Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

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A lot of the lights in HK are still lovely neon, not LEDs. I don’t know if my hand shook on this shot, or if it was a reflection, but when I went to delete it, I realized it looked like musical notes. And so I kept it.

As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.

 

To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience.  We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.

But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning.    Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.

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Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district.  Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.

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Diagon Alley East

And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong:  a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.

There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.

I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.

The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.

When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.

Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant:  cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.

DSC02597The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity.  But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.

Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.

I miss it .

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History, Norway, travel

Fredrikstad, Norway. Alive and well in the Past

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A journey to Norway is a step back in time.

I have studied history in books for years, listened to countless lectures, spent last summer in one of the most venerable archives in the U.S., visited a lot of “historic sites,” and worked at a few, too.

But in Norway, the past is experienced differently — as something still present.

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Norwegians move at a slower pace than New Yorkers. There is a definite bustle in Oslo, and even the cobblestone streets don’t seem to slow anyone down, but the city felt quite relaxed. Also true in Copenhagen — both cities felt industrious but relaxed, not like New York’s hectic, hysterical tenseness. Perhaps it was this relaxed pace which began to make the past seem more alive in Norway.

Certainly, as far as European capitals go, Oslo isn’t that old. The country, until the mid-1800’s, and not again until the modern oil boom, was poor and “undeveloped.”
The Hanseatic League did their trading in Bergen, and Oslo was a backwater for centuries after southern Europe was full of sophisticated cities, or for millennia after the Middle East or Asia. In 1850, when there were over two million Londoners, Oslo was still a town of 30,000 — and every third Norwegian was leaving for America. And like London, the city had its “Great Fire” in the 1600’s to clear out the medieval things.

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Oslo

DSC07233So the city you visit now, is mainly from the late Victorian age.  The main drag, Karl Johans Gate, runs directly from the central train station, past the little cathedral, past the national theater and the parliament, to the royal palace.  All the handsome buildings you pass seem to be neo-classical or Second Empire style, like promenading through a small-scale Paris.

The Storting (government) building is kind of an exception, being some sort of awful yellow-brick mishmash of Italian Renaissance, beaux arts, 2nd Empire, and Victorian Public Lavatory.  Not sure what they were trying for.  My guess:  an architect with catholic tastes and a fondness for aquavit.  Although the parliament’s half-moon meeting chamber, which we just glimpsed through the window, when it was lit up at night, is wood-paneled, handsome, and impressive.

Oslo, of course, has grown tremendously — bigger than Boston, Denver, or Washington, D.C.  High-rises are going up near the harbor, near their modern, stunningly-beautiful opera house.

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transplanted farm buildings at Oslo’s Folkemuseum

So, Oslo is building, and in any case, most of the neighborhoods are no older than our cities in the Midwestern United States — the Norwegians moving to Milwaukee and Minneapolis wouldn’t have felt entirely out of place. Despite the historical places we visited in Oslo, like Akershus Castle or the huge Norsk Folkemuseum’s historical village, I never once felt that Oslo was old. Even when I was staring at actual Viking longships, ancient, famous, and beautiful, over a thousand years old, the most well-preserved in history — I recognized them as incredible and old, but that didn’t make me feel the age of the country I was in, one that had been the land of the Vikings. So, why then do I say that Norway is a land lost in time?

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Fredrikstad

It was only after leaving Oslo that I felt like I had been transported to another world. Despite traveling by a modern, fast-moving train to Fredrikstad, as Oslo got farther and farther away, I felt like I was going back in time, past fields of hay and potatoes, and then gorgeous coastal scenery and mountains passed by. The landscape was reminiscent of simpler times (though it still didn’t seem old, as I kept seeing Norway’s seemingly endless stream of Tesla’s roaring down their pristine highways).

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But upon arrival in Fredrikstad, I felt like we had been shot back to the ancient days. Initially, it felt English. The town was larger than I had expected, and the shops, restaurants, and movie theaters reminded me of those in Hull. But soon, we seemed to drift out of this current era. We took a slow-moving ferry to one of the many outlying islands that comprise this city, and arrived at the old walled city.

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Since the late 1500s, this island-city has been fortified —  its walls lined with iron cannons, a deep moat, drawbridge, and redoubts on raised hillocks to keep out landing parties. In its day it must have seemed an impenetrable fortress.  It immediately struck me as existing in an antique time. This town, with its stone streets, shops, wharves, and armories was busily humming when “modern” America was still just a small malarial outpost on the James River, and a few dozen freezing Pilgrims in Massachusetts.

Having worked and lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, I figured this place would be like all the other “historic” villages I’d been to. I was wrong.

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IMG_0953Not only was it European, it seemed vastly different than Oslo’s historical village (which was fascinating in its own way). For starters, this place is “lived in.” The city of Oslo surrounds its folk-museum village, but it is a static museum-piece;  the old log houses were taken from their hill-farms and forests to a city park, and fascinating as they are, they’re not an organic part of the land anymore.  Fredrikstad felt way more alive, nothing artificial about it. The little hilltop villages in Italy, Spain, Italy, etc. are often abandoned, but none of the houses here are derelict.  Norwegians want to live in Fredrikstad.  In Colonial Williamsburg, actors live in the houses, but it feels fake, overrun by tourists and costumed people with cellphones. Here, the harbor and canal are full of boats, cars rumbled along five hundred year-old streets (there is a bridge in the modern day to get here) and the city’s military buildings now house restaurants and galleries, in vaulted bomb-proofs within the thick walls. Unlike other recreated villages, this one felt more alive and more ancient for one other reason: the water. On the edge of a modern, bustling city, with a busy little harbor, this town felt like, and was, still very much alive.

I’ve visited port cities on the Atlantic and Pacific that were older, but somehow the contrast of the old garrison town with the modern city facing it across the harbor, made this place feel far older than almost anywhere I’ve ever been.  In Oslo, I stood inches from the thousand-year-old Gokstad and Osenburg Viking ships, but they’re now exhibits in a museum — this island-city felt more ancient. There was a storybook air to the place, like you’d walked into an old folk tale.  I could picture a fleet of Swedish ships firing cannon balls at this island, with residents from the outskirts fleeing into the protective core of their fortress. It felt very alive and immediately possible.

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It was this place that helped make an off-season visit to Norway one of the most incredible trips I’ve been on. I’ve seen plenty of historic villages, and enjoyed them, but none of them captured my imagination or the spirit of the time. Even the best one I’d visited, in Upper Canada, felt more artificial to me, though more believable than Colonial Williamsburg with its Ye Olde Tyme parking lots and gift shops. For the first time, I felt like I wasn’t even in Europe. Oslo, while less impressive in some regards than the likes of Cologne, Manchester, Hamburg, or certainly London, is still mainland European in its character. Fredrikstad’s fortress (despite being state-of-the-art Euro-design in its day), felt like a distinctly Nordic place.

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Norway, even now, modern and affluent as it is, still strikes chords for outsiders as being a somehow medieval landscape of snow and ice. When we visited their national art gallery, it was crowded with locals admiring an exhibit of story-tale art, with mysterious footprints in the snow, bluish hills, dark woods.  And this island-town, despite the sunshine and warm weather (warmer in March than England or even Maryland), seemed to belong to this alien world of wooden, mushroom-shaped homes, wooden… everything, tall blonde singsong-speaking people, and a land of trolls, of myths that feel alive and truths that feel mythical and the home of the Vikings. Here, I felt, for the first time on any of my travels, like I was somewhere truly different.

A final thought on this difference: Norway is the most English-speaking country in Europe (including England, since what they speak in Yorkshire may not be gibberish, but it is not English) and yet to an American, it remains the most alien. In the UK, while not ever feeling “at home,” I felt like it was similar enough to New York, just grayer and less pleasant. Spain was gorgeous and way relaxed and, while distinctly different from my world, it still was exactly how I’d imagined it. Germany and Copenhagen, while seeming “old” in some ways, still didn’t match the pervasive antique feel of Norway.

What I realized was this: In Hong Kong and Taiwan, I may have glimpsed the future, one of soaring glass and steel skyscrapers, crowds, humidity, and the constant sense of a centralized state overlaying “organized chaos.” But in Norway, I saw and felt the past. Norway, with its modern economy and lifestyles, is a land that cannot escape its past, and because of that, it feels different. Germany has history, but it feels like history, something entirely pushed into the past — you can feel the roots, but you know and are always aware that the nation is moving forward, and the old is being incorporated and dissolved into the new.
DSC07899In Norway, the old is pervasive, on display in subtle but constant ways, and it is not going anywhere. It felt different there.

I think the reason is, that Norway has remained off the radar and apart.  In Copenhagen, you walk into a six hundred-year-old building, and there is a McDonalds sign in the window. In Hong Kong, an alien world in many regards, there are constantly thousands of Americans roaming the streets. Norway, it seems, remains almost undiscovered, and perhaps because of this, far more mysterious, even if aspects of it seem familiar. The familiarity, but the slight differences, is what makes Norway so alien. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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History, Norway, travel

Halden, Norway. The Frontier.

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With a craggy coastline stretching for a huge distance (in the far north, it reaches around the top of Sweden to touch Finland, a bit of Russia, and the Arctic Ocean), Norway is a land that is never too far from water.  There are always boats and ships in sight along the coast.  In an Oslo museum, you can visit beautiful Viking longships,  over a thousand years old.  And a century ago, this small country had the fourth-largest merchant fleet in the world.  Even today, while its ships are not as numerous as, say,  Greece or China/Hong Kong, it is still a major player.

A couple of years ago, I traveled to Oslo while I was on break from Washington College, on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a few blocks from the Chester River, which feeds into the Chesapeake Bay.

Maryland is also lots and lots of coastline — nearly sliced in half by the Chesapeake, and basically a fifth of the state is water.

But there were many times in Maryland that I felt far from the ocean or the bay, blocked by the masses of suburban housing and traffic congestion that seem to define life in the “Mid-Atlantic” states.

In Norway, whose entire population is about the same as Colorado, there is often no one between you and the ocean. Even when you are away from the coast, the sea feels accessible. All rivers run down to it, and even in the mountains you still feel close to the ocean somehow — there is nothing between you and the coastline but pastures, unblemished forests full of wildlife, and cold fresh water on its way to the sea.

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DSC08015On a day trip out of Oslo, we followed the coast of the Oslofjord southward, to the town of Halden.

While not as beautiful or awe-inspiring as the Fjords further North, the region is still gorgeous, mountains and sea, especially to someone who grew up in a pretty flat stretch of Upstate New York, among ponds and lakes, and tiny sand hills dumped by retreating glaciers .

Halden is on the Swedish border, and to me, it felt like a land on the edge of a frontier.

I’ve visited the western United States, and gone through some pretty flea-bitten border towns in New Mexico and Arizona. While at one point those old mining spots were “frontier towns,” I never felt like I was on the edge of anything, save for insanity, as you could only stare at a seemingly endless expanse of desert, between you and the Mexican border.

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In Halden, I felt like I was on the edge of the world, which is an odd feeling, since it isn’t actually on the ocean. In fact, Hong Kong, where I’d just spent six months, was more geographically “on the edge” than Halden, existing on the edge of the sea, and on the edge of the Chinese mainland, literally and figuratively.

But even in the “wilderness”areas around HK’s New Territories, the woods were always crowded with people. Halden, initially, felt a bit like a Old West town in the Rocky Mountains — a small city huddled between some impressive mountains.

Walking up the steep hill towards the massive Fredriksten Festning (Fortress), close to sunset, I knew I was in a place quite unlike any I’d ever been before.

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This fortress is old. It saw combat, sieges, and watched over the city for ages from its hilltop. Looking out from its walls, there was so much to see, in every direction, especially the beautiful fjord and canal glistening at sundown, while the city’s lights slowly turned on.

I’ve only seen the Mediterranean during three days in Malaga, but I felt like I might almost have arrived in Greece, with little houses all around the watery and rocky cityscape, lights coming on, ships tying up in the harbor, small cars quietly driving around. Looking down, the train station was quite small, but the railroad yard looked really impressive from atop the hill.

 

 

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On top of the fortress ramparts (literally, on top, since unlike the US, they had no safety rails, and few warning signs) it felt like we were on the edge of a strange, different land. Indeed, Norway doesn’t quite seem to belong to this planet.

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Even Hong Kong, with its alien ways and unearthly smells and sounds, seemed more American and familiar than did Norway, once we’d left Oslo. Norway really seemed like a country from a bygone era, or perhaps an alternative “Middle Earth”. Had Peter Jackson not filmed the Lord of the Rings in New Zealand (perhaps the only place on earth more extraordinary than Norway) the land of the Norsemen could easily have filled the role, with its fortress towns fitting the mood perfectly.

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I loved that the Norwegians, unlike the American bureaucrats running parks and sites, believe people are intelligent enough to look out for themselves, and decide where they can walk or climb. Wandering around the old walls, after sundown, after the last sunset-viewers and dog-walkers had gone, we had the entire place to ourselves. There were few lights, no ugly chain-link fences, no trespass signs, no assumption that you’re incapable of looking out for yourself, that you’re sure to stumble and immediately blame and sue someone.

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We walked by the spot where a king of Sweden had died trying to storm this place — and here we were, a couple of flatlander peasants, with free run of the fortress – incredible — cobbled streets, arched gateways, crumbling barracks, powder magazines and walls, and old rusty cannons.

If we could just pry the old gates shut, we’d be like little boys playing “king of the hill.”  My father sighted along the barrels of old cannons and reported:  “Gun #1 – we could hit the train station.  No, we’ll need that to get back to Oslo.  Gun#2 – take out a kebab shop?  No, it’s late, we’re hungry, it may be the only thing open when we go down.  (Good decision, it was).   He remembered an old Steely Dan song “Got a case of dynamite, I could hold out here all night…”  We used the little lights on our cellphones to peer into dank stone rooms within the fortress walls.

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It is a commonplace observation, to talk of the lasting impression made by violence upon a blood-soaked battlefield – – but this place seems to have made its peace a long time ago.  It felt nothing but peaceful and great.

This world felt like the true frontier and it fascinated me like no other place I’ve been.

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Looking down at the little city, as more of the slope below us disappeared into the dark, I felt as if I could run down the fort’s high and rocky precipice, straight into the vast waters of the fjords, and out into the sea.

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England, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

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DSC05302One of my favorite moments in England was a visit to Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, halfway between Hull and London.

 

I arrived at an old-fashioned train station and immediately fell for the charm of the place. Staying at a little inn, painted bright red for some reason, I felt like I’d been dropped into the stereotypical English holiday depicted in the old movies — a quaint old town set in a picturesque countryside.

 

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Roaming the winding alleys and cobblestone streets, past little parks with statues and flower beds, past buildings standing since medieval times, I felt most definitely in England.

 

 

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statue in front of City Hall, dedicated to the English Civil Servant, and every bit as animated, brandishing a sheaf of useless paperwork.

 

We ventured into the High Victorian-styled City Hall, where the staff were perfectly cast, like a waxwork museum, fulfilling their stereotypical roles as British Civil Servants.  Polite, pleasant manners, combined with total indifference to their jobs or visitors, and lacking the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, the town they where they worked.

 

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Sections of the church not only pre-dated the United States, it even pre-dated the Normans. As I studied the Saxon-Norman-Gothic church, housing its chained library and perhaps a bone or two from old St. Wulfram, I really felt like I was in England for the first time, and not just in a continuation of the Rust Belt where I’d grown up — it might be in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Hull seemed like it could just as easily be Cleveland or Detroit in some regards — it even had a Chrysler plant.  Hull somehow didn’t feel entirely British, though it was distinctly un-American.

 

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Grantham felt how England should feel: damp, but not cold, grey, and ancient. Under the massive steeple of a thousand year-old church, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Roaming by Sir Issac Newtown’s school and home, I felt that it really is true, there isn’t a spot in England that isn’t touched by history, I don’t think any other nation in the world can make that claim, especially in the third world, with cities rising out of jungle, desert, or seemingly from thin air.

The Grantham cabbies, the gingerbread biscuits, fish-and-chip shops, a medieval inn, the pubs lining the street – these were exactly the elements of the England I had hoped to discover in Hull, but never found there.

 

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The next day was spent at Belton House, an estate and manor. Roaming the grounds with its own forest, deer herd, and even a small railroad for children, it reinforced the sense of a movie-set England. The house was massive — 72 rooms and over a thousand acres of land (and a lake, a boathouse, gardens including a maze, carriage houses, etc). I loved the greenhouse, the immense library, even the servants’ quarters.

 

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Everything about this trip was wonderful. For the first time in England, I felt like I had finally arrived on the right Island, and not in some historical Disneyland like York, or an American-style Rust Belt burg like Hull, or a modern cityscape like Leeds, which felt like a Canadian city minus the joviality and hockey.

 

Travel and “study abroad” involve learning something new, challenging your preconceptions, and encounters with the unexpected.

But — Grantham is England for me — I finally found the England of my expectations.

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England, London, Study Abroad, travel, UK

A commitment to The Commitments

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Cast of the Commitments on the marquee of the Palace Theatre. (I think? it’s possible some of my photos got mis-labeled)

Halfway through a semester at the University of Hull, I was sick of England.

At that exact point, I could only think about the mass of readings and papers facing me at school, while trying to function on the few hours of sleep I could manage amidst the noisy, drunken student ghetto where I was living. I’d reached the low point in my regard for Life in Outer Yorkshire – – I did not feel at home, and I was sick of feeling like an outsider in a strange, decrepit corner of an island nation.

I took the train down to London to visit my mother, who was there briefly on business, and even then, didn’t feel as enraptured with London as I had expected. It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm when I’d decided that I hated England.

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Sure, London was cool. It was neat to see the great old buildings, the fantastic, though wholly overwhelming British Museum, walk through Hyde Park and some of the nicer neighborhoods, Covent Garden…and eat good food, rather than my own horrible experiments with codfish in an unpredictable and malevolent cooker. But it felt hollow (since it was all tourist stuff) and I felt that I needed something with a feeling, with soul, to welcome me, or make me feel more at home.

What finally helped me out of this rut was unexpected — going to see the play “The Commitments” on the West End.

On impulse, we got half-price tickets and then sat in a comically high part of the theater, past the nose-bleed seats, possibly in converted attic space, farther up than I would’ve expected possible in the creaky old building, looking down a long way to the stage. Three or four more rows up, the vegetation became stunted, and the seats were reserved for goatherds, as you hit the alpine timberline.

Despite a theater building that seemed to qualify as a comedy improv in its own right, the seats were fine and the crowd around us was interesting (between the middle-aged Irish women in front, singing and dancing the entire time, to the old British woman who turned around halfway through, to ask Mom if she, too, “thought tha’ show was rubbish”). The audience was a treat, and could’ve been a show in itself.

The actual show, while simple in plot, was more of a concert, highlighted by some bit of acting, rather than being a musical, which is more like a show interrupted by singing.

The songs, all protest and soul songs from the sixties (and therefore all songs I enjoyed greatly) were wonderful and done expertly, the dialogue was funny, and everyone was having a good time (save for the crabby old lady in front of us, who was kind of entertaining, in her own way). It was hard to be downbeat when the show was nothing but great beats.

Perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was the atmosphere of British people cutting loose a bit, having a good time, not being cold and aloof in their usual London manner (even Scandinavians and Germans are warmer than white Londoners), but I was finally able to have my spirits lifted. Maybe it was because the characters, Irish folk living in the 80’s, were also in a rut, that I was able to really get into the show… and from that point on, the city felt less dead and cold.

Like New York, and of comparable size and status, London has an edge — you know you don’t impress anyone there, and no one rushes to make you feel welcome, probably because you aren’t. At least folks in Hull were friendlier, probably due to the relative novelty of an American visitor to the East Riding of Yorkshire (especially one visiting on purpose, and not just a random tourist stranded when they missed their “All Creatures Great and Small” tour bus).

While a return to the Uni ghetto and drudgery didn’t help my mood or mental state, the show granted me a short-term escape, and helped me enjoy London and England more.  The positive effect was strong enough to last the rest of my stay. More escapes and happier times were around the bend, visiting friends on the Continent and then taking a brief trip to Spain. And even if I never acclimated to the student ghetto’s endless cycle of boozing-and-singing-Disney-theme-songs-very-badly-at-3AM-outside-my-window, I came to appreciate and like the people of Hull, even if I rarely understood more than a word of two of their dialect.  But the better mood and higher spirits all started with the Commitments.

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Copenhagen, Soft Capitalism, Study Abroad

Copenhagen. The Happy City.

IMG_5815Regardless of what you think of Bernie Sanders, when he recently said “…I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” I have to agree.  I’ve visited two of those countries, and they’re great places, especially Denmark.  Here is my brief “letter home” from a visit to Denmark.

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A bicyclist lazily rolls along, not in any hurry. It’s a beautiful day. It’s a wonderful place.

I left Hull on a cold, gray, rainy English morning at 5am, and arrived in beautiful, clear-skied Copenhagen. A city so beautiful that it’s reflected in every person there.

The Danes are wearing black clothing, with some festive gray and white thrown in, and sunglasses that prevent their pale faces from fully being seen. Not all of them are super tall, but many of them tower over this rather short American, a hybrid descendent of only stocky European stock, with no Vikings in the family tree.

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you knew I’d work Hong Kong in somehow, even when it’s a story about Copenhagen

Smiles everywhere. By scientific measures, this is the “happiest” city on earth, and it truly shows. (This year, for the first time, Copenhagen was surpassed by a city in Paraguay. And according to North Korea, Pyongyang is happier than anywhere else, under penalty of death no doubt.)

Everyone is friendly, calm, and sagacious. They speak several languages fluently, and effortlessly glide back and forth between them. They’re all engineers or scientists who decided to become baristas, or sailors, or political science students with grand plans to work in Israel and climb the Himalayas.

Copenhagen is a city in a bubble. I say this because it is so pleasant, it feels fake. But not in the glitzy Las Vegas-meets-Miami Beach-with-a-dash-of-Dubai style. It just doesn’t seem possible an island in the cold North Sea, as far north as Glasgow, that should by all rights be bleak and inhospitable, can be so nice.

The guy at the hot dog stand speaks English perfectly, even though he’s a random street vendor in a random part of a city that has its own unique dialect. Danish-style hotdogs are vastly superior to what we have, like a mix of Italian sausage and apple-smoked breakfast sausages, served with pickles, (Denmark always does smell of the ocean, cigarettes and pickles) and a dab of onions, mustard, and ketchup served on a hot fresh hard roll. Delicious.

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I finally met up with my friend, and he showed off his wonderful city, from the beautiful buildings to the waterfront, where you feel like you’re on the edge of the world.

Copenhagen is situated on an island, closer to Malmo Sweden than to other cities of Denmark. And, perhaps due to this relative isolation, the city feels trapped in time. No one is in a hurry, though they move quickly and get things done fast. There is no sense of stress you find in large cities, just sensibility and calmness. People are relaxed to an almost lulling degree. And to me, it felt fragile, and knowing its history I can see why it has been conquered or occupied a few times, it seems like a place like this can’t handle stresses, though it clearly has survived and thrived.

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Denmark is clearly not a model for the U.S., for many reasons, but if we modeled our cities on Copenhagen, I think America could see some vast improvements. Infrastructure was great (even though their roads freeze, just the same as in my homeland, the pot-holed and crumbling Upstate NY). Everyone is educated (America, step up your education game), and everyone seemed stress-free, despite talk of a depressed economy.

When I first arrived, I walked through the “ghetto”, really a bohemian area with lots of African immigrants, sex shops, places selling various apparatuses for smoking pot (legal in one square mile district of Denmark called Christiania). And yet, I didn’t get the vibe you get when you quickly duck through those parts of an American city. Walking alone in an area where I didn’t speak the language, carrying my camera and backpack, I’d be an easy target. But I didn’t feel alarmed in the slightest. There are many parts of the US, where I’ve felt uneasy just driving through.

IMG_5813This safe, nurturing environment makes Denmark so great.

My fondest memory from the very brief time I spent there was nothing to do with the many amazing tourist sites my expert guide took me to, but rather three brief moments. The first was when my friend told me to try a Tuborg beer, his favorite and only found in Denmark. His eyes lit up as I tried it, and I could see he was very excited to share a bit of his culture with me. That connection, just one can of good beer, to a place he wanted to share affected me.

But my favorite thing (and I loved everything about this city) was getting the famous pork sandwich of Copenhagen. The city for so long depended on the sea for food, but years of overfishing by other Europeans (ahem, England and Russia) and American fleets depleted the number of fish that could be sustainably harvested. So, left with two options, continuing to deplete a battered-down population of northern fish and pay hefty fees for the privilege of eating them, or go to the southwest of the country to the pig farms, the Danes chose pork. The pork sandwich was proof that some higher power exists. Crispy pork, red cabbage, pickles, some mysterious unnamed sauce, a leaf of lettuce and a crispy yet soft warm bread roll made this the best thing I’ve eaten (save for dim sum and barbecue ribs) ever. Just getting to try the “best” pork sandwich in Denmark, which I’d never find otherwise, was an exalted experience usually only known by the locals.

I loved that about Denmark, I just arrived and felt like I belonged there. I was clearly an outsider (though one drunk girl approached me speaking rapid fire Danish, apparently thinking the guy with the camera and map was a local who could tell her how to find a nightclub rather than his very Danish-looking friend) and yet they made me feel welcome. It was like I just walked into the city and they were like: oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you, now let’s go.

I became a local in Hong Kong in a few weeks (in some parts), acclimated to my college campus in Maryland after a semester, and never felt at home in Hull. But when I came to this place, it was the most instantaneous and seamless transition. Very magical.

My Danish friend and I ended our time together by going to a “brown bar”. This is one of the only places in Denmark where smoking indoors is allowed, and my friend and his friend Rune who joined us both smoke a pack a day. I don’t like smoking, but the windows were open and despite the huge crowds there was room for everyone. We played Danish pool, actually billiards, which has its own alien rules, but it was fun.

What struck me about that bar, was, in my haste to win the game (which I did to my amazement), I bumped into a guy and spilled his drink all over him. Maybe it was my two Danish friends standing behind me who are six foot three and former military firemen, but he didn’t start a fight. He realized it was just a mistake, I bought him a new beer and we shook hands. In a British pub you’d be looking for your teeth on the ground and I’m familiar with the American “tough guy” (read that as: insecure punk trying to prove himself in a juvenile cult of masculinity) drinking culture to know that wouldn’t have been the case at home. Even when he’s had a Carlsberg poured down his leather jacket and a thwack in the chest from a pool cue, he was still friendly (it probably didn’t hurt that at that moment, he was doing quite well in chatting up a French girl).

A trivial incident, just a spilled beer — but proof that the Danish and their “no worries”, relaxed, and in-control nature can make us re-think our “American way of life”. We can still learn a lot from our old world friends.

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England, Study Abroad

Manchester

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Manchester is a unique city existing in several times.  It is simultaneously in this current world, the future world as envisioned by the media, and still in centuries past. The different times are intermixed and entwined perfectly.

Old buildings of brick — cold, gray and grimy with the ashes from industry of a bygone era — are mixed among steel skyscrapers of the “Madchester” era, an era of revitalization and a new face of British “cool”. And, among the old bricks and ‘80’s steel, is a new architects’ dreamscape, a world of modernistic buildings of glass and random designs, colors and styles. If you picture the city of the future, it may be located in the Far East, in the steaming jungles of a tropical region perhaps, but its look may be based on the experiments of Manchester’s cityscape. Giant glassy domes, belonging to a co-op mixed with the tallest building in the UK outside of London.  (This last one is the Beetham Tower, an ugly glass box with legs, but it gives an unparalleled view.)

The city has more restaurants than they know what to do with, so they just leave it to chance for the tourist (lost amid confusing half-streets, back alleys and winding ways), to wander into them — be they kebab, Korean, or fine Italian dining.

There are great museums — one promoting the struggle of the working man, and that gave a balanced view of communism, and made it look all right. Another museum, of science, and another of art, with no admission charge and extended hours so that the poor, the working, and the student can get to experience culture without sacrificing their schedule.

This city mixes cultures and races together into a cosmopolitan flavor. And yet, the whole time, you know you’re in England. There is the wet grey weather, the crumbly streets, the wrong-sided driving. The smell of tobacco, the music, the pub signs.

Manchester is possibly the last true English city. London is more than half foreign-born, and Leeds is thoroughly modernized, it’s historic roots mostly lost beneath myriad mazes of glass and steel, though present if you know where to look. Hull is like Bucharest, a nice place once you get over the initial ugliness and bad reputation. But Manchester, there is something special there. It is English in its mix of history, culture, and night life, its blend of old and new.  Foreign and native blend together but remain decisively English, and it feels Old World in a way the vibrant London does not, but it doesn’t feel ancient in the way York does, a city that is now a living museum.

Manchester to me, while not the most immediately interesting compared to some other places, is the most real. It has the English realness, the directness, the honesty. You can see its story written on its walls, not holding back, and yet not telling it to your face either.

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