History Lessons in Oslo

From May 10 to the 18th I was in Oslo, Norway. As I mentioned in “Transition Days”, seeing Oslo had very personal significance for me since it is a place where members of my immediate family once lived. I was looking forward to seeing much of the city and visiting some of its famous museums. I even had ambitions of taking the train to other parts of Norway and seeing some of its more wild places. Unfortunately, fate was not on my side. The day after I arrived I was struck by another head cold that completely sapped my energy; so much so that I feared at first that I might have the flu. Thankfully, my illness turned out to be manageable with some basic medications from the local pharmacy and large doses of sleep. So, to provide some context for my adventures in Norway, I spent far more time than I liked in bed, either sleeping or simply being curled up with piles of tissues feeling sorry for myself. All was not lost, however, and there were still some wonderful parts to my time in Oslo.

First of all, I was lucky enough to stay with a friend of my grandparents. She lives in a suburb of Oslo called Jar (pronounced “yar”). This was a wonderful treat since it not only meant I had delicious home cooked meals and my own room, but more importantly that I had a local guide who also knew where my family lived and could share stories of their time in Norway. She is also a meticulous record keeper who had a whole binder full of letters and pictures that my grandparents had sent over the years since they left Norway. My grandmother was an avid letter writer, and though there were fits and starts to her correspondence, this binder of memories was very precious to me. I was so happy to have that small piece of personal history. This family friend also had whole sagas worth of stories from her childhood growing up on an island outside of Stockholm, how her parents met, her work in archaeological botany. She was so sweet and dear, I felt instantly adopted as another grandchild.

Her son and his family live right next door and he was kind enough to come over for evening chats on a couple nights. His first words to me: “You look exactly like your father.” Story of my life. We of course had a good laugh and proceeded to talk about what kinds of things I might like to see, his own travels around the world, and swapping recommendations of musicians.

So, as I said before, I spent lots of time sleeping and resting, but I did manage to leave the house at least once a day to go see things around the city.

First stop was to the neighborhood where my family lived in the 1970s. The area of the city they lived in is called Østerås and is a bit like a suburb but with apartment buildings instead of rows of identical houses. I did not get to every apartment building and school on the list my Dad gave me, but I did see the area where he lived the longest. Though things have changed somewhat in the last 30+ years, it was wonderful to finally have a connection to that part of my family history.

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The next day I wanted to see the castle that sits by the water in downtown Oslo. My friend and I hopped on the subway that took us to the central train station. A quick walk away, and an easy stop before the castle, was the Oslo Opera house. While we did not go inside, the building is designed in such a way that you can walk all the way up onto the roof. It is not a very tall building but does provide a decent first view of the surrounding neighborhoods.

The Opera HouseIMG_2145

To reach the interior of the castle you must pass though several gates and up a small hill. On the way you pass a stable. We peeked into the riding arena and I was very happy to get the chance to watch one of the riders for a few minutes. She was a very good horsewoman, the horse was well collected, and they looked beautiful. Up at the walls of the castle we had another good view of part of the city, especially the peninsula where several museums are located. The castle itself is not large but is well preserved and often used for private events. It is called Akershus and was very lovely to walk through. All too soon I had reached my limit for the day and we retreated back to the house in Jar.

 

I did not get out of bed until almost noon the next day. I was still determined to see something in the city so my host and I decided the Botanical Gardens might be a good idea. We were not there for more than two hours but we still managed to have a lovely walk and a very good lunch at the café in the middle of the garden. The salad was so good I tried to ask for their recipe but with no luck. I think I remember enough of it to attempt recreation once I get back home. The gardens are arranged very nicely with more park-like areas interspersed between more organized plots that showcase plant species based on regions or habitat types. They even have a small, hedged plot that is designed with sight-challenged people in mind. There is also a “kitchen garden” area that is full of culinary and medicinal herbs. An artist had been commissioned to install sculptures throughout the garden so there were wonderful creations made of willow branches and other vines. Some were abstract and others looked like different plant parts. They were great fun.

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By the next morning my symptoms had reached their worst point. I had to blow my nose constantly and my eyes were forever watery. (You wanted all this information right? So many of you say how wonderful it is that my writing brings you right along with me on the journey. Well, this was part of the journey. I can’t give you all the good parts while leaving out the less pleasant bits of travel. That hardly seems fair to anyone.) But I rallied enough to brave an excursion to the Viking Ship museum. Two of the three ships are in very good condition and give visitors a clear idea of what Viking ships must have looked like all those centuries ago. One wing of the museum had cases full of artifacts that were discovered with the ships. Since the ships had been used as part of funerary mounds there were many offerings and tools buried with them.

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On Sunday we visited the Historical Museum (since we could get in for free with our tickets from the Viking Museum) and the Folk Museum. I did not have much interest in the Historical Museum so we walked quickly through the exhibits dedicated to Viking culture before heading to the Folk Museum. I loved the Folk Museum. There are some indoor exhibits but they were in the midst of some remodeling so things were not very easy to find. We spent most of our time outside exploring the old farmsteads and saying hi to the few animals they had out this early in the season. Like the Skansen park in Stockholm, the Folk Museum seeks to preserve and showcase traditional farm lifestyles from various regions of Norway. In one of the houses we met a young woman who was spinning wool from the museum’s flock of sheep. Since spinning is something I’ve wanted to learn for a while now I happily sat down next to her to try my hand. It quickly became clear that this is a skill that requires no small amount of practice. While the theory of using a hand spindle (sometimes called a drop spindle) is fairly straightforward, getting my hands to cooperate was a different story. The museum interpreter was very patient with me and we still had a very nice time chatting and laughing when I kept breaking my thread. Further on we came to a pasture with a Fjord horse that obligingly came up to the fence to be pet. He had a short forelock like my Mom’s horse, Pride, and I so missed him in that moment. There is also one of the best-preserved stave churches in Norway at the Folk Museum. Stave churches are the old, traditional churches that are built completely out of wood. From huge support beams to shingles, intricately carved doorframes to multi-level roof lines, stave churches are truly beautiful.

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A few of the old-style, sod roofed buildings.IMG_2228

On Monday I was finally starting to feel a bit better. Enough so that I decided I could brave a solo trip to Oslo’s famous sculpture garden. It was a very warm, sunny day and the park was packed with people who had the day off from work (I’ll explain in a minute). The park is very large and there are some sculptures scattered throughout it, but the main attractions are a series of larger pieces on top of a low hill along with a fountain at the base of the hill. I am sure that there is some historical or social significance to these sculptures, and I highly recommend you prove yourself to be an inquisitive individual and do some internet research. I, however, suffer from no such curiosity and so remain ignorant of any and all facts related to those works of art.

Bridge back to the city from the garden. It is lined with human figures. Each one is unique and they portray various human interactions or individuals.IMG_2259

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The whole obelisk is formed from human figures. It is a little disturbing but fascinating.IMG_2270

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Once I had tired of my the garden, I called my friend and she met me at a subway station so that we could take the train up the mountain behind Oslo and take in the view. There is a café at the last train stop and it has a lovely deck where you can sit enjoying your coffee and pastry. We were lucky enough that we had glorious sunshine and almost no wind. Looking over the Oslo fjord is quite spectacular. I would have loved to go exploring the hiking trails around the café but still did not feel well enough for that much physical activity.

The city of Oslo is tucked behind the pine trees on the left side of the picture.IMG_2283

Tuesday the 17th was my last full day in Oslo. It is also the Norwegian National Day, which is something like Fourth of July in the US. The day commemorates the ratification of Norway’s Constitution and separation from Denmark. So it’s a really BFD. The King comes out with his whole family and everything. Everyone puts on their traditional clothes, or, lacking those, a suit or dress, and head downtown for the big parade. At least a hundred schools and their marching bands participate in the parade. The whole event takes around four hours. The main streets are lined with flags and everyone has a grand time swapping chants and cheering on the schoolchildren. Altogether it is a decidedly classy event. Except for the high school graduates who are rolling around still drunk from the previous nights parties. I surfed through the crowds for about an hour, saw the royalty up on their balcony, and followed a couple really good school bands before heading back to the house to pack. Around four in the afternoon my host and I walked the few steps to her son’s house in order to enjoy a barbeque feast with his family and some friends. We had duck on the grill, lovely salads, and homemade cakes for dessert. Probably the classiest barbeque I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.

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The palace where the royalty stood on the red balcony and waved to the multitudes.IMG_2298

On the 18th of May I woke up at 5:45 in the morning in order to catch a train that would carry me south to Denmark. All in all I had a wonderful week in Norway, illness notwithstanding.

A Week in Stockholm

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Stockholm is a wonderful city. I say this with all seriousness. There is understated yet elegant architecture everywhere. Public transportation is easy to find and navigate. The whole city is built on a series of islands and each one has its own personality. As a pedestrian you have almost unlimited access to the waterfront, and there are boats, boats, boats everywhere. Have I mentioned the coffee shops? There is a unique, find-it-nowhere-else cafe on nearly every street corner. The Swedes have a tradition called Fika wherein everyone takes a break in the afternoon to enjoy coffee and pastries. The Swedes are serious about their pastries. It should go without saying that this is how I spent a good portion of my time in Stockholm. I found this one cafe in Gamla Stan (the old sector) that was underground and always empty in the mid afternoon. I parked myself in their old, squishy couches on a couple afternoons, the cool, cave-like interior a nice reprieve from the very warm temperatures I had the pleasure of experiencing the whole time I was in Sweden.

But let me get myself back on track before this whole post turns into a stream of consciousness glorification of coffee and sunshine.

Perfect example of how I spent pretty much every afternoon. This is at the cafe Vette-Katten and I’m drinking a cappuccino instead of coffee, but let’s be real the important part is the pastry. Which is cream filled. Seriously, guys, screw Italy I could live off of Swedish pastries.IMG_2119

To jog everyone’s memory, including my own, I was in Stockholm from May 1 to 6, took a weekend trip up to Enköping to visit family (that I will write about in a separate post), and then was back in Stockholm May 8 to 10. I am currently in Oslo, Norway, and leave for Copenhagen, Denmark, tomorrow. So I have a lot of catching up to do which is why I want to get this Stockholm post finished today if at all possible.

My time in Stockholm in a nutshell: walking and Fika (see above). Stockholm in a larger nutshell: walking and Fika and dreaming of sailing around the world while admiring rows and rows of boats.

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I stayed in two hostels to cover my two-part stay in the city. The first hostel was on the island of Langholmen, which is a bit off the beaten path, and I could talk a lovely walk along the water every evening back from downtown and look at the house boats lit wonderfully by the setting sun.

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The hostel is actually the old prison that was on the island for a long time before it was eventually condemned. Think Alcatraz, the Swedish edition. The prison has obviously been remodeled into a hostel on one side and a fancier hotel on the other. Even the hostel was lovely. It was great fun, if at times a tad creepy, to know that you were sleeping in an old prison cell. The hallway where my room was is also used as a small museum detailing the history of the prison. This was all well and good except for the mannequins that sometimes startled me and the model guillotine right outside my room that I did not notice until my second day.

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What the rest of the cell blocks looked like. I actually did not mind being on the museum wing since it meant that there was an extra door with a key code for added security.IMG_2076

The second hostel I stayed in was much more traditional but had a great urban youth vibe that was fun. Plus it was right downtown so walking to the train station was a breeze.

I spent one afternoon wandering around Gamla Stan which is the old town and sits on a fairly small island. There are a couple lovely churches, but it’s mostly fun to just walk on the cobbled streets between the old buildings. There is also the old palace that takes up a whole corner of the island.

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View of Gamla Stan from the island SödermalmIMG_1990

One night I met up with my cousin and his girlfriend and they treated me to a very nice dinner at their apartment on Södermalm. We drank wine and beer, discussed cost of living in cities and swapped musical tastes. It was wonderful to be in the company of people my own age again.

I did manage to acquire some culture as well. The only museums I went to were the Vasa Museum and the Nordic Museum. I had been to the Vasa Museum when I was in Stockholm in 2011 but I thought it worth another visit. The Vasa was a warship built in the 1600s that was meant to be the crown jewel of the Swedish royal navy. Unfortunately, it was built and loaded incorrectly. On it’s maiden voyage it did not even make it out of the harbor before a wind knocked it over and it sank. In the late 1950s the ship was raised and restored. In the following decades a very nice museum has been built to house the ship.

Model of what the Vasa would have looked like under sailDSC01566

The ship herself. Some parts are reconstructed but the majority of the ship is original.DSC01572

The cool part about the design of the museum is that there are multiple levels so that you can get a great view of the ship from top to bottom and get quite close to the carvings on the stern.

Centerpiece of the stern with the royal heraldry.DSC01607

On the same day I also went to the Nordic Museum which is right next to the Vasa Museum. The Nordic houses exhibits dedicated to Swedish trends and traditions beginning around the 1600s up to the present. They had a very nice temporary exhibit showing traditional county furniture painting. Farming families, and other members of more agrarian communities, would hire local painters to decorate clocks, chests, cabinets, cradles, and engagement boxes as signs of wealth. The designs were very lovely and many of the pieces were in very good condition.IMG_1978

The building itself for the Nordic Museum is quite lovely.IMG_2071

Another outing was to the Skansen park which is on the island of Djurgården. This is like a huge open air museum and zoo. All of the animals are either heritage breed farm stock or native wildlife (except for a few peacocks). It was the first time I had gotten to see wolverines up and moving around which was great fun. They also had a pair of eagle owl chicks that were two months old and still had quite a bit of their baby fluff. The small aquarium did have non-native animals and housed much more than fish. The facility boasted quite a large collection of reptiles and frogs and a few small primates as well. They had a whole troop of ring-tailed lemurs. One of the females even had a very small baby that the rest of the group kept coming over to take a peek at.

Lemurs sunning themselves on the walkway. Yes, you could just walk right on by. There were signs warning you not to touch the lemurs because they might bite, but it was hard to resist.IMG_2042

A whole section of the park is dedicated to depicting farm life in the 18th and 19th centuries. Whole farm building have been moved from their original locations throughout Sweden and gathered here. There was also a church, lookout tower, livestock sheds, a blacksmith workshop and other structures. In the high summer the park hires dozens of interpreters to give demonstrations and explain farm life in period dress. It must be a lot of fun. I spent a whole afternoon at Skansen and had a wonderful time.

The last full day I was in Stockholm I took a ferry over to the island of Vaxholm. This island is not part of the city of Stockholm but it is part of the archipelago that stands between Stockholm and the open ocean. There are thousands of islands in the archipelago. Some are large enough to support whole towns while others might only have a few trees standing on them. I was so pleasantly surprised to learn that the coast of Sweden looks almost exactly like the coast of Maine. Each island has a cluster of trees, mostly conifers, surrounded by a ring of grey rock that slides right into the water. There are no sandy beaches and hardly any reeds. I could not help but laugh for forget for a little while that I was halfway around the world.

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There is a small town on Vaxholm that I was not that interested in. Instead I wandered along a walking path on the coast until I came to a nice overlook where I could sit for a while among the trees and rocks. When I finally got tired of walking I went back into town and found a nice cafe where I could get a sandwich and coffee (plus a pastry of course). The ferry I caught back to the city took a different route and it was nice to get another look at the islands. As nice as it was to get out of the busy city I was happy to be back. Somehow I just felt instantly at home there.

In no time at all I found myself on the train to Oslo. It was fun to ride through the interior of Sweden and see the countryside. I have had a wonderfully relaxing time here, though I have been ill with a head cold again so unfortunately I did not have the energy to do everything I wanted. But I think I covered the most important things. I’ll write about those adventures soon. For now it is Norwegian National Day and I have to get ready for a barbecue party. Thankfully the weather is cooperating. Until next time!

First Stops in Scandinavia

On the 26th of April I finally left Germania and entered Scandinavia. I know I have a lot of catching up to do so I will begin with my first two cities since I did not spend that long in either one.

The train ride from Frankfurt to Copenhagen was a bit different from the other trains that I have taken so far. To get from Germany to the island in Denmark where Copenhagen is, the fastest way is to cross a narrow section of the Baltic Sea. There are, however, no bridges that go directly between the two countries. Instead, the train has to be taken across on a ferry. This was a whole new experience for me and rather fun. The train goes right into the ferry and then you have to leave the train for safety reasons, but the ferry has very nice sitting areas and a decent cafe where you could get a meal. The crossing takes a little over a half hour so you have plenty of time to relax. Right before the ferry arrives you are allowed to get back on the train. It is an odd thing to watch a train exit a boat and then just carry on its way.

Here is the train leaving the ferry. I wish I had gotten a better photo but I did not have much time and there was a lot of sun glare.IMG_1902

I arrived in Copenhagen just before 9:00 pm on the 26th but thankfully the sun was staying up later and I still had a little light to find the bus that would take me to the apartment where I stayed with some extended relatives. They were so kind and welcoming to host me considering they were in the process of packing up the apartment so that they could move out to their little summer hut on the outskirts of the city. In the morning everyone left for work and school but I had little time before I had to catch the train for Malmö. I went for a walk around their neighborhood and wandered in the cemetery just across the street. It was very large, old, and a pleasant park overall. There was a modern section that was a little split off from the old grave sites. Signs around the newer area informed visitors that they were welcome to sunbathe in the older quarters of the park but to please be respectful for people who might be visiting loved ones. Though it was a bit of a strange concept for me that people might sunbathe while surrounded by graves, this did indicate that people used the park quite frequently for relaxation and social gatherings, which is a nice thought. I’ve always felt bad for the older sections of cemeteries where people rarely go. There are some famous and important Danish people buried in this cemetery, many of whom I did not recognize, but one that I definitely did:

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I thought is was very nice that his grave was not overly decorated or ostentatious. It honestly took me a while to find him even though the park maps had his location labeled with basic directions. I had a very nice time walking among all the trees and flowering shrubs. The whole park is allowed to grow almost like a natural forest where people are just tucked in among the trees. A very peaceful place to rest indeed.

In the early afternoon I caught the train that would take me to Malmö, a trip that only took about an hour. Most of the trip consisted of hopping from island to island in the channel between Denmark and Sweden. I got marvelous views of the many wind farms that Denmark has set up in the channel which were very nice to see.

Once I arrived in Malmö, it was a simple task of finding the right bus that would take me to my hostel. The hostel was decent enough though a little dingy. There were a few bus lines close by which was nice. I did not spend much time in Malmö but I did manage to wander around the old city and over to the fortress. To get to the fortress was a good walk through a lovely park but the structure itself is not that impressive. There is a museum inside but I did not feel like spending the time to walk through it.

Malmö is a very sleepy city. The old quarter has some touristy shops down one street but otherwise there is not much going on other than people living their lives. I did find one cafe that had great pastries, but otherwise the food was not that good. I had a hankering for familiar food so went to a TGI Fridays, my first American chain restaurant of the trip, and was so disappointed in the quality of the food I almost did not want to pay. Lesson re-learned: always go local. My first night I did stumble across the Malmö brewing company. If I remember correctly they started in 2010 and seemed to be doing well for themselves. The selection was good and the honey ale I got was delicious.

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I visited a few churches. St Peters kirk, the largest in Malmö, had some wonderful old wall frescos that had been reserved in one alcove.

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Like I mentioned earlier, Malmö is a sleepy city though there are some nice squares in and around the old city. It’s a port city so there are lots of boats but I honestly did not spend that much time down by the water. The weather was not that great, cloudy with cold wind light rain showers.

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The one exciting thing I did do was visit an urban farm. I had connected with the farm through Facebook when I saw them mentioned by an Instagram user who highlights woman farmers. Talk about using social media to connect! The farm is on a small plot of open land between large apartment complexes right on the side of a major roadway. So at least it was very easy to find. The bus dropped me off right at the corner of the land. Only one of the co-owners was working that day but he had the friendlies black lab with him. His farm only works a subset of the whole plot, the land is divided between several urban farms. It was great to know that there were many groups of people who were dedicated to improving urban access to fresh produce. We spent a little over an hour just hoeing weeds from one bed of greens. Since I was not confident in my ability to only weeds and not crops, I worked slowly but I think the farmer was happy for some company. He confessed that he hates weeding since it’s fairly monotonous. When we needed a break we sat down with the owners of another plot who had just arrived. I loved being able to get to know these folks and hear about how they kept seedlings in their living room because they did not have a greenhouse, discussions of garlic prices and best times to sell, worries over land grants being renewed. All of the different things that go into making a successful farm and mold the life of a farmer. All things that I am just starting to learn about. It was a good introduction and I was sad I could not spend more time with them.

On April 30th I caught the train to Stockholm eager for adventures in a city that I knew at least a little. I will share that wonderful week with you in my next post.

 

Transition Days

The past few weeks have been wonderful, but strange. Staying with friends and family has been such a joy. Having some time around people that truly care about me is a gift that I never appreciated before. The price for this comfort has been that I have lost the rhythm of my solo journey. I have quickly lost the habit of daily writing and I desperately need to reclaim that habit. Not only because I know many of you eagerly await new posts about my adventures but because it keeps me grounded as I float around this continent. Writing about my daily adventures forces me to stay present, to think about where I have been and where I will go. It is a mental exercise that is simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating.

I know that I need to write about my brief time in Copenhagen and Malmö, as well as updating everyone on the wonderful week I spent in Stockholm, but for now I am feeling introspective on this part of my trip. I am sitting on the train (once again) rolling west toward Oslo, Norway. There are no great monuments that I plan to visit, no museums or history lessons that I feel I must absorb while I am in Norway. My reasons for ensuring that this particular country is a part of my journey are deeply personal.

Though this trip has been for myself (for a variety of reasons that I will not go into here) I have had two ghosts perched on my shoulders ever since I got on the plane in Boston. As I travel across mountains, seas, and forests, my mother and grandmother are never far from my mind. I know that for every step I take they are one either side of me, following my journey with rapt attention. For my mother, I am acutely aware of how this whole trip is a kind of gift that I am giving to her. Though she was able to travel to many places, I know she always wanted to see more. To have the world open to her, to explore and see what was beyond the horizon for the simple pleasure of seeing what was out there, my mother made it clear these were still dreams she harbored in the way she raised me. For my grandmother, Norway is my gift to her. I know she always hoped to spend more time in Norway after moving back to the States, but was never able to go back as often as she wanted. Now I am bringing her with me for one more visit.

These women, who both so strongly shaped the person I am today, I carry them with me in different ways. For my mother I need only look in the mirror and see the hazel eyes that I am so glad I inherited from her. My mother is still so close to me that memory of her is almost like a tattoo on my wrist, something I look at everyday. With my grandmother it is a little different. To keep her close I have brought with me a necklace that she gave to me when I was no more than 11 or 12. I wear it everyday. It is a small whale carved of purple stone. I have a habit of playing with pendants around me neck and every time I touch the smooth stone I am reminded of my grandmother and all of the other gifts she gave me.

Now it is several hours since I wrote the first words of this message. I have left the train and gotten settled into the home of my grandparents’ friend in Oslo whom I shall be staying with for the next week. I am tired from my last exciting days in Stockholm. I am tired from this long journey I am on. I am tired, but so in love with everything I see, in love with the person I am getting to know as myself. I am so filled with joy that this is part of my life. This is my present and shall forever be a part of my past. For all of the pain that I have accumulated over the last ten years of my life I am so grateful that I can add this journey as a point of joy, and not just for the superficial adventure of it all. But as another step in the healing of myself, in the acceptance of loss and the strength to bear the burden of it.

I carry two ghosts with me, one on each shoulder. I will miss their voices and their warm hugs, but they will be with me for the rest of my life and follow me in all my adventures. Together, in the many years to come, we will find all the joy and peace the world has to offer.

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At Home in Germany

(I know, I know. I promised I would not let so much time go by between posts and what do I do? Wait 20 days to write a new post. I was having too much fun getting spoiled in Germany. But here it is. Better late than never, right?)

I find it difficult to write about my time in Germany. I saw so many places and did so many things, like a good visitor, yet my time with Natalie and Mathias in Erzhausen was so relaxed and comfortable that it felt like home. Days mostly revolved around food and playing with their two cats, with a few hours every afternoon dedicated to out of town adventures. It was so refreshing to sit comfortably in one place for a while. Ample good food, the appreciation and goodwill of friends, the presence of animals; in my opinion all markers of a loving home. It took a good deal of self-administered pants kicking to get me on the train to Copenhagen Wednesday morning. With my rucksack again on my back and my feet again on the road, I am moving forward into the second phase of this journey.

I was enjoying the respite from travel too much to consider writing. That act in itself so strongly highlights my transitory state that I just could not bring myself to do it while I was enjoying the illusion of permanency. But now that I have had a few days to again adjust to being a solitary traveler, I feel it is high time I break my silence. Also my father keeps pestering me for another post.

My stories will be brief, like I said days mostly revolved around cats and food, but I will do my best to at least give you a sense of what places I went to and things I saw. I was in Germany for a week and a half so things will be broken down by day to keep the timeline straight. Hopefully I did not get things mixed up myself. If I did I am sure Natalie will correct me quickly so I can perform whatever edits are necessary. But let’s pretend for now that my memory is perfect. Here goes.

THURSDAY AND FRIDAY

I arrived from Zurich on Thursday. It was a pleasant enough trip and I arrived sometime in the afternoon, don’t remember exactly when but it’s not important. Friday was a relatively chill day. Natalie had meetings in the afternoon and evening but she was sweet enough to make sure Mathias and I were fed before she left just after noon. This is the afternoon I spent editing the photos for the blog to make sure they stayed visible. It was not a difficult task, just annoying since I had to go back through all of my photos over the last month and try to remember which ones I had used in the posts. A good thing to do to keep me occupied while Mathias worked and the cats napped. Mathias and I had some good time to chat over our dinner of sandwiches, and we all watched Firefly when Natalie got home.

SATURDAY

We all went to a couple hardware stores to get supplies for some cat furniture. Natalie wanted to give the kitties some extra high-up space so we got wood and hooks to hang a cat bridge from some of the beams in a corner of the apartment. Mostly Mathias did the actual work while Natalie and I hovered, she being a more effective assistant since she knew what their tools were and it was her idea in the first place. I mostly just wrangled curious cats who were constantly trying to climb the ladder. I’m not sure how effective I was. But in the days that followed the construction, Groot (the larger of the two) learned how to jump to the bridge and balance well enough to walk end to end.

Groot playing overseer IMG_1740

That was pretty much the day. More Firefly happened, of course, but then bedtime.

SUNDAY

We all finally left the apartment to do something fun on Sunday. There is an animal park called Wildpark Alte Fasanerie that has native species plus a few exotics. There were European Bison which I had never seen before which was really cool to see. They have mostly been extirpated but there are herds in Poland and conservation groups are trying to reintroduce them into other forest lands in eastern Europe. But it’s hard to find places with enough continuous forest for them. The park is also known for being one of the few places with wolves, they had Eurasian wolves and a small pack of Arctic wolves which were really fun to see.

The park has a group of lynx that were beautiful. We were lucky enough to see the lynx and the wolves get fed. Watching the lynx feeding was especially entertaining, but such a procedure would never be allowed in the states. The keeper walked into the enclosure with only a few lines of electric wire between him and the animals. He then attached some deer legs to a line that he pulled across the enclosure so the lynx he to leap up and pull the legs down. Before he did this though, he fed the lynx some chicks in a very interesting way. He crouched down by his bucket of chicks and proceeded to toss them one by one into the mouth of each lynx. Their patience in waiting for the next mouthful and his skillful aim made it obviously this was a daily occurrence. Some people around us were horrified, but I thought it looked super fun. I wanted to jump in and help!

Probably the animals that were the most fun to see were the wild boars. I had never seen one in real life before and they are huge. Cool to see when there is a fence between us, but it would be terrifying to encounter one in the wild. There was a litter of piglets that was absolutely adorable though. There were also small wildcats and a red fox curled up cutely it it’s nest box.

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So precious next to fluffy mama (this group had snuck in between the fence lines where they were not supposed to be)IMG_1745

The park overall was really nice. Most of the forest had been left intact and spaces had only been cleared for some enclosures and the pathways. Otherwise it felt like walking through the woods and seeing wild animals. A very fun day.

In the evening we went to Natalie’s parent’s house for dinner. Her mom is a very good cook and always sets out a wonderful spread, complete with perfectly folded napkins. A speciality of the region Erzhausen is in is white asparagus and she made sure to include it so I could try it with the special butter sauce that is traditional. Everything was excellent.

MONDAY

Natalie took me to a lovely village called Michelstadt. It is an old medieval town that still has most of its original wall with attached buildings, though of course the town has outgrown its original footprint. Another interesting fact about the town is that it has one of the oldest synagogues in Germany because it was not destroyed by the Nazis. Since the entire town is wooden, burning the synagogue would have meant destruction of the entire town; so it was spared. It is no longer used for religious services though since there are no Jews that still live in Michelstadt. But it was still cool to see.

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Courtyard for the castle in town (plus Natalie)IMG_1764

The town is very small but it has wonderful cobbled roadways and beautiful old style buildings. The castle and moat are also charming. There are a few other fortresses in the surrounding area that we drove to as well. One of them is on the top of a hill opposite the town. As the largest fortress in the area, it has a complete outer wall and some of the inner buildings have been restored well enough that there is now a hostel located there which was really cool to know. We wandered all through the old moat and up around the outer wall until we had seen every corner we could get in to.

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Another castle a bit outside of town that has been renovated into apartments. How cool would it be to live there?! Though I don’t want to know what rent is…IMG_1769

On our way down from the fortress on the hill, we stumbled on a slide that was attached to the slope. It was not that long but still so fun to be sliding down the hill! Of course there was a net at the bottom for safety, but the end of the side was long enough that you would slow down anyway.

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We eventually decided that we had had enough fun and we headed back to Erzhausen.

TUESDAY

Tuesday was old books day. Natalie and I went to Mainz to visit the Gutenberg museum. Mainz is where Gutenberg was born though he barely lived there during his adult life. The museum was really fun though. In addition to the dozens of books that dated from various centuries, they also boasted an amazing collection of printing presses showcasing the development of the technology. We attended a brief demonstration of how the press designed by Gutenberg was operated–and I got to assist! And by assist I mean I got to yank on the bar that engaged the pressing mechanism. But it was still fun.

Gotta love old medieval gates that have been remodeled a few times. (Sorry for the crooked picture)IMG_1797

There was also lovely cathedral that we wandered around in for a little while before heading back home.

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WEDNESDAY

We spent this day with Natalie’s parents who were kind enough to give me a tour of Frankfurt. Randy pointed out a few of the skyscrapers and explained what banks they belonged to, and we walked onto the pedestrian bridge to get a full view of the city. We also went to the Goethe museum which is in the house his family owned in Frankfurt. It was very well maintained and I now know how to properly pronounce his name since I’ve been doing it wrong my whole life. Then we wandered down to part of the old town and had a nice lunch in the sun in the main square. The church bells were lovely and between them and an accordion player we had a soundtrack to most of our meal. It was a very nice day.

THURSDAY

This was our day in Heidelberg! Natalie was participating in a lecture series for students at the institute she attended and I met up with a couple of friends who just happened to be in Germany at the same time. We had a fun reunion. Most of the day we just wandered around, even made it up to the castle and sat in the gardens for a while. Of course we stopped for beer a couple of times. There is this wonderful summer drink called Radler that is a mix of light beer and carbonated lemonade and it is so freaking good. We had a great time sitting outside drinking and trying not to get sunburns.

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I was so happy in Heidelberg again. It is such a lovely town, with wonderful architecture and views of the river and valley. In the evening I met up with Natalie again and we had dinner with some of her old colleagues who were in town for the lecture series. All too soon it was time for us to leave.

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FRIDAY

After all our adventures thoughout the week Natalie and I decided to have a quiet day at the apartment. We just hung out and played with the cats. In the evening all of us went to a birthday party for one of Natalie’s friends. There were so many tiny children! Once most of the guests had left the rest of us had a great time playing with the three year old daughter of the house and having a war with her fabric fruit. Such a great time even though she looked at me suspiciously every time I tried to talk to her.

SATURDAY

The three of us went to the Grube Messel paleontological dig site. A messel is a rare form of volcano that basically explodes downwards creating a huge crater. After a few millennia it fills with water and then with sediment and can be the perfect place for fossil formation, which is what happened at this site. Unfortunately, the level of sediment where the fossil formations can be found is a type of shale that can also be ground and pressed to form oil. So for many years the site was used as a mine and was treated roughly. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage site where paleontologists can work. It was raining most of the time we were there so I was not able to take any pictures. But the tour we took lasted two hours and was very comprehensive, taking us on a walk all through the pit with the tour guide explaining how it was formed, how the fossils came to be there and what kind of animals used to live around the lake, and what the pit was used for by people throughout the last century or so. At one point it was actually used as a trash dump!

SUNDAY

It was Randy’s (Natalie’s father) birthday so we all went out for lunch at a nice little place in another medieval village. After our meal we walked through the village for a bit watching the sky the whole time and hoping not to get rained on too badly. The village was hosting a classic car gathering which was fun to see. There was a nice mix of various European makes and several US models as well. Including one horrible gold muscle car whose back window was full of American souvenirs. One that was particularly fun was this little red number:

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It only has one wheel in the back, the metal rack serves as the trunk. You open it from the front, the whole thing swings open and even the steering wheel gets out of the way. The gear shift is tucked into the side wall to the left of the driver. It’s so cute! Randy was thrilled to see it, his very first car when he was in University was a version of this car. He had a great time telling us all about how it is constructed as well as a few stories of adventures he had with his car back in the day.

When we got back to Randy and Marilyn’s house it was time for cake. Or, I should say, cakes. Four of them, to be exact, and all different kinds of course. With a model of Randy’s little car in the middle of course.

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We naturally overstuffed ourselves and Natalie, Mathias, and I spent the rest of the night in their apartment concentrating on our digestion.

MONDAY

This is was another slow day. We needed it. Natalie took me to the mall to get a new water bottle but we pretty much lazed around until the evening. We all went into Darmstadt for dinner with some of Natalie’s colleagues. The restaurant we went to was western themed which was very entertaining. It looked like Texas and New Mexico had a strange love-child that projectile vomited decorations. For the most part they did very well, but there were Heineken signs everywhere which was a little confusing. But the burger was good and that is all that mattered.

TUESDAY

Natalie and I went to Darmstadt, which is the city where she works, to show me a few of the sights. The two most interesting buildings are just outside downtown. One is a really cool apartment building that was designed by an Austrian architect whose main design goals are to find artistic ways to blend human and natural environments. Fundamentally this means few straight lines, earthy tones, and lots of cool mosaic work.

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The second is what is referred to my locals as the “five fingered building” because it actually looks like it has five fingers.

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It was built to commemorate the marriage of Grand Duke Ernst Ludwig to Eleonore Solms-Hohensolms-Lich in 1905. It is still used for weddings today. There is a great view over Darmstadt from the windows at the top.

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That evening we had homemade crepes for dinner. While there were a few failures at the start, Natalie showed off her cooking skills and served up some truly delicious crepes.

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We were all a little sad that I was leaving the next day, but we pretended for a few more hours that it was not yet time.

WEDNESDAY

I left Erzhausen just before 10 in the morning. Natalie and I did very well and did not cry as I was getting on the little commuter train. I was very sad to be leaving her and the good times we had had together over the last week and a half. She probably would have let me stay forever, but I think Mathias was happy to get his office back (he was a good sport about no saying so though). Sad as it was to leave, I was excited to continue with my journey and see new places again.

So there it is. I am halfway through my time in continental Europe. Four countries are behind me, five are still to be seen. Six weeks ago I left Boston and in seven weeks I will cross the Channel into the UK. Right now I am sitting in my hostel in Stockholm. I promise to write soon about my time in Malmö before my memory gets filled up with my Stockholm adventures.

One last picture of Rocket and Groot, my precious little nephew kitties!IMG_1823