England, Not humorous, Study Abroad, UK, Uncategorized

Stompin’ the Blues Away. Hull, England. A Study Abroad.

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     A man walks down the street
     It’s a street in a strange world…
     You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…     
     Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al

 

Hull Church 1A couple of years ago, I spent a half-year at the university in Kingston-Upon-Hull, on the east coast of England.

At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.

The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness.  Yachts in the marina.  Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent.  Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries.    About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.

 

Personally, I was a bit in the dumps.

It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime.  Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive.  I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong.  I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too.  I even missed the snow back home.  This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.

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So here is my unvarnished recollection of a “study abroad” semester.

 

 

 

 

The Student Ghetto

I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating.  But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning.  Some rainy days, I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.

I know this sounds “snarky.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise?  And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.

I also love English beers.  But by the glassful, not the gallon.  And as a rule, not for breakfast.

There were days when the constant uproar made me miserable.

The actual classes, I loved.  The professors and my classmates – they were great.   Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK.  Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical.  But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates.  The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.

Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.  The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol:  Beer As a Way of Life.  With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.

 

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Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University.  They were there to drink.

Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo.  I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.

And then they sang.

At first, the singing was kind of endearing.  Seriously.  Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.

By the end of the week, it was not so amusing.  And there were months of this to go.

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Walk the Walk

So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.

All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows.  Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner.  In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.

Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.

Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.

National Health’s “Early Retirement” Squad, gunning for victims.

Zebra Crossings.  Run, Robbie, Run!

On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.

Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street.  Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light.  Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter.  Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob.  One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks.  Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.

One plus:  walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.

When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going.  Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs, not accustomed to moving at a New York pace, and as I negotiated the crowds in the poorer neighborhoods, of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of  the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.

But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.

As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.

Fish & Chips & Vinegar

Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all.  Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the friendly cashier, one of the few locals who’d chat freely with an American kid, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone cheerful and normal.  I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good.  The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.

Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really, really good.  Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.

 

Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.

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A Walk in the Park

At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze.  On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed.  Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends  hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.

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I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.

After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.

Tigers Tigers Burning Bright

I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle.  We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering.  To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.

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Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).

 

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Old Town

The hotel marked the start of the old part of town.  Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river.  The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s.  The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome.  Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.

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Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring.  And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.

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Starting to get cold.  The house lights coming on.  I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.

As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad”?  And not an very organized or enlightening city tour.  But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.

I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses,  through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.

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This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through.  Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.

After all that grousing —

I’m glad I went.

I learned a lot.

I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.

But, still, years later,  whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.

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Germany, travel

Frankfurt am Main, Germany: Hidden soul in “Meinhattan”

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I arrived in Frankfurt am Main on my 21st birthday, and I didn’t know a soul in town.

IMG_7514But my friend Andreas, a native of Bremen, and currently living in Stuttgart, drove over to show me around “Meinhattan.”

 

The Manhattan nickname stuck, because this is Germany’s city of skyscrapers, the economic heart of the country, and banker for the whole EU.  Andy described a sleepy river town, suddenly grown into a huge commerce center, and into the most expensive city in the country.

 

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I’d already visited a number of other German cities:

Mainz – old, historic, and charming, nestled among vineyards along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine.

Hamburg – impressive seaport, impressive industries

Cologne – a university town with a fun atmosphere

Dusseldorf  – giving off a feeling of establishment and security.

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So perhaps because I was so impressed with these other cities, my first impression of Frankfurt was not favorable.  A glassy and tall city with no soul.

IMG_7524We walked along streets of investment firms, Deutsche Bank, IG Farben, the Stock Exchange, and the European Central Bank.

Companies, corporations and conglomerates.  Businessmen in expensive cars and suits, emerging from skyscrapers at lunchtime to be served kebabs and doner by the poorer working people.

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Euro-World, the corporate amusement park

Even the old center of town felt like a designated meeting place for ad execs and CEOs;  the old buildings surrounding us, were now converted into offices for Lufthansa, etc. or stores selling watches and clothing.  The riverfront was peaceful and beautiful, but felt devoid of real personality.  Among the half-timbered buildings of the Altstadt (the historic district) or inside the Frankfurter Dom (their cathedral), the modern city felt far away. But the medieval-looking buildings were all post-war reconstructions, and looming over them were the skyscrapers of European capitalism.  The crowds of businessmen and the tourists, many from Eastern Asia, taking pictures of currywurst and pseudo-antique buildings made the city center feel hollow.

 

IMG_7502It was only after Andreas left for his home in Stuttgart, that I crossed the Main river and began to feel the place had an actual soul. Here, a bridge away from the hubbub of the central city, you can walk among modest homes, little shops, cafes, and a beautiful park with old buildings, now housing museums.

I visited the museums, and then went into a small grocery to buy water, and just sat down in the park for a while, after a day of walking on cobblestones, on the hottest day I experienced during my trip.  It was April, I had just survived a winter in Yorkshire, and I’d dressed for Hamburg and frigid Copenhagen, and to me, Frankfurt felt like the Costa del Sol.

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IMG_7516This was the last day of my spring break, and I had loved everything about both Germany and Denmark, but the whirlwind of trains and meeting people and seeing places, had left me unable to assemble my thoughts.  Finally at rest, sitting there in a small park with people chatting pleasantly, and a few dogs playing, I was able to realize how much I loved Germany, and my entire experience of the country and its people.

Frankfurt is what I remember best of my time in Germany, even if I liked the other cities better.  I can clearly remember details of the port of Hamburg, the lock bridge of Koln, the taste of a currywurst in Dusseldorf, walking along the old walls of Mainz, etc. But Frankfurt always is freshest in my mind.  I was no longer worrying about trains schedules, finding my way to meet up with friends at a specified hour, finding hotels, etc.  I could just relax and take it all in. And, after I realized that Frankfurt, like everywhere, has a character or soul, just hidden under the mighty corporate piles, I was able to enjoy the city more, feeling it’s subtle vibes, and finding the old city in among the new.

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I have often been critical of cities that seem soul-less (Washington, D.C. being the sterilized poster boy), and have always appreciated the cities that have maintained a unique character and an infectious vibe.

Frankfurt surprised me, and in a good way.   Despite its steely, glassy look, it turned out to occupied by human beings.  I looked down at it from the cathedral tower, looked up at it from the river, watched it go by from a park bench, and somehow fell in love with Germany.

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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.  The area around it is full of nice old buildings, restaurants, hotels, and a charming park.

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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