travel

Overlooked and Underloved: Milwaukee

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Here’s a line from a song “The Bay” by the British band Metronomy.

Because this isn’t Paris. And this isn’t London. And it’s not Berlin. And it’s not Hong Kong. Not Tokyo….”.

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This song fits Milwaukee.

It’s the kind of city that shouldn’t be nice, because that contradicts your preconceptions.

You don’t want to admit that you enjoy it, because it’s… Milwaukee.

Located…where, exactly?

It’s OK if you don’t really know.

“Somewhere past Chicago,”

 “near the Great Lakes?”

“Yeah, it’s…oh wait, that’s Minneapolis”

are all acceptable answers.

 

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If your brain does kick out a few random factoids, there’s an image problem.  The city was a byword for industrial decay, notorious for its massive rate of crime and poverty, and Miller Lite on culture.  Even the ball team was sub-par.

> Poster boy for the Rust Belt.

> Someplace dull where people talk about electric power tools.

> The City That Made Beer Famous” – but a lot of it came to be cheap, sticky, mass-produced “value beer.”

Old Milwaukee, Pabst Blue Ribbon, and Schlitz Malt Liquor were never seen in my house.  They always seem to be the brands you see in roadside ditches– tossed from rusty pickups with rude stickers.  The pickups are driven by the kind of people that throw their trash and empties out the window, and were driving by old rusted-out Allis-Chalmers hay-balers, a brand once world-famous, manufactured just down the road from my apartment in West Allis, and now faded away.

The city was part of feeling embarrassed about living in the northern U.S., in the Rust Belt.

Bad cars from Detroit.  Bad beer from Milwaukee.  Bad politicians from New York.

 

Last summer, I moved to Milwaukee.  Voluntarily.  I entered of my own free will.

The city continues to get a lot of bad press.  New Yorker magazine just ran an article about the thousands of evictions that take place yearly in this, the fourth poorest city in the country.

 

 

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The art museum on the lake. A fantastic creation by several architects. The central building by Eero Saarinen, an addition with a winged sunscreen that opens & closes by Santiago Calatrava

 

But Listen Up People —  I am here, and I am here to say, Milwaukee is a great city 

 

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City Hall. When it was erected, the tallest building in the country.

 

 

On a great lake.  Literally, the city is right on one of the “Great Lakes.”  Lake Michigan is impressive, one of the biggest expanses of fresh water in the whole world.  It doesn’t need the others to be a Great Lake.   You could drop Maryland, Massachusetts, and Connecticut into it without a trace. And its the only one we don’t have to share with Canada, so it is an All-American lake.

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Mitchell Park Domes. Desert and tropical environments, and a nice break from winter

This isn’t the 1980 Rustbelt anymore!  Milwaukee is ready to be a new poster boy, one for new era, the re-birth of the American city. From Buffalo and Pittsburgh to Milwaukee, the revitalized Richmond and Louisville, and of course, NYC – all have stories of revival, comeback, resurgence, regrowth.  And unlike NYC or San Francisco, young people can actually afford to live here, and can afford to have some fun.

America’s comeback is, and will be, taking place in its cities.  A lot of this is change is brought about by an influx of young working people.  Young people who move in, work, and spend their money here.  There are still huge problems, but that just isn’t the whole story.

IMG_6515So it feels good to move to a city that is coming back to life, and showing people that “moving to the city” is still relevant and desirable.

It may be overshadowed by bigger, sexier Chicago, but Milwaukee is very much a worthy, interesting destination city on its own.  I know one Chicago resident, who comes up on weekends, because he loves visiting the local joints in our town.  Madison, Wisconsin’s state capital, is prosperous and squeaky clean, and has earned the reputation of being the ultimate college town (though it will always rank below my favorite, Ithaca, NY) but Milwaukee can give them a run for their money — there is a vast population of students and recent graduates.

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You can have an apartment!  Not a cleaning supplies closet “artfully re-purposed into a Living Pod,” or a retro-engineered shipping container, or a squat where the coachroaches have names and their own little bunk beds.  You don’t need to live in a derelict loft with five roommates, and go dumpster-diving behind Panera’s; here you can live a good life on very little money. Beer is cheap, and it is good – Milwaukee’s old-time genetic coding has kicked in, after all this is Brew City, and they’re once again making great beer around here.  Microbreweries like Sprecher, Lakefront, Brenner  turn out ales and lagers as good as anything in Europe.  There’s lots of innovative stuff, too, like organic pumpkin beer, tangerine IPA, etc. and a really smooth black lager.  Bars are plentiful, friendly, and the “pub food” is excellent, and the nightlife is good.

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Where I live, West Allis, somewhere between a city neighborhood and a suburb, there are tree-lined streets, and you can walk along the Hank Aaron Trail to downtown, and then along the RiverWalk, which stretches right through the heart of the city.  You can walk on top of the bluffs along the lakefront, and they even have a lighthouse.

A quintessential American city — it’s a diverse population, mostly Germans, Poles and Mexicans, but with dozens of other groups and ethnic communities in the mix. There are African-American neighborhoods mixed with Hmong immigrants just up the road from an old Scandinavian enclave.  Maybe, here in the middle, as the new, monied elites grow richer on both coasts, will be one of the last bastions of middle class America.

IMG_6331A world-class art museum on the Lake (the building alone is an architectural gem, in part a design by Eero Saarinen, who did the St. Louis Arch and buildings that still look futuristic at Dulles and JFK airports), authentic ethnic restaurants, hip lofts and desirable neighborhoods, full of hipsters, yuppies and yup-sters, a cool live-music scene and lots to do, this town is excellent.  To amuse tourists and local visitors alike, a stroll along one of downtown’s main streets takes you past a series of street poles with mini-stories told in ‘flip art’.   Milwaukee offers more green space than any major American city — parks abound along the lake. You can visit the Pabst mansion, the Mitchell Domes (huge geodesic gardens, one for desert, one for tropical), enjoy German food in the restaurant that has hosted four US presidents, celebrate “Pho-bruary”, and experience blue-collar America’s factories, with tours of Miller (and the other breweries too) and Harley-Davidson’s factory.

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“The Streets of Old Milwaukee” in the excellent, and fun, Public Museum

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Celebrating Men in Tights

This town may not have the fashion scene, but it has character. Here, people talk to you. They are sincere; they are friendly.  You can live on a reasonable salary. Housing prices aren’t outrageous. You have all the big city amenities, and none of the traffic. Sure, this town lacks the frenetic pulse and determined weirdness that enlivens places like NYC, but it instead feels like a big small town. You feel like you’re at home, even when you’re not from around these parts. I think it’s wonderful. But don’t take my word for it, come and see for yourself.

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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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Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

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A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.

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The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.

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The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.

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The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.

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Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.

 

Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.

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The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.

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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.

Hong Kong rocky coast

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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.

HK fishing village 1

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.

straw hat HK

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.

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(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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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 humming 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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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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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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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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