Big Announcement Fri-Yay!

BIG (1)

I haven’t been very active on this page lately, and that’s because I’ve been working on something big!

I’m transferring all of my travel-related blog posts (as well as my new ones), to my new business’ website, Your Well-Traveled Friend!  We officially opened shop a few months ago, and I just made my first NEW blog posting there, about my latest adventure in Croatia.

I haven’t decided the fate of Amanda’s Abroad, especially as we look to move back to the US in the next few months.  Perhaps I will keep it for more personal posts.  Is anyone listening, anyway?

Please let me know your feedback, and otherwise I do hope you’ll join me over at

Your Well-Traveled Friend

-Amanda

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Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About): Part 2

The continuation of my 2015 travel round up.  To start with Part 1 of this series, go here.

Brugge, Belgium

I’m not a big fan of Brussels.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time there when I visited years ago,  but from a jaunting tourist’s perspective, the city didn’t give me much that any other area of Belgium couldn’t.  My version of seeing that city was chasing photos with three peeing statues (Manneken, Jeanneke, and Zinneke) after having the requisite chocolate, waffles, and moules frites.

So, when friends were visiting us in the spring and wanted to check out other areas within driving distance of Amsterdam, we suggested Brugge as a good way to experience Belgium.  We hadn’t been, and although warned it was overwhelmingly touristy, we had heard it was beautiful and a generally better place to tick off all of the requisite culinary Belgian delights.

The city was exactly as expected–full of older-skewing, very large tourist groups following the colorful umbrella raised in their tour guides’ hands.  However, it was still very pretty and deserving of its rising status in the mainstream track of places to visit.  We didn’t do much; just took a lovely canal boat ride, strolled around the streets and parks, ate, and drank with friends in the sun.  I’m probably partial to our time in Brugge because of the surreal moments of getting to travel with my best friends and also run into others while in town 🙂

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New York City in Brugge!


Milan, Italy

Milan was hosting the 2015 World Expo, so for that reason we chose the city as the place to visit for my birthday weekend, and also so Uri could reminisce about his last World Expo experience of Brisbane ‘88. 😉

The Expo experience was marred by its crowds.  The entry limit was non-existent, and the day’s tickets were disgracefully oversold.  Arriving well before the doors opened, we still waited hours to enter, an hour to see the first welcome exhibit, and then by that time each country’s exhibit hall waiting line was a two hour minimum.  We ended up standing in line for the Chile exhibit for 2.5 hours, only to see a 5 minute video and walk through a quick hall about the country.  After standing in lines for the bathrooms and for a bottle of water,  the day was almost over, and we were exhausted by standing in lines in the heat.  We were able to enjoy a few alternate areas where we could find shorter lines and some food (Mediterranean pavilion!), but overall it was impossible to get anything out of the experience outside of frustration.

A standout in Milan was seeing the Last Supper fresco mural at the Museo del Cenacolo Vinciano. No photos are allowed inside, and viewing tickets must be bought in advance.  This actually made the experience quite organized and peaceful.  Only 30 of us or so were allowed into the 1-room hall where da Vinci’s Last Supper painting stood.  You could really focus for that 30 minutes on your guidebook, or the placards, or just stare up at the painting before you that is so well-known. Before entering, you can also learn about the damage and restorations to the mural throughout history.

While in Milan we also enjoyed the classic gothic Duomo di Milano, the Sforza Castle, and a pretty awesome art exhibition at the Triennale Design Museum called “Kitchen and Invaders.”

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Berlin, Germany

We decided to visit Berlin during Christmas Market time.  We had a lot to cover in a long weekend–Christmassy stuff, history, culture, and seeing some of Uri’s friends and extended family.  We sort of knew that the best part of Berlin–just hanging out and absorbing the goings-on–would not really be done well my first time around.

We spent the first half of our four day trip in Mitte, or the central area, so we could have access to all of the key historic sites.  I started off taking a five mile running tour of Mitte’s major sites–Brandenburg Gate, the Reichstag, Museum Island, the Berlin Wall.  My running guide, Beate, refreshed my memory on the rich history of Berlin from World War II to the Cold War.  It fascinated me. I wished 100 times that my dad was around so I could talk to him at length about it all.  My first impression of Berlin’s center is that it was much more modernized than I envisioned.  I guess I had pictured more of a Munich, with quaint colored buildings and more cobblestone and walkable alleys, but the center is essentially completely modernized and felt more like New York City’s Museum Mile and Fifth Avenue.

After getting familiar with my surroundings, I ventured back out for an audio walking tour I downloaded, that took me back more thoroughly to the famous sites, plus the sobering Memorial for Murdered Jews, the Hotel Adlon (where Michael Jackson famously hung Blanket out the window), and down the Unter den Linden.  One standout tidbit I learned was how, when East and West Germany were divided, that the West U-Bahn trains would pass through East Berlin stations, which were closed down and henceforth came to be “ghost” stations.

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Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe


After getting the historic basics under my belt, we went a bit deeper by touring the Topography of Terror (a well-done, if just a bit long, pictorial museum outlining the rise and fall of the Nazis), the East Side Gallery, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. We also took a tour in the parliament’s Reichstag building, and got a closer look inside that architecturally significant dome.

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East Side Gallery



We also experienced Christmastime in Berlin.  We discovered two markets — the overcrowded and fancy Gendarmenmarkt and a much more enjoyable one by the Rotes Rathaus (Red Town Hall). The markets were comparable to the Prague markets we visited last year, but I’d take the Prague ones over Berlin, for the thinner crowds and the delicious Prague ham-on-a-spit.

Finally, in the last half of our trip, we got to know some boroughs a bit better, staying with Uri’s cousins in Schöneberg, visiting friends in Prenzlauer Berg, and seeing the memorial Stolperstein plaques of Uri’s family members. We also spend an evening in Kreuzberg.  As a former New Yorker, I have an appreciation for Brookyn and the value of its now-mainstream hipster Williamsburg, and its constant rotation of up-and-coming periphery neighborhoods that are still raw, sorting themselves out, and influenced by artists, graffiti, diversity, and so on.  In other words, I get it.  But I didn’t really get Kreuzberg.  I felt extremely unsafe in areas, and it was later validated to us by locals that there are areas that are fine but still some areas you simply do not go to.  It did get better for us, though.  We started off unknowingly on the more sketchy side, and once we righted ourselves it was more enjoyable.  The jury is still out for me on this famously trendy area.  It has a lot to live up to for everything I’ve heard about it… but I’m willing to give it another chance on another trip.

So, that takes me to the end of the 2015 End of Year Round Up… a little late now that its February and I’m already on my next trip. Speaking of which: Coming soon! The story of our Amsterdam-to-Austria road trip through Germany!

Oh, the Places I’ve Missed (Writing About)

We’re approaching the end of the year, and as one often does at this time, I want to reflect backwards and evaluate how I’ve moved forward.  I’ve certainly posted enough lately about personal changes and growth, so I want to focus a bit more on the living-abroad side of my experiences.  After all, the end of my second year in Amsterdam is in February, and living in Europe for two years is quite an accomplishment in itself.

The first part of looking back is about places I’ve been, particularly those I didn’t write about.  I realize that of the 17 trips I took in 2015 (18, if we count next week’s trip back for Christmas), I wrote about only two (Norway, and my Italian Heritage Trip).  Bear with me, so I can reflect on the changes that have taken place even in travel patterns.  This is not to boast.  Mostly it has been quite exhausting and it has helped me realize that bouncing around from place to place wanderlustfully is great, but also having a sense of home and order (as I get older? as I realize the relative importance of things when losing loved ones?) also has a valued place in my life.

Of the 17 trips, let’s take away the 4 times (5, if we count next week’s trip) that I went back home to the US for planned visits and unplanned funerals, support for family, and support for myself. That leaves 13. Repeat visits to the Lorraine region of France, twice back again to Paris, once again to Barcelona, once again to London, and once again to Chamonix. And two trips about which I’ve already written.

So… 6 new places: The Italian Dolomites/ Venice, Stockholm, Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.  I’ll touch on each of these in a series of postings and then come back for a final posting on some cultural observations from my second year living among the Dutch.

The Italian Dolomites (Cortina D’Ampezzo) and Venice

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In January, Uri and I took a week for what you do in Europe in the winter — a snow holiday.  We originally booked so Uri could get a taste for his love of snowboarding, but as he then also booked a trip with people more apt to snowboard than me, we then planned to indulge in lots of different winter activities instead, and the snowboard stayed at home.  We chose the Italian Dolomites mainly because it was less expensive than the ritzier large locations in France and Switzerland.  We chose Cortina D’Ampezzo for its size, access to Venice, number of bunny slopes for me, and non-ski/snowboard related activities available.

First things first, Uri proposed to me on our first night in Cortina. 🙂 Resolute on avoiding a proposal in Venice (how overdone!), he popped the question on our first night, so we could have a full week of enjoying our “fidanzanmento!” in Italy.  We drank many Aperol Spritz’ in celebration.

This trip was almost a year ago, and there are a few things that stand out in my memory outside of our engagement. First, eating canaderli (also called Knodeln in German), which are dumplings made of bread chunks and ham, served in a soup broth or with butter and cheese. The area of Cortina, being so close to the German border, has many crossovers in Italian and German cultures, with canaderli being one of the culinary similarities. My second clear memory is of how much I love the mountains and their views, fresh air, and ability to give perspective, despite my aversion to downhill skiing and to being out in the damp cold for hours a day, and days at a time.  Third, how much I love Italian food (PIZZA!  PASTA! BREAD! CHEESE! WINE!) but how after a week of it at three meals a day, you just would die for clean cooked chicken, or fresh veggies not soaked in oil.  I’m sure my ancestors are turning in their graves, but I remember one night of deciding to go to a fruit stand and eat two bananas for dinner, after a huge pizza lunch and previous days of carbs left me begging for anything I could find otherwise. And there was another night with me requesting plain chicken and a side of whatever the shop had that was green in the kitchen.

Cortina was also a week of experimenting with new sporty activities.  In addition to Uri taking one day to downhill ski with me (instead of his usual requisite snowboarding), we tried alpine/ cross country skiing for the first time, which for us, was swishing our legs back and forth in a preset track with absolutely no control over our speed or direction. Despite our “noviceness”, we had a blast and look forward to trying it again in a few months.  We also went snowshoeing, which must now be my favorite snow-related activity.  I’ve found I just do not get a thrill from careening downhill on skis, nor do I enjoy high speeds, having a fear of falling, or actually falling.  Snowshoeing for me was fantastic, because I was up in the mountain for a long time, enjoying gorgeous views that are really missed in those few moments you get off the ski lift before you head down the mountain. We walked high-kneed over and through the mountain with our guide, and he even brought us to an old bunker that was previously used in fighting the Austrians on the other side of the Dolomites during WWI.  Truly riveting!

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After five days in Cortina, we took the bus back to Venice and spent two days exploring the city. Not surprisingly, Venice was overwhelmingly touristy (gahhhhh the selfie sticks!), but we had some really good meals there (particularly, I had the best Pasta Fagioli I’ve ever had in my life at a place called Osteria Ae Cravate). We walked the old Jewish Ghetto, drank bombardinos and prosecco (Venuto is the home of prosecco!), and reached our breaking point for mass tourism on the island of Murano and its blown-glass sculptures.  Venice was undeniably beautiful, but perhaps its touristic hysteria and hyperbolized greatness left us feeling a bit underwhelmed overall.  It’s a wonderful city to visit, and I’m glad I saw the blue canals in person, but given the opportunity to go back again, I would probably pass.

Stockholm

In February, Uri had a work trip in Stockholm so I tagged along and we stayed the weekend.  Even though we visited in the dreary winter, I LOVED Stockholm.  It is such a livable city with a great combination of charm and modern living, with trendy and artsy-bohemian areas, without being too gritty.  There is a livable combination of Swedish and English infused in the city, and people are notably friendly and welcoming.  That said, I may have formed my bias solely from my experience at one fantastic restaurant we fell upon for brunch.  Again, without hyperbole, I had one of the best sandwiches of my life at Nybrogatan 38.

Another standout during our short time in Stockholm was the Vasa Museum. In the 1600’s, a ship experienced the biggest fail possible by sinking in her maiden voyage only after traveling 1300m in the Stockholm Harbor.  It was salvaged in 1961 as one of the best preserved and historically important shipwrecks ever. The museum, in my opinion, is a must-see.

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Traveling in winter in Europe outside of Christmas market season can be a bit discouraging.  Days are extremely short, sometimes with sun setting as early as 3:30, and sometimes it seems the sun never really rises at all. At least in the north, what makes the best of cities is often lost in the rainy dreariness.  The best things a traveler can do, I think we did well, and that is to be one with the snow and to eat good food.

 

Up next: Brugge, Milan, and Berlin.

My Experience on a Paris-bound Train from Amsterdam

When I started this blog, I didn’t have a clear vision of what it should be.  Part travel log, part documentary capturing what I’ve learned living abroad, I guess I can’t help that my emotional experiences have been playing a larger role.  I’m been thinking about writing this post for some time, but haven’t really “felt” enough about it until last week to be able to do so.

Since last week, I’ve been overwhelmingly affected by the goings-on regarding ISIS in the news.   I’ve had nauseating levels of high anxiety about the close proximity of what is happening around me, just a few hours down the road in Belgium, on a quick high speed train to France, and just a mile from one of my best friends in northern Paris.  I keep thinking about the political climate in the Netherlands, about how I wouldn’t understand the language if an emergency situation broke out around me, about how likely it is that terrorist cells are hiding here waiting to activate, or how fleeing terrorists could easily drive up the road and cross into the Netherlands or take a train to Centraal in Amsterdam.

It feels like everything I’ve experienced in the last year is tumbling over me.  The death of my father and aunt from the same disease, a stressful apartment move not by choice, getting married quickly and planning it from across the ocean, planning another more traditional wedding for next year, and riding the train from Amsterdam to Paris where American soldiers foiled a terrorist attack.

For the first time I am feeling a residual trauma from being on that train.  With the recent news that the mastermind behind the Paris attacks was killed, and the revelation that he was also the brains behind the foiled attack on the train that could have killed me, I finally want to come to terms with my experience.

I am not writing this to take or hear a political side.  I am saddened and further stressed everyday watching things unfold in social media, wondering if I “like” one article, I’ll have a barrage of people agreeing and disagreeing with me.  I’ve learned that conflict in my personal life is something that gives me a lot of anxiety.   I feel disgusted by seeing the reactions of some of my connections, and guilt for not feeling confident enough to post my opinions to avoid conflict.  I know you can’t have it both ways by posting in a public forum, but I think I therapeutically need to write this to begin to heal.

On Friday, August 21, 2015, Uri and I boarded the Thalys train at Amsterdam’s Schiphol station.  Before boarding, we looked at the sign that showed where to stand on the tracks in order to be in the right location for your assigned train car, and I mentioned how nice it was that it could be that efficient.  We settled in for the journey, and I spent most of the time listening to an audiobook, playing a game on my iPhone.  Uri did some work on his laptop.  We had the type of train ticket that allowed us to have a free but very dysfunctional wifi while we were not in our home country and thus not able to use cellular data.  Apparently if you get the cheapest train ticket option you are not able to have wifi.  I was WhatApp’ing with my friend that we were traveling to visit. She is French, living in Paris with her boyfriend, and one of my closest friends.

“Ugh, I think something is wrong with the train. It’s been moving slowly for a half hour.  We are only just south of Arras,” I said to her at 6:08pm.  “Keep me posted. Don’t worry,” she said.  Little did I know that my near-death experience had already unfolded, and I had no idea.  We heard a soft sounding alarm keep going off, and I complained to Uri that someone must have propped a door open or something.  I complained that the sound was quite annoying.  Only a few train cars away, a terrorist had gone into the bathroom and prepped his Kalashnikov, with enough ammo and misguided intention to take out most of the train. His attack was foiled by American soldiers and other travelers who by dumb luck or fate or whatever, were in the right place at the right time with the right amount of bravery or just sheer brazenness to save the entire train from a massacre.

Meanwhile, I’m still texting with my friend, “They are making announcements but they are in French and I can only understand ‘police’  … now we have to change trains.”  I asked the conductor why we were disembarking, and in broken French he said to me, “Because there is a terrorist on our train.”  “Perhaps he meant a bad guy with a gun, but surely that’s all it could be,” I said to Uri.

We exited the train, and there I saw a bloodied man in a stretcher.  We were escorted further down the tracks and stood for a bit in a state of confusion with our fellow passengers. I asked an officer in French if I could quickly use the bathroom, although they were still searching the train for what I did not know.  He led me in quickly, I did my business, and when exiting, another officer looked at me, and the original officer told him I was just using the bathroom.  We exchanged a smirk as he shook his head at me, slightly bemused.

After some confusion on the platform in Arras, they loaded us onto another train that was now stuck and waiting.  Passengers grumbled since seats were assigned and we were filling their train, seemingly cheating the system without assigned seats.  I was separated from Uri and grabbed a seat next to a young French man, while Uri sat closer to the door.  There, I searched the internet using the terms, “Arras + Thalys” and with my low-level French I could only understand in the article that I found, “ouvert le feu.”  I asked the man next to me if that meant, “opened fire” as I expected, and he read the article and said to me, “There was a terrorist on your train.”  The train sat mostly in silence with a few whispers wondering if they were looking for an accomplice or if the shooter was subdued, or if we were ever going to get to our destination. It seemed to us all like it  was all maybe all rumor, or we were still just hoping it was so.

After about another hour, now 8:30pm, still in Arras, everyone was removed from the train and told to go to a gymnasium down the street.  People were still milling outside the station and rumors were circulating about a possible bomb at the station.  I was starving, scared, and it was getting dark.  Uri and I knew we were not getting to Paris that night, so we left the scene to the hotel we saw just across the street.  We checked in, and got back onto our phones with wifi to check the news.  It was there that we realized what fate we had nearly escaped.  By this time, it had hit the news that there really was a terrorist on the train.  That he had an automatic rifle and a barrage of ammunition.  I had to look up the word “Kalashnikov” because I thought maybe what I thought it meant couldn’t have possibly been true. But, it was.

I’d like to say at this point that I felt a sheer state of panic, or relief, or fear, or anything. But I felt nothing.  I felt a bit outside of my body like it was happening to someone else. I asked Uri what he felt, and he also said nothing.  We felt like we were late for Paris and annoyed at the logistics of that.  We felt like what we read in the news didn’t actually happen on our train.  We said we felt really lucky that we didn’t see anything and we were clueless to the entire experience until it was over.  I don’t think I felt much of anything else about being on that train until last week, to be honest.

We had a nice dinner at a randomly chosen restaurant in Arras, with our eye on the news and on our phone feeds.  The next day, we headed to the station to get our complimentary tickets to Paris, and were grateful we made the decision not to wait around until the middle of the night for the first trains to travel to Gare du Nord.

Following that day, we tried to have a normal weekend in Paris with our friends. We basically went back to our lives with the exception of a few moments of relief and feeling lucky things didn’t turn out differently.  I spent a few weeks going back and forth with Thalys about my jacket that I left on the train and they ended up recovering it and getting it back to me. I recounted my experience that day dozens of times, and exchanged shared looks of relief with friends, and disdain for the happenings in the world around us, but again, I wasn’t really feeling it.  I wondered if I would and was relieved that I didn’t.

Last week, when Paris was attacked, my mortality and vulnerability hit me in the face.  My heart has been fluttering with anxiety for hours on end ever since.  What if those soldiers weren’t on that train?  What if I bought my ticket 5 minutes earlier or later and sat in a train car where I would have seen more?  What if Uri had requested first class tickets in the same train car it happened, since he had to work on the train that day and it would have been more comfortable? What if I go outside today and someone sprays me with bullets?  What if someone implodes himself at the convention center across the street? Or at the school?  Or in Dam Square? “Don’t be ridiculous,” I’ve been told. “It is very unlikely that you would be involved in something like that.”  Why, because it hasn’t happened before?

I wrote this account immediately after I learned that the ringleader in the attacks was killed in a police raid.  The news said that he was, in fact, responsible for the foiled attack on the train I was on, along with many others.  And I am sure we will learn more and more, and things will continue to change and evolve. For now, I have a small sense of relief because justice for myself and everyone on that train has somewhat been served. Or maybe not.  I am still feeling high levels of anxiety about my own personal vulnerability and mortality.

But mind over matter, right? Life goes on, and should go on, otherwise, what is there to live for?

33 Birthday Cakes, First Time Solo

33 Birthday Cakes, First Time Solo

It’s my birthday today, but it’s also my dad’s. It’s also been just about 6 months since he died. I don’t know what to do with myself today, since it’s the first of the rest of my birthdays I don’t get to share with him. I’m not ready to celebrate. Instead, here’s what I had to say about my dad 6 months ago, and here’s the last shared birthday cake photo we took together when I turned 30 and he turned 56.

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My dad had a few last requests when he was diagnosed with cancer only 10 days ago: to have a living wake where he could see his family and friends, to eat a 16 oz steak and a lobster tail, and to get out of the hospital and home to see his birds. These requests pretty much outline the person that he was: his family and friends were near and dear to his heart even when far away, happiness for him was a good steak and the correctly chosen seafood, and he took pleasure in the little things like his garden and watching the birds.

His strength and personality in the last week of his life represented who he was as well. Despite the adversity of sickness he experienced, he was still my dad in his last days. He was still able to make people laugh and tell them he was going to need to negotiate with Peter to let him through the gates. He also said he was happy that he did not have to “watch the Phillies lose another season this year”. He commanded with clear cut precision how he wanted his pot roast sliced when I fed him, he knew how to explain where his pains were and how to request Doris to move that pillow to the left, or a little more to the right. He made funny faces at me and told inappropriate jokes. The nurses in the oncology ward were smitten him. He was full of passionate stories. The last story he told me was about how my mom and he used to drive around and pick up scrap metal to sell back to the junk yards.
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Here are some things I’d like everyone to know about my dad, especially in his recent years:

I was born on my dad’s birthday. We have had a shared birthday cake for 32 years. I used to complain that I never had my own birthday cake, and my dad teased me that it was worse for him, since his name got downgraded on his cake from “Paul” to “Dad”. It was a running joke between us, and the reality is that our shared birthday was just another way that showed how special and unique the bond was between us. I will always celebrate his birthday in the future when I celebrate my own.

He loved his garden and tending to his flowers. He would meticulously tend to his garden every spring and summer. At each of my visits, he would walk me around the garden and show me each and every flower that was growing. He and Doris spent so much of their free time in the garden and caring for their house. We tried today to represent the flowers that he loved so much, and I’m sure he would complain that we got some of them wrong.

For years, we have completed a crossword puzzle together every time I have seen him. The smell of a pencil and newspaper remind me of him. Only a few days ago, I sat in his bed and read him out clues. The last one he solved for me was “Orange and black flier, 6 letters.” He told me the answer was “Oriole.”

My dad was memorably super intelligent to a lot of people. He is the smartest person I know and I am proud to say that. You can never play Jeopardy with him because he will know the answer before you finish hearing the question. When I started traveling and eventually moved to Europe, we would be on Skype weekly and he would tell me facts and history about any city in the world that I would be visiting. It never ceased to amazed me how much he knew about everything. He told me in his last days that he was so proud of me for living abroad and traveling, and i am forever grateful that he left me with that.

He called me names like “Wabbit” and “Duckyface” and “Sweetiepie”. I see him in my nose, my hands, and my toes.

One of my best memories of him was driving to Boston in his rented Seabring convertible. We listened over and over again to Led Zeppelin and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Because my dad loves reminiscing and he always wanted a good time, I’d like to spend the last minutes together listening to one of his favorite songs. Please think about your favorite memories of him and please help me and Doris to ensure that he is not forgotten.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Aae_RHRptRg

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “I’ve Become My Parents.”

Finding New Life Currencies

It’s been almost a year and a half since I started this blog, and things have changed quite a lot.  

Since moving to Amsterdam, I’ve seen over 30 places across 14 countries, some multiple times.  95% of these places I’ve visited have been first time visits to new countries or new cities for me.

What happens when you go from seeing 1-2 new places a year to 30+?  You get used to it.  Just like a fish that grows bigger in a bigger fish bowl that it is given, or people whose “needs” become inflated when their income rises, everything in life normalizes around your new level.  I find myself having to watch for how I present travels to my friends and family at home. I have to remember what it was like before I moved here, to hear what people that had these opportunities or this access sounded like to that version of me.  I have to put myself back in my old shoes.

You learn to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, because it is your new normal.   I bounce greetings and thanks across different languages without being ashamed at my poor accent. I meet new people from countries around the world regularly, and I learn new cultural nuances, witty phrases, political stances, and social sensitivities. On a more practical level, I don’t think twice that I will not understand emergency announcements or delayed train explanations on a platform. I am comfortable that my iPhone may very well not work, and that I’ll need to find my way without the blue dot of Google Maps.

This concept of normalizing to new levels, spun negatively, feels like you are never satisfied.  Spun positively, you can always handle what you are given.  Other things that happened this year that are pretty major: I got engaged, I’m planning two weddings (thanks to my marriage to an Australian, I get a legal we-need-to-apply-for-a- green-card-stat ceremony with family, as well as our dream wedding in France), my father died unexpectedly when I lived across the world away from family and friends, and as a result of the overwhelmedness, lack of motivation, and severe lack of focus, I’ve decided to reevaluate the career I’ve been had for the last 10 years.  

So I’m in a place I never saw myself in even 3 years ago:  in a loving and committed lifelong relationship, fatherless, and questioning my career.  Re-defining who I am now is quite a feat; I call it, “finding my new life currency”. What is that thing that now defines my value?  I thought that once I “made it” in my New York career, that I had everything figured out.  I figured out how to define my value in life, and anyone doing it differently was not as smart, not as motivated, not as strong-willed.  Having my job and excelling in my career defined me. Working hard and late, having many projects running at the same time, spending my hard earned money on rent, eating out, and drinking defined me. Being a New Yorker defined me.  

I wasn’t unhappy, but there was a time limit to this way of living for me.  Once I hit a certain age or time of my life, I suddenly realized that I didn’t actually care about the job I was doing; I was just really motivated that I was really good at doing it.  I realized that this was not enough for me – being really good at something I really didn’t care about.  It was time to move to a different place and change my perspective.  

Throughout this process I am finding a way to learn and believe that parallel or sideways growth is just as much a movement upward as moving upward in your job or your income level. My first mentor once told me that a great and fulfilled life does not look like a ladder that only climbed up in the end, but instead is a mosaic of different points, skills, jobs, and experiences.  And when you stand back to look, it has actually resulted in a beautiful piece of art.

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

An Extra-fjord-inary Time in Western Norway!

For years, I’ve been tracking my travel adventures against Lonely Planet’s 1000 Ultimate Sights, a book that lists well-known and less-known places to see around the world. In this book, there is a full color photo about Preikestolen, or the Pulpit Rock, a cliff at the fjords of Norway.  Ever since I first paged through this book, I’ve been pausing on this image, marking it in my head as a place I’d one day like to visit.  Before living in Europe, it seemed too random and off-track a place to ever see, but luckily, the airports in the southwest of Norway are a 1.5 hour flight from Amsterdam, and visiting the fjords area is quite an easy and popular trek to make from here.

Day 1 (Thursday, August 13, 2015) — Stavanger

Uri’s brother is on a travel holiday from Australia for a month, and the fjords were on his list to visit as well, so he joined us for this trip.  We met up at Stavanger Airport (Sola), rented a car, and drove about 15 minutes to our hotel in Stavanger city.  Stavanger is the third largest city in Norway, although it is quite small, surely far behind Oslo.  I am sure that the sprawling towns around Stavanger city itself are included in this statistic.  It is at the center of the oil industry, and the old fishing town it was basically grew into this larger city because of the boom.  I know that the world needs this energy source, but the focus on capital-O- Oil, and the act of depleting this nonrenewable resource creating the booming industry that this town is built upon, gave me a little bit of a weird feeling inside.  I found it fascinating to learn that the country stows away profits from oil into a country fund, and basically distributes the interest-profits to its citizens, thus helping it to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world (among other reasons).

We were hosted in Stavanger by Uri’s friend, a local who shared lots of stories about the town and history with us.  We strolled the pier, checking out the tons of giant jellyfish that gather in the docks’ warm waters (I’ve never seen anything like it before!).  We also walked through the old town area, a unique looking European old town that reminded me of a retirement community area — all white wood-paneled homes surrounded by colorful gardens.

Old Stavanger

We had a lovely lunch at Phileas Fogg, and were hit with our first experience of Norwegian alcohol taxes.  It is my understanding that in partnership with the already high cost of living in Norway, the government slaps a punitive tax on alcohol to discourage drinking.  So, when traveling the countryside, a glass of house wine or bottle of beer will cost you the equivalent of €9-€12, and buying a 6-pack of basic beer at the grocery store will set you back about €25, where the price of each beer is individually listed, without a discount on a bulk purchase.

We also visited Øvre Holmegate, the street full of colored buildings. Uri’s friend told us that the homes and shops on the street banned together to paint their facades to draw more attention and uniqueness to the street, and it worked.  It is a quirky, sweet little street bustling with cafes and shops, and people strolling to check out the scene.

Øvre Holmegate

After our time in the city, we were treated to a lovely dinner at the home of Uri’s friends in the neighboring area of Sandnes, which is counted towards the sizing of the urban area of Stavanger.  Then we headed back to our hotel for our first night’s rest.

Day 2 (Friday, August 14, 2015) — Pulpit Rock and Driving North

We headed for the Stavanger-Tau ferry early Friday morning, and there we got our first real glimpses of the cliffs scattered throughout the sea inlets.  After about 2 hours of driving, we arrived at the starting area for the hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), that mountain plateau 604 meters (1982 feet) above ground that I have long since dreamed of seeing.  The hike took about 1 hour and 45 minutes, and involved mostly uphill “stair” climbing and sometimes scaling giant stones and rocks.  There were two very steep areas to climb — it wasn’t difficult to have proper footholds, but it is like climbing stairs 3 times as high as normal, with uneven giant stones.  We had a mostly quiet hike up, as we started early, and were greeted by the occasional dogs and their owners making the climb (for the big dogs, what fun! –but for the small tiny dogs, it seemed cruel!)  

We reached the rock, and stood in awe at the view over the Lysefjord. Because of crowds, you don’t necessarily get to perch peacefully on the rock’s edge for very long, but instead you wait in line to creep to the edge and get your photo taken by your friends quickly.  The wind was blowing hard, and it was not a place anyone wanted to spend a ton of time teetering over anyway.  We took in the views, and headed back rather quickly, knowing we were hungry and had a two hour’s hike ahead of us.  The crowds were getting thicker, and we knew we also had a very long drive to our hotel.

Pulpit Rock

Can you see us?

The descent down was uneventful and easier as Uri’s brother gifted me with a found walking stick.  We were able to clop down the mountain rather quickly, enjoyed a well deserved and delicious lunch from the kiosk at the picnic area, and then set off north to our next destination.

The next leg of our trip was about 4 hours long, including another ferry ride where we made it as the last car, to Lofthus, Norway (on the Hardanger Fjord).  The ride was adventurous, as most of the road was narrow and it was all winding.  When another car would approach head-on, their was barely enough room for two cars to pass at the same time, and each car would need to slow and move to the edge to allow for enough room.  We stretched our necks and peered around every bend looking for oncoming cars for the whole ride.  We drove alongside the beautiful waterways, pulled over at a few lookout points, and saw many impressive waterfalls.  The cliffs are full of dripping and cascading waterfalls all throughout the fjord area, fed by glaciers, melting snow, and who knows what else!waterfalls

We arrived in Lofthus in the evening, and checked into our hotel, which was actually an active  boarding school which is used as a hostel in the summer months.  We enjoyed a dinner at the only restaurant within walking distance — Thai food, which as it turns out, is a specialty in Norway.

Day 3 (Saturday, August 15, 2015) — Hardanger & Eidfjord, and Driving North

Feeling quite sore from our big hike the previous day, we decided to have a leisurely day exploring the fjords by boat.  Uri found an event where we boarded a boat and went 1.5 hours to the Eidfjord area, where we would spend a few hours before returning back to Lofthus.  In Eidfjord, we unfortunately encountered the cruise ship culture that we were unhappily expecting to meet at some point.  A massive eyesore of a ship parked itself in the middle of the best view between land and fjord, and out from it dumped hundreds and hundreds of German tourists.  The town was tiny, with not much to do or see, except to enjoy the views.  Seeking solace against the hoards of tourists, we found lunch — again at a Thai place– and relaxed for a few hours waiting for our return boat back to Lofthus.

Once we returned, we were ready for our quick 2 hour ride to Undredal, which is northeast of Lofthus, and would set us up right outside of Flåm, where we had several events planned for the next day.  After about an hour on the road, we started seeing signs for road closures, and as we approached a giant waterfall and campsite, we pulled over to call the hotel and determine the situation.  It was there on the side of the road that we learned the only way into Flåm — a 20km tunnel– has been closed for a week due to a major fire, and would be closed for several more weeks or months.  The hotel let us know that the only way into town was a 6-hour diversion route by car, or a ferry, of which the last one for the evening left hours before.  We were infuriated to learn that the hotel knew of the road closure and did nothing to inform us in advance so we could make alternate plans (like the ferry).  We knew we would not be making it to our planned hotel for the evening, so we reversed course back to the larger town we had just passed — Vossvangen, or Voss. For the curious, it was “Visit Undredal” that wronged us and we’d encourage people to book this hotel with extreme caution.

The rain had just started pouring down in perfectly imperfect timing, but we remained cool, pulled over into a hotel to use their internet and inquire about rooms.  We found a hotel at a decent price (albeit more expensive than our planned hotel in Undredal).  Accepting our adjusted fate, we spent the evening in this town where Voss water originates (think, those fancy water bottles in da clubs).  We found a burger joint, had some dinner, and had some cocktails in a Mexican cantina, where a group of drunk Norwegians gifted me with a sombrero and poncho (yep… in Norway.)

Day 4 (Sunday, August 16, 2015) — Flåm Kayaking, the Flåm Railway, and Bergen

As part of our diverted plan, we had to get tickets from Voss to Myrdal by train, including an additional ride on the Flåm Railway, which is very expensive. This was our only way into Flåm, and still we would arrive an hour past our scheduled kayaking time; but, we wanted to try our luck and see if they’d take pity on us.  The rail ride was gorgeous from Voss to Myrdal, and although it was pretty from Myrdal to Flåm, that leg (on the Flåm Railway) was quite disappointing considering the price and knowing we’d have to do it twice to go back and get our car.  

We arrived at the kayaking kiosk in Flåm, called Njord, and we were lucky to be moved to a later group outing, but it was a 3 hour event instead of the 4 hour for which we had already paid.  We were happy though, not to miss the kayaking.  We were part of quite a large group — 2 guides, 9 Norwegian ladies, 2 Germans, and the 3 of us.  The guests had double kayaks, while the guides had singles.  The rain was pouring and it was cold as we received the lengthy instructions on how to set up the kayak, how to get into the skirt, how to right yourself in a capsizing situation, etc.  After about an hour, we were finally in our kayaks (me in the front, Uri in the back), paddling out into the fjord in the rain, soaked to the bone.  It was pretty, nonetheless, and the guides treated us to a few stories about how the fjords were formed, the sunken ship we were paddling over, and there was even a Norwegian birthday song sung by the group to one of the guides. Towards the end of our paddle, the sun finally came out for us.kayaking norway fjord

After we were back on land and in dry clothes, we headed back to our car in Voss, via the railway again.  Once in Voss, we picked up our car and drove 1.5 hours southwest to Bergen, back on our original course.

Bergen is the second largest city in Norway after Oslo and my favored city over Stavanger.  The city is large enough to feel livable and dynamic, but still maintains aspects of its quaint and storied origins.  It boasts fjord and port-side living, the UNESCO Bryggen area, and is the sister city of Seattle — a fun fact that really gives a true idea of its style and feel.

We arrived in Bergen, dropped off our rental car, and set off for dinner, first asking our hotel’s front desk attendant for a non-Thai recommendation.  “Hah,” she said. “I was about to offer you this Thai place down the street.”  A local Bergenite overheard our query and offered to take us the kilometer down the hill into town in his car, and point us to some restaurants where he was going to also take his visitor.  We ended up at the local college’s Swedish spot with slightly above pub grub level fare in the basement.  After a few drinks we went to his other recommendation, a beer bar with 54 beers on tap, where I settled in with a cider.

Day 5 (Monday, August 17, 2015) — Bergen

After our best breakfast during the trip (Thank you, Hotel Park Bergen), we ventured on our last day in Norway towards the wharf area (“Byrggen,” in Norwegian).  We strolled the shops and took photos of the old style commercial buildings that are now a UNESCO world heritage site.  We walked the fish pier and saw the largest king crab legs (and live king crabs in tanks) I’ve ever seen in my life. We then found our way to the Fløibanen funicular that took us up Mount Fløyen.  After a bit of a wait with other tourists, we made it to the top for some great views of the city.  We meandered our way back down the walking trail, encountering magical elements planted along the way, like signs warning of trolls and invisible witches.  The nature of the area truly felt like it was out of a fairytale, where we might find a troll under a bridge or Shrek peeking out of the trees.

mount floyan

After our trek back down the mountainside, we enjoyed our last lunch before heading to the hotel to collect our bags.  We boarded our bus to the airport, after saying goodbye to Uri’s brother, who was off to Stockholm for his next destination. And after a short 1.5 hour flight, we were back at our own destination in Amsterdam– home.

The fjords of Norway were a literal breath of fresh air from the city-fatigue we’ve been experiencing from all of our quick weekend trips to new European cities.  I highly recommend that anyone able takes the trip to Stavanger to hike Pulpit Rock, visits Bergen for its culture and feel, and fills the in-between with any fjording route you desire.  The options are endless!