Art, Food, and Parks in Paris

The majority of the August 2019 was spent in the Irelands, but I decided that I wanted to spend a few days in Paris on the way. You can’t really fly direct from the US to Dublin (without forking over a fortune). Connecting flights go through Heathrow or CDG. Any excuse to visit Paris. I know it’s very stereo-typical, but apparently I’m more basic than I want to admit: I love Pumpkin Spice Lattes and Paris is one of my favorite cities on Earth.


Where All Good Food Goes When It Dies

Pardon my mangling of Oscar Wilde’s famous quote, but this was the thought I had the first time I had a meal in France (not actually Paris yet, since I was on a road trip from Prague and my first stop was in Metz: photo album). I have not had any disappointing food experiences in France at all. I have been trying to figure out how to afford to live and work in France doing nearly anything just so I could have daily access to the food. Since I haven’t yet figured that out, I am having to make do with an annual pilgrimage to see my favorite art and food stops.

I was only able to spend a few days in Paris this time around, so it was mostly a food oriented excursion. I wanted to get a full range of food experiences from fine dining to street food. The first dinner was at a beautiful souffle-centric restaurant called Le Souffle which serves a three course menu of entirely souffles. I was a bit apprehensive that it might be textually monotonous, but they serve each course with some sides like salad or croquette, and the main course was a mild cheese souffle with the beef bourguignon in a side dish so you could pour the meat and sauce into the souffle, breaking up the taste and texture. For dessert, I was torn between chocolate and creme brulee… I love both, but the idea of a creme brulee souffle was too intriguing to pass up. My only regret was an inability to finish everything.

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I got to have just “regular” (amazing) French food in a nice neighborhood bistro. I got to have breakfast at my favorite chocolaterie: Angelina’s. This place has arguably the best hot chocolate, and the breakfast pastries were exquisite. I got some “fast food” at Paul’s, and a picnic lunch from the Marche d’Aligre which included this fantastic “blue” cheese. It’s actually a Tomme duBerry a la lavande. It’s a mild, uncooked, pressed cow’s milk cheese that’s colored blue and flavored with lavender and rosemary. With some lemon olives, fresh bread, ripe apricots, and a lemon tart for dessert it was a magical meal in the park.

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I could go on and on about the food in Paris. Many people have. I was going to say I have, but it turns out that for some reason I never actually wrote about my first time in Paris, and when I wrote about the second trip, I wasn’t very food focused because of the extreme heat wave going on at the time ruining my appetite. Perhaps the next time I go, I’ll actually dedicate myself to taking good food photos and notes so I can do a proper foodie write up of all my favorite places.

Let’s Go For a Walk

Since I never actually wrote about my trip in 2015, all the main Paris attractions that I did on the first trip never actually made it into the blog: Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise cemetery, Sacré-Cœur, the Champs-Élysées with Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the beautiful Tuileries Garden.

If you happen to be in Paris when the weather is nice, these are all wonderful places to go. In 2018, I went on a cycling tour and I have almost no photos and less memory about what we saw because it was 37°C and I didn’t bring enough water. The moral here is, don’t force yourself to see the beautiful outdoor attractions if you aren’t going to be able to enjoy them. There’s plenty of museums and indoor / covered activities like street markets. I made it to the March d’Aligre on this last visit which not only had plenty of wonderful fresh food on offer, but also had a rambling rummage sale of old and lost things.

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I personally think that places like the Eiffel Tower (photo album), the Champs-Élysées, the Arc de Triomphe (photo album), and the Place de la Concorde are all things you could go and see one time for a few minutes and check that off the Paris bucket list. They just aren’t that exciting… Although, it was fun to realize that I’ve now seen the matched set of obelisks that reside in Paris and Luxor respectively. The one in Paris was given to France by Muhammad Ali Pasha, Ruler of Ottoman Egypt in exchange for a French mechanical clock in 1832. It’s twin still stands outside the temple of Luxor.

Notre Dame (photo album) is a place that I would have recommended as a one and done, however, since the fire, I’m not sure this stands true any more. I personally will be interested to see how it looks in a few years. Regardless, unless gothic architecture is your jam, it’s not worth more than a couple hours one time. It is totally worth that, because it’s a very beautiful structure, but it can be very crowded and I think it’s a little overhyped since there are a few hundred (thousand?) churches around Europe that are very very similar. But you’re in Paris, so you might as well.

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The Père Lachaise (photo album) could easily be several days of wandering through a stunning gothic mausoleum laden park taking endless photos of the natural and the macabre. Plus, lots of famous graves like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. If you’re really into the dead, I think the Catacombs are a great indoor option, although I highly recommend a skip the line ticket because when we went, people were waiting 3+ hours for a tour. Also, while the above ground cemetery is definitely good for repeat meandering visits, I think that the catacombs are a single visit attraction unless you REALLY love bones.

The Sacré-Cœur (photo album) as a church is on my “one and done” list, but as a beautiful part of Paris is on the repeat visit list. The views from the top of the hill are absolutely stunning, and the culture around Sacré-Cœur is fascinating: from the roving “vendors” selling anything and everything on the steps to the famous Place du Tertre where local artist are painting and selling beautiful original works of art direct to the public.

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Last but not least, the Tuileries Garden is a large green space between the Louvre and the Musée de l’Orangerie. It’s a beautiful place to have a stroll any time of year. There’s wide open green spaces, chairs placed freely around the fountains, shady tree lined pathways, little bistros and of course a bit of a fun park at one end with a giant ferris wheel. I love to come here when I need a break between sights to enjoy the day and people watch.

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Paris Art & Feminism

I wrote a broader piece about my experiences in these two museums (d’Orsay & l’Orangerie) from my visit in 2017. In this essay, I’m going to focus on a temporary exhibition in the l’Orangerie about cubism and the unexpected feminist moment I found there.

In case it was never obvious before, I do consider myself a feminist (no I don’t hate men, no I won’t use the term “equalist”, yes I have lots of reasons. This Bustle article sums them up nicely if you want to read more). I’m constantly frustrated by the way in which all the historical artists, musicians, scientists, writers, politicians, philosophers… everything … of any note or record are almost always men. White men. Old. White. Men.

It’s not because old white men are better at these things. It is because the women who did them were suppressed. They were put down in their own lifetimes. Their work was stolen by men who took the credit. Their work was copied by men who took the credit. They were just written out of history. By the men who write history books.

Women are supposed to cook for the family, but only men can be great chefs? Women have historically been expected to spin, weave and sew yet fashion is a man’s business? Art forms that men can’t steal are just demeaned, like embroidery or textile crafting. It’s nice this is finally starting to break down in the 21st century, but we still don’t have enough of a balance in the way we teach and promote artists in mainstream culture. Adding women artists to the public consciousness doesn’t mean removing male artists, and it’s high time we start.

Many of the artists and composers and even authors on my “love it” list are dudes. I’m not going to stop enjoying their work just because I’m adding female artists to my worldview. I don’t know if I would have identified with any female artist growing up simply because I wasn’t ever exposed to any. I don’t think we have room for a limited number of artists in our lives. I think the more art the better. While we’re at it, maybe start adding non-eurocentric art and POC artists too, like Robert S. Duncanson (1821–1872) who was an African-American man who escaped to Canada during the Civil War and taught himself to paint.

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The museums in Paris, in particular the l’Orangerie, have been trying to have more women artists on display. Last time I was there in 2018 it was Helen Frankenthaler. I wasn’t that into her art because I am not a fan of abstract impressionism, but I was really happy to see her in an installation that included Rothko and Pollock. The museum talked a lot about her life and the challenges she faced being a woman in the highly sexist art scene. She was talented, dedicated and prolific yet she’s not discussed when most people talk about this period of art history.

This time, the featured woman artist was much more personally to my liking and I became much more invested in her art and identity. I am only human, and tend to spend more time and energy on the things that personally interest / impact me. If you’ve never seen her work before, then it is my distinct pleasure to introduce you to the art of Marie Laurencin.

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“Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) initially studied porcelain painting, before going on to study drawing at a school in Paris and at the Academie Humbert. She was part of the circle of friends at the Bateau-Lavoir known as the “Picasso gang”, and it was here that she met the poet Guillaume Apollinaire with whom she had a passionate and stormy affair.

Attracted to Fauvism for a time, Marie Laurencin, the “Cubist Muse”, simplified and idealized her forms under their influence. From 1910, she preferred a palette of pastel tones, particularly grays and pinks. She went on to discover the painting of Goya in Spain.

In 1920, she began to paint the willowy, ethereal female figures that she would return to later in paintings with pastel tones, evoking a magical world. She painted portraits of famous Parisian figures, and designed stage sets, for the Ballet Russes in particular. Through this, she became interested in metamorphosis, bringing together two of her favorite themes: young women and animals.”

— Informative sign at l’Orangerie

It’s not that Laurencin or  Frankenthaler have been erased. They have (short) Wikipedia pages and it’s not hard to find their paintings online. Before the internet, however, they were virtually invisible to anyone who was not an art history student. Artists like Pollok and Picasso have had hundreds of books, movies, and t-shirts made about their lives and art. They’re referenced frequently in pop culture and have been made to stand as the premier examples of their art eras.

Picasso was a womanizer, an abuser, a narcissist and highly misogynistic. This isn’t just my opinion. It’s well documented. Yet we treat him and his work as sacrosanct as though it is the ONLY example of cubism in all of history. I’m not suggesting we bury the male artists just because they’re jerks, however I think it’s time we start taking a look around and who else might be worthy of historical preservation and artistic praise.

Honestly looking around the museum that day, there was plenty of Picasso on display. It isn’t that impressive.. OK cubism did all this great stuff for “art” and the advancement of creativity, but he wasn’t the only one. I found his works that day to be coarse and overly focused on women as sexual objects. I’ve had a chance to go back through a photo collection of his body of work and I think that whoever curated that particular display may have been selecting for contrast, and I acknowledge that wasn’t a universal trait. However, that day, it was jumping out at me that he was painting women as breasts with a body and maybe a face attached.

Even though Picasso insisted on referring to her as a Cubist Muse or “Our Lady of Cubism” Laurencin didn’t think of her art as cubist, but rather more impressionist. She’s still classed as a cubist artist to this day because art historians would rather listen to how the men defined her rather than how she defined herself.

Despite all this feminism, Laurencin didn’t paint women for empowerment. She also thought they were beautiful. “Why should I paint dead fish, onions and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier,” she once said.

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To me it seemed that she focused on their beauty rather than their ability to please a male gaze/touch. Her paintings reached out and grabbed me despite their pastel colors and watery images. The idea that a women could paint women because they are pretty the way flowers or rainbows are pretty rather than because they stir the passions of men. There have been a few queer male artists in the well documented side of history that painted beautiful women in an absence of sexual desire, but mostly you get people like Raphael who literally made up non-existent sex goddesses to paint out of the most attractive parts of the hundreds of ladies he seduced. Really early photo-shopping of models, I guess?

It isn’t to say that Laurencin didn’t sexualize women at all. Apparently she was known for attending sapphic parties “comprised of lesbian and bisexual women socialized and discussed links between female desire and creative production”. If anything she was likely bi- or asexual since her long term relationship with Guillaume Apollinaire is well documented. However, if she did sexualize women in her paintings, it serves to highlight the extreme difference in what a male and female sexual gaze focuses on.

Regardless of Laurencin’s sexual orientation, the sapphic parties weren’t lesbian orgies. The hostess and participants of those parties were early first wave feminists seeking to own their desire and creative power at a time that most women were expected to stay home and raise a family. For context, the suffragette movement in France was happening at the same time (1909-1945).

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It doesn’t surprise me to learn in retrospect that she was a feminist and (probably) queer. I didn’t really know any of this while I was standing agape in the museum wondering how it was that Picasso had been shoved down my throat my whole life while I had never once seen these ethereal and graceful monuments of feminine self-celebration. All I knew was that they were beautiful and yet strong. They were made by a woman for women (Coco Channel, above, was one of her more famous clients) and that they showed beauty within a wholly feminine framework.

For a longer and more comprehensive story of her life, I recommend this website:

https://www.theartstory.org/artist/laurencin-marie/life-and-legacy/

Vincent and Me

I know I said I was going to tell you about Ireland, but… We passed through Paris for a few days on the way because CDG is in the middle of everything and I love Paris. Another visit to the Musee d’Orsay got me thinking about the impressionists I love, especially Van Gogh. So, this post isn’t about Ireland OR Paris, it’s about my experience at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.


In the summer of 2018, I passed through Amsterdam for a single day. You can read about the rest of the day here, but this post is dedicated 100% to the Van Gogh Museum.  It was such an inspiring and emotional experience for me that I paused to take notes about my thoughts and feelings as I was walking through the collection. Usually, I write reflections afterward, but my mind was racing with insights and inspirations so fast, I was afraid I might forget. I mentioned in my essay about the Musee d’Orsay how connected I feel to Vincent, but it wasn’t until I toured this museum in Amsterdam that I really understood the depth of my feelings.

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I didn’t include this in my original stories about that summer because I wanted to watch the movie “Loving Vincent” before I finished writing it. I finally got that chance when it turned up on Netflix for a short run earlier this year. The movie was beautifully hand painted in Van Gogh’s signature style, but I was surprised to find it’s almost entirely about his death rather than his life. The point of view character is charged with delivering a letter and gets caught up in the mysterious circumstances of Vincent’s supposed suicide.

I’ve always loved Van Gogh, and it seems everything I learned about him at that museum only made me love him more.

The Museum

The museum is so crowded. I had the very earliest time slot available and I still felt hemmed in by bodies. I went backwards from his death on the third floor to his youth on the ground level. I’m glad I started at the top because after 3 hours of wandering the displays, I felt all itchy skinned at having to deal with mountains of bodies, mostly focused on their audio tours, and many trying to take photos even though it’s not allowed except at special photo-op areas. Even then, the museum took my photo for me, and sent it later by email.

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That was a big contrast over the d’Orsay. There everyone queued up to snap photos of famous painting (yeah, me too), while in Amsterdam, people are just clumped around, usually plugged into headphones and oblivious to the presence of other visitors. I’m not sure which is better/worse. I think it would just generally be better if it were less crowded. It’s hard to get time with a painting when being jostled and stepped around. I’m glad everyone wants to experience the art but it feels like it looses something to my “oh my God get the humans off me” response. I can’t even imagine how it is during “peak” times.

I’ll talk about the main displays in a moment, but one little fun mention is the tactile sunflowers near the gift shop. Art museums are not usually targeted to the blind or visually impaired, but someone had created  a reproduction of the famous sunflower painting that can be touched. Along with touch, the senses of sound in the form of violin music with amplified sounds of the flower growing, blooming and dying (listen below), and the sense of smell with some sunflowers in a box. Interestingly, it was not only the smell of the flower but the smell of the painting as well. It’s not a part of Vincent’s art, but I thought it was an amazing way to experience art in a new way.

On to Vincent — backwards.

He died July 29, 1890, two days after receiving a bullet wound to the torso, possibly self inflicted.

Auvers-sur-Oise (May–July 1890)

 The works at the end of his life were frenzied like he knew his time was almost out of time, and he had to get as many paintings done as possible. He finished 75 paintings in 70 days, many of which are his most famous works: like Wheat Fields with Crows in Amsterdam, or Church at Auvers in Paris. There is impatience in the brush strokes and they looked massively different from a few feet away and across the room.

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The way he is attracted to the colors of night, the intense deep blue of the sky on days it gets so blue it becomes dark. The blue and pale gold of all his wheat fields that is a color scheme I would live inside if I could. He did scores of these kind of blue and gold themed paintings during his last days, but it wasn’t the first time he hit on the intensity of those countryside colors.

Saint-Rémy (May 1889 – May 1890)

Although Starry Night and Almond Blossoms were both made during this time, the paintings on display for this part of his life are drab compared to his other colors. Almost painfully dominated by brown and dark green with pale skies. He was in pain and unable to escape.

Part of the display in the museum here are audio recordings of some of his letters. We could pick up an ear piece and listen. I was entranced. Listening to his letters I could hear my own thoughts, yearning for something best called “religion”. He says that he doesn’t go to church, but he goes outside at night to look at the stars and the sky that is cobalt blue. He muses about color, that all things appear colorless when looked at too closely (sand, water, air), but that doesn’t make it true. He talks about his friends: that the bonds of friendship are one of the best things in life even if we resent those bonds in our times of depression.

I don’t know the best way to explain it other than to say his words resonated with me on a very deep level. I think we all struggle to be understood in some way and in a moment when you realize someone you admire and respect understands the way you think and feel, what’s more, understood it long before you were born… I suppose it could make someone feel less special or unique, but for me it’s like finding a friend across not just space, but also time.

Arles (1888–89)

This is where Vincent painted the famous Sunflowers, and where many people feel he truly found his voice as an artist, taking what he’d learned and finally becoming free. Van Gogh’s treasured friendships also started here where he sought an artists commune and cultivated a joyful and supportive relationship with several painters. They frequently sent letters, sketches, and even paintings to one another the way that we sent Snapchats and Memes across social media today. There is a painting by Gauguin of Vincent painting sunflowers. It is an imagination since Gauguin was not present when the sunflower paintings were made, but it reminded me of the “taking a picture of someone taking a picture” fashion in modern photography. It seems friends play the same games with images whenever they can.

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Vincent asked Paul Gauguin and Émile Bernard to each send him a portrait of the other. Instead, they sent self portraits but had a portrait of the other hanging on a wall as part of the background.  It’s such a wonderful and lighthearted sense of humor. Sadly, Gauguin was such an arrogant ass that he never granted his true friendship, and instead left Vincent always chasing after his affection and respect, contributing to his anxiety and depression, and to his eventual mental breakdown, self-mutilation, and hospitalization. I don’t like Gauguin for a lot of reasons, this is really just one more.

On the other hand, Paul Signac, a neo-impresionist I only recently discovered in 2018 and one who has rocketed to the top of my all time favorite paintings list, visited Vincent in the hospital twice while Gauguin was busy avoiding him, so that’s nice to know.

Paris (1886–1888)

Moving to Paris was the best thing he could have ever done. Watching him develop his color palette reminded me of the first time I realized I was allowed to paint whatever colors I wanted. I didn’t have to make it realistic. It was so freeing and I finally started to like some of my paintings. Looking at his early bright-color works they all have an awkward, exploring feeling which is quite different from the bold and confident colors later.

He used a grid for perspective, which was a thing I struggled with, and he spent years doing just drawings because he wanted to focus on shapes and poses. He didn’t only consider them sketches but full works of art which he signed. I did very much the same thing. He also had a brief but torrid love affair with Japanese culture in 1887, and that was the first foreign culture I was drawn to before I really went full globe trotter. I have never been able to afford as much paint and canvas as I want, and the advent of digital photography and graphic design gave me a much cheaper way to pursue my artistic inclinations.909px-Vincent_van_Gogh_-_Bloeiende_pruimenboomgaard-_naar_Hiroshige_-_Google_Art_Project

While many of his artist friends preferred to paint from imagination, Vincent  preferred to paint from life. I wonder what he would have thought of color photography. It’s a way to capture a scene, a moment of light and color. Modern digital effects even allow us to manipulate the colors and light of a captured image. You can make a blue sky bluer, or over-saturate the colors of a cafe at night… I think he might have enjoyed it?

The Netherlands (1881-1885)

At the outset of his artistic career, he was trying to create a look that was popular at the time and that he genuinely admired, that of artists like Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton. Millet and Breton (left) were famous for dark and drab paintings of peasant life. They were very stark and brutal depictions of what life was like for poor and hard working, technically lovely, but emotionally ugly. Of course, art historians refer to this style of painting as revealing “the beauty and idyllic vision of rural existence”. I think that’s only true if you’ve never been poor. VanGogh (right) was determined to be like them.

He did an enormous body of work sketching local peasants and farm workers, the centerpiece of which is The Potato Eaters (below). It’s all done in the same color palette and mood as Millet and Breton, but the faces look almost cartoonish in his effort to capture feelings over accuracy.

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Seeing his still life of fruit in all brown tones, I was shocked to see it was Van Gogh and not Millet’s or Breton. 

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Just looking at the church in Nunes (left) next to the church in Auvers (right), you can see the change and growth. Yes, I promise, they’re both Van Gogh, but from drastically different stages of his artistic development.

I don’t know if he liked it, but it’s definitely a period of drab and dark colors maybe the landscape was more drab or maybe it was the influence of being near his father. He stayed enamored of Millet (left) for most of the rest of his life, and recreated many of those idyllic, pastoral scenes in his own brightly colored impressionistic style (right).

Life Before Painting (1853-1881)

It’s said that his mother never recovered from the loss of her firstborn child and that her relationship with Vincent was strained, but he was also recorded as being a “serious, quiet and thoughtful” child. His father was a minister, and two of his uncles were art dealers. He tried both careers with little success. His father was constantly disappointed in his inability to make it as an adult. Perhaps it was his time as an art dealer that made him try his hand at creating art, and why he spent so much time and effort trying to replicate the style and subject of the famous and successful artists of the time.

Reflections

Going backwards was an interesting choice. I realize that I, like most people, love best his works from 1888-1890. It seems like such a brief time span, but he practiced art for less than 10 years before he died. It is astonishing the amount of work he produced. When people say “practice” this is really what they mean. On the other hand, he was constantly trying to improve, so the fact that he clearly did is a testament to his devotion to self cultivation.

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Watching him evolve was a rushing, intimate roller-coaster of creativity and self-expression under difficult circumstances. He didn’t have formal art training, but taught himself by studying others. He experienced enormous frustration that his attempts to imitate the respected artists he was familiar with failed. Eventually, he found a community of like minded people and permission to explore color and shape on his own in Paris. It was the beginning of finding his own true self, and yet it destroyed his mind to the point that he landed in the hospital more than once. And yet, that Parisian community is what would sustain him in the form of letters, art exchanges, and the oh-so-important stability that even distant friends can offer. 

There’s a misconception that great artists are never appreciated in their own time, but that’s simply untrue. Most famous artists throughout history were superstars of their own day, like Hollywood actors and TV stars today. That Vincent never gained any recognition or respect until after his death was likely a contributing factor to his suffering in life.

Did he kill himself? Maybe. I know that the episode of Dr. Who where Amy and the Doctor visit Vincent is one of my favorite. That it helped me process the suicide of my own dear friend to realize that we can do everything right to be supportive and yet mental illness can still take someone away as surely as cancer. “Loving Vincent” made me question his death all over as suspicious information came to light regarding the gun, the wound, and the strange behavior of the people in Auvers. Officially, his death is still ruled a suicide, but his life remains a brilliant and sad mystery in many ways. According to his brother who was there at the end, Vincent’s last words were: “The sadness will last forever”

In some ways I’m glad I did not read about his life when I was younger. If I’d discovered all our similarities at the age of 20 I might have developed a complex. I might have worked less hard to get help and spent more time glorifying what was happening to me. Instead, when I learned that we shared a diagnosis, I was content just to know there was someone else with my brain trouble.

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I remember when things were very bad thinking that if cutting my ear off would make it stop, I would gladly do so, but Vincent had already proven it wouldn’t work. I could understand the feelings that drove him to see the world in colors and swirls, that drove him mad enough to drink and self-harm, that landed him in an asylum and eventually dead. I understood the sentiment, but I didn’t know anything else about him beyond a few paintings and his suicide. Back then, I looked only at his art and at the very most well known facts about his life and felt a connection.

Now that I’ve learned more details, from his family life, to his progress through art, to his views on the universe and human relationships? I’m blown away by it.

I’m not trying to say I’m channeling van Gogh, but I’ve always felt a kinship with him. I didn’t move to Paris and join an artist commune, so I don’t have a tiny fraction of his nearly 1,000 finished works. I probably never will, because I was able to manage my state of mind better, whether from support of my community or improved medical care, who can say. The end result is that I got it under control and now I not only have a lot more responsibilities than Vincent did, I have also avoided multi-year stretches of confinement under a doctor’s care. Despite this divergence, I can say that trying to be “normal”, “acceptable”, or “popular” in his own lifetime was something he desperately wanted and could never achieve is a feeling I know all too well.

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You can see photos of the complete works of Vincent Van Gogh on this wiki.

You can explore the collection at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsteram here.

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. 

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

Image result for framboise lambic

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.

Stories Around Hamburg

My week in Hamburg was cut a little short because of the insane heat wave going on last summer. I spent an unfortunate amount of time simply being too hot and trying to recover from that. 37 C with no AirCon or even fans is treacherous. Plus, my Airbnb was up 5 flights of stairs, no elevator. I still had some interesting and unique experiences while I was there, most notably the ruins of the Cathedral of St. Nikolai, the Hamburg Harbor, the Miniature Wonderland, a wonderful ferry down the Elbe to see some old shipwrecks on the shore, a live music fountain light show in the park, and an interactive haunted history adventure!


Monday Madness

Monday was the single busiest day I had in Hamburg. I started the day with a trip to the ruins of the church of St. Nikolai because I love ruins. The spire stands as the highest point in the city of Hamburg and is quite distinctive sticking up above the surrounding trees and buildings.

bove ground, you can explore the ruins of what remain after the Firestorm of 1943, see some beautiful artwork, and take the elevator all the way to the tippy top of the tower for 360 degree views of the city.

It’s really quite delightful, and included in the elevator ticket price, is entrance to the museum located in the former cellar of the church. I’ve never been one to turn down a museum, but the experience was vastly more than I bargained for, and is getting its very own blog post. Let me just preface by saying, wow, the German’s don’t pull punches when it comes to discussing their role in the Nazi disaster.

After the memorial museum, I continued on toward the warehouse district where I had scheduled a combo harbor tour and Miniature Wonderland experience which I previously shared. I really have no idea what the tour guide said as it was 100% in German, but the harbor is really pretty, and I did get to see sunset from on the river Elbe which was a real treat.


Tuesday Too Hot
Tuesday was the hottest day. I went out for food and the restaurant was lovely but sweltering without Air-con or fans. I decided beer is hydrating. It’s certainly more available than water. I had the most tender pork and wonderful sauerkraut.


I thought I could find a cafe like Starbucks to enjoy AC and iced latte until it was time to go to the park in the evening but if they had AC it couldn’t compete the weather. One cafe that actually had a visible ac was out of ice for drinks.

In the end, I had to give up on everything and head back to my room where at least I could get ice and a cold shower. I’m genuinely worried for the people in Europe if climate change continues to serve up these super hot summers in towns without the infrastructure or social awareness to handle them. Even something as simple as putting a 3/4 full water bottle in the freezer in preparation of a hot day out was a complete novelty to my German hostess. In future, I’m not planning to return to the mainland of Europe during the summer months ever again.


Shipwrecks on the Beach, Cruises on the Elbe, it’s Wednesday!


Way down the river at Blankenese there are some slightly famous shipwrecks. Old craft that were simply not ever cleaned up, yet are so close to the shore that they are completely exposed at low tide. It sounded cool… or… at least interesting, even if the weather was still too hot. Sadly, I had the only day of difficulties with the Hamburg transit that day. The 50 minute journey took 2 hours and I got to the wrecks 45 minutes after low tide instead of 15 minutes before. Despite this setback, I did get to see them mostly out of the water and in the shade with the wind it was a nice place to sit and rest and watch the tide come in.


I don’t much like swimming alone at larger beaches. I seem to be good with smaller places, I was fine in the Philippines in the rivers, but not the beaches. I like swimming in the ocean if I’m snorkeling, but not just wandering into the water from the shore unless I’m with a group. Whatever the reason, I didn’t go swimming in the Elbe that day, but once I cooled in the shade, I was content to sit and watch the river and enjoy the breeze.


On my way to the ferry terminal, I saw a marker on Google Maps called “magic tree” so of course I had to stop and look. I have no idea what it was or how it got labeled on the map, but it was pretty?


This ferry ride was everything I wanted. Very few humans, a seat in the shade with a breeze and a nice view. They even got close to a few points of interest since it’s a tour ferry. Much better than the overfilled boat tour I’d taken as a combo with the Miniature Wonderland ticket.


The ferry dropped me off downtown at St. Pauli’s, a famous bustling cultural hub in Hamburg. I had a delicious salmon sandwich at Pier 10 then went to the night market. It was a little less “market” and more “outdoor bar” with some food trucks but still cool. I drank a beer and got some specialty cheese.


Thursday: Fountains and Flowers and Music oh my!
Another extremely hot day. I stayed in all day, drenching myself in cold water and holding a frozen water bottle to my neck. When the sun got lower and the temperatures dropped back below 30C, I went out to the botanical gardens. I decided to go out before sunset despite the heat because I wanted a chance to see the actual gardens, but my main goal was to see the fountain and light show with live music accompaniment that is a nightly feature at the gardens in summer. I walked slowly, taking my time to enjoy the flowers and take lots of pictures.

The gardens were stunning, if slightly wilted from heat. More locals came out to enjoy the relief of the relatively cooler evening air and to eat some ice cream by the lake. I even ran into a swing dancing group cutting a rug in an open pavilion in the park.

Then, when I was ready for a rest, I sidled up to the in-park restaurant for dinner. I decided to finally try currywurst. I’d seen it all over the place but hadn’t eaten any yet because I was trying to enjoy what I thought of as “traditional German” food. In the end, I gave in because currywurst was so ubiquitous I had to accept it as a local specialty. I’m not really sure it’s related to curry. It’s a wurst (sausage) with sauce that may be tamarind since it tasted a bit fruity and tart, I think it was sprinkled with turmeric powder. It was nice but somehow nether Indian nor German. I don’t know the fascination but at least I can say I’ve tried it.

For the concert, I found a spot by the water early on as the lawns around the lake began to fill up with families on picnic blankets. I watched ducks and geese be unbelievably blase about humans even as toddlers chased then around the grass.

I’ve been to a lot of fountain shows, I love them all, but what makes the Hamburg show so unique is that it’s all live. The music is performed live, and the person controlling the fountains and lights is activating all of it live. It’s not a pre-programmed computer controlled performance, so it’s not as perfect or technically marvelous as some, but it has the tremendous advantage of being totally unique every time, and of involving live performance artists. I was sitting so close to the edge I got sprayed by the fountains from time to time which was a welcome respite from the day’s heat. One day, I’ll buy a better night time camera, but here’s a little snippet to give you an idea of the show.


Hamburg was an up and down experience going from extreme heat and misery to wonderful, captivating experiences when the heat eased off. I wish I could have experienced the city more fully in better weather because I really loved everything I was able to experience while there.

It’s basically impossible for me to fit a whole city into one post, and Hamburg is no exception. I’ve already published the story of Miniature Wonderland, and following this post will be the deeply emotional ride through the St. Nikolai WWII memorial museum, and finally the thrilling conclusion of my last adventure in Hamburg: The Dungeon!!!!!!

More Moscow: Izmailovo Kremin

If possible, in every place I go, I like to find at least one less well known but still terribly interesting place to go. Atlas Obscura has become one of my best research and planning tools for this particular goal. In Moscow, I settled on a place called Izmailovo Kremlin. The website described it as “an unexpected, fairytale-like cultural wonderland” so of course I had to go. It was a bit of an adventure just finding the locale, and the weather was not especially co-operative, but it was definitely an entirely unpredictably unique experience. Plus, I got some bonus political commentary fodder at the airport on the way out!


Getting Lost and Found

Without any WiFi, even in restaurants or cafes, I was totally unable to look up the route to travel there. I found myself standing in the Revolution Square (red square) metro station with no idea how to get to my goal. I racked my brains trying to remember how in the world I had navigated complex subway systems before my life was data-plan dependent and finally remembered the existence of metro maps!

metro_map

I knew the name of the station (Partizanskaya) I wanted to go to, but I couldn’t find the station on the subway map. I didn’t even know which color line to look at. Finally, I fell back on the most low tech of options… I asked the person at the information desk. It’s not that I mind talking to humans, I like talking to humans quite often, but I have become rather dependent on my map apps and had nearly forgotten how I used to do this when I didn’t have a smart phone. Thankfully she was able to pull out a Metro pamphlet with English and show me where I wanted to be in relation to where I was.

Armed with this knowledge I set off into the subway. It turns out the one place you can maybe sometimes get actually free WiFi is ON the subway (not in the station, but in the subway car). This WiFi did allow me to pull up maps and do basic google searches, but it blocked me entirely from any and all social media platforms. It was also very hit or miss and dropped out quite often, but I grasped it like a lifeline to verify my travel directions.

At this point it is important to note that I cannot read Russian letters. I picked up a couple just looking around. The thing that looks like “P” is really “R”, and П is “P”, and the thing that looks like Greek “theta” is “F”, and the thing that looks like a backward N is “i”… and I just do this because reading is such an important part of my world that my brain needs to make sense of the symbols it knows are words. Whenever I saw English and Russian side by side I’d try to piece it together. But, mostly, I was relying on the English transliteration of these words to find the right Metro stop because, bless, they are all written in both alphabets at all the stations and on the maps.

Anyone who has ever tried to learn a complex new word or name in a language quite different from your own will understand how all our mental tricks for remembering are totally useless! If it’s more than two syllables, I’m going to need to hear, say, write and read it several times to really remember. So, when I’m looking for a shortcut to help me identify things like metro station names, I tend to look at the first sound and last sound (or letter cluster) in a word and forget the middle. So “Partizanskaya” became “P -something – kaya” in my head. Most of the time this works very well.

Most of the time.

On the blue line in Moscow, there is another stop that is “p-something-kaya”, Pervomayskaya, that is only two stops over. Now that my linguistic brain has had more time to look at the map, I realize that “kaya” is basically “station” or “platform” and ALL the stops end this way. Instead of getting the beginning and end of the station name, I actually was looking for “P-station”. No wonder that didn’t work out well. In hindsight, I can see several other mnemonic aids that would have been far more effective, but alas, at the time, p-something-kaya seemed like such a great idea.

I actually rode outside the brown circle during this trip. There’s a wall or fence there. The metro comes out from underground and you get to see some scenery. I’m a little tripped out by the fence. The first time I saw it I thought maybe it was the edge of a park (because I was looking at the wrong part of the map), but on my way back in, with proper spacial orientation, I realized that it lined up with line 14, the Moscow Central track, the edge of the city proper. Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t able to find any official information on whether this fence goes all the way around or covers just a part of the area, but I did find an interesting article on fences in Russian culture.

I got off the metro at the wrong P-something and was staring intently at the signs and street names trying to orient myself on a Google Map that refused to tell me where I was (GPS doesn’t need data or WiFi, but still worked very sporadically in Moscow). There were some people handing out pizza coupons at the metro entrance and I asked them if they knew where the Izmailovo Kremlin was. I was hoping that even if they didn’t understand my English that my pronunciation of “Izmailovo Kremlin” would be decent enough to get the idea across, but they were flummoxed. Thinking I was going to just have to pick a direction and start walking, a young lady asked timidly in accented English if she could help.

I accepted gratefully and she was able to explain to me my mistake with the P-something station names and directed me to go back two stops and that it would be quite obvious from there. One more reason to get unlimited metro travel if it’s possible is the almost inevitable need to back track, or side track or otherwise take more trips than would be necessary if you weren’t a lost tourist.

Fairy-tale Skyline

When I did make it to the right stop, it was fairly obvious which way to go as soon as I got to the main intersection. Izmailovo Kremlin’s distinctive fairy-tale buildings are visible a good way off, and gave me the almost immediate impression that I was walking into the Russian version of the magic kingdom.

Not really knowing anything about this place, nor being able to read the signs, I just followed the road into the large and colorful gate. The gray skies were a disappointment since bright sunlight would have brought out the color more, but I was determined to make the best of it. However, just as I entered the main gate, a torrential downpour that had more in common with an Indian monsoon than a European rain began. It was even more intense than the rain that had fallen while I was walking around the real Kremlin. The concrete pathways of the nearly empty market became ponds and rivers within a few moments.

Recalling how quickly the earlier deluge had subsided, I huddled up next to an empty stall under the wooden awning and exchanged “what can you do?” looks with the vendors nearby. It took about 15-20 minutes to calm down and even then, walking was precarious.

At first I thought these were simply vendors lining the entrance of the park. It’s fairly common to see the souvenir shops at the entrance/exit of any attraction, but as I walked more, I realized that the entire space I was in was nothing but market, and more than 90% was empty. I have seen pictures online where it looks full, but I have to think that was just a really creatively aimed shot because it is huge. I stopped and spoke with several vendors selling matryoshka (nesting) dolls. I had one when I was a child and I thought that some authentic Russian dolls from Russia would be nice gifts for my niblings.

If you are in the market for unique matroyshka, this is the place. While there were plenty of vendors offering the same factory mass produced dolls as every souvenir stand in Russia, there were also many vendors who had exclusive deals with local artists or were themselves artists. I spoke with one man whose wife painted the dolls he sold. They were exquisite. Each set, he said, took her 10+ days to paint and he was selling them for 40-60$ US. You can’t GET original hand-painted art of that quality at that price most places. After even just a few booths it became obvious which styles everyone had and which styles were unique among the vendors. I wish I’d been in the market for some art because I was honestly blown away. Some sets had more than 10 layers and the smallest doll was only the size of a lentil. In the end, I settled on some of the lower cost, but still unique styles to send to my sister’s kids so they could have something special, but not too special to play with.

Ghost Town

Once I moved in past the opening cluster of booths (which were still less than half occupied) the whole place turned into a ghost town. Row after row of empty, disheveled booths. Perhaps once grandiose decorations in a state of discoloration and disrepair. Gardens and their statues overgrown and wilting. And everything empty and silent. It was eerie, but more than that, it was bewildering. Where were the fairy tale buildings? Where were the museums? Where was all the stuff that was not market?

I could slightly see some interesting looking buildings that were off to one side of the market area but had no idea how to get to them. I followed path after path that led me to soggy, deteriorating and empty spaces for displays or cafes. A huge covered space of tables and benches stood abandoned, no restaurant in sight. I don’t know if it was the rain or the season that led to the strange emptiness of the park that day.

Finally, I met up with a group of Spanish tourists who were also trying to find a way into the “other side” of the park. They were looking for a place to eat as well as the advertised attractions. In the end, we found a single bridge that went from the gardens at the back of the market up and into a much more active looking area. Alas, the bridge was flooded. The sides of the structure went from footpath to handrail in one seamless block, allowing no spaces for air or water to escape. Instead of being built, as most bridges are, with a slight arch that would sweep water off the ends, this bridge sagged in the center and allowed a positive lake of rainwater to collect across more than 3 meters of the path. I was so focused on crossing, I forgot to photo the flood, but here’s more eerily empty shopping stalls!

We searched for an alternative route in vain. None of us were wearing waterproof shoes, and I had so underestimated the rain in Moscow that I packed my rain-covers in my checked luggage! The idea of spending the rest of the day, the whole flight back to Korea, and the bus ride to my home with damp socks was not appealing. I was just about to give up and head back to the main entrance when one of the guys figured out the secret: walk on your heels! He carefully walked, stiff-legged, placing only the heel of each shoe into the water gently so as not to splash and made it to the other side with dry socks.

Slowly the rest of us followed suit with someone I assumed was the “dad” of the trip laughing and filming the girls who were walking across as I did. I expected to feel the cold seeping wetness in my socks at any moment, but I did make it to the other side dry. I’m sure I looked like a perfect idiot, but I’ll take looking silly over wet socks any day.

Crossing into the Secret Place

Finally we were in the fairy-tale realm. It was still astonishingly empty, especially compared with the huge crowds at the real Kremlin in Red Square. I bustled around taking pictures and exploring the space. There were several places to get food and drinks, although I was still happy after my Metropol meal. Most of the museums were either closed or thinly veiled gift shops. And there was an excess of brides. I think there is actually a chapel there, but definitely a wedding photography studio. I can understand why people would love to have wedding photos taken against the dramatic background, but I felt sorry for the brides that day who had gray and rainy skies. One of the Spanish tourists told me that in Spain it’s actually good luck to have rain at your wedding, so maybe they brought some of their cultural luck with them that day.

I meandered into the church of St. Nikolas and up the stairs of the central hall. It wasn’t open that day either, but I think the interior is used for parties or receptions. There seemed to be a stage in front of an especially colorful building, but no performances listed. I don’t know what the experience would have been like if it had been fully open and bustling, but I rather enjoyed the silence and stillness after the rush and crowds elsewhere. I felt like it was my own little private discovery I was sharing with only a few other people that day. I also felt like it gave me a view of Russia behind the curtains.

I think every country wants to show it’s best face on websites and tourism videos. I know for a fact that LA doesn’t really look the way tourists expect it to. However, I find that some countries try harder to keep tourists in the “pretty” places than others. China, for example, works very hard to create an image in tourist areas that you have only to walk a few blocks away from to realize isn’t really accurate. Most tourists never do, though. Moscow felt like that to me. Because I used the public transit, got lost a couple times, and went to this out of the way attraction on what seemed to be a rather slow day, I saw parts of the city and the culture that I would have missed on a well managed tour.

Of course, there’s only so much I could see on a 20 hour layover no matter how lost I got, so I know that my impressions are only cursory. Nonetheless, I’m glad I chose to set out solo and take my chances, even if that meant taking some lumps along the way.

Toward the end of my time in Izmailovo Kremlin, the sun came partway out, creating a dynamic sky of dark clouds with golden light. It made me happy, standing on the top floor balcony and looking over the church and square below, to get this little sliver of sunlight as my farewell.

On my way back out, I paused at one more puddle to take a reflection photo. This requires squatting down to get the camera lens as close to the level of the puddle as possible, and some other tourists stopped to watch me. When I stood up again they politely asked what I had been doing and I showed the mother and her two tween girls the effect of using a simple rain puddle as a reflecting surface. One of the girls was instantly enchanted and dropped down to try it out for herself. After very few pointers, she had it down pat, and even got a beautiful shot with one of the brides walking away. I missed my chance at that one because I was looking over her shoulder playing teacher, but I think it was a worthy trade.

I took a lot of photos that day, so here’s a little video montage with the rest of my best shots from Izmailovo Kremlin.

Pravda in the Airport

The airport express from central Moscow to SVO is, like all the public transit in Moscow, quite efficient. It was a little crowded, but affordable and on time with no unexpected troubles. It did let us off a very long way from the international terminal, but that gave me a chance to get some coffee and new earbuds for the long flight back.

I’m very glad I was already checked into my flight and had a boarding pass. The lines for customs and security check were ridiculous. I had finished my coffee and of course emptied my water bottle during this process and had no recourse but to buy water from the airport vending machines. I still haven’t found a single source of free drinking water in the Moscow airport.

Last but not least, while waiting for the boarding line to shrink enough to be worth standing in, I noticed one of the large TVs was rolling trailers and advertising for one of Russia’s major news networks…. Russia’s state sponsored “news” networks.

As an American who actually remembers the USSR and the cold war, I grew up with some ideas about Russia that were surely American propaganda, but one of the things I learned about that was not was that the Soviet’s state run newspaper was called “Pravda” which means “truth”. It was anything but. Between the end of the cold war and the beginning of the cyber war, there was a short but glorious time where we were able to get some relatively accurate information about the Soviet state.

I didn’t bother much with Russia when I was studying my MA because I very foolishly thought we were allies now. Oh, past me, how optimistic you were. I did, however, study the entire history of nuclear weapons and nuclear non-proliferation activities which MOSTLY involved us and the USSR / Russia so I had to learn a modicum of Russian history and culture as part of that. Let me just say, when the Guardian called the Russian state run media “a propaganda machine”, I don’t feel like they were exaggerating. On a scale of 1-10, I’d say it’s on the propaganda side of Breitbart, well past Fox News, and can’t even see the BBC with a telescope.

And yet, because of what it is, it cannot help but spew propaganda, especially to a captive audience in the airport. In English, so we know it was directed at us and not the locals. Putin uses any and all foreign media bashes on Russia to bolster his own popularity and prove the greatness of Russia, but unlike Trump who throws angry temper tantrums on Twitter when he doesn’t like what other countries (or his own’s) free press has to say about him, Putin and the state sponsored media are using … sarcasm.

“The more people watch, the angrier Hillary gets.”

“Warning! Propaganda Machine in action!”

“Missed a flight? Lost an election? Blame us!”

…and several more I failed to make note of. Other than remarking on a fascinating and somewhat frightening public communication tool, it had little effect on me, but seeing the way that these English slogans were written and presented in Russia made me take a serious think about some of the slogans coming out of the MAGA faction on social media, where the Russian trolls and bots live. Especially that one about making Hillary angry. I mean, why would Russians care if she’s mad? The only people still chanting “lock her up” are at Trump rallies.

Russia may have beautiful scenery and nice people, but that final interaction before boarding my flight was a chilling reminder that they are not now and possibly have never been our allies. The competition between “the West” and “the Soviet” has always been one of ideology, fought in the shadows with science and spies. When I look at things like “post truth” or “alternative facts” it seems like their ideas are creeping in like mold under paint.

I’m a big fan of multiculturalism and respecting cultures different from my own. I don’t know if it was my cold war upbringing, or if it’s a more objective analysis that things like “facts” and “free press” and “transparency” (glasnost) are necessary for a happy and healthy society, but either way, I just can’t accept the notion that Soviet ideology is the right way forward. I’m grateful to have had the chance, however brief, to visit. It helps me to remember that the people in each country are mostly kind and just want to live happily the same way we do. Whatever I think of their leaders or government policies, I hope I can always remember the regular people I met on the streets and in the subways who helped me when I was lost and shared the beautiful things in their city with me.