Blake X is an award-winning writer and production manager for a news publication, an aspiring novelist, and an amateur comic book style artist. He enjoys traveling, music, good drinks, nature, and literature. Follow him on Instagram.

Travel tips & tricks (Part 2)

August 17, 2018

Last time, I shared what I consider to be the three P’s of traveling: planning, packing, and preparation. But even after following these steps, you would, in my opinion, do well to not forget about the odds and ends; the minutiae that often slip beneath the radar when you’re getting ready for your big trip to Europe, but which can turn into hiccups and roadblocks when you actually begin traveling. I’ll explain what these are, and how I think you can best avoid them. If you checked out Part 1 of this little guide, and if it was in any way helpful or informative, then please, read on!

Odds and ends

-        Plug adapters
I was fortunate enough to get these before I visited Paris in 2015. The outlets used abroad are different from those we use in the states. So unless you pick up some U.S.-to-European plug adapters beforehand, you’ll find that you won’t be able to charge your phone or your laptop! In countries like France and Germany, they use plugs with two round-shaped prongs (Type C), rather than the rectangular ones used in the U.S. (most commonly Type B). The UK and Ireland use an altogether different plug type (Type G) that will require a different adapter. Australia and New Zealand use another style called Type I, and Denmark often uses Type K (the outlet looks like a smiley face). Italy sometimes uses Type L. Different outlets, which need different plugs, which, for visitors, need various adapters. Find out which countries you’ll be visiting, and get the appropriate ones!

-        Smartphones, SIM cards
So, I found out the hard way that even if you have a GSM phone, you probably won’t get any service (aside from Wi-Fi), if you’re using an American SIM card. But hang on, let’s back things up for those who don’t know. GSM means Global System for Mobile communications (I know, I know, it’s odd that it isn’t called ‘GSMC’). This means that a phone works internationally, and it includes U.S. networks like T-Mobile and AT&T. On the other hand, Verizon and Sprint phones will not work outside North America, as they use CDMA (Code-Division Multiple Access – don’t ask). So before you go anywhere, double-check to make sure you have a GSM phone. If you don’t, you’ll need to ask your provider to unlock your phone before you go abroad.

Next, bring an extra SIM card, one that works worldwide; I’ll be grabbing an Orange card before I head back to Paris, but there are other companies that offer international SIM cards as well. You can still keep your American SIM card on hand, as it may work in some circumstances (Germany, for example, also uses T-Mobile, like the U.S.). If your phone offers Dual SIM support, so much the better. You can keep both your U.S. and International cards in there and switch back and forth as needed. Also, in case the worst happens and you don’t have a working SIM card, take advantage of Wi-Fi hotspots (European countries are full of them) and use Apps like Skype that can utilize Wi-Fi to make calls. “But why not just pick up another SIM card in Europe?” you may ask. Well, sometimes this is a viable option, but some countries make it difficult or impossible to purchase a SIM card unless you’re a resident with proof of address (I’m looking at you, Germany!). As with anything, research is key, but if you follow the aforementioned steps, you should be alright.

-        Travel size it
Believe it or not, some people actually bring large bottles of shampoo, big bars of soap, whole tubes of toothpaste, and cans of Axe and other body sprays with them in their luggage, only to have to take it all out during the TSA security check, holding up the line at the airport, though probably not for as long as this run-on sentence. Anyway, there’s this section in CVS or Walgreens that has tons of travel size items. Make use of it! You’re allowed to bring those types of accoutrements, so long as they’re small and stored in a small ziploc bag. I’ve filled three such bags with everything from folding toothbrushes to miniature deodorant. When it comes to this stuff, bigger is not better.

-        Be aware of the 90-day limit
This bit is particularly important. Tourists to most EU countries have a 90-day limit within which they can stay. So if you’re planning on a very long stay there, know that if you go over that limit even by one day, you’ll be in serious trouble. The 90 days are also cumulative within a 180-day period, and if that sounds at all confusing, I can quickly break it down for you. Say you go to France for 60 days, then come back to the U.S. for 60 days, and then go back to France for another 60. Well, you can’t do it! Basically, you can only stay in certain EU countries (in any combination with one another) for 90 days total - even if you come back to the U.S. in between – for a 180-day period. But after those 180 days pass, your count will reset, and you’ll have another fresh 90 days. So, you could spend all of January in Berlin, come back to the U.S. for two months, then spend 60 days in Prague, and return home in June. Then, after 30 more days pass, you’ll have a new 90-day period, so you can go back to an EU country in August, if you wish. It may seem complicated, but you’ll get the hang of it.

Also, be aware that not all European countries are in what is called the Schengen Area, and thus may have their own rules with their own limits for tourist stays. It also means that those non-Schengen nations are not beholden to that 90-day rule, and that’s where things get interesting. It means that once your 90-day limit is reached, you could in theory travel somewhere like Croatia, Bulgaria, or Ireland, let the remainder of your 180-day period expire, and then go back to Paris or Berlin or wherever. Again, however, bear in mind that non-Schengen countries have their own rules and limits. If you leave the Schengen area only to overstay your visit to Romania or Ukraine (each of which also has its own 90-day limit), you’re not being clever, you’re getting yourself into a bad legal situation. If you’re still confused, I recommend reading this article, which explains it better than I ever could.
           
-        Get your apps in order!
While I don’t necessarily condone letting technology dominate your life, or relying upon smartphones to the detriment of your intellect and deductive/reasoning skills, I do, however, advise that you fill your phone with all sorts of things that will help you while abroad! Google Translate and Google Maps are invaluable when you need to translate a menu or get somewhere in a pinch. Remember that the former often allows you to translate street signs just by holding up your camera, and that the latter can direct you to the nearest police station or U.S. embassy in the event of a disaster or emergency (both of which are – trust me – unlikely). A compass app can also be helpful, and as I suggested in my previous blog post, DuoLingo is an excellent tool for learning new languages.

That’s all I’ve got for today. Note that while some of the above odds and ends are just that – odds and ends, others are actually rather important! As always, I hope that what I’ve written here proves useful, and if you have any tips or suggestions, or if you want to share your experiences, leave a comment or email me at blakedeppe@gmail.com. This is only Part 2 of an ongoing series. There’s more to come!

Travel tips & tricks from a novice traveler (Part 1)

August 11, 2018

I don’t claim to be an expert in traveling; far from it, in fact. I’ve certainly traveled more than my peers, but my friends are, like me, American, and as the stereotype goes, Americans don’t get around much. Most of the people I know here in the states are no exception. I, on the other hand, felt the urge to travel years ago, and once I had the means, I promptly did so. After venturing outside my humble state of New Jersey and moving to Chicago, I proceeded to visit places like LA, New Orleans, Seattle, Madison, St. Louis, and Memphis, to name a few places.

I’ve also been to Paris, Berlin, Prague, and Košice (Slovakia). The advice that follows is thus directed at those who wish to travel internationally, and it’s based on the modicum of experience I’ve had doing so myself – no more, no less. Personally, I feel that it’s more beneficial to get travel info based upon the rudimentary (yet down-to-earth) understandings of average people, rather than from some travel guide or tourist pamphlet. The tips and suggestions that follow are provided because they’ve either worked for me, or they’re based upon things I’ve learned and picked up during my wanderings abroad. I hope it’s helpful and that, if you do decide to travel outside the U.S. (I hope you do!), you take some of the following into consideration.

This will be the first of a multi-part series on travel. What I’d like to start with is what I call “the three Ps.” So, without further ado...

The planning

Okay, so you want to visit another country. Now it’s time to get all your bookings in order – flights, trains, hotels, etc. For flying and accommodations, specifically, I recommend using a travel agent. Sure, there are sites like Expedia or Booking.com, and if you’ve had a positive (and inexpensive) experience with them, then go with what works for you! Using a travel agent is simply what has worked for me, and that’s why I’m putting it forward to readers. It may seem old school – you may have wondered whether travel agencies still existed! – but trust me, it’s an efficient and affordable way to do things. Also, if you’re like me and don’t have a credit card, booking a hotel room through a travel agency means that there’s no hassle when it’s time to check in; the room is already paid for, so all they’ll really ask you for is a debit card to put on file for incidentals. (Don’t worry about this – at check-out, you can almost always pay for any incidentals in cash if you don’t want to charge your card.)

So, travel agent. Book your flights way ahead of time. Most people recommend doing so 2-3 months in advance. I actually suggest doing it 4-5 months in advance. The one huge expense, when it comes to going from the U.S. to Europe, is the cost of your flight. You’ll want to get those plane tickets as cheaply as possible. You’ll be happy to hear, meanwhile, that in most EU countries, hotels are much cheaper than they are over here. I stayed at the Grand Hotel Bohemia, a really nice place in Prague’s Old Town, for a fraction of what that kind of room would have cost me in the states. But hang on. It’s also perfectly reasonable to not book a hotel at all.

I’m talking about Airbnb and Couchsurfing, two very good alternative options to a hotel. There’s also the option of staying in a hostel, and if you like sharing a room with a large crowd of other backpackers, that’s cool and all. Personally? The way I see it, hotels are almost as affordable as European hostels, so you might as well spend just a bit more and have your own place of comfort. Or, if you really want to save money, I think you’re better off with Airbnb than a hostel. I have not personally used it (yet), nor have I used Couchsurfing, but a lot of Millennial travelers recommend them, so I’m passing that on to you.

Finally, I use GoEuro.com for booking train tickets. I’ve done this with trains from Berlin to Prague (and vice-versa), and from Prague to Košice. Pleasant experience, highly affordable tickets. GoEuro even has an app that makes everything that much easier and more convenient. If you’re traveling across numerous EU countries during your journey, there’s also the option to get a Eurail pass; it’s the way to go if you’re checking out like five countries that share borders with one another, but if you’re only headed to one or two countries, don’t bother. It’s cheaper just to purchase tickets through GoEuro.

The packing

So you’re all set. You’ve got your flight info, your hotel reservations (or your Airbnb/Couchsurfing accommodations), and your train and/or bus tickets. Now it’s time to pack. First, let’s talk about the red-white-and-blue elephant in the room. Americans are notorious overpackers. Like a lion glimpsing a zebra, Europeans can usually spot one a mile away; they’re loaded with duffel bags and backpacks, dragging huge pieces of luggage behind them; red-faced, panting, doubled over in pain, likely tripping over their own feet. People, you’re on vacation, not practicing Super Saiyan weight training. There’s an easier way.

Someone once gave me a helpful piece of advice that has always made sense to me. When you’re done packing, open your bag(s) back up and take out half of everything that’s in there. Then open your wallet and double what’s in there. Look, what I suggest is that you bring a single backpack or piece of luggage with you. Nothing more. “But what if I’m staying somewhere for three weeks?!” you may ask. “What about clean clothes?” Well, predictably enough, European cities have these innovative places called laundromats. If you’re staying in a hotel, you can also have your laundry done there (for a fee – hence why you should double up that money). I usually pack 3 or 4 shirts and one extra pair of pants. I just wash what I wear and I rotate these sets of clothing as needed.

Here’s something important to consider: if you really can’t leave certain things behind, you may find that your backpack is quickly getting overstuffed. After all, you probably have a laptop, your clothes, other accoutrements like combs and a toothbrush, perhaps even a book to read on your flight. You’ll be surprised at how rapidly it all adds up. There’s a good space-saving technique I learned a long time ago, and now I’m passing it on to you. Take your clothing and roll it. That’s right, roll it up so that it’s in a narrow, Italian-bread shape. Now, take the thicker and/or puffier items that you rolled, and place them horizontally at the bottom of your backpack compartment. Case in point: if you have a heavy pair of jeans, roll it up and put it in first, sideways. Take one or two more thick clothing items and do the same thing; press them down a bit, as well. Now, take your shirts, boxers, and other lighter, airy items, roll them, and stack them vertically on top of the other clothes, and alongside one another. I’ve found that in an average backpack compartment, I can fit about four shirts and two or three pairs of boxers side-by-side in this way. Now push everything back to flatten it somewhat (I hope you don’t mind some wrinkles, it’s a sacrifice you’ll have to make), and presto! You’ve managed to fit your clothing into one of the 3 or 4 compartments your backpack probably has. Socks, by the way, can be rolled and squeezed into side compartments, but if that doesn’t work, it’s better to put them in flat.

You’ll want your laptop to be slipped into a compartment that is not encumbered with many other things. That’s because, unless you have a plane ticket that says “Pre”, you’ll have to take your laptop out before putting it on the belt, during the airport security check. You’re not going to want to have to excavate it from a cluttered pile of underwear and bathroom essentials when you’re on line and being rushed along by the TSA. If possible, keep your laptop in an area all by itself, with nothing else for company except for your wires, USB hubs, etc.

The preparation

Here’s something else to do before you go to another country for the first time. Realize that you won’t be in America anymore. That might seem like kind of a dumb thing to say, but while many U.S. travelers grasp this on a basic level, it doesn’t really sink in that they’ll be experiencing a different culture with different laws, customs, ethics, and etiquette. If you’re someone who is easily offended by something that does not fit in with your idea of “values” or “the way things should be,” you’ll be in for a rude awakening.
Say goodbye to free refills and ice at restaurants, 24-hour fast food drive-ins, and air conditioning everywhere; and say hello to paying to use public restrooms, having to translate menus and street signs, and paying for bags at grocery stores. But also, say goodbye to not being allowed to drink until you’re 21, not being allowed to smoke almost everywhere, being lectured or looked down upon if you eat meat, and having to pay thousands of dollars for medical or dental care; and say hello to seeing beer literally everywhere (and getting a pint for one Euro!), fast and comfortable trains, overall higher quality of life, and, uh, sex and nudity not being a big deal at all (to put it lightly).

What I’m trying to say is that you must be okay with making some adjustments. As the saying goes, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” Reserve your judgments and remember that you’re not in America anymore. If you’re in Norway or Ireland, there’s a certain way that things are done, and you really don’t have the right to impose your own value system upon another nation. Instead, be respectful and appreciative, and you just might learn something! At the very least, you’re more likely to make new friends.
Finally, and although this should go without saying, you should learn some of the language of whatever country you’re visiting. At the very least, try and memorize some basic words and phrases. I strongly suggest using the DuoLingo app. I think it’s awesome, and I’ve been able to pick up a lot of Czech with it. Ideally, you’ll want to be able to say things like hello, goodbye, please, thank you, good morning, good evening. You’ll want to be able to order food at a restaurant or a drink at the bar, and you may also want to practice a few interesting words or sentences that could be conversation-starters. Not only are you educating yourself, you’ll also make a better impression when you’re abroad. Even if you butcher a few words, at least you’re trying! When people see that you’re making an effort, it shows them that you value and respect their country and their language. I think that’s important, and as yet another saying goes, “The only knowledge that can hurt you is the knowledge that you don’t have.”

I hope this first part of “Travel tips & tricks” has been, or will be, helpful and useful. Make of it what you will, but if you do take my advice, let me know how it goes, and how it works for you (or doesn’t)! I also encourage other forms of feedback – have your own tips to share? Let me know. Feel free to leave a comment here, to message me on Instagram, or to email me at blakedeppe@gmail.com. Thanks for reading. More to come!

Know your blogger: An introduction

Sunday, August 5, 2018

I’m not any kind of well-known public figure. I’m just an average person trying to live life to the fullest. Due to this fact, and before writing this post, I sat back and considered just why someone would want to become invested (or even merely interested) in my personal blog. It occurred to me that a reader had to be familiar, to a certain degree, with who I am, before they could become absorbed in anything I had to say (or write). So, you can consider this an introductory – and hopefully informative – little piece on my life and my interests.

I spent most of my life in New Jersey, but currently reside in Chicago, where I work as production manager for an online news publication. My main ambitions include being a published novelist (I’m currently working on a fantasy story), and a (self-published) comic book writer and/or artist. Based on these goals, you would probably guess that my main areas of interest lie in literature and the arts, and you’d be correct. When I’m at home, and not working on writing, drawing, or inking, I’m probably reading a book, listening to music (metal is my preference but my tastes are diverse), or making videos for my YouTube channel. When I’m not at home, and when I’m not at work, I enjoy traveling, hiking, and, on occasion, going out and having a drink.

Personality-wise, I’m what’s called an ambivert. This was news to me when I first heard of the term, but I came to realize that it suits me 100 percent. An ambivert usually has an equal balance of some intro- and extroverted traits. For example, I’m quiet at first when I meet someone, and often hesitant to approach a stranger and start a conversation, but I also really do have a desire to connect with new people, and once I get to know that person, I become very friendly and outgoing. I like to think that I’m like a cat – cautious at first, then very affable and loyal when I warm up to that person. I tend to be shyer in large crowds, but I’m completely in my zone when I’m with just two or three people. I could go on, but my point is that I’m a positive and talkative person, to all those who just give me a chance to be.

On a slightly related subject, when I say that I like traveling, people tend to think that I’m this extreme, “great outdoors,” super active kind of person, and while I can be, that’s not necessarily the case all the time. Again, for me it’s all about balance. I love traveling (even though I’m a nervous flyer), and if I could afford to, I would be going to some European country every couple of months. My favorite form of travel, by the way, is by train. That being said, I also like my “home time,” and the ability to relax in my room with my cat. There’s definitely something comfortable about my familiar little space, and some peaceful silence, that I would miss if I was traveling 24/7. The same can be said with other activities I enjoy, such as hiking. So while I, just as much as anyone, like to get out there and see and experience new things, I do need some alone time in a place that I feel comfortable in, whether it’s just to hear my own thoughts, to work on my writing, or to de-stress.

I like to educate myself and to learn new things, but I don’t attend college or any kind of trade school (and never have). I was lucky enough to get the job I have by knowing someone, and based on my skill set, and while I won’t rule out going to some type of school for something in the future, I tend to feel that it’s not right for me. I’m much more interested in self-teaching, and in choosing what I learn. I also like to learn things from other people, but in more of a “one-on-one” context. For instance, when I travel, rather than sign up for a big tour group, I prefer to use the website Showaround. I meet a new person (and make a new friend), and that person gives me his or her own perspective on the history and culture of that place. This kind of scenario also helps me comprehend whatever facts or information that I hear. I find that I can learn something new from almost anyone, including my friends. I try and be open-minded and attentive.

I guess I should also add that I have a big interest in pop culture. I’m particularly big on the fantasy genre (novels, films, TV series) – after all, I’m aspiring to be a fantasy novelist. I enjoy a lot of fantasy-oriented music like black metal, folk metal, and Viking metal. I’m a big comic book reader and fan (I tend to lean toward the Marvel side of things). I believe that fantasy fiction is extremely underrated and overlooked, and is falsely seen by some as “poor literature” or “escapist.” I think it’s a great genre with a lot of merit, and that it has contributed much more to the world than people realize. On a related note, I also love mythology and folklore, as well as the paranormal (my beliefs in this area are complicated, as I mainly believe in scientific fact, but that’s another subject for another blog post). I wouldn’t consider myself a “fanatic” over any one of these things; rather, I try and enjoy a broad range of different books, films, shows, and music. My interests also reach beyond just speculative fiction. I like reading Dickens just as much as Tolkien, and I can enjoy Dvorak or Chopin when I’m not enjoying metal or rock. I try and be a well-rounded person.

Well, this is all of the relevant information that occurs to me at present time. I hope this has been helpful to anyone who has visited my website and asked “who the hell is this guy?” Thanks for reading, and if you visit my blog again, thanks for that, too.