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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Germany, Uncategorized

Cologne and Dusseldorf ~~~~~~~ A Tale of Two Cities…and Two Beers. The Great Kolsch-Alt debate

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Incredible stonework of the cathedral in Cologne

 

Part of my journeys across Germany involved discovery of the country’s food and beverages.  And of course, the most famous German beverage is beer, so I was duty-bound to try each region’s brews whenever possible.  And generally speaking, in Germany, it is not just possible, but expected.  Beer is part of each regions’s identity, a staff of life, and the stuff as dreams are made on.  Yes, I get poetic when thinking of German beer.

While not famous outside of Germany, two types of beer, Kolsch and Alt (or Aldt) have an interesting history. Kolsch comes from Koln (Cologne), while Altbier is Dusseldorf’s darker contender.

The two cities, now friendly rivals, much the same as New York and Boston (though I don’t know any New Yorker who calls Bostonians friendly), used to have a much different relationship. From the Middle Ages through the 1800’s, before Bismarck’s unification, they were two city-states,  often at war. For many years, one could test your loyalty with a simple test: Kolsch or Alt? A person in the “old days” — meaning as recently as the 1970’s — could be beaten up in Dusseldorf for asking for Kolsch, and vice-versa in Cologne.

I was informed of all this by a German friend.  I knew that I had no choice but to try both beers, in their respective cities.

And, like Champagne, genuine Kolsch (there’s supposed to be an umlaut over the “o” but I don’t know how to to that on WP) can only be brewed in Cologne — breweries elsewhere can produce kolsch-style lager, but it cannot be labeled Kolsch.

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Cologne’s “Lock Bridge” — sweethearts have their initials engraved on padlocks and add them to the railings. The Pont des Arts in Paris had to remove theirs, due to the sheer weight.

So, the first day of this quest was spent in Cologne. A beautiful and ancient town along the Rhine, it has a friendly laid-back vibe, partially due to its huge student population.

 

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A Work of Art. so I had it framed.

A moment for time to stop and to remember forever — I had my first Kolsch at a riverside restaurant, on a beautiful and still sunny day, with the Rhine’s brownish water slowly flowing by.  The locals call a round tray of beers a “Kranz” which means “wreath” and that seems appropriate, to celebrate this wonderful drink and a great city.

 

I will remember having this first sip of Kolsch, from the Gaffel brauhaus — it was fantastic. So crisp and light, the locals often jokingly call it “American Beer”. It was one of the most delicious and refreshing beers I’ve ever had.  And I drank it sitting alongside the legendary Rhine, surrounded by the sound of many relaxed conversations, and a plate of Currywurst, and time to talk with my friend.

A Really Good Day.

 

 

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The “Lock Bridge” at Cologne

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3476-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.wWhile, at the time, I was relaxed and content, I didn’t fully appreciate the complete pleasantness that defined and permeated that day, and, as my taste-memory triggers strong recall (as smells do for most other people), I can vividly imagine the way the beer tasted. More than that, when I think of that particular glass of beer, I’m transported back to that spot along the Rhine, with the lock bridge, and some statues just barely visible behind a clump of trees — trees planted specifically to shade the lucky patrons of restaurants by the Rhine. I remember seeing the Viking river cruise boats chugging by, the delicious ice cream I had in that town, and the Gothic beauty of the Kolner Dom.  nypl.digitalcollections.510d47e3-3477-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.w

 

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A statue of the mysterious person known only as “The Man Who Could Never Get That Bird Off His Hat”

 

IMG_7073After a long hike up winding stairs, the Dom, a magnificent and mighty church, offered us views of the entire city, as it stretched along one of the world’s finest rivers.   (Brown-hued, but busy, impressive, and certainly a more pleasant river than the Hudson back home, with its PCB’s and three- headed fish.)  I remember ending the day at the Chocolate Museum, and the smell of cocoa wafting through the air.

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The Chocolate Museum.

 

nypl.digitalcollections.510d47da-a691-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99.001.rThe next day, in Dusseldorf, was even more pleasant, if possible.  I had been staying with my friend Alicia, who I knew from Lingnan University, and in Dusseldorf, I got to meet up with another friend I’d met at that school, Tobias.  I felt very lucky to have made friends with these great people – they seemed happy to show me around, were excellent guides, and even better company, .  Tobi was actually a Koln boy, but had spent lots of time in Dusseldorf.  I had my first experience of the Autobahn driving down from Koln, and having survived, was ready to walk around Dusseldorf.

 

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This is the second-richest city in Germany (after Munich), and Germans from other regions had told me it is seen as being…sort of snotty. But I found the people there to be even friendlier and warmer than Cologne’s.  Cologne, despite being a college town, was busy but didn’t seem to have much of an energetic vibe — the slow river giving it a relaxed air. Dusseldorf, on a faster-moving stretch of the same river, seemed far more alive. Not as loud, but more bouncy and hip.

Dusseldorf captured my imagination as much as the much more historic and picturesque cityscape of Koln.

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IMG_7054And here, we of course tried Alt, their local beer.  Dark, heavy, I liked it far less than Kolsch (I didn’t say this out loud) — but thinking about that beer, takes me back to that day as well. It’s “old beer” style (that’s literally what “altbier” means), interesting dark copper color, strong/clear flavor, and the impression it gives of “thickness” embodies the town in which it was made, much the same as Kolsch reflects the lighter vibe of Cologne. Dusseldorf’s layers of history came out with the flavor of hops and dark malt. Though sunny, the weather in Dusseldorf fluctuated several times in the course of one day, and we wandered the city, seeing the old town by the Rhine juxtaposed against the modern bridges and towers of their industry.

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The city has the world’s highest population of Japanese executives outside of Japan!  SONY, Toshiba, Sanyo, Toyota, Mitsubishi, and several other large Japanese companies have regional headquarters in Dusseldorf, some since as early as WWII. Therefore, there is a large “Japan Town,” where we had lunch that day, first having more traditional German snacks. This too is part of enjoying the unique and deeper flavor of Alt.

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Look carefully at the steeple – – age and human error have left it twisted like a soft-serve ice cream

The architecture of the city is also very “European” — churches with steeples bent by the ages, right next to modern structures — some of Frank Gehry’s earliest designs — with an unusual and almost imaginary-feeling set of houses along the river. Here we saw displayed the money that the city is famous for — glitzy condominiums, vehicles costing several hundred thousand dollars, and stores with suits that might have cost as much as the vehicles.

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Frank Gehry

We took a short side-trip out of the city, to the palace of an old king, still close enough to see skyline of the old city.  This palace, I think, was actually the king’s summer home (though I’m not sure), and it reminded me of a Southern plantation — a huge estate, surrounded by undeveloped tracts of land, now converted into a public park.

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On the day we were there, a group of wealthy Persians were having a wedding inside the 17th Century ballroom, and, with their exotic wedding garb, it struck me that this is how a ball would’ve looked at that time, perhaps with less form-fitting dresses. The grounds too were beautiful — lawns and topiary and statuary and fountains.   I was in for another treat, when we ended up along a beautiful stretch of the Rhine, with container ships drifting by, and the cityscape visible across the bend in the river, and people lounging around outside on a beautiful day.

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I’ve been telling people for years about the frog-people, but this was the first time I got a good picture, when they clambered out of the Rhine and scaled this building.

These are the memories invoked when I summon up the taste of the beers, as interesting as their cities. For me, the culinary journey is part of what brings a city to life, and it is vital to try something local and authentic to get the most out of any experience.

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My friends Alicia and Tobias in front of the Alt house. Technically, this is the longest “bar” in the world, but in reality it is several open buildings with street seating. Or standing.

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History, Hong Kong

Tai O

 

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Say “Hong Kong” and it summons images of skyscrapers, glistening and modern.

Every popular image of the city portrays an incredibly bustling and modern metropolis.

That is the image Hong Kong sells.

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But like anywhere that has been inhabited for thousands of years, the city has remnants of an older society, some hidden beneath the urban jungle, others overlooked on the periphery, but still very much alive.

 

HK fishing village 2One of these mysterious places, stuck in time, is Tai O, on Lantau Island.

 

The island is practically its own city-state, separate from Hong Kong in many ways, connected by a single bridge. Lantau, with its tiny population, seems distinct from the rest of the shiny metropolis, even from the less glamorous “New Territories.” Ironically, farther along the same coast from Tai O, is the city’s huge airport, built on fill into the ocean, and its convention/retail complex, even a golf course, swarming with trade shows, cable cars, etc.

And on Lantau’s southeast shore, in a beautiful region of pristine and mostly undiscovered beaches, hiking trails, mountains and small lakes, is Tai O, a village lost in an older day. It is a tiny enclave, partly on an island, along a little river where it enters the South China Sea, and almost walled off from the rest of Lantau by forests and mountains.

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Even though it’s become a tourist attraction over the years, its inhabitants almost treated as a spectacle, the village truly is existing in another era. The jets come in overhead night and day, but a visitor to Tai O encounters a fishing village virtually unchanged from those the British would have come upon, when they sailed into Hong Kong harbor in the nineteenth century.

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Yes, there are electric lights, fans, and motor boats, and cable TV in some houses. But Tai O is still very much stuck in its traditional, precarious ways — ramshackle houses perched perilously over semi-polluted water, threatening to collapse and be swept away, come the next typhoon. It’s said that every year there is a special evacuation for these people, during super storms, and many lose their homes. Despite this, and perhaps because of generous subsidies from the government, they’re able to continue living a traditional lifestyle. Their houses look both temporary, and at the same time, as if they have been there for many years. I assume their houses recycle materials from earlier, wrecked houses, but don’t essentially change.

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To get to Tai O, I joined a group of friends on a bus, hailed in Tung Chung, and we rode across Lantau on roads hacked into the volcanic mountainsides, at hair-raising speeds, taking the turns faster than I thought a bus could manage. When my eyes weren’t closed, I realized we were passing some beautiful areas, inaccessible by foot, with some of the most beautiful beach areas I’ve ever seen — found among the dense forest land and at the bottom of jagged volcanic mountains.

The bus ride, while fast and offering very pleasant views, remains in my mind as the longest ever, as I had stupidly chugged three bottles of water before I learned the drive was 90 minutes long. While everyone else was alternating between terror, and oohing and aahing over the countryside, I was concentrating on my bladder. By the time we arrived in Tai O, I ran as fast as I’ve ever moved towards the dimly-lit public bathrooms, usually avoided at any cost, but that day, not concerned about the smell, dirt, or anything else.

After surviving that terrible episode, the rest of the trip was great. We wandered around narrow alleys, between dingy houses, many on stilts, with shops selling fish, tourist items, and some wonderful restaurants (hole-in-the-wall but with amazing food and desserts).

There was even a tiny museum. Despite the number of outsiders roaming Tai O, the residents were not at all concerned by having people literally in their backyards, or front yards for that matter. Many of the houses, in the hot summer months, don’t have a complete fourth wall, so the section facing the street is half-exposed, giving us a view into their simple houses, like a series of stage sets. Living rooms, kitchens, and tiny dining areas were on display, with only the bedrooms and bathrooms thankfully covered by a wall. On some stretches, stepping aside to let someone pass, you’d nearly be standing in the living room, usually with a sweaty, shirtless fisherman lying on the couch staring at the TV. Truly a unique, albeit odd, experience.

fishing village 3 HKI realized how much the sea permeates the lives of these people. The souvenirs for sale were all sea-related: bits of decorated coral, lamps made from puffed up blowfish (grotesque), and even an entire dried shark for sale (I assume for eating, though it was looking a bit rough after days in the sun).

In the West, we often read about the impact of the oceans’ conditions on the people of distant countries. Those articles always meant very little to me — describing faraway lands, and lives that no one really thinks can be that primitive or dependent on the sea. And then you arrive in Tai O and see for yourself, that the ocean is everything for these people. A hard life. Many villagers looked wrung-out and fairly unhealthy, though strong, and yet, all had posters up in several languages: “Protect our oceans” “No pollution in the rivers” and “How to conserve our water”. To the villagers, their livelihoods and way of life, antiquated as they seemed, depended entirely on the oceans. And they see the oceans despoiled by foreigners and their own countrymen, even the other residents of Hong Kong.

The modern Hong Kong I was living in, seemed very distant at that moment. I think it’s not a perfect analogy, but I imagine the people on Kowloon or HK Island think of Tai O’s residents, in the same way we think about homeless people in the US. We’re slightly aware of them, but if possible, we pay them no attention. One difference, though — in the US, most people do not pay admission to visit the homeless encampments, while many urbanized Hong Kong’ers travel to tour this part of their city.

The folks in Tai O choose this lifestyle, and were taught their fishing skills by the generations before them. They choose a traditional lifestyle that does not require anything more than a no-frills home and a working boat. I also suppose that having typhoons and flood waters regularly knock your house to bits ( I could see the mud from the last flood on the walls of some houses), would make having a fancy house seem a bit pointless. These people are content to live simply, putting them totally at odds with every other person in Hong Kong, save perhaps for the “cage people” of Kowloon’s roughest slum.

We have people living “plain” lives in the US, and the Amish around my hometown are the first to come to mind. But the Amish generally live distant from major urban areas, while these people in Tai O, were a half-hour ferry ride from one of the world’s most advanced mega-cities.

I enjoyed visiting Tai O both as a tourist and as a historian. I was given the chance to see the Hong Kong that the first colonizers would have seen, a bit of the city that William Henry Seward would’ve seen in 1873 when he sailed in from India for a few days. It is one thing to see a museum display about Tai O (which you can visit at the Hong Kong Museum of History, and definitely worth a trip, too) but not the same as actually standing among villagers that are living much as they have for hundreds of years. It is still a living, unembellished village, and experiencing the honest-to-God, actual fishing families, living here in this old-fashioned style, was really cool.

The time-travel sensation was intensified by starting my day on alpha-city high-tech Hong Kong Island. Going from a cityscape like Central’s, modern and impressive, to a small collection of glorified huts on stilts, huddled along the edge of a volcanic mass on the Pacific, was really neat and further showed how China truly is the land of extremes.

Life in a fishing community is not for the sentimental.  Or the squeamish.  As we walked along the maze-like streets, looking at the houses and fishing huts, we passed by a small area where there had been a successful haul, and the fish were being stored in freezers. I watched a guy throwing live, still-flopping fish into the freezer, and we said, jokingly (a joke that the Hong Kong kids didn’t get, we realized) that the man doing that was “Ice Cold”. They didn’t get it. But, and despite how horrible it sounds, the best thing we saw was nearby.

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A fish-seller, a little old lady, was sitting down watching a tiny TV set on an outdoor bench, with tanks of fish all around her. One of these fish, a particularly big one, flopped out of its tank, and seemed like it was trying to make a run for it. The ancient fish-seller rose very slowly… and then with lightning speed bludgeoned the fish to death with a hammer.

And then nonchalantly returned to her TV program.

The sudden brutality, with such indifference, struck us as a total surprise– we were horrified but also laughing for weeks.

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A distinct highlight of Tai O, other than stopping at a tiny restaurant and eating what I will always remember as one of the greatest desserts of my life, was sighting the pink dolphins.

The Pearl River is the only place on earth, except a part of the Amazon, where you can see pink dolphins. You can pay a small fee, collected by rather shady-looking people, to sail out on a boat, driven by equally shady-looking characters, looking for pink dolphins. To do this, I had to put out of my mind, every one of the news stories I’ve ever read, about the safety issues of Chinese ships full of people. I boarded a ship loaded way over capacity, piloted by what looked like a pirate way past retirement age. Ignoring the thought that no one at home would know I was on this boat, in a random part of the Pacific, I boarded.

And I am glad I did. As we pulled away from Tai O, I got to see it in a new light, in the way the locals see it — from the water.

From water level, the ramshackle shacks now looked very impressive, perched atop massive beams. While tiny next to the skyscrapers in Hong Kong, the houses towered over our boat as we sailed towards open water. And, ten minutes later, we were out in the Pacific, with waves rocking our fast-moving boat. I remember looking back, and Tai O was gone, replaced by the impressive sight of a massive volcanic island, with jagged green ridges. We sailed among oil rigs, expertly dodging giant tankers and container ships, some (from the water) appearing as large as Lantau Island.

(dolphin, but not a pink dolphin)

(this picture is not an Indo-Pacific pink dolphin, but it’s a related bottlenose, and also the only decent dolphin picture I’ve taken!)

And finally, we found the pink dolphins. Three of them, frolicking in polluted waters, indifferent to the camera-wielding, mostly Asian tourists in the boats, they went right alongside and did a few jumps for us before disappearing. I felt even luckier when I heard that this was the first the pilot of our boat had seen of them in two months. A unique experience. Really more a pinkish-gray, and I had been expecting very vibrant pink hues, although when one did a barrel roll, it exposed a soft Easter egg pink belly, and that was cool.

On the bus ride back to Tung Chung, I had just thought “I bet we can see the Buddha statue,” and literally at that moment, the Big Buddha, over one hundred feet tall, perched in a valley between the two biggest peaks on Lantau, appeared in the distance. I was struck by just how big he really was, because it was about 3 miles away and I could see it very clearly.

An oddity on this drive: we passed an incredibly modern village, with many cars, so the inhabitants must have had some money, but it seemed to be a village with no name. Miles from Tung Chung, here were about 500 homes, tucked away in the middle of nowhere, that no one could tell me anything about, including the locals.

Cow LOCBut the most striking thing during the drive, was the cows. When the English landed at Hong Kong, a bunch of cattle were released from the ships onto Lantau to graze. Mountainous and full of steep jagged hills with sharp curves, Lantau seems like the worst possible place for cattle. And yet, 150 years later, the descendants of whatever cows were hardy enough to survive are roaming the streets. If I was in India, where you hear of such things, I wouldn’t have been so taken aback. But, this is Hong Kong. And yet, there were about fifty cows, standing in or next to the road, and our bus driver was busy yelling at them, cursing and honking the horn to get them to move. Being cows, they didn’t care, so we had to wait a bit while they lazily wandered from the road toward the unnamed village.

There were more cows, and the oddest sight of the trip, a mile down the road:  Beach Cows.

I mentioned the beautiful beaches earlier, visited by very few humans. But, I swear, I saw three cows on the beach, walking along, half in the water, half on land. Apparently mimicking the human beach-goers, and others were just basking in the sun.

This other world, the “other” other Hong Kong, almost a world of its own, was a magical experience for me. And, whenever I hear people talk about Asia, I think, they have no idea, they’re sold on the image of buildings the size of mountains, gold-plated super cars, crowded streets, and bullet trains. But when I hear “Hong Kong,” I have three images, all competing for space in my head and yet all distinct and simultaneously appearing, the image of the modern urban mecca, the image of the wilderness, and the image of Tai O, clinging to its stilts above unreal blue hues of waters.

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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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One 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 apparently 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, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

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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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Hong Kong, travel

Photos of the Big Buddha. Lantau Island, Hong Kong

For most visitors, the gateway to Hong Kong is the airport on Lantau Island.

And if you are on Lantau Island, you must go see the Buddha.

Hong Kong, and most of East Asia, have many representations of Buddha. But this particular statue is worth seeing. Massive, presiding over a beautiful site on top of a peak, overlooking the island and the ocean, over one hundred feet tall, this figure is incredible.

I visited several times and was always impressed by the fact that, even during stormy days in Hong Kong harbor, during every visit, the Buddha remained bathed in sunlight.

Easy to reach by cable car, although a bit scary for those afraid of heights, the Buddha is most impressive when approached on foot via a hike on one of Lantau’s incredible mountain trails.

Walking along the rocky slope of Lantau Peak, I stumbled out into the clearing where the Buddha serenely rests. Not a spiritual person, I nonetheless found myself struck and humbled by the figure, and even felt unexpectedly inspired at that moment to begin learning more about the Eastern religions. While a modern creation, not the most historic or storied image of  Buddha, it is worth a trip to Hong Kong solely to see this statue.

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History, Hong Kong, travel

Star Ferry to the Imagination. Hong Kong.

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One of the most iconic images of Hong Kong is the sight of the Star Ferry, crisscrossing the harbor since the 1880’s.  IMG_5556

A ride on any of the ferryboats offers amazing views of the city’s waterfront and skylines.

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The crossing from Tsim Sha Tsui to the central city has wonderful views, but the most stunning trip is from Lantau to Hong Kong Island. The view from the water seems almost like a dreamscape of impossibly tall buildings in extraordinary settings, backed by mountains peaks.  All these millions of people, sounds, smells, lights, and colors coalesce into sensory experience that can seem both exhilarating and overwhelming.

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The ferry ride from Lantau is only a half hour, perhaps even less if you don’t account for embarking and disembarking time. IMG_5530You might think that essentially, it’s just a commuter ferryboat, but the ride is extraordinary, as your little vessel sails through greenish-blue waves past rocky crags of dormant volcanoes, and past island-sized oil tankers and container ships.

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Here and there, a traditional junk is still sailing, like a time-warp relic, with complicated wooden hulls and strange sectioned sails, sometimes colored dull red.  Then, after this exciting ride through the ship traffic, in the distance you see, as if rising straight out of the ocean, dozens of skyscrapers. It seems like a fantasy, to suddenly have buildings that reach the sky rising up from sea level.

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NYC from the water is also spectacular, but the sudden drama is absent, because you see the buildings gradually rising up, from miles out to sea.

IMG_5549If you happen to be crossing Hong Kong harbor in early evening, the “Symphony of Lights” is an added bonus, perhaps the largest sound-and-light show in the world: music, colored lights, lasers, and spotlights shooting up from dozens of buildings all around the harbor.  It’s a magical experience. You can ride boats around many East Coast cities or Great Lakes burgs, but this dreamworld effect is exclusive to Hong Kong and Hong Kong alone.

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Hong Kong, travel

The Chicken Head

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Hong Kong is a city of the highest caliber. And, despite its scale and complexity, many of the things that give it distinctive character traits are found in individual neighborhoods. Most are things that you’d only know if you were a local, or lived like one.

My most distinctive HK memory is of a place with a name I never knew, but the name doesn’t matter. While everyone in my extended multi-tiered Lingnan University Family went to Mr Wong’s at least once, often several other times, and some went to Fred’s (also in Kowloon, I think) very few had the privilege of going to the place I dined. Even most locals didn’t know of it, and the ones who did had a hard time finding it. It was truly a hidden gem.

This nameless place was intense. Before I get into it, for a non-Chinese speaker like me, HK’s vendors can be intimidating, fighting for your attention in a language you don’t even remotely understand. Not only this, but the sheer number of them, the density of them, the intensity of them, can be overwhelming. Usually, locals know how to handle this behavior. This place, on the other hand, offered a challenge for even the hardiest of the Hong Kong kids.

We arrive:  three Chinese, an American, A German, and a Dutchman at a “late night” and are instantly swarmed by fast- talking, shouting really, Asian men and women who own the various restaurants that filled the entire block. A sea of tents and flood lights, full of tightly-packed tables with only Asians eating there. I should note, this place is located in Tuen Mun, an almost exclusively Chinese area of Hong Kong, and three white people (their term), two of whom are in the six-foot range, offered quite a spectacle, enough that people at tables were shouting for us to come over as well, in the hopes we’d sit next to their table. In China, white people are accessories, often asked to stand with someone to make them look cooler;  in the mainland, they are sometimes paid handsomely to show up in a suit and just stand there. We weren’t exceptions to this practice. While dozens of Chinese are shouting at us simultaneously, the only thoughts on our minds were,

#1, We’re starving, just choose a place” (and giving anxious stares that said: HURRY UP to our Chinese friends, who’re struggling to deal with five offers from all directions at once). The other thought we had was:  “What have we gotten ourselves into, this is freaking insane.”

Finally the two girls and Champy, one of the Chinese guys in our group, accept an offer from someone who seemed slightly more sane than the others, and we sit down for what turned out to be a delicious, reasonably priced multi course meal. They kept offering us alcohol which I found funny, because when we accepted their offers they told us we had to go buy the beers elsewhere as they had lost their liquor license.

We enjoyed various meat dishes, but more importantly, dabbling in conversation with the whole gang, about everything and anything, and our mixed group gave the table a real Hong Kong vibe, it was cosmopolitan chaos

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This sort of insane atmosphere, of having literally dozens of stalls full of people all wildly talking and taking photos and eating and shouting is quintessentially Hong Kong, or I suppose Chinese in general. But it’s not something to experience in the states.

The highlight for me, was being immersed in the whole crazed atmosphere, which one can simply not experience in America or the West.

 

IMG_1963The highlight for my friends was different.  They got to watch me kiss the chicken head.

Now to explain, we ordered a chicken, which arrived dead but just recently from the looks of it and it looked as if he had a rough time during his untimely execution and boiling. The bird arrived without feathers but with everything else, including a very unhappy-looking head, which was removed by an expert chop and left on the table. We were told not to eat the meat of the head as the chicken was killed by injecting poisons into it’s brain, and I thought it’d be foolish or rude to bring up the fact that the rest of the bird probably wasn’t any safer to eat. So, before we left I had the job of kissing the chicken head for the amusement of my friends. So I did. Again, another distinctive Hong Kong experience.

Footnote: We went back here 1 month later, as a final meal before leaving HK.  It wasn’t as overwhelming, but I wanted to experience it again, and share the experience with a few others, so this time another German and his mainland Chinese girlfriend accompanied us to the street with no name and we dined across from where we had last time. The reason being, it was raining enough that it was flooding slightly and the other was closed, so we went to a shabbier- looking place where the waiter was watching TV while serving us, the cook was smoking two cigarettes at once, one in each hand, while cooking, and a random dog kept walking around the tables and barking at people. Only the Westerners, and by that I mean myself and my German friend, seemed alarmed by this.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

The chicken head. Before being kissed.

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