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.

Currywurst and Kreuzburg: Berlin, Germany (6/7/2012)

11/6/2012, 6:00.  I am sitting on a train from Itzehoe, Germany to Hamburg, Germany as I write this.  I am traveling to Copenhagen today.

    As had become our custom, Jeff and I started the day off on the 7th later than intended.  We had planned to catch a free city tour at 9:00, but the tour group was nowhere to be found when we arrived at the Brandenburg Gate.  It was no problem, though: we had delicious German pastries for breakfast and took a walk around the the nearby Tiergarten, a massive park in the center of Berlin.  Once a no-man’s land in the Cold War era (a large portion of it was a barren garbage pit), brave artists from around the world moved in during the 1960s and left large memorial sculptures scattered all over the lawn.  Although every single tree in Berlin was cut down during the war, this park is now a tranquil green oasis, its paths lined with mature trees and enclosed by untamed forests and ponds.  Jeff and I walked and talked and returned to the Brandenburg Gate to meet the 11:00 free tour-- a successful change of plans!
    Just like Budapest and Prague, the free tour was hugely awesome.  (I’m telling you: find one on your European vacation!)  This one was three-and-a-half hours (on the long side), but we saw and learned about many of the most important sites in the city.  Our tour guide, a charismatic thirty-ish year old from Leeds, England, showed us the Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, the Holocaust Memorial, the former Luftwaffe headquarters, a section of the Berlin Wall, Checkpoint Charlie, Gendarmenmarkt (old churches), Humboldt University, the Museum Island, and a few other key spots, and gave us the historical low-down.  I particularly enjoyed the fact that most of Berlin’s important history is within the last one hundred years, more so than most other European cities.  I scribbled some notes about it(as usual, skip if this bores you.  It’s mostly for my own sake that I write this, but read if you like.)
Early history: Berlin was founded at two swampy Slavic fishing villages.  Hundreds of years later, there were many kingdoms in the region, generally divided into four areas: Prussia (the largest), Bavaria, Saxony, and another one I didn’t catch (haha).  If I remember correctly, in the 1700s the kingdoms were united under the rule of the sovereign king of Prussia, the Kaiser.  (Although the guide didn’t use the term, this is often called “The First Reich,” or first German Empire.)  I don’t exactly when or why it ended. 
“Second Reich”: Kaisers Wilhelm I and II ruled from 1871-1918 (with someone else between them, I think.)  Wilhelm II was rather aggressive militarily, and was the leader when World War I began.  Germany received basically all the blame for WWI, including a reparations bill of 193 billion reichsmarks, causing their economy to plummet into poverty.  They printed more money to attempt to fix the problem, but this caused severe inflation.  ($1 USD had equaled 8 reichsmarks: it now equaled 43 trillion.)  The U.S. gave the first ever international loan at this time.  During this time, Germany was called the “Weimar Republic.”
Adolf Hitler and the Nazis took over and was elected chancellor of Germany in 1933, and World War II began in 1939.    70% of Berlin was destroyed during the war.  After the war, Berlin and east Germany were occupied by the Soviet Union.  Although they tried to take all of Berlin by blockading all roads out of the city and cutting off electricity, the United States (and other countries, I think) sustained the longest airlift operation in history in 1948, dropping resources to the people of Berlin.  The city was therefore forfeited by the USSR, although it was later divided into East and West Berlin by the Wall.
The former Luftwaffe headquarters, a WWII-era concrete building, became an official East German government building in the ‘50s.  In 1961, a major protest against the Soviet Union took place in front of the building.  Today, a giant photograph of the East Germans protesting contrasts with the similarly-sized mural on the building’s wall, a Soviet painting depicting the false ideal of German culture at the time.
Checkpoint Charlie, the famous checkpoint between East and West Berlin, was the site of a face-off between Soviet and American tanks (in 1961, I think.)  A tense moment in history: it could have been WW3.  Of course, the Wall fell in 1989, reuniting East and West Germany as one country.
The square of Humboldt University was the site of an infamous book-burning, where in the 1930s all the university books about tolerance, modern science, and other such ideas were destroyed, leading up to the War.  There is a glass window embedded in the cobblestone square, through which one can see an underground memorial to the book burning: a vast underground room filled with empty white bookshelves, accurately and dramatically representing the number of books that were incinerated.

What amazed me most about Berlin were two things: first, how bluntly it confronts its dark history, and second, how new and modern and creative it was.  The Holocaust Memorial is one of many powerful examples of how the Germans fess up to former transgressions: situated in the very center of Berlin, it is a massive grid of large rectangular stone pillars.  From the edges it is at ground level, but if a person walks along the narrow paths between the pillars towards the center, the level of the ground sinks deeper and deeper, and the pillars get higher and higher.  There is no plaque, no dedication, no message describing the significance of the Memorial, but perhaps that makes it all the more powerful.  Along with the Holocaust Memorial and the book-burning memorial I mentioned above, the city remembers the Berlin Wall with a line of bricks embedded in the ground, and by the East Side Gallery, a length of the wall which has been maintained and divided into sections reserved for graffiti artists-- the world’s largest open-air graffiti art exhibit, I was told. 
    The second amazing thing was the city’s modern, youthful vibrance.  There are hipsters everywhere-- young people (and old) with interesting fashion and rusty antique bicycles.  Actually, there were bicycles everywhere.  Almost every main street Jeff and I explored had a designated bike lane.  Although I didn’t particularly like Berlin’s city rail network (above and below ground), it was well-connected.  Most noticeably, there are mostly new buildings, for obvious reasons.  Many of the neighborhoods, including Kruezberg and Fredrichshain, had thriving ethnic neighborhoods, cool restaurants with outdoor seating, funky shops, organic food, etc.  If an American twenty-something felt like relocating abroad, Berlin might be an attractive option-- and, I’m told, the city has room for more: currently populated by 3.5 million people, it allegedly has capacity for 7 million.
    As I have mentioned, Jeff and I spent much of the day after the tour exploring Berlin’s neighborhoods.  We also spent a long time searching for a recommended authentic German restaurant, but in vain: we asked half a dozen people, and searched where they said, but couldn’t find it (Curse you, Max and Moritz’s!)  Later, we returned to our hostel dorm, where we met six Irish twenty-year-olds on their way to Poland for the European Cup soccer tournament (they were setting up screens in the city squares of Prague and Berlin for public viewing-- soccer is HUGE in Europe.)  We were invited to join them on the hostel rooftop for some brews, but we had to spend quite some time arranging Jeff’s bus travel and accommodations for the coming day: he would be traveling to Düsseldorf and flying home the following morning.  I also made tentative plans for travel on my way to northern Germany, where I would stay with friends of friends.  Another day full of awesome!

Off to Berlin! (6/8/2012)

8/6/2012, 14:46.  I am sitting on a train from Hamburg to Itzehoe as I write this. 

    On the 8th, Jeff and I had arranged to leave Prague at about 12:30.  After our tours the day before (by free guides and my friend Zach), we felt we had experienced the city as well as tourists can!  We made a few plans for morning, and intended to catch a train to Berlin at 12:29.  But it didn’t quite work out that way.
    We got off to a later start than we planned.  We grabbed a hefty loaf of mouthwatering bread and some fruit for breakfast for a couple of dollars, and headed to the train station to buy Jeff’s ticket (I was covered by my EuRail Pass.)  Then we caught an underground line to Vysehrad, a southern neighborhood of Prague that was once a fortress village on the river.  Zach had told us that there were tunnels along the river that we could pay to explore!  We didn’t find the tunnels, but we enjoyed exploring the fortress walls and got some great views of the city.  Then we headed back to the hostel, grabbed our backpacks, and started walking towards the train station.  We had budgeted our time well, so we decided to grab sausages at a stand once again. 
    The stand took longer than we thought, and at 12:24 we were frustratedly waiting as the woman started punching in the prices on a calculator.  We thrust the cash in her hand and frantically ran down the nearest stairs to the subway.  Of course, we entered the wrong platform.  I felt like the ultimate American-- a giant bag of stuff on my back, running late, and holding fatty junk foods in each hand as Jeff and I ran up the escalator to the correct platform.  We went one stop to the main train station, ran to our platform, only to find that the train had left one or two minutes before.  We had bumbled, bigtime.
    Our heads hung in despair as we dragged our feet to the ticket booth, hoping that Jeff would be reimbursed for his expensive ticket.  And he was! Except for the two hours lost waiting for the next train to Berlin, we hadn’t lost anything-- no 7:00 concert in Berlin we’d planned to attend, no money for trains, no nothing.  We read and wrote as we waited, and as we rode the train, and arrived in Berlin at 7:20 or so.  The main train station of Berlin (which is very new) was an impressive welcome to Germany-- a gargantuan complex of train platforms on five or six levels, all of which were visible from the glass bridges over the huge atrium, with glass elevators and criss-crossing escalators and a huge arched window rooftop.  An incredibly elegant an functional building.
    On our way to the hostel, we encountered a bridal shower.  The ladies, who wore matching shirts, surrounded Jeff and I and insisted that we sign the bride’s shirt.  As Jeff signed her belly, I asked for the translation of the message on the shirt.  After they explained the meaning-- something like “The bride is the May pig!”-- they told me I had to sign over the bride’s breasts.  I did it, as asked.  Quite an interesting welcome to Berlin!
    Our hostel, the Baxpax Hostel Downtown, was super nice: it had comfortable, trendy upholstery, a bar and restaurant, two social rooms, and booming techno music reminiscent of the eighties.  It felt like a hotel, but was still a reasonable price since we stayed in a dorm.  Jeff and I went upstairs and met a thirty-year-old also named Jeff, a stocky bearded man from Oak Park, Illinois who worked in finance in Houston, Texas.  We invited him to find dinner and beer with us, and together we searched for authentic German food until we were literally dragged into an Italian place by a man clad in a cheesy Italian chef costume, whose job was to do just that.  The food and beer was only okay (and more expensive than in Prague or Budapest), but the atmosphere and our conversation were great.  For me, that’s more valuable anyway!
    The three of us returned to the hostel and met up with some American guys who had just graduated from college, and went out with them for drinks.  (I didn’t want to pay for another, but I tagged along.)  After a good evening in Berlin, we got some sleep to prepare for a day of exploring!

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Prague, Czech Republic (6/5/2012)

8/6/2012, 14:46.  I am sitting on a train from Lutherstadt Wittenberg to Hamburg as I write this. 

Jeff and I woke up on the 5th and took our sweet time getting ready for the day.  Sometime after 9:00 we went next door to the hostel and bought some nectarines and a large pastry for breakfast, all for about two or three US dollars.  Everything was beautifully cheap in Czech Republic, which I enjoyed (after all, from here on out everything will cost more: I’m going to Germany and Scandinavia!)  
It was a very cold day in Prague, and I was wearing shorts and sandals.  After walking to Old Town Square, where we intended to meet a free walking tour at 11:00, I decided to return to the hostel and change into warmer clothes.  On the way back I took a different turn than before, thinking I knew how to rejoin the main path, and got very lost.  Turns out it’s pretty difficult to navigate in a disorderly labyrinth of roads like in the old parts of Prague.  Luckily, after asking several very kind people and triple-checking my map, I made it back to the square at 11:07, and the tour group was still in the square.
Our walking tour was absolutely excellent.  The guide, a young Czech architect, was both entertaining and knowledgeable.  He showed us around the historic sites of Prague-- the Astronomical Clock Tower and Old Town Square, the Orchestra Hall, a view of the Charles Bridge and Prague Castle, the Jewish district, Charles University and the Opera House, the old city wall, and Wenceslas Square.  If you’re interested, here’s a few bits of history I remember still (skip past the numbered section if you don’t care):
  1. The Czech Republic was once separate kingdoms Bohemia and Moravia.  After World War II, these and Slovakia were combined as Czechoslovakia, and were under Soviet rule through 1989.  It was a year or two after that the Czech Republic and Slovakia split.
  2. Before Luther started the Reformation in 1517 or so, Czechs had their own break from the Catholic church, led by a man called Huss.  He made a list of grievances of the Catholic church, saying that the Pope and many Catholic practices and indulgences were not Biblical and should be thrown out.  He was burned at the stake in Old Town Square.  There are still protestant Hussites today, although most Czechs are athiest, and many Christians are Catholics because of the rule of the catholic Hapsburg Empire in the 1700s.
  3. There was a large Jewish population in Prague at one time, but they were annexed in a tiny walled ghetto.  Many died from the awful conditions and were buried in the ghetto, eventually leading what is now 100,000 graves, layered on top of each other in thin layers, upon one hectare of land.  After that, many remaining Jews were killed during the Holocaust.  Today, some Jews remain, but they don’t live in the Jewish district where they attend synagogue.
  4. There are many high-end stores in the Jewish District, including Hugo Boss.  As it turns out, Hugo Boss supplied the uniforms for the Nazis in World War II.  It is the grossest sort of irony.
  5. On top of the Orchestra Hall in Prague (in front of which is a statue of Antonin Dvorak, the greatest Czech composer) there are statues of many famous classical composers.  During WWII, it was ordered that the statue of Felix Mendelssohn, a Jewish composer, be taken down.  But the men assigned to the job didn’t know which statue was his, so they chose the one with the largest nose, based on racist stereotypes.  As it turned out, they had taken down the statue of Richard Wagner, an anti-Semitic German composer and the favorite of Hitler.
  6. During the Communist era, a giant statue of Stalin was erected on the west side of the Moldau river which runs through Prague.  Of course, it was exploded shortly after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
  7. Wenceslas Square (named after Vaclav, aka Wenceslas, a great Czech hero) was the site of a few rebellions during the Communist era.  In 1961, there was a particularly large uprising with thousands of people, and in that same year another political hero (also named Vaclav) achieved more access to the western world for the Czechs under Communist rule.  Shortly thereafter, though, Soviet tanks rolled down the very same square and things turned for the worse again until 1989.
  8. The most famous king of Czech history is Charles (the second?  Not sure.)  Along with overseeing the construction of the Charles Bridge and other major construction projects in Prague, he is remembered for his social policies as well.  Charles University in Prague is of course named for him.
  9. Next to the main building of Charles University is the last standing opera house where Mozart is known to have conducted his own works.  Apparently, he often said he would live in Prague if he didn’t have an income in Vienna, because he was always well-received there.  His opera Don Giovanni was premiered in that hall, written especially for the people of Prague.
After the 2 1/2 hour tour, we grabbed lunch at a stand outside-- döner kebab for Jeff and a Czech sausage for me (delicious!)-- and grabbed tickets for The Magic Flute (at a different opera house than the one in which Mozart conducted, but a good one!)  Then we met Zach, a friend I had met in northern Slovakia two days before, who had studied in Prague for a semester and offered to show us around.  It was great. He shared his knowledge and excitement about Prague and showed us the Charles Bridge and the Prague Castle.  (Fun fact from Zach: several movies that are supposed to be set in old-looking towns are shot in Prague!  For example, I saw the spot where Ethan Hunt’s team turned on him in Mission Impossible, and several movies use the Charles Bridge to have people-jumping-off-of-bridge sequencesCool!)  Then Zach took us to this great authentic pub downstairs from where he lived for the semester.  where we had smooth Czech microbrews and huge plates of delicious food. I chose the pork knuckle in a thick creamy sauce, moist warm dumplings, and juicy sauerkraut.  
After a very satisfying meal, Jeff and I parted ways with Zach and headed to the Opera House for The Magic Flute.  It was a great performance-- not the best opera I’ve seen, but great.  Even if the rest hadn’t been good, though, the Queen of the Night would have been worth the two-and-a-half hours.  She totally nailed both of her incredibly technical and difficult arias, and then regally marched up the stairs to her heavenly abode in her poofy black dress and two-foot tall crown.  Very impressive.
Jeff and I returned to the hostel to plan our next day of travel to Berlin.  In our dorm room, we met three cool guys from Bowdoin College in Maine and a girl from South Hampton, England.  I have so enjoyed meeting lots of other travelers in the hostel, making friendships, and sharing stories.  It’s what makes hostels fun!
  1. Always check the weather before heading out!  Common sense.
  2. Stay away from complex neighborhoods of windy disorderly roads.  Unless, of course, you want to get lost.
  3. Free tours!!  They’re are an incredible way to learn a city’s history and significance, see the sites, and get recommendations of places to go, all for free!  (Although you should tip your guide, if you can.)  You can usually get information at your hostel.  
  4. The benefit of staying in hostel dorm rooms is two-fold: one, it’s often just as nice as a hotel but for far cheaper, and two, you meet lots of cool people!

Raw garlic and energy: Train Travel (6/4/2012)

4/6/2012, 17:33.  I am sitting on a train from Zilina, Slovakia, to Prague, Czech Republic.  I wrote this before catching up on other entries because... well, you’ll see why.  But I’ll post them in chronological order.
6/6/2012, 18:44.  I edited/added to this post on my ride from Prague, Czech Republic to Berlin, Germany.
I was woken up at 7:30 by Nicole, an employee at the Ginger Monkey Hostel.  I was excited to be waking up in such a cool place.  After dressing and getting ready, I went to the kitchen for breakfast.  On the table was a large and untouched loaf of delicious-looking bread, ready to be sliced, and a selection of juicy fruit jams and butter.  I slathered a thick slice with butter and pear jam and sank my teeth into the physical manifestation of a perfect morning.  I enjoyed more bread and some tea as I listened to the breakfast playlist and selected a short hike from the hostel’s homemade hike manual.  After packing my bag and finalizing my plans for the afternoon transportation, I headed out for a solo hike in the woods. 
The view from the front porch was unbelievable: the rooftops of a charming mountain village with mountains behind, sentinels with their mighty crests obscured by foggy clouds.  I marched down the street and took a left, reading the route directions on my camera’s screen (they didn’t have copies, so I took a picture.)  I got lost quickly, though: the first instruction was to walk 300 meters and you’d find a path, but I don’t have a sense for meters.  Although the path up the mountainside that I took was not the correct one, it eventually met up with the right one, and I trekked into the woods.  
It was a quiet, peaceful morning.  I don’t have much else to say about the hike.  It took me a bit more than two hours.  Like my walk through “the backs” of Cambridge, it was cathartic and rejuvenating-- definitely worth skipping Bratislava.  (Although, I forgot to mention, I forgot to cancel my hostel booking in Bratislava, and still had to pay.)
After the hike, I bought some rolls and honey at a grocery store and said my goodbyes to the neat folks at the hostel.  From there, I was headed to Prague.  First though, I took a bus back to Poprad-Tatry Train Station, accompanied by Carly, a girl my age from Australia.  She was cool: she studied archaeology, went camping alone, didn’t plan ahead, and had a very kind and friendly spirit.  We parted ways at the train station.
About five minutes after I took my seat and the first train started rolling, a spunky young African-American woman and her Slovakian-American husband sitting (who were sitting across the aisle and a few rows ahead) asked me about the book I was reading.  I went and sat with the woman and her husband at their table and we began talking and joking around.  They immediately set a tone of free-spiritedness.  They were intensely enthusiastic about everything-- my book, their vacation, my travels and pending academic program in Norway, my career plans, etc.  They even shared their meal with me, a spread of organic vegetables and meats (we ate raw cloves of garlic and fibrous shoots, Slovak sausages and pork, all prepared by the man’s mother, who they had been visiting.  They were the sort of people who laughed a lot for their health, drank kombucha, and appreciated the deep passion of Rachmaninov and Rodrigo y Gabriela.  An all-around fun, youthful couple.
After a while of small talk, Cheryl (the woman) started to “read” me.  I don’t remember how it started.  She looked me straight in the eyes and began describing what she thought she saw in me, as though she was picking up on subtle spiritual frequencies exuding from my soul.  “You’re a very strong person,” she said again and again, “very strong.  And warm, too, you have a warm spirit.  But you seem guarded, afraid of letting others see your faults.  I was starting to believe her now.  “See this?”  She put her fist on her gut.  “You hold all that tension right here.  Don’t do that, don’t do that... it’ll make you sick.  You’ll come down with something in Norway.”   
“Hmm....”  She would pause, still looking intently at me, and occasionally turning her gaze inward to pick up on spiritual vibes.  “Rado, look at his eyes, they’re amazing!  Actually, it’s what’s behind the eyes... beautiful.  Luke, don’t be afraid to make mistakes, be free!  And when I say mistakes, I’m just using an English word, because they’re not mistakes-- they’re the biggest opportunities to grow.  Now... hmm...”  She was very invested in figuring me out, but also concerned about draining her spiritual energy.  “Rado, give me two minutes, and then stop me.  He needs to hear this, though!”  And Rado, who was still participating in the conversation, stopped to teasingly explain to me that “when Cheryl gets going, she won’t stop until she’s drained herself.  So I know when I have to stop her.  It’s why I’m here!”  He a light-hearted, jocular guy.
Sheryl continued.  “You don’t know what I’m about to tell you about yourself...”  She had my complete attention, in spite of ridiculous all of this free-spirit talk seemed from the outside.  “You’re the leader of your family!  And in ten years or so, you’re going to help your parents release some of the strife they feel.  Now let’s see... Your mom is very nice.  And your father... he really wants to be a good father! Are you... you have siblings, don’t you?  A sister?  Let me think, hmm... younger?  No?  Oh, well... she’s a strong person.  Gets her way, kind of thing?  But she’s very loyal...”  Most of what she said was surprisingly accurate.  “So are you the oldest?  No?  Oh, middle!  That’s why you’re such a strong person!”  She moved to the topic of love.  “Now, I can tell... you’re a lover.  You love deeply.  But you’re going to be hurt by a girl-- I think she has long, brown hair, but hair color isn’t always clear...  But you will grow from that!  Rado and I, we both got hurt like that, and we grew from it, ya know?”  And she advised me in the area of love: “Don’t fuck girls over.  You’re a lover, and the girls will love that.  They’ll fall hard for you.  So don’t fuck them over.”
“Are you religious?  I think you are... Catholic?  No, what are you?”  I told her.  “Oh, Lutheran... well, you know, there’s nothing wrong with religion.  Some people need that for support, you know!  Like Rado’s aunt is a devout Catholic, and she goes to church and rubs the saint’s knees and she needs that to be fulfilled!  But I feel like in your case, religion might be holding you back.  I don’t think you need religion, but you don’t seem to want to let it go of it.  And that’s okay!  Are your parents conservative?  Like, tied down by societal structures and rigid routines?  You know, Rado and I have a similar understanding of our relationship with spiritual energy and the quantum-physics of the cosmos, and if you can find an understanding higher than any one religion that works for you, you’ll be more free.”
We talked-- that is, Sheryl talked, Rado interjected or agreed occasionally, and I listened and answered her questions-- a little bit more.  Then Rado got up to buy some more wine, and Sheryl stepped out of her zone.  “You can’t go!  Stop me in two more minutes!”  She had made similar requests a few times before, but we kept talking past the limits.  Then Rado went to her and whispered a suggestion in her ear.  They exchanged a few whispers, laughed, and kissed.  Then Rado sat back down, and Sheryl said a few more things.  Just as I asked Sheryl a question (I was going to take the conversation in a different direction, to get their perspective), she said, “I’m sorry, I have to stop.  I’ll be out of energy.”  I sat confusedly as the two of them made their enthusiastic and gracious goodbyes, left their stuff on the seats, and walked out of the train car.  I returned to my seat, pondering all we had talked about, and curious if they would come back.  We reached my transfer station, and I left before they returned.  However, Sheryl foretold, “We will see each other again!”  And I actually hope she’s right.
I have very little to report after that. The next train ride I spent journaling, and when I arrived in Prague I asked around for guidance, based on the directions I had written earlier that day.  When I got there, I met my friend from choir Jeff Knutson, who had flown to Prague from London. We chilled for a while and then went to bed, ready for the next day of adventure.
Travel notes:
  1. If you go to Europe, learn the basics of the metric system.
  2. When you change travel plans, don’t forget to cancel your hostels.
  3. You can indeed eat raw garlic, but not American breeds.
  4. There are actually people in L.A. that act as they are portrayed in movies.