Month: August 2016

10 Things I learned in Stockholm

The best King George slaying the dragon statue is in Stockholm.

Some flea market items aren’t worth asking about.

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I read about the great art in the Stockholm metro system…I must have been in the wrong metro stops.

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Watch out for arrows to the crotch, pole dancing might happen on this metro car, no smoking, dogs wear bonnets, Big Brother is Watching!

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(Grumpy old man observation.) If you are in a church and there are areas roped off, that means don’t go there. I don’t care if you have had piano lessons for ten years and really want to tickle the ivories…don’t do it. And if you are a parent of a kid playing a piano in a roped off area I hope you have fun explaining to the judge why your kid never learned to follow rules.

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This is a thing.

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Your metro pass can be used on the harbor ferry.

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Rats in Stockholm are well fed.IMG_4870

 

The changing of the guard in Stockholm is fun.Screen Shot 2016-08-05 at 7.34.27 AM

Stockholm’s weather can be confusing.IMG_4832

Sunny

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20 minutes later

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Monsoon

 

Stockholm: The End of the Road

 

We arrived in Stockholm knowing a few things about our visit, it would be our final stop on our month long ramble through Europe, and that we would be staying in a dungeon.

If you have taken a lengthy trip the end of the road is a mixture of relief and regret. Home suddenly becomes a reality and thoughts of sleeping in a bed that you know and showering in a place that isn’t a confusing combination of dials and plungers makes a traveler think about never leaving home again. But, I spend most of my time thinking about what I didn’t do…I didn’t get to the baths in Budapest, I only saw one outdoor opera in Vienna, I only had 2.5 days in Amsterdam, I missed a bunch of stuff in Copenhagen, I should have gone to that discounted classical music event in the palace in Prague, and I never found that hip area of Oslo where food isn’t expensive. (I don’t think this place exists. It must be a vast left wing conspiracy of mapmakers, travel guide writers, and the Internet.)

Missing stuff bothered me on my first couple trips because I assumed I would not be back, but I don’t think like that any longer. Travel is a priority and I will figure out a way to get back to the places I missed.

And so we arrived in Stockholm ready to bring our trip to an end. The hotel I selected met my requirements: Inexpensive (for Stockholm), near a metro stop or centrally located, good reviews on TripAdvisor, and a breakfast buffet included in the cost. The pictures of the hotel let me know we were in for something unique…all of the inexpensive rooms shared a shower and toilet, and looked like Poe visited them before writing Cask of Amontillado. (If you don’t remember this story from your 9th grade year in high school it’s the one where the guy traps Fortunato in a wine cellar.)

We passed through the passport check, caught the fancy fast train to the city center, got on the right metro train going the wrong direction, got off the right metro train and went the right direction, and found the hotel without making any mistakes (going the wrong way on an unfamiliar metro line doesn’t count as a mistake)…we were getting better at this. The hotel was small, the rooms were Hobbit like, and the bathroom was something else.

We unpacked a little and then went in search of something to eat. We ended up walking through the old town (Gamla Stan), getting a little lost (which is key when looking for a good restaurant in my opinion), and then eating at a traditional Swedish restaurant. After being in Munich, Bratislava, Budapest, and Prague for a couple weeks it was good to see that fresh vegetables were still being served in Europe.

IMG_4836During dinner, I laid out the plan for Stockholm, take one of those Hop-On Hop-Off double-decker bus tours that I make fun of, and then pick a couple things to do. In other words, take it easy and see a few things instead of trying to race through everything.

The next day I was on a red double-decker bus, earbuds in my head listening to the English version of Welcome To Stockholm. It was the least informative tour I have ever done in my life. Stockholm is an old city. The age of a place usually makes it more interesting because there are layers of history everywhere you go. Stockholm is either the most boring European capital in the world, or the Hop-on Hop-off Bus tour is letting Kansas’ State Board of Education write their history. (I realize I deserve to get ripped off by getting on one of these rolling tourist traps. Give me the route and in one day I’ll have put together a more interesting recording. I’ll even do it in Spanish…okay, that’s a stretch.) Here’s my favorite part, “Greta Garbo was born in this neighborhood. Her mother worked in a jam factory and her father sat in a corner and read the newspaper. Garbo hated the long winter nights in Stockholm. She couldn’t wait to leave…” Umm, okay…this sounds like somebody is reading her Wikipedia page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greta_Garbo . (For the record, I wrote what I remembered before looking at the Wikipedia page.) I believe the people selling the tour of Stockholm outsourced the audio recording to somebody in Mumbai who read a script from the Stockholm Wikipedia page.

IMG_4741Just when I thought the tour couldn’t get worse, the Spanish lady sitting in front of us, on a very crowded bus, decided it was time to air out the old arm pits. It was sunny, it was a little warm, but it wasn’t the kind of hot where you expect people to smell like onion covered hot dogs. Sometimes I exaggerate in my blog…I’m not exaggerating here. It was like someone opened a bag of hot garbage from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Stand in the seat in front of me and I was trapped and had to smell it like I was being olfactorily-punished Clockwork Orange style. I did a little mouth breathing and tried to escape but after three minutes I was hyperventilating and she was winning. I gave up. I sat there in misery listening to the recorded tour sprinkle educational gems every five minutes like, “This is the neighborhood where Per Gessle lives,” and “The Abba Museum opens at 10 am,” and “The Stockholm marathon is ranked the best in the world.” Eventually the fates intervened and killed our bus. We pulled over at one of the hop-on hop-off spots and stayed there, nothing was happening so I assumed the tour was progressing normally, but after five minutes some guy came upstairs and said the bus was broken and we would have to get on another bus. We got off, climbed onto the next bus as far from the Spanish woman as possible and traveled for about two more stops before we hopped off for good. I have never burned a $50 bill, but that tour was as close as I hope I ever come. I went on a hop-on hop-off tour of London about 15 years ago and it was 20,000 times better. There was a live tour guide and he had lots of things to tell us. It felt like a really complicated Jungle Boat Cruise but at least when it was over I felt like I knew more about London than when I first got on the bus. The Stockholm version sucked reindeer meatballs (which are very tasty when paired with Lingonberries and gravy) and I still don’t believe that Roxette had four number one singles in the US.

After the tour, my wife and I wandered around for a little bit and headed to the Vasa Museum. My wife wasn’t too thrilled about another Scandinavian boat museum, we had been to three of them in Oslo and those were okay but I wouldn’t go back to any of them again. The Vasa, on the other hand, is one of the best museums I have ever visited. The Vasa was a warship built around 1600. The king wanted two levels of cannons and lots of fancy carvings for his boat. In technical terms this made the boat “tippy.” The king wasn’t a master boat builder, or an engineer, or a naval architect, or anything else that makes one qualified to build a ship, but he was the king, and so his boat was built. The boat sailed for about one kilometer before a gust of wind blew it over and it sank in Stockholm’s harbor. 50 people died onboard. The king’s fancy boat couldn’t be recovered in 1600 because America hadn’t been invented yet and we couldn’t come to the rescue, and so, it sat on the bottom of the harbor until 1959 when some pipe smoking Swedish guy decided it was time to locate it and see if they could get it back above the water. It took about 30 years to get the whole thing done, but now the Vasa is sitting in a big, dark building all recovered and lovely. If the king’s boat had actually worked it certainly wouldn’t have survived 300 years like the Vasa did.

The great thing about the museum is the detail. They could have made a pretty boring museum by digging up the boat and saying, “Ta Da!” and people would still visit because it is an amazing structure, but I learned a ton about boats, boat building, stupid kings, rescuing boats, Swedish history (apparently they have done more than make gummy fish and release the plague known as ABBA on the world), what a diving bell is, how to fire a cannon, and how life in 1600 was not better than today. I also watched a movie on the rescue effort in Chinese (there were English subtitles) that was better than anything on the Hop-on Hop-off tour. (I was about to leave the Vasa museum but it was raining like mad outside, so I went back in and watched the Chinese movie.)

So, for those of you heading to Stockholm here’s a quick list:

  1. Don’t do the Hop-on Hop-off tour.
  2. Go to the Vasa Museum.
  3. Eat reindeer.
  4. Bring a rain jacket even if it looks sunny.
  5. Do some yoga before heading to the shared bathroom at the Rex Petit.

 

 

Explaining Trump to Europe

It happened; I knew it would. At some point during my trip I knew I would be asked, “Is Donald Trump going to be President?” I guess I didn’t think it would happen as often as it did.

The first time was after I had been in Europe for about 30 minutes. A young man in Schiphol Airport stopped me to ask if he could survey me and since I had a two-hour layover I needed something to do. He asked a few questions about whether I would use an automated system to get my boarding passes and then he asked, “What nation are you from?”

“I’m from the United States.” He looked at me like he wanted to ask something else and I could feel it. I waited, but he was polite and he probably wasn’t supposed to ask personal questions when he was on the clock so I filled in. “Yeah, I’m sorry.” (This might be the Obama apology tour I read about on Facebook, but since it was just me, and about 7 years later than the tour Obama took to say he was sorry for being an American and how he was going to take everyone’s guns and put freedom loving Americans in re-education camps so that he could destroy America and turn it over to ISIS, I could be mistaken.)

He smiled, “Do you think Trump will be President?”

“I don’t think so. I hope not, but…” I shrugged. “There are a lot of stupid Americans though.” (Yeah, I said it and I’m not sorry. Try me for treason, or whatever you think is appropriate, I have plenty of evidence to support my statement.)

“Well, good luck,” he said.

“We need it.”

 

On a boat tour in Amsterdam our guide eventually got around to asking. The rest of the people in the boat (two Brits, two South Africans) stopped their side conversations and leaned in to hear an explanation. There were four of us, Americans, who shook our heads and tried to explain how it couldn’t happen with the Electoral College and how Trump would implode, but who knows what will happen. I assumed the other couple in the boat were republicans: wealthy, older, retired; but they were as flummoxed as I was to explain our presidential election process and how Trump had survived. Our guide summarized his feelings, “Well, I hope he isn’t elected, that would be bad for everyone,” and he wasn’t talking about the United States, he was speaking for the world, which as captain of our little boat he was allowed to do.

 

In Munich, we were sitting in an Italian restaurant with Maike (an exchange student who lived with us in the US) and her university friend. The sun was going down, our pizza was still in the oven, and all of us were moving on to our second drink when it came up. Maike and her friend had both been exchange students so they understood Americans better than most Europeans and that is what worried them. They knew what makes America great and what makes it weak. The irony that we sat less than a kilometer from where the Beer Hall Putsch took place wasn’t lost on me as we discussed how someone like Trump could become the leader of the free world. (I’m not one of those liberals who believes everyone is Hitler, and I think that Hitler comparisons to politicians are offensive, but when the hairdo fits…–Yes, I know what I just did there, I said comparisons like that are offensive and then I made that very comparison. You got me. You win. Trump isn’t Hitler, he’s more like McCarthy, but McCarthy wasn’t a presidential candidate and eventually flamed out when everyone realized he was full of shit.)

Germans know the reality of how these things happen and they know the lasting scars left on a national identity. I remember Maike talking to me about how a few American students were teasing her about Hitler while she was a student in the US. “I don’t know what to say. We know he was a bad man and he did very bad things,” she said nearly in tears. I tried to explain that most high school kids in the US only knew Germany as the place where Hitler killed Jews. Most Americans would never travel to Germany to see how it is today. In many American minds Germany would be forever stuck in 1944, and yet, every year when we read Night students would ask, “How could this happen?”

 

I was asked about Trump in Vienna, Bratislava, Prague, and Stockholm, but it was Budapest where it was hardest to explain. We were on a bike tour with a couple from Texas, a couple from England, two young Danish university students, and our guide who was born as Hungary was escaping from the Soviet grip that had held it since World War II.

I think it started when I teased the British couple about the BrExit and how their country’s vote had crashed the Euro and saved us lots of money on our trip. “I’m glad it helped you. Our whole country is a mess and you saved some money…” his frustration bubbled out.

“Weren’t the polls saying it wasn’t going to pass going into the vote?” I asked.

“Yes, and now people who voted for it are saying, ‘I only voted for it because I didn’t think it would pass.’” He went on to say that he had seen numerous interviews with people regretting their votes, and then he turned to me and said, “The same thing could happen to you.”

We all knew what he meant, and he was right. It could happen. The Danish girls wanted to know if we thought it could happen. I started to explain the Electoral College, but everyone at the table already understood how it worked which should make every American understand how important our elections are to the rest of the world because they know how our presidents are elected and I doubt a majority of Americans could explain the process. “It will come down to the swing states: Ohio, Florida, Iowa… I live in a blue state so my vote will only count a little for the president.”

“We live in Texas, a red state, but no one we know is a Trump supporter,” the guy from Texas said. “It’s like they won’t say it out loud, but somebody is voting for him. People don’t trust Hilary,” he shook his head, “and I don’t like her, but I can’t vote for Trump.”

Then our tour guide asked the real question, “How could this happen?” This question came from the young lady who had just guided us around her city showing us monuments from 60 years of Soviet oppression and the scars of WW II. People in Hungary didn’t vote for these events. These events happened to people who had no say in the “elections” of strong men in other countries. What she was really asking was, “Have you all lost your minds? Why would you choose this?”

How could it happen? It isn’t supposed to happen, is it? (Please excuse me while I get a little patriotically sappy.) The rest of the world does look to the US as beacon of freedom. Our elections influence the world. Who we choose for the next four years will not just be a choice for us; it is a choice for the rest of the world. Is this who we have become? Frightened, xenophobic, misogynistic?

Six months ago, I laughed off the possibility that we would elect someone like Donald Trump. I’m not laughing any longer, and I can’t really explain it. It makes no sense to me.

 

 

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