• Prague

    Wednesday, June 24th

    The train out of Berlin was operated by the Czech railway. It seemed like a fairly nice train, but was a bit different as I think it was meant to be used as a sleeper train. While most trains so far has seats set up in rows, sometimes facing each other, sometimes not, this train was set up so little groups of six seats had their own room. Good for sleeping but a little cramped otherwise. Our little compartment was already occupied by a father, son, and an older woman when we got on the train. The scenery was pretty nice leaving Berlin and heading south. Near the southern edge of the country are some mountains, not very tall but still a lot more scenic than going though endless countryside.

    Arriving in Prague, something comes apparent very quickly: hills. Having a knack for picking hostels in the hills, the walk from the train station seemed like it was almost entirely uphill. At least that had the benefit of making the walk into town almost entirely downhill.

    Another thing that you’ll quickly notice is the seemingly erratic parking. In most European cities, you’ll see parallel parking and the occasional slanted parking. In Prague, it appeared people just felt like parking on the sidewalk. That was actually how you were supposed to park. There was a line on the sidewalk marking the forward limit of parking and another line on the pavement showing the other end of the parking space.

    Speaking of sidewalks, Prague had some amazing sidewalks. They were made out of small stones, probably inch to an inch and a half cubes in black and white. The stones were laid in patterns, sometimes for multiple city blocks. I guess I should also note that these weren’t the sidewalks that people parked on, usually.

    Walking around, I soon came across a strange sculpture. It was like someone took a head, cut it into horizontal strips, and let them rotate. Also, this sculpture was 20 feet tall and metallic. I looked it up later and I guess it is supposed to be a memorial to Franz Kafka, who apparently was Czech as there were a couple of other things dedicated to him around the city.

    The heart of the old city is on a river. To enter the old part of town, you have to go through a literal tourist trap. It’s a narrow path through a building lined by tons of souvenir shops. Cars don’t have it much better, as they also have to drive through part of the building and share their lanes with the city’s tram.

    Immediately after the tourist trap was the Charles Bridge. I guess it was built in the 1300s, and there obviously aren’t too many bridges left from that era. It is a pedestrian bridge now, with the occasional city vehicle also crossing. Along the bridge are at least a dozen statues and most of them a very old. Some might be original, but it was hard to tell. There were tons of artisans, I guess you could call them, on the bridge. People selling handmade things and sometimes making more of them on site. Portrait and caricature artists. The occasional musician. It wasn’t the normal selfie stick or other knick knack selling crew. One of the musicians was pretty unique. He played wine glasses filled with different levels of water. Each glass had to be wired with a microphone to be audible. The other end of the bridge was more old buildings, often only a couple stories tall. That side of town was also home to the old Prague castle, set high on a hill.

    Back across the river is the core of old town. It had a large town square, as I had come to expect in old towns in Europe. Like many town squares, it had a large town hall with a large clock. Of course, you could also climb to the top of this tower and get a really good view of town because everything was much shorter than the tower. This clock tower was unique because it has a famous astronomical clock on one side, and also does an animation once an hour, which a large crowd gathers for as it gets close to the top of the hour. In a nearby shop we found a shop selling nesting dolls featuring various sports teams. They didn’t have any K-State Wildcats, but they did have some Jayhawks and Chiefs. They even had some baseball teams, eight or so. One of those teams was sold out, the Royals. I guess their success over the last two seasons has a worldwide effect!

    Thursday, June 25th

    Many of the days attractions were located in the area near the Charles Bridge. First was the Lennon Wall, a graffiti filled wall dedicated to John Lennon. I’m not sure what his connection is to Prague but I guess at some point someone felt that it was necessary to start a wall with his lyrics and other things painted on it. Next was an attempt at finding an efficient route to the castle. I don’t think there really is an efficient route since it’s at the top of a huge hill, but our route definitely was not efficient as we wound up above the castle at one point. On the way uphill was the American embassy. It was a normal neighborhood building on a quiet street, and the only sign that something was different was that the street had security about a block away checking cars trying to get into the area.

    Finally arriving in the castle area, it feels like the castle is its own neighborhood. By this time, a lot of the castles started to blend together. It was neat, and it was old, like many of the other castles. There was a monumental church too. One different thing about this castle were what appeared to be servants quarters, a bunch of really tiny houses lining the castle walls. This place also had a weird thing about photography permits, or an attempt to get a couple extra bucks out of the tourist. No one obeyed the permit thing in the church, and many of the rest of the buildings weren’t worth taking pictures of anyways. In one particular building the staff member overseeing it cared quite a bit about enforcing the photo permit thing, although the older guy taking photos probably should have quit the first time he was asked. Another interesting part was little museum for the castle guard and how their role had changed over the years. As Czechoslovakia was one of those countries that was communist after World War II until 1989, there was a pretty big gap in the guard’s role (the castle was closed to the public and guarding it became just another normal job) but they’re now bringing back an old tradition.

    Google Maps indicated a large garden space near the river. The entry to the area was rather narrow, and easy for many tourists to miss because it looks like a fairly simple courtyard from the street. The space opens up into a large fountain and pool that felt nice and not overdone. Just some water plants and some large koi swimming in it. The area had some peacocks that occasionally let out loud squawks. The garden got more interesting with more fountains in statues. One area had a huge wall made to look like a grotto. There was also a stage that looked like it was being set up for a concert. After reading the sign that was completely in Czech, we decided to come back after walking around the neighborhood a bit more closer to what appeared to be a listed time on the sign.

    Coming back for the concert was a great idea. The area was full of people and we got a free, hour-long concert featuring many classical music pieces. I know there was at least one Bach and one Mozart piece played each, but I couldn’t tell you which ones were played. There were probably a dozen or so instruments in the ensemble and it sounded like they were some of the top players in the country.

    Friday, June 26th

    Friday continued the tradition of the last day in a city being a rather lazy day. The major attraction for the day was the Jewish Museum in Prague. It was tucked away in a part of Old Town and everything was within a couple blocks of each other. One of the weird things that first strikes you about the place is that it appears to be walled off from the outside. I’m not sure if that was done to make it into a ghetto at some point or if it was for security, but it still seemed a bit strange. It was also a bit annoying that they only accepted cash, so I had to spend most of my remaining Czech cash on the admission. The ticket allowed admission to about six buildings in the area, but a few of them stuck out.

    There was one building that was pretty empty. It had an elevated box seat area in the middle of the room, otherwise the focus was on the walls. On every available wall surface were handpainted names of every Czech Jewish victim of the holocaust, organized by their hometown. It was a very striking sight when you consider that this was only a monument to one country out of many affected by the Holocaust.

    A large portion of the area was a cemetery. It was ancient, with the first burial hundreds of years ago. The Jewish people will bury bodies on top of each other as long as their separated by a certain amount of dirt, so the area was very dense with headstones, which were all in Hebrew. The burial method also meant that the cemetery was rather hilly even though the paths were flat because there were so many levels of bodies.

    There were also a couple of active synagogues. The first seemed fairly new and had just a few pews. The other is apparently the oldest synagogue in Europe despite its name as the Old New Synagogue. It’s rather plain from the outside. Inside it’s even stranger as the main area was a series of booth-like chairs on the outside edge and a ring in the middle of the same type of chairs facing towards the outside. Some of the seats had names assigned to them. As a bonus, I got a souvenir kippah for going to this synagogue since they require them for all men.

    Another walk through town took us by the astronomical clock and its square once again. Today though, the area was far more crowded as a film crew was trying to shoot a scene in front of the clock. A bit of searching on the internet revealed that it was the crew for Legends, a mediocre Crime/Thriller/Action/Drama on TNT entering its second season. It turns out that filming is rather slow and grows boring pretty quick as a guy tries to micromanage an area that has a ton of pedestrian traffic. Maybe they should have tried to shoot during a time that isn’t at the peak of tourist season.

    Heading south and across the river again was a park called Kampa Island. It had a lot of open space and in one area they had these really creepy crawling baby statues. We would later see the same statues crawling on a large TV tower.

    … and now it’s picture time:

    A view from the building that houses the astronomical clock.

    A view from the building that houses the astronomical clock.

    Inside the castle complex.

    Inside the castle complex.

    The concert at the Senate.

    The concert at the Senate.

  • Berlin

    This one should be shorter than some other recent posts.

    Sunday, June 21st

    Wallyard Concept Hostel was to be the home camp in Berlin. When we arrived, it was easy to see how it got it’s name. Their courtyard faced a large, blank wall of the building on the next street. At least it didn’t face a noisy street, and the courtyard was pretty quiet since all of the surrounding buildings were tall and took up their entire lots. This hostel also wins the award for most industrial feeling interiors, as a lot of the surfaces just appeared to be concrete painted black. The hostel was in a West Berlin neighborhood and just a couple blocks from a subway station.

    The subways in Berlin were different from those in every other city. It seemed like it was just one big honor system. There were no gates to get in or out of the station. You just needed a valid ticket and if you got caught without one, the fine was something like 40€. Despite this seemingly free access, neither trains nor platforms were full of people in many places. Busy, but not as packed as some other cities.

    Walking around the area in Berlin the first night, we decided to not take the subway. Before we got too far from the hostel, I noticed a little orange square embedded on the ground. At first, it just looked like a utility marker, just one that on the ground instead of on a pole, like most had been in Europe. Then, I noticed that there was a name on block, two dates, the second one during the war, and a location. It was pretty obvious that these were markers related to the Holocaust. I would later look them up online and find out that there’s a guy who’s been making these for the past 20 years or so on behalf of Holocaust victims’ families, etc. and placing them at their last known addresses before the war. He started it because people where he was from didn’t believe there were victims from their neighborhood. Now there are tens of thousands placed throughout Europe. The first one I saw was outside of a large apartment building that was obviously built after the war. I would later see them a few more times around Berlin.

    The first major destination we headed towards was an old war monument from a victory over France some 200 years ago. It was mostly just a tower, and I found it kind of funny that the statue on top faced towards France. The bronze(?) murals on the side of the monument were taken at some point, wound up in France, but they later returned them sometime after World War II. Immediately after the war, France wanted the monument torn down and not restored. Curiously, parts of the returned murals were missing, so there would be large and irregularly shape blank gaps on the sides of the monument base. By looking straight down the road, you could see the Brandenburg Gate.

    We wound up walking around the zoo to head towards one of Berlin’s centers. I guess that’s another thing that makes Berlin different. It has three “centers” in three different areas of the city. There was supposed to be a large music festival going on throughout all three of these centers. This center was focused on the main shopping street in Berlin, which was closed of course, because it was Sunday. We just wound up walking this closed shopping street for a while and looking at the buildings. Pretty close to the zoo was another church that had been bombed during the war. They intentionally did not restore its tower except for the clock face, so it provided for some stark contrast from the upscale shopping surrounding it.

    Another unique part of Berlin was the pipes. It didn’t take long to realize that there were a lot of above ground pipes for something. They were either pink or a navy blue, and would seemingly wind around and follow roads. They didn’t seem permanent because most their supports were just large concrete blocks, and what appeared to be sections of the same pipe. This was another thing I had to look up online. It turns out that Berlin gets it’s name from an old word “Berl” in some language, and that meant swamp. The city is still very swampy and the ground is not too stable in a lot of places. The pipes pump water out of problem areas and takes it to a larger body of water nearby. I guess this also makes construction very difficult in Berlin because anything with a basement has to constantly pump out water until the entire below ground section is finished while not disturbing the water table too much, as pumping out too much water could cause surrounding buildings to become unstable.

    Monday, June 22nd

    Having researched transit options in Berlin, I found out a day card good for both the above and below ground trains, as well as busses was only something like 7€. That didn’t seem like much of an issue until I found out that the ticket machine only took coins. Collecting coins when 1€ and 2€ (and anything smaller) only come in coins means it’s pretty easy to have 7€ in change, right? Well, we were both short after depositing our entire pockets full of change. An obvious solution would have been a change machine or to accept bills at the ticket machine, but neither was available. I would later notice change machines at other stations. Anyways, it was back to the surface to find places to make small purchases and get large amounts of change. A couple doors down from the station was the best, cheap, little bakery in Berlin. I would get 2 or 3 pastries each morning and be completely full for less than 1.50€.

    With enough change to buy a subway ticket, we headed towards Checkpoint Charlie. There was a museum located next to it, but it was a bit hard to find the entrance so we wound up going in the gift shop first instead of the entrance. This was also the first museum where a beggar managed to make it past the entrance.

    I’m not sure if I covered it in the Paris post much, but in summary there are plenty of people going around with “petitions” to help out the disabled, and they’ll often ask for a donation. The donation of course just goes straight to that person, but there’s enough dumb tourists that I guess it isn’t too hard for them to make a living out of it. The beggar only made it through a couple of rooms before being kicked out by the staff.

    It was a pretty interesting museum. There were plenty of displays on the creative ways people managed to successfully cross the barrier. That really helps you realize how sick the DDR (short for East Germany) was to put up the wall. Remember, the purpose of the wall wasn’t to keep people in West Berlin, it was to keep people from East Berlin and the rest of the DDR from using West Berlin as an escape route to West Germany or pretty much anywhere else. I think it might be a very good sign that there’s something wrong with the way you’re country is run when people want to leave it so desperately. The museum itself had a pretty obvious negative attitude towards the DDR and USSR. It was a bit funny to see how Britain, France, and the US handled the wall and its security. On the East Berlin side, there was this big huge strip cleared of everything with very heavy security, and often on the West Berlin side, streets dead ended at the wall and people would park right up against the wall. The museum didn’t just focus on the wall or Checkpoint Charlie, although those were very large parts of it. They also had pretty large displays about the end of communism in various European countries as well as a pretty extensive photography display from the recent happenings in Ukraine.

    On the site of the actual Checkpoint Charlie, there’s a replica station that seemed to be manned by actors… who’d stamp your passport. I am not sure why anyone would want a fake stamp on their passport, or if they realize the headaches that might cause when they try to get back home.

    A few blocks along the location of the wall (the location is marked with a double wide strip of cobblestones in the middle of the street, sidewalk, grass, wherever it might be) was a place called the Topography of Terror.  It was on the site of the former SS headquarters that had been bulldozed after the war, used as a dump for a while, and then the remaining foundation of the SS building was excavated to create this exhibit. The remaining foundation was on the side of the wall, which remained mostly intact for the block or so that the memorial took along the street. In the foundation was a chronological exhibit about the Holocaust. They also had a fairly new building on the site that contained much of the same type of information, but was more in depth.

    Potsdamer Platz was a short walk away. The entire area remained empty from the time the war ended until the fall of the Wall, which runs right through the middle of the area. This meant that it was filled with tons of new buildings and many of them were skyscrapers. It felt like a completely modern downtown area, something that you don’t really find in too many European cities, at least in the center of town.

    The next stop was the Brandenburg Gate, but before we got there, we came across a very large Holocaust memorial. From afar, it looks like a bunch of concrete rectangles with varying heights. I think the idea was to make the rectangles about coffin size, and there was probably three or so feet between rectangles, enough that you could walk between them. The rectangles were all on a grid so they lined up perfectly with each other. The ground was uneven and the rectangles got taller as the ground also lowered, so you could only see the path in front of you and that was it. On one side of this memorial there was a museum underground, but it was closed on Mondays.

    The Brandenburg Gate was cool, and the restoration work done since the wall fell made it look almost new. Likewise with the Bundestag (home of the German legislature), although the big glass dome on the Bundestag felt a bit out of place on the building.

    There was a bit of time left in the afternoon, so we headed towards the DDR Museum, located on the east side of town, of course. It was located on one of the main streets in Berlin (Unter der Linden) where the Brandenburg Gate is also located. This particular part of the street was home to a lot of new buildings. This museum was right next to the river and directly across from the Berlin Cathedral. This was a different museum. It had a lot of hands on things that they encouraged you to touch. It focused on daily life in East Germany. Things like transportation, jobs, housing, furnishings, kids toys, leadership, and more. There was not too much focus on the wall or other border security in East Germany.

    There was a mall near Potsdamer Platz and I thought it might be a good place to look for food, especially because it was still raining lightly. I thought it seemed like a fairly small mall to call itself “Mall of Berlin”, but it turned out that it was a pair of buildings with a big courtyard between them. There was a fairly extensive fort made out of cardboard boxes in the middle. I think it was supposed to be some type of architecture project. The mall turned out to be good for a few things other than foodcourt bratwurst (which was really good). They had a huge electronics store that had cheap battery packs, so I picked one up for recharging my phone, even though I had already figured out the problem that was causing my phone to take all night to just barely get charged. At the other end of the mall was an Aldi’s. Like the one in Denmark, this is the Aldi related to Trader Joe’s in the US, so they even had some Trader Joe’s brand stuff on the shelves. The Aldi you see in America is the other Aldi from the other part of Germany. It’s complicated (this Aldi was set up like the American Aldi but not like Trader Joe’s) but there is a Wikipedia article about it. I got some cheap chocolate that turned out to not be cheap everywhere else (Ritter Sport) because it came in small squares and had a variety of flavors included in the package, so I knew I could try a few different things. Since it was an Aldi’s, milk was very cheap. I think I paid something like fifty cents for a liter.

    Since it had quit raining, it was time to catch a train out to the east side of town to visit the East Side Gallery. The gallery is actually the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall, I think. It’s probably half a mile long and is continually painted with murals. Some of these murals have graffiti over them since they were painted a few years ago. The opposite side of the wall, facing a river, is just continuous graffiti that seems to get painted over every few months based on the dates of signatures on that side.

    Tuesday, June 23rd

    The precipitation from Monday continued into Tuesday, which made it a good lazy day. Having learned a lesson the day before, I had plenty of coins saved up to buy a subway pass in the morning. The remaining part of the morning was spent waiting outside in the rain and then visiting the Holocaust memorial that I described earlier. It contained a lot of personal stories and stories about how entire families were affected.

    Located close to the DDR Museum was the German History Museum. It had been the premier history museum in Germany for something like 200 years, including the time it was in East Berlin. Over the past 25 years, it has been renovated extensively and has become a modern museum. They had viewscopes set up in certain rooms so you could see how the rooms looked in the 1800s through the early 1900s, during recovery from World War II (the area was bombed pretty heavily and a wing of the museum was destroyed), and during its time under East German control, when it hosted a large number of exhibits about social things like the education system. The entire first floor of the museum is now dedicated to the century since the end of World War I, and thus provides a really good overview of everything that’s gone on in Germany since then. It was kind of like a combination of all of the other museums since the breadth of the museum was so large. We didn’t have time to do the other level of the museum, which covered German history from something like the years 1000-1914.

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    Church in the middle of Berlin.

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    Part of the Berlin Wall at the Topography of Terror

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    Brandenburg Gate

  • Hamburg

    Saturday, June 20th and Sunday, June 21st

    Almost all day on Saturday was spent traveling back to Hamburg, arriving there sometime around 10 pm. We had to take the train on the ferry again, and this time they even told us which deck to go to instead of letting us figure it out for ourselves. I also found out that there were two viewing decks, not just one. The hostel in Hamburg probably provided some of the worst sleep. They had a courtyard in between the set of buildings, which had great acoustics. Great enough that you could hear people out there all night long. Someone was yelling in German when I went to sleep. Someone was yelling in German when I woke up at 6 am. I am not sure why there were so many yelling people in Hamburg, but at least they are expressing themselves, I guess.

    Leaving the hostel there was a plaque on the building that it had been part of the concentration camp in Hamburg. Really glad we didn’t see that before checking in.

    It was Sunday, which apparently means that no stores in Germany are open. We found what looked to be the main shopping area in Hamburg, but none of the stores were open, just a few cafés here and there. That didn’t matter, we were trying to make our way towards the big park area lining one side of the city. We come across a church with a really large clock tower. I notice that there’s people at the top of the tower, so we decide to go investigate. It only costs a couple bucks to climb to the top, so we do that. It’s some 330 feet to the top, and we take the stair route because there’s a long line for the express elevator. It was a good tower to take the stairs. On one floor they had the clockworks for the tower. I wasn’t expecting them to be so large or have so many gears. The view from the top of the tower was worth the climb. You could see the entire city, and there was enough space that it wasn’t too crowded. The bells were ringing for noon as we walked towards the tower, and the 12:30 bell that went off while we were at the top made me thankful that I didn’t get to experience all of the noise for noon so closely. For some reason there wasn’t a long line for the elevator on the way down, but it did make it quick and easy to return to the bottom. I thought it was a bit funny that the elevator had a screen that showed the elevation and had an animation of where you were in the tower because the whole ride down only took a minute.

    Heading back towards the train station, we came across a bombed out church. The main tower of the church was the only part left standing relatively intact and was undergoing some type of long term restoration. The opposite end the church was left as a shell, just a couple of walls and empty spots where windows used to be.

    All of the exploration had built up quite an appetite. We came across a nice looking hamburger joint and decided to eat there. It turns out that hamburgers are taken pretty seriously in a city that shares its name with the sandwich. All ordering was done with an iPad that popped out of the table. The burger was delicious. As part of the tablet system, they had these plastic cards that you held up the the tablet screen to capture your order. At the end of the meal, you took that card over to the cash register to pay. It seemed a bit silly to me. 

    It was time to head back towards the train station. We had left our bags in a locker, so we retrieved them and went to the Deutsch Bahn office to make reservations for the train towards Berlin. The lady told us we didn’t need reservations since the train was completely within Germany. That turned out to be a bit of a mistake because the train was completely full, so I ended up sitting on the ground for the entire hour and 45 minute journey. It wasn’t all bad, as I could easily get up and stretch whenever I wanted, and I also had plenty of legroom. There were also plenty of other people without a seat.

  • Stockholm

    I think this may be the longest post yet!

    Tuesday, June 16th

    The trip to Stockholm would be one of the longer train rides by distance, but with a train that could hit 100 mph in the open Swedish countryside, crossing the width of the country and heading an equal distance north only took five hours. We arrived and headed to meet Katerina, who lived with Brock’s family as an exchange student a few years ago. We had the far outside train platform and in trying to make our way to the main part of the train station, we wound up outside instead, and the entrance to the train station was on the other side of the building. Once we got that sorted out, we met up with Katerina and headed straight for another train: a commuter line towards her house in the suburbs. It didn’t take very long to reach the stop in Sollentuna, probably 10 or 15 minutes. The house was then about a five minute walk from the station.

    Not wanting to carry around our bags everywhere, we dropped those off… and headed back to the station. It is kind of the hub of the community and has a big, new shopping mall right next to it. Unlike most American malls I know of, this mall also had a grocery store in it. We went through it and gathered items for that night’s dinner. The grocery store was different from the ones back home in a couple of ways. First, there were TVs by the cash register playing nonstop ads. Change could be handed over via a machine, which also dispensed change in case you needed some back from your 100 SK bill. FYI, the conversion rate was something like $1 = 8.2 SK. Much like Kansas, they only allowed weak beer in the grocery stores. Different from Britain, where they were selling Magna Carta themed scotch at the National Library. In Sweden, the only store to buy liquor or beer at was the System Bolaget (pardon the spelling), a government run liquor store. Those stores seemed pretty nice and it looked like they had a very large selection. We were told that they were supposed to be impartial, so I guess it was also a good place to go if you wanted a recommendation for wine or any other type of alcohol. The store’s mission was also to reasonably limit consumption, thus it still had rather high prices. I also noticed people mostly buying beers as single cans so I do not think there were many cases of things available.

    With the ingredients for dinner, we headed back to the house. This is what we had:
    – Swedish meatballs
    – Lingonberry jelly
    – Brown sauce for meatballs
    – hard bread (think of large sheets of dark crackers)
    – small potatoes
    – Four types of pickled herring, which is raw fish. All four types were very good. A large portion of the flavoring comes from the sauce. One had dill, another was just mostly vinegar and onions (probably was the least great out of the four), another was caviar and whatever sauce the dill was in, and the last was honey mustard.

    I am also probably forgetting a couple of things we had at the meal. I should also mention that it is a tradition to have a shot of schnapps for midsommer, so I also had that.

    After dinner was dessert. Since it was about 55-60° in Stockholm, it was the perfect time for ice cream, right? We headed to downtown Stockholm and wound up at this ice cream stand on top of a cliff. It was on the opposite side of the water from their theme park and you could really see a lot of the city from up there.

    Wednesday, June 17th

    In the morning, we got transit passes sorted out. Much like other cities, Stockholm also used a card for access to its transit system. That allowed us access to any of Stockholm’s forms of transit: tram, bus, train, ferry. One thing most people probably don’t realize is the fact that Stockholm is on a series of islands. There are plenty around town, but the downtown area is focused on three main islands of varying size and a good amount of water in between them, at least a couple hundred yards in a lot of places but far less where the bridges connect them.

    We took a train into central station and then walked to one of the area’s smaller islands. It seemed like a big nature preserve. That was a bit of a problem as I was hungry and wanted to find a place to have lunch. We finally came across this bistro-type thing that was serving pizza. The menu was mostly in Swedish, but I recognized the words BBQ, brisket, and pizza, so I ordered a brisket pizza. This place reinforced that the Swedish really like bread, as they had all you could eat soft and hard bread. They also had free water, which was very unusual, as most places charged for any sort of liquid beverage. This restaurant was also the place to go if you were wearing a suit and tie. As it got closer to noon, the place kept on filling up with businesspeople. One of them sat near us and starting speaking the lyrics to “American Pie” after a while, which was pretty funny. He also tried to explain the meaning of the song, which was equally funny.

    By the time lunch was over, it was time to head towards the island that had the old town. We were going to meet up with a free walking tour outside of one of the metro stations. We waited for a while and were about to give up, and then I realized we were at the wrong entrance to the station. Many places had two or three entrances to the same station and Stockholm was no exception. The tour was nice but it was a bit hard to understand our tour guide. I think she was Ukrainian and trying to speak English… in Sweden. Old Town was cool, but much like the old town parts of other cities. Lots of cafés and restaurants and randomly placed areas where the cobblestone streets got wider, which the cafes filled with little tables.

    There was still a bit of time left in the day after the walking tour, and that was filled with a visit to the Vasamuseum. The Vasa was a ship that the king launched in 1632 or so from Stockholm. The ship made it an entire half a mile before sinking in the harbor. It was a very unstable ship and thus it didn’t take much for it to capsize. They would test ships by running something like 20 men from one side of the deck to the other, but they had to cut the test for the Vasa short because it was so unstable. The ship had something like 200 people on board when it launched but it was so close to the harbor most of them were able to be rescued. The conditions in the harbor allowed the boat to remain in decent shape, albeit underwater, for the next 330 years until some expert salvager rediscovered the location of the wreckage in the 1950s. It took them a couple years to drill out tunnels under the boat to attach cables and another couple years to get it out of the water. From there, I think it took something like 7 years for the boat to try out and then they spent 17 more years spraying the entire boat with some chemical stuff that’s also in nail polish (?) that replaced the water. In total, it took over 30 years to get the boat out of the water and ready for display in the museum after it was rediscovered.

    You’ve probably figured out by now that this was a pretty large boat. It was something like a six story museum in order to see all parts of the ship. It was also probably 25-30 feet wide and over 100 feet long. For those who’ve been to the Steamboat Arabia museum in KC, this was a far more impressive museum because the entire boat was on display as one massive piece. They claimed it was 98% original, with the 2% coming from things like new rope riggings and their massive undertaking of replacing all the iron nails with stainless steel ones that won’t rust. I guess they also had to rebuild some areas a bit since some parts damaged by the wreck and water meant reconstruction was like putting together a huge jigsaw puzzle. Since it was a boat from the 1600s, there were far fewer artifacts to be found than in something like the Arabia, but they did have some of the recovered remains on display with anthropologists` analysis of the identity of the remains, what injuries they had, and whatever diseases they carried. Only three of the 64 cannons were brought up with everything else in the 1960s because the vast majority were salvaged for their value very soon after the sinking. One of the more interesting displays was about the rear end (keel?) of the boat. It was covered in various carvings. Through recent sampling, they have been able to figure out what materials were used to paint that part of the boat and thus figure out what colors coated the surface. Opposite of the boat’s rear end was a wall with a colored replica of the carvings.

    Later on that evening we went to a bar with our hosts. They were meeting us and some others at a subway station. Brock and I joked around about how it’d be funny if some of the other people waiting around the station were waiting for the same people. One of them was! After what seemed like a long walk, probably because it was raining, we finally arrive at the bar. It looks small but you go down a set of stairs and it’s clear that this bar has taken over the basements of most of the block. There were rooms with tables, rooms with shuffleboard, arcade games, and of course the bar. Our group of about 10 or so grabbed a table and played a board game called Ticket to Ride. Brock and I made fun of the poor geography, since the game is played by connecting places in the United States. Kansas City (Kansas) was one of the cities on the map, so it was easy to point to the map and tell everyone where we were from, that misplaced spot in the middle of the map. Since we knew about US geography, we did very well and easily built the most train routes of all the teams playing, accumulating the most points based on route complete. However, we didn’t realize that was only half of the scoring, and that you got points based on how your connections were between cities. We had a bunch of short, efficient connections. About half of the group was Swedish, with a couple of Germans and a Belgian. It was interesting because there were four languages (Swedish, German, English, Dutch) and the only language everyone knew was English!

    Thursday, June 18th

    Thursday morning was very cloudy with an ominous drizzle that always seemed like it was threatening to turn into a rainstorm. Nonetheless, we made our way into town and towards Skansen. The best way to describe the place is as a combination of a zoo and living museum. As Katerina told us, there was a guy who would go around Sweden collecting all of these old buildings, take them apart, and have them shipped to his park (Skansen) in Stockholm. Many of the buildings were open for touring, complete with a cast of people playing the roles from the time period their building was supposed to represent. It was pretty cool to see all of those things, and it was also nice that they spoke English well!

    Seeing as how I haven’t covered it already, I guess I’ll interrupt the post and mention that the Swedes learn English as their second language starting when they are six years old. Around middle school age they can pick up a third language and around high school they can pick up yet another language if they want to, but by learning English from a very young age, it appeared that most Swedes could speak English to a point where native English speakers could easily understand it. Katerina said they used to learn German as their second language so a lot of older people know German, but World War II changed that. Most of the phrases I recall people not knowing were things that are rather uncommon in English anyways. Like flag stick (flag pole). Or wreath, which one girl tried to pronounce as “writh”. The frequency of English also meant that a lot of menus seemed to be English… except for the pizza place I once ordered a lunch from that had every ingredient listed in Swedish.

    Anyways, back to Skansen. Highlights of the buildings. First, a fully functioning bakery that smelled as good as a fully functioning bakery should. A couple of homes belonging to wealthy families that had their original painted walls, as they were built long before wallpaper was invented. On the opposite end was the poor peasant family house where the ceilings were probably three feet high. Very cramped quarters. In many of the lower class houses, the beds looked more like couches, as the people would sleep sitting up or reclined slightly. There was not enough room for a full sized bed anyways. In what was probably a normal to upper class house, there were two fairly large rooms, but only one was used for everything. Why? It was the room with the stove to heat the house in it, and it was definitely too expensive to heat two rooms. The second room was only for special occasions, such as a priest visiting or holidays. An old tavern was turned into a restaurant, which was a smart idea because we needed a place to eat lunch. Once again, they had unlimited bread and water, but this place also offered unlimited salad. Not to miss out another traditional Swedish meal, I made sure to get Swedish meatballs once again.

    My favorite house wasn’t Swedish at all, but rather a small Finnish hut. It had a very low door, and once you entered, you wouldn’t want to put your head above the level of the top of the door… because it was filled with smoke. In the style of house, they would capture the heat from the fireplace very well, but it also led to the side effect that anything at a level higher than four feet or so was smoke. It was pretty surreal. There was really only one disappointment with all of the buildings, and that was the tall, round, brick tower on top of the hill in the middle of the park. You couldn’t go in it!

    I mentioned that it was a zoo, so I guess I should mention that, yes, it did have animals. They had huge enclosures for the animals, a lot larger than I have seen at any other zoo. They had reindeer in the park. Sadly, they did not fly. There were also grizzly bears, who were very playful. At first just two were playing and running around, and it took a while to realize there were actually three of them, one was just watching the zookeeper clean out something in one corner. There were a couple of other exhibits with normal animals, like wolves, but those weren’t too exciting.

    Once we left Skansen, the threatening sky finally unleashed the rain for about fifteen minutes, just long enough to get back out to Sollentuna.

    Having a home cooked dinner was amazing, once again. It was four courses. Let’s see if I can remember all of them:
    Course 1: Shrimp salad served on some bread
    Course 2: Cucumber salad (as in a regular salad with lettuce and stuff too)
    Course 3: Grilled chicken, grilled blocks of cheese that were different (they were salted and squeaked when you bit into them) and of course bread and potatoes.
    Course 4: Dessert. It was good. I think it might have been something lemon flavored.

    Such a large meal requires exercise to work some of those calories off, right? With that in mind, we walked around the neighborhood some. Going past the train station for once, we got to see the area where the community would be holding its midsommer celebration the next day, the hospital (and the word “hospital” in Swedish is spelled pretty close to “sick house”), and the bay.

    To finish off the night, we watched a movie in Swedish with English subtitles called Ondskan, or Evil in English. Since you have to continually pay attention to movies with subtitles if you want to understand what’s going on, I can provide a pretty thorough summary of the movie. It was a semi-autobiography from a Swedish guy set in something like 1961. He gets expelled from his high school in Stockholm for getting into yet another fight, and the principal makes sure that he can’t get into any other school in Stockholm. His mom sends him away to a boarding school somewhere else in Sweden. As the new kid, he’s at the bottom, but that’s fine because he wants to just get through the school without causing any problems. There’s a small council of upperclassmen that run the school and he won’t give in to their demands to do menial things like cleaning their muddy shoes. This means he winds up with a weekend detention, as he turns down the first two options for punishment. Since these are really nice guys that he is dealing with, his task is simple. Dig a hole… which they make him fill in once he’s dug it. At one point he’s challenged to a fight in the ring, and becomes known as “rat” afterwards because he won’t fight. He’s also subject to things like random room checks. One time they throw a bunch of fish guts on his floor and so he goes back in the middle of the night and tosses them on one of the sleeping council members. At another point they use the four stakes he’d put in the ground for his weekend detention (since he’s now pretty much perpetually in weekend detention) and tie him to them and toss buckets of cold water on him. He’s saved from that by one of the girls who works in the cafeteria and always serves him food after the detention. They aren’t supposed to even talk to each other, let alone have a relationship. Once the council members figure out that they aren’t going to break the main character guy, they start picking on his nerdy roommate. The roommate wants to stand up for himself and eventually winds up getting challenged, then defeated in the ring. He leaves the school pretty soon afterwards, which makes all of the teachers mad because he was one of the brightest students. The main character guy is also good at swimming. Near the beginning of the movie he makes the swim team despite being an underclassman by setting a new school record. That’s how he first begins to stand out at the school. Later on, he wins a championship named for another student’s rich family (who was obviously supposed to win). Anyways, sometime after the championship, his girlfriend gets fired, and his roommate has left, so he’s feeling pretty miserable and alone. At one point he also goes home for winter break, where we find out that he has been getting nightly lashes from his stepfather (which probably explains why he was violent in school before…) while his mother plays piano so she won’t have to hear the noise. Sometime after the roommate leaves, he gets mad enough to challenge a couple of the council members to a duel (since it’s always a 2 vs. 1 fight) and breaks the nose of one and arm of the other in about 10 seconds. The council members finally get what they need to have him expelled when they look through his mail and find a letter from his girlfriend admitting the relationship. They turn the letter over to the headmaster who expels the main character. For Christmas, his roommate had given him a big law textbook, as his dream was to become a lawyer some day. He uses this textbook to find out that the confiscation of the mail was illegal, and brings in the family lawyer in front of the headmaster and a bunch of other people to make a scene. He is allowed to finish the year at the school (with little harassment apparently, as the movie just jumps ahead to graduation) and winds up with great grades, good enough to get into any college. He goes home and puts his stepfather in the hospital, and it’s understood that his stepfather is now his ex-stepfather. The movie then jumps forward to somewhere when he meets up with his old roommate, who’s doing well in college and offers to pay for his college too.

    Friday, June 19th
    I woke up not feeling to great on Friday morning, so I went back to sleep… and slept all morning. The good news is that once I woke up, I felt pretty good. It was now Midsommer Eve. Combined with the day of the week being Friday, most of the country apparently took off from work. Our host family left for their summer house in the south part of Sweden. The mall was about half open, which was good enough for getting food. I thought it was funny that one of the French themed restaurants had a sign in it for Gare du Nord in Paris, as it was the train station that you arrive at when you come from London. We also went to the mall because we thought there was a post office. That post office was nowhere to be found until Brock found it on an interactive map… as part of the grocery store, of course. I guess Hy-Vee does the same thing at home. We got a box, loaded it full of our junk and successfully sent it to the United States after having a couple hundred Swedish Krona taken off of our hands. I know the box was successfully mailed because it has already arrived back in the states.

    From the post office we headed straight for the community’s Midsommer festival… which we didn’t realize involved an entrance fee, as we had gone cashless in the country to that point. A quick ATM stop fixed that and we were soon surrounded by probably a thousand Swedish people and their families. The area was pretty small, probably no more than 10 acres, but it was full of activity in the old barns and courtyard in the middle. There were games and activities for the little ones, like corn hole, face painting, and BB gun shooting (imagine that at a festival in the US). They also had plenty of concessions featuring Swedish traditional pastries and non traditional goods like cotton candy. For about thirty minute intervals, they had dances around the completely decorated Maypole (or whatever they call it for this purpose) with simple songs and a live folk band. The band was notable because a couple of the musicians were playing a keyed violin. It has a name that I don’t remember, but I do remember that it was very easy to find by searching for “Swedish key fiddle” (Sorry, I write a lot of these posts without access to look things up). For the other part of the hour they had games and competitions for the kids to play. One of the different ones was a tug of war, except it was a loop that could fit 3 or so hands and so it was 1 vs 1 vs 1 instead of two teams. It started raining part way through the time we were there (as it had started at noon, or when I woke up) which meant a lot of people cleared out, but there were probably still a couple hundred that stayed through the 10 or 15 minutes worth of light rain. There is one very important part of Midsommer that I am forgetting. The wreaths! Many people young and old created these out of leafy twigs, flowers, etc. and wore them. Some were very simple while others were more elaborate and obviously carefully crafted.

    The community celebration took up most of the afternoon and left a bit of time to rest before dinner. We walked through the neighborhood to a house where a couple of people we met at the bar on Wednesday were hosting dinner. They were very hospitable and made sure we were very well hydrated and fed. Before dinner, everyone had made a wreath (yes, including me), so it was quite a sight to see a dozen people in their early 20s sitting around a table with a bunch of flowers and leaves on their heads. I wish I would have taken a picture, it would have been good to put in this post. Once again, the group was half-international and half Swedish. We had a German from a couple days earlier, another German, and a Danish (who’s name was “Yo” and from a Vietnamese background). Most of the group knew each other from the neighborhood or from traveling together through Southeast Asia sometime last year. Once again, we had a multiple course meal complete with everything Swedish, from salad to bread to meatballs to potatoes to herring to two types of delicious, strawberry based desserts.

    Sometime after dinner, we made our way across the neighborhood again, this time to a house hosting a party. This is where it became really obvious that the Swedish custom of taking your shoes off when you go in a house was taken seriously, as the entry room was one big collection of shoes that people had taken off, even though all of the floors in the house were covered with heavy duty cardboard. Before I had even made it to the house, there were lots of people to introduce yourself to, and one of these was a guy named Oscar. In the interest of making the explanation easier, here’s how the conversation basically started (O for him, M for me, obviously):

    O: “Where are you from?”
    M: “The United States, a place called Missouri”
    O: “Really? I am going to study in Kansas next year.”
    M: “Where?”
    O: “Manhattan, Kansas at the State University”
    M: “No way! I just graduated from there!”

    Stockholm, Sweden is about 5,000 miles away from campus, and I had just met a guy who was going there in the fall! He is going to be part of the golf team, which made sense, as sports are how many Europeans make their way to a university in the middle of the US. He knew which dorm he was going to be in (the small one for international students that’s the oldest dorm on campus but has the nicest rooms) and had already met his roommate, another golfer, at a tournament somewhere in Europe. He was also already interested in K-State’s football (yes, the American type of football) team and Royals baseball, so I think he’ll have fun.

    And that’s how this post will end. There’s not too much more to write about leaving Stockholm the next morning.

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