Iceland – Road Warrior (and the return home)

My last destination before returning to Canada was Iceland.  This was a country I had always wanted to visit.  From pictures and videos I had seen, every inch of the island looked to be beautiful and indeed it is.  Everywhere I had gone previously was driven by friends and family.  Places I had somewhere to stay and someone to show me around.  However, I was on my own for Iceland.  It seemed right to end my year away with one last trip on my own and take all the self reliance I had developed and put it to work.

My goal for Iceland was too see as much of “the nature” as possible, but renting a car, even a crappy car, is not overly cheap.  So, I had to spend a few days in Reykjavik.  By chance the ATP Music Festival was happening at the same time and I was able to get a three day pass fairly cheap.  This gave me something to do during my four days in Reykjavik.  Some of the acts I didn’t care for, some I liked, but the highlight was of course seeing Portishead for the first and probably only time in my life.  However, going to a music festival alone is not the most fun experience.  I was surrounded by obnoxious, drunk, stoned hooligans the entire time.  Being at something as social as a music festival alone can make you feel like a pretty big loner, and I suppose I was.  The festival was every evening so during the first three days I had half the day to do something else.  The first day I signed up for a guided caving trip with a man named þröstur (Thrustor).  In truth, it wasn’t anything special.  Meaning, the cave is easily accessible and open to the public but I didn’t know that at the time and I didn’t have a way to get there so I was fine going with a group.  The cave was an old lava tube which had pushed its way through the earth.  Some of the walls were so uniform that they looked like moulding in a house.

The second day I went to visit the infamous Blue Lagoon.  Like much of the trip, this would be a great place to go with a friend or partner.  I had neither with me but I wasn’t going to sit around and not see any of Iceland because of it.  The lagoon is incredibly relaxing and has an almost “I’m wading in nuclear waste” feel to it.  The place is incredibly touristy (and pricey), but thats to be expected with how important tourism is to Iceland.

On the third day I did some final exploring of Reykjavik for anything I may have missed during the first two days.  I had not.  Reykjavik is not very big and it doesn’t take long to explore everything the city has to offer.  I paid to go to the top of the cathedral (even though a guide book said it would be free).  Don’t bother.  It doesn’t go too high and all it does is provide a view to reaffirm how small Reykjavik is.  That’s not to say I disliked Reykjavik.  Quite the opposite.  I thought the city had a very comforting feel to it.  It also had some fun bars (I’m looking at you Big Lebowski) but being by myself and trying not to spend excessively, I didn’t get to experience a lot of what the night life had to offer.  Iceland is very expensive for such things (it was like Norway all over again).  There was a cafe called Babalu which had the best deal for food with a soup and sandwich for 1180kr (and an amazingly random Star Wars bathroom).  Although, Koffin’s lamb meat soup was pretty amazing.  There were lots of quaint little shops, record stores, and other such all around.  I was surprised to see a woman leave her baby outside in a stroller while she went in to a cafe to sit down and have a coffee.  A higher level of trust in Icelandic culture I suppose.  I guess it helps when your population is so small.

On the fourth and final day in Reykjavik I planned to hike the nearby Mt. Esja which overlooks the city.  I coordinated with the tourist information office downtown on how to get to the mountain which involved several bus change overs.  This was to be an all day affair.  At the second bus change over at the outskirts of the city something went wrong.  I along with several others on their way to Mt. Esja (evident by their backpacks) were left stranded as the next bus we were suppose to catch never showed up.  I walked a fair distance to find a way to cross the freeway so that I could get a bus on the opposite side of the road back into town.  The day cost me money with no pay off and was almost a whole day in Reykjavik wasted.  I was not a happy camper.  I went back to Kex Hostel and had a few beers.  The following day I was to start my road trip.  My goal was to do the entire ring road (Highway 1) but I would have to play it loose and fast and see if it would be possible to do it or whether I would need to turn back at any point.  I was fairly certain I was going to be given a car with a manual transmission (which I have NEVER driven) so I spent most of the evening watching youtube videos on driving a manual and asking friends for advice.  How hard could it be?

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The next day I made my way over to the SADcars office to pick up my ride.  Sure enough, there were no automatics available.  Buying a SIM card was cheap so I purchased one to be safe incase I got into trouble.  There was a large parking lot near the SADcars office I planned to practise in but they have an “empty tank to empty tank” policy, meaning you take the car and return the car with whatever happens to be in the tank.  Of course, it had an empty tank (If the capital SAD in SADcars didn’t emphasize it enough, these are haggard cars).  So here I had never driven a manual before and I needed to get it across the city to the nearest gas station.  I pulled out my custom made notes on “how to drive a manual” and laid them on the passenger seat.  Surprisingly, it didn’t go toooooo bad.  However, I also had to go to the nearest mall to buy a car adapter to charge my phone since I didn’t know if I’d have to sleep in the car.  Here I stalled the car multiple times and I had a bit of a freak out declaring “I can’t f***ing do this!”  After the soap opera ended, I got the car going again and made my way out of the city.  Thank goodness for traffic circles.  My first destination was the “golden circle” which passed a geyser, the continental rift, and several waterfalls (there were so many damn waterfalls on this trip that I am not even going to attempt to remember which is which).  Of course right by the geyser, amongst oodles of tourist traffic is when I stalled the car again (damn speed bumps).  The continental rift was one of the highlights of the golden circle.  The landscape was amazing.  You could actually see that the rock on the ground used to be flowing.  And standing between two continents is pretty cool.

I then started along the southern ring road.  The first 50km outside of Reykjavik had waterfall after waterfall and it was still very populated with tourists.  I managed to find the infamous “pool” out in one of the valleys.  The change room had an old board door and was covered in mud.  The pool felt hidden and it was a great feeling to find it.  I had also heard of a downed plane somewhere on the beach before Vik.  This would be my last destination for the day.  I had looked on google earth before leaving Reykjavik to try and figure out a route to get to it (“follow the stream, then the beach for 10 minutes, go north…”).  It didn’t work out.  I was wandering through this black sand and pebble “desert” for ages.  There were these mounds every now and again and I didn’t know what they were until one was in my path.  They turned out to be nests for some kind of bird.  I found that out when I accidentally surprised two which then chased me for about a kilometre while swooping at my head.  I had to slog through the loose earth as fast as I could while turning to raise and swing my backpack in defence.  Running in the loose volcanic pebbles was miserable and exhausting.  I managed to take a few videos pre and post “The Birds!” but the wind was too extreme to capture much audio.

When I finally found the plane, an Icelandic couple were also there.  Surprisingly they were asking me for information regarding the plane because this was their first time coming out to see it.  I told them that I heard it was a US crash landing, and not shot down but that I wasn’t totally sure about anything.

After I finally made it back to the car that was parked on the side of the highway I called the hostel in Vik to see if they had accommodation.  Finding the plane took an awful lot longer than I had anticipated and I didn’t have much time to find accommodation.  I didn’t know how far I would make it each day so I just got accommodation on the fly.  The hostel was full and when I went to the hotel in Vik, it too was full.  I managed to get in at a bed and breakfast right before the old lady who owned the place went to bed.  All I had was a bunk but it was prefect.  Me and another late arrival, Craig, got together to try and get some food.  Craig was a talent scout for Sony and had been traveling around following music festivals.  He was here for ATP and was previously in Brazil and Montreal.  Craig and I went to the local gas station which was closed.  But, that didn’t matter.  They opened back up so that we could get something to eat.  I bought instant spaghetti and after the day I had, it was glorious.

Early in the morning I was off again.  Every inch of the road had something new to offer and I found myself stopping often after having gained the confidence of getting the car going again without issue.  I had to always weigh the cost of time as I couldn’t linger in one place too long.  I passed by the glacier lagoon, more waterfalls, and beautiful beaches.  After a few stops I noticed I was starting to get a flat, but I had to keep going to reach my next accommodation.  After driving through Djúpivogur I traveled inland along a fjord before turning back and following the fjord back towards the coast on the opposite side.  Here I pulled into Berunes Hostel which I had called earlier to make a reservation.  It was in a beautiful location all on its lonesome below the highlands.  I had a cot in a windowsill between two rooms with a screen that could be pulled across for privacy.  Really, it was all I needed.  The hostel itself looked like a converted barn.  The attendant, “Alec Baldwin,” told me the nearest place for food (since I had missed the dinner at the hostel) was Djúpivogur, which I could easily see directly across the fjord but would be a 40km backtrack around the fjord.  I was preparing to go back when an older German couple, Regina and Rainor offered to share their dinner with me.  We exchanged stories and it turned out they were doing the entire ring road as well but coming from the opposite direction.  They gave me advice of things to see and I did the same for them.  In the morning “Alec Baldwin” helped me refill my slowly leaking tire.  Thanks Alec Baldwin.  I checked my intended itinerary with him for the remainder of the ring road and whether it was doable or whether I should start heading back the way I came.  He said it was totally doable and with that, I was off.

The further I got away from Reykjavik the less people there were on the road.  Instead, it was sheep on the road.  The highway itself became pretty extreme in a few areas and I came across two young Germans, Phillip and Janik, who just finished fishing at a nearby lake.  They were looking for a ride to a nearby town.  Being a little lonely and adopting the Icelandic trusting attitude, I picked them up.  The town they were heading two was a coastal town in the East, Seydisfjordur.  Apparently some kind of festival was going on.  The road out to it was high and mountainous before quickly dropping back down to the coast.  I had a coffee in Seydisfjordur, popped my head into the festival and took off.  Myvatn was the area I was primarily interested in.  When I finally reached Myvatn it looked like a different continent.  There were conical craters, hot steaming earth which resembled stained glass as the various chemicals reflected the sun, and some of the few trees I had seen.  I checked out a hot spring cave which would have been a great place for a dip except that the water was too hot.  The hot spring cave used to be safe but a previous eruption increased the water temperature and it has been that way ever since.  Pressed for time I essentially ran up one of the conical mounds to get a look inside before running back down and taking off once again.

I eventually arrived in Akureyi where I had a twelve person dorm all to myself.  The next morning I fueled up on Rhubarb Jam, put air in the tires once more and took off on the ring road once more.  My next goal was the sharkman.  I had to veer off the main highway for the first time and I am lucky it was the only occasion.  It was a rough go and I wasn’t sure the car would make it but eventually I got to the sharkman.  The sharkman specializes in making hákarl which is fermented greenland shark.  The Greenland shark is toxic when fresh and has to go through a long fermentation process to remove the toxins.  I had heard various stories of how awful it tasted.  A large tour group had just moved off when I slipped into the shark museum.  I was able to look around for a bit in quiet before the sharkman himself popped his head in.  I paid the fee for entry and got prepared for my first hákarl.  I asked for a bit of Black Death to take the edge off and the sharkman was happy to oblige.  I prepared myself for a mouthful of gasoline but surprisingly, it wasn’t that bad.  At all.  I gave a large grin of relief and had another.  Another large tour group was about to enter and so I thanked the sharkmen and went to find the nearest place to refill my tire before heading back to Reykjavik.

The nearest gas station to fill the tire was further west on the Snæfellsnes peninsula.  However, on Iceland, every detour was welcome as there was always something to see.  I eventually made my way back to highway one and was nearing Reykjavik once more.  I had managed to complete the ring road in a very shotgun fashion.  There was plenty I had to skip in order to make it back to Reykjavik on time but even the drive alone was amazing.  After four days I was completely confident driving the manual.  Choosing to drive the entirety of a country with a manual transmission when I had never driven one before is one of the ballsiest things I have ever done and one of the things I am very proud.  It was an amazing trip.  I made my way to the airport the next day and awaited my return to Canada.  It was an incredibly strange feeling.  After so long and all the flights I had boarded before, this one was going to take me home.  I waited at the gate and another Canadian decided we were going to be friends based on the fact we are both Canadian.  He proceeded to complain about the Keflavik airport and how he thinks Canada is actually much better than Iceland.  He was annoying.  I boarded my plane and hoped I wouldn’t be seated near him.  Thankfully I wasn’t.  During the flight I had incredible views of Greenland and northern Canada.  The entire time I was trying to comprehend the experiences of the last year.  However, I was eager to get back.  To see my friends and share my experiences with them.  Iceland, while amazing, proved to me that the point of memories and experiences are to share them with someone.  I had no one to share my experience in Iceland with and my experiences around Europe are with those friends and family still there.  Not having shared any experiences with my friends back home, I wasn’t sure if they’d understand the change I underwent.  When I landed, my Dad was at the airport to greet me.  Strangely, the entirety of my life over the previous year got condensed and it had only felt like I was gone a short time.

My return to Canada was the greatest culture shock I had.  I think this was mostly because I thought it should feel familiar but it did not.  However, some of it was the result of circumstance.  Almost immediately after my arrival, still horribly jet lagged, I was pulled to a party.  I was told it would be a great opportunity to reconnect and see friends.  However, the only two friends at the party were the two who took me there and they quickly became so intoxicated it was irrelevant whether I was there or not.  I saw behaviour at the party that I hadn’t seen in over a year.  I was alone again, even though I was home.  Unfortunately, this feeling has continued for a very long time.  I had changed and my home had changed.  Or, possibly it had stayed the same.  I’m not sure.  I had friends tell me outright they did not what to hear about my trip, which is crushing after feeling like this has been a monumental part of my life.  Others seemed like they were waiting for the old me to show up again rather than accept me for who I’ve become.  It’s entirely possible some or all of this is in my head, but picking up an old life in Canada has certainly been much harder than starting a new one in Sweden.  Travel is an amazing thing and it opens up your eyes to so much and makes you reevaluate yourself and face your demons, but it is not without consequence.  Two years on and I still often feel like an outsider.  It is no easy task slipping back into your old life when you have changed.  This is not to say I discourage anyone from packing up and going out to see the world.  In fact, I encourage it.  However, it is possible that the life you leave won’t be waiting for you when you get back.  Or, maybe it will be waiting for you but you don’t want that life anymore.  I said experiences and memories are much better shared, and this blog has been my effort to do so.  I wish to go forward having new experiences and making new memories with friends rather than reliving these ones.  My time away was amazing and life changing but being back in Canada has felt very much like being caught in limbo.  Is my old life still there and possible? Or, do I need to start a new life?

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Returning home to my family has been an incredibly rewarding experience.  Having Victoria move to Canada has also been amazing and I love our life together.  I’m still trying to figure things out, but does anyone ever truly have it all figured out?  I’m confident it will eventually work out and I will settle in.  Onto the next adventure…

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Germany – Lavender Fields Forever

After my tribulations during my last day in Spain, I was quite ready to leave.  However, once I was in the air and on my way to Germany I managed to reflect on the entirety of the trip to Spain.  Meeting Janet for the first time and all the great things we did together more than made up for the kufufflae on my last day in Spain.  If nothing else, the warm weather was a great recharge after the dark months in Umeå.  Although, it may have been a bit too much of a recharge with the horrible burn I had gotten.  Spain has sun, but Germany has beer and amazing food.  If Germany is known for anything it is producing great beer.  They even had a purity law passed in 1516 in regards to how beer should be made.  I had a lot of very good beer, some of which I’m not likely to see again unless I return to Germany.

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I planned to visit Germany, like many of the places I visited, because I had a friend there: Artur.  I had thought Artur was returning to Germany from Umeå for a while and I could stay with him but it turned out he made the plans to visit his home in order to accommodate me.  He even booked his flight such a way so we would arrive at the airport around the same time.  I arrived at the Frankfurt airport before Artur after a quick layover in Vienna.  Once Artur arrived it was back to the old jokes and wondering if this trip was going to be as wild as our trip to Russia.  We were joking about ourselves as “Yogi and Booboo” because Artur was so big and myself so small and how we’re always running around getting into trouble and after our visit to Russia Boris and Natasha may be after us (It was funny at the time, ok!).  His brother picked us up at the airport to take us back to the village of Rimbach where Artur’s parents live.  “Live” is perhaps not the right word as Artur’s parents traveled around the country following festivals because they owned a food truck.  “Food truck” is also perhaps not the right word since this thing was more like a log cabin on wheels.  Anyways, we arrived at his home in Rimbach and took the evening easy. The following few days we saw the surrounding countryside and the nearby city of Heidelberg.  The area around Rimbach was gorgeous.  Several of the buildings looked like they had been there for generations (and probably have been).  The North American idea of old versus the European one is very different.  There were rolling hills with patches of fields and wood scattered about and the road twisted and wound around the hills.  Arthur was an avid motorcyclist and I could understand, with roads like this surrounding his home.  I thought maybe this was why Germans make such good cars and North Americans make essentially giant fisher-price vehicles.  There’s an awful lot of straight roads and massive distances in Canada so as long as a car can go and stop, not much else matters (its difficult to make driving in a straight line fun).  Perhaps I’m just bitter because my own North American made car drives more like a boat than a car.

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On our way to Heidelberg was my first taste of the Autobahn.  It was fast.  Very fast.  And could be very efficient so long as the rules were followed.  Regardless, congestion occurred… on a highway.  I thought it was so strange that you could get congestion on a highway.  However, Artur made me realize that Germany is very much in the middle of Europe.  Trucks and people are constantly traveling through the country in multiple directions.  Suddenly the need for the Autobahn made sense.  It is also only in certain portions of the Autobahn where there is no speed limit, not the entire thing.  We quickly arrived in Heidelberg which was exceptionally gorgeous.  Old cobble streets and buildings sat upon the river.  I had hoped to visit the Heidelberg University Museum as Heidelberg is an important site in my studies, but it didn’t happen.  Instead, Artur and I went to see Heidelberg Castle.  This was the first castle I had ever gotten up close to see.  I almost did back in Castella, Spain but the path was closed for construction.  Artur was surprised since (as I had noticed) Castles were scattered all throughout Germany.  Heidelberg Castle was in rough shape.  Towers were falling in on themselves and toppled in places.  It looked otherworldly.  The castle also contained a massive wine cask known as the “Heidelberg Tun.”  Unfortunately, it didn’t contain any wine for sampling.

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The Castle was situated above the city and it was quite a walk to get up to it.  Going down we took a new route to see more of Heidelberg.  The streets seemed piled upon one another in parts because of the incline and in the bushes of one of these streets was a yellow tube.  It was a slide.  As a kid, you tend to think slides should be everyone.  It’s a fun and efficient way to get down things, no?  The slide disappeared into the bushes below and we had no idea how far it went down or where we would come out.  We took the chance and came out the other end into a park between two different street levels on the incline.  Unfortunately, this was the only slide and we had to continue walking the rest of the way down.  Artur and I stopped for lunch at a pub and had a seat in the garden out back.  There was a cheap steak on the menu so I ordered that.  When I was in Umeå a lot of the Germans I knew would complain about the price of food in Sweden.  I didn’t find too much of a difference to the price of food in Canada.  So when I ordered this steak, I was thinking of what it would get me back home.  I expected the tiniest steak, a dozen fries and a cup of salad.  Instead I got two steaks with caramelized onions, an entire plate of fries and an entire plate of salad.  Suddenly it made sense why most German men seemed to be big and tall.  A beautiful country with great beer and cheap (but good) food: I was in love.

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Later that evening we met up with some of Artur’s friends in Heidelberg, Simon and Julian.  This was a bit of a coming home for Artur so we were going to have a night out.  I also had a Canadian friend, Matt, whom I met in Umeå, that lived in Heidelberg and met up with us.  Matt had lived in Montreal before moving to Heidelberg for school.  The troop of us went out moseying from bar to bar on the Heidelberg streets.  Two small Canadians and three large German men.  At one of the bars we managed to get a booth and spent a great deal of time there.  While being rowdy and reminiscing to Simon, Julian and Matt about the adventures of Russia, a young man came over looking to make friends.  Artur and Julien did most of the talking with the lad.  When asked where he was from he said it was somewhere awful and a shit-hole.  He said he was Canadian… and from Montreal.  There was a unanimous “YEEOOOHHH!” at the table.  “Well we have some Canadians here! – Matt is from Montreal too!”  I had never seen a more obvious “Oh shit.” expression on someone’s face before.  Matt and I didn’t even need to say a word to each other.  We both asked him questions which he sidestepped as best he could and suddenly acted much drunker than he was a moment ago.  I asked him why he thought Montreal was a shit-hole, since most people I know say it is the best city in Canada and suddenly he changed his mind saying Montreal was great.  I had heard of this but didn’t think it was true.  This guy had one of the thickest American accents ever.  He disappeared the first chance he got.

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After several bars later it was time to call it a night.  Artur’s friend Julien asked if we had a place to stay.  Artur said Matt lives close to where we were so he was sure we could stay there.  Artur, Matt and myself started walking back to where we met him earlier.  When we got there he said it was great to see me and was off.  I said to Artur we could catch up to Matt and ask if we could stay with him, but Artur’s pride deemed that if he did not offer then we would find somewhere else.  He wanted to drive and I said there was no way that was going to happen.  We were in the parking lot above the underground parkade that his car was in which required our pass to get into.  Artur’s voice grew shrill and went into Arnold Schwarzenegger mode out of sheer habit of our joking.  “Well what do you want me to do!? Do you want me to sleep right here!?”  He pointed to a small patch of lavender in one of the parking lot dividers.  “Do you want me to lay right here!?  Do you want me to do that for you!?”  He flung his body over and collapsed into the lavender like it was a memory foam mattress.  The branches parted around him and it looked like he was making a snow angel, but in lavender.  He lied there from a moment, and then, still shouting in his Arnie voice, “It smells lovely in here!!” I told him to stay put and I was going to find us somewhere to stay.  I ran around the area, trying not to wander too far and lose my way and abandon Artur.  Most hostels were closed.  The only one I found that was open had no rooms available.  I was completely stumped.  I had no idea what we could do.  We missed the last train, Artur was in no condition to drive and we had nowhere to go.  When I got back to the “lavender field,” as we called it (it was maybe 2 metres by 2 metres) Artur was out cold and sleeping.  I felt sure someone would see us and report us or cops would drive by and arrest us but I had no other ideas.  So, I lied down in the lavender field as well.  Looking up at the starry sky through a lavender tube because it reached so high and only the circle where my head and body lied was clear.

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Artur woke up and saw I was gone.  He also realized the car keys and pass to enter the locked parkade door were missing.  “He probably went to sleep in the car,”  Artur thought.  He went to the parkade door but couldn’t get into the underground parkade without the pass.  He saw what looked like an air vent or something and crawled into it.  He was crawling through the vents mission impossible style until he suddenly dropped into the parkade in a cloud of dust.  He ran over to the car, but I wasn’t in it.  “That little shit must have woken up and gone to the train station to wait for the first train.  He left me!” Artur thought.  He decided to go after me but first he needed to find the car keys and parkade pass…  Of course, I heard about all of this the next day because when Artur went back to the “lavender field,” there I was beside where he slept but hidden in lavender and the car keys and parkade pass were laying there in a patch of lavender in the shape of Artur.  He woke me up and we slept in the car for a little longer.  The parkade was brutally hot.  Artur very well may have broken the air intake when going black-ops through the vents.  A few hours later, Artur felt well enough to drive and we were headed back to Rimbach.

Back home in Alberta, after a night of drinking (or during) its popular to have a donair.  Artur decided we should go for proper Döners.  When I think about it, I’m not sure why donairs are so popular back home.  Its shredded mystery popsicle meat with cheese thats more like plastic than it is dairy, garlic sauce which tastes like mayonnaise with garlic salt added and all wrapped in a stale pita.  Not being a huge fan of donairs, I wasn’t sure what to expect from the döner, but Artur had been talking them up the entire time we were in Umeå.  It didn’t disappoint.  It was delicious, smothered meat shaved onto savoury fresh bread (Germans also complained about bread a lot while in Sweden, and now I know why) with sauerkraut and a large disc of feta finished off with a sprinkling of spices similar to togarashi.  More and more, Germany seemed like somewhere I could happily live.  I was quite content not having beer that day but before I knew it we were off to the Heidelberg area again to watch a group viewing of the Fifa World Cup at the University and have some beers on campus.  We met up with Julien again and some of Artur’s other friends and told them of the shenanigans from the previous night.  Artur and I were of the same mind:  We were tired and hungover and needed rest.  We spent some time watching the match but made sure to get back to Rimbach before late.  We needed a good nights rest because the next day we were off to Munich.

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Turns out we didn’t need that much rest.  For Canadians, idea’s of distance are a lot greater than most Europeans.  If I say I have a long day of driving I am thinking something like 14 hours driving out to Vancouver from Edmonton.  So when I heard Munich was a long drive, I had something around the ten hour mark in my head.  Instead, it took 4 hours.  The drive itself was gorgeous and was more time on the Autobahn.  We passed several fields of Hop vines growing beside the road.  It isn’t a stereotype: Germany does take beer seriously.  Over the stretch of a few hours we kept passing turnoffs for Ausfahrt.  I said to Artur, “Ausfahrt must be huge!” and he burst into laughter.  It turns out Ausfahrt means exit.  So literally every turn off was labeled Ausfahrt.  It turned out several foreigners make this mistake and there’s t-shirts, mugs and all sorts of paraphernalia with the slogan, “Where the fuck is Ausfahrt?”

Bavaria   Tobi

Once we got to Munich we met up with Artur’s good friend Tobias.  We would be staying with him for a few nights before heading back to Rimbach.  We went out for dinner and Artie and I had a far too long existential debate about cloning.  The next morning, Tobias made us a proper Bavarian breakfast.  We sat outside in the garden with jazz playing inside the house, eating our bratwurst and pretzels.  After all this travel, this was the moment I stopped feeling like a child.  I thoroughly enjoyed having a nice breakfast outside, calmly talking to one another rather than shouting.  Waking up hungover, miserable, and going to the local noodle shop for breakfast suddenly seemed bizarre.  I was given a glimpse of what its like to be a “grown up” and I liked it.

Bavarian Breaky

After the morning passed we headed into the main city of Munich.  Artur and Tobi had been trying to convince me to wear a lederhosen and I thought they were trying to prank me.  “Only idiot tourists wear them.” I was sure.  But no.  Plenty of Bavarians wandered around the streets wearing them.  One of them was driving a horse drawn carriage of wooden beer kegs (I couldn’t make this up!).  While in Munich I went into my first proper beer hall.  It was a high crescent shape ceiling made of plaster.  At the front door there was a set of wooden lockers so the regulars could keep their “stein” beer mugs at the hall.  The beers were big, and the beers were good.  We had some traditional Bavarian pretzels and headed off to another beer garden.

Beerhall    Beerhall2

We arrived in Englischer Garten which has a large Chinese tower in the the centre (and Bavarian musicians playing from its balcony).  We had a few brief drinks and wandered around the park.  By chance we met up with Julien and a few of his friends.  The open field in the park was full of people.  Everyone was out enjoying the weather, having some drinks, and relaxing.  It’s the kind of feeling I would get going away to the mountains back in Canada, yet here we were in downtown Munich.  A lot of people were floating around in the water that flowed through the park when someone mentioned surfing.  Surfing?  I was floored when I saw what they were talking about.

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Surfing. In Germany.  In the middle of the city.  Amazing!  We were all fascinated by the site and stayed watching for a long while.  Each surfer queued up and waited their turn.  The veterans encouraging the not so experienced.

Later that night we picked up supplies for a BBQ at Tobi’s.  We had a lot of laughs and good food.  Tobi was a great host, even a great friend considering I had just met him.  Artur and I climbed into our tiny cot that we had to share and caught some sleep.  The next morning we were off to Rimbach.  Before we left, Tobias felt I needed a Bavarian parting gift and gave me a large Stein mug.  I loved it, and I still have it (lugging it around Europe the rest of the trip was not so much fun).

Back in Rimbach we met up with Artur’s girlfriend Kristin, who also came down from Umeå.  We went to Mannheim and were going to a public viewing for the World Cup with Julian and Simon so I thought I’d pick up a Team Germany jersey, plus it would double as a pretty good souvenir.  Of course, with German’s being such large individuals I fit into a youth jersey (which was cheaper too: win-win).  I had been hearing Artur say, “Supa-danke!” whenever he bought something so I did the same when buying the jersey.  The clerk was dumbfounded and looked a little shocked.  Artur and Kristin began giggling… clearly I flubbed.  Artur explained to me that my inflection was wrong.  He had been saying, “Super.  Thanks!”  Whereas I said something along the lines of, “SUPERTHANKS!”  We went around Mannheim doing some sightseeing and later met up with Julian and Simon and went off to the public viewing.  It was pretty incredible.

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Headed to Game     Kristin

It was an incredible vibe and a lot of fun.  It was hard not to become invested in the game with that kind of atmosphere.  Artur said if they lost he’d grab and throw the smallest thing around.  Being in Germany, that was me.  Thankfully they won.  After more döners, Julian was kind enough to allow all of us to stay at his place.  When we got back to Rimbach the next day, everyone was in pretty terrible shape.  Except me, surprisingly.  While Kristin and Artur slept it off I went out to get another döner, as it was nearing my time to leave and they were DELICIOUS.  Later that day, Artur’s parents came by the house and saw the terrible shape the two were in.  It was great to meet them, though there was fairly minimal english.  They invited me to join a family dinner at a restaurant they frequented back in Mannheim whenever they had the “food truck” in town.

The restaurant they took us too was great.  Artur and Kristin were about the only ones who spoke English so there was a lot of German flying about.  Artur’s family were clearly close with the owner.  This is something I noticed with Victoria’s family and with their favourite restaurant in The Hague as well. Europe has so many people yet so many places, even large cities can have a small town, community feel.  The owner/chef of the restaurant frequently came out to talk and joke with Artur’s family.  The owner was slapping his belly at one point and rested his hand on my shoulder and the rest of the German’s began slapping their bellies and having a laugh.  Artur told me that the owner said, “A man without a belly, is like a house without a balcony.”  I had no balcony, and it was funny.  My time in Germany was ending, and I was sad to see it go.  Artur had become one of my very good friends and I didn’t know when I would see him again after this point.  From his insistence that I play music with him, our escapade through Russia, to dinner with his family, Artur really made my year away from home something special.  I carved out a home and a social circle in Sweden thanks to his help and it was hard to let it go.  It is still hard.  We made our goodbyes and spoke of the hope that when Artur came to North America for his road trip I might be around, or better yet, have a motorcycle license by then.

Before I knew it, I was back on a train and headed to the Netherlands to stay with Victoria for a week.  This would be my last time seeing her before she arrived in Canada and would be the most time I would spend with her family.  Once again, I was made to feel at home.  We celebrated Victoria’s birthday together and had a week of relaxing and socializing with her friends.  She was also preparing her goodbyes before she departed for Japan once more.  We said goodbye to each other until I would pick her up at the Edmonton airport.  I boarded my flight (which Victoria’s mom couldn’t believe I had to pay for check-in luggage) and I was off to Iceland.  I had always dreamed of going to Iceland, although I never imagined doing it alone.  This was the first bit of extensive travel I would be doing completely alone.  It was difficult, but rewarding.  Here came the most epic road trip of my life.

Spain – Rumble and Relaxation

I left Rhue in London and was on a plane headed to Spain to stay with her mom: my aunt Janet.  Spain was a real mystery to me.  I didn’t do a lot of research and the only reason it really became a destination for me instead of other countries, was the fact that it was my first chance in my life to meet Janet (just as it was with Rhue in London and the whole gaggle of family in Liverpool). I didn’t know it at the time, but this was about to be one of my most challenging experiences.

I wasn’t in the air long when suddenly I looked out the window and: Spain!  Dry brown hills covered in sparse vegetation of which I could only presume to be olive trees.  It seemed odd to me because it was precisely what I imagined Spain looking like, yet it’s exactly what I imagine France NOT to look like.  Does the landscape just change at the border?  My student visa had expired while I was in Ireland and when I flew from Dublin to Liverpool I didn’t have to clear any kind of passport control.  However, upon arrival in Alicante there was passport checks even though I was flying within the EU.  Thankfully the customs officer took a brief look at my passport and gave it the 90 day EU visiter visa stamp.  No questions as to whether I had left the EU since my Copenhagen stamp a year earlier, whether I had an extended stay visa, nothing.  This was my first indication that Spain was a little more relaxed than other countries (as I found out later, this wasn’t always a good thing).

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After claiming my baggage I made my way out to the arrival bay and Janet managed to spot me.  She was much younger than I imagined her being.  We very quickly hopped onto a bus and headed off to Castellar de la Frontera (Castella).  I didn’t arrive at the best time for Janet and I was worried I was a burden.  She was house hunting so we did a lot of travel from town to city to town.  I certainly enjoyed this because it gave me a chance to see an awful lot.  The drive out to the town wasn’t very long but the scenery was amazing.  Everywhere else I traveled had it’s own flavour but still seemed very “European.”  Spain was very distinct and had hints of North African culture and geography.  When we arrived in Castella I immediately saw where it got its name from.  The town surrounds a large hill with a medieval castle on the top.  It was an impressive sight.  We hit the local supermarket for some food and cooked it up at the hostel (which was very nice and we had completely to ourselves).  With both of us tired from traveling, we went to bed early.

The next day I was free to roam around the town and explore a bit while Janet went house viewing.  It had been awhile since I had been somewhere that most of the population didn’t speak english and my Spanish is, well, I don’t have any.  Janet gave me a few phrases and I was able to count to five thanks to a particular Offspring song.  I went to a cafe and had tried the cafe con leche, which is basically a bold roast of coffee with milk.  I tried to get up to the castle but unfortunately construction blocked the only route up.  However, all along the hillside were steep streets and stacked houses.  It reminded me of the images I’d seen of the South American Favelas.  Witch my castle exploration plans foiled, I headed down into the town centre and there was a market on.  It was a lot of fedoras, shoes, and used clothing.  However, a lot of the produce was massive and delicious looking.  There was also some medicinal tea available: what they were made from, I had no idea.

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The next day Janet and I headed back to Alicante.  This was quite the ritzy looking place (at least the downtown core that I saw was).  I was already getting sense of how drastic a gap there was between those that had money and those that didn’t.  The coast of Alicante was beautiful.  Large sandy mountains behind the city, and the blue ocean in front with a promenade of waved tile patterns and giant trees ushering people along the avenue.  It seemed like somewhere to vacation, not to live.  Janet went off to view houses again the next day and I explored the city a bit.  My first order of business was to get some food.  We had been eating out of grocery stores and the hostel in Alicante did not have a kitchen.  I was pretty exhausted from all the traveling and wanted a hearty meal.  I stopped at the first place that had a picture menu and pointed to the first two options to keep things simple.  Next thing I know, out comes a cold paste with pretzels sticking out of it.  I didn’t think it was what I ordered but I didn’t actually know what I ordered anyways, so I just ate it.  It wasn’t great.  And I still don’t know what it was.  It turned out it was a complimentary starter, or maybe something they give to tourists and get a laugh, I don’t know.  But my food eventually arrived and I devoured it.  Whatever it was.

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In Alicante, there are gyms on the beach I guess?

The next day we were finally headed to Oliva, where Janet was renting a house.  Janet’s place was in an area that had the similar “favela” look I saw in Castella.  I’m sure there’s an actually name in Spanish for neighbourhoods like this, but I don’t know what it is.  I loved her place.  It was small.  Smaller than a North American home but big enough to live comfortably.  It was narrow and tall with a patio on the roof.  The streets outside were the same: narrow with tall homes around it.  In Sweden, the houses were short and far apart because the sun didn’t rise very high in the sky.  In Spain, it seemed like the high houses and narrow streets were to protect from the heat of the sun (and it was HOT).  I also found out that in the middle of the day, when it is the hottest, the Spanish take a siesta.  For some reason, I always associated the word siesta with partying but it is in fact the opposite.  A siesta is a break in the middle of the day when shops close and everyone goes home to hide and/or nap during the hottest time of the day.  Janet had Rhue’s rabbit (Cormac) at her place and he did nothing but have siesta’s all day long.

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Janet and I did a lot of catching up about the family, her life and my life.  There was a festival of some kind happening in Oliva and the promenade had food vendors and beer all throughout it.  There was also some live music.  I think it was just a couple friends who decided to play.  Either way, it was really great.  I am a bit of a musician but am not musically trained at all.  While I was in Umeå I had my friend Artur, who is musically trained, analyze the music I write.  He said I tend to use a lot of “Spanish scale.”  He must have been right because whatever these guys were playing at the festival, I loved it.  Janet and I tried some of the grub at the festival and on the way back to her place we passed a stage which had a performance happening.  It was a cross-dressing comedian, I got that much, but I didn’t understand a word he (she?) said.  Janet didn’t like to talk english when we were around the Spanish.  This threw me off at first.  I didn’t like pretending to be something I wasn’t.  I had no problem with the Spanish knowing Im not Spanish.  However, I was only visiting and Janet had to live there.  And when I found out that the English that lived in the town (and all congregated together in one neighbourhood with its own “English” bar) didn’t have the best reputation with the locals, I understood.  It was similar to when I lived in Sweden.  I wasn’t worried about my reputation based on where I was from, but I tried to use the language and integrate into the culture rather than remain an outsider.  Back at Janet’s place I usually liked spending the evening on the rooftop patio.  The view of the sky was so clear.  It reminded me of the clear skies while I was in Japan.  The sky wasn’t the only thing that reminded me of Japan.  Cats ran rampant throughout Oliva and during the night it was the return of the cat orgies.  Cat orgies aside, I was missing Rebun and Victoria.

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Janet and I wanted to go cycling through some Orange groves nearby and possibly check out some nearby caves but once we got onto the bikes the brakes didn’t fully work.  On any other occasion I would have gone anyways, but because the landscape was so hilly, I didn’t want to be caught flying downhill without the ability to slow down.  Instead we went to the beach that was a short walk from Oliva.  The beach was gorgeous and had a bar on it which added to its beauty.  This was my first time seeing the Mediterranean Sea.  It was a lot like being in the Caribbean (from what little I can remember when I was there at a young age).  While Janet and I were in the water there was a group of around ten kids about 20 metres to our side also in the water.  Suddenly they stopped playing and kept shouting one word and pointing out at the deep water.  It suddenly occurred to me that it might have been a good idea to learn the Spanish word for “shark.”  We didn’t stay in the water much longer just to be safe.  I told Janet I had a pretty big fear of the ocean and she kept trying to scare me by talking about sharks.  Funnily enough I was doing okay but she said she was starting to scare herself.  We stayed on the beach awhile and soaked up the sun.  I’m usually pretty bad about putting on sunscreen but I was sure to do so this time.  However, it didn’t matter.  I got the worst sunburn I have ever had.  We did a bit of grocery shopping and I picked up some chicken breasts.  These things were huge!  They were the size of footballs.  I wasn’t sure if this was evident of good farming or non-strict regulations on growth hormones.  The next day Janet went up to Barcelona to pick up my cousin (her son) Seve who was visiting from Beijing.  Originally I was going to travel up with her to meet Seve for the first time and see a bit of Barcelona, but travel took a lot out of him and he wanted to head to Oliva as soon as he arrived.  So at Janets suggestion, I ended up staying an extra day alone in Oliva.  This was really kind of her and saved me some money by not staying in a hostel.  However, little did I know at the time that traveling a day earlier would have been a great idea.

I thought about going to the beach again but my burn was awful.  I didn’t want to go in the sun at all.  The festival, which I found out was Christ-Fest (or something of that sort), was still going on and I had heard there was suppose to be a go-kart race.  I couldn’t find the go-kart race but on my way back to the house I saw that I had just missed a reenactment of the fourteen stages of the cross (This is Jesus’ carrying of the cross, death and rise from the dead).  I’m not religious at all, but it would have been something I would have enjoyed to see as it became apparent religion is an important part of the culture here.  Ultimately, I went back to the house and hung out with Cormac while I nursed my burn.  The next day I was off to Barcelona.

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And thus began the most trying day of the entire year.  The day began like any other.  I loaded up my gear and got set for a half day of travel.  I was expecting to get to Barcelona sometime in the early afternoon and have time to see the city.  As soon I put my rucksack over my shoulders and my small daypack, my sunburn began to scream.  I didn’t have a choice though.  I had to deal with it until I got to the bus.  My itinerary was a bus ride to Gandia, a train to Valencia where I would then switch to another train which would get me halfway to Barcelona where I would then hop onto a final train.  At the first bus stop there was a small cafe and I ordered a cafe con leche (because it was the only thing I knew how to order).  At this point in the trip languages were beginning to get jumbled in my head.  I would go to the cashier and have a brain freeze: English? Dutch? Swedish? Russian? Finnish? Spanish?  Even Japanese was popping into my head for no reason at all (I hadn’t said a word of Japanese for a year).  All I knew in most of these languages was: hello, goodbye, please, and thank you, but every few weeks I was switching from one to try and learn another and by this point I was exhausted physically and mentally.  I hopped onto the bus and was hopeful to catch some rest while traveling.  However, the scenery was spectacular and I spent most of the bus ride looking out onto landscape I may never see again.  I didn’t want to miss it having a nap.

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In Gandia I grabbed my ticket to Valencia and got onto the train.  Everything went fairly smoothly until I arrived in Valencia.  I went to buy my ticket to Barcelona and there was a massive queue.  People were yelling and flailing their arms about.  I had no idea what was going on.  Thankfully I must have looked pathetic enough that a woman came over who spoke english and asked where I was trying to get to.  I told her Barcelona and she said the computers were down and that I would have to wait about three or four hours.  A bit of a delay but no big deal.  This way I would see some of Valencia which I wouldn’t have otherwise.  I stashed my bags in a locker and took a stroll down a few streets and saw a bit of the centre.  I was careful not to go too far and get lost.  There was what looked like Roman ruins in the core and even a small coliseum.  I decided to take this chance to write a few postcards.  I happened to write one to my Grandma:

“The computer system in Valencia is down so I have a few hours to kill here.  I guess they need to do something to keep it interesting after the amount of travel I’ve done, eh?”

Karma was going to have a field day with that one…

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Once the computer system was up and running I was able to buy my ticket.  The cashier tried to sell me a more expensive ticket that was leaving several hours later.  I knew there was a cheaper option and managed to get that one.  Perhaps the more expensive train didn’t require a change halfway through and maybe was a higher speed train.  I should have taken the more expensive ticket, but I wanted to save some money.  While on the train I was stunned at some of the sights we passed.  Half demolished brick houses with tarps for roofs, flipped over burnt cars outside as a make shift fence to keep a few pigs and a horse in, giant piles of garbage just a few feet away from the building.  I thought back to the ultra ritzy downtown core of Alicante and could not comprehend how this kind of disparity existed among the population.  I wasn’t on the train long when, while reading a book, a funny smell began to burn my nose.  Everyone on the train seemed to notice it at the same time. I looked outside the window and smoke was billowing from underneath my carriage and the cabin itself began to fill with smoke.   Very quickly, smoke was all that could be seen outside the window and the train was completely socked in.  Everyone began panicking and yelling.  Several people grabbed their luggage and I did as others did.  I remembered hearing about a train derailing a month or so earlier and then I remembered that it was in Spain.  This didn’t help.  I had no idea what to do and no way to communicate, “Excuse me, what’s happening?”  Someone ran to the front of the train and got the conductor to stop at the next station.  Some people jumped off the train, some stayed on.  I didn’t know what to do.  A few people tried speaking to me but it was hopeless.  We were stopped for quite awhile waiting for the smoke to dissipate and it allowed people to calm down.  I guess the idea that the carriage was going to derail or get engulfed in flames had settled.  There was a lot of shrugging from those in charge and I got the gist that they didn’t know what was wrong… so we just closed the doors and kept going.  I think it must have been garbage on the tracks that began to burn after getting caught under the carriage.  I hate to think what I must have been breathing in.  Suddenly I remembered that I had to change trains, and that there wasn’t much time between them.  I was worried this little delay would make me miss the next one.  Then I heard yelling and banging coming from the back of the carriage.  There was a guy holding a satchel against his chest.  He was shouting and yelling not at anyone in particular.  In fact, it looked like he was yelling at something that wasn’t there.  A few people were saying “loco.”  Ah, finally some Spanish I knew.  In this situation, “loco” would translate to, “that dude is fucking insane.”  The next stop must have been his but he didn’t realize it until the doors started to close.  He tried pulling them open and kicking the glass in.  He was doing it with such force it was like if Thomas the Tank Engine had an Alien bursting out of his chest.  He then ran to the front of the train to, presumably, scream on the conductor.  Thankfully at the next stop he hopped off the train.  The lack of action taken to both of these events was astonishing.  A little too laid back of an attitude I think.  At this point a young guy who could speak a bit of English came and sat with me.  He was a little weird but I could have hugged him (safety in numbers I guess).  He was in town buying some shirts before going to a party and wanted my opinion as to which would help him pick up girls.  I didn’t know how to tell him neither of them so I politely lied and picked one.  It was difficult communicating as his english wasn’t great but I did manage to understand that he thinks his english is great and wants to learn a different language.  He got off at the next stop clutching the winning shirt.  I wonder if he ever managed to pick up anyone?

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I got to the station and had ten minutes to get onto my next train.  Luckily I made it and it was a much more modern train.  I collapsed into my seat.  My shoulders burned and screamed at me.  This train ride was much quicker and before long I was in Barcelona.  It was much later than I wanted to arrive and I had no time to see the city which was a great shame because the National Palace looked amazing as I walked past and I wanted to also see Sagrade Familia.  The hostel I was staying at advertised itself as being a short walk from the train station.  It was not.  After nearly an hour’s walk through the city I got to the hostel, hungry, tired and fed up.  Once there I sat around waiting because no one was at the front desk.  Finally, a young 20-something male shows up.  His only remark, “Sorry, I was out buying beer.”  Apparently that’s an acceptable excuse to ditch work, I’ll have to try it sometime.  I think he could tell I was fed up.  All I was thinking about was getting the hell out of Spain.  It’s great to relax and party, but to actually do anything was a choir.  I can’t say whether this is true of Spanish culture, but it certainly was what my experience was like.  The hostel clerk told me about a giant beach party happening that evening.  Normally I don’t say no to such things.  It may be the only time I am there so really I should check it out regardless of whether a beach party is something that interests me or not.  You don’t travel to see hostels and hotels; you do it to see the culture.  However, I felt as if I was on death’s doorstep so I did not go.  My sunburnt shoulders were raw from carrying my luggage all day.  I got some food in the square nearby and went back to the hostel to prepare for bed.  While I was in the lobby there were some North American’s (I group Canadians and Americans together while traveling because really, we aren’t nearly as different as we would like to think).  All of them were talking about the beach party they were going to that night and a party from the night before.  They were each trying to boast and outdo the other about how drunk they got: who did what stupid act and who blacked out.  I was disgusted. To travel around the world and get drunk to the point that you don’t remember?  What’s even the point of traveling if you’re going to drink the memories away?  I was of course judging as someone who already came to this conclusion after drinking in Copenhagen.  A party is a party, and no matter how you dress it up, they are all pretty much the same.  I wanted something unique out of traveling.  If I just wanted to get drunk and have some laughs I could have stayed home.  I’m only in these places so long and to waste a day with a hangover for an evening I don’t even remember seem’s pointless.  Perhaps I value my time too highly as currency, but that’s how I am.  Even now, after a night having a few drinks with friends I’m torn between: was that funny? or stupid?  Perhaps it’s the intent that matters: whether you get together to spend time with friends and have a few drinks or get together with friends so that you have an excuse to get drunk.  I’m not sure.  All I know is I’m distinctly aware of this when I’m having a drink.  These North American’s were a reminder that going home would be the greatest culture shock all year.  Yes, even more than Spain.

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The next morning I walked through the stragglers from the previous nights festivities.  Some stumbling around, some peeing in alleys, and others passed out underneath statues older than their parents.  I hated that most of them were North Americans.  I was embarrassed in how they treated other people’s city.  This time the bus was prompt and shuttled me off to the airport.  I was sad I couldn’t see Seve and give Janet a final goodbye and thank her for her hospitality.  I told myself I just have to make the effort to go to Beijing now to see Seve.  Spain had its ups and downs.  I was off to Germany to meet my good friend Artur whom I met in Sweden.  While I waited in the airport to board my flight to Germany I noticed some not-so-subliminal messaging.  Nice try!

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I boarded my plane and was headed to Germany with a short layover in Austria: Just in time for the World Cup of Football.

England – Pursuing Family History

LIVERPOOL

The morning after my little four bar pub crawl in Cork, I caught a bus and a plane off to England.  It was at this point in the trip when my budget was beginning to get tight.  Thankfully, I was headed off to stay with family and hostels were off the table for a good amount of time.

I landed in Liverpool and was wandering around the terminal when I heard a thick accent call “Tyla!”  It was my uncle Ian there to pick me up.  It was the first time I had seen him since I was just a very very very young kid.  Right away Ian and I hit it off.  He was a lovely fellow and full of all kinds of family history: which was funny because he married into the family.  He wanted to know the craziness he was getting involved with I suppose.  After a quick drive around Liverpool we went to Billi’s place who is my Nana’s younger brother.  That’s where I would be staying.  A lot of the family came over in the evening, some I had never met before, other’s I had only “met” when I was young beyond remembrance.  The evening involved Billi and I having a drink and me learning a bit of family history.  After I finished my drink I was about to say I was going to go to bed when Billi swigged back the rest of his and said, “Get me another one too,” implying I was to get another one as well.  This repeated a few times until I poured myself a coke and rum, hold the rum, and drank it all in one go.  I was now able to excuse myself politely to go to sleep.  It wasn’t because I didn’t want to chat with Billi (in fact I was enjoying learning about my family), but I was exhausted after traveling.

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The next day, Ian took me around the city and showed me a lot of family and Liver history after a proper english breakfast of bangers n mash at his house.  We went to the house my Dad grew up in on Daisy Street.  I found out my grandpa was the last apprentice shirt cutter at Watson and Prickard.  I saw the old dock where the Empress of Canada set sail bringing my Dad to Canada when he was young.  Ian showed me the Cavern club where the Beatles played when they were first starting as well as the Strawberry fields school and John Lennon’s house.  He showed me the Liver birds around the city and shrapnel covered walls from when Hitler was trying to bomb Winston Churchill’s bunker in the Liverpool blitz.  We visited the football stadium and I learned about the tragedy that happened there when fans were trampled and crushed to death.  I also learnt that our family are Everton fans.  Ian really knew a lot and after a while I was understanding his scouser accent as well.  Families who have been in Liverpool for long periods refer to themselves as scousers.  Scouse is a stew that, like many stews, was a mix of many things throw in a pot.  This reflected the city-port nature of Liverpool and those living there saw themselves as a mix of all the cultures that came in and out of the port-city.

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The evening of the next day I met up with Conner, who is my cousin and about the same age as me.  As soon as we met we hit it off.  We both talked about a lot of the travel we want to do, the family, and he was also a beer connoisseur so we had plenty to talk about on that topic.  His girlfriend joined us and we went for dinner and then started a bit of a pub crawl.  The unfortunate thing was I had already been in a pub since noon with Billi so I wasn’t well equipped for a night of drinking.  So of course, after a small amount of time my memory of the evening began to blur.  I do remember a few things though, such as telling Conner and his girlfriend multiple times, that they need to come to Canada.  Sometimes, immediately after I had already said it.  I also am able to recall the specific moment the night took a bad turn:  Conner and I were discussing beers, whats good, whats bad.  And then we began to discuss hard liquor to which I told him very few were any good in my eyes.  So then he asked, “well what’s your least favourite shot?” “Tequila,” I said.  “Right,” he then turns to the waitress, “Two shots of tequila!”  The worst part is after this, he ordered four shots (two each).

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The next day I felt terrible (obviously).  I was staying at my aunt Patsy’s place (Conner’s mum) and spent most of the day sleeping and being miserable.  Somehow Conner made it to work.  I had a bundle of postcards in my coat when Conner and I were out and they had fallen out somewhere.  With Conner at work it was up to me to find the pubs we had visited.  It felt a little bit like the Hangover movie.  Eventually I did manage to find them.  Kindly enough, the bar was going to post them for me had I not turned up.  When you’re traveling, everyone wants to have a drink with you because who knows when you’ll see each other again.  After a while, it starts to get out of hand when it’s every few nights.  However, it was amazing to finally meet my family and see where I come from; plus, I’m a short guy, but whenever I’m around family I feel like a giant.  That evening I managed to get in my farewells and the next morning I was accompanied to the train station by my aunt Carla, aunt Patsy, cousin Georgia and great aunt May.  Aunt May said it felt like she was shipping me off to war when in fact I was just taking a short train ride to London to see some of my mom’s side of the family.  I thought to tell May how old that made her sound but held my tongue.  Instead I’ll just write about it here and hope she never sees it… Sorry May!  My time in Liverpool was a real recharge.  It felt like home.  Whatever home is.

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LONDON

In London my cousin Rhue met me at the train station and set me up at her place while she stayed at her boyfriend James’ place.  After some quick groceries and introductions we sat out back, no shoes on, and had some tea.  It was great, and a real nice change of pace.  It was nice to relax and not go out, especially go out and drink: I needed a break.  Perhaps a long break.  Rhue took me around London and showed me some of the typical tourist sites as well as some of her favourite spots.  There was a countryside-looking neighbourhood on a river which was gorgeous but for the life of me I can’t remember the name.  Her friend Tarik joined us who I came to like very much.  He was a hilarious guy.  While the three of us sat at a cafe a dog sitting there began to bark at the gardener.  Who was black.  The dog didn’t seem to have a problem with anyone else who had come by so Tarik made the obvious remark, “That’s a racist dog.”  It was a little bit disturbing but I had heard of stories of people training their dogs to react like this.  Actually, its very disturbing.

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Rhue and I went to the Museum of Natural History which I thoroughly enjoyed.  They had an exhibit dedicated to a (probably) Neandertal footprint recently discovered on the British Isle.  I’m an anthropology student, so the chance to see the exhibit was great.  Rhea’s friend Maddy also had an art exhibit on which was really neat.  It had a lot of interesting work there.  There were some prints I wanted to buy but wasn’t sure about what to do about getting them home.  Rhue and I also went to her boyfriend James’ graduation from Brunel University.  There was a day downtown when I was getting a haircut that an ENDLESS stream of nude cyclists rode by.  And I mean endless, it went on and on.  While in the downtown core we also visited the downtown skatepark Southbank and bought a Tshirt to support the park from closing.  All of this happened over the span of several days because the tube actually took a long time to get anywhere.  However, a big part of that was how far out of the centre Rhue’s place was.

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We decided to stay in the neighbourhood one evening rather than go into London.  James lived with Tarik and their place wasn’t far from Rhue’s.  Tarik was also a computer scientist and had an oculus rift, which he was working on to make new interactive technology for.  This was my first experience with the oculus and let me tell you: Virtual reality is scary!  First I was on a roller coaster with a digital body below me.  Suddenly I couldn’t remember what I was wearing and looked at this digital body as if it was mine.  The roller coaster also induced all those terrible feelings in your stomach a normal roller coaster does.  Next, things got weird.  Tarik uploaded a game he had never played.  I was wandering around in a wooded area at night when I found a cabin.  Inside I could see a light and what looked like a little girl.  As soon as I walked in the cabin the light went out and she disappeared.  I wandered around in panic and ran away from the cabin but then had her appear right in front of me.  Regular horror games are enough in your face already, but this was literally in my face!  James commented after that he would have taken the oculus off and thrown it at the computer.

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Another night we also stayed in the neighbourhood and went to a nearby bar to see the Antarctic Monkeys, which were a Arctic Monkeys cover band… obviously.  There was a random guy, who then introduced himself as Mitchell, who said my accent worked in England like his does in America.  I don’t think that’s true but I rolled with it.  He wanted me to hangout with him to help him pick up girls.  Tarik decided to steal his idea.  Suddenly I was helping him pick up girls with my Canadian accent and then HE decided to be Canadian as well.  However, I have no idea what kind of accent he was talking in.  It certainly wasn’t Canadian.  We had some elaborate story where we were cousins.  When asked why we sounded different I had to explain that he was a Newfie.  With Tarik’s luck, he tried picking up a girl who would be traveling to Canada soon and wanted to stay pen pals and maybe get together in Canada.  It was all starting to unravel but he stuck it out.  They even exchanged emails.

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I had a lot of fun in London.  The best nights were when we stayed around and I got to spend time with Rhue and her friends.  Before I knew it I was off again and headed to Spain.  There I would be meeting Rhue’s mum Janet.  I didn’t know it at the time, but Spain was going to be some of the most challenging bit of travel I would do.

Ireland – History, Guinness and more Guinness

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After a quick stop in the Netherlands with Victoria after leaving Norway, I was off on my own to travel now.  Well, not really.  Most every destination has a friend or family member waiting for me.  When I got to Dublin I met up with Seamus, who I met while in Umeå and played with in a cover band.  From the get go he had me out the door and walking through the streets and walking through history and it would be this way as long as I was in Ireland, up and out the door to fit as much in as possible.  The day I arrived was actually Seamus’ birthday so I felt a little bad because I thought I would be a burden on his birthday.  However, he said he wouldn’t normally be doing anything anyways.  After a stroll around town and getting some history on the writer Yeats and even a visit to the Yeats museum, viewing statues and monuments to the easter uprising and other rebellions against the Brits, getting taught about the great famine (which also had a role in the Irish rebellion): we went for a pint together for his birthday.  In my wallet was also money Victoria had slipped in for me to buy Seamus a birthday pint.  So both me and Victoria bought Seamus a birthday pint.  Although I got a lot of culture and a lot of history (we also went to the Irish film, “Jimmy’s Hall” about communism in a polarized Ireland), simply going out for a pint in the evening and having a chat was always my favourite part.  One of the bars we went to used to be two separate buildings and you went though a window to get from one room to another.  We also visited one of historical museums where Seamus decided to buy me a child’s Irish folk stories book.  He said he was raised on it and, since I can claim Irish citizenship if I want, I should read it.  It was a great gift.  The entire stay with Seamus he went “Irish mother” on me and was constantly cooking me breakfast, packing me lunches and making sure I was fed.  The most “touristy” thing we did was a visit to the Guinness storehouse, which is a ridiculous place.  It’s like disneyland for alcoholics.  I received training and certification for properly pouring a Guinness as well as the proper way to drink it.  It was all over the top and a little silly but very fun.  Now, Guinness in Ireland is, as they say, FAR better.  I don’t even drink it back in Canada but it is very, very good in Ireland.  Part of this is because there are the Guinness vans that drive around to all the pubs ensuring that the taps are operating perfectly.  At the top of the storehouse we got a great view of the city and had my first notice of what lovely people the Irish are.  Seamus and I were standing for awhile and had finally found a seat but shortly after he noticed an elderly group looking around and easily decided we should give our seats up.  I encountered something similar to this again in Cork.

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On another one of our nights together, Seamus decided to go out to Temple Bar and try to find some “trad” (traditional Irish music).  We passed a few bars which had musicians playing what seemed like trad, or would actually be playing trad for a song or two and then switch to top40.  Seamus was determined.  We went from bar to pub to pub to bar.  I didn’t know what he was looking for until we found it.  It was true “trad” and it was glorious.  Had I a few whiskeys in me, I would have gone wild and gotten into a jig.  Speaking of whiskey…

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Seamus, still being in Irish mother mode, walked me to the train and gave me my final farewell as I headed off to Cork.  It was a short visit, but very good and I do hope to go back soon!

CORK

I went to Cork because it is where “me Gran” is from.  I stayed at the local Hosteling International hostel and it was a massively impressive building.  I spent a lot of my time in Cork, wondering around and killing time because I didn’t have any real plans.  The day I wanted to get out to the Blarney Castle (and kiss the Blarney rock) it was pouring rain, so it wasn’t worth it.  Unfortunately this was the only day I was capable of going.  Instead I visited the old prison, now a museum (mostly, I was just looking for something to do indoors).  It was a neat building and an okay little tour around.  I wandered around the University campus which was GORGEOUS when I had a sunny day.  Coffee station, right of campus is a great and relatively cheap place to eat in Cork.  I highly suggest it.  I started to go a little mad in Cork from not doing anything (it took one day to wander about and see the sights) and decided to have a night out.  Pub Crawl for one!  I started at Edisons.  I was sitting outside where two other young lads were sitting.  They were maybe 3-4 years younger than me.  They started to play music out of there phone.  Now this is a massive pet peeve of mine.  It is so inconsiderate to those around you in my opinion.  But these two young lads turned around and asked me the instant they started playing it whether it bother me or not.  Now I have never had that before!  Simply because they asked (and because it wasn’t super terrible music) I told them I didn’t have a problem.  Then I went with a Beamish Irish Stout (top notch beer and for only $3.50 a pint!) at the Beggarman.  The Beggarman is a craft beer pub with a cinema attached to it (yes you can drink in there).  When I was there, they were playing the Shinning and they also play Game of Thrones weekly.  Clever marketing.  I was chatting with the owner, who surprisingly knew where Edmonton was.  This was because he studied theatre in Banff but eventually gave it up and went into food.  He was a street food vendor in Cork and then opened the pub.  It was at this point I found out he had only be open two months.  After Beggarman I went to Abbey Tavern and all eyes were on me as I walked in.  It was the kind of place where everyone was a regular and they all knew each other and I was the odd man out.  Now, I had bought myself an Irish cap as a souvenir and thank god I did.  I sat at the bar and an elderly chap commented on it saying how much he liked it and how he used to have one when he was young.  Him and I chatted for an hour or two about family (he had a daughter in Canada), Sweden, France, and Obama.  I told him about my pub crawl and he had a few suggestions for me.  And with a “good luck to ya,” I was off.  He had suggested the Enterprise.  Well… it shouldn’t surprise me when an elderly chap suggested a bar with all elderly people.  The pints were also the most expensive of anywhere.  I quickly had my pint and moved on.  The last pub I hit was the Oval.  It looked simply like a house from the outside.  Once inside, it really felt like a “locals only” hidden gem.  It was tiny, dingy, and dark.  I loved it.  Though, like and pub/bar, they aren’t that great alone.  It’s the type of place I would love to go with some mates, but by yourself, its a bit awkward.  I finished my pint and went back to the hostel.  The next day my face was killing me.  I had only had four pints, yet I was congested and had a migraine.  I’ve always had a suspicion that I’m allergic to something in certain beers and this solidified it.  This was the day I headed to the airport to take off to Liverpool and it was also the day that I realized how badly Norway hit the budget.  It was a sleepy little place and it’s too bad I didn’t do more, but I was on a tight budget and the weather wasn’t on my side.  However, once in Liverpool, my cousin made sure I had a proper night out…

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Norway – Breathtaking views… and prices

So after a farewell evening in Umeå I was off to Norway.  I was unsure exactly how I would feel once I finally left Umeå (turns out it felt very much like a hangover).  I’m excited to be traveling and I do miss family and friends but I will miss a lot about Umeå.  Thankfully I will be seeing many of the friends I made there in the upcoming month while I travel. Norway felt very different from Sweden yet very similar.  It’s like if Norway and Sweden were siblings, Norway was the spoilt one.  I landed in Oslo which reminded me of Vancouver, probably just because of the mountains and ocean.  But later that evening when I went to meet Victoria at the central station I was approached by several hookers, then it really reminded me of Vancouver.  The next day we wandered about and explored the city a little.  The opera house and statue park, Vigeland, being the highlights.  The reason we were doing this trip at all was because one of my professors (who was leading the field school in Japan when Victoria and I met), “Hugh” said we would be fools not to do it.  We lucked out with the weather and the statue park was a great visit.  The statues were meant to depict the struggle, pains, and emotions of human existence.  One statue was of a man juggling and kicking children, I assume to depict parenthood.  The monolith or phallic symbol (penis) at the centre was very impressive.

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The next day was the actual trip Hugh had told us to take.  The “Norway in A Nutshell” itinerary.  This includes a train from Oslo to Myrdal, where you then hop onto the Flåm railway which takes you through the Flåm valley where you then hop onto a ferry and go through the Nærøyfjord to Gundvangen to catch a bus to Voss to then catch another train to Bergen.  It was great, but a long day of travel.  We were initially going to book it all ourselves but after pricing it out, the booking company Fjord Tours had almost the same price.  I think the cheapest way is to not book anything in advance and just go day of, only catch is the ticket office opens after the opportune hours to depart.  The train ride from Oslo to Myrdal was amazing.  We reached an altitude of 1222 metres above sea level and everything was covered in snow.  It was not what I was expecting from the train ride at all.  Surprisingly there were a lot of houses in what felt like the middle-of-nowhere in this snowy mountain landscape.  If they were more than ski cottages, I have no idea what people would do up there for work.

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At Myrdal we hoped on the Flåm line which was a really scenic train ride and it made several stops as it operates almost entirely for tourists.  On the train we met two embarrassingly obnoxious Canadians.  They were from northern Ontario (no comment) and were an older couple.  In my head I’ve nicknamed him George because he looked like George R. R. Martin.  They were going photo crazy and when George saw the Canadian patch on my backpack, he said, “So you’re American, eh?” “No, I’m Canadian.” I said.  He kept at it, “You guys always put our flags on your backpacks so people don’t think you’re American.”  “Nope.  Canadian.  I’m from Edmonton.” I said as I was getting fed up.  “Okay, maybe you’re not fake.”  Decetive George concluded.  To set the record straight about Canadians and their patches:  We wear patches on our bags because most people when traveling Europe automatically assume we’re American, having the patch avoids having to correct them (imagine just assuming an Irishman is English, its offensive to certain people).  However, in this circumstance I was embarrassed to be associated with these goofs.  The second reason I wear a patch is because I want people to know I am not a local.  In Europe, people are always in the centres begging, raising money for Amnesty, Red Cross, etc. and I hope that they will leave me alone and understand I don’t have any spare money to donate to amnesty or anything else (so far not working).  I’m also a cheap student.  If there was some kind of international “student flag” I’d have that on my bag as well.  Getting back to the Flåm line: this is a part of the trip I would have adjusted (not because of George and his photo assistant wife).  Rather then take the train through the Flåm valley, I would have liked to have walked along the trails that lead all the way down the valley and go through the tiny villages within.  I also would have liked to stay a night in Flåm as it was a really beautiful location, and the fact that they had a great pub and their own brewery (Ægir Bryggeri) helps.  Unfortunately we only had a few moments in Flåm so I quickly bought a Sumbel Porter to have later that night in Bergen (which was delicious).  The ferry ride was gorgeous but we were packed onto this ferry like sardines and the other tourists were a bit ridiculous.  They all began losing their minds and taking pictures when a lone seagull began to fly along the boat.

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Later someone got the bright idea to feed the seagulls and then we were swarmed by the flying rats.  We moved ourselves down to where the cars would be had anyone driven one, and even though the engine was louder, it was much quieter away from the tour group.  Once we moved below deck I thoroughly began to enjoy the ferry ride.  It was waterfall after waterfall, the joke after awhile was, “Another waterfall? Bored!”

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After about 2 hours in the fjord we hopped on a bus and spent about 40 minutes detouring on some roads stacked on each other like a jenga set ready to fall, to get a view of some waterfalls (“Another waterfall?”) and then we were off again on the main road to Voss.  Voss was a cute little town.  It reminded me of something like a tiny Kelowna or Revelstoke in British Columbia.  Luckily we had time to run to a nearby Kebab and Pizzeria we spotted on the way in.  We were then on another train, this time with a stag party headed to Bergen for a night out.  There was a constant stream of them going to and from the washrooms and they may have had just one or two drinks before getting on the train, just maybe.  This section of the train ride was beautiful as well but couldn’t live up to the first train.  Once in Bergen we took a bus to our hostel and we quickly went to bed.  The next day we wandered around Bergen, which was probably my favourite of the cities we visited (it was also Vic’s).  It is at this point I should mention the price of food.  A fast food burger will cost you “Ridiculous!!” and a coffee will cost you “Absurd!!”  But truly, the price of food is unfathomable.  We lived off of fast food and convenient store food for the most part and it still cost us ridiculous amounts.  We went to Vapiano twice to “treat ourselves.”  Vapino is usually a cheap dinner, however, in Norway is cost us around 40 Euro for a pasta and a beer.  Another writer said after visiting the Munch Museum in Oslo, “The Scream” must be depicting a tourist seeing their bank account after a visit to Norway.  Probably, but we didn’t visit the Munch Museum because of the cost of food.  I bring this up now because in Bergen was the only time we had an okay priced meal and it was actually good.  It was a typical “Norwegian Fast Food” fish burger.  I dreaded going in at first because I figured like the rest of Scandinavia, they’d throw some kind of mayo or version of mayo that I hated on the burger.  Instead it was salsa and fresh veggies and a whole wheat bun.  Dare I say it was the best burger I have ever had? (It was more like a sandwich really).  We wandered to the park which had xylophones to play and then made our way back to the Unesco World Heritage site, Bryggen.  What better thing to do then have a beer at a Unesco World Heritage site, right?  Victoria and I were pretty tired from the day of travel so we plopped ourselves down in Una.  They had a large selection of beer, especially Norwegian beer which I wanted to try while in the country.  On top of that they had some very knowledgeable staff.  I got chatting with the bar manager, who was from Australia (mostly about beer).  I always appreciate a bar that will let you sample beers to find the one you’re looking for.  We hungout there for a couple hours and relaxed before heading to the student area to try and find a cheap dinner.  We found a cheap dinner, by Norway standards, at a Wok place.  Another nuisance in Norway is the Eat-In/Take-Away prices.  If you want to eat in the restaurant/fast-food joint then you’re going to pay more on top of the already expensive dish.  It’s a bit ridiculous.  After feeling guilty for spending so much money on the basic necessity of food, we headed back to the hostel.  The next day we had a 5 hour bus ride to Stavanger.

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Another early morning saw us dragging our sorry butts to another station to catch a bus near to the last minute.  The bus ride was uneventful for the most part until we got just north of Stavanger.  It was bridge after bridge and tunnel after tunnel under the sea, connecting several little islands.  The landscape changed so drastically from the few hours before and suddenly there was hardly any trees.  We had to take another ferry to get to Stavanger (“Ferry lyfe” someone named Victoria may have said).  We spent a few hours in Stavanger wandering about.  It still had a very small, fishing village feel but was clearly an established city.  The centrum was especially neat to walk around with every house(shop) painted white.  We then got on a ferry once again to get to Tau.  On the ferry we met a very friendly-but-too-friendly-almost-creepy-actually-very-creepy guy.  We were ready to nod off when he asked if we were headed to Preikestolen.  We told him we were going the next day but he insisted he could give us a ride.  Perhaps he was a nice guy and meant well but without conversing with each other, both mine and Victoria’s red alerts were going off.  Something about him was just off.  We needed to buy our return tickets for the next day on the bus anyways, which I told him.  But he understood it as we already had tickets: even better.  So after avoided a potentially creepy evening, or offending a friendly guy, we waited for the bus and were the only passengers out to the Preikestolen hostel.  It was in a gorgeous location overlooking a lake.  This is another point in the trip I would have loved to change and stayed and extra day or two (however, every extra day in Norway is not only accommodation but also a lot of money on food).  We had the hostel as our only option for dinner, so of course it was expensive, but not as bad as it could have been since there were no other alternatives in the area.

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The next morning we did the Preikestolen hike which was easily the highlight of the trip.  The landscape on the way up was incredibly diverse considering it was such a short hike and the view at the top was an awe inspiring moment.  The only downfall of the destinations popularity was the constant stream of tourists on the path and groups at the top.  Some of them made for good entrainment though.  One guy was wearing a leather jacket and dress shoes.  I’m sure he must have hated the hike to the top.  We hiked around to try and get a good angle of the rock itself and met another Canadian couple, this time they were friendly, funny, all the typical things that are assumed about Canadians.  After deciding to take the scenic route down (as in it was not a route at all, we just went in the general right direction until we found the path again) we hopped on the bus and ferry combo once more and got back to Stavanager again.  The next day we took an 8 hour train ride back to Oslo.  About 5 hours in, the landscape became really beautiful lake country and would have been another nice stop for a day or two.  The next day in Oslo we checked out the old fort up until there was a fee to go further, at that point we had lunch and laid in the park until we had to catch our flight to Amsterdam.  Luckily we didn’t land on the dreaded Polderbaan runway which I did the previous two times (its a 15 minute drive-in-the-plane from the airport).  However, another problem that seems reoccurring at Schiphol airport is that you wait forever for you luggage, which we did.  Then on the way to The Hague the train broke down…  We were both ready to go back to Norway haha.  Now I’m here for a few days before heading off to Ireland to meet up with my mate Seamus.

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Sweden – Farewell Umeå

Yesterday was my last day in Umeå and Sweden.  This morning I traveled to Oslo, Norway.  I’ll be spending the next week traveling around Norway with Victoria.

I wasn’t sure how I would feel when I left Umeå but oddly enough it feels very much like a hangover (that may have something to do with the farewells last night).  It still hasn’t sunk in and likely won’t for awhile longer, that many of the people I said goodbye to I may never see again.  Luckily though, many of them I KNOW I will see again.  So, now that I am leaving Sweden I will share the 5 worst (and 5 best) things about Sweden/Umeå.

The 5 Worst things about Sweden

  • 5. BLAND FOOD – While in Sweden I cooked for myself a lot, but when I did go out, more often then not I was disappointed.  Granted a few steaks, reindeer or the occasional pasta were great, most of the time I found the dishes lacked flavour, or at least the flavour I am used to.  They use a lot of white sauces (which I despise!), and a lot of the more timid spices like sage.  But the worst part, is that theres no spicy food.  While in Stockholm I went to a Vapiano (I am going to miss the hell out of these when I am back in Canada!) and they asked, out of 10, how spicy I would like it.  I knew the culture didn’t eat spicy food so I said, 10… the next time I ordered I said 15.
  • 4. THEY’RE TOO GOOD LOOKING – And I’m pointing this at the guys.  Men in Sweden would likely be considered a little feminine in North America because they take such good care of their appearance.  They look like they get a haircut and style everyday.  They’re always dressed very “fashion forward.”  Guys, you’re making the rest of us look bad!  I felt underdressed all year long; Like the savage, uncivilized, North American I am haha.  They are all extremely fit and committed to going to the gym as well.  Me? I get bored on a treadmill and rely on competition in hockey to keep me fit: which I missed out on this year… (number 2).
  • 3. DANCE, HOUSE, CLUB… WHATEVER, MUSIC – It seems like the same rotation of super pop dance songs are played in rotation hourly at every club, all year long.  The hockey games I attended replaced the traditional rock songs you hear at north american games with dance music (the rock songs suck anyways).  However, the worst part of all of this is because these songs are played so much, everyone knows them, and then they drink…  Quite a few nights during the week, and every weekend, around 2 to 3 am I would get woken up by the normally, quiet, calm and polite Swede (Dr. Jekyll) transforming into a group of Eurostar singing lunatics (Mr. Hyde).  There was one night in particular where a group of lads sat outside and sang (“sang”) the same tune for about 2 hours (thats not even an exaggeration…).  Again, this was particular to where I lived since I was in the neighbourhood of Ålidhelm: a student ghetto and a “most dangerous” place according to urban dictionary haha (thats not true).
  • 2. HOCKEY – Winter back in Alberta is long and dull but playing hockey with some local kids and sometimes parents helps keep the spirits and energy up.  I thought Sweden was a hockey nation but the outdoor rinks were generally abandoned.  There is also virtually no recreational teams.  This could have been because of the particular city I was in, and the particular neighbourhood, as it was a lot of international students.  The few times there was a group at the outdoor rink (ODR, Oh-dee-ar, in Canada) they wouldn’t play a game.  In Canada, you drop a stick at centre ice and that signals a game is going to start.  Everyone else throws their sticks in and then someone splits them up and you play 3v3, 6v6, 9v9, whatever.  I tried this and I guess its not part of the culture (they just stared at my hockey stick at centre ice like I was crazy).  Additionally, when even asking people to get a game going they aren’t interested.  It was a surprise to me.
  • 1. THE DARK – This one is particular to Umeå.  Coming from Edmonton, I am used to brutal winters and was expecting the same.  However, it was the mildest winter I have ever experienced (thank you Gulf stream!).  It was even frustrating at certain times because the weather was too mild to play hockey (“ishocky”, if you prefer).  However, it was brutal in a whole other respect.  The dark!!  Trying to live when you get 3 or 4 hours of daylight, and during that time it is overcast, for 3 months straight is a challenge to say the least.  It drains your energy and sours your mood.  Then on the flip side is the other part of the year, it never gets dark and makes it very difficult to sleep at night but you feel energized.

THE 5 BEST THINGS ABOUT SWEDEN

  • 5. SAFE, SAFE, SAFE – I always felt so very exceptionally safe in Sweden.  No one seems to go out with the intention of looking for a fight, or raging with redneck pride and needing to justify it.  Back home, certain bars/places have to be avoided because people will go there just to fight (if anyone knows the Old Bar in Stony Plain, they know what I mean).  In Sweden, something about the culture is just so very non-aggresive and relaxed.  I never encountered what seemed like a “bad neighbourhood.”  I wasn’t worried about drunk drivers (and I’ve had  extremely close calls in Edmonton).  This is partly because hardly anyone had the need to drive (city planning! infrastructure! yay!).  I’ll likely have a better opinion on this when I’m back home and have more perspective.
  • 4. CITY PLANNING/PUBLIC TRANSIT – This is a big one for me and probably a lot of North Americans.  Edmonton’s city planning seems like it was done by complete airheads or by those airheads children.  Swedish, and most all European cities, encourage people to walk and usually have centres with outdoor restaurants, pubs, shops, monuments: a place for the community to gather.  Edmonton’s closest thing would be Whyte ave or Churchill Square. I guess.  But again there is no real centre or communal point for pedestrians.  The city suffers from a sprawl problem.  The whole city is very automobile emphasized.  You should drive everywhere, really in most case, driving is actually your only option.  Whereas in Europe (and some Canadian cities: Vancouver is one) streets are closed for pedestrian use and a cultural focal point tends to form.  The city planning emphasizes walking, biking, public transit and makes it unnecessary to drive.  If I could live without a car I would, but that’s near to impossible in Edmonton and much of Canada.
  • 3. MUSIC CULTURE – Just like number three in the 5 Worst Things list, this one is about music.  The fact that I was an international student, being compensated to afford playing and performing music says a lot about the emphasis and availability of artistic expression in Sweden.  Youth centres exist with fully equipped music rooms for kids and adults to practise and learn.  On top of that, the government will help fund the renting of these rooms because you are committing you time to art which enriches the culture and is the backbone of its identity.  I badly wish something like this existed back home and even made me think it would be a profitable business venture.  There were constant music festivals in Umeå and randomly a stage would appear downtown every now and again with a band performing.  They also have an unbelievable jazz club and a world class guitar museum.
  • 2. FIKA – Easy one! Get a break in class to have coffee?  Sure!  Meet up with friends on a regular basis because it’s part of the culture to go for fika?  Sure!  It also helps that Scandinavian coffee is great!  For those that wonder, fika is basically a break in the day to have coffee and sweets.  This is a good part of the “don’t over-stress yourself” that is emphasized in the Swedish culture.  No only are fika breaks a large part of the culture, but employees have to be allowed additional breaks to exercise as working (sitting in an office) for long periods isn’t healthy.
  • 1. UMEÅ – This city has a lot going for it!  The only draw back is that it is a little disconnected from the rest of Europe.  You can go on hikes just 5 minutes from downtown.  It’s a chance to meet people from all over the world with a massive international student body.  There are plenty of opportunities for artistic expression.  I’ve made a lot of lifelong friends here and I have grown up a lot and had a real shift in perspective.  It was an incredible experience and this city will always be a special place for me: Even if I had sour days, because we all have sour days no matter where we are.  I hope to visit the home countries of all the friends I’ve made.  Maybe one day!