Pyramiden: An Arctic Ghost Town

There used to be coal

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?

Ready for a swim?

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An attempt to capture majesty on an Arctic cruise

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

If I use my fingers, I can get a perspective

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A day in Longyearbyen

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

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Longyearbyen: Hawaii in the Arctic

In the Oslo airport, we passed through passport control and were stamped out of the country.  We were officially off the grid.Longyearbyen2Descending 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

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.

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A spot of Dutch tea

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.

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My French Fry Limit

Flemish Fry Guy

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.

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Initial Impressions: Alabama Haiku

Dead armadillo
Welcome to Alabama
Can I please go now.

Credit:  Tanjila Ahmed (flickr)

Credit: Tanjila Ahmed (flickr)

This must be from 2009 because I try not to go to Alabama often.  I think I was driving from Texas to Maryland via Atlanta.

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Initial Impressions: Downtown Portland

Light Rail into Portland

Light Rail into Portland

I had not visited Portland Oregon in many years until I arrived on June 12, 2015.  On my Light Rail ride into downtown, I recorded my observations.  They are just bullet points, but we will call it “free verse.”


Ugly people making out on a street corner.
Texting on a bike while crossing light rail tracks.
Woman in wheelchair with three dogs.
Hippie skirt, backpack, and camera.
Freegan with skull skirt pulling a styrofoam container from the trash can at the food truck park and taking two bites.

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Visiting Chico, California

Traveling to Chico, California?  Need to entertain your parents in Chico?  Coming to visit Chico State?  In the spirit of the “listication” of travel, here are the Top 5 things to do in Chico, CA.  Later, I will post more details, but at least you can keep yourself busy for a weekend.  Everyone here is friendly, so reach out to a stranger for more tips.

Credit:  MichaelSmithChico

Credit: MichaelSmithChico

  1.  Sierra Nevada Brewery.  If you have picked up a bottle of Sierra Nevada beer since 1980, you will find CHICO, CA proudly on the label.  Sierra Nevada started before craft beer was cool, taking a huge risk.  Now, it is the 2nd biggest craft brewer in America.  They are also a leader in sustainability.  This is a great tour, followed by a tasting.
  • BONUS:  It’s a free tour!  Leaving you more money for the restaurant & gift shop.
  • TIP:  book the tour in advance online.  The weekend tours sell out fast.
  • TIP:  eat before or after in the Taproom.  Creative and local cuisine, without being arrogant or expensive.
  • SOUVENIR:  a Sierra Nevada hoodie is almost the official clothing of Chico.
  • SOUVENIR:  pick up some beer that is only distributed in Northern California (the “Old Chico” line)

2.  Bidwell Park.  At 4 times the size of Central Park, it can be a bit overwhelming, so I will break it down for you. Continue reading

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When the Real is Surreal

It all seemed pretty normal until I really thought about it.  I’m just on vacation wandering the streets in a strange city, but it doesn’t feel strange because I am actually experiencing it first person.  I stop for a festival in the square, have a glass of wine, just as I would grab a lemon shake-up at a festival back home.  Until I look up and realize how surreal this is.

Graz:  A tram runs through it

Graz: A tram runs through it


I am in Graz, Austria, which I had not heard of until two weeks ago, where the baroque city hall (from 1823:  it says so right on the front) presides over a stage where two fiddlers play Hungarian music.  Continue reading

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