A Travellerspoint blog

The Search for Water (Wismar and Hamburg)

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Prior to leaving for Berlin we had engaged in an absurd amount of deliberation about the other places we would go to use up all the trips on our rail pass. But we were also strapped for time. So, we flirted with cross-border travel like Copenhagen to the north, Luxembourg to the west and Prague to the east. In the end, we settled on Wismar. Perhaps a bit less exotic but much more doable. This made sense since we were both interested in the north coast of Germany and I wanted to see the Baltic sea (preemptively I will tell you that the simple reason was that I’d never seen it before). Besides, A.'s family told us Wismar was a beautiful and tiny (pop: 45,000) old city, UNESCO ranking and all. So we woke up on Monday morning and bid farewell to D. and Berlin and boarded a local train going north.

Wismar was a flourishing Hanseatic town during the 13th and 14th centuries and is now a preserved (minor) tourist destination. The old town was organized around a markt where you can buy local fruits and vegetables and an assortment of other crap. According to Wikipedia the markt place is "surrounded by elegant buildings with styles ranging from 14th-century North German Gothic to 19th-century Romanesque revival." Many of the ones we saw were restored 17th century buildings:


This is one of my favourite pictures:

The downtown of Wismar is beautifully preserved, neatly kept cobblestone and fresh coats of paint. A far cry from the derelict church in Prenzlauer Berg. That being said, not all of them were perfect, as you can see from A.'s artistic shot:


There were other funny and idiosyncratic elements of the town, like what we dubbed the "ode to pretzel":


Or this funny bronze pig (which was one of four canal posts):


There was also a strange animal chapeau-ed man, who bore a slight resemblance to Mario from Super Mario Brothers. He seemed to be the town mascot and his bust (with varying animal hats) was prevalent. I'm still not sure what that was all about:


As you can see, we enjoyed some rather atypical German food (pizza and some amazing pistachio ice cream).

Since I wanted to see the water A. asked the tourist information woman where to go. She sent us to a small fishing village called Seebad Wendorf which was in greater Wismar. After about twenty minutes, we got off the bus and went towards the water. Here we found a sad little beach with the tide sucked out. If you kept your eyes to the left coast and watched the swans lazily bobbing in the water or only looked down at the tiny fish darting around the tidal pools it was all quite nice. The dock/pier was okay too:


But to the right stood a factory pumping smoke into air and a huge cruise ship loomed (not visible). It all felt kind of pathetic. This was when A. astutely observed, “this is why all the German’s go to Croatia.” Here is why:


It's not so much that there was a factory near the water. That seems common enough. But the fact that the tourist information woman thought we should go all the way there seemed a bit odd. Was there really no better area where the land meets the Baltic? We returned to the town and wandered along the harbour, watching the fisherman in overalls bike past their boats. We walked up and down the streets pointing at buildings and discussing how different this place was from where we had come. But throughout our wandering I felt some nagging disappointment with my search for water.

That night we decided to find the real Baltic sea.

If you look at maps of Wismar you can see that it is quite sheltered in the Bay of Wismar. The fishing village we had gone to was still inland which explained its calm waters. What we decided to do was make a run for Poel, an island in the Baltic sea. Approximately forty-five minutes away from downtown Wismar, we took a bus to Poel early in the morning. It rained the entire bus ride there but when we arrived it began to clear up. I'm not sure pictures of the sea ever really turn out, they simply can't capture the vastness and the fresh salty air:


This was much more of what I was craving:


Here is A. determined to feel the water. As clearly illustrated by the clothes, it was not a hot August day:


These are kind of like the equivalent of Brighton's beach huts, note how they are locked:



After my fill of the wind and sea we returned to Wismar. This was a view from the bus:


We caught a train south to Hamburg at noon. With a population of 1.8 million, Hamburg is the second largest city in Germany and the eight largest city in the European Union (EU). We were only in Hamburg for a few hours of sunlight and we didn't have a lot of time to prepare for the excursion with all the other chaos. This meant our tourism was fairly undirected. We just set out, following one sign after another, walking along the canals, and taking turns because we could. With so little time we just wanted a flavour.

The narrow alleys to the canals:


And here are the canals:


We walked along an elevated walkway, looking at the water and pointing at buildings. They say Hamburg has more bridges than Venice. There were certainly a lot. Here is me in A.'s sunglasses, I'm considering getting my own:


Hamburg is a living city and cranes dot the horizon. Perhaps it is not suffering economically the way Berlin is. And it's true that Hamburg seems more serious, like an older sibling with a good job. The harbour sprawls. Here is a silhouette of one of the prettier boats:


Our hotel was in the Reeperbahn, for those (like us) unfamiliar with this area, this pretty much sums it up:


Apparently, the Germans call it die sündige Meile (the sinful mile). One of the biggest red light districts in Europe, the Reeperbahn is seedy entrepreneurialism at work. It's where pornography meets budget sex toys. We walked along the strip for a while, looking for cheap wine and dodging assholes who come out at night. For instance, six guys on a mobile contraption passed by on the street peddling sideways while drinking from kegs of beer through tubes and yelling. Fun.

As we crossed a road I looked up and spotted an ad. I blurted, "A. that looks like you!" And she agreed (minus eye colour):


We left the Reeperbahn for the bright lights of the Hamburger DOM. Attracting nine million people a year, the DOM is one part funfair and one part beer festival. The flashing lights and vast array of sounds is entrancing, I felt sucked in:


We walked past booth after booth and ride after ride. There was a lot of weird American memorabilia and seemed like a bizarro USA filtered through German eyes. Note the tediously bored expression of the carnie:


There is something about rollercoasters I find very appealing visually:


How creepy is this, "Mais man", what is he doing with his finger?:


The next morning we boarded a train back to Calw to spend the remaining days with A.'s family. The trip was rough. We were shuffled from seat to seat and A. argued with rude Germans. We reached "home" frustrated and exhausted. Luckily, we had a few days to unwind and say goodbye to Germany. We packed up Tuesday morning and A.'s aunt drove us 2.5 hours to Frankfurt for the flight back to Toronto.

I've been home for a few days now and coming back to my family and friends has been so great. Tomorrow morning we get back 1.5 hours of the ones we lost as we head to St. Johns, Newfoundland.

It is likely that this is my last blog entry for a while as real life kicks in soon and I'm back with my primary audience. This blog has been such an excellent tool for me to stay connected and keep people updated about my adventures. Writing it has been both a positive and cathartic endeavour when chaos and distance seemed constant. So, thanks for reading! Until next time.

Posted by broden 20:31 Archived in Germany Tagged living_abroad

On the Road Again (Berlin)

Taking one of those semi-high speed trains to Berlin we left Calw at 8:30am and arrived at 3:30pm. I didn’t realize Germany was so big. I mean, to a Canadian it is all relative, but still. Calw is quite far south, hugging the northern edge of the Black Forest in the hills that eventually become the Alps. In contrast, Berlin is in the north, not so far from the Baltic sea and Poland.

A.’s family had found us a place to stay. D. was A.’s uncle’s ex-girlfriend’s friend (seriously), an artist with a penchant for film making, especially of the experimental variety. Speaking English with a hilarious German- Irish accent, she was the kind and quirky type. She was free spirited with a boisterous laugh and unnervingly positive attitude. She took us into her one bedroom apartment in Kreuzberg and put us up in her bed. As a native East Berliner, she gently guided us through our four days in her city.

This is me on D.'s balcony in A.'s sunglasses:


Outside the unsurprisingly sanitized downtown core, Berlin is beautiful and grimy. The bombs of WWII and the scars of the Cold War have left their mark on the city, leaving it feeling sagging but defiant. Graffiti and street art proliferates. On every flat surface basic tagging flourishes between political stenciling and high concept street art. This abandoned boat on a Kreuzberg canal falls into the basic tagging category but impressive in its large scale:


The not-so-distant history of Nazism (and the rise of neo-nazis) means that the city’s punks and activists are more vigilant about overt racism and fascism. Anti-Nazi flags hang in shop windows (this is simultaneously reassuring to me and unnerving that it is even an issue). Along the canal people wander clutching hands and beer bottles. Everyone is an artist and you can tell. Like Toronto or NYC, artists mark the early waves of gentrification into new areas. They bring not only higher priced rent and coffee art but also artist collectives and a vibrant night life. According to D., this happened in Kreuzberg years ago.

Post-arrival, our first stop was a bustling Turkish market along the canal which was full of tightly packed stalls overflowing with food and clothing. Men peddled their wares to the throngs of hipsters and tourists who blended in with the thriving Muslim community. Everyone was weaving and elbowing their way down the line. We bought bulbous blackberries, huge Turkish flat bread, fresh eggs, delicious feta cheese and spicy garlic olives. D. Was nice enough to take our goods home and A. and I gorged ourselves on veggie burgers and Berlin beers before hanging out in a park. Here you can see where the church meets the communist Fernsehturm or "television tower":


In this park we saw (literally) eight-ten rabbits grazing calmly. Like Paris, Berlin’s streets and parks are always packed with people just hanging around. There is nothing really analogous in Toronto so A. and I found it seductive and welcoming. Nonetheless, the long train ride had taken its toll so after a while we returned to D.’s and passed out early.

I’m not going to go into great detail here, but let’s just say I was having some stomach issues prior to leaving for Berlin. I had been managing the nausea and discomfort through distraction and the odd Imodium. Unfortunately, this didn’t last. Our first night in Berlin I was overcome with a magen (stomach) situation that kept me up (and in the bathroom) most of the night. In the morning I bee-lined for the pharmacy where, with the help of D.’s German, I stocked up on every over the counter product I could find. The Germans use something called Kohle (literally coal) which you dissolve in water and drink throughout the day. Using the Buckley’s mantra I went through four rounds of the black liquid and finally felt like a person again though one that barely ate. Here is me on my pretzel fast:


Since I wasn't doing so good between exhaustion and nausea, we took our second day slowly. We wandered idly through the downtown, fighting off the much welcomed heat and less welcomed tourists. We passed through the Museumsinsel, Brandeburg gate, past the Reichstag, the Holocaust Museum and Tiegarten. For most tourists this is what you come to see. I'm going to spare you the requisite pictures but suffice to say the tour encompassed German national history, some pride, and some guilt. Instead of those shots here is A. in a fountain outside one of the museums on Museumsinsel:


The next morning we went to Mauerpark which is located in Prenzlauer Berg. According to my Wikipedia research, Mauerpark translates to "Wall Park," and refers to its status as a former part of the Berlin Wall and its death strip. During the cold war, Mauerpark was located at the border of Prenzlauer Berg and Gesundbrunnen district of former West Berlin. Nowadays, this park thrives on youth and an outdoor market on Sunday which we went to. Hundreds of people were crammed into tiny aisles looking at other people's junk and new designs. This was not the first time I had been in this market, J.D. and I had come three years ago and I purchased a bronze swan that currently houses my toothbrush in Toronto.

Another phenomenon in Mauerpark is karaoke in a makeshift amphitheater on the lawn. This is no small event. Hours before it starts, hundreds of people stake out their seat early for the largest-scale karaoke I have ever seen. The way that it works is that at the bottom of the crowd some brave soul gets up and sings and dances (or randomly gesticulates) their way through a song. The crowd cheers or jeers, usually singing along. I briefly considered losing my karaoke virginity (just kidding):


Afterward, we wandered around Prenzlauer Berg with beers in hand (like many European cities, the streets are for drinking in). D. told us that it is now difficult to tell what was East and what was West Berlin since the wall came down. The major differences have mostly melted away, especially for an untrained eye. But, she said, one way you always know you are in the former East is if you see these street lamps (though they don't exist everywhere in the former east):


In Prenzlauer Berg we also found this particularly derelict church which had recently opened its doors to a noise band performance. Outside of Cuba, I'd never seen a church in such (pretty) disrepair:


In the evening the three of us went to the East Side Gallery. At 1.3 kms long it is the largest outdoor gallery in the world. This is the last remaining (standing) chunk of the Berlin wall, stripped of the barbed wire, trenches and other violent accouterments that would have adorned it twenty years ago. Still, it was sobering to see. While some walls are built to keep people in (like this one), others are built to keep people out (like in Israel/Palestine or the U.S. border with Mexico). Nonetheless, it seems so incredibly obvious to me that while there are always dubious justifications for these barriers, walls largely function to tear communities apart and instill/reinforce fear and xenophobia. Seeing the remnants of the Berlin wall reminds me that the world’s other walls will also be one day (soon, hopefully) torn down and relegated to another sad moment in human history. Simplistic, perhaps, but a good sentiment:


The art of the East Side Gallery was commissioned after 1989 and so it is largely retrospective or interpretive. This is the famous image that graces many a postcard, showing Leonid Brezhnev (the General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and Erich Honecker (leader of the GDR) kissing. The piece is titled "My God, help me to survive this deadly love":


As we walked along the wall it began to rain thick heavy drops that drenched us. Soaked and exhausted from the day’s sun we walked back to D.’s house for wine and sleeping.

On our last day we woke up early and went to the Pergamon Museum which houses Berlin’s Near and Middle Eastern (and some Greek) and Islamic art. It is a reasonably sized museum with some really neat stuff. One of the prized possessions is the Pergamon Altar (2nd century BC), a frieze that depicts the battle between the Gods and Giants:


Moving into the near middle east, here is a lion from Ishtar's gate, the eighth gate to the inner city of Babylon (now a province of Iraq):


After the Pergamon we found an amazing little French restaurant that provided a set three course lunch for 7.50 Euros. The food was really tasty and the portion size perfect. As we ate the sky opened up and dumped more water on us. After eating we braved the rain and went through Kunsthaus Tacheles, a self-organized art collective in an old department store. Here is a soggy A. in the courtyard:


We spent our last afternoon roaming the streets, shopping in small boutiques and saying goodbye to Berlin for now. I'm not sure I could live there but I'm looking forward to the return.

We woke up early the next morning and headed north towards the Baltic sea or what the German's call the Ostsee. I have a thing for new bodies of water and since I'd never seen it we used up a journey on our Eurail pass to get to Wismar. More to come...

Posted by broden 16:42 Archived in Germany Tagged living_abroad

Calw: Home Away from Home

I’ve been in Germany for almost two weeks now but it has been quite busy and I have not had a chance to write. Time has slipped away from me and in less than one week I will be back in Toronto! When I think about it I am extremely excited to see my family and r & m. I am actually writing this as A. sleeps beside me in a hotel in Wismar, a tiny village in the north of Germany on the Baltic Sea. That update will have to wait...

When our train from Paris arrived in Stuttgart, a large town in the South-West of Germany, we were picked up by A.’s mom and uncle and whisked back to Wimberg. Forty-five minutes away from Stuttgart, Wimberg, with a population in the small thousands, is the village equivalent of a suburb of Calw. Calw (pop: 23,000 - including Wimberg) itself is no metropolitan hub, instead, it is a small village whose major claim to fame is that Herman Hesse was born here (me and A.'s brother leaning on the Hesse):


Unsurprisingly his face and text adorns the town. Calw is also marked by that distinctive German architecture from the 17th century that makes it absurdly quaint. People keep telling me the name of the building style in German which I promptly forget. For some reason it makes me think of Hansel and Gretel:


A. has a huge German family, including her grandfather, nine aunts/uncles and several cousins. I am staying in A.’s grandfather’s house which he built from the ground up. Across the front yard is another family home. In this complex alone there are six family members. I love being here even if I don’t understand anything. The rapid fire Schwebisch (a dialect of German) is incomprehensible, though I’ve already picked up infinitely more of it than I knew before. For instance, I can now say schmetterling (butterfly), schön (nice), schnecke (snail), nacktschnecke (slug- literally naked snail), wasser (water), meerschwein (guinea pig or the odd literal translation of 'ocean pig'), and genau (exactly). This is in addition to 'thank you' and the numbers 1-5. Luckily, A. is fluent so we don't depend on my German.

And while my lack of communication is disappointing it means I can watch. There is something really fascinating about being thrown into the middle of a family and given the opportunity to learn about A.’s history, relationships and internal dynamics. It’s so interesting to see how familial ties bind people together. I couldn’t understand before but now I’ve had a glimpse. Besides, when the German language became overwhelming I had A.’s siblings, J. & S., as my English buffers and A.’s mom who kindly took me in for the duration.

The Schwarzwald (Black Forest) is just minutes away and you can wander through the lush green. According to Wikipedia, "the name Schwarzwald, goes back to the Romans who referred to the thickly forested mountains there as Silva Nigra , i.e. "Black Forest," because the dense growth of conifers in the forest blocked out most of the light inside the forest." This is not a wild forest, you are always mere kilometers from the next town. But it is beautiful (S. took this one):


Here are the wildschweine or “wild” boars:


I also had the privilege of taking family walks, for instance to what they dubbed the Heidiwise, where farm meets forest:


After three months of cooking for myself and two weeks of traveling around, I was desperate for a delicious home cooked meal. J., A.’s 14 year-old brother said, “everything tastes better in Germany.” He’s right. This includes freshly baked breads that are chewy and topped with seeds, chocolate of every stripe and sausages. The German’s are known for their sausages and there is a reason why. The day I arrived I roasted one on an open fire at A.’s mom’s friends’ house and it was divine. The Germans also take their brezeln (aka large doughy pretzels) seriously, here is a golden one:


A. says the food obsession includes the dairy from cream cheese to the whipping cream and all the stinky cheeses in between.

One day A.’s uncles took us for a day trip deeper into the forest where we visited an old German castle (Schloss Glatt). Black Forest myth has it that the, “the cakes are so big you can’t finish them.” We had a cherry pie that seriously reminded me of grandma’s plum cake. We did manage to finish it though. This is me with A. and S. in the courtyard:


This is the inside of a nice box in the castle museum, I just liked the picture:


After the castle they took us to a lookout where you can see France. Sadly, fog descended in a thick cover. So, no France. But it was surprising (or perhaps not if you trade in stereotypes) to see how many Germans were still out hiking in the rain and fog (ourselves included):


We also stopped at Der Mummelsee, one of the rare Black Forest lakes. Here we ate a traditional Schwebisch lunch of sausages and bacon with a fried egg on top (kind of like Portugal). We also managed to continue the Brighton tradition. Clearly I am the Mummelsee:


On our way home the fog lifted and we got this amazing view of the Black Forest and the mountains beyond:


We took another day trip to Heidelberg which ended up being an epic family adventure which included getting off at the wrong stop and walking to the next one. One of the big cities in this area (pop:145, 000) it was once the center of Romantik (Romanticism) in Germany. Unfortunately, it also has an ugly Nazi history (a veritable stronghold of Nazism before and during WWII), Heidelberg has tried to clean up its image. Nowadays it is where you can buy your big city fashion from H & M and other boutiques. We went shopping and hiked up the hill to the looming castle:


Here is the view from the castle walls:


A.'s mom really liked this statue:


We returned late and began preparation for our trip to Berlin.

My time in Wimberg was divided between family adventures with A. and the final paper for my MPH that had been hanging over my head for months. I tried to complete it before arriving in Germany but A. and traveling had left me busy and distracted. Nonetheless, I finally finished and submitted it from Calw just days before we left for Berlin. Finished! I am officially a Master.

Posted by broden 03:12 Archived in Germany Tagged living_abroad

The City of Lovers (Paris)

I’d never been to Paris. Instead my knowledge came from movies like Amelie, Paris When it Sizzles, and The Moulin Rouge. I’ve talked about Paris before, about the Eiffel tower and the student riots of 1968, about Michel Foucault and Pierre Bourdieu. Who doesn't know that it is The City of Lovers and overrun with huffy Parisians and a salacious night life. More recently Paris comes to mind in terms of the ongoing racial tensions in the suburbs and the imminent ban on burqas. I needed to go and A. wanted to take me.

On Sunday we bid farewell to the UK and took a cheap flight from London to Paris which ended up being exceedingly stressful and time consuming. A one hour flight equaled nearly 9 hours in travel time when considering getting to Luton airport, waiting to check-in, security, etc. Sadly, EasyJet was an organizational nightmare and through no fault of our own (we arrived two hours early as recommended), we were running to our gate to catch our plane. We did. And we arrived in Paris in the evening.

After the sweet life of b & b’s throughout the UK we switched to a university residence in the heart of the Latin quarter, called this because in a different time all the students spoke Latin. The rooms were clean and a good size though we needed to push the single beds together. As soon as we arrived we threw our stuff down and took a walk. Just ten minutes away was Notre Dame, the heart of Paris:


We went inside, the first cathedral of our trip (we skipped the inside in Salisbury). Since it was dusk the cathedral was dark and looming. I’d never been in a cathedral at night and there was something really medieval about the experience. But actually it is the gargoyles that are the draw, their twisted faces on horizontal bodies jutting out from the stone. They spit water under menacing glares. Here is a picture taken by A.’s steady hand:


After Notre Dame we ended up walking along the Seine towards the Eiffel tower, getting lost in the tiny twisting streets and taking the metro home before we actually saw it.

The next day we went to the Louvre, a total mess of chaos and frenzied tourists rabidly going from one great masterpiece to the next under gold vaulted ceilings. I’ll spare you the pictures of the Mona Lisa behind glass. But let’s just say taking it involved a lot of elbows and shoving. There is no mercy at the Louvre. Plus, let’s be honest, 95% of people don’t know or care about it beyond the Davinci Code. We also went to the much less crowded Islamic art section, which was still really impressive. There is this beautiful cobalt blue that is featured prominently in a lot of the Persian pieces:


There is something a bit weird about taking pictures of art as. It seems more worthwhile to purchase the postcard since it never comes out the way you want it to. This, of course, can't apply to street art, something Paris has a lot of:


Afterward we walked around the streets behind the Louvre for a while before deciding to head to Sacre-Coeur and Montmartre. We walked up the hundreds of steps, buying water along the way and fighting off swindlers. The tourist areas of Paris are particularly bad for cons and pickpockets, like Rome or Barcelona:


Sacre-Coeur is known for its views across the city, the iconic Paris skyline:



Walking behind we wandered through the Place du Tertre, famous for being the haunt of Dali, Picasso and Monet. Now it is just packed full of tourist shops, overpriced cafes and street artists vying to do your portrait for a fee. We walked down the steps and tried to find the Moulin Rouge, another famous resident at the foot of Montmartre. Instead we got lost. Since it was dusk we thought we should complete our Paris cliché so we bee lined for the Eiffel tower with a bottle of wine, fresh bread and stinky cheese. Here is the Eiffel tower:


Here is A. enjoying our picnic:


And us after dark:


For ten minutes on every hour the Eiffel tower sparkles insanely and the crowds cheer. After our picnic and wine we weaved under the tower, staring up into her belly of iron and suicide nets. We walked past people hawking every possible reproducible size of the Eiffel tower in every possible colour. On the other side there was more entertainment for the crowds, including a Victorian double-decker carousel:


Crowds bustled through the streets, a fight broke out on the bridge, bottles smashed and a man left with a bloody head. The flashing lights and endless crowds proved to be too much, as night engulfed Paris we slipped back to the residence exhausted.

On our last full day in Paris we walked along the Seine to La Monde D’Arabe, an Institute dedicated to Arab and Islamic art and culture. Here is the facade which was pretty cool:


On the 9th floor there was an open roof and yet another beautiful vista. You can see Notre Dame in left hand corner:


We spent hours in the Institute while A. took detailed notes. We left when hunger forced us back into the streets. We walked through the Ile St-Louis and then found these amazing structures designed for people to lay/sleep on along the Seine. They were triangularly shaped canvas where you can nap under a tree looking out at the banks of the river:


I had to cut our day short to do a job interview on Skype. It was for a research associate position in Toronto. Due to the microphone failure of the interviewers it ended up being just me speaking at the blank computer screen while the interviewers typed questions. It was the weirdest job interview I’ve ever done. Not to mention that it ended at 10 pm my time, making it the latest job interview I’ve ever done. I don’t feel that optimistic but at least I’m getting the practice. While I did the interview A. discovered that our residence had a rooftop area with (another) awesome Paris vista:


On our last day we found kitschy souvenirs for friends at home and made our way to the train station to travel to Stuttgart, Germany. From Stuttgart we headed to the much smaller town of Wimberg, a little village at the edge of the Black Forest.

I really really liked Paris because it felt alive. And even though we spent most of our time fighting our way through crowds, cursing our fellow tourists (and sometimes the French), it was so nice to be on the streets. It was exciting in a way that I never felt in London. We spoke broken French that was mostly fine. Unfortunately, Paris was so painfully expensive that we were forced to both cut our coffee consumption in general and switch it to espressos because they only cost $2.50 CAD as opposed to $6-9 CAD for a simple Americano (ouch!). After the first night at a restaurant where we accidentally bought $9 CAD bottle of water (double ouch!) we switched to grocery stores for meals. But we did eat croissants that were so amazingly buttery and we were tempted by these delicious pastries:


Now I am relaxing in the Black Forest with 100 of A.'s closest relatives. Village life in Germany is quite beautiful and the bread, chocolate and sausage combo is to die for. More to come.

Posted by broden 11:17 Archived in France Tagged living_abroad

London in Ten Pictures

We left London on Sunday after spending three days in her streets. The truth is, I find myself less and less enthralled by London the more I visit. There is something uptight and sanitary about the city which doesn't sit right with me. It's too clean, too orderly, too British. I know I'm not really being fair to her sprawling streets, long history, countless subcultures and 7.5 million people who have crammed themselves into her boundaries. I can accept that maybe the problem is less the city and more where I've been but even doing our best to stray off the beaten track we just ended up in areas where the wealth had dried up but the neighbourhoods were vacant. I told A. we could come back and keep trying but really I'd like to meet up with someone who really knows the city.

Even with these broader reservations we had a really good time. Here are the top ten highlights (in pictures)

Kew Gardens

A. loves plants, both in their fleshy lushness and in the drawings the British are so good at. We went to the Royal Botanical Gardens (aka Kew gardens) to satisfy this urge, a botanical garden close to where we were staying. This was honestly the most amazing botanical garden I have ever seen. Not being much of a plant enthusiast I was just going along for the ride but it was seriously awesome. There were multiple Victorian glasshouses. In one you climbed to the top on twisting staircases just to peer down at thriving tropical pants (pictured below). There were enclosures with lily pads that were three feet in diameter and a separate room full of brightly coloured butterflies flitting about (r.'s absolute nightmare). My favourite was the tree top walkway, interconnecting bridges looming 60 ft in the air. Here is the top of one of the glass houses:



Chelsea Bridge

The first night we arrived we were exhausted but we walked around downtown anyway. Here is A. taking a break midway across Chelsea Bridge:


After wandering through some industrial wasteland reminiscent of St. Louis, we accidentally found the Tideway Houseboat community and watched the sun set on the river while eating snacks and drinking wine from the gas station. Tideway is this odd jumble of boats dressed up in trees and junk intermingling with laundry and fishing poles. Peaking through the windows you find flat screen tvs and posh living. Like some weird version of Tank Girl on the Thames. This wasn't the best example but it was the only picture that turned out (if you look at the top left corner you can see the solar panels of one ultra modern houseboat):


Kensington Gardens

A. and I wandered through the park pointing at birds we didn't know. Between pigeons and seagulls we saw the more regal heron:


Camden Town Markets

We spent most of Saturday morning in the Camden Town Markets. Honestly, it was kind of like if Yonge Street (circa College) threw up on Kensington Market. Passing tightly cramped stalls peddling Metallica belt buckles, London magnets, and "nobody knows I'm a lesbian" t-shirts you find yourself neck deep in assorted bric a brac, over priced vintage clothes and every possible kind of "ethnic" food. As you pass through different markets, from the stalls to the stables, there is something fun in all the colours, movement and brightness:




We also found some posh alleyways to wander through. A. tried to make me take a picture in a wasp's nest (she claims innocence on this one):



To be honest, the weather was miserable. It felt kind of like late September, sort of chilly and always on the verge of raining, even when it was sunny. I was pretty lucky in Brighton (and Ireland and Scotland) with the weather but even still I had become sort of acclimatized. A. on the other hand was miserable. Escaping the oppressive humidity of Toronto she was hoping for a more manageable summer (but still a summer). Instead we had a lot of this:


And Friends...

We missed our friends here in London and A. snapped this street sign for M.:


Posted by broden 15:06 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Bath and Salisbury (and Stonehenge)

On Tuesday morning we left Brockenhurst for Bath Spa. The city was built by the Romans almost two thousand years ago and Roman-philes and the idly curious are still flocking here to see the well-known Roman baths. After hanging out in the serene New Forest, Bath was a bastion of chaos. Here are the throngs of tourists milling around the old cathedral and the baths:


The ornamentation on the cathedral was a bit odd, these angel-type creatures are crawling up a stone ladder. Sadly (or not), I'm not up on my religious iconography:


Joining the other four million people a year who come to Bath for its European heritage, A. and I got in line and filed our way into the Roman baths. It is the only hot spring in England. Originally, the location was a Celtic shrine dedicated to the goddess Sulis (who the Romans identified with Minerva). The name Sulis continued to be used after the Roman invasion, leading to the town's Roman name of Aquae Sulis (literally, "the waters of Sulis"):


We saw this funny elephant:


And this much more impressive gorgon:


Traditionally female this gorgon may have been some amalgamation with the image of Neptune.

After the Roman Baths, A. and I wandered the streets for a few hours until exhaustion set in. A. was craving Wallace and Gromit, for those who don't know it is a popular (and hilarious) children's TV show. We went into a video store and asked for it with our Canadian accents. It's so incredibly stereotypically English, like crumpets and the queen. The store clerk smirked in a very British way, head tilted downwards and eyebrow raised. Perhaps it would be like asking for hockey night in Canada reruns. Sadly, while they did have it they weren't open early enough the next day for us to get our deposit back so instead we settled for Robin Hood borrowed from the b & b.

The next day we set off for Salisbury and arrived midday. We were staying in a really beautiful b & b where we could see the spire of the Cathedral. Among other things, this cathedral's claim to fame is that it holds the record for the tallest church spire in the UK. Not only is the foundation absurdly shallow but it is also embedded in chalky soil. Unsurprisingly, the spire has begun to lean significantly (2.5 ft), you can sort of see it in this picture:


After walking through the quaint medieval streets we took a tour bus to Stonehenge. The bus stopped at Old Sarum, the site of the earliest settlement in Salisbury and home to a (very) ruined castle from 1069 AD. The site was in pretty bad disrepair, even the vivid descriptions and squinting didn't really get me there. Plus it was cold, hardly August weather:


So we tasted jams and elderberry port in the gift shop and then sat by the side of the road waiting for the next bus:


The truth is I didn't think I'd be that impressed with Stonehenge. Don't get me wrong, I am easily seduced by ancient things and I can be wowed by the grandeur of that kind of construction. But people warned me it was a tourist trap and a bit of a disappointment because you can't go right up to the rocks. Both of those are probably true. Nonetheless, there really is something captivating about the site. When we arrived there were big and dark clouds looming heavily in the sky:


The stones are huge and many weigh between 20-50 tons each (as a comparison one double decker bus weighs 7 tons). You are forced to contemplate how the builders could have possibly transported and erected these stones so many thousands of years ago (between 3100-1600 BC). The bluestones (from 2600 BC) are believed to be from as far as 250 kms away in South West Wales.


There are over 90 different kinds of lichen growing on the stones and the birds like them too:


We walked around sort of slack jawed with all the other tourists (there could have been more) plugged into audio tours and clicking pictures. By the time we made it all around the circle the sky was clear blue and sunny, like the old British joke: Don't like the weather? Wait five minutes:


We slept in on Thursday, lazing around and enjoying the beautiful room before heading off to our final UK destination. A. and I are now in London (that update to follow) which is the climax of this portion of the adventure.

Posted by broden 13:58 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

New Forest and the Isle of Wight

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A. and I have been on the move for days and it has been a fun adventure. Sadly, I am still finishing school work and applying for jobs. I wish that element would just stop. But A. is patient with me.

On Sunday morning we left Brighton early for the New Forest, the first stop on our "vacation." The New Forest has the largest remaining tracts of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and forest in the south east of England and was created as a royal forest by William I in the 11th century for private hunting. Building on the idyllic image of the New Forest are free roaming ponies (i.e. donkeys) who hang out in the streets blocking traffic and standing idly beside stores:


Here is a distracted A. vs. the spindly legged foal:


One donkey wandered over to me and started nipping gently at my hand, A. was trying to get my attention by pointing at the donkey. I kept nodding and smiling because the donkey was so friendly. How can I put this gently? A. was trying to get my attention because my new friend was very "excited" to see me. As soon as I noticed we took off, the purity of the farm experience tainted.

After attempting a mapped walk and getting lost from provincial directions we wandered aimlessly through the New Forest, startling deer we swore looked like Tyson Beckford (though r. disagreed). This is a tree that A. really liked:


Walking back through the heath we found cows, here is one in motion. These cows have absurd shaggy haircuts. It looks like A. is standing in front of a blue movie screen:


And this is the New Forest at sunset:


The next day we went to the Isle of Wight by ferry. Here is the view from Lymington Pier on our way to Yarmouth:


Like the rest of England, the Isle of Wight was marked by moody weather and a cold wind. We didn't really know where to go so we went west to the Needles, a row of three distinctive stacks of chalk that rise out of the sea. To get there we took a rickety old chair lift down to the beach:


We sat on the rocky beach, whipping stones at the sea and eating snacks. Here is the view:


We took a bus to the top and stared down at the sea. It's hard to believe this is an image of the chilly English coast:


In some ways it would have been so nice to stay in the forest, eating freshly baked scones for breakfast and lounging in the local pubs but instead we dragged our bloated suitcases to Bath for the next stop on our whirlwind adventure.

Posted by broden 15:34 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Last Week in Brighton

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A.R. finally arrived in Brighton and my arms last Saturday. It's been so good to be reunited after three months. In some ways time has gone by absurdly quickly but in other ways I was desperate to show her everything. We have spent some time exploring and running around. This is a pretty classic moment on the pier:


A.R. had to have the "world famous fish and chips", here she is sizing up the fried mutant fish (she says yummy):


She managed most of it which resulted in a food coma on the beach:


Last night we drank pitchers of Pimms with my friend C. from work and ate Thai food (oddly Thai is the local pub fare). I'm not sure I've said it specifically but I really like Brighton. Tomorrow is my last day and so I'm bidding farewell to landmarks and alleyways, this "home" I've had for three months and the sea. Leaving is always hard, wrapped up in habit and the beginnings of finely crafted nostalgia. But A.R. and I are on a European adventure and so we're documenting and moving on:


Today we went to Lewes, a small (pop: 16,000) market town on the river Ouse, famous for being the murky body of water that Virginia Woolf drowned herself in. Lewes is also famed for hosting huge bonfires (involving some serious anti-Catholic sentiments) and Thomas Paine. The streets are cute and winding with a distinctly medieval feel. Even though Lewes is approximately twenty minutes away from Brighton by train it is a whole other world:


One of the women I work with, a really nice and sort of sassy Scottish lady, gave us a tour of Lewes before feeding us coffee and cakes. After the tour she sent us up into the South Downs for the views. Unsurprisingly, we came across sheep in the wild flowers. Prior to this trip I never recognized my sheep obsession but now I follow them around the U.K. grinning maniacally and pretending we communicate. It seems like we could:


On Sunday morning A.R. and I head west to the New Forest and phase two of the adventure.

Posted by broden 17:22 Archived in England Tagged living_abroad

Scotland in Pictures (Round Two)

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A. and I have been getting along well considering the 24/7 quality of this excursion. We have settled into standard road trip patterns: I navigate, plugging in gps coordinates and double checking on the map when we are led astray. I also open water bottles to pass him and scan radio stations for entertainment. In turn he agrees not to kill me on the road. Barring a flat tire we have been good. When he is annoying I threaten to send career damaging emails on his BlackBerry in his name. When I am annoying he sings pop songs in falsetto. Actually, sometimes he does that regardless.

After long drives through the Isle of Skye and central Scotland, including Loch Lomond and Loch Ness (decent but uninspiring), we woke up early Tuesday morning with the goal or reaching the far north. We weaved our way along single track roads and blind corners, stopping to take pictures and buy coffees in tiny towns. Here is A. on the white beach at Achmelvich, a small camping haven on the west coast:


The word of the trip is bleak. That is even how the Scots describe this area:


You can see why. Bleak and beautiful:


We made it all the way up to Durness, a tiny community (pop: 400) in the most sparsely populated area in Western Europe. There is something so powerful about staring out over fields into the North Atlantic:

Driving along the coast we twisted around lochs and found this lonely church on a hillside:


A. had flirted with the idea of going to the Orkneys (small islands off the north eastern coast) but we didn't have time so when we reached Bettyhill, which is pretty much the middle of the north coast, we turned south again trying to make it to back to the B & B in central Scotland. Here are some peat mounds we found:


Luckily, the country is a manageable size by Canadian standards and we made it back with time to spare.

On Wednesday we had our one and only bad weather day and it rained constantly, that irritating light rain that sinks into your bones. We tried to do more "inside" activities like castles. However, A. wanted to see Fort George. I have really limited (i.e. no) interest in military history and this was combined with the chilling Scottish weather but we were close. Standing on the walls of the fort we looked out on the bay (the Moray Firth) and saw dolphins! The truth is I had been harassing A. to find me whales and/or dolphins for the whole trip so this was one of the major highlights. There were actually about 5-6 of them and they jumped into the air, flashed fins and darted around. Sadly my camera is not well equipped for wildlife shots but you get the idea:


After some epic drives earlier in the week, A. and I saved some gas and engaged in a castle extravaganza where we saw approximately 10-12 of them over two days. Castles are a dime a dozen in Scotland. We didn't go into all of them as some were just crumbling turrets and walls, hauntingly romantic but fairly inaccessible. But some were more recent and of the fairytale variety:


Some of these old clan families still live in them! There was even a Brodie castle that I was considering reclaiming. A. Also wanted to see Balmoral, the Queen's summer home. i.e. castle. While I’m not adamantly opposed to her reign I just don’t share the same tender (and historical) affiliations. When I told him I didn't really care about the queen he kept saying, "But it's Balmoral!" Which didn’t have much emotional impact but her castle is pretty neat and she does have this pastoral and idyllic view:


I was really excited about the Cairngorms, a National Park in the northeast part of Scotland, so we also did some (limited) hiking past rivers, gorges and waterfalls. I saw an enormous trout leap from the air and twist around, desperate to get up a rushing waterfall. It failed. This was the view of the Cairngorms as we drove to our farm B & B:


The women in my office (who are Scottish) told me this was their favourite part of Scotland and you can see why:


Today was the last day of our vacation and we spent it in the streets of Edinburgh. After gorging on Indian food for the last few days we gave in to haggis (for breakfast) and pub food (for dinner). Apparently, J.K. Rowling (of Harry Potter fame) lives in the house beside the B & B we are staying in tonight. A. leaves early tomorrow morning and I leave midday by train.

When I reach Brighton A.R. will have arrived! I can't wait!

Posted by broden 01:32 Archived in Scotland Tagged living_abroad

Scotland in Pictures (Round One)

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It's late here and I'm too tired to write a real entry about this sibling adventure through Scotland. Let's just say we've gone careening through the highlands and cris-crossed hundreds of kilometers already. We've seen some stunning scenery and thousands of sheep. We've been really lucky with the weather which is sometimes erratic but mostly sunny and clear. I also love the clouds as they shift and change so rapidly; bunching up or hanging low over the mountain peaks. These pictures are all from yesterday.

Mountains in Glencoe National Park, also the backdrop for the infamous Glencoe massacre :


Solitude in the highlands:


Plockton Harbour, the stop before the Isle of Skye:


A minor traffic jam:


And what to even say about the Isle of Skye? This is pretty much what you see when you arrive:


Sun in eyes:


A. by river:


Western edge of Skye:




I guess if you happened to break down in a mobile free zone these random phone booths might not seem so absurd:


The pinnacle-shaped rocks of the Quirang:


This is what we saw as we raced from Skye towards Ullapool for the night:


On another note, in a serendipitous moment that can only be attributed to social media, I saw L & A. in Glasgow for some whiskey:


I have the fondest memories of L. from Montreal and more recently from NYC, especially enjoying the dirty beach and a salty mango at Coney Island. But Scotland! I never would have imagined. And we sipped whiskey we couldn't appreciate and did our best to catch-up. But really it just made me want more. We closed the bar, which in this case was about midnight, and parted ways but it was so so good.

So far A. has been driving 8 hours + a day and we blast the BBC which has resulted in my new found affinity for Kylie Minogue. This has been amazing if also a bit epic. More to come.

Posted by broden 15:29 Archived in Scotland Tagged living_abroad

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