Iceland’s geology: a love story (part two)

I somehow managed to amass 586 photos in total of Iceland in my very brief time here. The 2nd place vacation destination on this trip was not a close second – some 379 in Rome, Italy. By far, my love of Iceland is present in the number of photos I kept after a first round of edits and sorting.

My last post, Iceland’s geology: a love story really should have included biology too, since I mentioned arctic lupin and wild horses. But if you can’t tell, I’m really more about the geology and rocks and formative events that pave the way for the biology of new life, including the moss on the volcanic rocks which grows first and essentially starts the process for lichens, then arctic lupin, then small trees and shrubs and the rest of life to catch up with the newly formed lithosphere.

I covered the waterfalls, the recent volcanic eruption in 2010, and hinted at my upcoming adventure when I wrote it of descending into the magma chamber of dormant Thrihnukagigur volcano. After a grueling 3-kilometer (2-mile) hike over uneven terrain and new lava flow, and some gravel laid just that day to help with the hike, it was clear how subjected to the elements one really is in Iceland.

The wind was howling quite strong, and the rain blew horizontally into only my right ear as we hiked. I didn’t bring proper hiking boots with me on this trip, as it was never really intended as a backpacking/camping/hiking trip. So I will say the hike was probably made more difficult by my inappropriate footwear. But I only brought 3 pairs of shoes with me on this trip, and one of them was a pair of flip flops. I didn’t have many options. But I wore my sturdiest pair.

I also forget in physical challenges like that, that I have had 5 knee surgeries. I’ve tendons from cadavers in the place of my own torn ligaments, and way less meniscus and cartilage than a normal person. I feel the hike through my ankles, hips, and back more than the normal hiker, as I overcompensate for structurally weak knees.

Once we got to the mouth of the volcano, I was surprised by how quiet my typically boisterous fear of heights was. I walked the plank to the German pulley lift with no hesitancy, and even the slow descent into the chamber wasn’t scary. I was proud of myself that I had worked to conquer my fear of heights so fervently over the years that this previously terrifying feat passed without concern this time around.

What I saw, once I got in there, is beyond words. I could throw scientific terms at you about what type of rocks they were, the geologic processes and the unique case of this particular volcano that makes it the only one of its kind which allows us to view it from the inside instead of collapsing on itself like all other volcanoes do when they die. But I won’t.

Instead, I’ll share with you the colors and just what I saw. I’ve applied no filters to these, only touched them up because the lighting was quite dark in there, as you can imagine. It started with the bright reds of the actual magma at the mouth of the volcano, which is where it would have oxidized with the air upon erupting, giving it the bright red color from iron.

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Then as you got down into the bottom, everywhere you looked around you were beautiful colors that indicate just how much pressure and heat the environment contained thousands of years ago. There are purply blacks, greens, ambers, all totally natural and not modified by man in any way. Beautiful.

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Then, I went to the Blue Lagoon the day after being inside the volcano. The Blue Lagoon was formed originally as a mistake – some men were drilling to create a geothermal power plant on the site, a type of energy which powers more than 85% of Icelandic homes. The drill hit a pocket of pressurized underground heated seawater, and it came bubbling up to the surface. No doubt, someone was fired for that. But at the time, they didn’t realize the beautiful pool they accidentally created. The water is rich in silica, and helps alleviate psoriasis and many other skin conditions.

It’s probably the most visited tourist attraction in Iceland, about a 45 minute drive outside of Reykjavik, and in my opinion, well worth the visit if you’ve never been. If I lived nearby, I’d probably be a regular. The water isn’t too hot, and one of the great natural by-products is the silica buildup from the water. If you scrape the silica mud off of anything (they have an area where it collects in buckets), it can actually be used as a mud mask that does wonders for the skin. Then, their R&D team developed an algae mask that replenishes the nutrients stripped from the silica mask. I soaked in the pool for about 5 hours yesterday and applied two rounds of silica and algae masks. Today, my skin has never felt so much like a baby’s butt. You can believe that sold me on the products, and I purchased two sets of the silica and algae mask for use at home. Now if only I could take the pool with me too, and fit it into my tiny little San Francisco apartment.

Here are some of my favorite pictures from the Blue Lagoon yesterday:

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Now, also in yesterday’s post, I also mentioned a couple of other things that I thought were worth sharing with you. Firstly, some scenes from Game of Thrones season 4 were filmed in Iceland, as Thingvellir Valley, a national park, is the land north of the wall. This is the stomping ground of whitewalkers, and also the Bloody Gates, and the actresses who played Arya and Brienne of Tarth were spotted wandering Iceland by locals as well. Arya and the Hound wander through the countryside, and Brienne searches for Sansa and runs into other characters. I can see why they chose to film here – it’s simply stunning.

The other great piece of geology about Thingvellir national park is that it’s the above ground portion of the mid-Atlantic ridge, where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates are spreading, creating a rift valley which has filled with water in between. I had the pleasure of standing directly above the rift and where the land is separating at a rate of approximately 2 centimeters (less than 1 inch) per year.

There is a walking bridge over the rift, and here are photos taken from each side of the bridge:

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I also wanted you to remind me to tell you of the geysers here in Iceland. There was one, named Geysir, which is Icelandic for “erupt”. An earthquake some years ago actually made this one no longer shoot up into the air, but Geysir has a little brother named Strokkur (“to churn”) a few meters away, which erupts every 4-8 minutes or so. A new friend I met at the hostel got a great picture of the eruption just as a bubble, before it because the pressurized spectacle shooting 20 meters into the air we usually know as a geyser. However, I was no so lucky to snap a photo of that in time, and didn’t stay for enough eruptions to try hard enough to capture it. But here is what I caught of Strokkur (pre-eruption and during eruption):

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And finally dear reader, I leave you with this gem of a story. My tour guide Albert, on the South Coast/Glacier Walk tour through GeoIceland, imparted it to me in such a way that left it entirely up to me if I wanted to believe it, but many Icelanders do believe in this. Icelandic folklore has stories of interactions with “hidden people.” Apparently, in the Bible, after Adam and Eve had the apple, and had many children, God sent them a message that He wanted to come by and pay their family a visit. Eve set to bathing all of her children so they could be presentable to God when He arrived. However, God was a little early, and Eve sent the children who had not yet bathed and cleaned into hide so God could not see them in such an unruly state. God knew there were more children than what He was seeing, and he asked Eve about it. She indicated that she had hidden them. As such, God decided that all the children she had hidden would remain hidden. So there are stories even up through today of children speaking to “the hidden people” in the hills, much like imaginary friends.

I would choose to believe just because I typically believe in phenomena like that, but what put the nail in the coffin for me was an unruly and unkempt, very forward Icelandic woman who identified herself as 51. She tried to pick me up in a Danish bar, Den Danske Kro, elbowing my travel companion Hank Moody completely out of the way, only to tell me that she thought I was beautiful, and we are the same (shhhh, lesbians.) I believe she was a hidden people, and probably by the end of the night, was removed from the bar for being a nuisance. She came from nowhere, she spoke to me, and my trusty travel companion saw her, so I know I wasn’t talking to myself… but she disappeared shortly after I disappeared from that bar, completely weirded out. I didn’t take her bait, and I don’t think she knew what to do with that.

So there you have it, dear reader, the second part in my own Icelandic saga spanning 6 days in June 2015 here. I want to come back. I love it here, and could really see myself living here… in summer. I may totally regret that decision by October, if I chose to move here next summer… but only time will tell.

I love the scenery, the people, the things to do, the things to see, the geology, the folklore, the vibe, the live music scene, the thick language, the wild horses, the new earth being formed, the everything. Maybe one day if you come here too, you will as well.

Now, I must see to having some lunch before my shuttle to the airport. I still can’t believe my two month sabbatical from work across 10 countries is coming to an end. I would be in mourning, but I’m already pondering my next adventure.

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Or pizza.

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Iceland’s geology: a love story

As I sorted through 392 photos I’ve taken in Iceland over the past 3 days, I realized I’m in love with this place. Have you ever traveled to a place where your soul felt at home and you just connected?

Granted, it is summer time, and winters can be excruciating and insufferable, so I can’t say this is an unconditional love at this point… but I do know I have barely scratched the surface here, and I’ll leave in 2 days wanting more. I’d like to come back here again and explore more. I haven’t said that about many travel destinations I’ve been to, and that says a lot.

First off, you need to see these flowers. They are indigenous to Alaska but were introduced to Iceland to help topsoil erosion from wind so that new vegetation and life could begin on fresh lava flows. It now grows nearly everywhere: arctic lupin. Some locals see it as invasive because it’s spread so much, but it truly is helping the environment here so, one can’t hate too much.

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Now, on our South Coast and Glacier Walk tour through GeoIceland tour company, we saw some amazing rock formations. One of my favorites were the basalt column that form a cave on a black pebble beach. There are rock columns just past shore that also add to the dramatic effect. I won’t go into the longwinded boring story of the geology of how they came be, but needless to say, I don’t find it boring at all. It looks like a black and white photo, but I assure you, this was shot and kept in color.

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Also on the same tour, I touched Solheimajökull glacier, and I liked it (to the tune of the catchy Katy Perry song about kissing girls.) Only when you see the glacier in person, melting fast than it can flow down the valley, do you realize the true impact of global warming. Our tour guide explained to us that 2 weeks ago, a large part of the glacier broke off into the smaller glacial lake forming in the melt zone, and we saw the remnants floating like ice cubes. It saddened me a little to know this second largest glacier on Iceland will be gone in a matter of fewer than 20 years probably, at this rate.

Now, this glacier was covered by volcanic ash with the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, and ash seeped into fissures in the ice at the time. With the melting, that ash only serves to make the glacier more beautiful and have more character. The glacier doesn’t have to be fully blue and white and pristine. Glaciers are a major form of erosion many people do not think about when they hear “erosion.” They’re full of big rocks and debris and move them through massive valleys creating dramatic mountains and views. Here are a couple of my favorite shot sof the glacier from the other day:

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Now the eruption in April 2010 of Eyjafjallajökull volcano also brings with it a story that demonstrates the nature and heart of the Icelandic people I’ve come to respect. A woman who lived on a nearby farm to the volcano, who happened to be directly downwind from the volcano, in fact, had zero visibility at her farm for nearly 3 weeks as the ash and smoke covered everything. She could not evacuate and had to take care of her livestock on the farm. In 3 weeks, she finally stepped outside and could see ash just everywhere – over all the grazing land, on her roof, windows, everywhere.

Then, a cavalry of nearby farmers arrived with a group of men who in 3 days managed to clear the ash off of everything like nothing even happened. Icelanders do not rely on the likes of FEMA when a disaster strikes; they know no one is coming to their rescue. So they come to each other’s rescue. The sense of rugged individualism and independence also comes with it a strong sense of community. They didn’t say to the woman, “let us know if you need help.” She didn’t even know what kind of help she would need. They weren’t fairweather friends. They just showed up and helped. That brought tears to my eyes. Good eggs, the lot of you, Icelanders. Keep it up. I love that.

Now, on the long drives between beautiful geological formations here, there are wild horses grazing on the side of the road, as well as sheep and cattle. Our tour guide pulled over our minibus to the side of the road, and went out and called the horses over. Up close, they appear to be miniature horses, a smaller breed, not as large as some I’ve ridden back in the US.

Apparently this is so common, they know they are getting treats when someone makes the clicking noises they can somehow hear over the cars whirring by on the side of the road, so there was no hesitancy in paying us a visit. They nibbled on my empty hand, nudged me with their noses gently. One feisty one even tried to bite my forearm and elbow, as it was roughly apple-sized thickness, apparently. Cheeky little fellow, with curly black hair, he was. Here is the horse that let me give it cuddles and pats the longest, with the sweetest eyes I’ve looked into in a long time.

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It was covered in mud and dirt, but we didn’t care. After we left, the horses began what looked like kissing – licking each other’s necks to see if we left crumbs on our hands when we petted them. And here’s the rest of the lot, who heard there would be pats and food.

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Now, in the last 3 days, I’ve seen many waterfalls. There have been 3 famous ones, Skogafoss, Seljalandsfoss, and Gulfoss, and many lesser ones from glacial runoff and snowmelt for summer.

I hiked the stairs on the side of Skogafoss, to prove to myself I could. The fall is 60 meters high (or 200 feet), I was cold, without any windbreaker or waterproof jacket. But, I challenged myself. I’ve been going through a bit of a healing process for my little heart recently due to an unrequited love, and with every step to the lookout point, I repeated in my head, “Fuck. You. Fuck. You. I’m climbing a waterfall.” I got to the top, wheezing, with shaking legs, and terrified to see through metal supports and the grate floor all the way to the bottom. I got the full effect of the vertigo from such great heights. Let’s just say every selfie I took up at the top shows the struggle of getting up there to that moment, and the look on my face of being absolutely terrified and winded. That won’t be shared here. But, I did it. I can do great things when I put my mind to it.

I walked under another waterfall the same day, Seljalandsfoss, after hiking Skogafoss, and got even more soaked. But I knew I had to walk under it. The perspective afforded by letting such a massive deluge of water, your problems, your worries, pass by over you, as you watch it go by regardless of whether you’re there to see it or not, helped to ease my troubled mind. The world still goes on. The water still falls to the pool; it’s on its own journey, too. It’s not troubled or worried right now. No one could see the tears in my eyes and down my cheeks, because I was so wet anyway, so it was just waterfall mist from the falls if anyone asks. I needed that waterfall, too.

By far, my favorite has been a lesser-known waterfall called Faxi. Faxi isn’t that high – in fact it’s maybe 15-25 meters high, a wide shelf, with not a long drop at all. There was a modest homemade salmon run going up the side as well, as it’s on a freshwater river. This was probably the closest to paradise on earth I’ve ever come. I’ve been in caves, and seen a lot of things, but the pristine and serene beauty of this last stop on our Golden Circle tour yesterday was by far my favorite. There were no busloads of tourists littering my photos. In fact, I didn’t even see most of the people on my own minibus for most of the time I was there.

Here’s foxy Faxi:

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I must sadly end this, as I could keep going on about wonderful things I’ve seen and done in just 3 short days in this country. I’ll try to put those in another blog post, and just so I don’t forget, I’ll briefly list them here. Remind me to tell you about Thingvellir valley, where some of season 4 of Game of Thrones was filmed, the mid-Atlantic ridge and spreading of the tectonic plates creating new crust on the surface of the earth, geysers, as well as the local folklore of the hidden people based on the story of Adam and Eve.

I need to run off and go do more. I’m going into the belly of the beast itself today. Yes, I’m descending 120 meters (400 feet) into an empty magma chamber of a dormant volcano. There is a moderately challenging hike on either side of base camp, and my ever-present fear of heights to conquer yet again on the German designed pulley elevator (with North Korean cables on them, or so the running joke says.)

Reykjavik so far

I’ve only been in Iceland for about 24 hours, and I already think it is one of the coolest places on earth. Besides that being a literal statement, given at the height of summer it’s a cool 54°F outside at nearly 4pm, it’s also got some amazing natural wonders here.

First off, the cost of electricity and heating your home is so cheap here, because nearly 100% of the island runs on geothermal energy. It’s efficient, and no one freaks out if you leave the TV on a little too long. Our hostel room was super warm and toasty last night, and despite usually enjoying a chill in the air when I sleep, it was a welcome warm-down-to-your-bones feeling.

Our hostel is alternative, with great ambience as a former biscuit factory (google it if you’re interested, Kex Hostel.) There is an old barber’s chair by reception, a bar with an actual scene even the locals frequent, and lots of character oozing out of the signage and décor. We’re within walking distance to one of the oldest pools in existence on the island, and we visited Sundhöllin public baths last night. Pre-soak shower, steam room, geothermal pool, drink from the water fountain, hotter geothermal pool, cold swimming pool, repeat. And my first “sunset” here yesterday in the true land of the midnight sun, was so purple, with bright oranges and deep blues, you’d think from my reaction watching it, I’d never seen a sunset before. Squeeeeeee. Love.

We did a free walking tour of Reykjavik this morning with a genuine Icelandic gentleman who rolled his R’s harder than anything I’ve ever heard, and with tinges of ginger in his beard. He indicated the language has strong roots in Scottish, but Icelandic is a very old language that did not suffer the evolution and bastardization that came with introduction to the Norwegians, Swedes, Finnish and Danish mainlanders.

Iceland only became independent from Danish control in June 1944, at a time when Denmark was actually occupied by the Germans in World War 2. They could not maintain control of their offshore territories, so Iceland saw fit to declare its independence at that opportune time. What I love even more is that, apparently, Icelandic independence was won without any blood being spilled. It was a battle of thought and education and wit, and no one had to die for it. One could argue perhaps it does not mean as much if people did not die for it, but I don’t necessarily ascribe to that chain of thought. If independence can be attained in a peaceful manner, by all means, proceed. More power to you for taking it as well.

The population of Iceland is only about 300,000 people. So tiny! It’s like a cute little baby puppy. But really, that’s not very many people at all. In fact, when an Icelandic person goes to a bar on a Saturday night, meets someone they may want to consider as a life partner, or maybe just an overnight partner, the threat of incest can be real. It’s not a question of whether you’re related to someone, but more just how far back, or how distantly are you related? There is actually a website that traces connections for genealogy called the Book of Icelanders (Íslendingabók) which has information on inhabitants of Iceland that go back centuries. The website wasn’t expressly created to avoid incest, but more to identify connections between families. Our tour guide joked about how many hits that website gets on Sunday mornings, possibly after walks of shame, or while they’re still in the bed next to each other. But there is truth in jest…

The tour guide also explained naming conventions to us. Children are always named after their father. For example, there is a Skúli Magnússon statue in the middle of downtown, dedicated to the “Father of Reykjavik”. According to the naming convention, Skúli’s father was named Magnús, so his last name is literally, the son of Magnús, or Magnússon.

If Skúli had a son, and he named him Magnús, then his son’s name would be Magnús Skúlison. His son would not have the same last name as him; rather, the son would have his father’s first name for a last name. Which explains why every Icelandic male’s last name ends with “son”. The same goes for daughters, who would take their father’s first name as their last name, but instead of son, it would be daughter, or dóttir.

So if Skúli had a daughter, and he named her Mary, her name would be Mary Skúlidóttir, or the daughter of Skúli. So everyone knows who their father is by their last name. Interesting stuff. I’d still be doomed in the last name department, though, if that was the case for me.

After our walking tour today, we took a short walk over to the nearby Lutheran church, Hallgrímskirkja. Just looking at it from the outside, and knowing what I do about geology, I immediately made the connection between architecture and the basalt lava flows it was meant to resemble. It is a relatively new building, only completed in 1986. But, Iceland as a whole is still so young.

Tourism only bypassed fishing as the country’s main source of revenue a few years ago, as outsiders could only afford to visit after the global financial crisis in 2008. There is so much construction happening on the island to keep pace with tourist demand, and most of the new construction is hotels.

This is truly a whole new world to me, with so many unique and interesting things to learn about life here. For example, there is one high school in Reykjavik, and it’s on their 500 krona bill. Education and health care are free here, but the big price tag for that comes in effective tax rates between 38-42% for citizens.

We have many more activities planned here in the 5 days I have left. We will see Seljalandsfoss and Skogafoss waterfalls, and walk across Solheimajökull glacier. With crampons. Which apparently are NOT a combination of cramps and tampons. Say those 10 times fast.

We will do a Golden Circle day tour, which includes the “three jewels of the Icelandic crown,” the Gullfoss waterfall, the Thingvellir valley (which is the site of formation of new earth crust where tectonic plates are spreading), and the Geysir hot spring area, which includes a steam vent that “erupts” every 5-10 minutes.

Then, in what might be my most physically challenging part of this trip, moreso than the hardcore, nonstop hike to and from Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside of Berlin, we will walk 3.5 kilometers across a lava bed (which I equate, in my imagination, to walking on the moon) to a dormant volcano which hasn’t erupted in 4,000 years, and actually descend into the magma chamber of the volcano, then walk the 3.5 kilometers back on that uneven terrain.

With all that grueling touristing coming up, we also have an afternoon booked at the infamous Blue Lagoon on our last full day here. I’m eagerly anticipating these challenging adventures as I bring my two-month excursion to a close. By the way, as a heads up for all travelers who come after me to the Blue Lagoon, it will be closed for renovations as they’re adding a hotel just next door in January 2016. Sounds like the project will be complete in 2017, so if the Blue Lagoon is one of the highlights for you, be sure to book around that to get the most out of your time there. 

It’s hard to believe in just over 5 days, I will be back in San Francisco. Back to life, back to reality, and somehow containing within myself the experiences I’ve had on the road.

I have taken to heart this quote I found while on the road, but I’ll expand more on that another time.

“Travel not to find yourself, but to remember who you’ve been all along.”

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A quiet little Norway town

Originally, after Berlin, I was meant to spend a day in Oslo, and then I was trying to convince my travel buddy on this trip to go with me up to the Lofoten Islands. I was bound and determined to see the northern lights, and that area was also just inside the Arctic Circle, which would have been a first for me.

We ended up compromising and taking a train to Bergen in western Norway, instead of flying inside the Arctic Circle. We ultimately agreed we wanted to see fjords, and to be honest, the northern lights are few and far between in the summer months due to the amount of sunlight in the northern hemisphere. So no Lofoten Islands this time around, and we took the train from Oslo to Bergen, a good 7.5 hour train trip.

I must say, Bergen is a small, quaint little seaport, which has endeared itself to me. I don’t like seafood, so the fish market by the pier is wasted on me. Bergen is just as expensive as the rest of Norway, if not moreso, because it’s more secluded and away from the largest city of Oslo. A Burger King value meal, which would cost me about $7 USD here costs about $13.50, with the translation from Norwegian Krona. Not worth it, so we stocked up on some food in Berlin where food was dirt cheap, and carried it with us in our luggage for this bit of the trip. Mmmm, nothing like cup’o’noodles on those long, cold train-rides to soothe the throat and wallet…

This is a quiet town, and our hotel is at the top of a slight hill, which is directly across from the mountain, Fløyen. Yes, we splurged for a hotel, with chunky wooden furniture, for this leg of the trip. Nevermind that the bed feels like only the large husbands have slept on mine, as it sinks in the middle. After many weeks of hostels, and my last hotel being a reformed prison in Helsinki, it was a welcome change, and not too hard on the wallet.

I took pictures of Fløyen from our hotel, and then yesterday, after riding the “funicular” (pulley train) up to the peak, I took pictures of our hotel. It’s the white building, and we have the corner room on the 3rd floor, just below the roof/attic, with the balcony. It’s got fantastic views inland, of colorful houses on the side of Fløyen.

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Here is a view of the side of Fløyen, with the central water fountain in the town included, just at sunset. One of my favorite pictures from this destination.

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Also atop Fløyen, the locals have created whimsy for those with wild imaginations like myself. Trolls abound on the children’s playground, one especially homely one. There are signs everywhere about not photographing the witches, and not disturbing the invisible witch hunter.

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Most of the tourists visiting here are empty nesters, or more mature couples. There aren’t many small children, and for that, I’m eternally grateful and happy with my decision to come here. After all the prams and babies in Stockholm, and how the Scandinavians love them some babies (maybe it has to do with growing the local populations?), I’m quite happy to be away from the youths. Perhaps the trolls and witches removed the babies from the local town. Who do I need to send a thank-you letter to for that one??? Don’t go too hard on them, invisible witch hunter. I enjoy the quiet.

View from Fløyen at sunset:
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Oh, the quiet. Did I mention how much I enjoy the quiet here? I can actually hear myself think. Sometimes that is a good thing, but sometimes it is bad.

Besides the view from our hotel room, and all over the city in fact, it’s so peaceful and serene here. Hardly any sirens, some construction works, but not too loud or too in your face. It’s a sleepy, quiet little town where the loudest inhabitants are the seagulls.

There are a row of buildings just on the water, that look a bit like an “old town”, or Bryggen as it’s referred to here. They just add to the feeling here and provide that extra little atmosphere, letting you know you are someplace old and special.

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We took a fjord tour today, which was the whole point of this destination, and it was worth the 500NOK. We saw Heskjedalsfossen waterfall, and even drank water from it. The water was crystalline and pure and cold and perfect. Nature is beautiful, here, not yet ruined by humans as it is in so many other places around the world. If you can clear your mind enough to be in its company when you are here, then Bergen will be a welcome getaway for just about anyone, but especially for people who aren’t fans of crying babies. Just saying… If you see the witches, give them a tip from me, and maybe buy the witch hunter a drink so she can let the witches hunt the youngins a little longer…

Concentration camp outside Berlin

I wrote this blog post yesterday, after going to Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, at the site of the original concentration camp. These are my initial thoughts, immediate reactions, and do not necessarily encapsulate everything that I learned yesterday. I highly recommend you visit the camp for yourself and form your own views. I thank you in advance for reading this blog, as it’s not for the faint of heart or stomach.

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Today, I went to a concentration camp, and was brought to tears, that I tried to hide. I didn’t expect that.

As part of my 3-day stint in Berlin, I decided I wanted to visit Sachsenhausen, the concentration camp just outside Berlin, about 35 kilometers. The first German concentration camp, as my tour guide informed me today, was actually in Dachau, outside Munich. I only recently found out my grandfather was a defector from the Russian army and wound up at Dachau as a political prisoner during the late 30’s or early 40’s. I don’t know much about my father’s side of the family, and everyone seems to have their own truths, which change frequently. This made the concept of one of my relatives having been at one of these places all the more real to me.

When we arrived in Berlin yesterday, after a very smooth and brief flight from Oslo, we immediately went for a 4pm walking tour, which kicked off at the Starbucks by Brandenburg Gate. We saw the Gate in all its glory, the Hotel Adlon (famous as the place where Michael Jackson dangled his baby), the double bricks in the road signifying where the Berlin Wall ran, the place that is now a kindergarten playground but held 8 meters below it the barracks where Hitler hid and ultimately shot and killed himself. We saw the Holocaust Memorial, Checkpoint Charlie, Humboldt University, and the square where the infamous book burning was.

Here is a photo of the memorial in the square where the books were burnt. If you look down, it appears as if you are looking into a mirror, with the sky and your own silhouette looking back up at you. But if you look through this, you will see many rows of empty bookshelves. There is a great quote (in German) just across the square from this memorial, from Heinrich Heine years before the book burning that was almost prophetic. “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings.”

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At the conclusion of the walking tour yesterday, we bought tickets to visit Sachsenhausen, which we chose to use today, through the same tour company. We had the same meeting point this morning, the Starbucks by Brandenburg Gate, and many people were turned away because only two guides were available to give the tour.

I ended up with an alternative fellow named Mark as the guide – he wore a blazer reminiscent of the 1980’s, rolled up to his elbows, and a button down white shirt with all buttons buttoned. He had a British accent, being from the UK, and a metrosexual haircut. He wore one red sock and one blue sock with what appeared to be unbranded Doc Martens. Mark was a history teacher at a secondary school before leaving London to specifically become a tour guide in Berlin 4 years ago, so he was very knowledgeable about the topics that we discussed. Perfect example of the alternative style I come to expect of Berlin, and provided many stories and the rich context needed for the tour.

We immediately headed to the train station at Brandenburg Gate, after much urging from the two tour guides to bring food. While waiting for it to begin, I grabbed Hank Moody and I some sandwiches at Starbucks, a fruit cup and a lovely mozzarella and tomato focaccia which they even heated for me, but alas, I had to wait to enjoy it.

The militant pace the tour guides kept proved to be a major challenge for me all day, and would have been a challenge for anyone. It didn’t help that prior to the tour, I discovered NIVEA Haus and bought a ton of skin care products, hand crème, deodorant, and shower gel for dirt-cheap. So beyond having to bring an impromptu pack lunch, I also had some heavier products in my bag, as well as a full Nalgene bottle of water and my trusty steed, my DSLR camera.

We rode the train to the very last stop, and then had a “15 minute walk” (translation: 30 minute walk crammed into a 15 minute military light jog) to the compound. Immediately, I was confronted with walls and layouts, and the German efficiency I would expect, but not necessarily from a concentration camp.

The main area we were to visit was in the shape of a triangle – originally this concentration camp was meant to be the example of how all other camps would be modeled. With the triangle shape, the watch tower was bisecting the base of the triangle, and all barracks fanned out in concentric circles from the watch tower (forming a sort of rainbow over the base tower), to allow for maximum visibility. It had to; there were originally 290 SS officers for thousands of prisoners. At one point, the camp was so full, the 3 level bunk beds held 3 people each, and that bed was narrower and shorter than a twin sized mattress. Unreal.

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With each story Mark imparted, the feeling of sickness, of shock, of dread, of sadness built, like bricks in a wall, until it culminated in the two stories, which absolutely did it for me and brought me to tears.

The first was of the work details available for people in the camps. You see, there were death camps, and there were concentration camps. Sachsenhausen was where political prisoners, then ultimately Jehovah’s witnesses, Jews, criminals, communists, homosexuals, and others were brought to work before possibly dying from exhaustion or disease, or being sent on to death camps, like Auschwitz.

Some people were made to build bricks and then haul them, and those bricks were ultimately going to be used to build Germania, a reformed Berlin once Hitler led the Germans to a successful outcome in the war. To me, Germania symbolizes the new, pure Aryan race, which weeded out those marginalized groups listed above. Germania, as a gleaming, thriving capital of Germany never came to be, so I can’t tell you what happened to bricks made for this purpose but that perhaps it was in vain.

But the work detail that did it for me was what many homosexuals were sentenced to do: boot testers. There is a strip within the concentric circles of various types of rocks – tiny loose gravel, large volcanic rocks, and the like. Boot testers were given boots, guaranteed to be the wrong size, then were given 20-kilogram packs (which is like a 40-pound pack for all of you on the Imperial system rather than the metric system). Those boot testers then were forced to run laps over those various kinds of terrain for 12-15 hours per day. The German army did not have the money or resources to provide leather and rubber boots to its soldiers, so it was trying to develop alternative low-cost alternatives for boots to give its soldiers.

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Homosexuals were often given this work duty because homosexuals were believed to not be contributing to the nuclear family and populating missives of the Nazi regime. They challenged gender and sexual orientation stereotypes, and it was believed at that time they could be cured, reformed, and otherwise “fixed”. So they were run into the ground quite literally as boot testers. The life expectancy of someone sentenced to boot testing work duty? 6 days.

Sweet baby Jesus and the seven dwarves. The tears came and I couldn’t stop them. After he shared this story, I walked the concentric circle, across the loose gravel and large pieces of volcanic rock in my already aching feet, my empty stomach wanting that tomato and mozzarella focaccia in my 10-kilogram backpack, and couldn’t help it. All that coursed through my head were Sue Sylvester quotes from GLEE along the lines of “You think that’s hard? Try being blanked by thirteen blanks! That’s hard!”

We also saw Station Z, a part of the camp created to handle the mass murders of prisoners at the camp. There is an area outside the station, where prisoners would know what was coming, be put up against a wall, and then be shot from meters away. Often they would scream, wiggle, run, and bullets were wasted in trying to end them.

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The Nazis manufactured a more efficient way to handle the mass killings which became Station Z on the camp. It started out with a prisoner being led to a building, through a small hallway (in my picture below, the area marked 3), into a main room (room 4), under the premise they were going to be checked out by a “doctor.” Classical music even played in the main room to keep them calm and not set off any alarms as to their impending doom. The doctor would shuffle them to a room off to the left (room 2) if the person had nothing in their mouth upon inspection that would prove valuable like gold teeth or fillings. That room to the left looked like showers, but through the showerheads, gas would fill the chamber that could hold up to 35 people and they’d be gassed. However, that left bodies too far from the oven room, and those still had to be moved.

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If the “doctor” noticed something of value in the mouth, they’d mark the prisoner with a blue X on their chest, and that prisoner would be shuffled off to another room (room 7). The “doctor” would them escort them to room 13, have them stand upright against a wall, under the guise of having their height measured. The wall held a narrow wooden ruler with a space between the ruler that allowed the top flap to move up and down, which measured their height. Unbeknownst to the prisoner, this was the way the Germans would then have the prisoner shot, in the back of the head/neck, as that gap in the ruler was a tiny opening to room 14, a secret room behind room 13. Once the person was aligned and upright, the guard in secret room 14 would take 1 shot, wasting no bullets, and getting the job done, without any panic from the prisoner. The room in which this happened was just next door to the main oven room (room 17) where the prisoners would have their valuable fillings and teeth extracted, by other prisoners, and then shoved into the ovens in room 18. Eventually, the prisoners caught on to what was happening in Station Z, and they used to say they could tell what type of prisoners were executed by the type of smoke emitted from the ovens. Black smoke meant there was fat on the body being burned, but white smoke indicated it was mostly just bone being burnt.

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The other big takeaway for me was at the end of the tour, when Mark asked if we’d noticed how women were not mentioned at all on today’s tour. Being one, of course I noticed. He went on to explain the concept of the “Joy Division” – women brought over to Sachsenhausen from a nearby female-only concentration camp for the sole purpose of making the men on work duty at this one more “motivated.” The women were basically forced into rape. I would expect something like the SS guards taking advantage of them, but when I heard that other male prisoners were given vouchers to make them better workers with conjugal visits from these women, I nearly lost my shit. When someone is in conditions like that, how can sex be on anyone’s mind? When you are depressed, you’re being given 900 calories a day on which to function for 12-15 hours of hard labor, how could one possibly need the company of an unwilling woman???

Mark pointed out the people of Germany do a good job of owning what happened here in the past, in allocating government money to the preservation of camps like this one so that we learn from the past, so as not to repeat it. The Holocaust Memorial is in the middle of Berlin, within sight of the Parliament building. It is against the law to deny the holocaust, and they embrace and put on display for all to see the darkest part of their past. If there is a race of people who know how to embrace their dark sides, the Germans are it.

But fuuuuuuuuuuck. That is all I can say after today. And, my feet hurt.

But more importantly, fuuuuuuuuuuck.

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The heart of Vikingland

I left for Oslo on a train from Stockholm the day that Prince Carl Philip of Sweden was due to wed his bride, a former reality star and topless model. Getting around Stockholm the day before the royal wedding was nearly impossible. However, we had lofty plans to see the gold room in the Swedish History Museum, do a walking tour of the young up-and-coming neighborhood of Södermalm, and get massages once more before leaving.

I learned that during the times of the Vikings, not everyone was “lucky” enough to have the nuclear family model that people consider “normal” today. Often, your adopted family, or your wolf pack, was your family, and they weren’t always blood relatives. Graves were found with two men and baby in them, or a grandfather and granddaughter, or other nontraditional combinations.

Candy Crush Saga and Spotify are Swedish exports; Swedish Easter is celebrated a bit like American Halloween. Back in the late 1700’s, Swedish children accused women of being witches in a very similar story to Salem witch trials we have in America, but with a great twist. When it was overheard that the children were lying, they were sentenced to death, too. Now, on Easter, children in Sweden dress like “witches” asking for candy or threatened to name the person a witch, much like a “trick or treat” ultimatum.

Also, now having been to IKEA-land, I feel like I actually can appreciate the style of Sweden in my own home, rather than just seeing it as a place for cheap furniture. It’s a thing here too, the way of life, and makes a lot more sense after having been here.

The address used in Steig Larsson’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, which is depicted in movies as being on the first floor, is actually a few floors up and level with a small little bridge (red building in the image just below.) Further, the V. Kulla on the door of Lisbeth Salander’s apartment in the books is actually a play on Pippi Longstocking’s fictional home, Villa Villekulla, as Larsson developed his character Lisbeth Salander to be what an adult Pippi Longstocking might be like in today’s world.

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Sweden surprised me in a way different to the way Helsinki did, but both positively. Having been in Oslo 4 days now, I have to say, I’m actually somewhat disappointed with it. This shocks and saddens me, a little. Perhaps because I had such great, unexpected times in the former two cities, Oslo is just a little sleepier, not much going on, under much construction and renovation, and with a more subtle grasp of tourism.

The city is beautiful; don’t get me wrong. There are a few must-see attractions in my opinion. One of them is the Norwegian Folk Museum. It’s an open-air museum where roughly 160 buildings in Norway’s varied history were moved to one site so we can see what life was like here over the span of many years. There is an old Standard Oil gas station staged with a Volkswagen bug, log cabins, and my favorite, an 800 year old stave church moved from the mountain village of Gol to the Folk Museum around 1880 to be preserved.

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Also not to be missed is Akershus Castle, the inspiration for much of Disney’s film Frozen, right in the city center, probably built in around 1290. After seeing Windsor Castle in London, the Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, the Royal Palace in Stockholm, and now this one, this one stands out like a sore thumb as being much older, less opulent, and more of a fortress/prison than castle.

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I learned while here, by visiting the Fram museum in Oslo, that actually, it was Norwegian sailors who captained missions to the Arctic and Antarctic, and the Fram ship used on these expeditions was just massive. It had to withstand extreme cold temperatures, and be big enough to carry supplies for enough men for possibly up to 6 years as the journey in and out could sometimes take 3 years each way. Still, expeditions have only made it as far as the 85th/86th parallels, and not quite to the 90th just yet. I don’t know that many other countries have financed expeditions to the nether regions of the world so early on, in the late 1800’s, early 1900’s, or that other countries have as strong a background in expeditions to the polar regions.

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Oslo has many gypsies, as did Paris, Rome, and Stockholm, despite its status as a welfare state, like Sweden. How could people be begging when the government provides well for its people? When I witnessed a gypsy all-hands meeting yesterday morning, it looked like a bit of organized crime or the likes of the artful Dodger and gang of friends who roam the streets begging and pickpocketing to return any treasures to a head honcho Fagan character. Or so I imagine.

The emergency sirens on police cars, ambulances, and the fire brigade of Oslo sound very much like those back home in San Francisco, while Stockholm, Helsinki, and St. Petersburg had much more obnoxious sirens with different tones.

My hostel is conveniently located near Akershus Castle, and steps from the main drag of the small town, Karl Johan’s gate. Most of the streets are called gates in Oslo, like Stockholm had gatans, and like we have streets, lanes, circles, avenues, and boulevards in the U.S.

I’ve managed to see everything I wanted to see in Oslo within 3 days of being here. I’ve caught up editing images today, and writing this post on my 4th day. Oslo itself is situated within a giant fjord, so even if I walked away tomorrow never visiting Norway again, I could say I’ve seen a fjord. However, that is not the case.

Tomorrow, Hank Moody and I will fly to Berlin in the late morning, for 3 days of German debauchery, and return to Oslo for 1 night before taking a train to the western Norway town of Bergen. We will likely see more striking fjords in western Norway than the gentle rolling one that is Oslo.

I can’t believe that as of today, I only have 2 more weeks on my trip. Only Berlin, Bergen, one more night in Oslo, then Reykjavik to go. I’ve seen so much, yet like Jon Snow, I feel I know nothing. And don’t even get me started on the Game of Thrones season finale I’ve missed since being on the road. I read the spoilers. Fuuuuuuuuck.

But on the upside, only 2 more weeks til I can binge-watch season 3 of Orange is the New Black to bring me back to my so-called reality in San Francisco after such a jarring and life-changing trip. I can’t even begin to think about returning home or returning to work yet. I’m enjoying the nomadic life of hostels, not knowing when you’ll be in a position to do laundry again next, and not being able to understand ambient conversations around me or read basic street signs. It’s nice to be able to shut out the gibberish that is the Scandinavian languages and focus on the immediate vicinity.

No aurora borealis yet, I’m afraid to report. There simply isn’t enough darkness in the nights as we lead up to the summer solstice in the northern hemisphere. This has left me mildly disappointed, but it’s also not like I’ve been awake late enough or had clear nights with any regularity to attempt to see them. I will be in Reykjavik for the summer solstice, quite literally making it the land of the midnight sun. Aurora forecasts are predicting auroras at kp’s around 2 and 2⅓. Both Oslo and Helsinki sit at around kp5, while Stockholm sits between kp5 and kp6. So I haven’t been anywhere near where I can see them. Had I been able to convince Hank Moody to go to the Lofoten Islands instead of Bergen, we may have a better chance of seeing them within the Arctic Circle. 

But fingers crossed for Reykjavik, and worst case scenario, I get a cheesy aurora borealis LED light projector for my tiny apartment in San Francisco, so I can see them any night of the year (provided I turn off my fairy lights every once in awhile.) Or I guess I could go to Alaska… but who would want to do that???

Calloused

When I was 14 or 15, I babysat some of the neighborhood kids to earn some extra cash. One of the kids had guitars, one electric and one acoustic. He was taking lessons, and sometimes he would show me things he had learned. I decided to begin learning how to play the guitar, basically by teaching myself. Once I deciphered the symbols on sheet music that tell you where to put your fingers, I could pretty much figure out the rhythm myself for strumming with my pick.

Immediately, my fingertips began to develop callouses. It was quite painful at first, and not really knowing what I was doing meant I had to screw up a lot to finally get “You Were Meant For Me” by Jewel to sound anything like what I had heard on the radio.

I’m sure you know what a callous is, but the metaphor I’d like to draw from it bears repeating here for explicit reference. A callous is a toughened area of skin which has become relatively thick, compared to surrounding skin, from repeated friction, pressure, or other irritation.

Ballerinas get them on their feet and toes. Gymnasts can get them on their hands and must chalk them before mounting an apparatus in order to proceed with their routines.

I have a callous on my right middle finger, on the side toward my index finger, from writing long essays and papers in longhand in my many school days.

I removed my burgundy Converse All-Stars in Oslo this afternoon, after a very early train ride from Stockholm, to find new blisters on my heels. On this trip through Europe which is well into its second month, I have developed many blisters, and ultimately callouses, on the bottoms of my feet. What once hurt from the freshness and unfamiliarity, has now made my skin thicker and less painful for my body as it’s become more used to its environment.

My heart has grown calloused as well. It’s had enough of a go at love in my 33 years (although admittedly, most of those beginning years didn’t really count) and been hurt and healed over to develop somewhat thicker skin. It doesn’t mean things cannot get through and still hurt, but the places where I commonly found friction points and pressure, are now smooth and ready for stronger loves that may be out there. To be clear, I’m not insensitive, but the little things that once hurt, no longer do. Some of those earlier hurts, that is.

Callouses may look ugly, as may blisters. They’re not something you want to Google images of on the internet, unless you are a clinical type of person who likes the science of it… But callouses show where you have grown strong and immune to smaller pains.

I like the idea of them.

I had no idea at the outset of my trip that I would develop so many. Yet, here they are, ugly as ever, and I’m proud of them.

A ship to wreck

Florence and the Machine released a new album “How Big, How Blue, How Beautiful” in early June, and I heard the first single on the album, Ship to Wreck, and immediately fell in love. It was just coincidence that my experience of it coincided with going to the Vasa museum in Stockholm, with the Viking ship that sank on its maiden voyage in 1628 without ever having left Stockholm harbor. The lyrics in the song struck me, as many of Florence’s songs often do, asking the very simple question, “Did I build a ship to wreck?”

I believe in the creative cycle of destruction and creation, and that sometimes to build something wonderful, you may have to tear it down a few times. Artisans like Leonardo da Vinci often worked on pieces for years, claiming they were never finished. Even the Mona Lisa is said to be unfinished. But what happens when you pour your life into a piece of work, and only come to the realization later that it’s not what it needs to be or what you want it to be? We learn from those mistakes but often, we scrap the piece and begin again, or distract ourselves with new work.

It’s hard to wrap my ego around putting so much into something and then just giving up or quitting. I’ve spent 11 years doing something that was interesting, challenged me, and look back now with a career that spans those 11 years. To wreck this ship, to scrap it, and move into a new chapter is proving difficult. Rational me keeps assuaging my fears by saying it’d be stupid to destroy what I’ve built, and maybe if I just make a few minor tweaks here and there, it’s still salvageable. The artist in me thinks it is crap, and tells me to scrap it and just begin again.

I also saw an image recently that spoke to me as loudly as these lyrics did.

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The artist in me, advising me that my work to date has been crap and encouraging me to move on and try something new, is also homesick. Just as that quote says, for a place that may or may not exist, and a place in which I may never find myself: in love, and at peace.

In some ways, my heart is full, but it is just waiting for someone who would appreciate the gift of my presence and admiration. In many ways, my soul is understood, by me, but not by anyone else. No one has wanted to understand it.

Also swirling in my head of late are a couple of quotes from a book I’m currently reading, All the Light We Cannot See. “Open your eyes, concludes the man, and see what you can with them, before they close forever.”

That quote is part of a radio broadcast some children are listening to, as is the second quote, “But the electromagnetic spectrum runs to zero in one direction and infinity in the other, so really children, mathematically, all of light is invisible.”

Like Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce, recurring themes in the novel I’m currently reading include sight and light. The novel I’m reading has a main character, a young blind girl in a France just prior to German occupation in World War II. The story also circles around a young German boy who is a whiz at repairing short wave radios and can close his eyes and see a flow of electrons to diagnose an electrical circuit problem.

The truth of the matter is, that as humans, there is so much we cannot see. We cannot see what choices will come before us, and we cannot know until in hindsight what path we will take, and whether it is the right one or the one we meant to take. We do not know if there is a plan, if this will be the ship we build that finally makes it to sea, or if it’s yet another ship destined for the bottom of Stockholm harbor, in all its intricacy and beauty. We do not see what is in store, and that if we just hold out a little bit longer, what we are seeking will finally appear.

I just don’t know. Maybe this ship will be a wreck, but it doesn’t mean I shouldn’t pour myself into it fully, just in case it’s not.

Russian to get Stock-home

When last I posted, I was leaving my night in a former prison in Helsinki for a night at the ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia. It’s been only 5 days, but I feel there is so much to update you on.

Our train ride from Helsinki to St. Petersburg was very easy, as most things in Helsinki were. Tickets can be purchased online with assigned coaches and seat numbers. On our last day in Tallinn, we passed through a duty-free shop with very cheap cava brut. We brought the bottle with us to help us pass the time on the train. We did just that, and it did help to have a little liquid lubrication.

On that train ride, our passports were checked no fewer than 4 times – to ensure we had the proper visa, by customs officers asking if we had anything to declare, by customs officers on the Finland side, and by customs officers on the Russia side. Eventually some of those actually stamped our passports. Those are stamps I’m quite proud to have attained, if I’m being honest.

Russia was… an experience. When we arrived, we realized there are no English translations of signs. So we could barely “Exit” as I’m sure the signs told us to do. I’ve been traveling with my aunt who studied some Russian when she was only 14, but she found she was too shy to try and had to decipher the characters and enunciations before she could try to produce a sound from her lips which could be considered speaking Russian.

My aunt changed money on the train, as did Hank Moody, but I opted not to. I got by my whole time in Russia without actually holding any cash rubles in my hand.

A taxi driver charged us a usurious rate to get to our hotel, and unfortunately, we had to pay it as navigating any public transport or trying to speak English with any of the locals proved wholly unfruitful. I went back and read on TripAdvisor that it is common for the taxi drivers waiting at the train station to do this, and if you walk just 5 minutes into the city in any direction and flag down a taxi driving past, you will get a much more realistic and affordable rate.

At the end of the day, the overpriced taxi was still only 1000 rubles, or only $20USD for 3 adults and their luggage. However, the rest of our taxis for the duration of our stay ranged between 460 rubles ($8USD) and 660 rubles ($12USD) for easily the same amount of time and distance. Part of me hated being discriminated against for my inability to speak the language, then I promptly remembered, “Oh wait. I’m from America. We do that all the time. Doesn’t make it right, but turnabout is fair play.” Besides $8 in extra costs is not a big deal to me, all said and done, but perhaps, it was a big deal to our driver. So I pacified myself and calmed down almost immediately.

Our hotel was nearly impossible to find on the main strip, Nevsky Prospekt. TripAdvisor called this the Champs-Élysées of St. Petersburg, and it was easy to see why, after strolling down the real Champs-Élysées. It has it all, shopping, restaurants, and the crux of life in the city.

Our hotel was a quaint little place with lots of Russian flavor. Roses abounded in the décor and the furnishings were sparse and humble, yet still aesthetically pleasing. The women at the front desk spoke much better English and put our still slightly inebriated minds to rest that communication wouldn’t be such a major hurdle.

As soon as we were checked into our rooms, we congregated in the room my aunt and I shared, and compared thoughts so far. There was traffic in the city in the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, which didn’t seem like a normal peak hour time. The drivers zoomed between red lights and cut others off without signaling. There was a definite sense of being overwhelmed and over-stimulated. And many locals not speaking English and we, not speaking Russian, was going to prove difficult.

I had arranged for tickets to a Russian ballet our first evening, Don Quixote in 3 acts, at the Mariinsky Theatre, a beautiful venue. Again, we opted for a taxi to the show, and it was driven by a stunning, alternative what-looked-like-a-lesbian. This blew me away. After hearing stories of the treatment of Pussy Riot in Russia, and being a lesbian myself, I was apprehensive about the role of sexual orientation in the country. I had made a decision to follow Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell while in Russia, as I did not want to live out the rest of my days in some cold Siberian prison for simply being who I am a little too loudly in a foreign country.

Now, the theatre was gilded and appeared freshly renovated, yet still maintained that old world charm and feel. We could see the royalty box, just above stage right. It was empty.

The dancers were talented, the symphony flawless, and the sets done well. The concept of a story being told through dance instead of through words truly spoke to me in a place where no one else really could speak to me in a language I understood. I could understand dance, though.

However, 3 acts proved excruciatingly long for me, but especially for my aunt. She earned the affectionate nickname Captain Slipov when she slipped off her chair, asleep, falling against Hank Moody at the end of the 2nd act. This, of course, caused numerous giggles and Russian name jokes for the duration of the trip. “Move, Jackov!” and “Sergeant Dropov reporting for bathroom duty, Sir!” and the like…

We hadn’t eaten much all day, and decided we needed food after the ballet, so we crossed the street when exiting the venue and went to a Russian restaurant to which other ballet patrons seemed to flock. The place was decorated in more roses, white ones, pink ones, red ones, like the many bouquets the dancers received during their endless applause.

Now, if you’ve ever had Russian food, you will agree with me, that the food is basically tasteless. The meat is usually boiled, or roasted without salt, pepper, or any seasonings really, and the vegetables usually consist of beetroot, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, and basically everything I hate that grows in the ground, save potatoes. There are no spices in Russia, I’ve concluded. I don’t eat seafood, and I was leery to get adventurous with my food selection at this restaurant. I opted for a simple chicken stroganoff, with mashed potatoes, and a coke. I was surprised at the not utter blandness I consumed that night, which was due to the stroganoff gravy, which was almost neon yellow. Let’s not talk about how or why it got that way…

The next day, we had a free day, with no tickets or any plans of which to speak. After an interesting breakfast buffet at the hotel (in a land where boiled hot dogs, salami, jarlsberg, sliced bread and cold boiled peas are breakfast), we began our day at the Winter Palace Hermitage Museum. After seeing the Louvre recently, the opulence here was noticeable as well, yet, somehow different. I can’t quite put my finger on it…

We wandered down to the nearby Alexander Column in Dvortzovaya Palaza just outside the Hermitage, the Admiralty building, St. Isaac’s Cathedral, and saw from across the water the St. Peter and Paul Fortress, as well as St. Petersburg University. We found a tiny shop unlike other souvenir shops clearly marked, which specialized in the nested Russian dolls I’m sure we’ve all seen before. It turned out to be the gallery where young artisans craft and paint the dolls, practicing the historical cultural trade.

I was immediately accosted by Pavel, a young native St. Petersburger, with a UK flag on his name tag which indicated he spoke English. He began telling me the story of how the artists craft the dolls. The bellies of the dolls can contain one of many scenes; some tell stories with their pictures, the end of the story depicted on the belly of the tiniest doll. Some show scenes, like of the various notable buildings in the city; some showed roses and flowers. Each doll set and each doll is unique, and comes in sets of 10, 7, 5, or 3.

I found a set of dolls that caught my eye in the case on the street before I even walked in. After being thoroughly overwhelmed with choices inside, I realized my gut instinct said the first ones I saw that made me enter the shop in the first place were the ones for me. I paid 7775 rubles ($140USD) for mine, and while that’s one of the pricier sets in the entire shop, I really like them, and I’m not much of a doll-person.

We walked from there to our final big tourist destination of the day – the Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, with the colorful onion bulb tower tops that we have come to recognize and associate with Russian architecture. It was also my favorite spot, and probably the best part of my trip to Russia. I didn’t even have to go inside, not that I think you can anyway. It was just so colorful and intricate. Love.

We opted for another Russian restaurant for dinner that evening just outside our hotel, to make for a short trip home. We were sick of depending on taxis to get us places, since we took another that morning to the Hermitage. We turned in early, and the next morning, our train back to Helsinki departed at 10:30am.

While my imagination had conjured befriending a thickly accented bat named Bartok (like the Disney classic, Anastasia), and Rasputin never made an appearance, I didn’t know then and I still don’t know now what to make of my very brief stint in Russia.

Walking down the street, the people’s faces were very different than the faces I saw in Helsinki. These people in St. Petersburg have certainly seen some shit. They were hard, somewhat frowning and appearing angry or sad, and rougher around the edges. Few had the fair skin and fairer hair of the Finnish, as most had dark hair and hard features. Nearly everyone on the street was in some kind of military uniform.

We made jokes at dinner when we spoke of Putin and our observations not to speak too loudly into the saltshaker, as that’s probably where the KGB spying microphone was planted. CCTV cameras were everywhere, all over the city. It was truly intimidating, and made me value my freedoms as an American even more upon leaving. I heaved a deep breath of relief when we crossed the border back into Finland, for one more day in Helsinki before taking a ferry to Stockholm. Four more people checked our passports, and there was even a drug-sniffing dog on this trip.

We had a fantastic Italian dinner at La Famiglia in downtown Helsinki, leaving us full and happy. I had mentioned a craving for spaghetti, which resulted in all three of us getting the same dish. On our last day in Helsinki, we revisited the two churches (the silent chapel and the rock church) so my aunt could get a feel for them, and visited a new site for me, the Sibelius monument, which we hadn’t seen before.

We hustled to make it to our check-in for the Helsinki-Stockholm overnight ferry. We booked a 4-person cabin berth with an in-room bathroom, which served its purpose quite well. When we finally did go to bed, the mattresses were comfy, and no windows in the room made for the one night of true darkness I’ve had on this entire trip, in the land of the midnight sun.

On the “party deck” of the Sunday night ferry, many couples were surprisingly tearing it up on the dance floor. Like full-on ballroom dancing style. There was bingo, and my travel companions and I won the music quiz, with a prize of Haribo gummies, a giant chocolate bar, and a voucher for 2 to champagne brunch buffet the next morning.

The brunch buffet was a great start to our rested morning, and had eggs, bacon, little smokies, and tons of fruit. I’ve been missing the fruit in all the breakfasts we’ve had on the road, so I had a whole plate dedicated to melon, watermelon, kiwi, oranges, and pineapple, with some apple juice on the side. Yum.

Ferry terminals do not have a customs, which stamps your passport, and if you have no goods to declare, you can smoothly pass through and be on your way. We did just that and checked in to our City Backpackers Hostel in downtown Stockholm. It’s a quirky place and there’s lots of admin up front – codes for the doors, tickets to claim beds, linens to rent, maps of facilities to sort out, and room names for sections of the city. We are in Djurgården, a 4-person room with a random 4th who’ll be stuck with us whenever he arrives. He was meant to arrive last night, and at 11pm, the hostel worker placed his linens on the bed for him, but we haven’t seen him since. Poor guy.

Yesterday, we decided first priority was a massage, not Swedish, but Thai. That woman stepped on my neck in there and punched my back, kneed my hamstrings, and I feel tender but amazing. We took a brief meander around our hostel in the afternoon. Hank Moody found a local Bikram yoga spot, while I hit up the hostel sauna. I found a Scandinavian restaurant on Yelp with 4.5 stars and 2 dollar signs which was not a good place for kids, so we said, “Heck yes!” and ventured out to try it.

It was near the Opera house on the water, and served the best Swedish meatballs with mashed potatoes, lingonberries, and pickled cucumbers I’ve ever had outside of IKEA.

Today we will get out to the Vasamuseum, with the Viking war ship pulled up from the ocean and refurbished. The ABBA museum is also conveniently located nearby. Who knows what else we’ll get up to in this wonderful city that has already endeared itself to me.

Perhaps one day I could call it my Stock-home? Only time will tell.

A night in Helsinki prison followed by a night at the Russian ballet

Yesterday, my travel companion, Hank Moody, and I decided to take a day trip to Tallinn, Estonia from Helsinki. There is a 2-hour ferry which takes you fairly close to Old Town Tallinn, and the tickets were reasonably priced at 40€ return each. It was an extra country to see in my already full itinerary, but fully worth it. Wine not?

We chose the ferry that departed at 10:30am, on the ferry line that offered 6 departures a day, rather the one whose harbor was closer to our hostel but offered only one. Depending which harbor in Helsinki you choose from which to depart, the costs and times vary.

We took the #4 tram from our hostel and changed to the #9 tram, which drops you off directly in from of the Tallink terminal where you catch the ferry to Tallinn. We were there a bit early, checked in, got our tickets and even had a small, cheap and cheerful breakfast consisting of a croissant sandwich and a latte. Boarding was smooth, and we opted to go to the deck where a few bars were located. It turned out to be a great choice because there was plenty of seating, and a large panoramic window looking out the front of the ferry.

The waves were choppy but the ferry seemed to eat them for breakfast as well, making for a smooth ride. There were big-rig trucks and many cars on the ferry too, riding in the cargo hold, beyond the thousands of passengers I’m sure were on board. It was a big liner; possibly, perhaps it was a cruise liner in a former life.

It seemed the thing to do was order a bottle of sparkling wine and glasses for your group, so when in Rome… I ordered Hank and I the same for a mere 25€. What a deal. We had purchased some reindeer jerky at the markets the day before on our bicycle tour, so we also tried that for the first time while on the water. That’s the life, eh?

Upon landing, the humbleness and humility of Estonia hit us immediately. The architecture in Old Town was beautiful – not as elaborate as Rome or France by any means.

I saw for the first time ever, lily of the valley flowers in small bunches for sale by impoverished people while wandering the streets. I don’t know, but I felt compelled to purchase a small bunch for a measly 2€, which isn’t a big deal to me, but seemed to be a big deal to those selling. It felt right. Then later, after wandering around enough, my friend and I sat down at an outside table at the Wine Library. I saw a little girl and felt compelled to give her the small bouquet. She cherished it immediately and held it the whole time I saw her. While I sniffed it at first like she did, I have been recuperating from hayfever/allergies and I could not smell the sweetly scented flowers. Seems she could though. So part of my experience in Estonia was putting a smile on the face of a child. Not part of my usual repertoire, but it felt right.

There were some dancers of local origin in traditional garb dancing to local music in the square, which we had the pleasure of watching, as well. The thing that struck me most in the square was how quickly the weather changed. It went from being sunny and much too bright one moment, to very darkly clouded and incredibly windy. I commented to my friend that the clouds move faster than I do…

Four hours in Tallinn was more than enough, and soon it was time to board the return ferry back to Helsinki. My aunt was arriving in Helsinki that evening and we had to meet up with her to ensure she got settled and checked into her hotel ok.

I took advantage of the hotel room and stayed with her, having a much needed real shower, not a hostel shower. I took time to wash my hair, my face, shave, and relax a bit. It was lovely. The beds were soft, much like tempur-pedic mattresses, and the down duvets were just as nice. Very different from the hostel beds.

Our hotel was actually a Best Western, which if you are from the US, is just another household name like the Holiday inn. Nothing fancy, you would think. However, this particular one was actually in a refurbished prison – our room was literally an old prison cell. The Wi-Fi did not work in the rooms because the walls were fortified so well. It even had a jailbird restaurant in the basement, which looked like an old prison mess hall.

I took one of my aunt’s Xanax on offer, and had the most restful night’s sleep I’ve had in about a week, in that wonderful prison bed. Go figure.

Today, as I write this, we are on an express allegro train to St. Petersburg. We will not be in Russia long – fewer than 72 hours. We are not compelled to inject the Russian economy with many rubles, but we did spring for ballet tickets. We will be attending the Mariinsky theatre in Teatralnaya Square for a production of Don Quixote. We originally booked tickets to the ballet Giselle, but that appears to have been cancelled.

Beyond that, I wanted to see the Peterhof Palace and gardens, the Hermitage museum (well, just a little bit), and whatever else we can see in the little time we are there. My aunt speaks Russian, which will definitely help. And I’m still shocked that Putin has barred 89 EU delegates from entering Russia, but I’ve been granted a 3 year visa. Do the Russians not know I’m a lesbian feminist who’s against their presence in the Ukraine? Do they not know I have a Ukranian last name andmy grandfather was a defector from their army back during the war, who ended up in a concentration camp in Dachau, Germany? Apparently not.

I’m not one to ruffle their feathers though – let me in, and let me out. When you’re good to mama, mama’s good to you…

I’m looking forward to this experience and the next 72 hours, whatever they will hold. Especially after my peaceful night in a Helsinki prison.