Category: Travel

Adventures and Misadventures.

TSOJ: Sometimes Stupidity Pays Off–Norway in a Nutshell

The summer my family spent in Hamburg finally put me at ease when traveling by train. German rail is efficient, organized, and wonderfully easy to use once you understand the charts, tracks, cars, and system. Norway seems to have many of the same characteristics, but there is also the “if you have questions, just ask” kind of attitude. Now this works for most travelers, because we do ask questions, but I was not in question asking mode today because I had my little paper that told me where I was going and how I was going to get there. So I journeyed forth fully confident that only a moron could get lost on a trip like this. Let’s meet our moron: He is a tall, 40+ (heavy on the plus) year-old man with travel experience. One would think on a tour built for people who are in their 70s he could manage not to get lost, well you’d be wrong.

Waiting at a railway station, I got a ticket for a destination.

Waiting at a railway station, I got a ticket for a destination.

Let’s start at the beginning. I needed to be at the train tracks by 7:30, breakfast started at 7:00 and it took about 15 minutes to go from the hotel to the train station, so I shoveled a lot of food in my fat pie hole in fifteen minutes, had I known at the time it would be last meal of the day I might have filled my pockets with bread. Anyway, I got to the train station early because I am an experienced traveler who knows what is going on. I took out my ticket, looked for a seat or car number, did not find one and assumed it was open seating. Finding a good seat as a single rider is easy, so I sat back and relaxed. When the train finally arrived, I hopped on, found a great seat and readied myself for the ride from Oslo to Myrdal. The first part of the journey was to take four and a half hours; I had to change my seats three times because I cannot read. #1: Older couple shows me their ticket, I assume they have reserved a seat, so I move. I have reserved seats before, but it usually comes with a surcharge so I assume it is just because they are dumb and paid extra. Pay attention, Dear Reader, and find out who the real idiot is. #2: Train conductor comes to check tickets, I hand mine over like the pro I am. He says I am in the wrong seat. He then shows me the second ticket in my pack of three, it has a car number and seat on it (Vogn: 3, Plass 20). Any person with a working knowledge of Norwegian (that means people other than me) knows that means car 3, seat 20, in my defense the rest of the ticket has the important words translated into English. So I go back to find my seat in car three, I see it, it is a window seat and there is an elderly lady sitting with her stuff on my seat. Her son says she needs her space (he was joking, but I let her have the spot and sat down up front in an empty seat). #3: A family gets on the train and says, “You’re in our seat.” I tell him that I know where I am supposed to be, stand up, tell grandma to move over and sit down. It ended up being a pretty good seat. Claudia, the old lady, was celebrating her 80th birthday by taking her family on this trip. Claudia spoke with a heavy German accent, so when I asked where she was from and she responded, “Auburn, Alabama” I thought I had misheard her, but she repeated it and I finally clued in that she could possibly be from Germany, but now lives in Auburn. I eventually did hear a Southern accent mixed in there with her German twang, but that was after we were BFFs. I ended up sitting next to about half the family as they all moved around. There was Claudia’s daughter, her husband (retired Air Force), their son (attending private school in Montgomery, second largest private school population per capita in America behind only Jackson, Mississippi. When people find out you are a teacher they talk to you differently. Had I been a lawyer I never would have found out about the terrible condition of schools in Alabama.) I also met Mike who lives in Bonn, his girlfriend, and Mike’s daughter. They were very nice people and tolerated me. I had a nice conversation about the Munch exhibit in Oslo, found out Claudia lived in Chicago, and that her first husband was an Engineering professor. Her second husband was a doctor. She outlived both of them, and from the looks of her, she might outlive me.

About a mile high in altitude at this point.

About a mile high in altitude at this point.

As the train climbed into the highest plateau in Europe (according to retired Air Force son-in-law) the views from the train were just what I had expected, spectacular. I also found out no one knew the German word for plateau, darn shame that Germans don’t have a word for that geographical fixture. Had we known this during WWII many lives could have been saved by hiding troops on plateaus. The Germans would order an attack on that flat piece of land way up high and something would definitely be lost in translation. It is these types of observations military historians need to spend a little more time on.

The cute train station and pile of tourists at the far end of the loading area.

The cute train station and pile of tourists at the far end of the loading area.

Eventually we ended up in Myrdal, which is like one of those alpine train stations that are very cute because it is one of those cute alpine train stations. I set up camp immediately right next to the big number 9 painted on ground, because I knew it was open seating this time. (The numbers usually indicate where the train will stop. These are the prime locations for anyone wanting to elbow their way to a good seat.) I talked to a guy from California, who said the left side of the train was best, he was right. This set this guy up in my mind as an expert. The little train ride down to Flam was unbelievable. I do mean outstanding. Just gorgeous. The only difficulty was that the lameos who sat on the wrong side of the train kept trying to take pictures on my side of the train. It did not bother me (this is true) but the young Russian couple sitting next to me was really put off by it. The girl went into what I would describe as a silent tizzy and stopped taking pictures altogether and did a lot of eye rolling and crossing of arms.

Waterfall, a dancing lady appeared to lure us to our death just after I took this picture.

Waterfall, a dancing lady appeared to lure us to our death just after I took this picture.

See, there she is! I want this job, there must be an application on-line.

See, there she is! I want this job, there must be an application on-line.

Did I mention this is the steepest railway line in the world? It also took a 180 degree turn inside a tunnel. It wasn't that impressive since it was very dark inside the tunnel.

Did I mention this is the steepest railway line in the world? It also took a 180 degree turn inside a tunnel. It wasn’t that impressive since it was very dark inside the tunnel.

Looking up the valley. You can also rent a mountain bike at the top of the hill and ride down on a path.

Looking up the valley. You can also rent a mountain bike at the top of the hill and ride down on a path.

Watch out for the second boat! Or, how to turn a three hour boat tour into a full seven hour one.

Watch out for the second boat! Or, how to turn a three hour boat tour into a full seven hour one.

When we got down to the valley floor we had about 45 minutes until our boat boarded, so I sat around doing nothing. The California guy said that boat #2 was ours, so I moved down that way a little bit, I didn’t think there would be too much competition for seats on the outside and I was right. I got in line, handed my ticket to the Captain, he said, “Norway in a Nutshell?” I said, “Yes,” then he waved me on to the boat. I went up to the top of the boat, got a seat and got ready to be dazzled. The fjord tour was great. I took 10,000 pictures, and was having a great time. I didn’t see Claudia’s family anywhere and hoped they got on the right boat (they did, funny enough.) About two hours into my journey the California guy said, “I was just talking to the Captain and he says we are on the wrong boat.” This is information that I did not want to hear. Thought #1: How much is this going to cost me? Thought #2: Now what? Thought #3: I’m an idiot. (This should have been thought #1.) The California guy did have more information, “The Captain said we can just stay on the boat all the way to Bergen.” Now, this seemed a bit odd since the Norway in a Nutshell package is a well planned trip of trains, busses, and boats. If everyone could just stay on the boat, why wouldn’t they? I asked the California dude when we would get in and it turned out that by staying on the wrong boat we would arrive before the group I was supposed to be with. I would also get to cruise through the Norwegian islands at no extra cost. Had I planned this trip it would cost a lot more. Now, here is where I began to love the relax attitude that Norwegians have. If I had made this mistake in Germany or France, they would have let me off at the next stop and I would be on my own. In Norway, “Oh well, you are an idiot. Take a free ride through our beautiful islands.”

Smile dummy, you're on the wrong boat.

Smile dummy, you’re on the wrong boat.

Want Fjords? We got some Fjords for you.

Want Fjords? We got some Fjords for you.

Waterfalls? Check.

Waterfalls? Check.

Norway's islands along the coast.

Norway’s islands along the coast.

This area reminded me of where I live: the mighty PNW.

This area reminded me of where I live: the mighty PNW.

Bergen's waterfront.

Bergen’s waterfront.

Nice manhole cover.

Nice manhole cover.

I ended up in Bergen a half hour ahead of time, and got to my Pension before my tour group arrived in town. Sometimes being an idiot is golden.

TSOJ: How I got a sunburn in Oslo.

When I got up this morning I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to see Vigland Park if the weather was nice and then I might go to the National Portrait Museum and see the special exhibit: Edward Munch he’d be 150 years-old this year if he hadn’t died. I’m not a big fan of special exhibits when I travel, because the paintings I really want to see are often taken off display. Anyway, I got up, ate 5000 calories of breakfast because it is included in my stay (if there is one piece of travel advice for everyone it is get a room with breakfast included.) Families this is doubly important because each meal you eat out can break the old piggy jar, and in Oslo, if you want to eat after your free breakfast you can, but I would suggest stuffing your pie hole.

Always, always, always get a hotel with a breakfast bar.

Always, always, always get a hotel with a breakfast bar.

I was out of the hotel by 8:30 and on my way to the closed Portrait Museum so I did what I always do, I began wandering. I wandered over to a Tourist Information office and soon had a plan. Visit the city hall, jam over to the museum, then down to the Opera House and then a bike tour.

Karl Johans street. Before anyone else is awake.

Karl Johans street. Before anyone else is awake.

City Hall in Oslo looks like it was designed my some Hollywood set director in an anti-utopian movie about the evils of Socialism. Since I am an anti-capitalist pinko, I kind of liked it from the outside. There is something about this form of architecture that is so impersonal and oppressive that it makes me feel even less significant than usual.

City Hall looking like a building from Marx's wet dream.

City Hall looking like a building from Marx’s wet dream.

There are some nice touches to the exterior of the building that give it a Norse flavor.

Astrological clock in a building from 1920?

Astrological clock in a building from 1920?

The Norse Mythology carvings around the exterior of the building were pretty cool. I like Norse Mythology, lots of violence and sex.

The panels running around the exterior of the courtyard had lots of Norse Mythology.

The panels running around the exterior of the courtyard had lots of Norse Mythology.

Inside the city hall was the cool stuff. Here is where they award the Nobel Peace Prize.

Inside the city hall was the cool stuff. Here is where they award the Nobel Peace Prize.

The true beauty of the building was inside. Huge murals covered the walls telling the story of the country. The history of Norway is complex, kind of like a soap opera but with countries involved instead of people. Denmark and Norway were inseparable, then they broke up and Norway started dating Sweden, but found out they were all wrong for each other and Norway decided to go out on their own. At least I think that is how it worked. There was some Nazi stuff in there too, and some elections for kings and an adoption as I recall. If you have come to this blog looking for accurate information about Norway’s history then you are in the wrong place. If you are looking for sweeping generalizations and inaccuracies then this is your spot.

Murals covered most of the walls representing portions of Norway's history.

Murals covered most of the walls representing portions of Norway’s history.

In order to really tell you about the history or symbolism of the murals I would have had to stop and read the descriptions, but instead I spent my time fighting for space with bus tourists. Bus tourism should only take place as a last resort, I say this as I prepare for a bus/train tour in two days, but if you have to do a bus tour realize how annoying you are as you blob your way through everything in order to stay on schedule.

More murals.

More murals.

Munch mural with naked people.

Munch mural with naked people.

This is as good as any time to talk about the Munch exhibit since special exhibits never allow photography. I don’t blame them for banning photography, but almost all the paintings in the exhibit were borrowed from the Munch Museum in the far away city of Oslo. Before I begin complaining full-time let me say what I liked: Munch’s career was more expansive than I thought, he has some really amazing paintings and his Summer Moonlight paintings were super. His slow move to dealing with the issues of isolation and depression were also interesting. The Scream might be the only Munch painting people are familiar with, but his blue self-portrait where he is smoking is even better in my opinion.

Let the complaining begin: I ended up stuck between four bus tours: Two Japanese tours and two American tours. I don’t know which groups annoyed me more, the slow moving Americans or the fast moving Japanese ones. (This is a lie, I hated the Japanese tours more, but I don’t want to sound too much like a bigot.) If I tried to move ahead of the packs the Japanese groups were soon gathered around me talking loudly in what sounds to me more like chickens squawking than an actual language. I know this is a horrible thing to say, I know I sound like a red-neck, I know I should be more tolerant, but THIS IS THE SUMMER OF JON!!! Let me look at a painting in peace and don’t EVER move in front of me when I am looking at a painting. Just because I am taller than you does not mean I should be ignored. If I am blocking your view, it is because I was here first and I will eventually move, I don’t mind standing next to me, but the next time a tour guide steps in front of me I am going to knock her straw hat off.

The slow moving American group can be summed up in one statement I overheard between a husband and wife, “His stuff just doesn’t do anything for me.” Hey, I know what you mean, but I don’t go to those museums and annoy people who do like his stuff. There is no rule that says you can’t stay on the bus and watch reruns of All In The Family.

Both groups need to follow this simple rule: When in a museum shut yer yap! Talk quietly, move respectfully, and understand you are not the only tourist on vacation– I am! (I am practicing using more exclamation points since I will be in Germany in a couple weeks.)

I am fascinated with city manhole covers. They really are unique, you just have to look.
After battling for an hour or so I decided to walk down to the Opera House and check it out. The main pedestrian street runs from the Royal Palace to the waterfront, so it is hard to get lost. Don’t worry, before this blog entry is over I will be lost.

Little girl riding a tiger, lucky little girl. Just outside the train station, I didn't take any pictures outside the bus station because I didn't want to get mugged.

Little girl riding a tiger, lucky little girl. Just outside the train station, I didn’t take any pictures outside the bus station because I didn’t want to get mugged.

The Opera House, like most of the things in Norway, was built with an emphasis on getting people to use it. Not an Opera fan? Well, how about climbing to the top of a really cool building and checking out the view?

Oslo Opera House.

Oslo Opera House.

Not too bad, I might have to come back and look inside.

Not too bad, I might have to come back and look inside.

These shades were made for walking.

These shades were made for walking.

After I finished the visit/hike up the Opera House, it was off to take a bike tour.

It looks like a child and parent met an untimely end here.

It looks like a child and parent met an untimely end here.

I showed up early and talked with the owner of Viking Bikes for a little bit and then he let me take a bike out for a bit until the tour started. I went down to the Opera House again, then over to a castle and then got back just in time to meet our group.

Viking Biking, English speaking tours of Oslo.

Viking Biking, English speaking tours of Oslo.

We started learning about the founding of Oslo, most of it had to do with fires and rebuilding until one of the rulers said, “I wonder if the city would stop burning down if we widened streets?” Seems like a no-brainer to me, but these things are always easier to figure out as a Monday morning quarterback.

The changing of the guard, or something.

The changing of the guard, or something.

We biked over to the fortress, watched some not too scary guys with guns march around for a bit and then walked around the tower walls. It was pretty cool, but security in Norway is not taken too seriously. People seem to trust each other, as crazy as that sounds. There were several times on the bike tour that we were right next to very important people and locations and there was zero noticeable security. I would think after that nut job set off a bomb in downtown Oslo and shot 70 kids on the island, that they might tighten up the bolts a bit, but maybe there are precautions in place that I am unaware of.

The fortress was easy to breach.

The fortress was easy to breach.

A memorial  for the executions by the Nazis. I think, it isn't in English.

A memorial for the executions by the Nazis. I think, it isn’t in English.

After storming the castle, we pedaled down by the water front and I wished that Seattle’s new waterfront design would come close to Oslo’s.

I signed a document that said I wouldn't do this.

I signed a document that said I wouldn’t do this.

The Royal Palace, guarded as closely as a box of cookies.

The Royal Palace, guarded as closely as a box of cookies.

We then headed to Froger Park. The Froger area is wealthy, but there were tons of kids walking through the neighborhood on their way to sun themselves in the Park. If there is one observation I can make about Norway’s people it would be that they don’t care what you are doing as long as it doesn’t interfere with what they are doing. People at work sit when they are not helping people, they check their cell phone messages, but when it is time to help, they are right there. They seem to have a relaxed attitude and independence that works.

Vigland Park.

Vigland Park.

Vigeland Park is amazing. I will only write a little bit about it and then let you check out the pictures. This Vigeland fellow was a sculptor and he needed a place to stay, so he made a deal with the city of Oslo that if they built him a nice house (a very nice house) he would fill their park with his statues. It was a win win. He got himself some nice digs and Oslo got the best sculpture park in the world. The statues are all nude so that they would be timeless and could always be enjoyed by everyone. I was so blown away by the park I did not get annoyed by the hordes of bus tourists.

Bridge of bronze statues, and a bonus shot of my finger.

Bridge of bronze statues, and a bonus shot of my finger.

The most famous of Vigeland's statues. Touch his hand for good luck.

The most famous of Vigeland’s statues. Touch his hand for good luck.

Silly Norwegians getting a tan instead of looking at the statues.

Silly Norwegians getting a tan instead of looking at the statues.

I like the tile work here, probably because I could not do this in 10,000 years.

I like the tile work here, probably because I could not do this in 10,000 years.

The picture below might need some explaining. The big tube is life, there is usually water pouring out of it. The men holding up the tub are not all sharing the load, some have a heavier burden (just like life kids), the work around the men follows the stages of life. So there.

Dudes holding up life surrounded by the circle of life.

Dudes holding up life surrounded by the circle of life.

Everything about this park is super nifty.

Everything about this park is super nifty.

The monolith has 121 figures, took 14 years, and is one solid piece of granite.

The monolith has 121 figures, took 14 years, and is one solid piece of granite.

There is a baby at the top, everybody else is squished.

There is a baby at the top, everybody else is squished.

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I’ll call this one: Pile of babies.

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Dog pile on Dad.

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Old dude section.

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Main gate and monolith.

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One of my fingers is always photobombing my pictures.

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My favorite.

My favorite.

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I like this girl’s attitude.

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I call this one swinging free.

After the park we tried to ride all the way back to the office, but the waterfront was crowded with people, who can blame them, if I lived in Oslo I would be down there too.

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Waterfront/Fjord restoration, it reminded me of Hafen City in Hamburg.

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Nobel Prize museum.

After we finished the tour and I realized I didn’t have any money to tip the guide I felt like an idiot, but I will go back tomorrow and drop off a tip. It was a great way to spend an afternoon and the next time you are in Oslo you should take a tour with Viking.

I then went back to my hotel and took a catnap. I figured I would head out to an area that runs along a river called Gronland. I heard it would be a good place to get a less expensive meal and would take me outside the tourist area. It certainly did. I didn’t take a map and before too long I was in an area that if I were driving I would lock the doors. Instead of stopping and asking for help, I did the smart thing and just kept moving like I knew where I was heading. It looked like I was heading for trouble, but I took a few left turns, walked fast and eventually ended up at the bus station which is not exactly Valhalla, but at least I knew where I was. All in all, I ended up not finding the river area and walking about five miles.

I headed back to my hotel and found a cheap meal right next door at a 7-11: box of noodles.
I then sat on a park bench and enjoyed a meal with some guy I didn’t know. The view of the Parliament building, the sunshine, the things I saw, even the box of noodles mad for a great dinning experience.

Dinner on a park bench with a stranger is a great way to end the day.

Dinner on a park bench with a stranger is a great way to end the day.

Parliament building, my dinner view.

Parliament building, my dinner view.

Nice face, look happy, it is the Summer of Jon.

Nice face, look happy, it is the Summer of Jon.

 

TSOJ: Final Thoughts on Iceland

I flew out of Iceland yesterday evening in what I would term a winter storm. Winds were blowing about 50 miles per hour, the temperature was no more than 50 degrees, rain was blasting the airport, and because it is Iceland we walked about 300 yards in the monsoon to get to the plane. Once aboard I wondered if the weather was great for flying and then I thought, “This is summer weather for these pilots, this is nothing.” I was right, we took off like we were flying on a clear summer day in Seattle. Two hours later I was in Norway where there are more trees in a square mile than the entire country of Iceland.

Iceland is one of the stranger places a visitor can go. The land is one part of the strangeness, the strangeness of the length of days, the strangeness of the language, the strangeness of the food, and then there is the people. The Icelandic people are friendly, but they also do not hide their feelings. They tolerate tourists because without the tourist dollar the economic hard times would be even more difficult. The stunted trees of the country symbolize the people best, hunkered down against a hillside just surviving the wind and storms that blow through the land. There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of hope in life, they deal with it by gritting their teeth and pushing forward. There is a Nordic sense of doom hanging everywhere. Men tinker on their homes preparing for the 10 months of bitter weather, women knit thick sweaters and probably don’t own a light summer dress, and kids wear their jackets without complaint. Everyone knows that July is when they can relax and take a deep breath, but no one seems to do that, they prepare for the next storm. They avoid being too happy about the present and focus on preparing for the bleak future. This general attitude makes the financial crisis even harsher for a people who are far more focused on the future than the present. The moments of joy are always tempered by the reality of a fate that has been a part of the Nordic heritage since they began telling stories in their strange pirate language. Pirate is probably offensive the these Vikings, although Pirates and Vikings have a great deal in common Pirates never settled a country or carried a heritage for thousands of years. Icelandic lore (along with recent history to support the story) said the Reyjakavik was founded when one of the Viking leaders, Ingolfur Arnarson, tossed a couple logs overboard somewhere out at sea and followed them to land. Where the two logs landed is modern day Reyjakvik. Leaving the founding of a city and nation up to fate (or in this case two logs and the tides) is not something that one can celebrate as grandly as one can if you are escaping religious persecution like the American lore (less supported by history the further we get away from it) but it says a great deal about who the Icelandic people are, they have been tossed about by the sea, but they deal with it. There is not a great deal of whining in this country, there is the Sisyphean attitude, and as we all recall, Sisyphus conquered his punishment by being happy in his endless task. I think Icelanders would be happy being compared to Sisyphus.

Questions about Iceland and Icelanders:
Are there any actual laws related to driving in the city? I was never sure if while standing at a crosswalk if I had the right of way. Some cars would wait, others blew right through, some waved me to go and then nearly ran me over. Sidewalks were often used as auxiliary portions of the road. Many of the vehicles were built like many of the off-road trucks in the US: big tires, lifted off the ground, and large enough for me to believe the driver was suffering from some form of inadequacy.

What’s the deal with beer? I bought a beer at a supermarket and the checker told me that it wasn’t beer. He then informed me that you could only buy beer at the wine store which was closing at 6 PM. I think he expected me to stop the purchase of my beer and dash downtown to get “real beer.” I talked to the owner of the Micro Bar about the beer situation and he told me that light beer is simply beer with 2.25% alcohol content. You can buy this type of beer at a store, but beer with a higher alcohol content must be purchased at the wine store. I asked if Icelanders drank beer, because to me the stuff in the can was horrible, I realize that it was light beer, but it was bad light beer. The beer at the Micro Bar was good and the IPA that I had there was as good as any beer you can get in the US. The owner of the Micro Bar admitted that the best beer in the world right now is in the US, but he wasn’t sure he liked the way we sold beer because when he lived in the US be spent a lot of time drinking too much beer because it was readily available. Good think we Americans could care less about getting fat. I think the general attitude of Icelanders (and this is a sweeping generalization) is that if you are going to drink then you should drink until you fall down.

What’s the story with the alphabet? I don’t even know where to start here. The language is a complete mystery to me. Everyone speaks English because no one else speaks Icelandic. I don’t ever want to suggest that the language should go away because so much of what makes a culture unique is built into the language of that culture. I only said one Icelandic word the whole time I was there, “Tak.” Which means, “Thanks” and is the same word used in Danish, so I was able to thank people but there was an additional portion of the thanks: Fyrre, or something like that.I was not confident enough to even try but it sounded like Tak Fear to me.
The rest of the language did not seem to follow the rules associated to any language I know. Somewhere in the past the Vikings that came to Iceland decided to do their own thing when it came to the language. I think the language is based on runes and therefore more like a symbol based language than a phonetic one, so if there is no basis for phonetics there is no way for me to figure out what is going on.

Do I look like an Icelander? Most of the time when I ran into people in Iceland they started out by addressing me in Icelandic. In a country as small as Iceland they say that everyone knows everyone, so I guess my twin is running around Iceland speaking Icelandic. I know some of you are thinking, “Wouldn’t it be natural for people to address you in their native language?” Sure, but I witnessed most tourists being addressed in English first. When my family stayed in German for a month I had people talk to me in German many, many times. I can understand that, we were away from the tourist areas but I do look like a German, probably because my ancestors come from the German/Dutch area in the north. (Good looking, smart people I assume.) What’s the best thing to eat in Iceland? For a quick, almost cheap bite, I think everyone should hit the hot dog place and get a couple dogs with everything (three sauces, fried onions, fresh onions). If you want to make your mouth happy then you must eat Plokkfisker with black rye bread. The bread itself is so good that I almost bought a loaf to eat by itself. White fish, cheese, butter, onions and potatoes have never tasted better.

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TSOJ: Iceland’s Harpa Tour

Iceland's Harpa Conference Center.

Iceland’s Harpa Conference Center.

When I asked the Tourist Information Dude when tours of Harpa took place he wasn’t sure. He said that he doesn’t get many requests for a tour of what is an amazing building. I am not an architectural nut, but I do appreciate beauty in all forms, and the Harpa is a beautiful thing. The building has already been through enough trials to fill the harbor surrounding it. When the dazzling building started the Icelandic people were riding high on a banking system that soon came crashing to the earth. The money behind the building was one of the broken Icelandic banks and very soon after the building began it stopped. It stood as a reminder of the economic crisis for years, a modern building sitting open to the elements slowly given over to fate. No one wanted to finance a building in such difficult times, but in the end pragmatism took over as they discovered it would be more expensive to tear it down. Some people actually rallied to let the building stand as a symbol of the country’s financial ruin, instead of finishing the building they wanted to let it sit rotting in the harbor. Knowing that this thing of beauty was almost given up on is shocking. The architect of the Harpa is the same architect who built the Copenhagen Opera House which looks to me like a garage door left open to the harbor, but it is still one of the many buildings in Copenhagen that leave an impression of modern movement. Before the Harpa Iceland’s iconic building is the Hallsgrimskikja church overseeing the entire city. One can see the hope that was built into the Harpa, a hope for the future of a small nation, and one can also see why it is a symbol that Icelanders embrace as they hope for a better future.

The view from the west.

The view from the west.

I arrived for the 3:30 tour early and had time to walk around the building a little bit. I was in Iceland about six years ago when the Harpa was just getting started so seeing it completed was on my list of things to do. At 3:30 our tour guide, Christiana, began our tour on the ground floor.

The glass was modeled after the hexagon shaped rock formations found all over Iceland.

The glass was modeled after the hexagon shaped rock formations found all over Iceland.

One of the first topics she covered was the controversy with the construction of the Harpa. What started as an expansion of the money flowing through Icelandic banks ended as a rescue by the government and people of Iceland. It was a long building process and there were various concessions made to finish the building so that the building could become the centerpiece of growth for all of Iceland. Although Iceland sits between North America and Europe many people don’t consider visiting, so the Harpa has become a do-it-all building focused on bringing companies with offices in North America and Europe to Iceland for conferences. The greatest challenge has been building more hotel space to accommodate these conferences. Not every CEO wants to share a shower at a guesthouse.

The colored glass is designed to make different effects as the sun shines through.

The colored glass is designed to make different effects as the sun shines through.

The Harpa is beautiful from the outside, but the real beauty of the building is on the interior. This makes sense because Iceland is not a place where you want to stand outside too often during nine months of the year. During the winter months LED lights around the exterior windows mimic the Northern Lights which would be something to see, but I doubt I will be visiting in December.

Lots of different shapes making construction even more complex.

Lots of different shapes making construction even more complex.

The smallest concert hall looked a little like a lecture hall one might see in a university, but like all the halls in the building it can be transformed from concert venue to lecture hall to place to take a tour of. Christiana changed the lighting from green, to red, to purple, to blue.

LED lighting in all of the smaller concert halls gives the ability to set a different tone for different concerts.

LED lighting in all of the smaller concert halls gives the ability to set a different tone for different concerts.

Deep Purple for Deep Purple?

Deep Purple for Deep Purple?

Each room had the ability to control sound. The acoustic technology used to move sound was one of the most impressive things about the building. Each room is world class and constructed as a box within a box. Therefore multiple concerts can be going on at once without noise interference.

Oak slats from the USA designed to carry sound. Behind the slats is a sheet of felt that can be raised or lowered to amplify or dampen sound.

Oak slats from the USA designed to carry sound. Behind the slats is a sheet of felt that can be raised or lowered to amplify or dampen sound.

The third room we went to looked pretty plain, but again, there were multiple uses for the room. It could be split, walls could rotate, and it was the only hall where there was electronic amplification. Christiana said that she attended a Bjork concert in the hall and the next day was in the hall for a CrossFit competition. (Bjork and CrossFit are big in Iceland.)

In concert hall three, these rotating pieces of wall allow the sound to carry (wood surface) or dampen (cloth surface).

In concert hall three, these rotating pieces of wall allow the sound to carry (wood surface) or dampen (cloth surface).

The main concert hall was simply beautiful. I suppose Christiana sees this place everyday and so it is nothing new, but I was really blown away. You can look at the pictures, my writing will only spoil it.

The main concert hall is amazing.

The main concert hall is amazing.

Not a bad seat in the house.

Not a bad seat in the house.

The view from above the stage.

The view from above the stage.

Behind each of the walls were these huge white rooms. Again, the walls could be moved to either dampen or amplify sound. When we stood in the big white room, I wished I had visited during concert season. Maybe when I am a billionaire I will come back and watch an Opera.

Alongside the entire main hall are these huge rooms designed to carry sound. Choirs have hidden back here to sing along with the concerts amplifying the sound even more.

Alongside the entire main hall are these huge rooms designed to carry sound. Choirs have hidden back here to sing along with the concerts amplifying the sound even more.

The tour took about an hour and was well worth the time. I don’t know why more people tour the building because it is awesome. So next time you are swinging through Iceland, drop in and spend some time at the Harpa.

Mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne in Iceland...

Mirrors on the ceiling and pink champagne in Iceland…

 

The Summer of Jon (TSOJ): Now Appearing In Iceland

The Summer of Jon has begun.

Yesterday, or two days ago, I flew from the 90 degree weather of Seattle to the 55 degree weather of Reykjavik Iceland. Almost everything went smoothly with the exception of me getting through the TSA security checkpoint and then finding my seat on the plane. It took me three attempts to get through the metal detector. The first one was because I had not emptied my pockets…rookie mistake, and the second time was because I had not taken off my belt…doh! Finally, I got through, bought a ten dollar beer for lunch (I doubt there will be a more expensive beer on my trip) and then arrived at the boring terminal S at Seatac in time to see that Egypt was on the brink of some difficulties. Thank goodness we have the Trayvon Martin case to distract us. (Guy follows someone, ends up shooting him, admits to shooting him, and there is a trial? Only in America and The Soviet Union during the Cold War.

My seat, which I had carefully selected for leg room, turned out to be a big fat lie. There was no leg room. Little graphs on the internet (I’m talking to you SeatGuru) don’t always give the full picture when making little charts of the best and worst seats. The good news was that I was sitting by a young couple, so they were going to talk to me, and the baby in front of me was cute. I don’t mind a crying baby, I have always been able to ignore that noise just ask my wife.

I did not sleep a bit on the seven hour flight, but did enjoy watching Django Unchained. It is wrong to laugh loudly when watching a movie this violent, so I am sure the young couple seated next to me wondered if I was some sadistic, tall, moron.

Arriving in Iceland by plane is usually (from my vast experience of flying in here twice) boring. Clouds, clouds, clouds, ocean, ocean, are we going to land in the ocean? Tarmac and rain. Not yesterday. It was beautiful. I could see a good chunk of the island all spread out like an egg in a frying pan. I zipped through customs and then spent the rest of the morning like a child asking when it is time to go. It was only 6:30 am and the Blue Lagoon didn’t open for another two hours. I went to an ATM pushed a few buttons and then found myself deciding if I was going to get 40,000 IK or 200,000 IK. My little hamster wheel of a brain knew the exchange rate was 125 to 1, but was that 400 dollars or 40? I ended up with more Icelandic money than I need, but there are hot dogs to buy and at least three things to do. I bought a coffee for 500 IK and then drank the precious liquid.

Soon enough it was off to the Blue Lagoon. The bus trip there was just as shocking as the last time I was in Iceland. I would be no one in Iceland owns a chainsaw. Trees don’t exist on this planet. There are some trees in Reykjavik, but most of them are wind-beaten little numbers that are just trying to survive.

The Blue Lagoon was great. I got a bathrobe this time and spent a few hours soaking in the blue waters of the lagoon. Part of my package was a buffet lunch. I had a difficult decision to make, stay in the water and wait another hour while my skin turned to mush or put on my robe and sit in the relaxing room. I went for the relaxing room. They had those zero gravity chairs (I doubt there is science supporting this zero gravity thing, but I found a chair leaned back and tried not to fall asleep. I watched the people frolicking in the waters below and then had what I thought was a moment of sleep, but when I regained consciousness there were new people all around me in their zero gravity chairs and it was time for lunch.

I did not eat on the plane and took it out on the buffet, a sushi buffet, oh the carnage. I think I ate 20,000 IK in sushi but passed on a drink since I would have to pay extra for that. I then decide it was time to wash off the Blue Lagoon and head to the hotel.

Everything went like clockwork until I went to charge my iPod. I soon found myself on an epic quest to find an iPod dock in downtown Reykjavik where the only thing you can really buy is Icelandic sweaters, wool, gnomes, books on gnomes, viking stuff, and stuffed puffin dolls. I walked until I found a blister on my foot, but eventually found the charger.

I then wandered into the Hallgrimskirkja church (good luck pronouncing that one.) The church can be seen from just about anywhere on the island of Iceland, not just the city…this is an exaggeration, but it sticks up a bit. I went in and wandered for a moment until some guy in a hoodie got onto the keyboards and busted out some serious music. His little fingers were flying, his feet were working away also. It was awesome. I stuck around until I stomach told me it was time to eat a hot dog or three.

I ended my first night by taking a sleeping pill that worked like a charm. So it is off to breakfast and then to the penis museum.

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An Icelandic dinosaur coming to life at the airport. Why? I don’t know, it is Iceland there are lots of unknowns.

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For 500 IK you too can enjoy two sips of coffee.

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The Blue Lagoon overpriced, touristy, and oh so worth it.

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A tiny panoramic picture of the Lagoon.

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Blue Lagoon hairdoo, ready for a nap.

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The entrance to the Blue Lagoon.

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The Hillgrimslakf;alkfzhvlmnieuhfkldnf church. My hotel is 25 Icelandic meters away.

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The church pews’ backs can move to look forward during services, or can swing the other way during organ recitals.

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Dude in a hoodie playing that funky music.

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The best hot dog in the world. 1 of three that I ate yesterday. 350 IK.

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The Harpa Opera Hall. I’ll be there tomorrow.

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Two more hot dogs in their little handy table.

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Businessman with a block for a head? Maybe saying something about the financial crisis in Iceland.

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Leif Erikson is like, you can go that way if you want, I’m off to AMERICA!

 

Let The Summer of Jon Begin: Top Ten

 

Top Ten things I am looking forward to during The Summer of Jon 

 

 

10. Eating three hotdogs each day while in Iceland at Bæjarins beztu pylsur.

 

 

English: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, known as the b...

English: Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur, known as the best hot dog stand in Reykjavik.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

9. A full day at the Blue Lagoon. (Slippers and robe included.)

 

 

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon (Photo credit: Arian Zwegers)

8. Seeing Munch’s The Scream.

 

 

Munch The Scream lithography

Munch The Scream lithography (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

7. Spending some time in the Danish Design Museum

 

 

English: Table and chairs designed by Kaare Kl...

English: Table and chairs designed by Kaare Klint at the Danish Design Museum in Copenhagen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6. Visiting the Carlsberg Brewery

 

 

English: The "Elephant Gate" at the ...

English: The “Elephant Gate” at the Carlsberg Brewery, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5. Taking the Norway in a Nutshell tour.

 

 

Norway in a Nutshell: Flåm

Norway in a Nutshell: Flåm (Photo credit: TXMagpie)

4. Touring Potsdam on bike

 

 

Potsdam, Germany: Sanssouci Palace with vineya...

Potsdam, Germany: Sanssouci Palace with vineyard (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

3. Walking though Vigeland Park (Froger Park) in Oslo.

 

 

Vigeland Children

Vigeland Children (Photo credit: Will Cyr)

2. Vienna’s outdoor evening concerts/movies at city hall.

 

Vienna's Town hall (4)

Vienna’s Town hall (4) (Photo credit: Elena Romera)

1. A full day bike tour of Prague.

 

English: A panoramic view of Prague as viewed ...

English: A panoramic view of Prague as viewed from Petřín Lookout Tower. The view is approximately 180 degrees, from north on the left to south on the right.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Top Ten Concerns/Fears/Obsessive thoughts

 

 

10. The exchange rate. There is going to be some weird money on this trip. The Icelandic Kroner’s current exchange rate is about 125 to 1. This sounds good, but I don’t want to have to use skills from my Algebra 1 class in 1850.

 

 

9. Angry German bakers. I could avoid German bakers altogether but then I would have to avoid German baked goods…not gonna happen.

 

 

8. Being on time. I will show up to the airport three hours before my flight just like I am told, but once I am on the road I don’t want to spend time waiting.

 

 

7. Italians walking slowly.

 

 

6. Italians cutting in line. Okay this can be anyone cutting in line. Getting off the ferry in Victoria last week I purposely stepped in between a family that was cutting in line knowing that they couldn’t pass through customs as two groups. There is a line people! Get in the line or I will get all Clint Eastwoody on you. (Not the talking to a chair Clint Eastwood, but the Clint that stares into the sun and spits on stuff.)

 

 

5. Heat. I am a delicate flower and heat will make me wilt.

 

 

4. Not being able to speak the primary language of any country I am visiting. Yes, I am going to assume everyone will speak to me in English. My multiple years of Spanish class will probably not pay off in Iceland. Actually, my Spanish is only good for laughs these days.

 

 

3. Being stuck someplace where they play Techno music.

 

 

2. Being stuck on the plane next to someone who wants to talk too much.

 

 

1. Gypsies!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Victoria BC, High Tea, and 25 Years of Living on Love

I still remember calling my parents to let them know I was engaged. This was before cell phones were invented.  I was still in college, I didn’t have a real job, and I was young. My mom wanted to know how we were going to afford to live and I told her, “We are going to live on love.” I thought it was pretty funny at the time, and even today I think it is pretty funny. I don’t think my parents thought it was as hilarious as it was.

My soon-to-be wife and I cobbled together enough money to put on a wedding and survive the first few years of marriage living on love and cheap food.

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25 years of me making dumb faces, my wife must be the sweetest person in the world.

This week we celebrated 25 years of marriage. I am not the greatest romantic in the world, but I do know when I must be romantic, and 25 years of marriage is one of those times. After some discussions about how to celebrate I was put in charge of figuring out how to get it done in Victoria, Canada.

My wife made one demand: High Tea at the Empress Resort.  This demand came with a price tag that almost equalled the amount we spent on our wedding (which will come as no surprise to those who attended our budget wedding) but when your wife says, “I want to have High Tea at the Empress” and you are about to leave on a vacation for 28 days that is commonly known around town as “The Summer of Jon” you don’t say, “High Tea? Who do you think I am Bill Gates?” Nope, you get online and book your High Tea and make sure that everybody at the Resort knows you are celebrating so you get a good seat.

Victoria sits across the Strait of Juan De Fuca from our homestead and is a great city for visiting on regular occasions, but it has a couple of bonus factors for romance: 1. It is in Canada so you have to use a passport to get there. Unless you are already in Canada in which case you don’t have to use a passport. 2. These Canadians are very British/Irish/Scottish and not the French-speaking Canadians on the other side of the country. I’m not sure why this factors into the romance equation but it is on the list now.  3. The downtown area is very walkable. 4. There is good food.

We did not stay at the Empress Resort. Instead we stayed at a small boutique hotel called the Hotel Rialto. I like the smaller hotel because they make a big deal of people celebrating anniversaries and other such events. The Empress also cost 12 million Canadian dollars a night (about 11 million US dollars). The Rialto was perfect.

I won’t bore you with our ramblings around town, but here are a few photos of our time.

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The Empress from the Black Ball Ferry.

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Canadian Car Pool from 1980.

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Lunch at Pagliacci’s. Not to be confused with the pizza chain in Seattle. This is our favorite place to eat in Victoria so stay away it is already hard to get a seat.

Cheryl enjoying a Captain Ron at the Rialto.

Cheryl enjoying a Captain Ron at the Rialto.

The narrowest street in the world, and a bonus piece of my finger.

The narrowest street in the world, and a bonus piece of my finger.

The ivy covered walls of the Empress. Fancy...

The ivy covered walls of the Empress. Fancy…

Captain Cook appears to be urinating on the Empress.

Captain Cook appears to be urinating on the Empress.

Put on your best manners and get ready to eat little sandwiches.

Put on your best manners and get ready to eat little sandwiches.

High Tea is a big deal at the Empress. There isn’t a dress code, I saw two guys wearing shorts, but most people dress up a little. I don’t own a suit coat and I wear ties about three times a year so when I say “dress up” I mean wearing a collared shirt. I could dress up more often, but I live on the West Coast where dressing like you are doing yard work is acceptable in most establishments. We arrived, they took our jackets, wished us a happy anniversary (guys when booking reservations tell them it is a celebration because they will make a big deal out of it) and then took us to the best seats in the room.

The view from the best seats in the house.

The view from the best seats in the house.

The whole tea thing is not complicated. You have two choices: What kind of tea you want, and if you want to spend 60 dollars more for a little cheese plate and a visit from the Chef who brings a honey comb to your table. I decided that we didn’t need to talk to the Chef, the table next to us paid for him and we just listened in on his little “this cheese is from here, and this honey is from here” speech. I went with the Empress tea and my wife, rebel that she is, ordered the Kea Lani Orange and Pineapple tea.

Strawberries and cream are always welcome in my belly.

Strawberries and cream are always welcome in my belly.

Next was the little glass with strawberries and cream. I like this combination and was well-behaved, but I noticed that two ladies were seated not too far away from me who were wearing Hijabs covering their hair and one of the ladies had her face completely covered. This distracted me because I wasn’t sure how someone would eat with their mouth covered and because I am an American and rude, I spent the next ten minutes trying to see how this lady was going to eat her strawberries. Eventually I saw that she pulled the scarf from below her neck with her left hand, moved it away from her face and then put the fork and strawberry behind the curtain and got the food to her mouth. It was a lot more complicated than what I was doing. She would even tuck everything back in when she was done. I’m not trying to be a racist jerk, but there must be a better way of doing this whole thing.

Anyway once that mystery was solved the big tray of food arrived.

The tray of delightful little foods.

The tray of delightful little foods.

On the bottom of the tray are the savory sandwiches: Salmon roll (5 stars), cucumber (3 stars), ham pâté (2 stars), chicken curry (5 stars). The good news was that we did not have to fight over who got which sandwich since there were two of each. The ham pâté sandwich reminded me of the canned devil’s food stuff my mom used to put on our sandwiches when she was too tired to cook, but the rest was very good.

Sipping the Kea Lani.

Sipping the Kea Lani.

The scones on the second tier were next to bite the dust. I was hoping for clotted cream, but regular cream with the jam was sweet enough. I suppose clotted cream isn’t fresh enough for the Empress, but it is nearly impossible to find in the US  because it has a very short shelf life and is about 99.999% fat. One would think that in the US we would be manufacturing clotted cream for school lunches.

IMG_0695When we got down to the last plate I started to get a little rambunctious. It is difficult for me to behave myself and not do something immature for more than an hour. So when I looked down at the dessert plate I had a funny idea. It wasn’t a very mature idea, but when I am shelling out the big bucks I am allowed to act like an idiot for three minutes.

The square pink marzipan thing made me do it.

The square pink marzipan thing made me do it.

There was something about the pink marzipan dessert that made me think about lips and it was just another moment until I was doing this…

Note the eyes scanning for the waitress.

Note the eyes scanning for the waitress.

Why? I'm not sure now, but I thought the photo would give my mouth a very surreal look. Instead it just emphasized my oddly shaped head.

Why? I’m not sure now, but I thought the photo would give my mouth a very surreal look. Instead it just emphasized my oddly shaped head.

I think the little kid sitting at a table nearby saw me acting like an idiot, but I believe no one else witnessed my behavior. Well, there is the picture (my wife was a willing participant, another good reason to love her) and this blog entry, but I don’t think I spoiled anyone’s High Tea.

Chocolate cup filled with a  coffee flavored cream and a coffee bean.

Chocolate teacup filled with a coffee flavored cream and a coffee bean.

Was High Tea worth it? Well, if you are celebrating something special, then absolutely. It is as much of an event as a meal. Why not blow some hard-earned money on some little sandwiches and treats? You only get to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary once (well, I guess you could get divorced and then remarried for another 25 years, but that is highly unlikely) so live it up and go to High Tea at the Empress, no matter who you are they will treat you like a big deal for an hour or two.

The Summer of Jon: Now Appearing on My Calendar

I had a panicky moment yesterday. I was checking to see if the two meetings I have to attend on the 20th overlapped and whether I was going to have to run from meeting like Greg Brady with two prom dates. I scanned the calendar quickly. (I can no longer remember anything and if it wasn’t for saved emails and my calendar reminders I would miss every single meeting I have to attend. Back in the olden days, I could remember things because I only had to remember about two things a year.)

May - Oct 2006 Calendar

As I glanced at the calendar, I saw the date of my departure for The Summer of Jon and my crusty, blackened heart jumped. It is getting closer each day. I know this is a fact most of us acknowledge, days pass moving us closer to death, but once I saw The Summer of Jon on the same calendar as my meetings I began to wonder if I am truly ready for my month-long journey.

I tend to travel with goals in mind, this is why I will be traveling by myself. I want to do this, and then that, and then this other thing today. Tomorrow I want to do X,Y,Z… this is great if you are attempting to spend your vacation driving your family members crazy, or conquering a continent,  but it is not the best way to relax. A few years back I hiked The Wonderland Trail, it’s a trail that goes around Mount Rainier and takes about 10 days. It is a challenging hike and not too many people finish it, but I did. Each day I would bust out about ten miles with a full pack and almost every day the trail climbed a few thousand feet and then dropped a few thousand feet, and each day I beat the other guys I was hiking with to the next campsite.

English: A panorama of the south face of Mount...

At one point the oldest member of our trio asked me why I was always in such a hurry, I hadn’t really thought I was in a hurry, but in reality I was. I wanted to get to the next place and beat everyone else. This hyper-competitive nature is part of who I am and I do my best to temper it, but it is a struggle for me to be gracious.

I have tried to relax and take my time, but I can’t and I think I have discovered the psychological reason behind this attempt to squeeze everything out of every moment: I am a frugal spender. To be totally honest would be to say that I want my money’s worth in everything I buy. I don’t save money, I just spend it with an eye on a bargain. (Guys who are truly frugal don’t spend money traveling to Europe, they invest the money in some pyramid scheme and then hope someday to go to Europe.)

Somewhere in my tiny mind I bought into the concept that time is money and therefore if I want to get the best deal out of my travel I must maximize my travel experiences by exhausting myself each day. I can rest when they run out of coffee.

So my panicky moment with my calendar the other day was not about being unprepared, it was about not being over-prepared.  I know where I am going! I know where I am staying! I have everything booked! I just don’t have my daily plan scheduled out for all 28 days! There are blank spots on my calendar! (Since I will be traveling through Germany I must begin using more exclamation points!) This over-planned attempt to wring the life out of my vacation time is odd to some people, but I have traveled with no plan at all many times. It is how I ended up sleeping on a pool table one night, and drinking water from a cistern with a dead bird in it. These are the mistakes of youth! In my aged state drinking water with microns of dead bird would probably kill me, and if I want to get my money’s worth on this journey dying is not an option.

A typical German sign.

A typical German sign!

Portland: Still weird after all these years.

Summer is in the air and a young man’s mind turns to thoughts of Powell’s City of Books in Portland…in this case a middle-aged mind turns there also. My annual sojourn to Portland, Oregon took place this past week. I’m not sure when my friend Peter and I began these yearly trips, but we must be approaching 10 years at this point. A decade of Portland visitation makes the trip officially a Tradition with a capital T and should be penciled in on everyone’s calendar as a national holiday. I will call it Bookstore Day and everyone should spend a few hours in their local/independent bookstore on a sunny Friday in May.

This year we decided to add a couple of wrinkles to our usual path. This year we started our Portland stop at Voodoo Doughnuts.

Line up and get the old mouth watering.

Line up and get the old mouth watering.

Now if you have not heard of Voodoo Doughnuts that is okay, the line is long enough already. Stay away and keep going to Dunkin Doughnuts, but if you want to cut your mouth open on a doughnut covered in deadly Captain Crunch then this is your place. The line outside the shop wasn’t too long, but I started having German Bakery flashbacks and was worried that when it was my turn to order I was going to get yelled at for doing it wrong. Like a German bakery, Voodoo Doughnuts is a cash only establishment, but unlike Germany you don’t have to know what you are ordering a full week before arriving.

I'm confused.

I’m confused.

The menu is a bit overwhelming, but I managed to look in the rotating jewel case and find two doughnuts that I could identify. “I’ll take one of those bacon numbers and the thing covered in Oreos,” I said.

“Do you want the peanut butter, chocolate, or regular Oreo doughnut,” the Voodoo lady asked me. I felt a little panicky and wondered if she was about to break into German and begin to berate me for not knowing which doughnut I wanted.

“Regular,” I blurted out. In the end it didn’t matter which doughnut I ordered because I could only finish the bacon one.

Bacon...do I see Bacon!

Bacon…do I see Bacon!

Captain Crunch on a doughnut?

Captain Crunch and Fruit Loops on a doughnut?

I had a chance to look at a few of the other doughnuts while I waited and began to wonder why someone would order a Captain Crunch doughnut. Eating Captain Crunch is a lot like eating hot pizza, you know you are going to damage your mouth and you should slow down, but you can’t help yourself and end up burning or cutting your mouth because you are such a pig. (I guess the “you” in these sentences is actually me.)

12 Oreos on a doughnut? Yep.

12 Oreos on a doughnut? Yep.

After getting our doughnuts we went out to the doughnut garden (a sort of beer garden for doughnuts) and began eating. I looked at my two options and started having thought about dying of diabetes and loosing all my teeth. I thought the bacon doughnut was probably healthier than the Oreo one, so I ate it. Yes, it was good. I then considered eating the Oreo one, but there were a lot of Oreos on the doughnut, so many that I thought I would eat it and go into some diabetic coma. So I opted for saving it for later.

The PC police have not visited this place yet.

The PC police have not visited this place yet.

The doughnut garden.

The doughnut garden.

Hopped up on 4,000 calories of straight sugar we headed back to the car and then over to Powell’s.

The red brick building containing all of those books is one of the most beautiful places in the world. It is the only place in the world where I don’t mind shopping for an extended period. I could spend a whole day in Powell’s and I think on one visit we spent seven hours there. Our more recent visits the bookstore have been more efficient.

Powell's!

Powell’s!

For people who have never been to Powell’s it can be overwhelming, but don’t worry books can’t hurt you…unless they are thrown at you, and then some of the larger books at Powell’s could hurt you. The good new is that I have not seen a single book thrown at Powell’s so I believe it is okay to say that you are safe to wander around without fear. The floors are coded with different colors: Yellow (sci/fi fantasy) Blue (Fiction) etc…  We usually start on the top floor: Drama, Art, and Music. The top floor also has the rare book room, which looks like it has had gastric bypass surgery. The rare book room is about 1/5 of the size it used to be. Now the rare books are spread out throughout the store which I just don’t like. I like going into the quiet little book room and feeling like I am someplace special. Now I feel more like I am visiting an old person’s attic, which can be interesting, but there isn’t the same reverent quality as when all the rare books were in one place like the good-old-days.

The top floor.

New arrivals.

This year we started in the Travel section. I have tried to find a good, small map of Vienna and one of Prague. I don’t like the big floppy maps, I like the little book looking things. My favorites are the Knopf  Map Guides that have little sectioned off maps. The Map Guides look like little books and when I am lost in a foreign city (which happens frequently when I travel) I can find a tiny corner to hide in and then figure out where the hell I am without drawing too much attention to myself. I always feel bad for anyone who has a full tourist map. They stand there on some street corner, blocking foot traffic with the wind blowing their pathetic map around, and looking confused. I cannot walk by confused people without asking if they need help finding something. (I do this most often in Seattle, but there have been a few times I have intervened in Paris.)

I found my Knopf Map Guides and then fought with the temptation to buy more travel guides. I have a problem with buying guides, right now I have four guides for Scandinavia. Why do I need four? I don’t, what I really need is five.

Fiction.

Fiction.

After meandering through the top floor we dallied through the Purple floor where I managed for the first time not to pick up a book. My partner in crime did manage to find a few historical books. Soon his basket was overflowing with big, fat books and his right arm was getting stretched to its maximum length. He wanted to do some studying on Chaucer over the summer and there really aren’t very many short, pithy books on Chaucer. There are many, many Chaucer books that weigh over five pounds. If someone ever tossed Canterbury Tales at your head they could be charged with attempted murder.

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My bounty.

I was saving up my basket space for the fiction room. I had a list of about 12 books to check out and before long I had chopped off a few items from my wish list. Dorothy Parker is someone I know very little about, and I wanted to read something by her or about her, but after looking through the books by and about her I decided that I no longer wanted to know anything about her. I did grab the new Salman Rushdie novel Joseph Anton and have already fallen in love with it. Before I knew it, my basket was overflowing and our visit was nearly over.

This is when we do what fiscally responsible people do, we head into the café, get a cup of coffee, and decided what books to keep. I kept all of mine and my friend disposed of about half of his, his basket was still full though. We checked out, I spent enough to get free parking and then we headed up to 23rd Avenue for lunch. We always eat at Kornblatt’s. It is not elegant dining, it is a New York deli kind of thing. I saw the Brooklyn Bomb was still on their specials menu and looked no further. The only problem was that they were out of the bread used to make a Brooklyn Bomb. I was sad, but the waitress suggested I try Pavarotti‘s Stomach. I know very little about Pavarotti (he is dead, he sung opera, he was Italian, he was a large man, in college we called the student from Italy Pavarotti) but I took the waitress’ suggestion and soon had this sitting in front of me.

"We don't have the Brooklyn Bomber today...but we do have this."

“We don’t have the Brooklyn Bomber today…but we do have this.”

My Voodoo doughnut was almost fully digested, so I dug in and destroyed Pavarotti’s Stomach. It was pretty good and probably healthier than my breakfast even though the sandwich was covered with about a half pound of cheese. There were “vegetables” under the cheese (onions and peppers).

After the lunch stop it was off to Cafe Yumm to find the mythological Yumm Sauce. I would go into detail here, but this post is already too long and if you want Yumm sauce you can order it online.

Once the Yumm Sauce was in hand, we crossed the mighty Willamette River and headed to East Portland and to Music Millennium. I bought embarrassingly bad music. I don’t know what wave of nostalgia hit me, but soon I found myself with a Pat Benatar’s Greatest Hits album, an Aztec Camera Greatest hits, and Son Volt’s new album that is either going to have to grow on me or I will have to start wearing cowboy boots and buying big belt buckles.

Music stop.

Music stop.

After Music Millennium, Tradition dictates that we go the East Hawthorne, sit in the Starbucks, and write poetry. I usually write bad poetry, and since that is a Tradition I stuck to my usual form. What we do is write three random ideas on little pieces of paper and then exchange the ideas. We then spend about 30 minutes trying to make a poem from the ideas. The quality of my poems usually end up somewhere on the poetry spectrum between 13 year-old-girl poetry and death metal lyrics…leaning towards 13 year-old girl poetry.

Time for me to write my annual bad poem.

Time for me to write my annual bad poem. An iced Chai tea? I might have to turn in my “man card” if I keep buying Aztec Camera albums and drinking iced Chai.

After we finish our poems we always stroll down East Hawthorne. East Hawthorne is a little like Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. It isn’t as hilly, or architecturally interesting, or historically important, or famous, but it is just as gritty. On a nice sunny day this gritty quality brings out the dirty hippies and they populate most of the street corners playing bongos. I like dirty hippies. I think dirty hippies are cool, but I really hate the bongo thing. Playing a bongo is akin to playing the cowbell; It takes no talent and very little rhythm. If you want to pry my valuable change from my pocket then it is time to learn a real instrument like a harmonica or slide trombone.

Oh, there is another Powell's?

Oh, is there another Powell’s?

After walking by the hippie scene, we found ourselves in a branch office of Powell’s. Where I generally walk around and look at books without the intention of buying anything. This “little” Powell’s is about the size of the largest independent bookstore in Seattle which is a little depressing. Seattle is a much larger city than Portland and should have a bookstore that is much larger than Portland’s and I’m not talking about Barnes and Noble, I’m talking about a bookstore with some character. Bookstores are a reflection of our communities and if the only bookstore you have access to is a chain, then I feel a little bad for you. I don’t want to sound too much like a book snob (okay, I don’t mind sounding like a book snob) but the reason independent bookstores are superior is because the owners care about books. They love books, and they thoughtfully buy and sell books. The really good ones introduce you to books you never would have picked up at your local B and N, because B and N only sells things that are already successful.

Okay, enough of that rant.

After our second book run we always walk over to Laurelhurst Park and take a two lap stroll of the park. We have had a couple rainy days in our ten years, but we are not made of sugar, we will not melt, and we live in the Pacific Northwest and if you live in the PNW and don’t like a little liquid sunshine, then it is time to pack your bags and head for Nevada.

Yoga in the park by law must be done without a shirt in Portland.

Yoga in the park by law must be done without a shirt in Portland.

Laurelhurst Park is a great little city park. The best part of Laurelhurst is that it gets used. People are running, playing frisbee, walking their babies, slack-lining, letting their dogs run wild in the wild dog area, and doing shirtless yoga. I even saw three little kids rolling in the grass which was adorable until I heard one of them say something about rolling in dog poop, but it is Portland, smelling like dog poop is not frowned upon like it would be in other places.

It was a glorious day, sunshine and 70 degrees. Portland is about the best place on Earth on a day like this.

We ended our day by eating Mexican food along East Hawthorne. It was another break with Tradition, but I don’t think either of us could handle the usual (a German restaurant with heavy food), so I sat in the sunshine eating fish tacos and mi amigo ate an enchilada.

The day was just about perfect. We found great parking, we ate good food, we bought books, but most importantly we spent time together. Traditions get slightly altered over time, and so do friendships, but sometimes things shouldn’t change.

The Summer of Jon: Czech Rail

English: CD class 682 007-0 Supercity "An...

English: CD class 682 007-0 Supercity “Antonín Dvořák” (SC 16) from Vienna to Prague crossing the first bridge over Thaya (Dyje). Note: the second rail track was under reconstruction at that time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For the past week I have attempted to buy a rail ticket from Prague (Praha) to Vienna (Wien). I have had a few difficulties since I am not a native Czech speaker and everything about the website confused me. I am no rookie when it comes to navigating foreign language websites, I know how to find the button near the top of the website with an American or British flag (I can read and write in British also) and push the little icon. These icons can be helpful when a traveler might be language challenged like me. I did have five years of Spanish classes and I can say some pretty entertaining things in Spanish like: “There are many tacos in the airport.” “The elephants are very long.” “The door is closed.” These key phrases have helped me when making my Spanish-speaking relatives laugh, but I have yet to travel to a Spanish-speaking country where I needed to use this wealth of language.

My language limitations have not stopped me from doing what most Americans do when traveling: expecting everyone else to speak English. This makes it hard for me to have meaningful conversations about philosophy or global politics, but I can live with that. I doubt if I spent the next 30 days studying Icelandic it would pay off anyway. Icelandic people speak English better than most Americans and how often will I be called upon for the rest of my life to say something in Icelandic?

So, back to the Czech rail site. I have tried unsuccessfully for about a month to buy tickets for my trip from Prague to Vienna. I finally figured out that I cannot buy tickets from the website until the trip is within a 60 day window, for German rail it is 90 days  so I was semi-aware that this could happen to those of us that want to have our trip planned out five years in advance. I waited until I reached the 60 day window and then I went to the Czech rail website to buy. I found the little “en” button at the top of the page and pushed it and the page was transformed into actual, readable English. I filled out the little boxes at least five times and got rejected each time. This was a bit frustrating because each rejection had the same paragraph about why my request could not be fulfilled. I switched a few things around, maybe leaving later would work, nope. Maybe I should try earlier, nope. Eventually I lucked out and my request was accepted. This was great, but I could not tell you why it worked or what magical combination you should select if you were going to be traveling between Prague and Vienna.

The next problem I encountered was selecting a seat. Reserving seats is for suckers because most rail passengers just grab whatever seat they can find, but since reservations were only 7 Czech monetary units (either 25 cents or $2.50, I think) I pulled the trigger on reserving a seat. The seat map was wide open since the rest of the world was not waiting to order their tickets at the moment they became available. This was mildly exciting for me. I looked at each of the train cars, thought about what it would be like to sit in different locations and then notice that some of the cars had those private four seat rooms. I have never traveled on a train with those little rooms so I narrowed the seat selection to the two cars with little rooms. One of the cars had a bike storage area and I decided that I did not want to be on that car since people stuffing their bikes on my train would get in my way. (The real reason had more to do with body odor, but that sounds even more shallow than having to wait to get to my seat. I figured people riding bikes might be sweaty and being in a little room with smelly people for four hours does not meet my romantic idea of traveling on rail.)

I finally narrowed down the seats and looked for a lucky number (77) near a window. I pushed the button, paid for the ticket and then had all kinds of second thoughts. Reserving a seat might put me in a little room with a pack of Gypsies, or even worse a pack of loud Americans. It was too late. My ticket was approved and I printed it off.

Hopefully my little room with be filled with travelers like me: quiet, and self-centered. Then we should all get along.

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