Once I lived in Washington DC. When I needed to see palm trees, I would visit the US Botanic Garden next to the Capitol. When I lived in Ohio, I could go to the Franklin Park Conservatory. But I cannot think of a day that I do not need to see a palm tree.
I shall drink iced tea on the balcony overlooking the palms
When visiting Gothenburg Sweden, I realized there was a palm house. Back in the 1800s, they hadn’t invented non-stop flights to the tropics (plus malaria and yellow fever were bummers), so cities, countries, and rich royals built palm houses.
Of course, I needed to visit. Then, I wanted to move in. I wanted to sit at a table, take my morning tea (and my afternoon iced tea). Guests could ring the doorbell. I would greet them, and we would choose one of the wings to sit in (Shall we visit the Mediterranean garden today?). I would build a pool so I could swim under the palms. Continue reading
Waiting for the bus in Innsbruck
Everywhere I go, I am a native. I had been in Oslo for less than an hour and was waiting for a bus when a British couple walked up to me and asked me how to use public transit. And I knew the answer. Four hours later, at a tram stop, a college-aged Osloan asked me in Norwegian if this was the right corner to pick up his tram. I was like “English?” When he asked again in English, I didn’t know the answer. Just because I look like I know what’s going on doesn’t mean I actually do. But surprisingly often, I have a clue. I’m aware of the “asking for directions” pickpockets and other scams, so I am always on the lookout for strange behavior. But usually, people just want to get somewhere. I am not sure why people ask me directions wherever I go. Continue reading
Expectations are part of travel. I wrote this before my visit to Longyearbyen on the island of Svalbard, but I’m sharing it after the voyage.
I love to land in Europe after an overnight flight. Legs finally stretched. Lemmings to passport control. Not quite sure of the time–only aware that it is light out and there are some people in the airport in suits who must be heading to work somewhere.
I wanted to fly to Longyearbyen before I had adjusted to European time. So I booked a flight landing in Oslo in the late afternoon–with a flight to Longyarbyen the morning after. Just enough time to rest, but not enough time to adjust. Why adjust to a time zone when it is light for 24 hours? And not just a little bit light, like Anchorage, but serious light. I wanted the confusion, because confusion is how I wanted to tackle the barren. Continue reading
I wrote this before I went to Svalbard. It is worth reflecting on at the end of the journey.
Unless you are a polar bear (or an upside-down penguin), there is really no reason to go the Arctic Circle. “What is there?” my friends asked, because that is what you are supposed to ask. I didn’t have a reason.
I want to see the midnight of midsommar in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. I wanted to be in a place more northerer than Barrow, Alaska. “Northerer” is actually a word in Svalbard, because they speak walrus there. You may know that walrus are apt to use words like northerer. They say the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow (which is not exactly unique, but it sounds good), and the walruses have many for “north”. They don’t even have a word for south. If you don’t believe me, try to get a walrus to say “south.” You will fail. Continue reading
There used to be coal
I am like WTF. Because this day has been a day where my adult words aren’t working. I am at a ghost town in the Arctic called Pyramiden. For decades, over a thousand Soviets worked here mining coal, raising families, playing basketball, waiting for the sun to rise after a long winter. The USSR evaporated. The coal was unprofitable. The school closed in 1993. The mine closed in 1998. And now I am here after a 2 hour boat ride from one of the northernmost cities in the world.
I walk around the abandoned buildings like WTF. The 5-story tall apartment buildings empty. The cultural center empty. But there are still posters on the walls. The athletic center empty. But all the swimming pool needs is water. The cafeteria empty. But the tray line is still there.
Ready for a swim?
I am on a 5-hour cruise northward from Longyearbyen. Northward toward the 80th parallel.
Out of the boat windows, it looks like the Alps after the great flood. If we could pull the drain plug, we may find Zermatt down there somewhere. Innsbruck, too. Some of the valleys are snow, but it is easy to visualize them as clouds, 10000 feet up. There is no evidence this is an island. It is just water and peaks and sky.
I take photos. But 4×6 is the wrong size. I need 4×60. I need a wall border. 365-degrees of water and snow. To focus in, I resort to using my fingers to block out the sky and the sea. I wonder when the last person was up there. I wonder if there is a polar bear watching our boat. I wonder how cold it is there. I go back inside the cabin, still amazed.
If I use my fingers, I can get a perspective
I am in Longyearbyen because I haven’t been here. And because I will never be here again. I am here because it is Midsommar, the summer solstice (although the solstice doesn’t really matter when the sun won’t set again for a couple months). I am here because I want to see real midnight sun (none of that soft twilight they offer in Anchorage. I want the real thing!) I am here because it is as far north as commercial planes land. Alaska wishes it was this far north. I am here because I want to ride a polar bear. There is a stuffed polar bear at baggage claim, and in my hotel, and the Radisson hotel, and the museum. But you’re not supposed to ride them. And I hear the real ones are too mean. Continue reading
In the Oslo airport, we passed through passport control and were stamped out of the country. We were officially off the grid.Descending through the clouds into an Arctic landscape, we could be approaching Hawaii. The way the passengers strain to look out the window too capture their first glance of this exotic land.
Svalbard Airport, Longyearbyen
Climbing down from the stairs in Longyearbyen, the landscape could be Kauai in black and white. The greens replaced with gray. Blue rivers and waterfalls are white remnants of winter snow.
Then again, it may be Diamond Head. The similarity is striking.
Diamond Head, Oahu
Stepping down from the plane, the passengers stop to take photos, to capture this moment, this memory, just as they do when landing in Hawaii or the Caribbean. The first brush with the exotic.
I buy aardbei black tea every time I visit Amsterdam. And that is not a code word for another dried leaf that Amsterdam is known for. I bring an extra empty duffel bag, stashed in my suitcase, to fill up with boxes of strawberry tea purchased at Albert Heijn, the grocery store that is everywhere in Amsterdam. I stuff my cabinets with the little boxes, and I carefully ration it–afraid of what will happen when it’s gone. Afraid that I will need to go back to Lipton. Afraid that I will need to go back to Amsterdam. On select summer Saturdays, I brew a pitcher of strawberry iced tea, sweetened just right, and I remember my trips.
I tell myself it is ok to drink the tea. It is ok to savor. They will make more strawberry tea. I can try another strawberry tea. It may even be better. More mellow, more potent, or more strawberryrific. I can probably order strawberry tea online, but that is not what I want. I don’t want logical solutions to quench my thirst. I want to read the box in Dutch and say to myself that those are not even words–just jibber jabber in sentence form. I want to unwrap the teabag, to remember drinking tea from a little glass mug in a little cafe along a canal that I will never be able to pronounce.
I have been more generous lately, willing to share my tea with friends and family–not simply hoarding it for a future tea-free day. I haven’t run out yet–having been able to visit Amsterdam every now and then, even if on a 4-hour layover on the way to somewhere else. But it’s been two years, and my stash is low. I can buy other strawberry black teas here in America. I can live without it. But that is far from the point. When I open the cupboard, the little boxes of tea tell me the world is big. There are places to explore. There is more to be discovered. If the tea runs out, what will remind me of the joys of travel, and the ability of travel to show us new things, new places, new cities, and new teas.
I do have one consolation. In the same cupboard as the tea, there is a shaker of salt, purchased in the too-perfect-to-be-real town village of Halstatt, Austria, where it was mined in the mountain above town. I will still be able to remember the journey, but salt just doesn’t taste as good in my mug in the morning.
Flemish Fry Guy
If it is possible to reach my French fry limit, I was pushing my luck in Bruges, where I ate fries every day. They say the Belgians invented fries, not the French. As long as I can eat them, I don’t care what you call them.
The little fry stands dot the streets, and they double fry them. Then they offer you about 10 kinds of sauce, from ketchup and mayonnaise to some I had never heard of. Our favorite was Joppie saus, which I learned about from the stranger in line ahead of us at the (French) fry stand. He ordered American sauce, which seemed strange. I figure if American sauce was so awesome, we would have it in America. We skipped that. But we liked the curry ketchup (how very British).
I do have one major issue with Belgian fries: mayonnaise (which is my personal kryptonite). If your fries are so gross that you need mayo on them, you’re doing something wrong with the fries!
I visited Bruges in Summer 2014.