Budapest / Reykjavik

The past couple of weeks have flown by. The last month, really, has come and gone before I could even realize how quickly the time was passing. With the impending return home,  I found myself grasping on to the tiniest details, doing my best to cement them to memory: the view on the walk home, the hill behind my apartments, the smell of my favorite bakery. Even the sound of the Danish language was something I knew I probably wouldn’t hear again for awhile, so I clung to each syllable and tried to memorize the simple words and phrases I have learned. Sometimes you realize it’s the smallest things that you want to remember the most.

I was also fortunate enough to go on a couple trips before heading back to Arizona: Budapest, Hungary and Reykjavik, Iceland. I couldn’t have chosen two more dissimilar cities to end my European adventure, but I enjoyed both for different reasons.

Budapest 

Before visiting, I didn’t know that either side of the Danube were historically separate cities: Buda and Pest (hence the name Budapest.) Our accommodation (found through Airbnb, which I highly recommend) was centrally located in Pest, in an older apartment building with a creaky front gate. The apartment was owned by an extremely friendly young Hungarian couple who shared their home with us for the 4 nights that we stayed — a wonderful reprieve from the hostels that I had become so accustomed to. There was a real shower, a real kitchen with a fridge AND a stove.

A couple enjoying an evening on the Danube
A couple enjoying an evening on the Danube

Hungary is very affordable. Although this isn’t the only reason I enjoyed Budapest, it definitely played a large factor in our ability to make this trip possible. I rarely ate at restaurants while in Denmark, simply because I couldn’t afford it. A decent meal could easily be between $12 and $15. Of course, while in Budapest, we frequented the grocery store for breakfast and lunch items, but we were definitely more willing to treat ourselves to meals out. Hungarian food was delicious, rich and came in servings more fitting for a family than one person.

We were able to visit the Szechenyi Thermal baths were equally pretty & relaxing
We were able to visit the Szechenyi Thermal baths were equally pretty & relaxing

Budapest was a beautiful city to walk through. The Danube is traversed by several bridges– the most famous being the Chain Bridge which leads to a dramatic incline on which Buda castle perches. I was fascinated by the diverse architecture of the city; it had obviously been demolished and rebuilt several times (it has seen its fair share of invasions). My favorite buildings were several of the apartments in an early 20th century art-deco style, but contrasted with the more modern buildings that were often painted in bright colors. Then, of course, there’s the famous Hungarian Parliament building that really can’t be described as emitting any sort of architectural style, but is an impressive and elaborate combination of several. It has earned its place on almost all postcards depicting the city.

View from Buda, looking back at Pest (featuring the Parliament building in the distance)
View from Buda, looking back at Pest (featuring the Parliament building in the distance)
The unique trolley system that carried passengers to the Buda castle.
The unique trolley system that carried passengers to the Buda castle.

On our last night in the city, we decided to check out the famed “ruin pub.” I really had no idea what to expect, but I was totally blown away. The one we chose to go to, Szimpla, was the original ruin pub in Budapest, and led to an explosion of pubs built with a similar DIY / communitarian aesthetic. Although there are several in the city, this one must have been hard to match in impressiveness. The pub, which housed a wine, beer and cocktails bar, along with several stages and cozy rooms for socializing, was built into a dilapidated warehouse. Sections of the ceiling were missing, but covered with vibrant tapestries and curtains. Colorful lights and mismatched vintage furniture lent to the eccentric atmosphere. Jeremy commented how it looked as if the Apocalypse had occurred, and the pub had been built with anything that was left over. Sadly, it was too dark to take any pictures, but I won’t forget the experience for a long time.

Reykjavik 

I knew I had to stop in Iceland on my way home. There was no way I could not take advantage of the airline Icelandair’s offer of a layover of up to 7 days with no additional airfare fee. So, after packing up my apartment in Aalborg and saying my last goodbyes to Denmark — a bittersweet experience — I flew over to Reykjavik for some last minute adventuring before I returned home.

I have to say, if you’re doing some solo traveling, Iceland is a wonderful place to do so. Reykjavik is a rather quiet city in comparison to other European capitals, but is quite possibly the most stunning I’ve seen, with its edges cozied up to the Esja volcanic range. I found myself just enjoying the view in quiet contemplation. After completing a semester abroad, away from home, it was a good place to gather my thoughts and begin adjusting to the big changes that are to come.

KEX hostel, recommended to me by a friend, was truly great place to see Iceland from. It was very comfortable, with a lively sitting room and restaurant/bar. The staff was helpful and the travelers were equally as friendly. Here’s the thing– people don’t really come to Iceland for Reykjavik, but come for the incredible nature that surrounds the city. There were several who were staying at the hostel for one night before embarking on elaborate camping and hiking adventures. I couldn’t help but be a bit envious as I listened in on their excited planning and mapping.

Cozy bar and sitting room in KEX
Cozy bar and sitting room in KEX

Of course, I had to also get out of the city for a short while. On the first day, I went on a bus tour to the Golden Circle, which takes you to all the major destinations — Geysir, Gulfoss waterfall, and Pingvellir National Park — all of which are worth seeing, of course. The particular tour that I went on also stopped at a local tomato greenhouse where we learned how fresh produce is grown and distributed in Iceland. The greenhouse is almost entirely heated by steam from pipes deep in the ground, as are almost all the homes in Iceland.

Gullfoss waterfall.
Gullfoss waterfall.
A steaming geysir pre-explosion
A steaming geysir pre-explosion

Iceland is definitely the most unusual place I have visited. It has a completely unique landscape that varies from snowcapped mountain ranges, to fields of wildflowers, to dark lava formations that look like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie. Everywhere I turned I was met with more impossible beauty; I couldn’t believe I had found myself on this strange island in the middle of the Atlantic. How could a landscape be so diverse, yet every corner containing something eliciting awe? My curiosity piqued, I resisted the urge to ditch the tour group and wander endlessly.

View over the ocean towards the Esja Mountains
View over the ocean towards the Esja Mountains

While in Reykjavik, I found myself stressing about souvenirs. Which is the silliest thing to stress about, and even more silly while in Iceland. I kept anxiously searching for the perfect item to bring home, to commemorate my time abroad. There’s a plethora of expensive trinket shops in the center of Reykjavik, and I spent a couple hours just worrying over what to buy. After buying a couple smaller things as gifts I suddenly realized what a destructive cycle of impulse and disappointment I had found myself in. There was no better way to escape the mist of consumerism than to step into the chilly arctic air, take a deep breath and appreciate what I was surrounded by in that moment, which was something more valuable than anything I could have bought at a store.

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Amsterdam

Let’s talk about traveling with very little money to spend, or as Caleb liked to call it “Europe on a shoestring.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that the traveling has to unpleasant, it just means that the travel isn’t going to be necessarily luxurious. By the time we got to Amsterdam, finances were running a little low.  Unfortunately for us, Amsterdam is definitely one of the more expensive places I have been to. Most of the museums hovered around 10 – 17 euros. Eating out was pretty much not an option, besides some surprisingly good take out Chinese that we had twice (Wok to Walk). Our hostel, albeit a cheap one with six flights of stairs that I chose over a very sketchy elevator (we almost got stuck in it at one point), was in a great location– a 15 minute walk from the city center, next to a grocery store, a huge park, and a couple museums. In case someone reading this is also a student who likes to travel, I have a couple tips learned from my own experiences.

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1. Hostels will 9/10 be your cheapest option. You might be in a dorm with 10 other beds and a teeny-tiny bathroom with weird stains on the tub, but c’mon, how often are you actually going to be in the room? If you’re squeamish bring a sleeping bag and sandals for the shower. Earplugs and an eye mask can also help a ton — especially with those roommates who turn the lights on in the middle of the night, or sleep yell (rather than sleep talk), or stay up all night furiously typing on their laptop while sighing heavily. Not kidding, all three of those examples are from personal experience. And, I promise, just having a shower and dry place to sleep feels like a Godsend after traversing a city after taking a wrong turn. Hostels are also great places to meet fellow young travelers.

2. Always ask about student discounts/carry your student ID. Amsterdam wasn’t so on board with the student discount thing, but most other places sure are. It never hurts to ask.

3. Avoid eating out as much as possible. Seriously, I know it’s a bummer (I, too, have gazed longingly at menus where an entree is a paycheck), but you will save a lot of money if you reserve eating out for maybe once or twice during the trip. Other than that, hit up your neighborhood grocery store or market. I LOVE grocery stores because you can find all the local oddities that are unique to that part of the world, along with your necessities. My favorite item found in Dutch grocery stores: stroopwafel, cookies that are like small, sweet waffles. They’re amazing. Once your done perusing the grocery aisles, I highly suggest a picnic at a park. Vondelpark, one of the largest parks in Amsterdam, was right near our hostel and so we enjoyed a couple picnics there. Sandwiches, cheese, juice, fruit, etc. were the usual. Not too bad, considering we only spent around 3-5 euros each. I should also mention that I carried around a jar of couscous and pesto to all three cities we visited. It was super easy to boil some water and have a quick, carb-y meal if needed.

4. Scope out free/cheap events and places to visit. I have found that a lot of National Galleries are free or very cheap.

I hope that helps anyone who is looking to have a great time, but with a budget!

Succulents at a street market. There were also tons of other plants for sale, including the famous Dutch tulips. We got some bulbs for our Mom, but they got taken by customs.
Succulents at a street market. There were also tons of other plants for sale, including the famous Dutch tulips. We got some bulbs for our Mom, but they got taken by customs.

While in Amsterdam, we were able to see a lot of really nice places, despite the prices being rather high. On one day, we went to the Dutch Resistance Museum, where we could have spent a lot longer learning about the efforts by the Dutch people to fight the Nazi Regime. The museum itself, appropriately, is in the Jewish quarter of the city, along with a really beautiful park and botanical garden.

Dutch delftware- so pretty
Dutch delftware- so pretty

We also visited the Dutch National Museum (Rijksmuseum), which was very close to our hostel. I was simply overwhelmed by the massive amount of art and history in a single museum. I highly recommend the impressionism section, and also, of course, seeing the several Rembrandts on display. However, even with Rembrandt and van Gogh, I almost enjoyed the paintings of Jan Havicksz Steen the most — he definitely had a good sense of humor. There are always drunk people, weird looking kids, or yes, dancing animals in his paintings. I was laughing out loud viewing them, and received a couple strange looks from people who were sternly observing the art, having a much more serious time at the museum.

Children Teaching a Cat to Dance - Jan Steen
Children Teaching a Cat to Dance – Jan Steen
So, when can I live on a houseboat in Amsterdam?
So, when can I live on a houseboat in Amsterdam?

Amsterdam, I will forgive you for being expensive if I’m allowed to visit again one day. Caleb wisely pointed out that our experience in these cities would have been very different if we could afford hotels/taxis/restaurants etc. And it’s true — we wouldn’t of had as much fun if we were in a hotel room, calling in room service all day. I’m incredibly thankful for our time in the Amsterdam; the view of trees heavy with leaves, bowed over canals, is forever imprinted on my memory.

Prague

After Berlin, a sprawling metropolis, Prague was a refreshing change transition into a more compact city. Our hostel was centrally located; the balcony offered beautiful views and entertaining people watching during the evenings. Prague is one of those places that wherever you take a picture, it’s going to be pretty. You could probably take a picture of a garbage can and still find something beautiful about it. It also helped that the weather was truly summery (around 85F one of the days); I was able to wear short sleeves an entire day for the first time in 2015. Prague is an ideal destination for traveling students with little money to spend: we ate well and were able to visit museums for a very affordable price.

Old Town Square. It is often considered the most beautiful public square in Europe and, from what I have seen, it is.
Old Town Square. It is often considered the most beautiful public square in Europe and, from what I have seen, it is.

Probably the most memorable part of Prague was a free walking tour Caleb and I decided to go on. I’ve been on these walking tours before– they’re offered in most large European cities– and consist of usually a young tour guide who shows you around the city, a history lesson combined with sightseeing. At the end of the tour, you’re given the option of tipping your guide based on the quality of their presentation. I always tip, whether the tour was great or not because I’ve seen firsthand how difficult it is to herd a group of impatient, tired and sometimes cranky tourists.

This particular tour was one of the better ones that I have been on. We were able to visit some of the most beautiful areas in the city including the New Old Synagogue (which supposedly conceals the legendary Gollum in the attic), and the Church of Our Lady of the Snow — both ancient and prized religious buildings. I’m not a religious person, but I have found that churches/synagogues/mosques, etc. are usually the most breathtaking structures. Beyond their beauty, they’re usually accompanied with interesting stories surrounding religious conflict/war/marriages and other dramas. We were also able to see the Prague clock, which was made in the 1400s and still operates in its original form today.  At the turn of each hour, a skeleton rings a bell (a symbol of our inevitable mortality) while a golden rooster flaps its wings. Pretty incredible.

The Prague Clock
The Prague Clock. Hundreds of people crowd around it to see the changing of the hour. 

Post tour, we joined a few other travelers and our guide at a classic Czech restaurant. Most European food, as I’ve realized before, is very meat heavy. The Czech staple is goulash, a dense stew made with beef and dumplings, which Caleb happily ordered. For me, a potato pancake (another traditional dish) made by mashing potatoes with garlic, seasonings and cheese, and then fried. There aren’t many fresh veggies used in traditional Czech food, unfortunately. However, it was so good that I’m looking forward to recreating the potato pancake when I return home. Meals are often accompanied with a Pilsner beer, much of which is made locally in Prague.

Fresh fruit markets
Fresh fruit markets

Conversation over the meal was great and we happened to befriend our tour guide who was born and raised in Prague. The next evening, we were invited to join him and a few of his friends at a beer garden in the southern part of town. We sat in a circle on grass, enjoying drinks, the warm summer air and the music from a group of young people playing instruments. The hill offered a fantastic view of the city at sunset and we happily stayed until well after dark before returning to the hostel.

View from the King Charles Bridge. You can see Prague Castle peaking over the rooftops.
View from the King Charles Bridge. You can see Prague Castle peaking over the rooftops.
View from Prague Castle
View from Prague Castle
We went to a beautiful Art Nouveau exhibit at the Municipal House and saw original Mucha prints!
We went to a beautiful Art Nouveau exhibit at the Municipal House and saw original Mucha prints!

I’ve been thinking a lot about travel lately. Yes, the logistical aspect of travel: how I get from one place to another, where to stay, how much money I have left, etc. But I’ve also been thinking, during times of rest and reflection, about what it means to be able to travel in the way that I have been so privileged to be able to. Honestly, I can’t express how grateful I am to have this experience, with the full support of my family and the University that has allowed me to study abroad. At the same time, though, with this gratefulness, there comes a certain pressure to have a formational experience.  I’ll think myself into a dilemma, asking theoretical, widely unanswerable questions like: what am I gaining from this experience? Or, the scarier question, what should I be gaining from this experience?

I’m almost terrified of the prospect of returning home without some precious wisdom that I have gained while seeing this part of the world. Isn’t that what all travellers hope to return home with, some sage advice or reformed world-view? If anything, my time abroad has made my thought processes even more contorted and confusing then they were before. I feel more likely than ever to answer with “I don’t know.” I’m not sure if I will be able to answer those questions until I gain some distance.

In a beautiful article I read by Chapel Hill grad student Ten Scheinman, he empathizes with some of my anxieties as a young traveller and reveals that the same complexities have been felt by countless generations before me. He delves into the history of the “Grand Tour,” a travel stint made by upper-class Renaissance men, and later describes the development of the “gap year” exercised by many European students today, the sole purpose being travel.

Scheinman quotes an unnamed friend: “A tourist has a number of sites to check off, probably immediately uploads hundreds of mediocre photos to Facebook, counts the number of countries he or she has been to… A traveller usually understands that itineraries are pretty useless, admits ignorance, and is open to whatever the road may bring. Of course, we have all had moments of being one or the other, but we can try to be travellers.”

I’ll admit to being a tourist more than a few times. I do feel a desire to check off that one sight that Google tells me I should see. I might have hurried through a museum to get to the next sensation. But, I often find myself taking a step back and asking if I’m actually experiencing or just rushing from one thing to the next. I try not to focus too much on the sensational aspects of travel. If I had just cared about seeing the Berlin Wall or Prague Castle, I would have missed out on realizing a lot more subtle things about each of those cities.

A past art teacher once told me, “Nothing is sacred.” Those words resonate with me on a number of levels beyond just doing art and sometimes I remind myself that nothing will be perfect; don’t treat something so distantly holy that it cannot be interacted with or altered. Trips which are ideally spent gazing at art and drinking wine might end up messy, confusing and uncomfortable. But I’ve learned that this doesn’t lessen their value.

I feel myself going through a transition and it seems important to document.

The Haynes in Europe Pt. 1

We arrived in Berlin after a tremendously long bus ride from Copenhagen on Thursday. Copenhagen will always hold a dear place in my heart & Caleb shares my love for the Danish city– but this blog post isn’t about Copenhagen! I have never been to Germany before this trip and, quite frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. As soon as we left the bus, I was immediately reminded of how confusing and testing travel can sometimes be. I didn’t think it would be necessarily easy to get to our hostel from the bus stop, but I also didn’t expect it to be as complex. However, after 2 trains, staring blankly at German words and walking in (what seemed to be) circles, we found our hostel.

I am really thankful to have Caleb here with me. It makes getting lost a little less stressful, when there are four eyes looking out rather than just my own two. He has proven himself a valuable travel buddy and suggests getting ice cream at all the best times. He also has insightful comments on most things and brings an entirely new perspective to my experience. I have gotten too used to solo-traveling and it has been refreshing to have some company.

Caleb looking very German with currywurst and a German beer
Caleb looking very German with currywurst and a German beer
Our breakfast at a favorite cafe (we went back at least twice): coffee & wheat rolls with German cheese and butter
Our breakfast at a favorite cafe (we went back at least twice): coffee & wheat rolls with German cheese and butter

Unfortunately, our home for the next four nights was about a 30minute subway ride from the city center. Berlin is huge. Maybe it’s because I have been rather limited to small to medium sized cities (Copenhagen and Oslo really aren’t that big, even as the capitals), but I’ve somewhat forgotten of what it was like to be in a truly large city. At first, the size was daunting; I felt much more comfortable within the confines of a museum, rather than on the city streets with thousands of people and cars and selfie-sticks. Oh, and hoards of soccer fans chanting and screaming.

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Our first day in the city was jam-packed with tourist-ing. First, the Pergamon, the most visited museum in Berlin (and for good reason.) This museum costs 3 euros with a student discount and is worth every cent. The first thing you see walking into the museum is the impressive Ishtar Gate, constructed in the 575 BC in ancient Babylon; walk through the room and you’re immediately presented with the equally incredible Miletus Market Gate. Of course, those two exhibitions stand out the most, but the rest of the museum is humbling and a valuable source of history from the Middle East. The ancient cultures of Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Iran, etc. are preserved and exhibited beautifully. I was reminded of how important this area was for the development of modern civilization and saddened by the thought of priceless artifacts being ignorantly destroyed by reckless extremism and warfare, as much of it is today.

Front of the art museum on Museum Island -- note: people lounging on grass, a common and encouraged pastime.
Front of the art museum on Museum Island — note: people lounging on grass, a common and encouraged pastime.
Pergamon. The picture doesn't even do it justice.
Miletus Market Gate at the Pergamon. The picture doesn’t even do it justice.

Caleb and I also made sure to visit the Holocaust Memorial, along with memorials dedicated to the Sinti, Roma and homosexuals who lost their lives during the genocide alongside the Jewish people. They were moving and stark reminders of how awful humans can be to each other. On that note, we witnessed a LGBT+ Pride gathering while meandering down a city sidewalk. I can only hope that gatherings like that are a sign of a more accepting and loving present and future.

Beyond that, the sites are innumerable. We saw the Brandenburg Gate, the Berlin Wall (which has an amazing accompanying exhibition), the Reichstag Building, and so, so much more. We nearly walked everywhere and, as I write, my poor feet are propped up.

Berlin Wall
Berlin Wall

Reflecting on my time in Berlin elicits mixed emotions. On one hand, it’s almost melancholy. A lot of history happened in this city and the remnants are not completely erased — the impacts of fascism still have some presence. We saw the train station where elderly Jewish people were deported; where Hitler gave his speeches above adoring crowds. On the other hand, the city has moved far beyond its rough history. It doesn’t forget what has happened, but has developed into a welcoming, artistic, exciting place to be. As we stayed longer in Berlin, the more I grew to enjoy it. I honestly believe that a trip gets better with time: as you explore a city and grow more comfortable, the more it reveals. The city begins to become more dimensional — not just the postcard views and “Top-ten must see spots,” but a place where people have lived, loved, and sat in the same parks for years. And, honestly, that’s what I want to see. I’m always so curious as to how people exist in their day-to-day lives.

I think I really began to experience a more personable side to Berlin as we walked through the Mitte district, just north of the Museum Island. It was lightly raining, but it didn’t stop anyone from enjoying the numerous bars, cafés and shops that line the streets. I stopped in a couple boutiques that I could probably spend the equivalent of my plane ticket home in (yikes), as well as a book shop called Do You Read Me? that had the best collection of magazines/zines I have ever seen. We also indulged at Cous-cous cafe, where I had a pita sandwich the size of my face.

A little cafe in the Mitte area
A little cafe in the Mitte area

Berlin, thank for a nice, albeit short time. Thank you for showing me your dark history, but also your younger, charming, and a little eccentric side. I will be back one day.

Aalborg Karneval / Tollund Man

I would be a failed blogger if I didn’t write about the Aalborg Karneval. It’s the largest Karneval in northern Europe and people weren’t lying when they said it would be crazy.

This past Saturday, Aalborg took to the streets in an array of costumes, smelly alcohol and reckless behavior. I have honestly never seen a larger group of shamelessly wasted individuals– romping about in a rainbow of polyester, spilling drinks, singing, laying in the street, etc. 200,000 people from all over the world packed in the street like sardines; 200,000 people with the worst hangover of their life on Sunday.

Karneval from a distance-- you can see the either hideous or beautiful Aalborg Music Hall (depending on preference)
The Karneval from a distance. Also pictured: the either hideous or beautiful music hall, depending on your preference.

I wasn’t going to go to Karneval, I was just going to go the grocery store. I was out of food back home, but as the music drifted up the hill where I live, amidst shouting and laughter, my curiosity got the best of me. With the accompaniment of another curious American, we trudged down the hill and into the insanity. It was honestly the wildest event I have ever witnessed with my own two eyes. We saw plenty of cultural appropriation (Native American costumes,  Middle Eastern garb), plenty of sexy nurse/sexy soldier/sexy police woman costumes (sexism isn’t just for American Halloween!), but also a lot of refreshingly creative and original  costumes, my favorite being a guy dressed as a box and his friend being a mail-man. Unfortunately we didn’t have costumes, but I felt like the experience would have been relatively the same if I had been dressed up. Creepy dudes, drunken debauchery, people literally peeing on the side of the street: things I would rather avoid.  But, hey, not all cultural experiences are pretty and I’m proud to say that, somehow, I survived Aalborg Karneval. Check it off the bucket list & probably never return.

Thanks to the guy who posed for my picture!
A very small swath of the insanity. Thanks to the guy who posed for my picture!

Enough of that nonsense– in comparison, the rest of my weekend was very tame. One of my Danish neighbors, Anne Therese and I decided to take a short road trip to the town of Silkeborg (close to Aarhus) and visit the museum there. I have always really wanted to see the Tollund Man, and he is housed at the Silkeborg museum, along with several other artifacts from the Bronze Age. The Tollund Man is one of the best preserved corpses (naturally mummified) from the era– he was hung as an offering to the Pagan gods, and his body was preserved in the swampy peat bog where he was laster found in 1950. Because there is little oxygen in the peat and the cold Nordic air, he was barely decomposed upon discovery. Seeing a bog body in real life, after reading about it as a child, was a wonderfully nerdy experience.

Me and AT!
Me and AT!
Tollund Man - Sorry if this freaks you out!
Tollund Man – Sorry if this freaks you out!

Following the museum, we went to visit Anne’s grandparents, called mor-mor (grandma) and mor-fa (grandpa) in Danish. They were the sweetest people, showed me pictures of their trip to Iceland (maybe a destination in the near future…) and served us cake, cookies and coffee. They spoke no English, but luckily Anne was there to translate conversation for us.

Coffee and cake with Mor-Mor and Mor-Fa
Coffee and cake with Mor-Mor and       Mor-Fa

I’m sorry if this post is a bit shorter than normal– I have been extremely busy finishing up my semester project and my brother, Caleb, is visiting for the next couple of weeks. We have a ton of travel planned and I really couldn’t be more excited to see parts of Europe that are near and far from good old Denmark.

My favorite brother / favorite coffee shop
My favorite brother / favorite coffee shop

The People You Meet / Gothenburg

There’s something definitely special about getting on a train. Maybe I romanticize train travel a bit — but I’ve been on quite a few trains and I haven’t stopped getting that slight adrenaline rush when I get settled into my seat (preferably by a window). Maybe it’s the simple excitement of travel, the anticipation of arriving in a new place with new adventures to embark upon. I’m an unashamed people-watcher and one of my favorite things to do while train traveling is casually observing my fellow passengers: an older woman intensely reading, parents trying to contain their energetic children, couples leaning against each other, solo travelers, like me, with backpacks and passports and similar eagerness.

While on the train to Aalborg from Copenhagen for the first time, back in February, I was nearly shaking with nervousness. Of course, I wasn’t used to the Danish system and I probably looked like an obvious newcomer as I clutched my only belongings from home. Luckily for me, another woman who was also traveling alone sat across from me. As we struck up a conversation I felt my anxiety slowly ebbing away. Betty, my newfound travel buddy, explained that she was on her way home to Gothenburg after visiting a friend in Denmark. We talked almost the entire ride to Aalborg and became good acquaintances. Before I left, she offered to let me stay with her and her cat, Miau, if I was ever to visit Sweden. We were able to stay in contact and this past weekend, I was happily able to take Betty up on her very kind offer.

My lovely host
My lovely host

Gothenburg is a really beautiful city. I feel like I have been spoiled by gorgeous cities during my time abroad: Copenhagen, Oslo, Edinburgh — they’re all stunning and very photogenic (as you might be able to tell).Unfortunately, I didn’t feel like I had enough time in the city to get a true feeling for it — impossible in a weekend — maybe I’ll be lucky enough to visit again one day. For the time that I was there, I was lucky to have a local show me around.

I feel that there’s a side to Gothenburg that doesn’t immediately reveal itself to newcomers. However, Gothenburg is one of the more unique cities that I have been. It felt like the majority of Gothenburg was covered in parks and natural spaces; forests seemingly creeped in on the city and tried to take over. I wasn’t used to hearing Swedish and I have to say, I prefer it to Danish. I can’t help but smile when I hear the strange inflections. It’s a bubbly language, while Danish is more rocky. I don’t know how else to describe it.

A view of the city - as you can tell, the buildings and forest are fighting for space.
A view of the city – as you can tell, the buildings and forest are fighting for space.

Betty walked me through a few parks, one of which was a large public zoo (completely free) complete with an eclectic mix of moose, horses, goats, penguins and seals. Other parks we walked through had natural waterways and were so huge, it was hard to believe the city was in the immediate proximity. From taller vantage points the Gothenburg skyline was interrupted by patches of voluminous green trees. Another interesting thing about Gothenburg was the vintage tram system that is still in operation throughout the city. Although Betty described the trams as “noisy and bumpy,” I wasn’t dissuaded to test them out. Indeed, they are noisy and bumpy, but charmingly nostalgic. Although they might not be the most convenient/comfortable way to get around, they definitely gave the city character.

Haga Nygata - the historical street
Haga Nygata – the historical street

Of course, a city with so much green space has an amazing botanical garden. I love plants (reading about them, looking at them, etc.) and so the botanical garden (one of the largest in Europe) was at the top of my must-see list. I definitely wasn’t disappointed. I could have spent days at this garden and not have seen everything. I wanted to disappear into the rhododendron forest that somehow contained almost all colors of the spectrum. Nature is a wonderful designer, if you ask me.

Pink Rhodendorons
Pink rhododendrons
Betty had an awesome attachment for her phone camera that distorted the picture - so naturally, here is a picture of me in front of some plants.
Me and some plants.
The beautiful and humid tropical greenhouse.
The beautiful and humid tropical greenhouse.

We were also able to visit the Swedish countryside as a short day trip. Betty’s friend generously allowed us to use her car for the trip, and we made our way to the 4th largest island in Sweden, Orust. Coincidentally, Orust’s sister city is Aalborg, so, naturally, it was the perfect destination. Of course the weather was that familiar combination of cold/rainy/windy (not surprising in Scandinavian spring time) for the duration of our excursion, but I would like to think that it just added to the experience. The island probably would have looked very different with a blue sky and sunshine from the moody low-lying grey clouds and drizzle we had. Despite the weather, I wasn’t deterred from exploring the island’s quaint neighborhoods (with what I assumed were vacation homes) and quiet forests.

Orust
Orust

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It’s back to Aalborg and back to work. As of now, I’m struggling through the last bits of my semester project: polishing, straightening out citations. All the not-fun parts of academic writing. But I get to turn it in on Monday, and I’m happy to say that my project partner and I have a solid piece of writing that I can be proud of. I’m also missing Swedish kanelbullar, (aka amazing cinnamon rolls made with Swedish magic). Can I get some shipped to me in Arizona, please?

Oslo

As I write, I’m in the ferry’s cafe watching Oslo’s shore slowly become smaller and more distant. I can’t help but feel a bit melancholy as I leave this beautiful place, but I’m sure this won’t be the last time I visit. The slight sadness experienced at the end of a trip is only proof that it was a successful adventure.

Out of everything that I saw and experienced this weekend, I can hardly say what I enjoyed the most. However, this trip probably wouldn’t have been possible without the generosity of my hosts, Tanya and Per. Tanya, a native Californian found herself in Norway for a job, where she met Per. Per is actually Danish and grew up, coincidentally, 20 miles outside of Aalborg. They now have 3 children: Isabel, Andreas and Matilda. They’re an incredibly kind family and welcomed me into their home. My entire stay, I was well fed and comfortable. After the first night, full of food and conversation, I almost felt I had known them for years.

Tanya’s mother was close school friends with my own grandmother. They stayed close throughout the years and even after Tanya’s mother passed, Tanya and my grandmother kept in contact. So, when I decided to study abroad in Scandinavia, Tanya was one of the first who reached out to me and invited me to stay at her home in Oslo. Lucky me — their house is situated on the gorgeous, forested island Ulvøya, or “Wolf Island” in English, one of the several islands that dot the Oslo Fjord.

The island is connected to the mainland by a white suspension bridge.
The island is connected to the mainland by a white suspension bridge.

Tanya and Per generously lent me one of their bikes to explore the city and I gratefully accepted. I’ve found that there’s nothing more intimidating than figuring out a unfamiliar city’s public transportation. Even when it’s simple, as I’m sure Oslo’s is, I’m always happy to use a bike instead. I quickly learned that Oslo not as bike-friendly as Denmark. Denmark nearly begs to be biked (it’s completely flat, with huge bike lanes), while Oslo is a little more resistant. There isn’t as much bike infrastructure and I really pushed myself to get up a couple steep hills. Other than that, though, it was a pleasant experience. I was able to see nearly all the city, thanks to the easiness and speed of bicycling.

I had done some research beforehand and decided that buying the Oslo Pass was a smart idea. With a student discount of 20%, it is about 370 Norwegian Kroner (about $50.00). With it, I was able to get into 6 museums and a round-trip ferry ride for free. It also pays for all public transportation within the city and there are numerous discounts on food. I don’t want this post to sound too much like a commercial, but it truly was a good investment. If you’re a cheapskate but really like museums, like me, it’s a great option.

Day 1: 

As I only had a weekend here, I wanted to fit in as much as possible. I got up early Saturday morning, enjoyed Swedish pancakes with my host family (with special Norwegian brown cheese — a new favorite) and biked into town.

A delicious and photogenic breakfast with my hosts
A delicious and photogenic breakfast with my hosts

My first stop of the day was the Nobel Peace Prize Museum. I didn’t know this prior to coming to Oslo, but the annual award ceremony (for Peace) is held in Oslo. So, naturally, they have an informative, interactive and enjoyable museum. There was a special exhibit on show for 2014’s winners, Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai. It was a powerful exhibition. I had known about Malala’s work in Pakistan and her fight to allow girls to attend school. I was especially moved by her statement to President Obama, on display at the museum: “Instead of sending guns, send books. The best way to fight terrorism is to invest in education.” I knew less about Satyarthi, but was equally impressed. His work against child labor in India deserves the recognition it has received and more.

A display with Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was unable to attend the awards ceremony in 2010 because he remains imprisoned by the Chinese government.
A display with Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, who was unable to attend the awards ceremony in 2010 because he remains imprisoned by the Chinese government.

After that, I hiked up to the Akershus Castle (built by Danish King Christian IV, when Norway was still Danish territory) and had a lovely picnic on the castle’s grounds. The sun was shining for a short while and I took full advantage. I then hopped on a ferry to the Bygdøy peninsula. Bygdøy is  reminded me a lot of Coronado Island, California, where my family spent many summer vacations. The peninsula is home to two museums that I knew I had to catch: The Viking Ship Museum and the Norwegian Folk Museum.

The Viking Ship Museum houses three Viking ships (two of which have been amazingly preserved, the third having seen rougher waters) and an abundance of Viking paraphernalia, including jewelry, textiles, tools and bones. Apparently the boats were used in traditional Viking ceremonies for a couple wealthy women, so alongside the women’s bodies there were also sacrificed horses, cows, and dogs. I learned that Viking warriors who died in combat went to Valhalla (Viking heaven) in the afterlife, but those who died of illness journeyed to the Underworld. If the deceased was wealthy enough, they would be furnished with tools and sacrificial animals to aid them.

The Gokstad Ship
The Gokstad Ship
The Oseberg ship
The Oseberg ship

The Norwegian Folk Museum also exceeded my expectations. On the grounds of the museum, several aspects of Norway’s history is explored. I read about and was able to see traditional fair isle sweaters, Folk art and furniture. My favorite part, however, was exploring the turf houses on display, set up like traditional farms or homes. I felt transported to rural Norway, circa 1930. Another must-see at the museum is an impressive Stave Church, medieval wooden churches. This one, called Gol, has been preserved since the 1200s and actually transported in its entirety to its current location in the 1800s. It’s one of the only of its kind remaining in the world — there are only 28 left.

Cute turf houses
Cute turf houses
The Gol Stave Church
The Gol Stave Church

I was pretty exhausted after so much sightseeing and biking (up hills, nonetheless) and so I headed home. It was pretty perfect because it soon began to rain. There’s nothing like having a night in during a rainstorm.

Day 2: 

This morning was a bit more leisurely. I took a slower route through the city and I didn’t feel as much pressure to see, see, see. Sometimes it’s nice to just take a step back and forget an itinerary. It definitely helped that the rain held off today and left me with endless blue sky.

I first biked to Frognerparken, a large open space on the West side of town. It also features the Vigeland sculpture park and museum on the grounds. I found Gustav Vigeland’s sculptures to be at the same time humorous and terrifying. He must have been an interesting person to have a conversation with because, from his art I assume that he worked from a rather depressing place. However, there is something to be said for those who can still find humor in dark places, as he did. Even though many of his sculptures featured motifs like death, the Apocolypse and illness, it also features human interactions in strangely comical situations. His Monolith is stunning, a large cylindrical tower, formed out of several twisted and turning bodies.

Inside the Vigeland Museum, where you can see several of his sculptures. Vigeland created several smaller monoliths, before creating the one that is seen in the sculpture park (below).
Inside the Vigeland Museum, where you can see several of his sculptures. Vigeland created several smaller monoliths, before creating the one that is seen in the sculpture park (below).

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After getting lost a few times (which isn’t always a bad thing) I arrived at the Edvard Munch Museum. I met up with Tanya, Per and Andreas, who also wanted to see a special exhibit at the museum that juxtaposed Munch with Van Gogh’s work. Of course, this wasn’t something that I was going to leave without seeing. Van Gogh has been one of my long time favorites and it was pretty awesome to see him alongside another great artist that is actually, as I learned, pretty similar in both life and work. Apparently, there is another show coming up that shows Munch and Vigeland together —  Norway’s best, side by side.

Now I find myself on the way back to Denmark. I have to say: boats aren’t my first choice when it comes to travel. I get a little seasick. I don’t think I would enjoy a cruise. Maybe it’s because of my land-locked upbringing in Arizona. I’m so glad I toughed it out, though, the travel is worth it with such a great destination.

I’ll find myself on a boat again next weekend, but more on that later.