Viking Country 3: Road Trip Treasures

One of the more endearing things about the road trip in Sweden was the sheer volume of cool stuff to see that is really close to the main highway. I feel a deep cultural attraction to “the road trip” which I’ve always sort of assumed was part of my American heritage. After all, as a child, my father took me on summer road trips in the RV to all the beautiful national parks of the West. My mom took us on weekend road trips up and down the coast or the town next door. When I got a car, I took repeated road trips with my friends. Loading up on road snacks, blasting your road music and pulling over when some random sign says “world’s largest ketchup bottle” is a basic part of Americana that thrives in my soul no matter how long I’m away.


Sweden is the only other country I’ve been to that I feel really gets it as far as road trip culture goes. Don’t get me wrong, I loved driving across Germany. Those people have amazing gas stations. The New Zealand drive was great and I loved having my own wheels in Bohol. The main difference is that, however beautiful the roadside scenery was in all those places, the road was just a way to get to places that public transit didn’t go. In Sweden, they not only have great gas stations, but also STUNNING rest stops that are basically parks and attractions on their own, AND they have the most wonderful series of roadside attractions.

On the day I fled the not-a-murder-house-we-promise, I found a cool viking church, another old-timey village replica, the most beautiful rest stop I’ve ever seen, and a giant statue by Pablo Picasso.

Viking Church

The Swedish people were late to the Christianity conversion party. After all, the religion’s spread originated in Rome, and the Roman Empire never quite managed to get a foothold in the land of the ice and snow. Vikings were worshiping Odin and co. right up to the 12th century, and even when they finally did “convert” it was… very halfhearted. A lot of the viking cultural and artistic trappings stayed almost entirely the same but with a little “for Jesus” footnote.

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I stopped in at Glanshammar Church in Örebro to see a little bit of how the Viking and the Christian met in the middle. I have to say, I wasn’t much impressed by the exterior of the building. There was an interesting watchtower construction, but the church was remarkably plain for something supposedly Catholic. I mean, think of all those Romanesque arches and Gothic cathedrals in Europe. What was this little white nub of a building?

Fortunately, I stuck it out and found the door. The interior of the very plain white building is filled end to end and top to bottom with highly intricate artwork that uniquely combines the traditional Christian art and architecture from the continent with the Swedish styles seen in earlier Viking tradition.

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Outdoor Museum of Provincial Life

Next, still in Örebro, I stopped by the 18th century village reproduction called Wadköping. According to the sign, many of the buildings were actually transplanted from their original home to create the open air museum. I began to wander the town, noticing once more the extreme prevalence of red buildings. I saw some ladies doing needlework with laundry drying, and I went into buildings for kids that had plaster animals and pretend food.

I found the home of Hjalmar Bergman (Ingred Bergman’s father), a famous if often misunderstood writer who wrote about a mythical town of  Wadköping as a kind of Anytown, Sweden representing a middle class provincial life. The recreational is named after his literary invention as there was no such village in reality.

There was a replica school house which showed a typical education plan for students including Christianity, native language, arithmetic, “knowledge of nature” (the natural sciences), gymnastics, gender segregated crafts, and drawing.

There were a startling number of little artisan shops inside the buildings. Some were simply souvenir and ice cream shops, but others included traditional arts like woodcarving and a silversmith. The Historiska Butiken was particularly filled with the kind of beautiful Norse styled witchcrafty goodies that I know at least 30 people in my immediate friend group would have loved to fill their homes with. Even I had a hard time resisting. Tiny luggage space saves me money again!

A Fully Functioning Castle?

My last stop in Örebro was the Örebro Castle. This was the only place I ever really had trouble finding parking since the castle is quite central and Örebro is not a tiny village. After a few drives around the block, I found some street parking and headed over. It was mainly an exterior photo-op because the castle is not decorated in antique royal furniture the way so many of the castles on the continent were. A small part of the castle was set up as a kind of tiny museum, and much larger parts of the castle are actually used as government and business offices. The governor even lives there. Functional castle!

While exploring, I also found a hiking trail sign that indicated a “walking with death” level of trail difficulty, and a dramatically oversized park bench, just for fun.

Roadside Picasso

Waving good by to Örebro, I hit the highway for another longer stretch in search of the Picasso. That’s right, there’s an original Picasso standing out in the Swedish countryside… or… lakeside anyway. I’m not actually a big Picasso fan, for complicated reasons involving art history and feminism, but this seemed like the Swedish equivalent of “the world’s largest bottle of ketchup” and I could not drive so near it without stopping by. It was a long slow drive down a thin, low speed limit road, but it was such a beautiful day, and the road ran along the waterfront. A worthy side-trip.

On my way, I paused at one of Sweden’s many beautiful and amazing roadside rest stops. This one was a small lake surrounded by beautiful evergreen trees. The water was so still that the perfect blue and fluffy white of the sky were reflected like a mirror. I ate my sandwich and watched the beauty, just feeling overwhelmed by Sweden.20180815_160148.jpg

When I finally arrived at the Picasso, I was not disappointed. It’s clearly his work, and it’s GIANT. I wandered all around taking photos from various angles before I realized that the absolute best angle for the late afternoon sun also contained a couple having a nice fika (cup of coffee & snack) on a bench below the statue. I tried my best to shoot around them, hoping they might finish and move, but in the end I had to go in for politely asking if they would mind stepping away from the bench for just a moment so I could get the best picture. I do hate asking people to move their picnic, but it’s not like I’m going to be back again any time soon. They were quite gracious about the request, and I got my “shot”.20180815_172959.jpg

Fine Dining

I had reserved a cabin in a campground for the night, but was slowly learning to plan dinner before checking into the more remote accommodations. With no desire for another grocery store dinner, I decided to stop in Karlstad for a nice restaurant meal. Thanks to Google, I found a place called Elektriska. It’s built in the remains of an old electro-technical plant and focuses on high quality, sustainable, local, ethically sourced food cooked with an eye for haute cuisine. It is not cheap, but it was just inside my price range, and sounded right up my alley. Not to mention, it was in an adorable neighborhood.

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Their cocktail menu alone could have kept me happy. In the end I chose a lingonberry Gin and Tonic made with Stockholms Branneri Pink Gin, lingonberry, grapefruit, and Mediterranean Tonic. ($15)

The appetizer menu also looked like something I could just happily graze my way through, but the waitress advised that even the larger sampler was unlikely to be quite enough for a dinner. I settled on the “16 Ampere” appetizer platter which included rainbow trout with dill and vinegar, truffle salami with ricotta and sunflower, and wild boar with plum and tellicherry. ($17) The menu is seasonal and based on what’s available, so don’t go expecting to get exactly the same.

The wild boar sausage and the wild trout sashimi were entirely delicious, but the star of this dish was absolutely the salami. I would never in 10 million years have thought to combine salami, ricotta cheese, AND sunflower butter. I love all three of these, and I have probably had salami and ricotta together, and might have tried ricotta with sunflower seeds in a salad or something, but… wow. I can’t even explain how amazing this flavor combo is. Get u sum.

My main course was more rainbow trout, and if you like fish you know you just can’t go wrong with fresh caught local rainbow trout in season. This was skin fried rainbow trout with root vegetables, sundried tomatoes, and crayfish tails in a buttered crayfish broth. (28$)20180815_202844.jpg

I included the prices because this was the MOST expensive meal I ate on holiday, and I kind of wanted to put in perspective what that means for me. A high quality meal and cocktail at a fancy restaurant is not something I do often, but I’d been saving by eating in grocery stores and local delis, and this was a splurge that was 100% worth it. Amazing food isn’t cheap, but it sure does make the pleasure centers in my brain light up like Christmas and New Year’s all at once.

Cabin In the Woods

I got to my “campsite” in Värmland after dark and had a little trouble finding the bathrooms, but fortunately I was the only one there, and I’m not afraid to pretend to be a bear. The cabin itself was very plush with wall to wall carpet and a sort of beach house all white linen decor, as well as excellent WiFi. Despite being an actual cabin in the woods, the whole vibe of the campsite was homey and friendly which was a nice change after the farmhouse fright night.20180815_220708.jpg

The next morning I was able to easily find the bathroom and kitchen, make myself a cup of coffee and prepare a bit of breakfast from my grocery supplies. Traveling in a car means I can stock up on food for most meals and snacks more easily than when I’m traveling by bus and train. I was in no particular hurry to hit the road, and enjoyed a leisurely breakfast at the little table and chairs out front of my cabin while watching the sheep across the road.

Once I felt full and rested, and put all my bedding in the laundry room, I hit the road once more. The cabin rules had included a rather extensive list of guests cleaning responsibilities and it wasn’t the first time I encountered such. The Langholm hostel had similar rules instructing guests not only to strip the sheets for the laundry staff, but also to take out the trash and sweep the floor before checking out! I try to be a good guest and never leave a big mess behind, but for me that usually means putting all my waste IN the garbage and cleaning up any big spills. I know pretty much all US hotels/hostels have housekeeping that have to clean the rooms between guests, but I’ve never seen the need to make extra work for them. Still it was a stretch even for me to be told that I had to go to the main building and get the vacuum cleaner, haul it over to the cabin and vacuum, then take it back, and also fold all the bedding after removing the duvet covers. I guess I’m just saying if you go to Sweden, expect to be your own housekeeping.

Winging It and Winning

I was getting used to following the roadsigns to roadside attractions by this point in my road trip and I happily turned off to explore Borgvik and Hyttruin without really knowing what I’d find. Hytta means “foundry”. Hyttruin is therefore the ruins of a foundry. I’m not a person who is typically interested in ironwork, and I think if the sign had said “iron foundry” I might have kept driving, but then I would have missed these wonderful ruins, and you know how much I love ruins.

Looking at the size of the defunct forge, I could imagine mythical dwarves making Thor’s hammer there. It was enormous, but it’s not from the days of antiquity, it’s just from the 1800s. Alongside the ruins ran the waterfall that was created to supply the foundry with hyrdropower. There were signs around the place explaining the history of pig iron, and the ins and outs of manufacture, but it turns out I’m still not interested in iron production. Very cool ruins, though.

Art & Lunch

Next I popped into a little art gallery nearby (still in Borgvik) called Sliperiet. It turned out to be a restaurant/art gallery and I opted to do both. Being hungry, I started with the restaurant and once again indulged my salmon habit. It was another highly artisan place with only a few chef chosen dishes on the menu each day. The salmon and veg were perfectly lovely, but what made the dish sing was the lemon cream. I don’t know how he made this stuff, but it was absolutely lemon and cream in the best possible way. Both are great with salmon but together it was heaven. I could eat that lemon cream every day on everything.20180816_130950.jpg

While I was eating, the staff brought me a booklet with little biographies of all the artists on display in the gallery which gave me a chance to think about what I was going to see. I decided to do the museum as a break between lunch and dessert, and I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of art on display in what was really the “middle of nowhere”. I took photos of absolutely everything, but I’m only going to share some of my favorites here.

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In case you want to follow up on any of these fine creators, I’ve tried to include relevant links: Albin Liljestrand, Kjell Engman, Stephan Westling, Ann Lillqvist, Rodney Smith, Christian Coigny, Nino Ramsby, Ylva CederTim Flach, Sara Nilsson, Jonas Rooth, Eka Acosta

After a lovely dessert of crème brûlée, I asked the very kind and helpful staff people where to go next. I had planned a day “in Varmland” but had no idea what was there, and had been going off of roadside stands and Google Maps markers with some success so far, but it never hurts to ask a local. They told me about an artist commune called NotQuite and I resolved to include it as my last stop in Varmland for the day.

An Artist Commune

20180816_161751NotQuite is an artist community built in an old paper factory in the middle of nothing. The art on display is far more experimental and boundary pushing than anything else I’d seen that summer, and not all of it was good, but all of it was sure trying to BE something. I wandered into the abandoned factory floor where art installations were scattered around almost as though they had been abandoned along with the paper. Small bright displays stood alone in large concrete rooms, and almost all of the signage was only in Swedish.

I found a mattress with some cobbled together VR goggles and a vague sort of “play me” note. It was an odd distorted and block color reality with a voice over in English of a person of indeterminate gender exploring the concept of sexuality. Very much everything you might stereo-typically think of when you think of experimental art commune.

It was mostly empty, but I’m not sure if that was because of the time of day or time of year. After spending a while wandering through the factory buildings and trying out the art, I headed back to the main gates. I stopped in at the gift shop on the way out where some of the more polished and “ready for home consumption” kind of art was on sale. I had a chance to ask a few questions about the place to the lady behind the counter. She explained that while a few people did choose to live on site, that most simply came there to work, and that they were funded by a grant from the government to support the arts. You can learn more on their website.


Sweden still makes me sigh with longing when I think of these days. Staring now down the barrel of planning another summer holiday, I’m deeply tempted to return and explore a new part of the country. While I’ve enjoyed my time in Korea these past few years, it lacks the freedom, the nature, and the stunning variety of culture and food that I yearn for. Still, until I have a stable landing pad for my next “home base” I guess I’ll take what I can get in the holidays. 

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Viking Country 2: Strange Sleeps

I try to save money when traveling by booking affordable accommodation, but I’ve also been burned more than once looking for the best price. These days, I’m a bit more discriminating about things like online reviews and photos, but it still happens that sometimes I get more than I bargained for. Sweden had one of the best and worst surprises for me with my accommodation back to back. And because I’m telling leg of the trip in more or less chronological order within Sweden, you also get to see the roadside attractions I visited between them.


Bed Behind Bars?

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I drove the rest of the way to Stockholm and found my hostel a bit after dark. I chose my Stockholm accommodations based almost exclusively on the fact they had free parking. Taking a car is absolutely necessary if you want to see the small towns and wilderness of Sweden, but inside the big cities, cars are not so welcome. Parking in Stockholm can be upwards of 20$ a day! I found so many cool hostels at good prices that were either “street parking only” or charged an arm and a leg more for a parking spot. When I found a place that had a good rating and free parking, I didn’t look too much harder. That’s how I ended up in Långholmen Prison.

It was dark when I arrived, and I was tired from a full day of being a tourist, so I didn’t quite absorb what I’d gotten myself into. My 2 person dorm room was inside an old prison cell and although the beds were comfy, it was a very unexpected experience. While I was checking in at the front desk, I met a little old lady who’s father had been a prisoner at the Lanholmen back when it was operational and she and her cousins had come to stay at the now-hotel to celebrate his memory. She spoke unashamedly about his crimes, and of her own escape from a girls reform school in Soderskopping where I had just loaded up on ice cream. I stood at the check in counter agape listening to the wonderful and terrible adventures of this lady’s life and looking at photos of her art. She had been through so much and was still thirsty for life and adventures. I want to be like her when I grow up.

A Lazy Day & An Accidental Tour in my Pajamas 

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I woke up much earlier than I would have liked because of some nearby construction, but I headed down to the hotel’s breakfast buffet and was bowled over by the abundance and variety of food laid out. I had thought that I was staying in a hostel, but it turned out that the dormitory style rooms were only one small part, and that it was actually quite a luxurious hotel, museum, and beach resort. Surprise!

Stuffed full of amazing smoked meats, breads, fishes, jams, and cheeses, nothing on my list of things to do seemed half so enticing as the comfortable sofas on the patio. I wrapped up in one of the blankets provided and used the hotel WiFi to watch Netflix while basking in the sunshine and cool morning air. Although I’d had plenty of down days during July, I felt like most of those were forced on me for health reasons. It was so nice to choose to relax in total wellness.

I had not even gotten dressed to go to breakfast. Not realizing it was a fancy restaurant, I’d gone in my PJs, and was still in my PJs when I intercepted a tour group. My bedroom was in the museum wing of the hotel and now that it was operating hours, there was a guide and a group gathered in the hallway examining the items on display and listening to the history of the prison. I thought to myself “free tour” and tagged along. The museum part is not big, but it’s so full of stuff so it actually took a while to get through all of it. When we got to the end of the hall where my room was, some of the tourists had started to realize that the people walking around in pajamas and slippers going to and from the bathrooms were guests. I heard one wonder aloud what the rooms were like, so I opened up my room to show them.

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The Museum included a nice history of crime and punishment in Sweden, focusing mainly of course on the role of Langholmen. Some pretty vivid descriptions of historic punishments were presented in order to provide a context and contrast to the more modern styles of criminal justice. In most of human history, criminal punishments were basically torture such as cutting off body parts, breaking bones, permanent mutilation and disabling, or burning at the stake. The last part of the history reads:

The death penalty was eventually replaced by incarceration as a punishment for many different types of crimes. The justice system began to be based on fines or prison sentences and it was no longer regarded as the state’s job to realize the wrath of God. Fifteen prisoners were executed from 1865 to 1921… The death penalty was officially abolished in 1973.

Now, the goal of the criminal justice system in Sweden is considered to be reform and reintegration into society. The prison population in Sweden is only 66 per 100,000 (compared to 737 in the US, 615 in Russia, 118 in China, and 148 in the UK). Clearly they’re doing something right.

The prison on Langholmen started out in 1724 as a work house known as “the Spin House” where “degenerate men and fallen women” were sentenced to work. The Spin House produced and dyed yarn and cloth for use in the clothing factories. As the industry grew, the demand for more cloth grew and the demand for more free labor grew with it. Guards were paid 6 copper coins for each new prisoner they brought in. There was no such thing as due process, so either you were rich enough to stay out of trouble or you were nabbed. It may have started by sentencing thieves and prostitutes, but it soon expanded to anyone poor and in the wrong place.

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Workers worked from 5am until 9pm in harsh conditions doing back breaking labor with minimal nutrition and no concern for their health or comfort. Only Sundays did they get a slight break from labor when it was time to attend services.

In the early 1800s, the Spin House was closed, and the structure became The Southern Correctional Institution, officially a prison. In 1840, Crown Prince Oscar got very interested in criminal justice reform, particularly by studying the systems used in the United States known as the Philadelphia System and the Auburn System. The Philadelphia system advocated for prisoners to stay inside their cells at all times (or at least as much as possible) while the Auburn System advocated that prisoners only sleep in the cells and spend the rest of the time in groups performing useful work… work which was of course to be carried out in strictest discipline and silence. No one had heard of basic human rights yet.

By 1880, the prison now called Central Prison was a mixture of the two with 208 Philadelphia and 300 Auburn cells in different buildings around the island. One of the rooms in the museum hallway was a recreated cell rather than a modern dorm room. Inside, visitors could see the entire set up including some very early folding / multi purpose furniture like the desk that turned into a bed, a washstand, a small stool, and a cupboard.

In 1945, a new law was passed to change Sweden’s prison system forever.

“Punishment would no longer be carried out as a warning to society in general. Rather than being ‘made an example of’, the prisoner should be treated firmly and seriously and with concern for his dignity as a human being.”

The material upshot of this was a relaxing of the draconian treatments and the addition of cupboards in the cells where prisoners could store a few personal items.

Prisoners still had to be productive, but it became a part of the reform process. In the 1960s the prison had a machine shop, a print shop, and areas for book binding, carpentry, tailoring, mattress fabrication, and envelope production. When prisons finally did away with mandatory work requirements, prisoners were able to spend their time studying or receiving therapy. The prison closed in 1975 and lay in a state of deterioration for many years before the hotel opened in 1989. (photos: then and now)

When the tour group and I parted ways at last, I donned my bathing suit and headed to the nearby beach for some sun and sand. The weather was still a bit cool, but pleasantly so. There were plenty of locals enjoying a swim, so I decided to try it too. The water was brisk, but fun. I also noticed that people didn’t seem in any way fussed about body shape or modesty the way I’m used to in America or Asia (outside a gender segregated spa, anyway). No one was sunbathing nude, but people changed out of wet swimming gear with only a draping towel for minimum modesty and small children often didn’t bother with swimwear at all. It’s really nice to be in a place where people are comfortable with non-sexualized bodies.

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When the sun got low enough to be just a little too chilly for swimming, I headed back up to the hotel and changed for dinner. Despite my attempts to keep to a budget on this trip, I decided to spoil myself with a meal in the fancy restaurant. After all, I hadn’t spent any money all day on my museum tour and beach visit, so why not? I’m so glad I did. I ordered a simple (hah!) seafood chowder that was such a rich creamy blend of so many delicious ocean treats with wonderfully cooked tender potatoes, and for dessert a dense chocolate torte with … well, I can say “cream and cherries” and it simply cannot conjure the flavor of these dark red cherries soaked in liquor and partially candied, and the rich buttery drizzles of cream that tied it all together. Heaven!

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I never expected to be staying at a fancy resort OR a former prison, and I got both! I can’t recommend this place enough.

Stockholm & Gripsholm

On my way out of town the next day I got to find my friends one last time. We’d spent about a week together in Paris and Copenhagen, but I thought I’d seen the last of them when they headed off to their cruise ship in Denmark. It turned out, their cruise stopped off in Stockholm for my last day there. Originally, I’d planned to leave the hostel fairly early and get on the road, but instead, I took advantage of the free parking and took a bus into the city to meet them at a local street festival we thought would be good fun for the kids.

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I tried to go see the Vasa Museum because everyplace online was like “so cool! must go!”, but it turned out that every other tourist had the same idea and the line wrapped around the whole park. Instead, I took the chance to check out some of the metro stations which are quite rightly described as being another must see for the city of Stockholm. I also wandered through some random gardens and the very beginning of what looked like an interesting festival before finally finding the festival I was actually looking for. Summer fun!

I had a good conversation with a man I bought a latte from because he was friendly. He was an immigrant to Sweden and we talked about what that was like and why he’d chosen to come, comparing our home country economic situations and the shared desire to live in a place with less corruption and more opportunity. I wished him luck and joined my friends when they arrived. We had a food truck picnic on the bridge and then set off to play with the festivals various creative stands. The young boy became instantly entranced by an interactive art piece made of kids playing with yarn, and I joined a 10 minute painting workshop where we all made a fast and furious painting of a Swedish fjord.

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When it was time for them to catch the tour bus back to the cruise ship, I headed back to my rental car and hit the road. I have to say that I left Stockholm rather later than my original itinerary called for, so most of the things on my “to do” for that stretch of road were all closed up by the time I arrived and I got an interesting, somewhat confusing, exterior only experience.

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My first stop was Gripsholm Castle where I found an actual runestone. This one was from the 11th century, and the poem was translated on a sign nearby.

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They fared like men, far after gold
and in the East, gave the eagle food
They died soutward [sic], in Serkland

I also stopped at a place called Rademachersmedjorna in Eskilstuna (yeah, Swedish words are fun). It was billed as an interactive historical village? When I was a kid living in Maryland, we sometimes went to these kinds of places that imitated life in colonial America, and I visited some in California as well meant to re-create the Wild West. I was interested to see what a Swedish one might be, however all the people were gone and the buildings closed up when I arrived.

Nonetheless, I wandered around for a little bit looking in windows and reading signs. The town was filled with signs showing people in period dress and very vivid descriptions of the people and their lives. At first I thought it was just “flavor” but I began to realize the stories were connected and finally that there was some kind of crime to be solved by connecting all the clues from the various characters. I wondered if there are actors who play them during regular operating hours, but there was no time for me to back track the next day.

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According to yet more signs, the town was founded as a place to make cutlery by a Latvian businessman and a bunch of German blacksmiths.

Not A Murder House At All

Around 8:30pm that night,  I pulled up to where my GPS said my “bed and breakfast” was only to find myself driving around a farm. Although it was before sunset, it was still darkish because of the rain clouds. The pictures were taken the next day on my way out. After a couple times circling the farm, I finally found a little house that looked like the picture on Booking.com and pulled up next to a blue parking sign under an apple tree, running over dozens of fallen apples. Some friendly Swedes said Hej  (pronounced “hey”, it means “hello”) as they got in their car and drove away.

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I tried my code on the door but it wasn’t working. I was tried and hungry and not feeling especially comfortable about this building being in the middle of nowhere with no staff persons or anything around. Then a random middle aged, very large man opened the door. He turned out to be another guest, and didn’t know why my code didn’t work or where my room was. I messaged the property through Booking.com and tried to fight down my panic when another man arrived at the front door.

There’s me, alone, at a farm house, close to dark, in the middle of nowhere, with two strange men… freaking out. I went outside, thinking of just getting back in the car and driving away when the owner (a woman) showed up. I had to remind myself that this place was on Booking.com, with lots of previous customers who were definitely still alive and not murdered at all and had even given it high reviews. It had to be safe. My amygdala was not having it, and even though I followed her back inside to find my room, the bathroom and the WiFi password, I was barely under control.

When the owner left, I had to drive 8 miles back up the highway to find the nearest grocery store in order to get food for dinner and breakfast. I had a good solid breakdown in the car. I managed to calm down enough to convince myself to sleep there, but was not reassured when I got up to use the bathroom and saw padlocks on the outside of every bedroom door. Not locked at that time but there.

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If you are reading this and think I’m over-reacting, I envy your safe safe life. Please believe me when I say that women raised in American cities are taught NEVER to be in this kind of situation because we’re most likely going to be murdered, raped, and maybe eaten… in no certain order.

Nothing happened. It was not a murder house. But it really made me think about my life and culture that a situation like this made me freak out on a lizard brain level and yet was so normal to other people that no one even thought to mention these details in the reviews online.


Stockholm is about the halfway point of my driving tour of Sweden. I hope you’re enjoying the beautiful and friendly country as much as I did. Thanks for reading!

 

Viking Country 1: The Journey Begins

By the time I got to Sweden, I was feeling much refreshed by my visit to Copenhagen and the chance to spend time with some friends, both old and new. Although Sweden had been experiencing 30ºC + weather through July, when I arrived in August, the regularly scheduled Swedish summer weather had returned: cool and rainy. The locals frequently lamented that I’d “just missed all the nice weather” and I had to reassure them that, no, this wonderful sweater-weather was everything I wanted in life. Plus, the rain was desperately needed after the droughts and wildfires in the country. It felt like I was arriving with the return of life, and the land was celebrating. I am officially in love with fjords and fika. This started as a single post, but Sweden is just to amazing that it’s now 4 parts. Enjoy!


My bus took me to Gothenburg, a city on the south-west end of Sweden. I had a full day there before I was scheduled to pick up my rental car and the local transit pass included unlimited ferry travel, so I opted to spend the day meandering from island to island in the beautiful southern archipelago. The bus system took a little getting used to, but the ferries were actually quite easy to figure out, and since my ticket was unlimited, it didn’t matter too much if I got on the wrong one. I decided to go all the way out to the end of the line at Vrångö and work my way back.

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It was heavenly. I got off the boat at a tiny little dock with one adjacent cafe and set off down a nature trail at once. I was wearing my jeans and a sweater that had spent the entirety of the summer living at the bottom of my back pack. Before coming to Sweden I had almost decided to ship the heavier cool weather clothing back to Korea ahead of me! Plus, the rain stopped for most of the afternoon and left me with a beautiful sunny sky filled with flocks of fluffy clouds. The natural beauty of the tiny island was overwhelming. Although the fjords are stark and do not harbor lush greenery on a large scale, the beautiful detail in the small flowers and lichens that covered every inch of ground that wasn’t sand or solid rock was simply stunning.

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When the path emerged to the seaside again, I sat and watched the beautiful shifting blue-green tones of the ocean beyond the rocks for ages, basking in the wonderful, welcoming cool, clean and beautiful natural world around me. I hadn’t felt so deeply welcomed by a landscape since New Zealand, and it was only my first day!

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When I finished the long and winding trail around half the coast and back up through the little town, I was starting to get hungry and checked the map to see which island would have a good local cuisine type of lunch place. I headed up to Styrsö Bratten but the restaurant I wanted to eat at was closed for a private party. It started to rain, too, so I took a break under a patio while I waited for the next ferry to come take me on.

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I backtracked to Donsö where I was able to find Isbolaget, a local restaurant with some truly superior smoked salmon. Although the fish itself was likely from the Norway side of the water, the smokehouse where it was cooked was just up the road. They offered a sideboard with crisp bread and various spreads as an appetizer. The fish came with fried julienned veggies, roasted potatoes and pickled onions. It was amazing. While I was eating, the chef brought some still-hot-from-the fryer potato chips around to everyone. For dessert I tried Banoffee pie for the first time. I know it’s British and not Swedish, but it was a new experience: toffee, banana cream, and chocolate together? Much better than the traditional American banana cream pie with vanilla cookies.

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After dinner, I walked slowly on my very full tummy back to the ferry terminal and was able to take in the famous little red fishing huts in the golden light of sunset. The only sad part was realizing I’d put down my sweater someplace and never picked it up, so as the sun went down I was actually COLD for the first time all summer.

Road Trip Begins

The next day, I bid farewell to my hosts and headed downtown to pick up my rental to begin my road trip. Of course, when you’re on a deadline is the best time for the weather to act up, right? Loaded down with all my luggage, I battled out the driving rain to catch the buses and trams I needed to pick up my car on time. Why was I so worried about being on time? Surely they would not give my reservation away. No, but the rental office WOULD be closing at 2pm that day, so I couldn’t wait for the rain to stop. Of course, the moment I arrived at the shop, the sun came out, but I couldn’t complain because I knew how badly the country needed the water.20180811_133240

With my brand new hybrid model little red rental car, I hit the road toward my first destination, Vadstena and the castle therein. My decisions about where to stop and what to see in Sweden were more or less determined by what was near the main roads along my chosen route. I drove from Gothenburg to Stockholm via the 40 & E4 south of the lakes, and then back to Gothenburg going around the north side of the lakes. I looked at a lot of driving tour ideas before deciding this was going to be my best bet to get the beautiful natural landscapes that I wanted.

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On my way, the rain came back and I pulled off into a little roadside rest stop to discover to my delight that rest stops in Sweden are NICE. While I was standing around taking photos of the scenery, a young lady stepped out of the little cafe and beckoned me in out of the cold and wet. We chatted for a really long time, and I learned some interesting facts about the culture and culinary traditions in Sweden, most particularly that it’s based on what latitude one is in, since the south of Sweden can support temperate, more mainland European crops and animals, but the land gets less hospitable the farther you go, changing a strong vegetable and beef diet for a fish and dairy diet, to a reindeer and berries diet. It was quite eye-opening to someone like me whose whole knowledge of Swedish food comes from IKEA.

She also told me a little bit about the native people of Sweden who lived in the far north. I had always thought of Sweden as basically European, and also the home of the pasty white viking types, so it was a bit of a shock to realize that there ARE indigenous tribes-people in Sweden. They’re called the Sami, and while they are pasty white, they are very culturally distinct from the mainstream Swedish population which gets it’s culture from Dutch and German immigrants and of course from the Christian conversion which came up from the south and mainland Europe as well. I never went far enough north to encounter any Sami on my trip, but it’s certainly something I’d like to go back and learn more about someday.
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It was like having my own personal Sweden tour and lecture, and I stayed for a couple hours just talking and learning from the very friendly cafe hostess at this rest stop in the middle of nowhere. I finally pried myself away and got back on the road because I wanted to make it to Vadstena before it was too late to see the castle that was the actual goal for sightseeing that day.

I made it to the castle with a little daylight to spare. The cloud cover was still fairly thick, but the rain had receded to the occasional droplet, and I was able to park the car and stroll around the grounds. The castle’s moat connects to the larger lake via a short canal, and locals park their boats not only along that canal, but actually inside the castle moat! I had fun playing with taking photos using the reflection in the beautifully still water, and paused to ask some locals what they were fishing for. It seems the moat is full of crayfish and the right to forage on public lands is strongly protected in Sweden. Locals were out in force with little nets and traps hauling up tasty crustaceans while enjoying the day.

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After a full circuit of the castle, I walked down to the lakeside, and over to the ruins of the abbey. I was simply enchanted by the fact that these old castle ruins were an integral part of modern life. There was a large park where children had spent the day decorating the paths with colored chalk and there were a few shops and restaurants within a short distance from the castle walls. I saw high school students out and about, lounging around with headphones and backpacks, and was pleased to see that there were a good mix of dark skinned hijabis being included by groups of local kids. My hostess in Gothenburg was also hosting a refugee teen-girl who I met briefly, and I’d seen others around the city. Sweden is going through some political disagreements about how to handle refugees, so it was nice to see teenagers playing happily and inclusively in this small town.

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The abbey was closed by the time I got there, but I could still see the outside which included a kind of reconstruction of the original living and working quarters. The walls were all knee-high, but in their original place. It was startling to see how small the space occupied by 60 nuns and 25 monks actually was. In the summer months they might have had the freedom to be outdoors, but the Swedish winters are bitter, and it would have been quite cramped. I was also pleased to see a Pride flag flying in front of the church. July is Pride Month and I’d seen plenty of flags and even some vendors giving Pride discounts throughout my travels in big cities, but to see the rainbow outside this church in this small town was very encouraging. Between this and the refugees being welcomed, it gave me a real reason to reconsider my assumptions about urban vs rural cultures and some solid hope that we can have loving social equality wherever we live.

Plan? What Plan?

I had a plan, of course, but my Airbnb host for that night cancelled rather last minute. I don’t blame them, apparently they had some kind of an accident and had to deal with personal stuff. These are the risks with Airbnb. I found another host in Norrköping at the last minute and pulled in quite late at night. It was like a little piece of my hippie Seattle community had just cloned itself in the middle of my Sweden road trip. My hostess was an artist and her home certainly reflected it. There were sparklies dangling all around the door, gauzy curtains decorating the walls, and for the first time in ages I was somewhere with recycling and compost again! She made me a chamomile and cardamon tea before bed.

Then next morning we had breakfast together and I really enjoyed talking with her. She was surprised to learn that Viking gods had gained popularity in parts of American culture and we compared notes about art culture and liberal politics in our respective countries. Finally she suggested some local stop offs for me to try on my way east: a bronze age rune stone sight and an insanely quaint little town called Soderköpping (pronounced “soda shopping”).

3,000 Year Old Viking Art

The Viking rune stones were there in Norrköping (also pronounced “nor shopping”, I’m still not sure what’s going on with this “k” suddenly sounding like “sh”). It was a little challenging to find since it’s not a tourism hot spot. If you want to find it on Google Maps, it’s Hällristningar. I got a little confused at the turn off from the freeway and ended up at Hällristningsmuseet which is on the opposite side of the main road. Not yet realizing my error, I parked the car and explored the little red houses, my curiosity of the prevalence of this color also rising. It was closed, which I thought at first might be because it was Sunday, but looking closer, it did not look like the museum had been open for a very long time. I also saw no signs at all about runestones.20180812_142634

In desperation, I politely interrupted a group of people walking their dog to ask where the runestones were. They spoke English well but were confused by what I meant by “runestone”, and I tried to explain a bit, and eventually managed to get the impression across, but I was left mystified as to what these stones would be called locally since they’re super common in the Swedish countryside. Plus, my Swedish host who had recommended them to me had used the English “runestone”. In case you’re wondering, Hällristningar just means “rock carving”.

With that minor confusion of locations cleared up, I hopped back in the car and navigated the underpass for the freeway to get to the huge open grassy meadow on the other side, somewhere within lay these wonderful bits of history. It became immediately apparent I was in the right place since the signage was much better here. The rain from the day before had gone away again, and I was in a lush green field with stunning blue skies and enormous white clouds. I could not stop taking pictures and just going “wow” under my breath a lot.20180812_144215

When I reached the rock carvings, they were not what I expected, but were wonderful nonetheless. The rocks were flat in the ground. I had been expecting tall rocks, either glacial boulders left from the last ice age or something like a henge where large rocks were quarried and dragged in. In any case, I expected verticality. These rocks flat on the ground were a new idea. Apparently, archaeologists think that the runes were carved for the gods to see, looking down. I was also expecting actual runes because of my hostess’s chosen description, and instead what I encountered were a series of pictures and symbols.20180812_150052

According to the signs, which were helpfully bilingual, there were more than 650 images spread out on the rocks, most of which were ships, animals, and weapons. I’m glad there were signs because I think I would have been hard pressed to identify quite a few of the images without them. I’m pretty sure the red is a retouching, since I can’t imagine it staying so bright for 3,000 years, but I’m also sure it’s accurate since modern science would be able to detect tiny flecks of color on the stones even with so much weathering.

The Most Famous Ice Cream In Sweden?

Back on the road again, I headed up to Soderköpping. My hostess’s first suggestion had been such a success, I decided to ditch my other plans for the day and follow her advice. This town is beyond quaint and adorable. It’s right on the Gota Canal, which was on my list of things to see. The far bank of the canal is made up of high bluffs, but the town nestles neatly on the waterfront.

I walked around and found a beautiful public park with comfortable hammocks and a tiny outdoor library box so people could read and lounge even if they’d forgotten to bring a book. I took some more photos in the park’s gardens including a very co-operative little ladybug, then had a rest in one of the hammocks enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze.

Finally, I headed into the town center to find the town’s most famous stop, the Glassrestaurang Smultronstället. If you want to faint from looking at photos of amazing ice cream concoctions, please follow this link. I didn’t really understand how an ice cream shop could cause so much fuss, but it is a pretty amazing set up. I ordered a moderately sized sundae and it was still three flavors of ice cream plus chocolate mousse, whipped cream, chocolate curls, and passion fruit. I had eaten a healthy breakfast at my Airbnb, and had munched on delicious smoked meats and fresh fruits for lunch on the road, but for dinner, it was all ice cream.20180812_173652

Valkenburg: Catacombs, Castles and Vlaai

The week I spend in the Lanaken/Maastricht area had spikier ups and downs than usual. One of the ups was this day trip to the small, picturesque town of Valkenburg. There’s not much here, but the whole town feels a little like main street Disneyland. I could not stop the opening music from Beauty and the Beast from running through my head every time I walked around. Aside from it’s rustic village charm, Valkenburg is also home to a strange and unique personal museum: a private replica of the Catacombs of Rome. I’m a sucker for weird museums, and during the crazy summer heat wave, any underground activity floated to the top of my to-do since it was the closest thing to air conditioning I could get.


The transit out to Valkenburg was a little tricky in terms of timing. Once you’re outside the big urban centers the public transit is much less frequent. Nevertheless, I made it to the catacombs in time for the 2pm tour. The tours are only offered once an hour, so I’m really glad that I made it because there is nothing to do in easy distance of the museum, and I was getting pretty fed up with walking under the scorching sun.

Not only is Valkenburg too small to have reasonable buses, most places in town only take local (Netherlands bank) credit cards, their old card machines can’t handle fancy foreign credit cards. It’s really a time capsule! Thankfully I  grabbed extra cash on my way over.

I had seen posts online about the “Roman Catacombs” in Valkenburg so I went there thinking “hey the Romans used to live here, they probably built stuff”. Nope. Well, yes, Romans did live in large parts of what is now Europe, including the Netherlands all the way up to Utrecht, and Valkenburg was well inside the Imperial borders. But, no, these catacombs in Valkenburg were in no way built by Romans.

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Our guide explained that what we were going to see is a replica of the catacombs in Rome. Back in the Victorian/Edwardian days, rich people were supposed to spend part of their wealth investing in public parks, gardens, museums, and other public displays of art and education to enrich the lives of those less fortunate. A large number of Europe’s parks and museums were built this way. The “Roman Catacombs” of Valkenburg are no exception.

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The richy rich guy who commissioned these was Jan Diepen. The museum was opened in 1910 and although it’s gone through some closings and re-openings, it’s now Valkenburgs main claim to tourist fame. Despite it’s lack of originality, it’s still massively interesting since it’s a faithful reproduction of the catacombs of Rome that were visible at the time of construction. It’s now the only place we can see some of the displays that have since closed in Rome, and because of it’s obscure location, the art generally in better shape than it’s Roman counterpart and you don’t have to share it with as many tourists. Yeah, I’ll probably still go to the real ones if I ever get to Rome, but this was a good visit.

The air was nice and cold underground, the frescoes and history were interesting, and my guide patiently reexplained everything to me in English even though I was the only non Dutch speaker in the group. He said sometimes he has to do it in as many as 4 languages.

I sadly did not write any of the stories down that day, so looking back on my photos I have a general sense of “that was fun and interesting”, but no real ability to tell you about the pictures in detail. It felt a little like we were traveling through time as well since the replicas were arranged chronologically.

 
We started with areas of the Catacombs that actually did predate Christianity, and saw the way that the Romans buried and revered their dead, and then the gradual shift in artwork and symbolism as Christianity took over and moved in. It was quite fascinating to see the artwork of the early Christians that still incorporated a tremendous amount of Pagan imagery from Rome’s pre-Christian culture. By the end we’d moved all the way up to medieval art styles of statue and fresco.

At one point our guide pointed out this particular image as being representative of a trend to depict Jesus as fair skinned with long flowing hair. Although previous generations of artists had each picked a different look for the central figure of the Christian religion, it seems this one endured and still remains the most popular depiction.

Although there were several stone replicas of tombs and grave markers, there was one statue that struck me particularly, that of Saint Cecelia. She was an early adopter of Christianity before the Roman Empire made it the official state religion. Back then, Christians actually were persecuted by the state, and Cecelia was married off to a pagan nobleman against her wishes. When she refused to give up her beliefs, she was beheaded… almost? The legend is that she was struck in the neck three times with a sword yet did not die… right away. Her ability to withstand the pain and her prolonged life were seen by Pope Urban I as a holy sign. More than 1300 years later when the Roman Empire was long gone, but Christianity was having a great time ruling the Western world, it is said that her body was exhumed from it’s tomb and found to be intact with no signs of decay. Another miracle! Oh, and that’s not a necklace, it’s the wound from those three sword blows and a little blood oozing out. Martyr art.

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At the end of the guided tour we were turned loose at a small museum that displayed the tools and techniques that had been used to replicate the catacomb art. I admit I was a little tempted to go back and look at some of the art again, but I didn’t want to get lost by taking a wrong turn. After the main event, I did a little wandering around the town square. It is insanely quaint. There’s a whole area of shops and restaurants that looks like it’s out of a story book.

I walked all around the ruins of the castle but declined to go inside. I think I was just too tired for an above ground tour that oh so hot day. And if you think I talk about the heat wave too much, believe me, I’ve cut out most of the references to my heat-borne misery from my notes… it was soul sucking.

As an antidote to heat misery, I stopped off at a little cafe for some vlaai. Vlaai is kind of like pie. I had strawberry that day. It was cool, sweet and refreshing. The base was more like a cookie than a pie crust. It was quite thick but neither cake nor pastry. There was a thin layer of chocolate, a creamy layer and fresh strawberries in a pie gelatin. Clearly fresh berries from the flavor and texture. Served with a little shot of whipped cream and a cup of coffee. Stopping for vlaaii and coffee is a must do in the Netherlands.

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When the sun moved to take away my shade for the 5th time that afternoon, I gave up on staying cool and headed back to the bus stop. No part of the town failed to be cute so I distracted myself from the weather by taking more photos and singing Disney songs under my breath until the bus arrived to take me back.

Amsterdam: Cheese, Gin & Canals

I chose to do Amsterdam as a day trip from Den Haag. I looked at rooms in Amsterdam, and even the possibility of renting a flat for longer, but the city is just so insanely expensive, I couldn’t justify it. I left Den Haag as early as I could in order to cram as much Amsterdam as possible into one day. I enjoyed the canals, and the beautiful architecture while walking around.  My top priority was the Van Gogh museum (posted elsewhere), but I also enjoyed a cheese tasting class, and a tour of the Bols distillery where I learned the true meaning of Dutch courage, and a nice stroll along the canals.


Landmark Photos

Right outside the Van Gogh museum is the main entrance to the far more famous Rijksmuseum (which I did not have time for on this trip), as well as the “I Amsterdam” sign that EVERYONE needs a selfie with, and a rather large sculpture of an astronaut floating over a nice shallow pool where everyone was playing and splashing on the hot summer day. I don’t have a story because I didn’t try to fight the crowds to climb the letters, but I thought you’d like to see the photos anyway.

 

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Cheese Tasting

Dutch Gouda cheese is famous. Well, cheese famous anyway. I am a cheese-a-holic, and gouda is at very least in my top 10 favorites. I couldn’t visit the home of gouda without doing a cheese tasting. I managed to find something that was a little bit more than just a taste however when I stumbled on to Reypanaer. I signed up for a cheese tasting CLASS.

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This was no mere cheese taste, it was truly a learning experience. The woman instructing us reminded me of Minerva McGonagall if she were Dutch instead of Scottish. We were given a paper to record our impressions of each of the cheeses, and we were taught to recognize common notes in cheese like “wood”, “grass”, “caramel”, “alcohol”, “salt”, “butter”, “cream”, “vanilla”, and “nutty”.

Each cheese was paired with an appropriate wine or port to enhance the experience. Our teacher had us examine the color first, while she would tell us about the cheese itself. When we sliced, we were told to slice thinly, not because the shop was being stingy with samples, but because thin slices of cheese allow you to taste the more complex flavors more fully (we were allowed as many slices as we liked until it was time to move on to the next flavor, but really they were so rich I couldn’t eat much and didn’t feel like I needed to). Next we were asked to smell the cheese and think about what kind of smells we got. Finally we were allowed to taste it and asked to think about both flavor and consistency as we took our notes.

When everyone had tasted and jotted down some basic impressions, we talked about what we had experienced and our teacher guided us toward a better understanding of the complex flavor experiences of each cheese. I think a lot of the people in the room just wanted to eat cheese and drink wine, but I very much enjoyed the classroom environment and the chance to learn more about the traditions of Dutch cheese making. I think the informative instruction enhanced my experience of the flavors and textures of the cheeses by making me more aware of what I was consuming and how I was perceiving it.

Our first cheese was a chèvre affiné, a 4 month aged cheese made from goats milk. My mother thinks she hates goat cheese because she’s never eaten this. It was not the most amazing cheese I’ve ever eaten, but I could eat it regularly with a side of sliced fruit and not be sad. It had notes of butter, grass, and bread. The color was almost pure white, and the texture was quite smooth while still being firm.

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The next cheese was a chèvre gris, a 10 month old goat cheese with notes of hay, caramel, and bread. The color was nearly identical, but the texture was more crumbly and there was some presence of salt crystals (as cheese ages, salt crystals form in the cheese, no extra salt is added, this is a natural process as the moisture slowly evaporates over time). The flavor was strong enough that I would choose to eat this in moderation, or as a meal finisher with some nuts.

From here we moved back to cow’s milk cheeses in the Gouda family.

Taste #3 was a 6 month old Gouda the color of a fall harvest full moon. It was very creamy and highly munchable. Another great option for a finger food platter or a sandwich cheese.  Taste #4 was the Reypanear 1 year aged Gouda. It was recorded in my notes as “zomg spicy zingy full on wow”. It was amazing how much another 6 months on the shelf could change the flavor of the cheese. Salt crystals were beginning to form, the texture was a little dryer and the flavor was a million miles higher.

If I thought taste #4 was amazing, my tongue was not prepared for taste #5, a 2 year aged Gouda from the Reypanear fromagerie. I really believe my taste buds died and went to heaven and reincarnated back into my mouth. I recorded the color as “smokey topaz”, the smell as “caramel, alcohol, chocolate, nuts, and vanilla”, the taste as “all the flavors on a magical journey”, and my overall impression as “could eat it forever”. It’s strong, with a crumbly texture and visible salt crystals, and it is one of the most amazing things I’ve put in my face.

And lest you think I was just getting a cheese high and every taste was better and better, I did come back from the edge of ecstasy on the last cheese of the class: #6, the 3 year old Gouda. I still enjoyed it very much, but it was far more sharp with almost a citrusy overtone, and something I would only eat occasionally. While everything else was served with wine or port, this was appropriately served with scotch whiskey.

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Not all Gouda are produced alike. Please don’t read my reviews and get some random 2 year gouda and then get mad when it doesn’t change your life. Like most foods, the quality of ingredients count for a lot, and in the case of aged foods, the environment has a big impact.

Reypanaer uses as much grass fed cows milk as they can to get the best tasting milk. Much like Cantillon, Reypanaer allows the curds to rest in trays and collect unique wild microbes from the environment that will be crucial to the flavor of the finished cheese. In addition, their cheese is aged in old-fashioned warehouses where the only controls for temperature and humidity are opening and closing various doors around the space. The warehouse itself is considered a micro-climate because of it’s long tradition of aging cheeses and the accumulation of special bacteria, fungi and molds that add to the flavor of these naturally aged cheeses.

Cheaper, mass produced cheeses use sterilized climate controlled rooms to age the cheese and get a fast, inexpensive, and easy way to get a consistent product. The old fashioned techniques at Reypanaer are labor intensive since cheeses must be checked regularly during the aging process and the warehouse environment must be carefully balanced by humans instead of machines. In the end, there’s nothing wrong with using a factory produced cheese on your sandwich, but the difference in quality and gustatory experience is so significant that I must recommend to every cheese lover to try such a traditionally made cheese at least once in your life. Take my word, I’m officially an expert in cheese tasting 😉

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I got a steep discount by purchasing my Reypanaer and Bols tour tickets together, anb after the cheese class, I took a nice walk to clear my head and my palate. On the way, I passed an enormous and imposing building that I thought must surely have been some kind of castle or government building, but it turned out to be a shopping mall… Europe has too much extra architecture!

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Bols

Ever wonder where the expression “Dutch Courage” comes from? Well, I found out at the Bols Distillery.  Upon presenting my ticket at the main counter, I was given an audio guide, a little vial of liquid, and a token.

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This tour was totally self guided and I could play, pause, skip or repeat portions of the pre-recorded audio guide as I wanted. The first room was a timeline history of the distillery and the evolution of their product over time.

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As you might guess from the photo, the history starts in 1575 when the Bols family started making flavor infused liquor with cardamom, orange and cumin. In 1664, the family started producing Genever, a kind of distilled spirit made of “long fermented rye, wheat, and corn”. By 1700, Bols became a major shareholder in the Dutch East India trading company, giving them access to so many spices from around the world, and leading to the development of more than 300 unique flavors, as well as untold post-colonial damage to the cultures that originally grew those spices. It’s still weird to me how proud the Dutch are of their role in that part of history…

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In the 1800’s they got really good at making a totally unique version of Genever with a proprietary distilling technique and the addition of a secret recipe of botanicals – mostly juniper berry, but also anise, ginger, hops and angelica (an herb described as “earthy, herbal, and reminiscent of wormwood, so no I don’t know what that tastes like either). Later that century they began to also age the Genever in oak barrels. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, British soldiers would drink Genever before battle to steady their nerves and it became known as “Dutch Courage”. When the war was over, they missed the beverage and English Gin was born. Although the original Bols recipe was discontinued for a while, it was resurrected in 2008, so you can still taste it today.

The next room was filled with a display of tiny delft pottery houses. The Dutch Royal Airline (KLM) gives out these collectible and limited edition bottles to their first class passengers since the early 1950s.

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Once the history and art lessons were past, the museum took a decidedly sensory turn. Instructions on the wall as well as in the audio file told me to enter one of the small experience rooms and to keep my flask at hand. It was time to use the little bottle of liquid I’d received at the beginning of the tour. I couldn’t help but feeling a bit like Alice holding a “drink me” bottle, but I figured if it wasn’t safe, then it wouldn’t be legal either. Once in the room I was given a countdown and told to consume the whole bottle’s contents (it was a large swallow, nothing crazy) when the counter reached zero. With trepidation and a leap of faith, I did as instructed and was rocked to my core with a whole body multi-sensory experience. 

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As soon as the timer hit zero, the experience began. I slugged my liquid and the whole room erupted in sound, light and vibration. The vial was not alcohol, but pure flavor. It started berry fruity, went on a trip through spicy, and finished with citrus and mint. As I was tasting these intense flavors, my eyes were treated to a series of colors, my ears were regaled with changing sounds, and my body tingled from the vibrations of the floor coming up through the soles of my feet. It was like someone just flipped the ON switch for all my senses at once.

And lest the sense of smell feel neglected (though that liquid was so strong, I’m pretty sure it came up my sinuses anyway), the next room on the tour was a rainbow smelling room. The Bols Distillery was starting to seem less like a museum and more like an alcoholic version of the Wonka factory! More than 30 smells were ranged on the wall, and by squeezing the bulb, a puff of scented air would come forth. The bottles were labeled by number, and the name of each flavor was revealed if you lifted the number. It was fun to play sniff and seek, trying to guess each one of the Bols flavors as I went, and it also gave me a good idea of which ones I liked the best, so I could choose my cocktail later on.

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The final display room got into more details about the ways in which infused liquor is made. I’ve actually had the chance to play with making my own infusions with fruit, spices, and vodka, so I knew a little, but it was a very thorough display. There were jars of spices and fruit peels on display, as well as a mad scientists laboratory worth of glass jars, copper pipes, and mysterious floating things.

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You can see “maceration” and “percolation” in this photo because the main goal of this display was to show the ways that flavor is extracted from fruits, nuts, herbs, and spices and turned into delicious drinks. Maceration is just soaking your stuff in the alcohol (this is what I did at home). Percolation is basically how coffee is made, you drip the liquid through the ingredient. And because no mad scientist lab would be complete without a big red button…

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Don’t worry, it doesn’t do anything sinister. Once the tour shenanigans were over, I was released out into the Bols cocktail bar where I was able to redeem my token for one free cocktail. I ordered the Spring Amour, a lavender colored, floral, lemony drink. I had been intrigued by the fragrance of the Parfait Amour in the smelling room, and this drink seemed to be a good mix: 40ml original Genever, 15 ml Parfait Amour, 30ml lemon juice, and 10ml simple syrup, with a sprig of fresh mint. I chose the Parfait Amour based solely on my olfactory experience on the tour, but later I found this description, “a beautiful dark purple liqueur flavored with flower petals and vanilla, together with orange peel and almonds. The Parfait Amour liqueur flavor is centuries old and probably one of the most fascinating and complex of all the Bols liqueurs.” I chose well.

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Walking Around Amsterdam

After my Bols tour, I tried to walk to the antiques area but it was all closed up by the time I got there. It really is amazing how much of Europe closes up at 6pm. When I read about the quaint area of Nieuwe Spiegelstraat, the blogger I read recommended going in the evening to see the shops lit up, but I think they must have gone in the winter when the sunset / street light time is before closing rather than 3 hours after it. Summer days are looooong. 

I had also planned to do a walk from Nieuwe Spiegelstraat through the Red Light District on my way to the train station but I was pretty wiped out from heat, walking, and day drinking. I looked at a lot of restaurant menus before I managed to find a place to eat for less than 15€. Amsterdam is, as I may have mentioned before, insanely expensive. I wasn’t looking for a fancy meal, just a simple sandwich and beer! In the end, I was very happy with my choice. I tried a local specialty of ossenworst, an Amsterdam local raw beef sausage. It’s beef spiced with salt, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, mace and lightly smoked. OM NOM NOM.

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After dinner, I walked through what should have been the Red Light District according to my maps, and while I did see more ads for clubs and sex shows and smelled a lot more pot fumes, I was either on the wrong street or it was too early. I’ve heard it only comes alive after sunset and during the summer dark is not until around 11pm. At 7-8 in the evening, I didn’t see anything risque. I did find China Town and closed Buddhist temple, and took plenty of photos of the beautiful Amsterdam canals before returning to the train that would eventually get me back to my Airbnb in Den Haag.

 

 

 

 

Hamburg Dungeon

Hamburg was an experience of extreme heat. It’s not supposed to be like that, but by the end of July 2018, the heat wave in Europe was so pervasive there was no place to get respite. I had to eliminate more than half of my planned activities in Hamburg, and I even left the city a day early in hopes of finding even slight relief in Denmark. However, the morning before my train out of Germany, I stopped off for the English language version of one of the most ridiculous and joyful experiences of my whole summer trip: the interactive haunted history house of Hamburg — the Dungeon!


Friday in the Dungeon

I read about this event while toodling around the internet looking for things to do and was immediately enchanted. Haunted house meets interactive theater meets history lesson? Yes please! Most of the tours are of course in German, but they do offer English language tours a couple times a week. For me, this was Friday morning at 10am. As soon as we entered, the creepy atmosphere began. It was very well decorated, but clearly also on the campy side of life. Even the waiting room and hall to the toilets were dimly lit and creepy. Thankfully the actual toilets were clean and well lit.

The photos for this day’s adventure are provided by the Hamburg Dungeon Press Office The Dungeon strictly prohibits any and all photography once the tour starts, so I was unable to take my own. These are not exactly the same scenes and actors I experienced but it should still give a good impression of the overall mood. I will do my best to bring it to life in your imagination with words.

Emergency exists were clearly labeled and we were assured the actors would not touch anyone (and we should not touch them), yet the actors and stories were such that I found the experience fun and immersive. The sets were beautiful, the passages between scenes were interesting and creative. The events we experienced were based in real historical events in Hamburg, but The Dungeon is more about creating an atmosphere of history than informing, so I’m still a little fuzzy on the real historical details. It’s not an amusement park so the “rides” serve to enhance the over all experience. I enjoyed every minute of this very Addams Family fun. Join me on this haunted history trip down memory lane.

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Once the tour began we were taken into an elevator that was reminiscent of the Haunted Mansion elevator at Disney. The floor shook under us as the lights went on and off, and our guide cackled menacingly and it was impossible to tell if it went up down or sideways. The tour itself was a series of theatrical vignettes where the Dungeon actors played historically exaggerated roles and involved the audience in the torture… I mean fun.

Spy vs Spy
Our first stop was with Napoleon era torture implements used on French spies. The room looked like a prison scene from Les Mis with cages and racks of ominous implements lining the walls. An actress dressed in period clothes picked out two audience members to “lock up” and described using various implements of torment on them with humorous leers and gestures, but without actually touching anyone. She released one victim, but claimed the other and we exited to the next room without being quite sure what would happen to him. (spoilers, he was led around the staff backstage route and rejoined us in a few minutes)

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No One Expects the German Inquisition
The next staging was set during the Inquisition. As we stood in a gloomy replica of a medieval church, an inquisitor from on high picked out one woman as a witch, one man as pervert, and one child as glutton (for the terrible sin of eating breakfast!). The adults sins were read from a big book of sins and exaggerated for humor. Apparently being selected for torment or embarrassment is a highlight of the tour. Finally she sprinkled us all with holy water as a blessing… before admitting it was “really” the urine of the pope!

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Your Warehouse is on Fire
We were ushered damply to the next setting: the waterfront warehouse district of Hamburg that I’d boated around just days before. A dirty street urchin/theif came to tell us of her thievery and arson, warning us to run before the whole place was ablaze! We watched a film about the fire and how the rich didn’t want to do anything about it until it was too late. The fire began affecting mainly poorer areas of town, but spread quickly. Merchants put barrels with oil in the river which made things worse when firefighters tried to draw water from there. In the end, they made a fire barrier by blowing up several houses between the main fire and the rich neighborhoods, but it was too late. The actress who implied she started the fire led us to flee the explosions, and we walked through a simulation of a burning building done with lights, smoke and a spinning tunnel. It was a very realistic simulation of the disorientation!

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Bring Out Your Dead
Out of the faux flames, we were led to a black plague medical school for a bit of history and medicine. The setting looked like a surgical theater more normally associated with the era of Frankenstein with a large slab on the main stage bearing a body under a sheet and rows of seats where the “students” could watch the doctor at work. The “professor” asked us to recite the symptoms of the black plague, and when no one gave the first symptom, he asked “what does the lady say when she doesn’t want to….?” in order to lead the audience to guess “headache”. Having avoided the attention of the dungeonmasters up to this point, I was called out to assist in the autopsy of the latest plague victim, handling and identifying plastic organs while the audience was sprayed with “puss and urine” (water and water).

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I handled the organs he tossed my way with relative aplomb until he told me to reach into the body and remove the bladder myself. Based on the previous antics, I was fully expecting it to spray me and so was very cautious in removing it. However the squirt was for the audience, not for me. He wrung out the bladder into a shallow dish and flung the liquid front row (just a light splash). In the end he said I was looking a little pale, so I did a little improv throwback and said I did feel a headache coming on. Alas, I caught the plague and was lead off stage to simulated vomiting sounds.

Next we passed into a room that simulated an enormous underground catacombs system. It reminded me of the mines of Moria in LOTR. Even though we were in a small space, they used pillars, arches and mirrors to make it seem like the cavern went on for miles.

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Pirates of the Germanicum?
Emerging from the catacombs, we found ourselves conscripts of the pirates fighting the Hanseatic League. The first mate of the ship was chosen by having some men try to lift a barrel to test their strength. They couldn’t budge it, but a young boy was asked to come forward and try. Of course he lifted it easily and became Sea Bear, the first mate. We boarded a pirate ship below decks, and we went through a storm created by light and sound effects while the decks swayed beneath our feet. The whole thing is much more silly than scary, and our captain (actor) cringed in fear during the storm and told us all since we had no battle cry or weapons we should pretend not to be pirates, and be totally surprised to find the Hanseatic League when we arrived.

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After making landfall, we were told to hide in the tent and wait for the League to return to their camp so we could attack, but inside the tent was a head on a spike that spoke. It was Klaus Störtebeker (a real historical figure in the war between the Hanseatic League and the Pirates, who really was beheaded in Hamburg). He made a deal that his men should be spared if his headless body could walk around and it, until the executioner tripped the body killed his men anyway.

He Had It Coming
This was one of my favorite in terms of story and execution. We were picked up by a new actress and conducted to a haunted apartment. The room was a quaint little apartment and we all sat on the furniture around the living room. Most people sat on crates or on the edges of tables. I grabbed the comfy chair. The actress told us of a woman named Maria who murdered her abusive husband and chopped him up into little pieces and dropped them out the coach window all wrapped up as neat little parcels. Despite her caution, the parcels were discovered, and she was imprisoned for 2 years before being executed on the wheel.

It is revealed that the woman telling the story is her now grown daughter and quite possibly the best effects of the whole tour begin. We were plunged into total darkness for a few seconds at a time, yet whenever the lights returned, things had moved or changed. The murder weapon came off it’s shelf and moved closer to us. In the dark, sounds and puffs of air moved around us to make it seem as though the ghost were in the room. Finally, the ghost did appear, but she didn’t move when we could see her. Instead, she would move swiftly around in the dark, suddenly appearing closer to one or another of the audience who were justifiably startled when the lights returned. It was really wonderfully done.

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The dungeon has a lot of haunted house elements, which are often more campy than scary.  There were a couple of jump scares in hallways from one set to another but it’s not really that kind of experience. The sets and lighting are a big part of the experience. Even between sets it’s decorated and creepy. It’s a quality series of sets on a par with a Disney experience. It’s more about art and performance, and the ghost of Maria was really creepy.

Get On a Boat
We got into a tiny boat, and unlike the Pirate set which was only a set, this was much more like a flume ride. There was really water. We sat 6 to a boat and it floated us through scenes of the Hamburg canals (a la Pirates of the Caribbean ride, but… in Germany). The ride ended with a cannon pointing straight at us and blowing us and our boat backward down the ride’s drop when it fired. I was expecting a traditional flume ride style drop, but I was not expecting it to be backwards, so that was a nice touch.

Santa FU, It Makes More Sense in German?
At last, or too soon, the final scene was upon us. We entered the famous prison “Santa Fu”. The room was dark, the walls lined with stiff wooden chairs and a large cage loomed in the center. We sat in the chairs and watched a lone prisoner within the cage. There was more theater about the prison and the dangerous nature of the prisoners, particularly the insane ones.

SantaFu1_Hamburg Dungeon_Bjoern GantertThe prisoner spoke to us, reaching through the bars but unable to touch anyone. The lights went out and the cage was empty when they came back on. Speakers within the chairs made it seem as though she was whispering in my ear, and I could tell from the others’ faces they experienced the same. Mechanical prods in the chairs gave us a poke in the back when she said “I’m taking to you” and pressurized air passing our ankles simulated rats running by as they described the horrible conditions of the prison.

In the end, we had to “escape” the prison with a short free fall ride (a door was available for the timid to skip it). I sat next to the skeleton because if you’re going to do a ride in a silly haunted dungeon you might as well go all the way. To keep us from seeing the real height of the ride, it was kept mostly dark. At the top we could see the wall, barbed wire and guard tower before we dropped once more into darkness. 


The Dungeon is a brand of amusement in Europe with versions in Berlin and London as well, each tailored to the grisly history of it’s host city. I was not compensated for my review, and my opinions are my own. Thanks for reading!

Antwerp: Architecture, Beer & Sewers

I will admit that the main reason I was interested in going to Antwerp is because it featured in one episode of the animated version of The Tick (a ridiculous super-hero parody from my early college years). In his nigh-invulnerable state, The Tick smashes up Antwerp while chasing some bad guy and his side-kick (not to mention the Belgian police) laments the loss of such amazing, unique, and historical architecture. It stuck with me, and when I realized that Antwerp was a viable day trip from Brussels, I decided I had to go. When I started searching around for what else I could do in Antwerp besides look at amazing, unique and historical architecture, I discovered a Sewer Tour. Who does that? Me! To the underground!!


Amazing, Unique and Historic Architecture

The architecture in Antwerp is truly stunning but so much of it is hidden by advertising and construction. Plus the streets are so narrow it’s hard to get a full view of the remarkable buildings. Just the train station alone is a stunning work of art.20180712_125014

Given the challenges I was facing with transit and my desire to see more architecture, I decided to take a leisurely walk to my tour starting point. I got to see the market square and famous statue that I’d first seen depicted at the Mini EU.20180712_142303The statue is that of a Roman soldier named Silvius Brabo throwing a giant hand into the distance. The story goes that long ago a giant named Druon Antigoon was charging a toll to those who wished to cross the river. When people couldn’t pay, he would cut off their hand and throw it into the water. Brabo rescued the people by cutting off Antigoon’s hand in turn. Now it’s the most famous statue in the whole city. Europe: Where the history lives!

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I also passed by an enormous cathedral which is another famous Antwerpian landmark, however, unlike every other cathedral I’ve ever been too, this one charged an entry fee of  6€. I don’t know what makes this place cooler than Notre Dame (free to enter), but I also didn’t pay to find out.

Not to mention some of the fun and interesting street art, like this sidewalk these nappers and a life size tiger that was part of the zoo’s promotional materials.

 

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It was a longish walk and I stopped for coffee and a rest on the way. I got in trouble for sitting at the wrong cafe patio. Not big trouble just “you can’t sit here because you bought that coffee from the stand with the same name as us”. If I’d known, I would have bought coffee from them, but really who knew two cafe’s on the same block with the same name didn’t share seating? It reminded me of the waffle shop in Brussels that wouldn’t let patrons use their seating if they ordered from the counter inside instead of from the waitstaff outside. Belgians are really picky about where you sit, but once you have ordered something from the correct place/person then you can sit there as long as you like.

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Finally I made it to the sewer tour, but I was a little early. It took me a while to find a public place to sit and wait. There were plenty of restaurants, but I only had 15-20 minutes. You’d think I could find a bench or something, but I think Belgians hate free chairs the way that Dutch hate free water. In the end I sat on a bench that was half occupied by a street busker with an accordion. Not ideal, but I really needed the rest before another long walking tour since the heat was swelling my feet quite badly.

In the Sewers

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The underground tour was great. They decked us out with boots and coveralls to protect our clothes, gave us sturdy packs to cover our own handbags/etc, and kitted us out with tour tablets that had videos for each stop explaining the history in Dutch with English (and other) subtitles. The guide was dressed more comfortably, but also probably changed at the end of his work day. He spoke English well but as I was the only English speaker on the tour I often had to remind him to translate for me, which he was totally willing to do, he just had to be reminded.

It was basically a tour of Antwerp from below. Very different from other city underground tours, De Riuens are what became canals in other cities like Amsterdam, but in Antwerp Napoleon covered them over because the smell was too awful. The sewage itself runs in pipes alongside the passages, but we still waded through brackish runoff water with compost and rat droppings in it. Good call on the galoshes and coveralls.20180712_153504

 

The tour took us around the main part of downtown Antwerp, and every so often we stopped to watch a video on our tour tablets. It was a great way to get informed about the history and to put into perspective what was going on above us, but it was also a bit difficult to watch the screen AND look around. The Dutch tourists could listen and let their eyes wander, but I had to read subtitles if I wanted the information. Only after the videos were done would the guide then add a few tidbits or answer any questions.

Along the way, between video stops, he would also pause briefly to point out interesting little bits of sewer trivia. My only complaint is that it was a bit fast for my tastes. Not walking too fast, that was almost impossible to do since we had to walk carefully, but not enough stops for photo-ops! I was the only one trying to take photos and look at details.

This is the fungus that grows like fine white hair in the rat poo.

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That is the rare spider that doesn’t live anywhere else in Belgium because the environment in the sewers here is so unique. (the photo is only spiderwebs because the spiders were very very small). These are the rats (couldn’t get a photo of them because they ran away too fast).

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Over there is the part where the church was built it so it looks nicer because they had more money than the civil government.

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This is the part where they built air vents that look like chimneys from the topside because workers were dying from bad air down here.

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Here’s where the locks were lowered so the tunnels could be flooded at high tide rinsing them clean. That’s why the walls sparkle sometimes from the salt water residue/salt crystals.

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Over there is the water overflow so the human waste can stay in the smaller tubes when it rains and the water can gush out the top leaving the heavier materials (human waste) behind. Also here are the wet wipes that don’t dissolve when flushed but accumulate as a kind of really gross felt. Don’t flush wet wipes.

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That’s a secret passage the Jesuits used for who-knows-what in the past but for smuggling provisions and people during the Great War even though they were often arrested by the Germans.

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Over there a stalactite it starting it’s life and in a few hundred years may really amount to something. Those black clouds that churn up with every step we take in the gray opaque water, grateful for having loaner boots, that’s compost. Here is where we used to let the cows out. Here’s where hundreds of thousands died from disease related to unclean water. Here’s how beer saved the water because breweries wanted clear beer.20180712_160139

 

Yeah… Antwerp (and probably a bunch of places) had horrible water quality that caused rampant disease and death, but nobody did anything about it until it was about BEER (or more likely about beer money). Brewers who were fed up with shitty (literally, ew) water messing up their product demanded that the city do something about it. Beer saved clean water.

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Since it was another underground tour, I thought it would be cooler but it turned out to be humid and hot. I felt like I was melting inside my coveralls. Unlike other underground tours where the streets of previous versions of the city were gradually built up around (looking at you Seattle) the De Ruien’s tunnels were never streets. They were canals where everyone dumped all waste until it smelled so bad it had to be covered. It took hundreds of years to go from open sewer canals to a healthy system that keeps the city, the river, and the drinking water clean today.

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Despite the crazy humidity, compost water, and rat droppings, it was an incredible and unique experience that I’m glad to have had.

Antwerp Beer And Street Life

Once the tour was over, I didn’t really need to worry about getting anywhere on time, so I decided to meander slowly back to the train station by a slightly different route to see more stuff. I walked down to the river to see the castle but it was sadly closed for construction.

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On one of my frequent “it’s too hot” breaks, I sat down to try the local beer, De Koninck, and get a plate of fries which is a huge snack or small meal depending on the size of your appetite. I don’t know beer language well, you can see from the pic it’s not pale even though it’s called blonde. The flavor is pleasantly nutty, and not at all bitter or sour. After that I had to try a coconut beer because some guys at the next table ordered it and I was intrigued. That was one of the best beer decisions of my life, right there. Like a piña colada and a delicious beer had a love child. 

There was a lot of busking in Antwerp. In the other cities I’ve encountered begging in droves, but here it was hordes of buskers. A new one every block, sometimes 2-3 in the same block. I especially loved a lady dressed as an oxidized statue who came to life whenever she heard a coin in her bucket. I thought she was a statue when I first saw her, and only when I paused to take a photo did I realize she was a person. She played with some little girls and blew kisses at people who gave her coins before winding down to her starting pose.

I also paused to listen to a young man sing Hallelujah soulfully, but there were more performers than I could have ever imagined outside an actual festival.

The Down Side of Street Life

The unpleasantly unique street life in Antwerp was the randos. I got approached twice by random dudes. While I was walking. Who does that? I mean, that’s not how you have a conversation. It’s weird and creepy. I was walking and suddenly there is a guy walking next to me trying to chat me up.  Ew gross go away. I don’t know if they were building up to a scam or trying to get a date or what… I can’t actually imagine doing that to another human, and I talk to strangers all the time. I have never engaged anyone who is already walking unless a) we are in a tour together, or b) I’m in a great deal of distress and need help pronto.

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These dudes were just chatting me up. I tried to tell them ‘no thanks’ as politely as I could but it took several tries, and what do you do when you’re already walking and they come up and walk with you? How do you walk away? I’m already walking! Dudes, don’t do this shit! It’s bad enough when you come up or of nowhere at a pub or when we’re sitting at a bus stop or park (also hella awkward btw), but to start walking with me made me feel hunted. It’s not “being friendly”. As a person who talks to strangers constantly, as a person who does randomly have conversations with dudes as well as women, I won’t talk to you if you give off creeper vibes and that shit is creepy AF.

Ending on a Positive Note

Once out of range of the creepy dudes, my walk back to the station was much nicer than my walk from the station had been. By that time in the evening ¾ of the shops were closed and all the people were sitting in restaurants instead of crowding the sidewalks. I could see a little bit more of the buildings without feeling like I was going to be run down by pedestrians in a hurry.

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The architecture and street performance isn’t even the end of it, since there’s plenty of beautiful mural art on the sides of the more modern and less interesting buildings.

Lastly, returning to the station cooled off and full of delicious beer and frites, I took a little more time to enjoy the Antwerp train station in all it’s architectural glory. The station is truly a work of art. I wasn’t even sad about missing out on the castle and cathedral after seeing more of that station.img_20180712_224539_138

 


If you want to watch the cartoon that first brought my attention to Antwerp, YouTube has your answer.  “The Tick vs Europe”

 

Travel & Invisible Disability

I am not a “normal, healthy person”. I have been diagnosed with a wide variety of “low grade” / “high functioning” disabilities. One was actually considered severe enough to get me financial aid and accommodation for my BA studies, but only accommodation by the time I got to MA because the state of Washington didn’t have enough money to give to priority 2 disabilities. Priority 2 or “high functioning” are considered to be people who are strongly impacted by a disability, but still able to care for themselves without outside help like an in-home nurse or expensive medical equipment, and mostly still able to participate in socially economically valued work with only moderate limitations or accommodations. They’re often also called “invisible disabilities” because … “You don’t look sick!”.

I don’t feel the need to list my diagnoses, or defend my illness. That’s between me and my doctor. If you want to learn more about invisible disabilities and how you can be a better friend/boss/family member to people who have them, please read more on the youdontlooksick website. This post is about what it’s like for me personally to travel abroad with an invisible illness and how I deal with it physically and emotionally.


The Background:

Just living my life I try to spend at least one day a week doing nothing, or as close to nothing as possible. I might do laundry or take a shower, or wash some dishes. And somewhere, there’s a “more disabled” quotes because I hate comparing disability or trauma because wtf that shit is relative not absolute, person who is like wow laundry! Laundry isn’t nothing; that’s like 4 spoons, are you kidding??

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*Follow this link to read about Spoon Theory in relation to Invisible Disability
If I go more than two weeks without this rest day I get pretty messed up. Again if you can’t imagine, think of how you feel if you miss two nights of sleep in a row. You can still go to work, but it sucks a lot and everything is harder.

Think of my body like a very fuel inefficient car. I get 12-15 miles to the gallon. Average is 25-30, and very fit people are like Priuses… in a lot of ways. You can’t turn a lemon into a Prius with diet and exercise. Even when I’m putting a lot of time and energy into my body, it isn’t going to do much better than about 20-25. So if I spend a lot of time, money, and effort I might be able to reach the low end of average? And then have no time money or energy to do anything else… yeah, I’ve tried it before, special diet, measuring all the food, exercising every day, and it helped me get in better shape, I could do more exercise, I could hike a bit better, I thought “wow this is so much improvement for me” until I went on a short hike with some very physically average people (not athletic types) and was left in the dust…

People say “you can do it if you’re determined enough”, but when you have a disability that limits your metaphorical mpg or spoons, it can take more energy to get to the healthy food and exercise than you get back by doing it. It stops being worth it. If you’re tempted to say “but…” or offer some advice, please, please, go look at the You Don’t Look Sick website first.
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In nearly every vacation/travel in my life before the summer of 2018, the trips were so short that even if I pushed myself to the limit of my ability, I could rest when I got home. This summer, I was on the road for 7 weeks and I learned the hard way that is too long of a time for me to “push through”.


The Buildup:

Paris:

Unable to keep up with my friend and her family, I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. I often struggle to keep up and I tend to think it’s because the people I meet on travels are a bit younger and more athletic, but I’m finding I really need more rest stops than the average bear my age and older.

It wasn’t until I was seated at dinner and realized I was struggling to mentally focus on what the kids were saying that I realized how tired I actually was. I don’t know how much is jet lag, how much is the weather, and how much is just my ever decreasing number of spoons.

I think once I’m free to sit and pause for rest and refreshment at my own pace it will be better? I don’t mean to complain (except about the heat) I’m having fun. I’m just worried about spoons.


Belgium:

(after returning from Sunday in Ghent) My feet reached a point of pain that is found only in uncensored fairy tales. I remember in the original little mermaid she felt like every step was walking on knives. Ursula had nothing on this OG witch. We’re talking Bruce Willis at the end of Die Hard levels of foot pain. I honestly expected blood when I took off my socks.

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I have a known medical issue in the left one and usually wear a compression bandage when I’ll be walking a lot. I think the right foot was forming a blister under a callous.
My back was almost entirely unwilling to bend. I really puff up and stiffen in the heat, and the more I stand and walk the worse it gets. I’m not trying to be a whiny baby, I went anyway. But it’s not a thing I can push through forever.

I ditched all my Monday plans. You can’t enjoy things if you’re too tired or in to much pain. Instead I woke up around 8 and made myself a Brie sandwich for breakfast and ate the rest of the chocolate (I’m in Belgium, for heaven’s sake) then passed out again until after noon.

Tuesday in Brussels: The high temperature today was only 16C. It was such a relief. I am in denial about how badly the heat affects me. But every time it cools off, I have so much more energy. This is not to say I was filled with energy today, but I went from feeling like the walking dead to merely slightly sore.

I’m having an early evening, more rest maybe another hot bath later on. I feel like such a broken human that I can’t keep going without so much rest. I don’t know why. I know I need to rest when I’m at home. I usually have at least one “do nothing day” a week to keep myself going. Yeah, that’s life with my invisible disability. It’s so hard to do that on holiday, though, I feel like I’m missing out or not talking full advantage and I just have to keep thinking of that night in Thailand when I hit the wall so hard I crashed. I am not giving up on adventure life just because I don’t have perfect health, I’m going to keep living to my fullest, even if that isn’t someone else’s fullest or even younger me’s fullest. I’m going to do self care and be ok with resting and watching cartoons on vacation so that I can really enjoy when I do go out to do things.


The Netherlands:

(Airbnb in Lanaken, Belgium. Nearest “city” Maastricht, Netherlands.)
It turns out misophonia sound triggers are a real thing for me. I had them in Saudi but was so emotionally wrecked there from other problems that they weren’t a huge change from my daily state of mind.

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It happened to me in Korea this year where a produce truck came and parked near my house and just left his loudspeaker going. I went from annoyed to panicking, my heart rate soared and I couldn’t think. I tried closing all the windows but the sound was too loud. It isn’t just volume, I listen to rock and roll super loud and love it. It’s about not being able to escape. The sound is an invading force, it’s attacking me and the flight/fight/freeze response in my Amygdala is triggered. This one is especially “fun” because it could be related to any one of my diagnoses, since it can be a symptom of several, but I’m not really interested in fighting through more doctors to find out since every visit to a doctor is a fight to be believed and treated. The cost/benefit of seeking help is a thing we have to consider very carefully when we have limited energy to invest.

Anyway, here I am in my Airbnb making coffee and reading Facebook, and the church bells start. Normally, church bells ding for the hour and then stop, but this day they don’t stop and suddenly I feel it starting. I jam my fingers in my ears and start humming to try and drown out the sound and every time I check it’s still going. Not even a tune, just ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding ding…

Then I’m just standing in the kitchen fingers in my ears trying to do parasympathetic breathing to bring my amygdala under control and I realize that I’m in terrible fear of becoming too broken to function.


The Breakthrough!

This is why the obstacles are hitting me so hard emotionally, of course heat and culture shock are contributing factors but this has been so much harder than previous challenges emotionally and I couldn’t figure it out.

It has been like peeling an onion to get inside this thing. Yes it’s too hot, yes there’s culture shock, and the nature of the obstacles themselves, the bathroom is too far away from the bedroom, the transit is unreasonably difficult, and the conservative old white colonialism-is-great attitude in the Netherlands was seriously harshing my groove especially compared with the vibrant multiculturalism of Paris and Brussels. And finally today I got to what I really hope is the gooey center of this Gobstopper of ick, the fear of being too broken to function, fed by all the above issues.

But this is it. I’m afraid there will come a point when I can’t manage. When my dream, which I just got a hold of these past few years, will slip away as my body and mind betray me and I sink back into a life of mere survival. I did that for so long: find the only job that you can manage with your existing disabilities, lie about them so you don’t get fired, spend 90% of your free time resting and hope your friends and family don’t give up on you.

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The Resolution

“What can I control” is one of my lessons from Saudi. Life is full of crap you can’t control, expat life maybe more so. KSA life? Woah. The point is to survive in that kind of mess you need to focus on the things you can control to maintain balance against the things you can’t.

In my case, that means a lot more “me time”. I was worried going into this summer that I wouldn’t get that. Even slow days involve a lot of variables and people I can’t control. I’m staying in other people’s homes. Even with a private room, there are elements I can’t control.

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Everyone understands how much it sucks to get sick on holiday, to feel like you lose precious vacation hours to illness but also most people think you should just push through if you can. I find I don’t enjoy things as much if I’m feeling like crap. I do what I can to prevent getting to the point I can’t do things, and sometimes that means spending hours resting when I don’t feel sick yet.

I’d love to be normal bodied. I’d love to be able to just go and do. I’m not saying disabled people don’t have worth or can’t enjoy life, but I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t rather have full functionality. It doesn’t benefit me to spend so much of my life resting except that it allows me to live the other parts more enjoyably.

I remember how devastating it was when I was told I was going to be sick forever and the long list of things I couldn’t do. I was so relieved when that turned out not to be as bad as the doctors told me, and I’ve been trying so hard to accommodate myself, but as I get older, my symptoms are getting worse.

Every year my body’s response to the heat it getting harder to bear. It went from ‘getting slightly swollen feet and needing more rest’ to ‘watermelon feet that stay swollen all summer and not being able to be outside for more than an hour before I just start shutting down’. If you don’t have a disability, you might not realize what ‘shutting down’ looks like. Watch a tired toddler. Or imagine how you feel after a very intense weekend of high activity and low sleep. Yeah, it can take ableds 16+ hours to get as tired as I get in 1-2 hours of high heat.

I tried to keep up with a faster walking woman I met at the brewery and got lunch with and had to quit because aside from the fact that I was feeling like I was at the gym instead of on holiday, I got a blister after just 15 minutes of walking at her pace. Yes, part of that is being “out of shape” but if it had been cooler weather I could have done better, I know because I do better with physical activity under 18°C. No hot yoga for me.

What is the worst that could happen? I think Thailand showed that. I ended up so thrashed I couldn’t do anything. Instead I have to try and make sure I’ve got the spoons to do the things I was most interested in or already paid for and I let go of the rest if conditions aren’t right. I’ll still do and see more than I would if I didn’t go at all.


The Aftermath

By Hamburg I came to terms with the fact that it is ok to just relax on the sofa with the windows open and enjoy the breeze from my bed. I gave myself permission to be comfortable without feeling guilty for “wasting opportunity”. I don’t have to go someplace less comfortable, that requires more clothes or money just because I’m in another country.

By Copenhagen the weather had returned to temperatures that were no longer destroying me and I found that I had the energy to get up at or before 9am and keep going until midnight or later for several days in a row. Even with better weather, after about 4 days of this I really wanted a rest day, but my friend felt very left behind because had to return to the Airbnb to long into work every afternoon/evening, so decided to push through to spend one more day with her. It wasn’t ideal for my health, but it wasn’t a catastrophe either. I was able to take my rest day when I arrived in Sweden.

Sweden was the best environment for my body and mind. The weather was great – cool and lightly rainy (some heavier rain, but I was lucky to always be inside or driving for it). My pain was mostly gone and my energy was way up. If it weren’t for the record of notes I kept in earlier parts of the summer I might have thought my memory was playing tricks on me in regards to how bad I’d actually felt before. How can a body go from being so inoperable to being mostly fine from something as simple the weather? I still don’t know, but it’s becoming increasingly obvious that I need to do my best to avoid high temperatures, and to accept that my limitations apply to long term travel, not just when I’m at home. It turns out napping on vacation can be pretty cool, too.

Nazi History from Inside Germany

Everywhere I went last summer had been impacted by WWII, but I mostly avoided war memorials so my encounters were more side-notes like, “people hid in these caves”, or “the Allies / Nazis used this tower / bombed this building”, or “here’s where we smuggled Jews out”, but everyone else had the by-line “we were invaded, it’s not like we wanted the Nazis here”. Since the Nazis originated in Germany, you can imagine the story isn’t quite the same, and yet Germany is (rightfully) not proud of it’s role in the war. I always take photos of the signs in museums to help me write later, but in this case, I’ll be quoting those signs rather than summarizing them because I feel like the way that the Germans handled the history is much more significant to this post than the history itself. You can read about the events of WWII on Wikipedia, but you can’t hear the voice of Hamburg unless you go there.


Church Days
It started out like many other historical museums of ruins, the various buildings and rebuildings of the church over 900 years. There was some information about the reformation and the change from Catholicism to Lutheranism… normal church history stuff accompanied by some statues, stained glass, and other relics from the history of the building.

The history of St. Nikolai began in 1195 when Count Adolf donated to the cathedral a plot of land on which a chapel was to be built. This chapel was dedicated to St. Nicholas, the patron saint of seamen and merchants.

Over the following centuries St. Nikolai gradually grew to become one of Hamburg’s largest parishes. Growth of the parish as well as natural disasters called for the constant enlargement of the building. In 1527 the change brought about by the Reformation movement made itself felt as well. Johann Zegenhagen became the first Lutheran Senior Minister.

St Nikolai was destroyed in the Great Fire of Hamburg on 5 May 1842. It was only four years later that the cornerstone was laid for the new neo-Gothic church designed by British architect George Gilbert Scott. The spire, finished in 1874, is still the fifth highest sacred building in the world.


Propaganda Machine!

Since the days of the Hanseatic League, Hamburg has played a major role in German politics and economy. Because of its importance for trade and industry, the Hanseatic city was given the title of a Führerstadt (Fuhrer City) in the 1930s. Adolf Hitler personally was strongly involved in Hamburg’s urban development plans. A large part of the population sympathized with Hamburg’s role as the new Reich’s ‘gateway to the world’.
Hamburg’s population had been prepared for a possible air war at an early stage. The construction of air-raid shelters and ARP training were meant to boost confidence in the system. A wide range of propaganda measures aimed at strengthening the Volksgemeinschaft (national community). 

Hamburg’s citizens were meant to cope with the challenges of aerial warfare in a ‘soldierly’ manner. Propaganda Minister Goebbels even hoped for a positive effect on the coherence of the community. The air war, he said, could tear down class barriers and create the true Germany.

*ARP stands for “Air Raid Protection”

Air War: Entertainment for Young and Old

Right from the beginning, the Nazi regime had pretended that civil air defense was perfectly normal. A board game called Luftschutz tut not! (Air raid precautions are essential!) introduced entire families to the everyday life of air war. Entertainment and war was not a contradiction in terms.

The Fascination of Bomb Craters

Given the initially ‘successful’ German campaigns, war seemed to be a long way off. Early air raids on Hamburg were considered a rarity. Bomb craters and destroyed houses became popular sites for outings that people could then talk about.


Increased Air Bombings Used by Nazis to Further De-Humanize Jews/Minorities

The history preceding the events of summer 1943 began no later than on 1 September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland. The decision of the Allies to area-bomb the city of Hamburg was also a response to earlier German air raids. The massive destruction of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Coventry by German bombers fleets was paid back to the German “home front” in the shape of a firestorm.

The Nazi regime had begun long before 1943 to prepare the population for bombing. The systematic exclusion from the air-raid shelters of specific categories of people again demonstrated the regime’s contempt for humanity.

The relatively successful operations of German forces represented a massive challenge to the Allies. Political and military developments led to a fundamental change in strategy. After targeted raids had been made against Hamburg’s industry, Operation Gomorrah was intended to break down support for the Nazi regime from the German population. In the city on the Elbe the Allies’ area-wide airstrikes exacted the highest toll of casualties so far in the bombing war.

As the bombing increased leading up to 1943, it only fueled the Nazi desire to punish the Jews and other “unwanteds” living in Hamburg.

As in all parts of Nazi society, Jews and other marginalized minorities were excluded from official ARP. At most, they were permitted to seek refuge in self-made makeshift shelters.

As the war advanced, discrimination and exclusion intensified. In the wake of the first major air raids on Hamburg the Gauleiter, Karl Kaufmann, turned to Hitler asking for help. He intended to deport Jews to benefit those who had been bombed out.

With Hitler’s approval, thousands of Jews were deported. Their homes and part of their possessions were distributed among bombed-out ‘Aryans’.

Some citizens applied specifically for such homes and quite knowingly benefited from the deportation of the Jews without showing the slightest trace of a sense of guilt or wrongdoing.

On display were the actual records of items that had been taken from imprisoned and deported Jews and auctioned off to loyal ‘Aryan’ citizens.

The Story of the Ledermann Family

The preserved letters of Anita Ledermann, a Jewess, shed light on her life and that of her family during the air war. All in all, 72 letters to her friend Gunnar Schweer, and his family were preserved. She reported about the increasing oppression by the Gestapo, her experiences during and after the bombing, her futile attempts to leave the country, and finally her farewell before being deported to the concentration camp in Theresienstadt.

Anita and her parents were later killed in Auschwitz. Only her sister survived as a forced labourer in Saxony. Auction files document that Hamburg citizens acquired the abandoned possessions of the Ledermanns at a bargain price.


Operation Gomorrah

Attack on Hamburg

Operation Gomorrah began on the night of 24/24 July 1943. Over the next ten days, British and US bomber fleets destroyed a large part of Hamburg. About 34,000 people lost their lives.
This catastrophic event made a deep impression on the population. Nevertheless, each individual experience offered a unique and very different perspective. Both the pilots carrying out orders and the population seeking refuge in – sometimes only makeshift – air-raid shelters were scared to death.

During those days and nights Hamburg was permanently on alert. With their suitcases packed, citizens waited for the next air-raid warning. Only a few of them found places in the shelters that were thought to be safe. Jews and foreigners and forced labourers were automatically refused entry. Many of them searched in vain for shelter in the burning city.

Those persecuted by the regime feared for their lives, but at the same time hoped for liberation.

The City of Hamburg also used prisoners of the Nuengamme concentration camp for clearance work. In constant mortal danger and under dreadful conditions, they were forced to clear rubble, retrieve bodies and look for unexploded ordnance. The people of Hamburg could see them and occasionally came into contact with them.

Recovering bodies not only caused extreme psychological stress, but was also highly dangerous because parts of buildings came crashing down. Some boroughs in the east of the city had to be declared restricted zones because the danger of an epidemic loomed.

Stories of what was going on in Hamburg, oppression and exploitation, evidence of such things which actually made me cry because the stories are so personal. This person was taken away and their home and goods were redistributed to “good party members” whose homes were lost to air raids.

The propaganda. The division of classes. The way that those not deemed worthy were denied safety. I was struggling. This was the reason I didn’t want to go to an actual war memorial. If this little underground museum is so full of pain, what is it like at the ruins of Dachau?

And then I watched a film about the Firestorm in 1943 that destroyed 90% of the city including the church I came to see. It was insanely graphic and personal. Nonetheless, I had trouble feeling sad for the people who suffered and died as these were the people who had been complicit in the cruelty and deaths of those featured in the first section of the museum.

True they were mostly civilians, but they happily benefited from the system of oppression and tyranny. This isn’t the same video I watched. The one in the museum had a narration telling us of the horrible suffering of those caught in the fire who burned or suffocated while trapped in collapsing buildings; however it was the most similar visually, if you feel the need to look.

There was a section that was more or less neutral with photos of places around Hamburg before, during, and after the war and reconstruction. Normally I cringe to see the aftermath of bombing yet when the photos showed Nazi structures being destroyed and rebuilt it didn’t feel like destruction so much as it felt like the surgical removal of a cancer.


In War, Everyone Suffers
Finally the last section was about Germans who escaped the Firestorm and fled the city. They were almost all children at the time of the war, and they again told deeply personal stories.

A Ticket to Get Away

My husband had given me those Atikah cigarettes and so I said to my sister, ‘You know, we’ll take these; who knows, they might come in handy.’ Barmbek was still intact at the time, so we got through all right. Everywhere there were treks that also wanted to get out of Hamburg. We walked through this bombed city, by no means could we ride our bicycles, because the streets were so utterly destroyed, and sometimes the houses were still burning. Above all this there hovered a terribly undefinable stench. It was the smell of corpses. I don’t know what dead bodies smell like, but that was how I had imagined it. 

Then at some point we were on an outward road near the Berliner Tor. Everywhere there were crowds of people with all sorts of wheels to which everything was attached that they wanted to save and take along. We also waved at people. But nobody wanted to take the bikes as well. But after all, they were worth a fortune. How could one have got hold of a new bike later on? All of a sudden we had this idea about the cigarettes: We’ll hold up the cigarettes and everybody prepared to take us on board will get cigarettes. It didn’t take long and someone stopped and we said first of all, ‘But you’ll also have to take the bikes.’ ‘Yes. That’s all right. Where are you heading for?’ ‘Lüneburg.’ ‘Okay, get up then.’ They got their cigarettes and we were permitted on to teh vehicle. At eleven at night we arrived at the market square in Lüneburg. We were tired to death and absolutely knackered.”

–Inga Bonn, born 1920

Inga would have been 19 when Germany invaded Poland, and 23 when this story took place.

The First Step into a New Life

“There we were, left with nothing. We had absolutely nothing. The first saucepan that my father bought after we had been bombed out, well, I still take great care of it even today. It is a small old iron saucepan, and every year on Christmas I use it to render goose drippings. My daughter has told me ten times already, ‘I would have chucked it out long since.’ ‘Nah’, I say, ‘it means a lot to me.’ This was the first new item than my father got. That was in 1943. My father died in January 1944. He was gone.”

–Eva Kralle, born 1931

Eva would have been only 8 when Germany invaded Poland, and only 12 when the city of Hamburg was destroyed.

Barefooted Through the Phosphorus

“We walked through cellars. Until then we didn’t know what the world outside looked like. Then we climbed out somewhere. Whether it was a window or a door, I don’t remember. In the morning at eight, a storm, a firestorm. And the sky was red and black, no daylight. And the storm. We put blankets over our heads so nothing was peeking out. Us girls one after the other and the lieutenant always in front. Then the houses crashed down, those to the left and right. There were only ruins left. Well, we had to scramble over rubble, over tram rails that had already bent. Then I lost my shoes and I walked on in my bare feet.

For hours we walked on to the Dammtor. I had been burnt by phosphorus, because I was barefoot, you know. On arrival I was immediately seen to. There was a paramedic there and she said, ‘You have phosphorus burns.’ Do you think I could remember that it was painful? I can’t remember at all. Then she bandaged my feet and asked me if I had any shoes. ‘I have straw shoes’, she said. ‘I can give you those, then you have at least something for your feet.’

—Esther Angel, born 1925

Esther was 14 when Germany invaded Poland, and 18 when Operation Gomorrah destroyed her home.

My Brother

“My brother died on this path near Frankenstaβe. He had a briefcase and was allowed to take it to grammar school. I was the little brother, going to primary school with a satchel. Satchels were something terrible. I had always envied my brother that briefcase. And as luck would have it, the briefcase needed to be repaired. Something had to be sewn. And our cobbler, well, he lived at Raboisen and was not bombed out.

One day he came and brought us my brother’s briefcase which I got then. For years I used that briefcase to go to school. It was one of the few keepsakes of my brother’s which were of incredible value to me.”

—Andreas Hachingen, born 1930

Andreas was 9 at the invasion of Poland and only 13 when he lost his brother in the bombing of Hamburg.
I realized that however much I might hold the adults complicit, children can’t be held to the same standard. It makes you ask where is the line, when does someone become old enough to own the fact that part of their culture is hatred and murder?


What is the Right Way to Remember?
The language used for the displays is deeply personal and vivid but also very matter of fact. “This is what we did. This is what was done to us. Draw your own conclusions.” It’s very emotional. It’s also very different from every other country even Japan who tend to want to forget their own role in bringing the air raids to their shores. Or America’s memorials about slavery which tend to be “oh, yes we did horrible things but we figured it out and got better” (not 100% true).

At the museum of St. Nikolai, it feels like, “this horrible thing happened here and we want to remember it happened because we did horrible things first”. There is controversy on how to honor those who died.

The Hamburg firestorm literally burned its way into people’s memory. Only a few days after the bombings, the Nazi Gauleiter denounced the ‘Anglo-American bombing terror’.
After the end of the war this crude propaganda was replaced by complex and divergent memories. Each decade chose its own way of remembering. Often specific interests governed the format and contents of commemoration.

After the end of the war the anniversaries were observed on a highly regular basis. Many different memorial sites were created, ranging from a modest clay tablet on a new building to artist-designed monuments. At Ohlsdorf cemetery there is a mass grave of bomb victims. This is where in 1952 Gerhard Marcks’ memorial was inaugurated.

On the 60th anniversary of the Hamburg firestorm Jörg Friedrich’s book “Der Brand” (the Fire) triggered a heated debate on the air war. Many people were wrestling to find a proper way to navigate through the culture of remembrance. Some even declared the bombing war a ‘taboo’ topic.

In fact, the bombing in general and the Hamburg firestorm in particular have never been a taboo issue. Furthermore, the debate on the right form of commemoration is as old as the bombings themselves.

The commemorations are not only for the victims of the Nazis, but the ordinary citizens of Hamburg who likely felt themselves “not involved in politics”. If only the children, at least some who died here were innocent, and all who died here had loved ones. Yet the firebomb was not a random act of aggression. There were not “very fine people on both sides”. German invasion and aggression had to be stopped. However horrific the Firestorm was, we still see it as justified because it was used to stop the spread of Nazis.

I can’t tell you what to think any more than the museum seeks to. I can only encourage you to explore history, to seek truth and perspective, and to never grow so complacent that you think it can’t happen again if we forget.

The Ordeal was created by the Hamburg artist Edith Breckwoldt for the memorial site of Sandbostel, Lower Saxony. Sandbostel is the place where until 1945 one of the Nazi’s biggest prisoner camps was located. More than 50,000 people from many countries met their death here. The sculpture’s pedestal is built from the original stones of the prisoners’ barracks which were collected by pupils of Sandbostel on the ground of the camp. Sandbostel was also the final station for about 10,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme concentration camp in Hamburg.

Cantillon Brewery: Lambic

My travel style is about 10% famous tourist sites and about 90% “what’s that?”. I’m not going to claim that I broke new ground here, because obviously, it’s a tourist site that exists to serve tourists, but it’s definitely less well trodden and a bit unique. At some point in life, every beer lover goes on a brewery tour, just like every wine lover goes on a winery tour (mine was in Reims, France and involved Roman ruins). I like beer, but I didn’t want yet another hops/grains/cook/ferment story. When I learned about the Cantillon Brewery in Brussels, a small local brewery specializing in lambics, I knew that was the one.


As usual, the English language tours are far less frequent and often at odd times of the day. In this case, I was going to a beer tour in the morning. But not just any beer, LAMBIC! If you aren’t familiar with this wonderful, tart, Belgian brew, I recommend heading down to your local purveyor of imported beers and finding some. The main difference between lambic and other beer is in the yeast that is used to ferment it. Most brewers cultivate or buy yeast and add it to the wort in order to get that lovely fermentation and alcohol content. Lambic is made by exposing the wort to the open air of the very limited geographical region in and around Brussels in order to get wild yeast to do the job.

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In the past, I drank a Framboise (raspberry) lambic produced by Lindemans, or other fruit flavors, when I was living in America and was quite excited to dig more into the traditional brewing methods. Cantillon is the last lambic brewery in Brussels, and the website describes it as “a family brewery where Lambic, Gueuze, Faro and Kriek are made and where nothing has changed since 1900 when it was founded”. As a 5 generations family owned “brewery museum”, they are allowed to use old brewing techniques which are not allowed in the modern breweries.

Once our group was assembled, we went into room that looked like a pub complete with tables and a bar, where the guide gave an introduction to lambic and the process. He talked about spontaneous fermentation (that’s letting the wild yeast come and play) and the micro climate that exists in the river valley which creates the perfect environment for the unique combination of microbes that give lambic it’s distinctive flavor.

We talked a little about pollution and climate change as well. I was not the only person curious about how weather events like the heat wave we were experiencing could impact the micro-climate of the yeast. Not to mention the pollution of modern cities impacting the life cycle of microbes and impacting the wort during the open air exposure. Our guide said that yes, it was a concern for them, but because the brewery only brews when the weather is between 5 and 13 C they can be reasonably assured of a good quality of the wild yeast/bacteria balance. Although the number of viable days is shrinking.

He also told us about hops. In regular beer, fresh hops are often used to give a large amount of foam (head) and to give a strong bitter flavor (often but incorrectly described as ‘hoppy’). At Cantillon, they used dried aged hops to reduce the foam and bitterness and highlight the more subtle floral flavors of the hops.

Finally, he previewed the aging process which uses wooden barrels and can last up to three years! This particularly surprised me, as I’ve always thought of beer as a more “fresh served” kind of fermented beverage. I’ve even been warned in the past that letting beer sit too long can ruin the flavor. Apparently that’s only true for lagers, pilsner, and other lighter styles. Stouts, dark ale, and sour beers can all benefit from aging. The more you know.

Inside the Machinery

Once the introductory talk was concluded, we headed off into the guts of the brewery itself to see how the magic was made. Sadly, it was WELL outside the safe temperature range to actually see the brewery in action, but in many ways that worked out as an advantage because we could see the machinery up-close quite safely.


We toured three floors and learned about the process of making first mash and then wort from malted barley (sprouted barley) and wheat. On the first floor, the brewery has it’s own mill to grind the grains which poured directly into huge tanks to soak in hot water. Here the grain is ‘mashed’ around to extract the sugar cooked to reduce the complex carbohydrate chains to simple sugars. The solid remains of the process are sold to farmers as high protein livestock feed. Why do the farmers pay top dollar for brewery dregs? In Belgium, dairy farmers get paid by the protein content of their milk, not the mere volume of liquid produced, so it’s important to feed the cows well.

On the second floor, the liquid remains of this process are then mixed with aged dried hops and heated again to infuse the hops, kill unwanted bacteria and evaporate excess water. These two processes take only a few hours each.


Once it’s hops infused and bacteria free, the liquid is filtered again and poured into the giant shallow copper pan to expose it for 15 hours to the open air and local yeast. The open air pans are on the third floor where the roof has special panels that open to let the air circulate when it’s desired, or seal shut when not in use.


While we took turns looking in the small room with the copper pans, our guide passed around a bag of dried aged hops for us to smell and taste. I was really amazed by the top floral notes. I know it’s a flower, but hops is a flavor I think of as only bitter so it surprised me. Once I got past the petals and into the body, the bitter ‘hoppy’ taste was strong. It was a little like eating beer concentrate. I had to have some water to swallow it. He told us it’s very antibiotic so I hope it didn’t damage my gut flora. (the dried aged hop flower from Cantillon, and a living hop flower on a vine I spotted in Sweden)


From the tippy top to the bottom, we headed all the way into the basement to see the aging barrels. Usually they get barrels from other industries to reuse. They use wood instead of metal to allow oxygenation as part of the long fermentation.

The longest age is three years which produces a flat or still lambic (no bubbles). If they’re making a fruit blend, they mix the fruits in at 2 years and then often remix those with a combination of 1, 2 and 3 year ages, and then bottle it. This creates an environment where some fermentation continues inside the bottle, similar to the process of champagne. The end result is bubbles, but much more like a sparkling wine than a frothy beer.

The tour concluded with a tasting, of course. We tasted an 18 month old plain still lambic as a sample of the basic process. It’s not something I would drink often, but it was good to taste it almost like tasting an ingredient before the finished product. It’s still quite drinkable, with good flavor, a nice amount of sour (sour is the hallmark of lambic flavor) and very little bitter, proving the real success of those aged hops.

I tried a raspberry next, and I was surprised at how not sweet it was. The raspberry lambic I drank commonly in America was sweet and thick. The raspberry lambic from Cantillon was light and tart.
Because the corked bottles don’t keep after opening, only a few flavors were available as single glasses (2 included on the tour ticket). There were so many fascinating options on the menu, but I didn’t think I could really drink a whole bottle alone. I couldn’t even buy a bottle to take away since most of the brews on offer had to be opened and consumed on site, which was challenging for any one or even two people given the size. 37.5cl.


Thankfully, a couple who were also in my tour group invited myself and another solo traveler to go in on two bottles so we could all taste more. We got an elderflower and a rhubarb (nath). They were both quite tasty. Light, barely hoppy, and well flavored without being sweet, plus that nice lambic sourness. I don’t usually like sour beer but I am a steadfast lambic fan. I couldn’t drink it every day, but I’m so glad I had this chance.

I ended up chatting with the others a long time over our two bottles and discovered the other solo traveler is also an English teacher, working with EL Learners in the US in immigrant populations and working to standardize the early education to prepare them better for integration into schools and University. My we had lots of language/teacher geek out moments and decided to get lunch together afterwards. Turning strangers into friends is my favorite part of traveling. Even if we never meet again, I treasure the lives that come into mine.