Saturday, October 13, 2012

Mountaintops, hormones, and sustainable development: the worst blogpost title of all time

12:23, 12/10/12

I’m having trouble keeping promises to myself, that I would be consistent in blogging.  But for the record, the last three weeks have been a blur, with hardly a spare moment.  And it’s been awesome.

In the last three weeks, for starters, I had two major “mountain-top experiences” (no, neither of them were literally on mountain-tops.)  The first of these was the Taj Mahal.  The best way I can describe its majesty is that a photograph will never really capture it.  The second mountain-top experience was in the desert: last weekend, a few friends and I took camels into the Thar Desert (on the border of Pakistan) and slept out on a sand dune.  I think sand dunes must be some of the most underrated beautiful places on Earth.  

In the last three weeks, I have done a lot of learning.  I’ve read about Gandhian economics; gender and how it relates to development; and I’ve gained a much deeper understanding of how resource extraction affects the voiceless in society (i.e. mining for metals to make aluminum or building dams displaces thousands of forest-dwelling indigenous people.)  My group also took our second educational excursion, in other parts of Rajasthan.  First we went to Bikaner, where we learned about a local NGO that supports desert village communities.  We also went to an all-girls’ college--or, as I might call it, a “hormone haven.”  As one of two men in an endless sea of man-deprived young women, I naturally became a target of unspent affection: over a few hours, I was interrogated on who I thought was the prettiest of the Indian girls, pressured into singing for a group of sixty-some girls crammed in a small room (I chose “Daughters” by John Mayer), and subsequently pulled in multiple directions by at least a dozen girls who desperately wanted one picture with the tall white American guy to show off.  Exhausting as it was, I won’t pretend that I didn’t enjoy the attention.  

The most compelling experience of the excursion, however, was a visit with recent migrants to India from Pakistan, people we call “stateless citizens.”  Because they were Hindus, they were treated as second-class citizens in Pakistan, so they traveled to India where Hinduism is the dominant religion.  But coming from Pakistan automatically makes a person suspicious in India-- even though they were Hindus, the migrants were still treated as second-class.  Living in a large settlement on the outskirts of Jodhpur, most of these people have been unable to obtain Indian citizenship.  One great organization has helped 30,000 migrants obtain citizenship over the last forty years, but much work is left to be done.

What struck me the most about the experience was the power they assigned to us.  We, a group of wide-eyed American undergrads, were simply there to study; yet by the way these people asked us to advocate for them, you would think we were diplomats.  This seemed inappropriately excessive to us at first; but as soon as we thought from their perspective, it all made more sense.  In the eyes of these people, who have never had a political voice, much less personal agency, we really were powerful.  I still don’t have much power to change their situation.  But, I have learned, I have more powerful than I’d like to believe, by the simple virtue (luxury?) of my citizenship and the freedoms that accompany it.  

This last week, I’ve had some of the best lectures of the semester so far.  We’re finally getting to the specifics about sustainable development: we’ve read about the Washington Consensus, urbanization, economic liberalization, and the many dangers they pose to the natural environment and voiceless groups in society (i.e. indigenous peoples, the extreme poor, religious minorities, rural people, etc.)  Without getting too specific, I’ll say that I’m beginning to see more and more relationships between complex issues like socio-economic disparities, refugees, resource extraction, water usage, urbanization, population dynamics, agriculture, biodiversity and wildlife, multinational corporations, international political agreements, and a variety of others.  I feel enlightened and helpless, wise and clueless, at the same time.

On a related thought, here’s another important realization I’ve made: no matter how much I learn about India, I probably still wouldn’t be as competent in understanding the needs/desires of Indians as any Indian could.  Of  the many NGOs in India I’ve visited, and I have not seen a single NGO worker who wasn’t Indian.  On the other hand, I’m realizing that the complex issues I’m grappling with in India also exist in the United States.  I used to think that the world’s biggest problems-- the ones I wanted to face-- were in developing countries.  Now I know I thought wrong.  So, conclusion: maybe I should work on issues in the United States, where I have a more innate understanding of the culture and the needs/desires of the people.  (Not to mention: I’ve also learned that I’d have a rough time spending my life half-a-planet removed from my loved ones.)  But I would like to spend some time helping in other parts of the world, too-- it’s not as though I can do nothing.  Anyway, we’ll see.

In the next couple of weeks, I’ll be finalizing arrangements for my Independent Study Project.  My topic is set: I’ll be comparing the advantages and disadvantages of industrial and traditional agriculture.  I hope to draw conclusions about how India can provide food for its 1.2 billion people without cost to the natural environment.  To start, I’ll be spending at least two weeks in early November in the state of Punjab.  A particular organization has offered to take me all around the state, facilitate interviews, and even provide me housing!  Then I’ll head across the country to the tiny Himalayan state of Sikkim, where I’ll observe some traditional terrace farming, chill out, and write my 30-page paper.  Everything will wrap up on my birthday, December 1st.  Should be great!  

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Indian Trains; Pursuit of happiness

15:42, 23/9/2012

Howdy, folks!  I’m reporting from my homestay family’s new house in Jaipur, after having spent a week in the state of Uttarakhand learning about NGOs, speaking with rural villagers and jungle nomads, and relaxing for a day in Rishikesh, the yoga capital of the world.  Additionally, I experienced not one, but two nights on the famous Indian sleeper trains.  The trains were old and a bit shabby, and had very little privacy.  The bunks are in pods of eight (two stacks of three on one side, and a stack of two across the center aisle.)  The odds of having a good night’s sleep are fairly slim: it is hard to hold fast to your dreams as passengers noisily come and go all through the night, until all remaining hope is at last lost at 5:30 in the morning when young men begin the breakfast parade down the aisles, yelling “Chai, coffee, chai!” is nasal voices.  Needless to say, it’s a blast.  Just like camping, the discomfort is part of the adventure!
In my last post, I promised to write about “academic” musings--  caste and class divides, economics and well-being, and my Independent Study Project.  So, here goes...
For some time now, I’ve wanted to help alleviate extreme hunger and poverty.  My thought is this: in our modern world, with all our capabilities in agriculture, health, medicine, et cetera, there is no reason why anyone shouldn’t have the things they need to survive-- for simplicity, we’ll say food, clean water, shelter, clothes, and basic medicines.  Furthermore, we ought to be able to provide these things without destroying the world’s precious ecosystems.  So it angers me that rich countries like the United States have built systems that allow them to exploit the natural resources of poor countries, ultimately leaving them with damaged environments and no way to improve their position in the global economy (i.e. If they had their own factories to manufacture their raw materials, they could provide jobs for the poor and reduce poverty in the long term; but since the raw materials are taken and processed in other countries, they’re sitting ducks.)  What’s worse, it’s all for the sake of manufacturing an endless supply of material goods that I believe don’t ultimately make us happy.  (This is admittedly a very simplistic explanation, but bear with me.)
I’ve made a habit of blaming the “neo-liberal global economy” for this mess.  But I’ve come to think that there are lots of ways we can change the existing system of producing and trading goods around the world that would cut out many “negative externalities,” to use economic terms.  There are many good things that have resulted from our “globalized” system of trade.  And besides, I don’t think there’s any chance of turning back to a world without international trade (if there ever was such a place.)  So, all we have to do is be clear about what we want from the system and tweak it accordingly with good policies, so that we can maximize human livelihood and well-being.
But there’s a catch: everyone has a different idea of what makes for a “good human livelihood and well-being.”  The conditions that make me happiest differ from the next guy; and when we make policies that value one group’s standards of well-being, we automatically devalue the values of another group.  If, for example, most people value a consistent supply of electricity, and we build more dams and mine more coal and oil to provide it, then we harm the well-being of indigenous peoples who live by the rivers and mountains and in the forests who are displaced in the process.  Unfortunately,one size does not fit all when it comes to happiness. (Some countries, like Norway, have come closer to a “one-size-fits-all” system for societal values.  But Norway, which was one fairly homogenous, has seen an enormous influx of immigrants from eastern Europe, Pakistan, and other places, and it has pressured the Welfare State to make exceptions for people who have different values of what makes happiness.)
If we can’t do perfect, we can certainly do better.  Lots of statistical indicators are used to evaluate different aspects of people’s well-being-- indicators like GDP, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, Body Mass Index, standard of living, you name it.  Some countries, like Bhutan, use a “Happiness Index,” which averages several indicators to evaluate people’s overall happiness in the country.  But ultimately, all of these reach the conundrum which is inherent to social sciences: you can’t quantify human behavior.  
For my independent study project, I’m interested in a certain facet of this problem: food!  Modern farming technologies have enabled India to create enough food to provide for its 1.2 billion people (although distribution is a problem.)  However, these modern systems of food production have tremendous impacts on the natural environment.  I’d like to evaluate how to reduce said impacts.  But I may need to narrow my focus-- agriculture is a huge sector, after all.  I may end up changing directions altogether.  But I’ll keep you posted!  
Here’s a thought to leave you with: what makes you happy?  I’m not just talking stuff, although they are a part of it-- what conditions, what circumstances?  And secondly, what impacts do those things have on nature, and on other people?  Don’t feel guilty of these impacts-- everything has an impact of some sort-- just be aware of what it is.

Monday, September 17, 2012

17/9/2012: Lots o' thoughts!

16:44, 17/9/2012

Wow, I’ve been off the radar for so long.  I need to jot down my memories while they’re still fresh!  Here’s a scatter-brained attempt to document what I’ve been up to and what’s been on my mind since I last wrote...

First, details about what’s going on now, and what’s coming up.  I just traveled through the night on an Indian sleeper train to the north Indian state of Uttarakhand, where my group and I will be learning about rural development NGOs in the state’s capital city of Dehradun.  After four days, we will have a few days of relaxation at the city of Rishikesh, an allegedly spiritual place near the Ganges river, and a Hindu pilgrimage hotspot.  (It’s also where the Beatles lived when they wrote sitar-infused songs like “Within You Without You,” one of my personal favorites.)  In other news, my host family is moving to a new house in Jaipur as I’m gone this week.  I got the news just a few days ago, but the short notice is absolutely no problem for me; on the contrary, I think it’s cool and sort of hilarious that I get to live in two different places during my semester in Jaipur!  Just to clarify, I’ll still be living with same family, just in a new house.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been getting into the swing of the regular academic schedule of my program.  There are eighteen students in my program-- sixteen girls and two guys.  They are passionate, smart people.  It’s pretty cool to be with a group who have so many interests in common (one benefit of a small study-abroad program with a specific academic focus!)  The faculty and staff are really great, too.  They are very interested in getting to know us, and they are also attentive to our well-being.  Yesterday, for example, my left eye had been hurting for the second day in a row, so I called the homestay coordinator.  Ten minutes later, one of the program staff was at my door, and told me he had arranged an eye appointment.  I was so grateful for how fast they came to the rescue!  (It turns out I do have an eye infection, some I’m using some eyedrops for the next week, and I should be good to go!)  

I wouldn’t be honestly recounting my experiences if I didn’t admit some frustrations.  One is the Indian “teaching style” I’ve encountered. Of our daily guest lecturers from Indian universities, several of them have lectured over the exact same things which they had assigned us to read the night before, rather than elaborating/expanding upon the assigned readings.  The standards of teacher-student interaction are much more formal than in the States, and as a result many of the teachers aren’t accustomed to allowing time for discussion, and often go over the two-hour time limit.  One teacher in particular, a peculiar old yoga teacher, had teaching habits that were difficult to tolerate: he spent two-and-a-half hours going over the written principles and doctrines of yoga in excruciating detail and repetition, made frequent and intense eye contact with the students, and reprimanded students when they seemed to be slightly inattentive.  He also took the license to tell people when they were, in fact, not relaxed enough to do a pose; and to criticize people’s bodies (once we finally got to the actual physical postures after reviewing the painfully long review of yogic scriptures.)  We cancelled the yoga sessions with him after the first two.

I’ve also gotten pretty sick of being singled out because I have white skin.  I cannot walk down a street without being approached by begging mothers and children, or by dozens of street vendors and shopkeepers who want to sell me worthless crap.  I’ve encountered people like this before-- this summer, when I was in Oslo, I encountered Romani beggars every day.  But in Norway, I was never singled out for my white skin, by which the beggars and vendors automatically label me a wealthy foreigner (which is true, at least relatively speaking.)  I really want to treat these people with dignity-- at least to look them in the eye or speak to them, but even a glance or a simple “no” makes them even more persistent.  In one sense, they are denying me of my dignity, by treating me like a cash machine. But I can’t blame them for treating me that way, can I?

In spite of a few frustrations (and a little homesickness for family, friends, and autumn in Decorah), I am having an awesome experience.  Actually, this isn’t really “in spite” of my frustrations: I think that each of them has been a source of “positive stress,” a cultural difference that has made me stronger and more open-minded.  I’ve really enjoyed the food-- lots of interesting vegetables stewed in butter, and eaten with rice and roti (which are like tortillas).  I had a blast at the Amber Fort, the City Palace, and around Jaipur with my friends (see pictures on Facebook!)  As I’ve said, my fellow students and the faculty and staff are awesome, and I have been learning a lot in my classes and readings.  And for my daily amusement, it’s been fun taking an auto-rickshaw to school along the bumpy roads and nearly getting into head-on collisions each day.   

Next time I have a chance, I’ll write about caste and class divides, economics and well-being and all the philosophical awesomeness I’ve been pondering regularly, and also about my Independent Study Project that I’m designing to do in November.  Until then, namaste!

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

My host family; and thoughts on Western invasion

22:30, 5/9/2012

Greetings from Raja Park, a southeastern neighborhood of Jaipur, the 3-million-person capital city of the north Indian state of Rajasthan!  I have been living in the neighborhood since Saturday afternoon, when I moved in with the Mathur family-- my host-mom Manisha, a strong and spirited woman and a professor of public administration at a local girls’ college; my host-dad Shailendra, a mild-mannered businessman; their son Manu, a first-year student of computer engineering at a local university; and his brother Anu, a junior in high school, who plans to study mechanical engineering.  We live on a busy market street: the front door is easily missed in the messy collage of signs and storefronts and the display mannequins that leak out towards the cars, taxis, auto-rickshaws, and motorbikes which chaotically bustle along the road.
The house is small-- a family room, two bedrooms, a bathroom, a tiny kitchen, and a storeroom-- but it is comfortable, and well-suited for a very close family.  Even though they are all quite busy, each family member spends much of the day sitting together in the family room, where they talk, eat, and watch TV (Dad never misses his soap-opera, on weekdays at 8:00pm.)  The boys also sleep there-- they gave me the second bedroom to myself!  The family offers me privacy, but they don’t seem to need any from me or each other.  The parents’ bedroom is public space (we sometimes sit and eat on their bed) and they seem to tell everything with each other.  (Perhaps this is unfounded, though-- I can’t hear the content of their conversation in Hindi just yet!)  There are kind, hardworking, and hospitable people.  
In some ways, they fit the classic stereotypes of Indian culture: they are devout Hindus and vegetarians, and the parents had an arranged marriage.  And in many ways, the family embodies “the New India”-- that is, the trends of a growing educated middle class that has emerged in recent decades (which is by no means the experiences of all Indians, or even most.)  They live in a city.  They prefer to speak Hindi, but they are fluent in English.  They are highly educated, especially the woman of the house.  The boys are pursuing careers in engineering, a major sector in the emerging Indian economy (which has become increasingly capitalist since it liberalized in the 1990s.)  
But more striking to me (and to my partial dismay), they are in several ways highly influenced by “the West.”  The boys in particular are infatuated with iPhones, mTV, American films and music, and “western-style clothing.”  The older brother Manu dreams of moving to the States to work for Apple, and to bring his family with him.  He doesn’t listen to Hindi music, nor does he own a single piece of traditional Indian clothing.  His bedroom walls are covered with pictures of New York City architecture and the landscapes of northern Minnesota, and not just as a welcome to me.  Most startlingly, Anu showed me that he and his Hindu classmates recite the Lord’s Prayer every morning at school. The school is not Christian, nor are any of its students.
A weekend shopping trip confirmed that they are no anomaly.  I had envisioned buying Indian kurtas from a market vendor when I asked to go shopping for clothes, so I was slightly shocked when my family took me to a four-story shopping complex, and a large store full of familiar dress shirts, trousers, ties, shoes, plaid shirts, blue jeans, and all other “western” fashions.  I was attacked by cunning sales attendants offering discounted dress slacks as I marched toward the tiny “Ethnic Clothing” section in the far corner of the store. 
I can’t help but feel like many Indians are so infatuated with the “comforts of the West” that they have neglected the value of their own culture.  Much of what I’ve been reading for my courses so far has been about two separate-but-related topics of colonialism and “Orientalism” (essentially, the prevailing western perception of “The East” as a mystical, uncivilized, and societally-inferior land of snake-charmers and mystics.) I can’t help but believe that since the arrival of British colonizers centuries ago, Indians have been trained to believe that western clothes are more professional, that capitalism is the most wonderful method of trade, that English is the most valuable language, that American culture is the best.  Some would say that it is happened naturally, just like any other cultural blending throughout history (i.e. the arrivals of the Aryans, the Mughals, and other groups to India over the centuries.)  But I say it’s cultural hegemony, and that it’s a shame.  India, after all, has incredibly sophisticated traditional culture, including elegant languages and texts, mathematics, four major world religions, intricate music, incredible artwork and architecture... the list goes on.  I, for one, appreciate the simplicity of the “Eastern toilet”: it is more sanitary, and uses less water.  (I used one for the first time this week. though I’ll spare you the details, I am pleased to report it went well!)
I decided to study abroad in a developing country in the eastern hemisphere because I wanted to experience the diversity of the human experience-- to see how completely different some people’s lifestyles are from mine.  I can honestly say that less than two weeks in India has already done that.  Now my hope is that such cultural diversity is preserved-- that is does not fall victim to the influence of the West.

Friday, August 31, 2012

31/8/2012: First thoughts on India

23:04, 31/8/2012

Since I’m already through my first few days of the program-- the days that are the most jam-packed with brand new sensations and observations-- I fear that I will hardly do justice to the overload of sights and emotions that I’ve felt since I arrived in India on the eve of August 27th.  But that was probably true anyway.  Here’s what I’ve been up to:

After nearly twenty-four hours in transit, I arrived in the New Delhi airport around 11:00pm four days ago, where I met four of about twenty-five people who will be my team this semester-- Manoj and Trilochan, two kind young Indian men who are program faculty and staff; and Martha and Shelley, two American girls out of the seventeen students who will be my classmates this fall.  We drove forty-five minutes to a YMCA Hostel where we stayed during the first two days of orientation sessions.  On Wednesday, we took the seven-hour bus ride along a nauseatingly crowded and chaotic highway to Jaipur, a city of around 3 million people 200 km southwest of New Delhi, where I will spend the next two months.  (After that, I’ll be doing a month-long independent study project in a location of my choosing, to be determined...)  For the last few days, we’ve had a relaxed pace of more orientation sessions intermixed with fun activities and breaks for cups of sweet, milky chai.

India is wild.  Some things are just as I imagined, and some are completely different, but all things are surprising.  One multiplicity of surprises that comes to mind is the traffic. I had expected to see teeming crowds of people outside; instead, I see all sorts of Indians-- Western-dressed middle-class folks, barefoot rickshaw drivers, and raggedly-garbed beggars-- gathered in small groups, sitting in pairs on bus benches and steps and in ramshackle huts, or hustling around, on foot and bicycle and in tiny cars and tiny three-wheeled green rickety “autorickshaws,” on the move.  The way that they move together, however-- the traffic-- is just as I imagined, but far crazier.  On the rare occasions that there are lanes in the road, they don’t seem to restrict the bikes, pedestrians, rickshaws, autorickshaws, cars, trucks, and rogue cattle to dart and weave between each other erratically, even into lanes going the opposite direction.  I have seldom seen streetlights at intersections; when not at roundabouts, the Indian drivers will simply cut in front of oncoming traffic, honking liberally as warning of their unpredictable and potentially reckless actions.  (To make things more interesting, they drive on the left side of the road, which feels to me like the middle of the road at every intersection.)  This “orderly chaos” in Indian transportation, while sort of terrifying for me, is completely functional and even comfortable for Indians.  To use the words of a lecturer who gave a cheesy orientation to cultural integration, “their behavior is rooted in a different worldview,” one which requires flying-by-the-seat-of-one’s-pants and trust more than stoplights.  My taxi driver this morning said it concisely:  “There are only three things you need to drive in India-- good car, good brakes, and good luck.” 

I have so much more to say, but so many more things to experience that are higher priorities for the moment (right now, it’s sleep.)  But for what it’s worth, I hope I’ve painted a nice picture that illustrates more than just how India appears.  

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The International Space Station

If you're someone who has been eagerly awaiting my next blogpost (ahem, Mom and Dad) sorry I haven't posted in a while!  It's been a busy week, and I haven't had any long train rides for journaling lately.  So, anyway, here's the latest scoop (and no, it actually has nothing to do with the International Space Station, except a common acronym, the ISS):

The International Summer School is super cool.  Essentially, I'm taking two very interesting classes (between two and four hours in class a day), reading a lot for them (between two and four hours), eating meals with my wonderful new friends from the Nobel Peace Prize Scholar group, the Balkan Friends rotary group, and new friends from all over the world, eating great food, and exploring the nooks and crannies of Oslo in between.  On top of that, the ISS has planned lots of extra programming for the students throughout each week, including Norwegian films, cultural events, music jam sessions, parties, and more.  What could be better?!

My basic schedule is something like this: my roommate Connor (a really good guy my age from St. Olaf College in MN) and I wake up around 7:15, get ready for the day, and head next-door to the dining hall for breakfast around 7:45.  Although I change up my pickings each morning, I'm always sure to get a big crunchy cracker with the famous Norwegian brown cheese and raspberry jelly.  During breakfast, I often sit with people I've never met or don't know well, and often learn something new about a foreign country (you know what they say: breakfast is the most important meal of the day.)  At 8:15 I head to my first class: Scandinavian Government and Politics.  It's been very interesting-- as you might deduce from the course name, we're learning broadly about the political systems and parties in Norway, Sweden, and Denmark (with small doses of Finland and Iceland); and we're also learning a lot about social democracy and the Welfare State, as well as recent issues with immigration in Norway (did you know that Norway has the first- or second-highest rate of immigration in all of Europe?)  The course is taught by Jeff, a lanky twenty-something-year-old American man who is also teaching my Peace Scholars seminar course.  He is brilliantly smart-- after studying at Brown and Harvard, he was awarded a Fulbright to study Polish immigrants in Oslo; and on top of that, he speaks about five languages.  It's been fun to learn from someone who is both so smart and so fresh out of school that he can teach well without having forgotten what it's like to be a student.

When class ends at 10:00, I study in the dormitory common room or elsewhere my my friend Nura Younes (a Peace Scholar from St. Olaf) and often my friend Colin (a Peace Scholar from PLU).  We eat lunch at noon.  During the afternoons, I often study or hang out with friends, at the dormitory grounds or at a coffeeshop.  This weekend, many of us got 30-day transportation passes, while permit us to limitless rides on the Metro, trams, and buses in Oslo.  Needless to say, we're eager to explore and find more coffeeshops around the city!  I usually go to dinner at 5:30, hang out and/or attend campus programming and/or study if I still have homework, and go to bed around 11:30.

Aside from the regular schedule have been some special events.  Last Monday, for example, was the grand opening ceremony for summer school session.  All the students dressed up and went downtown to the main campus of the University of Oslo (we study at the Blindern campus about a mile from the city center), where we gathered in the Festive Hall for jazz music, speeches from the Rector of the University and others, and so forth.  The building, decorated with gigantic murals by Edvard Munch on all four walls, is where the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded until about ten or twenty years ago.  After this ceremony, everyone walked to the City Hall for a fancy reception, complete with complimentary delicious snacks, drinks, and more fine jazz music.  The City Hall is where the Peace Prize is currently awarded each year.  At the event, I toured the building, which is covered in nostalgic murals of the working class overcoming oppression, and the Norwegian nation gaining independence, and so forth.  Another highlight of the Summer School so far (and a perk of being a Peace Scholar) was a trip to the Nobel Library, where the Nobel Committee chooses the recipients of the Prize.  The other Scholars and I stood around the shiny round wooden table where the long meetings are held, drawing inspiration from the Laureates' pictures which lined the walls.   

It's been a jolly good time so far!  I'm learning a lot, feeling inspired, building lasting friendships, and satisfying my constant urge to explore.  Although, I will admit, I've been getting nostalgic about the Fourth of July.  Not homesick, but I miss my loved ones.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Peace Scholars! Lillehammer and Oslo, Norway (6/23/2012)

14:18, 23/6/2012

    Hello, friends!  Now that I’ve begun my Peace Scholar program, my blog posts will be fewer and farther between.  Here’s what I’ve been up to for the last week or so, and a preview of what I’ll be doing for the next six weeks:
    The first leg of the Peace Scholar program was held at the Nansen Academy in Lillehammer, Norway, where I learned about Peace and Reconciliation Dialogue alongside my fellow Peace Scholars: Clara Bergan from Luther College (Decorah, IA); Molly Kokesh, Maren Engel, and Katie Hjerpe from Augustana College (Sioux Falls, SD); Peter Larsen and Ingrid Pond from Augsburg College (Minneapolis, MN); Charlotte Rosen, Jordan Montgomery, and Nura Yousef from St. Olaf College (Northfield, MN); Adam Mousel and Howard Mukanda from Concordia College (Moorhead, MN); and Colin Mischael from Pacific Lutheran University (Tacoma, WA).  At Nansen, we met about twenty students from the Balkan nations of Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, and Croatia.  Students from the Balkans have a special relationship to the Nansen Academy: for the last twenty years, Steinar Bryn of Nansen has been working with Serbians and Albanians from the conflict-ridden nations of ex-Yugoslavia, bringing them to Lillehammer to conduct dialogue sessions.  This has resulted in several Nansen satellite centers in Balkan cities, continued dialogue seminars held in Balkan communities by locals, and ultimately has contributed to a movement towards peace between segregated ethnic groups, especially in the form of newly-integrated public schools.  For his dialogue work, Steinar Bryn has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, four times.  And I not only met him, but got a ride in his car and used his toilet.
    Over the course of a few days, the Peace Scholars and Balkan students became a tightly-knit group of friends.  There were limitless opportunities to chat over delicious meals, with a cup of coffee, in the nooks and crannies of the school, visits to the 1994 Winter Olympic ski-jump, the Maihaugen open-air museum and Lillehammer Art Museum, and on walks around peaceful Lillehammer.  It was an incredibly relaxing week: our itinerary consisted of several dialogue sessions, times to have deep, focused conversations with thoughtful, caring people, and to practice asking good questions, listening carefully, and sharing courageously and honestly.  When we weren’t sharing deeply about ourselves and our religious and social contexts, we chatted recreationally about global issues, religion, politics, and the like.  Needless to say, I was in paradise.  I could hardly ask for more in life than great friends who are passionate about global issues and some good food!  We also had a couple great lectures in the history of Fridtjof Nansen (Norway’s 19th-century resident badass, diplomat, and national hero), the Nansen Academy, and the religious and ethnic history in Norway.  Oh, and we had a huge party at Steinar's house, where we ate, drank, talked, and danced in the backyard until midnight (although it was so light outside you'd think it was 9:00.)
    After a great stay in Lillehammer, we all ventured to the University of Oslo, to study at the International Summer School.  To give you a sense of the environment, I only need describe the highly diverse cultural zone that is the Blindern Studenthjem Common Room:  On my left side is Marta from Poland, who is chatting with Xena from Palestine; Umida from Turkmenistan on my right, and Biren, a Sikh from Bangalore on her right.  Nori from Japan, Aluna from Kurdistan, and several others I haven’t met yet sitting across from me.  The Common Room is a fancy old room with wood-paneled walls decorated with old paintings and a mounted goat head labeled “Jan IV,” and a ring of three leather couches surrounding an old fireplace. The Blindern Campus is bustling with nearly six hundred students from ninety-five different countries, who will live together at the University for the next six weeks to study Norwegian language and culture, international relations, and peace. I’ve met people from places I know nearly nothing about-- Azerbaijan, Romania, Georgia, and Ukraine, to name a few.  It’s the ideal way to learn about the world.
    As you can imagine, I’m totally stoked for the next six weeks.  I’ll be studying hard, but I’ll be building great friendships all over the map, and having a lot of fun.  As if it couldn’t be more awesome, there’s also a wide range of social activities on campus, including a giant party at Oslo City Hall (where the Peace Prize is awarded), Norwegian cinema nights, cultural exchanges, free museum trips, and weekend adventure excursions to hike, whitewater raft, an camp around Norway.  I’ll keep you posted when I’m not too busy having a blast! ;)

Monday, June 18, 2012

A theatre in transit: Characters on the way to Lillehammer (6/17/2012)

13:06, 18/6/2012.  I am sitting in my dormitory in the Nansen Academy, where in a few hours I will begin the Peace Scholar program.

    The 17th was a long day of travel, but filled with many interesting encounters.  I woke up for breakfast with Hans and Kari at 7:00 and headed into town, where I caught a 7:55 bus to Flåm.  On the bus, I chatted with a 26-year-old woman named Arle (Ar-luh), a passionate environmentalist, vegan, and knitter who worked for the county archives recording local musicians and publishing their music online.  She was going to visit a friend who worked at the microbrewery in Flåm.  We talked about environmentalism and vegetarianism in the States and Norway, the growing culture of microbreweries in the Europe and the States, traveling, etc.  She believed that in Norway there is a division between those who really care about conservation and environmental issues, and those who continue to consume more and more meat and other resources. 
    Arle and I hung out for as I waited for my train in Flåm, a tiny mountain overrun with middle-aged Japanese, Australian, and American tourists.  As we waited, I met a young woman from Ft. Collins, Colorado wearing Chacos and a puffy Patagonia coat.  She told me about her recent travels in Poland with her boyfriend, and her outdoor adventures in Norway, where she said the mountains were “more dramatic than in Colorado, although smaller.”  After buying some fresh bread and a banana at the grocery store and a little more waiting with Arle, I boarded my train for the scenic Flåm railway.
    The Flåm railway, the reason for the middle-aged tourists, is an hour-long ride of famously beautiful scenery.  After sitting and talking with an elderly man from rural eastern Montana, I stood in the space between train cars to avoid being bumped the middle-aged women taking pictures with iPhones as I photographed the majestic waterfalls and landscapes.  I was soon joined by Rhianna, a friendly thirty-year-old woman from Melbourne, Australia, who was completing her masters degree in Ecological Urban Development in Sweden.  She and her mother Rhonda were on a short mother-daughter vacation to Norway, and were on their way to Bergen where they would be lucky enough to see Aang San Suu Kyi give a short ten-minute address in the city square.  (For about ten minutes I considered changing plans last-minute and going to Bergen as well, but I realized that since my EuRail pass would be expired the next day, it would cost me $150 to reach Lillehammer in time on Monday.)  As I was scrambling to make my next train to Oslo, Rhonda kindly gave me a hot dog and a cup of coffee-- an incredible random act of kindness from people I’d just met!  I have been so astounded that nearly everyone I’ve met has been so kind, helpful, and gracious.  I’m confident that people are generally good.
    On the long train ride to Oslo, I mostly journaled quietly by myself.  During the last half-hour of the ride, an old man confronted me an said in broken English that “I was disturbing him.”  Apparently the nearly inaudible noise of my typing was bothersome from several seats away, or the Apple-shaped light on the back of my screen.  I kindly put my laptop away, figuring I could take a short break.  During that time, I talked with the man across from me, a middle-aged man from Denver who was traveling on business.  He told me about many places he has traveled, and I was surprised to learn that the infrastructure in Hong Kong, Singapore, and many other places in Asia is incredibly modern and clean, far surpassing the United States.  After speaking with him and many others, I have a much longer list of places that I hope to travel.
    I arrived in Oslo and immediately transferred on a train to Lillehammer.  Since the track was being repaired, all passengers exited the train after 40 minutes and took buses the rest of the way to Lillehammer.  I sat next to a young Swedish man who worked in Lillehammer, who proved to be a very interesting character.  I learned that Anders was forty-two years old (much older than I thought!), and had a wife and three kids living in central Sweden.  He worked in Lillehammer building prosthetic limbs for a week at a time, and then went home for a week at a time.  To top that off, Anders was an innovator: for the last fourteen years, he has been designing his own home, a house within a greenhouse, filled with grape vines and many other plants producing fruits and vegetables for the house.  The design also includes a system that reuses human waste to fertilize the plants.  His brilliant design makes it possible to reduce energy consumption and expenses for food and energy dramatically, while living amongst nature.  And it works: he spent five years building the design himself, even cutting his own wood.  In a few weeks, Anders will meet with his first client, who would like to build a similar house.  Within a few years, Anders hopes that his idea will take off-- and I hope so, too.  I made sure to get his contact info and website.
    We arrived at the Lillehammer train station, and I went inside to check in to the hostel located above the station.  There I met the final character of my solo adventure.  As I opened my room door, an elderly man leapt up from his bed, completely naked, and frantically pulled on his underwear as I turned away.  He was a old Australian guy, his nipples pierced, and his tan skin sharply contrasting his white beard and short white hair and long, bushy, gray mustache.  Ty and I greeted each other and laid on our beds, entering into a conversation that lasted for about three hours.  I learned that Ty was gay, and that he had sold over a million copies of his books on hiking in Australia, which have been printed in multiple languages.  We later talked about religion (of which he was very critical), politics, immigration in the US and Australia, travel, geography, slang words in the US and Aussie, and so forth, and went to bed around 11:30.  It was a day of many interesting characters and conversations, a proper ending to a great adventure.

A little lamb family: Svedal farm, Sogndal, Norway (6/16/2012)

12:00, 18/6/2012.  I am sitting in my dormitory in the Nansen Academy, where in a few hours I will begin the Peace Scholar program.

    I woke up at 9:30 on Saturday morning, and had a delicious breakfast of open-faced sandwiches with Kari, Hans’s wife who had gone to bed early the night before.  As we chatted, I very much enjoyed sampling the assortment of toppings-- various jams and cheeses, including the famous Norwegian brown cheese, a caviar spread squeezed from an aluminum tube, a spread made from diced radishes, and a sweet buttery spread called Prim.  Hans joined us after a while, and we sat around talking until almost noon. 
    The night before, I had offered to help Hans with work on the farm, so after noon I put on some of his farm clothes and boots and got to work!  Our task for the afternoon had a few steps:
1. Gather the lambs from their outdoor grazing pen, and lure them into the barn with a special feed.
2. Give a dose of anti-bacterial medicine to all of the lambs, and record it on their record.
3. Lead the sheep up the mountainside, and through a gate to a higher part of the mountainside, where they will live and graze for the rest of the summer.  (A few weak lambs and their mothers would be brought back to the nearby pen, where they would be safer from the elements and wolverines.)
    It was a rip-roarin’ good time. We shook the bucket of tasty candy-feed, and twenty or thirty sheep and lambs came racing down the mountainside to get the snack, bells jangling around their wooly necks.  We did our best to lead three or four sheep and each of their one or two lambs out of the pen and fifty feet down the road to the barn, but occasionally a sheep or a lamb would veer in a different direction, compelling us to chase them back towards the barn.  There were three or four times where I chased the same rowdy lamb twenty feet up the rocky mountainside, darting right and left trying to snatch it in my arms, and eventually getting behind it and chasing it into the barn.  From there, Hans ran around the pen inside the barn with a large syringe, grabbing lambs between his legs and feeding them a helping of medicine, which they occasionally spit onto his shoe.  As a novice shepherd, he gave me the task of simply recording on a clipboard which lambs he had treated.  From there, it was another round of Lamb-chop Round-up, with Hans leading the flock with a bucket of candy feed and me following behind, trying to make sure all of the sheep and their lambs followed Hans instead of running in the opposite direction.  After a few hours of bucket-jangling, frantic running and chasing, sheep-grabbing and clipboard-writing, we had treated all of the little lambs and and led them to their new homes. 
    After the sheep shenanigans and a snack, I went for a hike up the mountainside with Kari and a Belgian couple who were staying in a cabin on their property.  Although Kari is about six months pregnant, she was enthusiastic to lead a hike, and in fact set a fairly quick pace for the hike-- classic Norwegian.  The Belgian woman was a flight attendant, and I asked her some questions about her work (since I think that it could be a good job for anyone who loves to travel).  She told me that she speaks Dutch, English, and French, and little bits of several other languages; and gets huge discounts on flights all over the world.  We hiked for about forty-five minutes to a mountain cabin owned by Hans and Kari, where we had a nice view of the mountains.  It began to rain as we began our return journey, and Kari and I talked about Norwegian history, policies on maternity leave, and folk music (she is a folk musician).
    The rest of the afternoon was very relaxed: I showered, uploaded photos to Facebook, and chilled out. I asked Hans and Kari if I could help out with anything, but there was nothing that needed doing.  Around 10:00, Hans, Kari, and I had a delicious homemade pizza, stuffed olives, and pineapple as we watched the EuroCup game between Russia and Greece.  In conversation, they discovered I had never seen the great Monty Python film The Life of Brian.  We made a point to watch it before bed-- hilarious.

Fjords! (6/15/2012)

12:00, 18/6/2012.  I am sitting in my dormitory in the Nansen Academy, where in a few hours I will begin the Peace Scholar program.

I woke to my 5:00am alarm and the shrieking of seagulls on Friday the 15th, threw on my clothes, brushed my teeth, and walked out the door to head to the train.  Moments after leaving the hostel, I was startled to realize my watch was missing, so I returned and found it on the floor of the hallway after a few minutes.  It made me realize just how much I depended on it, and I was annoyed that it had fallen off my wrist without my feeling it!  I made it to the train station with plenty of time to spare (a first.)  I slept on the first train from Stockholm to Karlstad, transferred trains, and slept and journaled on the train from Karlstad to Oslo.  It was very comfortable and uneventful.
    It was only a few minutes after arriving in Oslo around 12:30 that I was rudely introduced to the outrageously high prices.  I looked at the prices of meals in the train station restaurants, astounded at my findings: a Whopper, fries, and a drink for 85 kroner (over $14 USD); a sandwich for $10 USD, coffee for $5, a hot dog for about $9.  Luckily, I had some leftover bread and peanut butter in my bag, which I would try to conserve until this evening.  I found my bus station, and we departed for Sogndal at 2:40.
    The bus ride was incredibly long-- about seven hours with a dinner break-- but it flew by.  Except for the first leg of the journey out of Oslo, the scenery was magnificent.  I gawked at the fjords and lakes, mountains and valleys as we cruised along the winding mountain road, snapping as many pictures as I could.  I couldn’t help but believe that Hogwarts sat on just the other side of one of these beautiful valleys, on the shores of this stunningly blue, glassy water.  Besides enjoying the scenery, I was also able to use the free wi-fi on the bus and finish my pre-course readings for the Peace Scholar program. 
    During the dinner break, I sat and talked with a stocky, tan-skinned Norwegian man, who was moving home after living and working in the Canary Islands for nearly twenty years.  After dinner, I chatted with Torill, a middle-aged woman sitting across from me.  She advised me about what I might write about for my upcoming research project, and told me about Aang San Suu Kyi’s visit to Oslo that was taking place as we spoke, during which she would accept her Nobel Peace Prize after around twenty years under house arrest in Myanmar.
    Around 9:00, our bus drove onto a large ferry, which took us across the Sognefjord in fifteen minutes.  We reached the other side and drove through an incredibly long tunnel through the mountainside.  (I learned later that this tunnel is (or was) the longest in the world, at about 24.5 kilometers.)  Soon we reached Sogndal, where I met my host, Hans Svedal, a kind 35-year-old Norwegian with a long brown ponytail and a thin goatee.  He drove me around the little mountain town, which except for its magnificent surroundings was not much different than any tiny farm town in the States.  Then we drove for ten or fifteen minutes to his farm, a charming string of old houses, cabins, and a barn on a rocky mountainside overlooking a crystal clear mountain lake, snow-capped mountains behind.  It reminded me slightly of Christikon, a Lutheran Bible camp deep in the mountains of south-central Montana, although there was one key difference:  up the mountainside behind the house and barn were dozens of sheep and lambs, held in a large fenced-off area where they grazed.  It was one of the most wonderful places on Earth.
    Although it was after 11:00, the sky was still not dark.  Hans and I sat and ate open-faced sandwiches and talked for quite some time as the sun finally set.  We talked about music (he teaches music ed at a local university), soccer, politics, culture-- all of the things same things I’ve talked about with everyone I’ve met!  Later, we decided to watch some comedy sketches of Eddie Izzard, a hilarious transvestite stand-up comedian, and went to bed around 1:00.

Stop This Train

At such an odd, transitional time in my life, this song speaks to me.  Just wanted to share.

Stockholm, Sweden (6/14/2012)

15:05, 17/6/2012.  I am riding a train from Myrdal to Oslo as I write this.  By tonight, I will be in Lillehammer, where I will begin my studies through the Peace Scholar program.
I was awakened on the morning of the 14th by the unpleasant shrieking of seagulls outside my dorm window, screaming like banshees for over an hour.  Suitably nautical at this island hostel.  I had slept in a while, and set off around 9:30 to get information about a boat ride later in the day, and attend a free tour at 10:00.
The free tour was a good choice as usual, although not as good as the others I’d had.  Perhaps that was because it takes so long to walk around Stockholm, since it’s spread across several islands.  But I learned a few cool facts:
  1. “Stockholm” translates as “log island,” which comes from a famous myth. The story goes that the Swedes who lived down the archipelago by the Baltic Sea decided to move their home further from Finnish pirates.  They loaded their silver and valuables into a hollow log raft and sent it floating down the archipelago, vowing to build their city wherever it landed.  Of course, the real reason for the location of Stockholm is strategic: it allowed them to tax any ships moving between freshwater of Sweden to the Baltic Sea.
  2. The name “IKEA” stands for the initials and address of its founder, who is the richest man in Europe.  IKEA subtly makes fun of Denmark, its rival country: the couches are named for Swedish cities, and the rugs for Danish ones.  The IKEA catalog is apparently read more commonly than the Bible, according to my guide.
  3. One of Sweden’s most famous monarchs, Christina, was gender ambiguous: they mistook her for a boy when she was born, and she later insisted on wearing boy’s clothes because they were more comfortable.  She secretly identified with the Catholic church, and therefore decided to abdicate the throne (which must be occupied by a Lutheran) and move to Rome.  There, she was very progressive in fighting for the religious freedoms of minority groups.  I don’t remember when she lived exactly.
  4. The Konserthuset in central Stockholm is where five of the six Nobel Prizes are awarded.  (The Peace Prize is given in Oslo, Norway, because Alfred Nobel thought Norway was a more peaceful nation than Sweden at the time.)  Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was mistaken for dead once and read his obituary in the newspaper, in which he was described as “the most evil man on Earth” for his creation.  Not wanting to be remembered that way (as he did not intend dynamite to be used for violence), he established the Prizes in 1896 to be his positive legacy.  He died in 1900, I think, and they were first awarded in 1901.  (The Prize in Economics was founded much later.)
  5. Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme, who led during the 70s and 80s, was killed in 1986 by an unknown assassin.  Though a very popular leader, his foreign policy views were very controversial (he was very critical of US’s involvement in Vietnam, Russia’s involvement in Afghanistan, etc.)  He liked to walk around town and take the subway without any bodyguards, so as to be most accessible to the common people.  It was on one such occasion when he was alone that he was murdered.  There’s something like a $1.5 million award for his identification.
  6. King’s Street in Stockholm was the site of their biggest celebration of V-E Day in 1945: hundreds of people flooded the street to cheer and celebrate.  In fact, there are financial records missing from the month of the celebration, because in all their excitement the bankers of that street used all of the paper records for confetti (the government cut them some slack.)
  7. Princess Victoria of Sweden recently married her personal fitness trainer, and they are expecting a child.
  8. The term “Stockholm Syndrome” has an interesting story: a famous criminal trying to rob a bank took several hostages inside the vaults and locked them all in for several days, holding them as ransom for his demands, including the release of his incarcerated accomplice.  The police unwisely decided to throw the accomplice in the bank with them, now leaving the hostages with two convicts.  After several days, the police got inside the vault, only to discover that the hostages had begun to empathize with their captors and understand their motives.  Though the bank robber was put in jail, the other one was left off free.  Today, several of the former hostages and their captors remain friends.
  9. The royal family of Sweden is actually French.  Gustav IV, who ruled around 1800, lost all of Finland to Russia.  The people kicked him out and sought out a new king, one who would build a strong military.  They approached Napoleon Bonaparte in search of candidates, and chose one of his officers, who took on a new Swedish name “Karl Johann.”  His family still holds the Swedish crown.
  10.   The Swedish Parliament is about 46% female, one of the highest percentages in the world.  
The tour guide (who was a twenty-something-year-old of Asian ancestry from Toronto) concluded by listing several reasons why he loved Stockholm and wanted to spend his life there, in an impassioned sugar-coated speech: “It’s a land where women have the same opportunities as men, but where women leave the toilet seat up after they leave as a courtesy to the men; where a man can marry whoever he loves regardless of their gender, and a woman can do the same; where men wear jeans tighter than the women’s, and more makeup than the women wear; where people are treated with equality.”  It struck me rather oddly that he could speak of the country with such ownership although he himself had only lived there for a year or two, spoke no Swedish, and hadn’t participated in making Sweden the “land of equality” that he so loved.  Then again, perhaps he represents a new phenomenon of our world: the ability of people to move to other countries and call themselves a native, without having full citizenship or knowing the language.  Europe has shown me that the definition of nationality is changing, and rapidly.
It was around noon, and I stayed in front of the Parliament to catch the Changing of the Guard, led by a marching band towards the Royal Palace.  Then I walked towards the Skansen Open-Air Museum, which was two islands over.  I accidentally took the wrong bridge and ended up only one island over.  Because it would take so long to walk, I forked out $6 to get a stupid boat ride a few hundred yards to the right island, leaving me rather frustrated with the city’s geography and high prices.  Like the National Historic Museum, the Skansen Museum was okay, but not great.  It was essentially a park filled with old Swedish buildings that had been relocated there from all over the country-- baker’s shops, a glass-blowing workshop, pottery, little cabins, a windmill, a tower-- and a small zoo of native Swedish animals, like wolves, elk, moose, and owls.  Two highlights for me were the seals, whose swimming was fun to watch; and the Sami hut, in which I met an indigenous Sami man who told me about their culture of herding reindeer in the north of Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.
My final plan for the day was quite simple: I took a 5:00 boat through the Stockholm archipelago to an island called Vaxhølm, walk around, and come back.  It was a beautiful ride past the many islands of the archipelago, first lined with the magnificent architecture of Stockholm and later many seaside cabins.  After an hour, we arrived at Vaxhølm.  I bought the cheapest dinner I could find (I had withdrawn more money for the day, and barely overestimated how much I would need for the day), and walked around the small island.  It was a quaint little island town, complete with a small park, a grungy dinner, and pretty little houses.  I walked around for about an hour, and then caught a bus back to Stockholm, since it was cheaper than the boat.
Having done everything I had hoped to in Stockholm, I headed to the hostel to review my travel plans for the coming day.  I sat in the social lounge/dining room working on my computer when I met a kind young family: Brian from the Netherlands, Fiona from Australia, and their one-year-old daughter Lily.  The family, visiting from Switzerland, had a conversation with me and then kindly offered fresh strawberries, yogurt, and delicious grapefruit soda.  I was delighted to meet such a fun and kind young family, to make faces at darling Lily, and to eat fresh fruit and other delicious foods I hadn't had in a while.  
   It was around midnight that realized an error I had made: basically, I had to take a bus most of the way, instead of trains.  This also meant I had to catch a 6:00 train the next morning.  At midnight, I prepared for an painfully early start.

The most delicious herring: Stockholm, Sweden (6/13/2012)

14:03, 17/6/2012.  I am riding a train from Myrdal to Oslo as I write this.  By tonight, I will be in Lillehammer, where I will begin my studies through the Peace Scholar program.
I got up very early on Wednesday the 13th to depart for Stockholm.  First I caught a one-hour train to Malmö, just a bridge ride away from Denmark; and then caught the next train to Stockholm, where I arrived at noon.  Stockholm, a city built across several islands next to the Baltic Sea, is a beautiful city, but a pain-in-the-ass to get around.  Although it wasn’t geographically far from the central train station to my hostel, it took me over a half hour since I had to take certain bridges.  I only minded this insofar as it forced me to spend most of my time getting places rather than being at places.  
I stopped at the Hostel STF af Chapman to drop off my things before seeing the town.  The hostel was very nautical: many of its rooms were actually cabins on a large white ship docked at the island shore, and the rest of the rooms were in a former navy building fifty feet from the island shore.  To my slight disappointment, I was assigned a room in the building instead of a ship cabin.  It was a very nice hostel, though a bit expensive, so I’d recommend it for visitors to Stockholm.
As I left the hostel to explore the town (it was around 1:00), it began to rain hard.  I quickly made my way to my first destination, my hair, glasses, and map becoming progressively more soaked.  I was very thankful to be wearing my trusty waterproof softshell jacket!  Finally I arrived at the Östermalm Saluhall, a giant ritzy indoor food market in a wealthy neighborhood of Stockholm.  (My Lonely Planet Stockholm book, a gift from the Drechslers, told me I had to go!)  It was a sensational place, its narrow aisles lined with 1880s wooden booths where vendors were selling fresh fish-- and I mean enormous, caught-an-hour-ago fresh fish.  You name a seafood, they had it, in twenty different varieties you’ve never imagined.  Along with fish and gourmet fish concoctions, there were booths selling breads, pastries, cheeses, fruits and vegetables, and every other food you’d find at a huge market.  As you can imagine, everything was quite expensive, but I trusted Lonely Planet that this was the place to get one awesome authentic Swedish meal.  So after a while of browsing, I found a restaurant with what I carelessly and erroneously calculated to have reasonable prices, and ordered a platter of herring from a very stereotypically Swedish-looking waiter.  Moments later, I was served a platter of bread and butter, which I devoured happily as I pored over my Lonely Planet guide and maps, planning the rest of my day.  Within minutes, the waiter returned with my meal, a plate of carefully-crafted servings of herring, rye bread and fancy cheese, and eggs with caviar.  It was probably one of the best meals I’ve ever had.  The herring was sweet, each flavor slightly different but all delicious.  The taste of the caviar reminded me regular chicken egg yokes, but perhaps a bit more rich.  And, as I expect of any European country, the bread and cheese was better than in the States.  I ate slowly, savoring the flavors and taking in my fascinating surroundings.  Once I had finished, I was startled by how much my meal had cost-- over $20 USD.  Though slightly ticked at myself for calculating the cost so carelessly, I decided that I was happy to pay for one really great Swedish meal. 
It had stopped raining when I left the market, I resolved to walk to a nearby National History museum, since I had had such a great experience in the Danish National Historic Museum.  (On the way, I discovered that Stockholm has a public bike rental system like that in Copenhagen, but I didn’t use it: I would have had to buy a special electronic card to unlock the bikes, and it would have cost quite a bit.  The infrastructure for and popularity of biking is not as good in Stockholm as in Copenhagen or Berlin, anyway.)  The museum was okay, but not excellent.  I got a solid dose of Danish history since the arrival of Christianity, and a very cheesy education on prehistoric Sweden, which followed the lives and questions pertaining to fictional prehistoric characters portrayed by actors on large screens.  
The museum closed at 5:00, and I headed to the nearby Brevardhuset (is that the name?), home of the Royal Stockholm Radio Orchestra and the Swedish Radio Choir, to see if there were any concerts.  There were not, but I got a lot of good info on destinations, concerts, and bars with live music from the two young desk workers.  I walked back at the hostel to eat dinner (by that time it was 6:30), and later headed out to go explore Gamla Stan, the tiny historic island where Stockholm originated, and Södermalm, the large southern island home to all the vibrant youthful neighborhoods of Stockholm.  I was running low on cash as well (I had 45 kroner, about $6 USD) and I had decided to spend it up on a Swedish beer along my way (Sweden is not known for the alcohol it produces, but I wanted to find some, anyway.)
It took a half hour to walk to Gamla Stan, although it was the next island over.  I explored and took pictures of the Royal Palace, the Parliament building, famous churches, and a monument to kings Gustav Adolf (there were three or four of them, the namesakes of Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, MN.)  The island is lined by charming narrow cobblestone streets and medieval building one thousand years old, many of them now inhabited by sidewalk cafés and tourist shops.  From Gamla Stan, I wandered south to Södermalm, searching for a bar that was recommended to me at the hostel in Copenhagen, where I hoped to get a beer.  I found it, but the beer was far more than $6.  I found another nearby pub listed in Lonely Planet, but it too was too expensive.  The bartender kindly recommended what he believed was the cheapest bar in Stockholm (that can’t be good for business!), but it didn’t have Swedish brews within my budget.  By this time, I was feeling very lonely and stressed out about my pathetic financial situation, and felt rather depressed.  I started the hour-long walk to the hostel when I saw a Guinness sign by the door to a bar.  Naturally, I walked in: gotta love Guinness!  Of course, it was too expensive, but Falcon was exactly 45 kroner.  Desperate for company, I decided to stay and drink a Falcon, hoping for a conversation.  Sure enough, I struck up a conversation with a nice guy named David.  Now about thirty years old, he had been adopted from southern India when he was very young.  Now a nurse in southern Sweden, he was visiting Stockholm to see a metal concert.  We talked about culture, soccer, music, politics-- it was a quality time!  We parted ways at 11:30 or so, and I headed back to the hostel feeling about a million times better than I had before.
Travel notes:
  1. Stores in Scandinavia (and other parts of Europe) close at 8:00 or earlier.  I found this interesting because in Decorah people joke and complain about this same issue.  Turns out that people like to spend time with their families instead of working until nine or ten-- who would have thunk!?  So, if you go to Europe and have an unfortunate addiction to retail therapy, get it done in the afternoon.
  2. I don’t think I mentioned this yet: find a grocery store.  Eating out all the time is expensive, particularly in northern Europe.  Buy a loaf of bread and some peanut butter or cheese (there all tastier in Europe anyway): it’s much cheaper, and it’ll serve as several meals.  Not to mention, visiting a foreign grocery store is a cultural experience!  I try to get an authentic meal in a restaurant once, and then eat cheaply.
  3. Don’t take Lonely Planet too seriously, although they have some good suggestions.
  4. I’m pretty sure I’m an extrovert, at the end of the day.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Dopin' Haven, Denmark (6/12/2012)

10:50, 15/6/2012.  I am on a train from Stockholm, Sweden to Oslo, Norway as I write this.  I am making my way to the Sogndal fjords, where I’ll stay with friends-of-friends for a short while.

    I woke up before 8:00 on the 12th, because I had planned to spend the day with the two Canadians from Toronto.  They had unenthusiastically permitted me to tag along the night before when I realized I wanted to go the same places as they did.  Within the hour, though, I decided to go it alone: the guy, Steve, was rubbing me the wrong way, and I sensed that I would rather be lonely than be ticked off at him the whole day.
    I hopped on the subway and went to a town north of Copenhagen called Helsingør, to see Krönberg Castle, where Shakespeare’s Hamlet is supposed to be set.  (I was missing my sister, and I thought she’d be pleased that I went!)  It took a long time to get there, since the train was delayed by a half hour.  Luckily, I met a young Cambodian woman who was making her way back to Sweden where she lived, and I asked her about her country as we waited for the train.  When we reached Helsingør, she caught a ferry that would take her to Sweden in twenty minutes (I could see Sweden from the coast of the town!)
    I walked over to the castle, and asked a nice old man for directions along the way.  (Then I happily listened as he told me of his nephew in California who sent him hats.) I walked to the castle and paid for an unguided tour of the royal chambers.  It was rather unexciting, honestly-- some pretty rooms, some old furniture, some slightly informative signage.  I snapped pictures and rushed through it: I wasn’t really enjoying it.  However, I’m content to say I’ve been there!  After the museum, I made sure to get some smørebrøt, classic Danish open-faced sandwiches, each one with a unique combination of seafood toppings.  It was okay, but not great-- but I’m glad I tried it!
    I took a different way back to Copenhagen in the early afternoon, and headed to the National Museum.  It was probably one of the greatest museums I’ve ever visited-- and it was free!  It was full of interesting and bizarre old things, ranging from prehistoric dildos and gynecological tools and an ancient transgender, to remnants of a giant Viking canoe and long, spiraled battle horns, and a lot of medieval and Renaissance church art, including propaganda for Luther and Erasmus.  Not to mention it was very informative and well-organized!  In a city full of museums, I was happy to have found the best one.
    Now that I’m in Scandinavia, everything has become outrageously expensive.  Despite my efforts to conserve money, I was running low (I underestimated how much to withdraw in order to pay for the hostel and for food and other expenses.) So I was thrilled to find a Chipotle-sized naan and falafel wrap for 35 Danish kroner (about five dollars) at a Pakistani joint near the museum.  On the way back to the hostel, I walked through the Rosenberg Palace Gardens, a beautiful large public park next to the royal palace with hundreds of people dotting the lawn, talking in pairs, playing lawn games, reading, having a picnic, and watching the soccer games in the public viewing area.  I was amused to see an adorable little kid with his grandparents, holding a pail and happily chasing a duck.
    I briefly returned to the hostel before leaving to see my final destinations in Copenhagen.  On the way to the train station, I encountered the two Quebec kids from my hostel dorm, who informed me that I could use a public bike for free to get around town faster.  (How did I not discover this before?!)  I excitedly found a junky public bike, and felt awesome riding along the busiest streets in Copenhagen.  Despite the junky bike, it was an awesome ride: since every major road and most other roads have their own bike lane, it’s really easy to get around town safely and quickly.  I rode all the way to Christiana, where I was in for quite a surprise. 
    At first the neighborhood looked perfectly quaint and typical-- cafés lining the tranquil harbor, a boat with an eighty-year-old men’s chorus singing sailor hymns in Danish passing by, a few other cyclists-- the usual.  But as I rode a few blocks towards the other side of the island, I noticed dozens of young adults walking quietly and purposefully down a narrow concrete path, and under an arch that led behind a colorfully-graffitied wall.  I was curious, so I followed.  What I discovered was like another world-- an entire neighborhood of ramshackle buildings, trailers, and shacks covered in vibrant graffiti art, plants growing everywhere, music playing, and people sitting around everywhere.  I wandered around taking pictures, until I discovered an entire message on a sign:

Dear friends,
There are three rules in the Green Light District:
Have fun
Don’t run-- it causes panic
No photos-- selling hash is illegal

    I laughed incredulously as I wandered inside, the distinct odor of marijuana invading my nostrils the moment I passed the sign.  What I saw then were plenty more buildings covered in beautiful vibrant graffiti, but now dozens, perhaps hundreds of people walking and sitting around, smoking weed.  Not only that, but there were five or ten little booths around a square, with vendors selling copious amounts of cannibis, in several different varieties.  One vendor invited me to buy some, but I had no interest in purchasing illegal drugs.  I think I heard him mumble “No fun” as I continued exploring. 
    After a few minutes I stopped to ask for directions out of this hallucinatory dream world from two young guys, and I asked them a few questions about the place.  One guy told me that the police could do nothing about it-- that they had tried before to shut down the district, but it was large and powerful enough that the people kept the police out by assembling rebellions and throwing things, etc.  He said that if necessary, a riot could start within minutes to protect the business of the dealers.  The potheads told me that people came from miles around every day (the guy who was talking lived forty kilometers away), and that the action began in the morning and went until late at night, every day.  Then the guy left, living me with the Italian visitor named Vito, who mostly answered my questions with incomprehensible gibberish.  I biked off the island, still completely astounded that such a wacky Woodstock world actually existed.
    I headed over to the scenic harbor of Nyhavn, where I bought a sugary belgian waffle topped with my favorite pistachio ice cream, and walked a short way up the harbor where the local public EuroCup viewing was situated.  I sat on a wooden deck, splitting my gaze between the big screen and the ships floating by as I munched on my snack.  It was a quality experience, if there ever was one!  I finished off the night by biking to the citadel, a star-shaped landmass surrounded by a water-filled moat near where the harbor met the sea, stopping along the way to snap a photo of the Little Mermaid (from the famous story by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen), sitting by the seashore wishing to be part of my world.  I don’t blame her: my world has been pretty good lately.

Copin' hagen, Denmark: the City of Bikes (6/11/2012)

10:45, 13/6/2012.  I am sitting on a train from Malmö, Sweden to Stockholm as I write this. 

    Uwe and I got up at 5:00, ate a quick breakfast, and drove to the train station, where I caught a train to Hamburg and then to Copenhagen.  (For an hour of the ride, the train parked on a ferry, which took us to the eastern island of Denmark where Copenhagen is located.  Kinda cool!)  My plan was to arrive in Copenhagen in time to drop off my things at the hostel and make it to the main square in time for a free tour at 1:00pm.  It would be a close call, but I had planned it carefully to work.  Everything was going on schedule until I arrived in Copenhagen: I discovered that the train station that Google Maps said was five blocks from my hostel was not the Central Station, but another one two stops away.  By the time I figured out which train to take and got to the hostel, it was 12:55.  I would be five or ten minutes late, but the tours often stay in the square for the first few minutes, and I thought I could figure out their first destination on the walking route and catch up to them.  After searching and searching, I walked into a Tourist Information center at 1:25 and asked if they had any ideas where to look next.  They had no idea.  I gave up, very angry that I had failed.  Fortunately, though, the resources in the Info Center included brochures and maps with a self-guided walking route.  I sat and planned out my day for a while and then started off, exploring the city center and snapping pictures of iconic buildings.  I would not get the same historical knowledge I obtained on the free tours, but I could research it later.
    I have to admit, it was quite a lonely day.  After having been with friends for several days, I felt sad as I wandered around without company.  If I had made the free tour, I wouldn’t have had this problem.  But it was still a fine day: Copenhagen is a beautiful city, and I was thrilled to see bikes absolutely everywhere.  I said recently that Berlin was covered in bikes: it doesn’t come close to Copenhagen.  There were bikes sitting around on every street, propped against walls and locked to racks fifty feet long; and there were designated bike lanes on both sides of literally every major street and many other streets.  Most entertaining to me was seeing the dense packs of well-dressed Danes on their way home from work, whizzing past cars when the lights turned green.
    I walked past Tivoli Gardens (a famed amusement park and outdoor music festival venue), past the City Hall, and up a pedestrian shopping street (ströma?), passing statues, churches, and the old Stock Exchange.  Eventually found a beautiful wide harbor, removed from the hustle and bustle, where I saw a big theatre and the Opera House (two magnificent modern buildings.)  Then I walked up Nyshavn, a quaint narrow harbor lined with ritzy sailboats, and cobblestone streets populated with outdoor cafés on each side.  I also visited the iconic Marble Church, a cylindrical domed building with ornate designs inside.  I walked back to the enormous Generator Hostel (more like a hotel than a hostel) around 6:00, hoping to find companions for dinner.
    As I was settling into my room, two twenty-somethings from Toronto came into the room.  I invited them to dinner, but they had already eaten, so I went down to the social lounge to try to find someone.  The lounge was a massive room, as long as Luther’s cafeteria (although narrower), upholstered with trendy low couches and high tables, flatscreen TVs, a bar, and a breakfast buffet line.  I sat at one of the high tables to use my laptop, looking around for someone to invite to dinner.  When I got the wi-fi code at the bar, I struck up conversation with a girl who was getting a pitcher of beer to watch the EuroCup soccer tournament with her friends.  “Something calls for a Carlsberg!” I said, hoping to find someone to talk to.  We bantered for a minute, found out where each other lived (she and her friends were from California), and then left.  Failure.  But I would try with someone else!  Later, a 32-year-old Taiwanese man came and sat next to me to watch soccer and drink his beer.  Y (his name, pronounced “ee”) and I maintained an awkward conversation about his video game research convention (I couldn’t understand his English much of the time), and then he clumsily knocked his beer glass, spilling three quarters of it onto my pants in front of the entire lounge.  (Luckily it missed my computer.)  Slightly embarrassed, I nonchalantly asked the bartenders for some towels.  After Y and I cleaned up, I we went and got dinner (and no, I did not change pants.) 
    We walked around searching for authentic Danish food, but ended up settling on a cheap pizza joint instead.  Inside, we met another guy staying at our hostel.  This guy would talk about nothing but prices: at mention of any country in Europe that any of us had visited, he would interrupt to say how cheap or expensive it was.  And, of course, he made the point to mention at least three times that this pizza joint was the cheapest food option in the neighborhood. 
    After an awkward dinner and a beer, Y and I walked back to the hostel.  When I got to my room, I met two new guests, a guy and a girl about my age from Quebec.  I laid on my bed chatting with all four Canadians for a while, when the sixth and final guest joined us-- another Canadian, this time from Calgary.  Although I was the oddball of the bunch, I was happy to be with other North Americans.  We went to the social lounge and hung out for a while, and then went to bed.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Soccer and all the small things: German culture (6/9 and 6/10, 2012)

11/6/2012, 8:50.  I am sitting on a train from Hamburg, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark as I write.  The train will be boarding a ferry for part of the journey!
9/6 and 10/6: Itzehoe.
    I slept like a log after the awesome party at Hanjo’s house.  Flo had kindly offered his bedroom to me, and spent the night at Conny’s (it is quite acceptable for high schoolers to do this in Germany, with the full knowledge of their parents.)  I woke before Jamie and had a proper German breakfast around 10:00 with Uwe and Kerstyn-- a spread of assorted bread rolls, cheeses, jams, Nutella, sandwich meats, and coffee (expertly prepared with steamed milk by Uwe.)  We ate slow and took time to talk, as Germans do.  Shortly after noon, Uwe took Jamie and me on a bike ride along a system of trails through some nearby woods.  Although it didn’t feel like summer, the weather was great-- a cool, crisp breeze, and a light gray sky.  I was happy to be back on a bike, and so was Jamie. 
    I have to mention at some point: the Drechsler’s house was beautiful.  Almost identical to all of the other small, brick houses that lined the narrow suburban grid neighborhoods, it was (as Jamie put it) concise: it was small by American standards, but efficient, aesthetically pleasing, and most importantly, it was enough.  They had nice things, but not so many that it crowded the house.  This was also reflected in their meals.  They were not huge meals with leftovers, like American meals, but they were just the right size, delicious, and centered around quality time spent in the company of others.  Simultaneously, the German lifestyle (that I experienced) was more sustainable and happier than a typical American one.
    In the mid afternoon, Flo and Conny had returned, Jamie and I rode with them to the train station, where we caught a train to Hamburg.  After walking around, exploring the Rathaus (city hall), snacking on currywurst (sausage with curry sauce and powder, a delectable new-age German tradition!) and a bit of shopping, we had dinner at Vapiano’s, an Italian joint where customers receive a card, have their food prepared in front of them like at Hu-Hot or Big Bowl, and swipe the card to receive the charge and pay at the exit.  Then came the main purpose of our trip to the city: the public viewing of the European Cup soccer tournament, Germany vs. Portugal.
    The subways were completely clogged with zealous fans decked in black, red, and gold hats, capes, scarves, shirts, skirts, bunny ears, and assorted knick-knacks, many of them drunkenly singing and chanting “Deutschland, Deutschland!”  We slowly passed through a security gate and wandered through what felt like a carnival and a music festival combined with sports.  We found our place in a sea of fans, viewing a giant screen over a big stage, where the game was being shown.  It was a boring game, but the excitement of the fans made it a blast.  Germany scored the only goal of the game, which triggered five minutes of roaring, flag-waving, and air-horn-blowing from the enormous crowd.  I snapped some pictures as beer sprayed through the air.
    The game was nearly over when the goal was scored, so we left early, and went to an Irish pub.  I split a fresh pint of Guinness with Jamie, which I’ve decided is my favorite beer.  I fell asleep on the train ride home.
    The next day was less eventful, but good and relaxing.  I had a late breakfast with Uwe like the previous day, and worked on changing some plans for my upcoming travels.  Around 2:00, Jamie and Uwe and I went to see a triathlon race, in which a few of their friends were competing.  Afterwards, we went to the fanciest ice cream shop I’ve ever seen.  It had a thick menu of fancy ice cream concoctions costing anywhere from 6 to 12 euro-- ice cream shaped like spaghetti and lasagna, with delicious fruits, chocolates, and nuts, and most of the options including some kind of liquor.  It was delicious.  The rest of the day, we all relaxed together at the house and had a late dinner and chatted.  I discovered Kerstyn’s guitar in their living room, and played some music for them.  I went to bed around midnight, and prepared for an early day of travel to Copenhagen.
    A few more things about German culture that caught my attention:
Again, smaller sizes, and better quality.  The houses were smaller, and had smaller rooms.  The ovens, the cabinets, the soda bottles, the backyard, the cars-- all smaller, but better quality.  It helps Germany fit 30 million people (I think it’s  30 million?) in a country the size of Montana.  And they’re happier.
Meal schedule are a bit different.  We had late breakfasts, but I think this was because we boys woke up late.  We also ate dinners around 8:00 or 9:00, but it felt earlier because it was still light outside until after 10:00.
Sustainability.  Germany has created huge tax incentives for returning beer and pop bottles: a bottle of beer bought for two euros, for example, has a 0.15 or 0.25 tax for the bottle.  But you can get that money back by returning the bottle, which is reused by the brewing company.  (Some companies have bottles with special plastic corks held to the bottle by metal clasps, making it possible to reseal the bottle without using a machine to stamp on a bottle cap.  The German government invested millions to develop this design.)  There are wind turbines dotting the countryside, particularly on the northern coast, and German President Merkl has recently expressed her opposition towards nuclear energy, in agreement with nearly 90 percent of Germans.  Not to mention, the people have more efficient cars and use the excellent and comfortable train system to get around-- a more eco-friendly option.
Health.  Germans eat less and exercise more than Americans.  I almost never saw an obese person in Germany; on the contrary, I saw mostly fit, skinny people.  This is because of the culture of physical activity: according to my friend Jamie, most German students play sports when school gets out at 2:00 or 2:30 until the evening.  Wellness!
Everyone can speak English, and often another language as well.  Which was very convenient for me!
    I was so moved by the kindness of the Drechslers, who fed me, gave up a bed for me, did my laundry, showed me around, spoke with me and took interest in me, gave me rides to the train.  They even gave me marzipan (a delicious almond-chocolate dessert) as a parting gift.  On future trips, I hope to stay with people in their homes more often (couchsurfing), because I found my days with the Drechslers were some of the best of my trip.

The day I went everywhere: Potsdam, Wittenberg, and Itzehoe, Germany (6/8/2012)

11/6/2012, 8:50.  I am sitting on a train from Hamburg, Germany to Copenhagen, Denmark as I write.  The train will be boarding a ferry for part of the journey!

    Jeff had left when I woke up on the 8th.  I spent a frustrating hour or more looking up timetables, trying to print them in the hostel lobby and so forth, trying to ensure my successful arrival in several places for the day.  As you will read, it was a day of some mishaps, but a wonderful day as well!
    I decided that I had seen what I wanted to see in Berlin, and that it wouldn’t be fun to do anything else by myself.  So I planned to stop in Wittenberg (where Martin Luther famously nailed the 95 theses to the church door) and then Leipzig (where J.S. Bach lived and wrote music for many years) and then catch a train to Hamburg, where I would catch the last train to Itzehoe in northern Germany, where I would meet my friend Jamie Stallman and his friends to stay with them for a few days. 
    Then I realized that I’d only have an hour in Leipzig, and that it was in the opposite direction of Hamburg.  Bad idea.  So I strapped on my giant backpack and decided I’d still go to Wittenberg: it was a tiny town, and I could see all that I needed to in an hour, and then hop on a train to Hamburg.  But I missed the 9:30 train to Wittenberg, so I’d have to catch a later one.  In the meantime, I thought, I would go to Potsdam, the former home of the kaisers.  It was only a half-hour subway ride from the Berlin Hauptbahnhof (main train station), so I could be back for one of the Wittenberg trains!  So I hopped on board, last minute.
    I bought a bus pass in the Potsdam train station, and then discovered that to visit the destinations of Potsdam-- the royal palace, etc.-- and then return to catch the train in time to catch the train, in time to catch the train, would take a long time.  So I took a deep sigh, my backpack weighing me down, handed my ticket to the tourist information clerk to give to a stranger, and took the subway back to Berlin.  Wellp, I’ve seen the Potsdam train station, I thought to myself.  On the bright side, I had a good long conversation with a nineteen-year-old German, who told me all about the German school system.  Here’s a few things I learned:
German college has much different calendars than the States.  If I remember correctly, school starts in early October, and they have short breaks for a few holidays throughout the year (Christmas, etc.)  Besides that, they have a break in February, and school gets done in late April or something.
German students start to specialize on a subject during high school.  Willi, the dude I met, started taking five hours of chemistry and geography for every three hours of other subjects during high school.  They still study other things, but not as much.  The university is the same way.
There are different educational institutions that one can attend during what we call high school years: “Gymnasium” is closest to what we call the university or college; a technology school; and one other one that wasn’t really described to me. 
Instead of general P.E. class, everyone at Willi’s school specialized in one sport or activity, if I understand right.  Soccer is very popular, and also handball (like ultimate frisbee with a small ball) and floor hockey.  Everyone chooses  one art subject, too: music, visual arts, or theatre.  Besides that, most sports and art activities are “club,” that is paid for by individuals rather than provided by the school.
    I returned to Berlin and caught the train to “Lutherstadt Wittenberg.”  It was less than an hour train, and there would be a train leaving for Hamburg (by way of Berlin) in one hour.  Perfect, I thought: I’d have one hour to see this tiny town, take a picture of the Luther statue and the church door, and be back to the train! 
    As it turned out, it took me almost a half hour to walk from the station to the town square and the Schlosskirche, and I knew I wouldn’t be able to walk back in time.  So I walked through town, snapped a few pictures, called a taxi, and arrived just in time to catch my train.  Close call!  Although I didn’t get to really savor it, I enjoyed the trip.  Wittenberg is a pretty little town with charming old buildings, and it was fun to witness the festival celebrating the anniversary of Luther’s marriage to Katherina von Bora, complete with silly old costumes and stands selling classic German foods and “Lutherbier.”
    After a long and quiet train ride (I exchanged only a few words with the German couple in my Hogwarts Express train box), I arrived in Hamburg, and then in Itzehoe, a town of 30,000 in far northern Germany.  A nice guy about my age saw that I needed to call them for a ride, and so he let me borrow his phone, bought me a beer, and waited for a while with me!  So nice!  Then my friend Jamie, his German friend Florian Drechsler (whose family would host me for the next two days), and Flo’s girlfriend Conny picked me up.  It was about 6:00 or 7:00, and we had an exciting night ahead!
    All of us (and Conny’s sister Xenia (Ktseen-ya) went to Flo’s house for dinner, and I met his father Uwe (Oo-vuh) and mother Kerstyn (Care-stin).  All of them-- kind, considerate, and smiley people.  All of them spoke English, making it easy for me to join in conversation although I was the only non-German speaker at the dinner table (although when they spoke German, I was content and intrigued to listen!)  Kerstyn and Uwe talked quite a bit about bicycling.  Kerstyn in particular is an avid biker, and has done trips through the Alps and across Germany.  I learned from her that Germany and the Netherlands have excellent networks of paths especially for bikes (perhaps a destination for a future vacation??) 
    A while after dinner and dessert, Jamie, Flo, Conny, Xenia, and I went to join their friend Hanjo (Hahn-yo) at his house for a party at his house in the woods.  There were many others there as well: Hanjo’s sister Freda, Johann and his brother Tron, Anna, Marie, and a few others (cool names, huh?)  Besides Jamie and I, everyone had either just finished high school or had one year left (18- and 19-year-olds.)  We all crammed in an upstairs bedroom in the old country house, drank tasty German beers, and hung out.  I had a great time getting to know the Germans, and had an especially great conversation with Freda, Hanjo’s stunningly beautiful and kind-hearted sister (Did I mention that all of the ladies were gorgeous?) 
    Then we cranked up the music and danced.  The music was a little of everything, mostly very familiar-- a song or two by Florence & the Machine, Mumford and Sons, Skrillex, a few of the Chemical Brothers, and even oldies including the Beach Boys, the Blues Brothers, and so forth.  Of course we listened to some German techno songs, my favorite of which is “Disco Pogo.”  It seemed to me that the Germans were generally more open and crazy than Americans typically are, but perhaps that opinion was skewed by Hanjo, who rocked out without a care in the world the entire time, his infectious joy sucking everyone back into the dancing after moments of sitting.  We made danced and made fools of ourselves until 3:00 in the morning.  It was a proper German party, and a night well-spent.