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?

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.

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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!

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip- Part 2: Rome and Vatican City

The second part of Little Italy’s Heritage Trip is really not so much about my heritage, but about hitting some big historic sites that I’ve always wanted to see, in the city where I probably originated from at some point anyway: Rome!  If you are arriving here and haven’t read Part 1 of this trip, you can find that here.

Monday, May 18, 2015

After goodbyes in Abruzzo with our new friends Russ and Sergio at La Grande Quercia Bed & Breakfast, Uri and I  set off in our rental car back to Rome. The drive takes about two hours, and is full of rolling hills and mountain tunnels. The scenery is similar to the Alps in that it is mountainous, but it looks very different. Instead of a giant chain of grandiose mountains, there are many tiers of rolling mountainous hills making many levels of landscape to see when you look out into the distance. It’s a quintessentially beautiful drive that I believe you can only find in Europe.

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We dropped off the car and put our bags in our room at Chroma Pente, in the San Giovanni area of Rome, just southeast of the Colosseum. The hotel is not quite a hotel or a bed and breakfast, but more like a group of rooms in a larger building, almost like a Regus room would be for a small business. The price was right, and the location was about a 20 minute walk to the Colosseum, or a quick subway ride to almost anywhere.  We first stopped at a small deli called “Otbred Laterano” for some of the best panini sandwiches I’ve ever had. Note: always get a panini here on white or red pizza as your “bread.”  Yes… that’s right. A pizza sandwich. Delicious.

For our first day in Rome, we ticked off the major ancient Roman sites: the Colosseum and Roman Forum. The Colosseum– used by the ancient Romans for gladiatorial contests and other barbaric spectacles– was impressive, but smaller than I expected. It was also covered in scaffolding at the time of our visit. The Roman Forum, on the other hand, was an unexpected surprise. I didn’t previously know about it and it was the most fascinating to me.  It is an ancient Roman plaza or gathering place, containing acres of preserved ancient columns, tombs, and stories of historic Rome. I felt like I had time travelled to another time and could walk the forum and really imagine how it used to be thousands of years ago. I loved it!

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Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Our second day in Rome started at the Vatican. For Vatican City (as well as the Colosseum), I strongly advice to to buy tickets in advance so you do not have to stand in line for hours (especially at the Vatican). More of a personal preference, I also recommend to to skip any organized tours. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio walking tour app and were very happy not not be shuffled around in giant, impersonal amoeba-like tour group blobs, that mostly appeared to be using earphones to hear their tour guide anyway.

The Vatican Museum was truthfully quite boring for me. Most of the time there was spent slowly shuffling towards the Sistene Chapel, towards the back of the Museum, which is accessed with a Vatican Museum ticket. The Sistene Chapel was breathtaking. Despite being shoved into a crowded room packed with tourists craning their necks and bumping into each other, I got lost staring up at the ceiling, listening to the stories of each of Michaelangelo’s portraits. I didn’t expect the captivating 3-D design and bright colors that made the paintings look like they were climbing out of the ceiling. Amazing!

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After escaping the rest of the Vatican Museum as soon as possible, we headed to St. Peter’s Square and St. Peter’s Basilica. Both were impressive in size, but for me, they were piazzas and churches of which I’ve seen many of in Europe, just on a grander scale. The line for St. Peter’s Basilica looked long and intimidating, but it moved quickly enough.  After covering these big sites, we traipsed around the city to hit up the rest of our to-see list: the Trevi fountain (disappointedly emptied of water and covered in scaffolding), the Spanish steps (pretty but distractingly covered with some VERY AGGRESSIVE sellers of roses and selfie sticks), the Pantheon, and a stop called Hotel Locarno (an art deco hotel with a birdcage elevator). We ended our day with a delicious dinner (with one of the best arrabbiata pastas I’ve ever had– a red sauce with garlic, tomatoes, and chili peppers) at Trattoria Fusco near our hotel back in the San Giovanni area.

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Wednesday, May 20, 2015

For our last half day in Rome we took the 218 public bus out to the Roman Catacombs. The Catacombs consists of many different areas, the most popular of which being San Calisto/  Callixtus– which was closed on the day we were there (Wednesdays). I was happy to recognize the work for Wednesday, since French and Italian have similar looking words for days of the week. We found our way to the Catacombs of San Sebastiano about a half kilometer up the road. Crammed into a required 30 minute tour, we went 9 meters underground to see the old plots and frescoes of ancient Romans. I’m sure it will sound morbid, but I was surprised we didn’t get to see the mounds of bones piled high as you do in the Catacombs in Paris. The excursion took us only a few hours and we found our way back to Rome on the 218 bus. After another delicious panini lunch at Otbred Laterano, we set off for the Termini train station on the Italo train to Naples which would start our southern Italy half of the trip.

Rome & Vatican City Travel Tips:

— Before leaving for your trip, buy tickets online for entry to the Colosseum/ Roman Forum (combo ticket) and Vatican Museum/ Sistene Chapel (combo ticket). We skipped MAJOR LINES and I am not sure why this tip seems to be a secret, considering the number of people waiting in those lines..

— It’s personal preference, but I recommend to skip any form of organized tour in Rome. Use the audio guides provided at the sites or take your own to travel at your own pace. We used the Rick Steves’ Europe audio app and were very pleased, despite some technical glitches with the app itself. Nothing looked worse than being carted around in those giant tour groups. It is at the point where the groups are so large that there is no personal interaction anyway; the groups listened through headphones as their guides forged ahead and spoke into a mic.

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

Little Italy’s Heritage Trip: Part 1- Abruzzo

It’s been 6 months since I’ve posted, and it’s time to get started again, I think.  We’ve been in the Netherlands now for a year and 3 months. I’ll come back and reflect on that later.  But for my coming back party, I decided to take a different angle on my travel posts.  You’ll read a documentation of my travels, and I’ve also sprinkled in more pragmatic facts about the trips and some tips. First up is what I’ve been calling, “Little Italy’s Heritage Trip.”  It’s one of the two major trips Uri and I have planned for this year.

Inspired by my father, who passed away suddenly just 2 months ago (a reason for my blogging absence), I dedicate this blog posting to him.  He was passionate about knowledge: knowing where we came from, the history of the world, and many other things.  Some of my fondest memories span back to my childhood, when he would show me how he knew everything about everything I studied in history classes in school.  In recent memory, we studied my ancestry together right before I moved to Europe. We traced our family back to the boats they arrived on from Italy a few generations back, and were able to come up with one town name of my mother’s father’s parents: Bisenti, in Abruzzo, Italy.  And then this trip was born.

Friday-Saturday, May 15-16, 2015

We arrived at Rome FCO after a 3 hour flight delay, exhausted at 1:30am. Given the Italian reputation for early or erratic closures, we were ecstatic the car rental place stayed open for us. We drove the 20 minutes to our airport hotel/motel, and settled in for the evening.

On our first full day of our trip, we awoke and hit the road to Abruzzo, stopping off on the way in a town called Tivoli at the grand Villa d’Este. A mini Italian Versailles with palatial gardens and fountains, Villa d’Este is full of Italian marble and stone, statues, and gorgeously sculpted trees. It was a beautiful find, with Italian and other tourist visitors, but definitely “off the beaten track” as it was at least 45 minutes outside of Rome.

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2 hours drive later, including a drive through a 10.176 kilometer long tunnel (6.32 miles) under the Gran Sasso mountains, we arrived in the Abruzzo region, in the area of Teramo. (Side note:  There is a nuclear physics laboratory inside the mountains accessed by this tunnel!) Our B&B for the next two nights, La Grande Quercia, was located on a mountain road full of switchbacks, tucked on the side of a mountain next to a farm, in the area of Teramo.

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Owned by Russ & Sergio, I already felt like I knew them when we arrived, given that I’d been trading emails with Russ for a week or more prior to arriving. Visiting Abruzzo to see the village of Bisenti, I was on the search to find anything of my grandfather’s parents on my mother’s side. Russ & Sergio had already found birth certificates and marriage certificates for my great grandparents, and were hunting to solve the mystery of the place of my grandfathers birth. After a series of searches and visits to registrar and archive offices, they were able to uncover that my third cousin works at the post office in Bisenti. They called him and soon it was arranged for me to meet him and his mom (my cousin through marriage). His brother also lived in the area and spoke English but unfortunately wouldn’t be able to make the visit.

But back to La Grande Quercia. On our first half day, we went into Teramo for a late afternoon aperitif. One glass of wine each got us an incredible amount of food while we sat and people watched in the town. That week, the area was full of “alpinos” or elite mountain warfare soldiers of the Italian Army, according to Wikipedia. They wore funny hats with feather sticking out, like Robin Hood. We’ll meet them again later.

After we arrived home a bit later, we went to La Grande Quercia’s main house and ended up chatting and drinking with Russ & Sergio, including a bottle (maybe more?) of prosecco. I also got to call my English-speaking cousin, Luca and speak to him. What an experience. I can’t explain the feeling… I had this idea to visit this town when my father and I did some ancestry research as a way to spend a day together before I left to live in Europe. A year later, my father unexpectedly passed away from undiscovered and metastasized lung cancer. A few weeks later, this trip was set and at best I thought we’d go to the town of Bisenti, maybe visit the church where I would guess my great-grandparents were married. But here, I ended up uncovering my real, live cousins. Although this is the family of my mother’s father (no relation to my father) the experience connects me to my dad and his wishes in a way I could never explain. It’s one of the saddest experiences of my life not to be able to share this with him, but one of the most fulfilling experiences and proudest moments at the same time, to be able to carry on this passion for where I came from — a passion I inherited from him.

After this chat with Luca, we eventually remembered our dinner reservations and found ourselves at a restaurant called La Fortina for dinner. It was a wedding venue at the top of a hill and here we realized how off the beaten track we truly were… There was no translation of the menu in sight. We relied on instinct and a few rough translations of a few words by our waitress. I ended up with a delicious walnut and cheese ravioli primi and a shared veal scallopini limone for a secondi. After dinner, I rushed home to call my mom and Aunt, to tell them of the day’s discoveries.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Sunday morning, we ate a quaint but gorgeous breakfast of Italian quiche, coffee, and juices provided by Russ & Sergio, and took some photos with the Alpini (in the funny Robin Hood hats) before they set off.

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At this point we were the only people staying at the B&B. This freed up Russ & Sergio to drive us 40 minutes down and around winding switchback mountain hills into the little village town of Bisenti. There in the parking lot, my cousin and his mom were waiting for us (as well as a few members of the town, who were milling about curiously and watching us). Immediately we were on to hugs and kisses and Italian chattering and exclamations of “Bella Bella!” My cousin reminded me as an intro that Bisenti’s claim to fame was that it is the birthplace of Pontius Pilate.

We were escorted into their home, stepping back in time to the 50’s or earlier. It is a  house that looks just like the homes of my own grandparents and great aunts and uncles. Religious paraphernalia is all over the walls, along with doilies, plastic couches, and black and white photos of family everywhere. We were immediately handed tiramisu and an Italian soda and when the tiramisu was gone we were handed another slice. After an hour or so of intense translating, Italian speaking to me I couldn’t understand, excitement, tears, and reviewing photocopied paperwork documents, we took a ride to two cemeteries to see grave sites of my extended family. This included the husband and father of the family I just met, and gravestone’s with my mom’s family’s names dating back to the early 1800s. In order to get us all to the cemetery, Russ rode in the trunk of the car. It was hilarious and also touching to see what these people I just met were doing for me. It adjusts your perspective about the goodness and generosity of people in this world.  I had a good cry in the cemetery with my newfound cousin (the mom).  The irony was not lost on me, that we stood and cried a few tears at her husband’s grave, and I fondly thought of my dad.

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After the cemeteries our family hosts treated us to “ just a few snacks” for lunch, which included bread from the neighbors, three types of cheeses, bolognese pasta, the most amazing spreadable pork sausage, and red table wine. Then desserts of panettone bread, chocolate, coffee and ice cream were forced lovingly upon us despite our insistence of being full – just like home!  After more time chatting and translating, it was finally time to set off back to the B&B. My cousin’s mom hugged me and cried, asked us not to forget them, and told me she never had a daughter and wished she had one like me. It was emotional and surreal and one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

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After a twisty and turny ride back to the B&B, Uri and I rested up a bit, chatted with Sergio about the pros and cons of owning a B&B, then were dressing for a dinner we were invited to by our lovely hosts. They had 4 friends visiting (a couple that were previous guests and now locally-living friends, and the wife’s parents). We were invited into this intimate dinner and truly touched we were. It was full of wine and prosecco, funny stories, the freshest and tastiest tomatoes I’ve ever had (ever!), beans, and fresh baked bread. The meal centered around the sheep (not lamb!) skewers known in Abruzzo called Arrosticini, as well as spicy, plain, and liver sausages. We drank and laughed with our new friends and their friends, and truly forgot we just met these people the day before. It was then another late night to sleep in our little gorgeous little guesthouse room.  The next morning we would be off to Rome.

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Abruzzo (Teramo) Travel Tips:

— First off, the Abruzzo region was a highlight of our trip. Although we didn’t get to see outside of Teramo, there are beaches and wineries close by, and of course the mountains. The food is spectacular, and it is unmarred by tourists.  It is an easy two-hour drive east of Rome, on essentially one road.

— Consider staying in Teramo for a visit to the Abruzzo region. It’s central, close to the mountains and the beach, and it’s positively gorgeous. I’d recommend renting a car. There are buses from the airports but I am not familiar with their ease or extent.

— Visit Villa D’Este either while in a longer trip to Rome, or on your way to Abruzzo.  It was also a trip highlight for me, and there were again other little nooks and crannies in that region still that we didn’t get the chance to see.

Like what you’re reading?  You can continue on to Part 2 of this trip here!

Dedicated to the loving memories of my dad, Paul Albergo, 1956-2015

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‘Tis the Season

It’s holiday season, so it’s a good time to reflect on foreign holidays, and celebrating holidays as an expat abroad.  

If you are an outsider looking in, it’s amazing the weird and interesting things you see people to do in the name of religious tradition or secular holiday tradition, or “because it’s the way it has always been done.” Co-habitating with someone with a differing religious background to my own and from a different country as well, is already cause for interesting revelations like this for me every day.  Fun fact: Uri and I only share one holiday all year on the same day (New Year’s). I try to explain why coloring eggs and then searching for them around the house for Easter is normal.  Or why kids leave carrots out for reindeer on Christmas Eve.  Or how bread and wine get turned into the body and blood of Jesus at Mass…every Sunday.  Or why you must barbeque on Independence Day, or drink your face off the night before Thanksgiving with your high school friends.  Admittedly for myself as well, much that we do or believe is “because we always have.”

King’s Day

I’ve had my fair share of outside-looking-in holiday experiences here in Amsterdam.  First there was Konigsdag, or King’s Day, in April, which can only be described as Mardi Gras-meets-Independence Day multiplied by 100.  A celebration of the current monarch’s birthday, the Netherlands celebrated it’s first King’s Day this year, changing over from what used to be Queen’s Day since 1890 to the most recent Queen’s abdication in 2013. The entire city of Amsterdam was out on the streets for two days celebrating their country and the King. Everyone wore orange (the national color) from head to toe, and anyone who owned a boat was on it, partying with house music blasting from concert-sized amps on their little floating vessels.  The canals were so packed with boats that they appeared to be floating as one continuous barge. You could pick up orange Holland or Amsterdam or Netherlands paraphernalia at almost any store.  Then there is the concept of the vrijmarkt (“free market”) where the Dutch sell items from their house on the streets.

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

Konigsdag revelers floating on a canal

By the way, the current King, Willem-Alexander, bears a striking resemblance to a very famous figure in New York:

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Sinterklaas

Ah, Sinterklaas. The Dutch celebrate the holiday season with a few days dedicated to this character.  There is the celebration of his arrival from Spain in mid-November, his various visits to children over the next few weeks, and then the Saint Nicholas Eve / Saint Nicholas holiday which feels pretty similar to Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day gift giving and family celebrations.  However, there is also a celebration for Christmas Eve/ Christmas Day here as well.

The most interesting part of the whole Sinterklaas experience is his companion, Zwarte Piet (Black Pete.  Yes, that’s right. Black Pete.)  The stories about this character’s existence and role to Sinterklaas (companion, helper, slave) span the gamut, and there seems to be an exponential growth in division in the country on the appropriateness of Piet.  This year there were even several riots in Gouda on the day celebrating the arrival from Spain, in protest to the character. I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Piet: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas#Zwarte_Piet

Regardless of appropriateness, it is still highly accepted to use the Zwarte Piet character as festive decoration here in the Netherlands.  I just can’t get used to or comfortable with seeing it. Try googling it and checking out some of the imagery.  Oy.

Thanksgiving

As an American celebrating my first Thanksgiving away from home, I felt more compelled this year to actually stick to the tradition of cooking a Thanksgiving meal.  Having only cooked a turkey once in my life 10 years ago, I decided to take the challenge. Thanksgiving arrives this Thursday, and here are some things I learned through the process:

1) Dutch people order poultry from poeliers, which are basically butchers for poultry. You can also order from some “regular” larger butcher shops (slagerij). I had to special-order my turkey through these shops from a farm.  I felt a bit guilty knowing a turkey was being slaughtered just for me and responsibility is not shared with the Butterball conglomerate.

2) Buying a turkey is a delicate balance of finger-in-the-air-guessing and providing your poelier the size of your tiny oven in inches-whoops- in centimeters. “Please sir, I’d like a turkey to feed 4 people, and it can’t be larger than 21 centimeters tall or long.”

3) Dutch people do not know what turkey basters are.  After several long investigative discussions with many colleagues, we’ve determined the appropriate term is vleesbedruiper, but sounds close to something gross or naughty in Dutch (undetermined what this is). You can only order these online and they cost up to €25. I’ll use a spoon.

4) Expat shops are good for getting things like Stove Top Stuffing mix, if you are prepared to be gouged on the price.  The best bet is to stow away a box in your suitcase on your last trip home (check), along with packet gravy mix (check), and Wheat Thins (not for Thanksgiving, but check.)

5) Non-American turkeys are not pumped up with steroids, nor specially bred to have big juicy white-meat breasts.  In fact, they are sort of sad looking, scrawny, and lack a discernable stuffing cavity.  Any they come with the neck still attached. I hope we have enough meat here for four people!

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With that, have a Happy Thanksgiving, and wish me luck this Thursday, cooking my tiny little turkey!  Good thing I schlepped home all of that stuffing mix and other fixings for the best part of a Thanksgiving meal anyway- the side dishes!