30 days in Berlin

Berlin wall kissing

One of Europe’s coolest cities. Big. English-friendly. Historical.

These were my impressions of Berlin before I arrived. And they all turned out to be true. Berlin is cool, hipster and alternative and multicultural.

Berlin wall

It’s definitely huge, with a winding metro map more confusing than Paris’s:

Berlin metro

And it’s English-friendly (sort of). Everyone says they speak “a little English” and actually speaks a lot, but not necessarily with a smile.

But the vibe of Berlin is not what I expected. I thought all that would add up to something trendy and modern, but I felt stuck in the past there.

Many buildings are plain and square, reconstructed quickly after bombings during WWII. Grand, wide boulevards sport names like Karl-Marx Allee. Vendors in the streets sell communist hats and gas masks.Berlin border crossing American sector

Berlin Strausberger PlatzMaybe it was because I spent so much time in East Berlin. But it wasn’t until my last few nights that I started to glimpse Berlin’s lively, modern side. It was the Festival of Lights, and historic buildings – from the Brandenburg Gate to the Berlin Cathedral Church – were transformed into art canvases with projections of light. It was the new juxtaposed with the old, and tourists and locals alike poured onto the streets to see it. Vendors sold beer and pretzels, and the city felt more alive.

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Berlin festival of lights

Here are some more things to expect when you make the trip to Berlin:

In addition to beer and pretzels, you’ll find many vendors selling hot dogs and currywurst throughout the city.

grillrunner berlin

currywurst berlin

Restaurants usually won’t serve you tap water – apparently locals don’t really drink it because the German word means “plumbing water” and you’re supposed to be able to afford bottled. However, restaurants are nice enough to give you a blanket when you’re sitting outside and some menus even note which items have alcohol, caffeine, preservatives, gluten, and more in them.

Groceries are cheap; a half-gallon of milk might cost $1, while a bag of oatmeal costs 50 cents.

You have lots of transportation options in Berlin. If you take the metro, make sure to stamp your ticket and watch out for plain-clothes police if you don’t. You can hop on trams, or even grab a pedi-cab. If you have a bike, you’ll get to benefit from Berlin’s extensive bike lanes – just don’t imitate the Germans and skip the helmet. Or, get some exercise and explore Berlin on foot with some sturdy sneakers, while hopscotching around the broken glass on the sidewalks.

Berlin bike lanes

We arrived in Germany during Oktoberfest and headed to Munich, where we discovered that some German stereotypes are true – everyone (at least in Munich) does wear those colorful costumes. And Germans are the third highest beer consumers in the world. If you go to a traditional brewery with a live band, you’ll be interrupted every 20 minutes or so with a drinking song, where you’re obliged to raise your glass, sway back and forth, and clink glasses at the end.

oktoberfest

We sat at communal tables in two different breweries with locals, said “cheers” to them (in Bavarian, of course), and got advice on what to order. And it was here, of all stereotypical places, where we felt most welcome in Germany.

germany hofbrau haus

What $1,120 per month buys you in Bali

When I tell people I travel the world, a lot of them assume I have some secret stash of money funding my adventures. But I definitely don’t. Instead, I’ve become an expert in “going where it’s cheap.”

As a caveat, you will need some negotiating skills. At the Pertiwi Bisma 2 hotel in Ubud, the official price is $80 per night but they were offering a discounted $1,250 per month. Fred, ever the negotiator, hatched a plan. He told the manager that preferred a different, cheaper hotel, and that he and I were arguing over where to stay. Could they lower the price and make us all happy? Yes, it turns out, they could.

If spending over a month in Bali sounds luxurious, check out what $1,120 – less than the price of your typical big-city apartment – can buy you.

We were greeted with some pretty impressive towel artistry:

Pertiwi Bisma

The bed was made up every day (despite our protests), often with real flowers:

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There was an infinity pool, warmed by the sun:

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The room was large, with two desks, a refrigerator, and big windows opening up onto a balcony:Pertiwi BIsma

Our balcony had a view of the surrounding ricefields, which grew from seedlings into lush greenery within a month:

Pertiwi Bisma

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Breakfast was included, with your choice of Indonesian or American:

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The whole street was pretty quiet, with ricefields on both sides and a soundtrack of frogs and geckos at night. All in all, peaceful:

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The 6 best (cheap) restaurants in Ubud, Bali

“Cheap” is in parentheses, because it’s not something you have to search for in Ubud. You can easily find meals in the $5-10 range, and you don’t have to sacrifice on ambiance. Some of our best meals in Ubud were under $20 total for two people, at a place that could have been a four-star resort in the States.

We spent about a month in Ubud at a hotel – that means, no kitchen – so we must have eaten out at at least 30 different restaurants. Here are the top six – all of which feature delicious, cheap food in a beautiful setting.  

Siam Sally

Siam Sally is a Thai restaurant with a range of traditional dishes. We went there twice on Thursday nights to hear the Cool Tone Blues band, our favorite in Ubud. It’s a two-floor, open air restaurant with lanterns, wicker chairs, and a friendly staff who enjoys grooving to the music. Although I’m not vegetarian, I enjoyed the creamy vegan green curry with eggplant and sweet potato, and a nice and sour tom kha gai soup (both with enough coconut to satisfy my obsession). 

Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan

Prices: Vegan green curry (46,000 Rp), tom kha gai soup (34,000 Rp), pandanus chicken (58,000 Rp) 

Siam Sally

Siam Sally

Siam Sally

The Pond

The Pond is an Indonesian restaurant overlooking (you guessed it) a pond, as well as some open ricefields. They serve up a large menu of Indonesian and Western dishes in an open-air setting (they’ll happily grab you a mosquito coil if you ask). I thoroughly enjoyed the laksa – skip the tofu, it tastes odd – the crispy duck (possibly the best in Ubud), and the ribs (with a spritz of lime, of course). 

Address: Jalan Raya Pengosekan

Prices: Laksa (42,000 Rp), black pepper beef (55,000 Rp), crispy duck (75,000 Rp), surf and turf (85,000 Rp) 

The Pond

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The Pond

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Bebek Bengil (Dirty Duck Diner) 

Bebek Bengil is where you go to have duck in all its incarnations. We ordered 24 hours in advance and were quickly served up a huge plate complete with duck, vegetables, chicken skewers, crackers, and a fruit smoothie on the side. The place is enormous, with a bunch of different seating pavilions with gardens in between, and we ended up on a second-floor table overlooking the ricefields. 

Address: Jalan Hanoman 

Price: Smoked duck (220,000 Rp for 2 people) 

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Bebek Bengil

Bebek Bengil Dirty Duck Diner

Cafe Wayan

Café Wayan is famous for being mentioned in Eat, Pray, Love, but we didn’t realize that when we arrived. We just saw a beautiful, huge restaurant – it extends far back from the street in little pavilions intermixed with lush gardens and exotic statues. The Sunday buffet was a huge spread including curry, satay skewers, vegetables, fruit, and dessert. After you think you’re done, they bring you a bowl of creamy vanilla ice cream. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

Price: Sunday night buffet (150,000 Rp each) 

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cafe Wayan

Cinta 

Cinta specializes in grilled foods, from finger-licking ribs to buttery seafood. Before our food arrived, the owner came and started telling us the story of Bali’s volcano, Mount Agung. A serene Buddha statue welcomes you in, something you’ll see at many Ubud restaurants. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

Prices: Pork ribs (150,000 Rp), grilled seafood (125,000 Rp) 

Cinta Ubud

Cinta Ubud

Cinta Ubud

Ibu Rai

Another open-air restaurant, Ibu Rai is enchanting at night with its beautiful spherical lanterns out front. This is probably the smallest restaurant on the list, but the food might be the best – the quality is gourmet, with touches of spices and sauces that elevate it to another level. 

Address: Jalan Monkey Forest 

We ordered: Spring rolls (29,000 Rp), grilled prawn (78,000 Rp), laksa (63,000 Rp) 

Ibu Rai

Ibu Rai

Ibu Rai

The day I forgot my passport

Paris Eiffel TowerI like making lists.

I make grocery lists, lists of conversation topics, and (most importantly) packing lists. I do it because I’ve left too many things behind: a razor, a jacket, a jar of coconut oil. So for my trip from Paris to New York, I made a 30-item packing list on my handy Reminders app and started my trip confident that I had everything.

That is, until the lady at the check-in counter asked for my passport.

In an instant, I realized that I was going to miss my flight, I was much less smart than I thought, and these list things weren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

But I had the slimmest of a chance: what if my flight were delayed? So while I stayed at the airport, doing my best to negotiate in French and figure out my options, Fred raced back to our apartment (a 50-minute train ride each way) to retrieve the only item that I absolutely needed to have. He knew exactly where it was: in his laptop bag, next to his own, right where he had put it when we were crossing over from London to Paris.

Of course, my negotiations were in vain – apparently a driver’s license or digital copy of your passport won’t do, and no, they won’t check in just your luggage without a passport. Fred showed up 5 minutes before my flight was supposed to leave, and I was given clear instructions to return at 7 am the next morning to get on the waiting list for a flight at 11 am, which was fully booked (as was the other flight that day). I only had three days in New Jersey before I had to fly to Vegas, so I was praying to the airline gods that I’d get a spot.

You’d think that was quite enough excitement for the day, thank you very much, but it didn’t end there.

At 7 pm, exhausted from an afternoon mostly spent at the airport, we decided to venture outside for dinner. As we were leaving the building, I turned to Fred and ask him if he had the keys to the apartment, which locks automatically when you shut the door. Can you guess what he said?

We called our Airbnb host, who sympathetically but firmly explained that there was nothing she could do – after all, we had requested to have her spare set of keys. The only solution was to visit a nearby cheese monger the following morning, who was holding onto keys for the landlord. I told her I needed to be at the airport at 7 am, and tomorrow morning wasn’t soon enough; we contemplated climbing up the building into our second-story window; I wondered how the heck to say “locksmith” in French, and whether anyone would possibly be open this late.

On the brink of utter frustration and exhaustion, I ran to the cheese monger to check if they were open – and they were, for precisely 25 more minutes. I had that much time to convince a stranger to give me a set of keys without authorization from the landlord, whom I couldn’t reach because I had no more phone credit to call my Airbnb host. Luckily, he took pity on me.

So the night ended in an unexpected place: not on a plane, but in Paris, at a little couscous restaurant, eating savory grilled chicken, lamb, and sausage. “I think this is our worst day ever,” said Fred. But he was grinning, not frowning. We were both exhausted, starving, and had wasted a lot of work time, but we still had a nice meal and we certainly didn’t hate each other.

Postscript 

When I arrived at the airport the next morning (bright and early), I was greeted with some good news: “We have an extra flight at 9 am today because one was canceled yesterday.” It took a few minutes before I realized what flight that was: my flight. This was confirmed by a fellow passenger, who explained that the plane had had mechanical problems. “Yesterday was a long day,” he told me. So it was – and if I hadn’t forgotten my passport, it might have been even longer.

The best-kept secret in Paris

In 1969, Paris’s Vincennes railway line was discontinued and the old tracks were suddenly rendered useless. No longer would the route, which wound through the 12th arrondissement, hear the cry of whistles or the chattering of passengers.

It left Paris with an eyesore, a little gray line on its map like a scar that wouldn’t fade. So in the 90s, the city decided to paint it green.

The Promenade Plantée, also known as the Coulée Verte, has turned the old railway line into a narrow three-mile garden similar to the High Line in New York City. It starts near the Bastille on a raised platform, literally cleaves apartment buildings, and descends below street level (with a roof of green foliage) near Nation. If you complete the walk, you’ll end up steps away from the Bois de Vincennes, a huge garden on Paris’s eastern edge.

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If you think Paris is too urban or too dirty, an afternoon on the Promenade Plantée is like a trip to the countryside. The raised, western edge gives you bird’s eye views of the city and beautiful Parisian rooftops against fluffy white clouds.

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Promenade Plantee

The Promenade Plantée actually passes through buildings.

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In the middle, you head over a bridge and through the wide Avenue Vivaldi and a strange underpass that’s been decorated with waterfalls.

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The lower, eastern edge reminds me of the woods in my suburban hometown: dark and moist, with rays of sunlight streaming through the trees. On the eastern entrance, the sign reads: “This space is for walking. Jogging is tolerated as long as it doesn’t disturb the walkers.”

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Somehow, this park seems to be unknown except by locals (and some Germans). Even a few French people I asked didn’t know about it.

I spent my last morning walk on the Promenade Plantée, soaking up the combination of city and nature. This is the way I want to remember Paris: peaceful, beautiful, and one of a kind.

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30 ways Paris is different from the US

For an American in Paris for three months, French life was completely different. You can’t do one huge grocery  trip per week, live with only one pair of sheets, or survive without a printer (if you want to eat cheaply). Here are 30 ways that Paris is (surprisingly) different from the United States.

In the streets

Yes, indeed, French people do eat baguettes while walking down the street (and working).

How to eat a baguette

People zip around the city on scooters – motorized and non-motorized.

Scooters in Paris

Many stores are closed on Sundays (and France’s numerous holidays).

Franprix

Streets are filled with buttery, bready, sweet wafts of goodness emanating from boulangeries.

Boulangerie

The city has installed urinals (with no doors) to keep the streets clean.

Urinals in Paris

Food

Like Asians, French people aren’t afraid to see where their food comes from – eating whole fish and snails, and buying chickens with the heads still on.

Fish in Paris

French people don’t snack often; snacking in the afternoon is normally reserved for kids.

Instead of going to mega grocery stores, Parisians visit a combination of small shops: a grocery store, boulangeriefromagerie, boucherie, etc.

Boulangerie in Paris

When you enter and exit a store, you’re expected to say hello and goodbye to the shopkeeper.

Boulangeries sell not just the regular macarons we know in the US, but grand macarons.

Big macaron

Parisians like to pick up fresh meats, cheese, and vegetables at local markets, which take place throughout the week.

markets in Paris

Markets in Paris

Markets in Paris

Markets in Paris

Restaurants

There’s no tipping in Paris – but don’t worry, the prices make up for it. If you want, you can leave some spare change for particularly good service.

French people love terrasses, and they’ll huddle outside under heat lamps (often smoking) even when it’s cold.

cafes in Paris

The prices differ depending on whether you eat at the counter or sitting down (or, sometimes, even outside).

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Wine is a staple with restaurant meals.

Wine for French meals

Rose sellers often come into restaurants and try to sell you a bouquet while you’re eating.

Groupons are available, but you’ll be forced to print them out and show them to the waiter.

Groupon in Paris

At sushi restaurants, you have a choice between salty and sweet soy sauce.

Metro 

Paris’s excellent metro system makes getting anywhere in the city easy, although it’s hot during the summer.

Paris metro map

Paris holds auditions for metro musicians, who are allowed to play in the stations only. Any musicians you see on the trains are renegades.

Music in Paris metro

Homeless people often board the trains and give a speech about their unfortunate circumstances. Then they walk around the cars asking for some change or a ticket restaurant (a restaurant voucher that French people get from their employers).

Lots of young Parisians jump the gates to avoid paying the fares. Only some get caught by metro police, who periodically check your tickets.

Jump the gates in Paris

If you don’t want to use the metro, France’s bikshare program (called Vélib) is a good bet.

Velib in Paris

Apartment living 

Most apartments have no dryer, so you’re forced to deal with drying racks and the stiff, cardboardy-ness of line-dried clothes.

How to dry clothes in Paris

The refrigerators are miniature.

Refrigerators in Paris

To save space, designers have invented mechanized beds that raise up into the ceiling.

Apartment size in Paris

Health care

Doctor visits are cheap, like $30 for a consultation or $80 for an ultrasound.

There are few (if any) pharmacy chains; most are little shops run by friendly pharmacists who can make small diagnoses and recommend medications.

Pharmacies in Paris

Money

France has long been converted to the euro, but receipts still show the price in francs.

Credit cards with chips are the norm; you’ll get funny looks or confused expressions about American swipe cards (although they do work).

Like this post? Check out Cafés in Paris.

10 cheap restaurants in Paris

If you’re looking for cafés, check out Cafés in Paris

Paris is expensive

Yet somehow, all the terrasses around the city are always packed with French people sipping wine and eating €28 meals. I think it has something to do with tickets restaurant, which are tax-deductible restaurant coupons that employers give their employees. If your office doesn’t have a cafeteria, you’re given one per day to (supposedly) use for lunch. Your company pays half, and the other half comes out of your pay.

As a foreigner not blessed with such an extravagant perk, you’ll have to search carefully for the deals in Paris. They do exist, and in 3 months staying there I found quite a few. Here they are.

French

Cafe L’Empire 

  • Dishes under €12
  • 17 rue du Bac (7th arrondissement)

Cafe L’Empire was our “cantine” in Paris, which means the neighborhood restaurant we went to all the time. Somehow, steps from the chic shopping district of Saint-Germain and the touristy Musee d’Orsay, this cafe is incredibly cheap. It’s usually not hard to get a table, and the woman behind the bar will greet you warmly. I recommend the duck confit.

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Chartier 

  • Dishes for under €13.50
  • 7 rue du Faubourg Montmartre (9th arrondissement)

Chartier must be in some guidebook, because the line always extends out the door and down the street. But if you eat at a normal US dinner hour – say, between 6 and 7 pm – you should walk right in. The dishes are basic and French, like leeks with mustard dressing or steak tartare. They keep the prices down by making small groups share tables, so don’t go here for a romantic dinner.

Chartier

Chartier Paris

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Chez Gladines 

  • Dishes for under €14
  • 30 rue des 5 Diamants (13th arrondissement)

Recommended to me by multiple French people, Chez Gladines services cuisine from the Basque Country, an area overlapping Spain and France. If you’re feeling daring, order the escalope de veau montagnarde – which comes wrapped in bacon, stuffed with sautéed potatoes, and drenched in creamy mushroom sauce. Otherwise, even the salads are gigantesque. This restaurant gets busy so plan to arrive a little early. 

Chez Gladines

La Comète 

  • 2 courses = €14.50
  • 19 rue du Faubourg Montmartre (9th arrondissement)

Cute and modern, La Comète is a good option if the line at Chartier is too long. It’s just a minute or so up the street in the 9th arrondissement. Here, you can get a two-course formule – starter + main course or main course + dessert – for €14.50 (around $18.70, with no tax or tip), which is quite cheap by French standards. My favorite here is the Petite Auvergnate salad, which comes packed with cheese, pine nuts, a hard-boiled egg, sautéed potatoes, and lardons (essentially, tiny slices of thick bacon).

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Buffet

Aarapana 

  • Buffet: €12
  • 6 rue du Petit Pont (5th arrondissement)

Aarapana competes with the other Latin quarter offerings by giving you a solid Indian buffet, including dishes with chicken, vegetables, palaak paneer, samosas, rice, and dessert. If you can stand the rich red and purple silk everywhere, you can’t go wrong here.

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Sushi Magic 

  • Buffet: €17.50
  • 24 rue du Javelot (13th arrondissement)

At €17.50 ($22.75), this buffet isn’t exactly cheap – it’s the quality that’s standout. You could easily pay more for less (and worse) sushi elsewhere. Your options include various salmon rolls, veggie rolls, salad, skewers of meat and vegetables, and desserts. And, unheard of back in the US, this sushi buffet includes unlimited (salmon) sashimi.

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Asian 

Restaurant Sherton 

  • Dishes for €6
  • 84 rue du Faubourg-Saint-Denis (10th arrondissement)

Among the many cheap Indian restaurants in the 10th arrondissement, Sherton was the second we tried and the only one we went to from then on. Many of the dishes, from butter chicken to palaak paneer, cost €6. They’re a bit small, so go with a friend and order three.

Le Cambodge 

  • Dishes for €12 and under
  • 10 avenue Richerand (10th arrondissement)

I’m sad that I discovered Le Cambodge (and its sister, Le Petit Cambodge) so late in my trip, otherwise I might have gone there every weekend. The restaurant serves authentic and less authentic (but no less tasty) Cambodian dishes, their specialty being the bobun – a mix of rice noodles, lettuce, tender beef, crushed peanuts, bean sprouts, and a delicious sauce that costs only €10. They also have curries and soups, but the bobun was so good that I never tried them.

Le Cambodge

Middle Eastern 

Moaz

  • Falafel for under €10
  • 8 rue Xavier Privas (5th arrondissement)

Moaz is one of many falafel places in the Latin Quarter, and it’s the only vegetarian restaurant on my list. I’m not big on dishes without meat, but I’ll make an exception for their great salad bar. You can grab a plastic bowl or a pita, then stuff it with as much marinated carrots, olives, cabbage, cucumbers, tomatoes, beets, and tahini as you can. The cashier will pop in three warm balls of falafel, and you’re on your way. Bonus points if you go eat this by the Seine river or under the shade of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Moaz

Au Bon Couscous 

  • Dishes for under €12
  • 7 rue Xavier Privas (5th arrondissement)

There’s one tiny passage in the Latin Quarter that you can’t walk through without getting harrassed by hawkers – begging you to come in and try their couscous, Mexican, and French food. I hate being hustled, but our hunger drove us into one of two side-by-side couscous places, and I think it was the right one. We were served a huge platter of couscous, plates of meat, vegetables, and soup all for under €12. The first time, we got a free glass of kir (white wine plus cassis); the second time, they threw in a sweet mint tea at the end. Merci.

Paris restaurants Bon Couscous

Photos courtesy of Barbara, vous en dites plus (Chartier), Trip Advisor (Chez Gladines), Guides-Restaurants.fr (Moaz), and Vegan in Progress (Bon Couscous). All other photos by Kira Newman. 

In the Clogged Streets of Indonesia

Indonesia was our last stop and a last-minute trip; we didn’t decide to go until days and days of Singaporean prices wore down our wallets. We stayed with a friend, which meant some great home-cooked Indonesian fare but a bit less exposure to Jakarta.

  • Indonesia is one of the less developed countries we visited, so prices were cheap: I preferred the gourmet $10 sushi meals, but Fred got a couple $1 lunches on the street.
  • The traffic (*slams head against wall*) extends into the suburbs, nearly all day, so it usually takes at least an hour to get anywhere. It’s honestly the worst traffic I’ve seen and I couldn’t imagine dealing with it day after day.
  • Jakarta has no metro and we were strongly advised against the bus (by locals, no less), so we ended up taking taxis everywhere – for a few dollars per ride. 
  • The streets of Jakarta are filled with lots of motorbikes – though less than Vietnam – and a variety of taxis (the Blue Bird Group being most reliable). 
  • Surprisingly, Indonesia has some beautiful public sculptures – like triumphant Olympic athletes and muscular horses.
  • English isn’t too widely spoken.
  • Expat life is a luxury, perhaps to make up for all the traffic: the teacher we stayed with had a personal driver and a maid, with incredibly low salaries (by Western standards).