Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Välkommen till Sverige!

I had heard such wonderful things about Sweden, I wasn’t sure it could possibly live up to my expectations, but so far I have not been disappointed! Sweden immediately reminded me of home, but different. Same trees, wide roads, so much more space, Canucks fans =), same cups and furniture (IKEA…) but new food, language and landscapes as well.
Sofia picked me up at the station in Östersund, a small city in northern Sweden. Her family was so generous and introduced me to some interesting Swedish food (like messmör, sweetened whey cheese paste (?) and delicious drinking yogurt among other things). We spent 3 days wandering, hiking and biking the area. I love nature! So great to get some real fresh air and peace. Friday we biked into town (everyone bikes there even though they only have 2 months of summer) and then walked around town, it’s really cute and so relaxed. We went to an ‘interactive outdoor museum’ where Sofia used to work. They have re-created what the town looked like in different centuries complete with the real buildings, furniture, household articles and people (who really act as if they are living there: taking care of the animals, the garden, cooking, cleaning and pretending they don’t speak English). It was such a neat idea and you can really get the feel for the history since you’re ‘in it’. Later we went to the indoor part of the museum and learned about the native Sami people and more local history. We biked back in the rain and that night we relaxed and watched a movie.
Saturday we took the car to the mountains (large hills, but with stunning views!). It was supposed to rain but instead cleared up nicely by the afternoon. We hiked right up to the top (where it was freezing with the wind, closest to winter as I'm likely to get for several months!) and then back around another way stopping for lunch at a little hikers cabin that fully equipped and anyone can use if they need to. Didn’t see any reindeer or moose (though I ate some of both later) but we did find a ton of berries! We picked a bag of mountain huckleberries (Swedish blueberries, real dark blue ones not those silly red coastal ones!!) and our lunch box full of cloudberries (soft yellow/orange berries that taste like nothing else). Just nature, except for a wind turbine belonging to the ski hill to run the lifts. On the way back we stopped at her family’s summer house on the lake and went for a short walk where we found more berries (black/red currants, raspberries and lingonberries). That evening we made huckleberry pie and took it over to her grandma’s place.
Sunday we went biking through town and across to the island and then to a lovely church which they of course decided to build on the very top, but I made it up even with a street bike! Then we went for ‘fikka’(??) Swedish coffee break with something to eat and admired the view! Refreshed, we biked back, packed up and had lunch. Then it was into the car for the 6+ hour journey, with a break for picnic dinner by one of the many picturesque lakes, back down to Uppsala where Sofia goes to university.
Monday we went canoeing in the morning up and down the river (I actually remember how to steer!). Canoe is Swedish is literally a ‘canadian’ so I was a Canadian in a canadian… It was beautiful weather. Later we went walking around Uppsala, again bikes everywhere especially since it is a university city. I could easily live there too. I made dinner while Sofia was at class and managed to lock myself out with their new magnetic locks…
Yesterday it was up and off to the train station with my huge pack on the back of her bike (like the true hobo I am) and off to Stockholm. For a city, Stockholm is very beautiful and laid-back, built on several islands so there is water everywhere! We walked along the winding waterfront to an island where we had a picnic lunch and then off to Vasa museum, really cool! They salvaged a ship that sunk in 1628 after sailing for only 20 minutes. The whole ship is in the museum, 95% of it original. We learned about life back then, how and why they built this huge ship, why it sank, some of the victims and how they managed to bring it up and restore it after hundreds of years. I love history when it has a context and more personal side. We walked back through the old town: parliament, churches and royal palace to the station and I took the 4 ½ hour train to Lund, where I am now, relaxing in Astrid`s dorm room while she registers for classes.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Otro tres dias en Alemania

(August 20th-train in Sweden)
I was so exhausted by the time I arrived chez Simone in Darmstadt (back in Germany) after another transportation disaster… will add to the post of travel frustrations I still intend to write, but mostly this time it was my stupidity…
Anyway, I made it! And it was so incredibly hot in Germany too, so Monday we went to a lake in the afternoon and swam and relaxed and began plotting our tour of South America this fall (despite being nearly travelled out I still love planning and still quite excited for this!!). Then as we were lying on the beach clouds rolled in out of nowhere and before we could say ‘was that a drop of rain?’ the sky opened up and absolutely poured like I’ve never seen, with thunder and lightning and the whole bit. So we ran for the car and home. That evening the rain just stopped and the sun came out again and we had a delicious dinner on the patio, guess it just had to get it all out at once. Then we watched a movie (L’Auberge Espagnole which left us speaking French) and called it a night.
Tuesday I went with Simone as she had to go to work in Frankfurt. I spent the morning wandering around and seeing all the sights, the churches, the main square and the shopping street. Then I met up Simone for a picnic lunch along the Main river. In the afternoon I basically just relaxed in the park along the river as it was so hot and I needed to relax, read and write some letters. That evening we went back to Darmstadt and then out with some of Simone’s friends to an Irish pub that puts on a bilingual quiz game competition. One of the seven categories was ‘Darmstadt’ so I wasn’t any help there but under sports they asked where the 2010 Olympics were so that was a giveaway. We came in 4th out of 26 teams so not too shabby but a bit disappointing since there are prizes for the top three teams.
Yesterday I slept in, it was fabulous. Then we wandered around downtown Darmstadt in the intense heat and had ice cream (spaghetti ice cream!). Saw some of the sights, the 5-finger tower and the dome church, but it was really too hot to do anything. We spoke Spanish almost all day! But I’ve still forgotten so much and it was hard not to mix eng/fr/span/ger… aaah! Last night we went to a salsa bar but the lessons were way beyond me, oh well it reminded me of Ecuador (as did the battle with 3 huge nasty spiders when we got back!) and I think I at least have the basics down now!
I am now on the train heading from Stockholm to northern Sweden (5 ½ hours) after leaving before 6am (have been sleeping on the train) to catch the bus to the airport then another bus from the airport to Stockholm. 13 ½ hour travel day… At least I made all my connections this time!

Un billet weekend Liège-Vielsalm

(July 20-train in Sweden)
Well tiny villages do have their disadvantages... when there are no buses on a weekend and no pay phones. However, they have their advantages too… when the man at the ticket desk knows the family and their new number and calls them for you!
Once again it was so nice to go back and see how some things have changed but most things haven’t and likely never will. Saturday I visited for a bit, the mom dropped the kids off and they actually haven’t changed. Definitely grown and perhaps calmed down a bit but otherwise… it was like I had stepped back in time. That evening we all went out for pizza in town.
Sunday it was up bright and early, off to the dirt-biking (moto cross) competitions for the day! There are competitions almost every weekend and most people camp over but the local club was hosting this one so it was in a nearby germanophone village. So a real trilingual event. It was incredibly hot all weekend and obviously quite dusty as well but I’m glad I got to go since I’d never seen a moto cross competition as it was winter when I was there. The dad still races though this may be his last year but Baptiste (the 5 year old) now has his own moto and gear and may be allowed to race next year. There were some 5/6 year olds racing, so cute! But a little scary… Victoria and I left with the grandpa after the second round races in the afternoon and had ‘le gouter’ with the grandma and aunt/uncle and then later ‘souper’ with more extended family and friends that just showed up without warning. It was some kind of holiday so that is accepted…
The dad and Baptiste didn’t get back until quite late and we all just went to bed as I had to be at the station at 6h00, so a very quick visit but very worth it.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Das essen ist fantastisch

(15th - On the train to Belgium)
Well the food was fantastic though I didn’t make it to Essen this time…
So I made it to Germany despite the set back, only 5 hours late and somewhat poorer. I arrived rather late at night and was so glad to see Anna!! We had dinner past midnight…. And then went right to sleep, I was exhausted! Thursday I had a lazy morning that was so needed. We had lunch and headed into Bonn on our bikes in the rain (it’s a university town and everyone bikes everywhere, so great!). We visited Anna’s friend and walked about Bonn, birthplace of Beethoven. It is a very nice city as it wasn’t destroyed in the war and isn’t too big or too small. Later we met up with some of the international students in the medical program for whom Anna is a coordinator and we all went to an outdoor beer garden on the Rhine for dinner and then off to see a silent movie outside in the courtyard of the university. (It had luckily stopped raining by that point though stayed a bit cold…) The movie was really good and had French inter-titles so I could even understand, though it is amazing how much can be communicated without words and I think I would’ve understood anyway.
Yesterday we were supposed to go to Essen and even bought tickets before finding out that Anna’s parents weren’t getting back from Chicago until today… so we decided it was too far to go if they weren’t even going to be there. So Anna the miracle worker talked the train lady into giving us a refund on our tickets and we went to Köln instead. We saw the beautiful Dom cathedral and wandered about the shopping district (didn't buy anything as my backpack is already overflowing!) gathering food until we had enough for a first-rate picnic. Which we ate in the belt park, a circular park that surrounds Köln. Then we caught the train back to Bonn and biked back up to Anna’s where she made amazing crêpes! So we feasted again and then relaxed and watched a movie. It was so nice to see her again and catch up after 3 years, some people never change! I am now on the train to Belgium to visit my first au-pair family for the weekend.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wandering wonderful, wet Wales

(Written Aug12 12h30: In the Manchester airport right now waiting for another flight after missing my flight for the first time ever (&%#*@!), will add this experience if I survive to another post of the downsides to travelling since I think I’ve painted a fairly rosy picture so far…)

So Wales! After a spot of difficulty my friend Kathryn met me at the station and we went to the pub in the small Welsh village where she works (since she had to go to work). I read for most the time and went for a long walk around at sunset. So gorgeous, I love the countryside there, straight out of a travel brochure! Lush rolling hills. Golden fields and light green meadows dotted with loads of white sheep, bordered with dark green hedges, grey stone fences and storybook trees. Under a wet grey sky… no it wasn’t near as bad as I expected in fact two of the three days were sunny, most of the day, the weather is extremely unpredictable.
The first day we just wandered around Wrexham nearest Welsh town and then sat in the park with her friends listening to a free music festival and relaxing all afternoon. It was all local musicians and bands, a really neat idea.
The next day we took the car and headed off to the coast through the rain. Despite lots of optimism (shorts) it didn’t really clear up until late evening. However, it was warm enough and had stopped raining by the time we were walking around. We went for a fancy lunch in a restaurant in the bottom of an old castle (!), delicious meal and we got free entry into the village of Portmeirion. Portmeirion is gated village with quaint very colourful buildings, like you’d expect to see on the Mediterranean, with a beach and lots of walking paths in the forest. So pretty even under clouds! We wandered about all afternoon exploring and taking pictures, mostly in the forest which reminded me of the road to Hana in Hawaii, it was almost tropical vegetation, not what you would expect for northern Wales at all! Flowers, palms and trees with red trunks. Even a dog cemetery… very random. The tide was out and the bay was so shallow it was like a sea of sand. We took a detour on the way back to visit a real old Welsh castle on the sea but we got there a bit too late to go in so we just walked all around it and around the village there, just like I would picture it, Welsh scenery has definitely not let me down!
Yesterday we took a trip to Liverpool and perhaps because it was so sunny, it did not fit my image of dreary docks and hard workers at all. We spent most of the time on the Albert dock, a lovely big square dock with cafés, shops and museums all the way around. Very nicely done. We visited the Tate Liverpool, another free modern art museum but this one had a sculpture exhibition. I still can’t appreciate modern art like I’m sure I’m supposed to… some of it I can vaguely relate to or appreciate how it makes you think or view something differently but in general… I just see a lot of random, creepy rubbish! After a picnic in the sun on the dock we went to the Beatles Experience which had TON of information on the Beatles and a well done audio walking tour though it was hard to read all the boards and try to listen to the audio tour and of course random clips of Beatles music playing throughout. But it was well laid out all underground and stone walls, they managed to re-create the atmosphere of old Liverpool clubs. There wasn’t as much memorabilia as I expected but they had McCartney’s first guitar, Lennon’s famous glasses and several real letters and some clothing. After we walked down the street where they used to play and that was neat even though it’s been re-done. Took the train back via Chester so got to see Chester very briefly, really cool old downtown around with old buildings all along the street and a pedestrian bridge with a lovely clock. In the evening we went to a family friend’s house for a scrumptious BBQ and I got my free-range minted Welsh lamb, yum!
Wales is such a nice place, and some people do still speak Welsh! All the signs are bilingual and some of the people in the touristy bits were speaking Welsh to each other. All I picked up on is that ARAF means SLOW… what a weird language though. It’s like scramble up an English word, take out half the vowels and replace them with some more consonants, then decide to randomly double a few of the consonants so they make different sounds (like ff=th?) and voilà, a completely unpronounceable Welsh word! Words with no vowels at all or perhaps a y if you’re lucky...

Next stop (hopefully!) Germany (via Belgium...)

Everything English!

(Written Aug 10 and 12)

Despite the reaction I kept getting every time I mentioned I was going to Swindon, I had a fabulous time! (Perhaps because we spent most of the time out of Swindon?)

I arrived off the bus and promptly got lost for an hour in the pouring rain (I think I need to do a backpacker’s rant post sometime and so will go into more detail about that episode later..) Anyway, I finally made it to Sarah’s house and was welcomed with a hot shower. We made delicious dinner and relaxed all evening. The next day it was up and off to see the sights.

On our way to Stonehenge we visited the village of Averbury, which I actually found more interesting than Stonehenge. The village is surrounded by a huge circle of old stones. It’s older than Stonehenge and the circle is of course way bigger but the stones are smaller and less well preserved so that would be why it is much less well-known. No one knows why they decided to work for over a hundred years to build this and it’s so cool to be able to walk among the stones and wonder. Very pretty village too.

Then we continued on to Stonehenge which is indeed huge, impressive and mind-boggling as to how they possibly managed to build it, but you can’t get right up close as there’s a fence around it. So we didn’t bother to pay to get a tiny bit closer and just viewed it from the road, I think it is almost more impressive from a distance.

On the way back we stopped in Salisbury for a true English cream tea and visited the immense Salisbury cathedral which contains the oldest clock in the world and the best preserved of the four known copies of the Magna Carta. You can view it right up close but no pictures. That evening we popped over the local village pub (exactly as you’d imagine it) to visit her friends so I really got the entire English experience in one day!

I left the next day so it was only a really quick visit but a thoroughly enjoyed one! I spent the 8th on the bus to Chester via London (yes London is kind of out of the way but it was the cheapest route…) and then begins the chapter: Wales!

Friday, August 7, 2009

London! Part Two

Last Monday I got back to London and we spent that afternoon at the market in Camden, a maze of stalls and little shops with all sorts of jewellery, alternative clothing, some antiques and artworks, lots of ethnic food, just a whole blend of neat stuff! So interesting to wander around in but so much that it’s a bit overwhelming to buy anything unless you want something specific. That and I really can’t buy anything since I’m already out of luggage room…
That evening we made an amazing butter chicken curry and relaxed. Tuesday was a real packed day of true tourism. Most of the museums in London are free so we made the most of that! Started at the British Museum: Could spend a week there if you in the right mood, could spend a week in most of the museums if you were in the right mood! The British Museum has historical artefacts from all of the ancient civilisations and some more recent as well, from all over the world. I saw Egyptian mummies and the Rosetta Stone! Things from all periods of European history and Asia, the Incas… just overwhelming. Next stop: The National Gallery. I’m not big on art but still enjoy just viewing it all. Seeing real Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt etc. right up close so you can see each individual stroke is really impressive. From there we hopped on the bus to the Victoria & Albert Museum which is real maze but cool in that it has a really diverse exhibits. A hall full of gold and silver, the history of jewellery, clothing, design, more artwork, I can’t even remember all that we saw! Finally we made our way over to Buckingham Palace which you can only really peer at through the gate but it is so huge and pretty cool to see. Then relaxed in St. James’ Park for a bit. One awesome and exhausting day!
Wednesday I was on my own so I just walked along the Embankment, saw St. Paul’s Cathedral and then checked out the Museum of London which had the history of London from the beginning of time up to the Great Fire in 1666. Neat to see the evolution. They are going to get right to 2012 for the Olympics that year. Then I walked past Parliament and Westminster Abbey but had seen those before and read for awhile in the park, the weather was so nice the whole time! Unfortunately I left my memory card in my computer so most of the pictures are on internal memory and I don't have the cord for my camera so they will likely stay there for awhile...
I left London yesterday and am now in Swindon until tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

A weekend in my English haven

After a lovely visit with my favourite couple of Brits, (so nice to see you again J&M, thank-you!) I am fully re-fuelled and ready to continue my journey. Truly though, my weekend can only be described in such terms as splendid, jolly good, delightful, brilliant and tickity-boo. If they lived in a hole with colourful round door I think it would be like being hosted by hobbits and of course to me, the countryside looks very Shire-like... It’s one gorgeous meal after another, nice walks along the sea or around the 800-year old abbey and plenty of time to relax and read which I haven’t done in about two years. Just what I needed! Hopefully one day I’ll have my own place and people will actually come visit me so I can spoil them!
I am now back in London for a few days and will update those adventures in a separate post.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

32 perfect French hours

(written 31st pm on ferry back)
After a long, but not long enough for a decent sleep, overnight ferry crossing, I arrived in Le Havre at 8am. Luckily I found my way straight to the little hotel (very nice as cheap hotels go: clean, quiet and friendly) and abandoned my pack. I then wandered about the downtown on foot. Nothing has changed, it was so odd to be back! Over 3 years and it’s the same smells, the same bus system, same carts in Auchan that won’t drive straight…. The only thing missing was of course the same people. Astrid and Melina, I missed you two so much the whole time!! Bisous!
It was quite cloudy and windy when I arrived so I thought I better not take my chances with the weather and opted for a bus pass instead of renting a bike, though the weather did steadily improve. In fact, it was a gorgeous day and today was even nicer. My little séjour copied the weather and just kept getting better as well. In the morning I wandered along the beach full of kite surfers, then did a bit of shopping. (Got myself organic cotton jeans for 24euros… I love Europe) And took my picnic lunch (they have vanilla flavoured prunes, which are actually good!) uptown to the big forest/park, wandered around my favourite cemetery (the one with all the war victims, the Canadians and the unknowns…) Went to the mall then back downtown and dropped off some of my stuff then headed back up to see if my family might still be there. Well, they most certainly were but I hadn’t got their e-mail and their phone number had changed. It was so nice to see them again! I understand why kids get the “my how you’ve changed!” all the time, because they are all that changes. My baby had 3 more years to put with the 6 months he had last time and was walking, talking, counting, drawing and going to kindergarten! The little girl was unfortunately with her grandparents in Portugal. What awesome kids though.
So they dropped everything and we all went down the beach boardwalk and had dinner (fresh seafood and roasted veggies au gratin with chocolate mousse for dessert!) And we got to visit and they tried to convince me to come teach English at the merchant marine academy where they teach for a year…. You never know… I love that city. Perfect size, perfect blend of old and new, great transportation, the ocean, the countryside, close enough to the rest of Europe... so very French too but I don’t mind and my French though rusty after even a month of disuse while trying to learn Spanish came right back, even my France accent apparently!
After a good night’s sleep (I already appreciate immensely any opportunity to sleep horizontally!) I packed up and again leaving my pack at the hotel, bussed back uptown and went walking along the ocean cliffs in the countryside just north of town. My favourite place in the whole world probably. They had torn down the creepy old military building and it was so overgrown already I almost thought my memory was playing tricks on me but otherwise it hadn’t changed a wink. So I feasted on wild blackberries (they weren’t ripe last time!), white nectarines and more petit écoliers (so good) on the ocean cliff for late breakfast and was thoroughly satisfied with life.
Then I had lunch with my French family, tried sting ray wings (!) I should have come to expect this after the foie gras and the raw oysters. Actually very tender and quite good especially with a few capers to give them some flavour.
All in all, a perfect little trip though I would’ve added an extra day on there if I’d known the family was still there. Now on the ferry back over to Portsmouth where I will be spending the weekend with my distant yet very dear relatives!