out. However, because there were so many things to see in Vienna, I spent a vast majority of my time there. Literally, every time I would have a plan to see one thing or go in one direction, something would draw me the opposite way, and before I knew it, I was checking out or finding something that I was not planning on seeing. There was always something else to see. As a result of these continuous happy detours, I never had the time to see Salzburg, Innsbruck, or Linz. The only day trip I took was to Melk to see Melk Abbey. I still definitely want to see those places though, and if I ever return to Austria, I will absolutely make more day trips outside of Vienna.
During my time in Austria, I didn't want to spend all of my time in Vienna, so I made a plan to visit the small town of Melk, which is not far from Vienna, to see the famous and well-known Melk Abbey. I had seen pictures of this place as a graduate student in books, and I knew I had to get to this place to see it for myself. I certainly was not disappointed. As I have always said and will always maintain...pictures don't do a place justice. To truly experience the site in all its beauty, a person has to see it with their own eyes. I could have easily spent a couple hours there examining every detail.
Even though Austria was my first "Birthday Country," it was not the last. After the success of Austria, I tried to do the same thing the next year, and it worked. The calendar worked out again. For my 31st birthday, I decided to spend time in Germany. I had actually visited Dusseldorf very briefly a year prior, but I had hardly seen the country. Therefore, for this trip, I decided to do something a bit different. I would actually spend about 3 weeks in Germany, but I did not travel for most of that time. Instead, I had registered for an intensive German course at the Goethe Institute in Munich. This was something I had wanted to do for several years, and this was my chance. The course was an opportunity for me to improve my German, and even though I took a very intensive course for only two weeks, I did feel that I made some modest progress in my speaking and listening ability.
Of course, I did not spend the entire time taking a German course. Once it ended, I started to take almost daily day trips to cities and towns in Southern Germany via trains and buses. That was definitely an interesting time, and I can share stories about that in a later blog post. I can say in all honesty though that having the chance to travel through Southern Germany on my own and apply the German I had learned from the Goethe Institute definitely helped increase my confidence and lower my hesitation with using German. The last time I had any real experience with German was as an undergraduate student learning to read the language in preparation for graduate school. In all honesty, I still had definite communication difficulties, but I was impressed with myself for being able to do basic communication with people and being able to read German a bit better than before.
However, while I have been very lucky with my birthday travels, things do not always go as planned. There have been a couple times when I was in a new country for my birthday, but I was feeling under the weather, or the weather was not agreeable to the day's activity. A perfect example is when I spent my 32nd birthday in Paris, France. On this day, I was not only feeling under the weather, but the weather also not very good.
Since I have a background in art history, I decided to visit Versailles, which was the home of the French royal family until the late 18th century. On this particular day, I was not feeling particularly well. However, I had made this plan in advance, and I specifically chose to visit Versailles on my birthday.
The previous day, I had visited the Louvre, one of the most famous museums in the world. Unfortunately for me, I had gone to the US Embassy the day before my visit to the Louvre and spent time in a crowded room with people coughing and sneezing. Therefore, I was walking around the museum with a stuffed up nose and a pounding headache for most of the day. As a result, I only spent a couple hours in the Louvre. I actually skipped a lot of it because there was nothing more that I wanted to do except go back to the apartment I was renting and sleep. At that moment, I could have cared less about seeing a lot of the works of art. In the end, I only saw a quarter of what was on display in the Louvre, so that means another trip to France might be in order. Anyhow, even though I was feeling a bit better on the day I headed to Versailles, I was still not feeling 100%, but I had made this plan awhile ago, and I was determined to carry it out.
Not only was I still stuffed up and feeling off, the weather was not particularly good. The weather for most of the morning was cloudy with sporadic rain, so it did not lend itself for good pictures. While I was inside the palace, I looked out the window, and it began to pour rain. The day was just not going my way. In an attempt to wait out the rain, I made sure to move extra slow through the palace and take in all the details. By the time I left the palace to explore the grounds, the rain had stopped, but the weather was still quite cloudy, and the ground was muddy. While I was exploring the grounds, it began to rain off and on. Luckily, the rain was not too heavy while I was exploring the grounds of Versailles.
It was when I decided to call it a day that it really began to rain heavily. Even though I was done with Versailles and its grounds, there was still one more thing I wanted to do. On either side of Versailles on opposite ends are two 17th-century churches. Both required a little walk to get to, but since I figured this might be my last time visiting, I might as well check them out. By this time, it was raining heavily, and I was already soaked, so there was no point trying to keep out of the rain. The two churches were interesting visits, but as I walked to one and then headed back the same way to get to the other, I could feel my head pounding, but I pushed myself to finish what I had set out to do. When I returned to my apartment in Paris, I was exhausted, nauseous, drenched, cold, and coughing badly. Needless to say, I passed out soon after. Ultimately, while my visit to France was wonderful, my actual birthday was less than stellar in terms of adverse weather and not feeling well, but it is all part of the travel experience.
There was also another possible disaster on my 33rd birthday. During that time, I was in Cyprus and staying on the Greek side in Paphos. The plan was to take a day tour into the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. I was supposed to be picked up at a designated point by a tour bus. However, at the time, there was a massive amount of construction in Paphos, so the meeting place was not possible. A new pickup location was never communicated to me, so while I was searching for a place where the bus could find me, I saw it drive right past the meeting point. It had only stopped briefly before moving on.
I was almost certain the bus would not come back. I thought I had missed it and the tour. At that moment, I started to get frustrated. The day was going to be a wash, and I had no particular plans for this day aside from the tour I had booked. As I stood near the area where the bus drove by and tried to figure out my next plan, the bus suddenly appeared again.
I was able to flag it down this time. The guide was friendly about it, but the driver was not so much. I remember him muttering something in Greek. I don't know Greek, but based on the annoyed tone of his voice, he was not happy with me. Despite the near disaster, my 33rd birthday turned out to be quite special since I entered the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus on the morning of my birthday. Therefore, I hit two "countries" that year; Cyprus and the unrecognized Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.
Overall, I have been extremely lucky to be able to spend my last four birthdays in different countries, and I certainly hope this tradition gets to continue. It is a wonderful birthday tradition, gift, and travel tradition.