Visiting an Illusion

I came to know a city last week that I have dreamed about for years. St. Petersburg, in my imagination, was a city of golden domes and glossy nesting dolls. Of ballet and vodka and rosy cheeks. The name itself is regal, and I imagined St. Petersburg as the twinkling setting of every fairy tale I loved as a child.

St. Petersburg was our entrance to Russia. Russia, a shadowy mammoth of a country, and St. Petersburg its glittering eye, or a gleaming tooth that shows through a smile. Except that smiles don’t come very easily here, I soon discovered. At the Finlyandski train station, we used apps and the Cyrillic alphabet to buy metro tickets and join the stream of Peterburgstys descending deep into the belly of the city on a long escalator. The machine, a conveyor belt for humans, felt solidly made under my feet, but old. A uniformed woman at the bottom sat in a small glass box, watching the faces of rush hour gliding up and down. So many faces! Where did they go once we made it to the street?

I didn’t know that St. Petersburg is full of canals. The canals are spanned by low bridges. The sidewalks are made of large chunks of smooth rock. From any bridge, any sidewalk, I could look up and see the gold painted domes of a cathedral looming over the low blocks of buildings. In early October, the parks are still green. The plazas are monumental. The obelisks are tall. The traffic is bad. St. Petersburg is grand and golden against the cloudy sky, not the enchanted city I had imagined. It’s starker, more solemn, and no longer a figment of my imagination.

Vøringfossen

My model and I took a hike in Norway. The tourist brochure lured us city folk in by describing the walk to Vøringfossen as being a ideal for families, an easy ~4 kilometers out and back, with views of the waterfalls from below. Andrés only wears hiking boots so he was naturally prepared. I somehow believed that one pair of white sneakers would get me through 5 months of traveling. This hike put that fashion choice to the test.

The glaze of a light, constant, rain made the many rock slides we hiked over very slippery. Where there weren’t rocks, there was mud, and the 1000 ft decent into the river valley required all of our limbs and vigilance. We made it, and without any major injury to our bodies or our shoes. After witnessing the falls from below, we hiked back to the car and drove up to the top of the mountain, where we could watch the river valley winding towards the fjord in its new autumn yellows.

For those traveling to the Hardanger region of Norway, this hike is worth a try. As usual, wear your sturdiest shoes (my white Reebocks held up ok) and wear a few layers: temperatures here plummet when the sun goes behind a cloud.

Parking is located on the side of a short stretch of road between tunnels: if you are traveling from Eidfjord, park at the information turnoff directly after leaving the Mabøtunnelen to the right, before the road enters another circular tunnel. There you will see a sign for the path to Vøringfossen. Follow the road for about a quarter mile: it goes under the highway and along the mountainside until a path cuts down to the right into the forest. From here, you will be heading mostly downwards over muddy and rocky paths until you reach the suspension bridge. Walk a little farther and the mist of the impressive waterfall will be soaking your clothes.

Guesting

While we were in Berlin, Andrés and I visited a few friends scattered around Germany. These are old friends, from different stages in our lives. Friends who we might never have mentioned to one another if we hadn’t been in their vicinity. They all very generously made time and space for us, rearranging so that we could be comfortable as their guests. Ironically, the knowledge of their sacrifices is what made me uncomfortable!

I try to be a generous and considerate guest. These seem like qualities that would make me an easy person to have over: I’ve learned for the mistakes of some of the guests I’ve hosted, who were happy to fill up my time and space without showing any indication of their appreciation. But after exhausting myself yet again with my own non-stop dinner conversation, after awkwardly paying for yet another round of drinks, and thanking our hosts for the hundredth time for their hospitality, I knew it was time to reconsider the limits of my “generosity” and “consideration.” My feeling of indebtedness was sucking all of the fun out of a rare chance to visit.

I blame my discomfort as a guest on being out of practice: in New York, I haven’t seen most of my friends’ homes. It’s much more common that we spend time together somewhere public, like a museum or a restaurant. As for spending the night at another person’s house…now that I live with my boyfriend, that is something I only do at my parents’ (where being a guest is a whole different art form, unfortunately for them). For the future me and other sensitive souls who struggle with graciously accepting generosity, here are a few guidelines I’ve come up with for striking that fine balance between consideration and discomfort when staying at someone’s house.

1) Unless you have a very good reason to think otherwise, assume that your host is happy that you are there, and don’t think about it again.

2) Bring a gift. Something that is nice, and personal if possible. You can calibrate the size/value of your gift depending on the length of your stay. We did not plan ahead, so we resorted to small, impersonal food items. I was not satisfied with these offerings, and in the end I bought everyone dinner, drinks…it went on and on.

3) Leave a thank you note. Between the gift and the note, you have done your thanking duty. Use “thank you” sparingly beyond that.

4) Unless your host wants to spend every moment together, come up with plans for yourself outside of the house and communicate them clearly. Make sure that they know that they are welcome to join you, but also give them the chance to use your out-of-the-house time to do whatever they have to do.

5) Accept what your hosts offer graciously, without much protest. If they’re offering you their bedroom to sleep, or a ride to the train, its because they can and because they want to. Thank them and leave it at that!

I don’t know why I’ve developed into such an apologetic guest, but this recent experience of staying with so many pragmatic Europeans showed me how annoying a sheepish guest can be. Do you have any “guesting” tips to add to my list?

Our hosts in Konstanz brought us swimming.

3 weeks in Berlin: 15 little things I’ve learned

We’ve spent 3 weeks in Berlin, exploring and relaxing and imagining what it would be like to live here. Inevitably, my initial impressions have changed so dramatically that I can hardly remember what I was thinking two weeks ago, when I was a little uneasy. Here is some of the essential information I’ve picked up.

1) You cannot set your watch to a Berlin train, nor can you count on the buses following their assigned route.

2) Bicycles own the road, the sidewalk, and anything else they want. Do not try to defy a bicycle: they will run you over with a chirpy bell and a “danke shoen!”

3) You can get pretty far here speaking English and Spanish. Some say even farther if you speak German!

4) Eis is the word for ice cream. Beyond that, you’re on your own at the ice-cream store. With only color as my flavor guide, I’ve ended up trying some unusual ones: yogurt-currantberry, cardamom-passionfruit, apricot-something and blueberry marshmallow, to name a few. All were delish.

5) Despite the profusion of ice-cream, Berlin is a vegan paradise.

6) There is too much delicious food here to try in a few weeks. For non-vegans, I recommend focusing on bread, döner and ice cream. Currywurst is overrated as far as I’m concerned.

7) German-style breakfast is…amazing.

8) Wasps like sugar, they really like honey, but they go absolutely crazy for mortadella. A crazy wasp is not a pretty sight.

9) If you want to chance a ride on public transportation without a ticket, do so at your own risk: the transportation police don’t always wear uniforms.

10) Not all Riesling is too sweet.

11) The little neighborhoods of shacks that take up blocks here and there are not German shanty-towns. They are little garden communities, or Kleingarten, where city people can rent or buy a remote backyard for growing flowers and food.

12) Sometimes, though, the shacks are part of a squatting community. These communities are loudly visible in many of the Berlin neighborhoods I’ve visited, announcing their anti-capitalist presence in the middle of a city that, by all accounts, is rapidly changing.

13) Wear your ugliest outfit to the club for a good chance of getting in.

14) Contrary to all of my instincts, dimly-lit parks are totally safe in the middle of the night, especially when they are full of strangers drinking and smoking in all of the darkest corners.

15) Surfaces are meant to be covered with spray-paint. The graffiti here is magnificent.

Berlin has taken my calcifying brain and twisted it like a sponge, revealing some challenging ways to live in and share a city. It is confusing to my suspicious mind, but I am impressed by what seems to me a deliberate absence of judgement. Berlin seems to be truly a city of independents, co-existing with a level of harmony that isn’t perfect but really seems to have worked.

Aqua

I was told the Ionian Sea in the south of Albania had clear, blue water.

I found clear, blue water, and white sand and smooth pebbles. The sea was so salty that I floated like an apple, bobbing in the calm water without having to move my limbs at all.

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Thanks Cee for the posting opportunity!

Conformist

There is a bar on every corner. Where there isn’t a bar, there’s a späti, and you can pull your own beer from the fluorescent-lit refrigerators, pay for it, and drink outside on the ground, on the curb, or at the picnic tables the convenient stores here set up outside for just this purpose.

By the canal, groups of people sit on the sidewalk, their bicycles leaning against the bridge railing and their beer growing warm in their hot laps. The canal is full of bicycles. The streets are paved in bottle tops. The picnic tables are plastered with stickers. The walls are covered in graffiti, colorful and layered and meaningful. Everything is meaningful, or seems to be. People here are meaningful. They dress in somber blacks, faded denim, utilitarian pants gathered at the ankles so that they won’t be caught up in the bicycle gears, hair hacked short on one side of the head and left in long, tangled locks on the other. They wear burkas. They wear tracksuits. I catch snippets of a conversation, because English is commonly spoken here. So is Spanish.

“I was destined to end up here.”

“It’s a place for people to come together in meaningful conversation.”

“…e increíblemente, agarró la cabeza del otro y la cortó.”

[wait…what was he talking about?]

I do not understand a word of German, and it embarrasses me. I do, however, understand German crying. I witnessed this at a café. A man looked at his phone and a sob visibly rose in his throat. His face gathered towards its center, and he covered his eyes with his sleeve. When his friend arrived, they hugged, and the friend laughed. The crying man smiled, and the sob escaped his agonized mouth. Maybe I don’t understand this kind of crying.

At the cafe, wasps crawl in and out of the sugar bowls. They investigate my espresso, they fly around my head and with my eyes closed I can feel their wings tickling my eyebrow. At the cafe, men cry, men yell and yelp. Women smoke. Bottles fall and break. Everyone talks. The tables are sticky with sugar and spilt milk. The wasps are everywhere. I cannot fit in, because I don’t know how to communicate. One the other hand, I’ve heard that many Americans who live in Berlin don’t bother to learn German.

I could be a nonconforming American. But I am a conformist, in this nonconforming city.

Bohemian Rhapsody

One song that I love, despite its ubiquity in mainstream culture, is Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I haven’t investigated where that name comes from, but I like to imagine that the highs and the lows, the darkness and the light of the song depict an artistic life lived in the extreme.

In Prague, the capital of the kingdom of Bohemia, visitors can gaze up at a different Bohemian masterpiece. The St. Vitus Cathedral is squeezed into the Prague Castle Complex, and visitors must look up to witness the overly-adorned pillars of Gothis splendor. Light and shadows play upon the faces of gruesome gargoyles. Serene Saints stand high above flying buttresses and art neuvou stained glass windows. It is a rhapsodic piece of work.

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Thanks to Cee for the photo challenge!

On the road


 

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I have written here about a bit of the traveling I’ve recently been doing with my partner, Andrés. But I haven’t given these stories any context. For those of you who read this blog, you might enjoy hearing about the Grand Plan. So here it is, the thesis to our travel, the overarching theme that will explain our movements for the next few months:

***~A multi-continental trip via land and sea.~***

We plan on traveling from Bulgaria (cheap flight) to Malaysia (friends to visit), without taking any planes. We want to see what the land looks like, what the water looks like, what it all smells like and even what it feels like. So the only airplanes we plan on taking are those into Europe and those out of South East Asia at the end of our trip. That’s it. Beyond those somewhat flexible parameters, our traveling isn’t particularly poetic or practical. We just decided we wanted to do this, planned our lives around it, and here we are, three weeks into the (one of the) trips of our lives.

Since we are on the move, transportation is of interest. We’ve been moved from place to place by cars, buses, boats and trains. I’ve found that the vehicle (and the company) can determine the mood of the landscape: in shared taxis, fellow passengers interact with one another, and their commentary narrates my taking-in of the various terrain and communities we passs through. On trains, my mind is fed by the world rushing by at a pleasant, swaying pace, and the sound of tracks passing underneath give my thoughts structure and drive. On the ferry in Croatia, we rushed along and stopped, rushing past islands and stopping at ports, where tourists stood out on the deck and smoked. We met a storm and cut headlong into whitecapped waves. We have dragged out suitcases, in some way, across every kilometers we’ve passed through, up and down stairs, in and out of over head racks and piles of unguarded luggage. We’re vagabonds… Glamabonds? Like camping with air conditioning, I can’t really compare our movements or accomondations to those of a true transient.

I’ve been trying to think of a lens through which to write about this trip. Traveling with a partner? Traveling without airplanes? The Mongolian empire? So far I seem to be most interested in the nitty-gritty details of getting from point A to B, in true Glamabond style. For the next few weeks, though, we won’t be moving much: we’ve unpacked our bags in a shared apartment in Berlin, and plan on sticking around for a bit. I’ll have more time to write, and spend less time to

What does friendliness look like to you?

Homemade mulberry rakija and Berry’s from the backyard, compliments of the chef.

Traveling, for me, is a state of heightened vulnerability, especially when the travel is done outside of the reaches of my native tongue. Without a home, without a routine, without words and their elaborate meanings, all I have to rely upon are crude sounds and the blunt signifiers of my body. But the movements of my body are infused with culture, too, and even the basic side-to-side shake of a head that I use as a “no” means a degree of “yes” in Albania.

We’ve been traveling the Balkans for two weeks: Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro and Croatia. It took me a week to stop feeling unnerved by the humorless looks of strangers, the stares of the old couple following us as we stroll by their porch in the evening, the moody young mother pushing her chubby baby past us in a stroller. The cafe waiter solemnly asking for our order. In the first towns we visited, where the tourism industry seems to be predominantly a local one, I wondered if our blatantly foreign presence was unwelcome. Where are the smiles?

Both traveling and while at home, I smile a lot. I greet strangers with a smile, I smile at my loved ones. I smile at waiters and the workers at offices I resent having to visit. When I’m alone I practice making my eyes twinkle a little, because I like to cultivate a friendly look. Usually people smile back at me, and if they don’t, I understand it as a message: “I’m not interested in interacting with you”. Which is fine. I don’t want to interact extensively with most strangers. My indiscriminate smiling is simply to establish a general good will. My good will, it turns out, is nothing special. It doesn’t actually run that deep.

I’ve realized that here, in these lands of carefully distributed smiles. I might interpret the faces as closed, but the truth is we’ve encountered nothing but generosity and open hospitality. We’ve met strangers who want to spend time with us, who are interested in wrestling with our mismatched languages to learn something about one another. The old couple made endless phone calls at 11:00 pm to help us find a taxi. The young mother laughed as her baby giggled at the silly faces we made. The waiter’s face broke open with a smile when we tried our Albanian phrases on him, and he shared his mulberry rakija with us. Sometimes it even unsettles my jaded sensibility how endless this generosity appears to be: where is the limit? I’m the first to smile, but my limit for friendliness usually comes first. Once again, traveling teaches me that my fascinating (for me) and rapid judgements of strangers are usually dead wrong. Happily, I’m open to revision.