Europe 2004, Part II


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New York -> Brussels -> Luxemburg -> Köln -> Amsterdam -> Hamburg -> Copenhagen -> Malmo -> Helsinborg -> Oslo -> Bergen -> Stockholm -> Uppsala -> Helsinki -> St. Petersburg -> Moscow -> Ярославль -> Vilnius -> New York!





SATURDAY, MAY 29, 2004

Arrival to Benelux

Despite the fact that we got our transatlantic tickets at ridiculously low price ($150!), the airline (Delta) didn't skimp on any meals - we got both the dinner and the breakfast spaced only few hours apart. The dinner was served on New York time and the breakfast on European time - hey, that's why it is called "continental"! (and not because it included bagel with cream cheese). The primarily reason why this breakfast became so memorable is because it established two records. Firstly, at 2am EST, it was the earliest breakfast I ever had. Secondly it was the worst bagel I ever tasted in the vicinity of New York City.

So, filled with all these calories we touched down in Brussels airport and after brief immigration formalities we finally stepped on European soil, or rather asphalt pavement. There were buses and trains connecting the airport to the city, but rather than waiting for the next departure, we decided to live rich and take a taxi. The bill presented to us after a 15 minutes ride clearly explained why local cabs are equipped with credit card readers. Hey, I should have suspected that rides in black Mercedes (typical cab here), do not come cheap.

Our pre-booked hotel is conveniently located a short walk from the Grand Place - the historic center, yet it's in the middle of Arab neighborhood. There is nothing wrong with this surrounding - it's cleaner and probably safer than most areas of Brooklyn, but I was surprised to see that people in the middle of Brussels dress according to Moroccan fashions. But why not? Jealous of Chinatowns in US cities, where everything can be bought cheaply, the Europeans responded by creating Arab quarters. This makes sense.

Architecturally Brussels is very beautiful, but in my opinion it offers little to do beyond the sightseeing. So we stay here only until our jet-lag clears, not longer than two days. And then we are moving on to our next destination - the Grand Duchy of Luxemburg.

SUNDAY, MAY 30, 2004


Je ne comprends pas!

My biggest obstacle so far to communicating with locals is my recently improved Spanish.  Every time I want to say something in French, it's the Spanish words that come out of my mouth. Sometimes helpful Belgians take a clue and try to reply in Spanish and this totally confuses the things. At moments like that I feel like Gedevan Alexandrovich from Kin-dza-dza: "А етот пацак вообЩе все время думает на языках продолжения которых не знает".
The reflex to respond to any foreign speech in Spanish is so strong that it extends even to such basics as "Oui" and "merci", words that I pronounce as "Si" and "Gracias". Yet, in the end everything gets sorted out, even despite the fact that Spanish "si", has in French the opposite meaning.
I don't even know why do I go through all this trouble of learning foreign languages - their usefulness is greatly overrated. I really admire old Russian ladies (and not only ladies), who walk into a grocery here and ask in a matter-of-fact manner: "Pochem klubnichka?" And they are understood!  The language of commerce is truly international.


Anonymous said...

Je te comprends parfaitement! Because I have some basic knowledge of 4 Romance languages (French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese, in order of my familiarity with them), I constantly get tongue-tied the first few days I'm in one of those countries. Usually I gravitate towards French (e.g., "oui" instead of "si", "merci" instead of "gracias", just as you said) because I know it better than the others. That passes after the first 2-3 days, however.

Regarding your "pochem klubnichka?" comment - I'll never forget how you walked into a little store in Princeton and said the sales clerk: "Ya izvinyaus'..." (the bewildered clerk turned his head to you) "A skol'ko eto stoit?" The amazing thing was that he told you the price and you didn't even realize you asked in Russian. :0)

- Serge Shamis

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MONDAY, MaY 31, 2004

Grand Duchy of Luxemburg

Grand Duchy of Luxemburg, Kingdom of Belgium, Kingdom of Netherlands...
It seems strange that in our enlightened times adult people continue to play with these fairy tale entities. But as Russian proverb goes "Чем бы дитя не тешилось..." Let them play in royalties, as long as they export only their great food and not their democracy.  (What do you think the majority of Arabs want? That's right! So why are we fighting to bring them democracy?)

Ok, back to Luxemburg - the richest EU country (per capita, of course). Immediately upon arrival I started to suspect that the source of their riches is the exorbitant fees they charge tourists for using railway station toilets. However my opinion of Luxembourgians as being exceptionally greedy has turned to the opposite when we stumbled upon the farmers expo. In fact it was hard to miss, because enterprising farmers brought cows and other samples of their produce right under the windows of the Grand Duke's palace. There they were treating passerbys with samples so generous that after making a round around the square we no longer needed a dinner.
The quality of the products was phenomenal, I can only say that Zara, who's normally a vegetarian didn't refuse any of the meat samples. This I think is the best recognition the farmers could get. And it wasn't only food, i.e. as for me, I added Pinot Noir from Limousine (the name of Luxembourgian village) to the list of my favorite wines. And I am very picky!


Anonymous said...

Are you sure the Limousin in the wine label referred to a village in Luxembourg and not to a province in the south-west France (in the Dordogne region)?

- Serge Shamis

Anonymous said...

Malo li v Brazilii Don Pedro? I malo li v Evrope limousinov? I automatically assumed that these were Luxembourgian farmers, since this was happening in Luxemburg. If they had to drag this wonderful wine all the way from France would there be anything left?


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Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Luxembourgian foreign policy

Yes, apparently such peculiar thing as Luxembourgian foreign policy does exist! In the prominent city location there is a memorial to the soldiers who died for the country in the 1st and 2nd World Wars, both of which were fought on Luxemburg's territory. There is also a plaque a bit below that commemorates those who where defending Luxemburg in Korea in 1950-53.
Whatever interests Luxemburg had in Korea, I have no doubt they were sufficiently important to die for. Yet, it bothers me that I don't know the definite answer to Zara's question: "So, which side did they fight for?"

Thursday, June 10, 2004

The Gothic capital

While checking train schedules, I made a geographic discovery of the city of Köln (Cologne) which is conveniently located b/n Luxemburg and Amsterdam, our next scheduled destination.
Quick check of the travel guide revealed that Köln is the home to the major attraction - their cathedral is the largest, tallest and also the one that took the longest to built - 600 years! Yes, I think I've heard something about that from the school history class. What I didn't know is that while the Cathedral was being built, the unoccupied burgers of Köln invented special substance so called "water from Köln". Obviously in German it sounded even less attractive than in English and nobody was buying. Than for marketing purposes they translated the label into French and it became 'eau de colon' (that is "odekolon" if you are not familiar with French spelling). The sales instantly picked up.

Of course, I just made up the whole story, because in my opinion tour guides who stick to the facts are too boring.

In any case this abundance of real and imaginary attractions made Köln our next stop. Certainly Amsterdam can wait for another two days.

The Cathedral of Köln, which miraculously survived the destruction of the city in WWII, is as impressive as tour book says. Maybe even more.  The first thought that came to me upon seeing all of its immensity and complexity was: 'I can't believe they did it in only 600 years!' And indeed, the scaffolding that still covers some parts of the structure indicates that the construction hasn't been finished yet - it's an ongoing process.

Despite all the magnificence of the Gothic architecture I was even more impressed by the Gothic people who assembled outside on the right flank of the Church. New York Halloween aside, I never saw such a huge open air freak show. There were probably hundreds of them, and new batches would arrive with every passing train, all in outfits that would sure scare the Dracula himself - the apparent founder of the fashion.

Nearby from the black-clad Goths (or Gothics?) there also was a smaller camp of colorful punks. Two groups peacefully coexisted, but didn't mix. Each stayed true to it's colors.

The neutral zone b/n Goths and punks was populated with a handful of 'undecided', who haven't yet determined their calling. These might be dressed as Goths above waist, yet wearing colored pants that betray their incomplete allegiance.

These were Köln highlights. Apart from the above mentioned fashion groups, the rest of Köln's population seems to belong to the international beer culture. The only difference from New York bars, is that here they drink beer outside and speak German.


Anonymous said...

Your story got me interested in the real history of eau de cologne, so I did a quick google search. Here's one link I found (although I can't vouch for its veracity either):

Also, I seemed to recall that St-Peter's Basilica in Rome is the world's largest cathedral, so I did another quick google search (no, that's not what I do at work all day long) and found this link:

It suggests that there's no such thing as the "largest" cathedral because it really depends on how you measure its size (width vs length vs height vs area vs volume, etc.) and what you include (e.g., cloisters, etc.). Makes sense. Apparently it's generally agreed that St-Peter's is the largest Christian religious structure, but it's not a proper cathedral, so many countries/cities market their own cathedrals as the largest. Including NY, which claims that honour for its St-John the Divine, by Columbia University.

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The rules of train travel in Holland

In little Norwegian mountain station Myrdal upon boarding train to Oslo we saw a woman with two little girls who was looking at us with her eyes wide open. And we looked back at her with our eyes wide open as well... I think to explain the peculiarity of this encounter I need to go few weeks back and post some notes that I skipped...

Before arriving to Amsterdam I sent a message to my Dutch acquaintance asking for tips and suggestions. Here is what he said:

'Let's just say that i hope you'll enjoy my country, although I hope you'll not just do Amsterdam... I can recommend you places in the south like Maastricht and Breda (my study town), or Utrecht is beautiful as well. Than you could be trekking on the Veluwe close to Apeldoorn, or sailing up north in Friesland which is certainly great and this province has such an interesting culture (and its own language!). So much to do apart from visiting (also beautiful, don't get me wrong) Amsterdam and its coffeeshops.'

I was just about to reply that our limited time doesn't allow us to see any of the counties in-depth and we are only zooming through the main attractions... but then because of our unawareness of the Dutch rules of train travel,  we ended up seeing  much more Holland than we ever planned to.

Rule of train travel in Holland #1:

In Holland two adjacent cars that leave from the same platform at the same time will not necessarily arrive to the same destination.

Rule #2

If Dutch conductor checks your ticket and sees that you are going to the wrong place - he won't tell you.

When 2 hours after departure our train failed to arrive to the scheduled
transfer station, I became very alarmed. However it was impossible to
find out neither where we are nor where are we going.

Rule #3

Once conductor checks your ticket he hops off at the next stop. There is no map or schedule posted inside the train. Some stations do not have name signs. The surrounding scenery is flat and unremarkably similar - I think non-Dutch people won't be able to find any differences.

Luckily, after racing through all cars I found one conductor off duty, who told me that instead of traveling NW to Hamburg, we actually spent 2 hours going South.  So now we had to get off at the next stop, which was rather unremarkable place called Eindhoven, switch tracks and catch train going back to to Utrecht, from where we should be able to catch another train to Hamburg.  That's what we did. This time we paid more attention to every little detail and indeed for the first few stops the train went as expected and I let my guards down... for a while, until 2 hours later I realized that we are again moving in somewhat wrong direction. This time however we weren't alone in our predicament, there was another woman from USA, with two little girls who was traveling by the same train to Köln. So we were going NW to Hamburg, she was going SW to Köln, and train took the neutral course to the West, giving us an opportunity to see even more of Dutch countryside.  Finally we arrived to Enschede - the  final 'end of the tracks' destination.  Once off the train we rushed to the ticket office, which luckily for us was still open.

There friendly clerk explained that

a) we still can get to Hamburg
b) our tickets need to be reissued
c) not only our tickets are reissued for free, but we'll get about 16 euros back... Is it a bonus for accumulated mileage?

Rule #4

Holland is a small country, if you randomly ride around in trains for a day ot two, eventually you'll get to your destination.

Once again the woman with two kids boarded the train to Köln and we boarded train to Hamburg and went to our separate ways... again in the same car. Miraculously, with few more transfers we all arrived to our respective destinations without further adventures. Or so we thought, until a week or two later we met this woman once again, this time on the train in Norway... Probably she's still hopping from train to train hoping that eventually one of them will randomly take her where she wants to go.

A Hamburg story

In every city we visited so far we noticed two European features that make these places very different from New York. Firstly, it's the exceptional quality of dairy products (or smoked fish if talking about Norway). Secondly, it's the apparent absence of police on the streets.

Without a cop posted at every corner Europeans engage in all kinds of outrageous behavior: they drink beer on the streets, smoke in the bars, rollerblade inside railway stations, bike on sidewalks, sitting on milk crates, etc... Well, I am not even talking about what they do Amsterdam! All this behavior is of course illegal in New York, but here the society shows a much greater degree of tolerance. Like it or not, but apparently the majority here doesn't think that for these offenses people should be taken to court.  And with a much smaller number of crimes subject to prosecution, Europeans probably do not need so much police, and those few officers they have are probably running after thieves and murderers. That's why here you don't see them idling in every donut shop.

We didn't see law enforcement in action until we reached the 'free and hanseatic city of Hamburg'. This is how the tour book calls this place.  Hamburg is a separate state in Germany, and being 'free and hanseatic' it's entitled to making up its own laws one, of which instantly reminded me of New York.

Right in the beginning of our city walk we came across a street musician who assembled his sound making machine out of impossible number of stuffed animals, broken hangers, pieces of furniture and every other imaginable type of garbage. All together it was making quite a pleasant sound that people, adults and children alike, seemed to like. We stopped to listen as well. But then two cops walked by... To give them a credit, they discretely waited until the song is over, but then the walked to the musician, said something, checked his papers, wrote something in their book...while the crowd was still waiting for the continuation of the show. But afterwards there was no more fun - man packed his machine and left, much to everybody's disappointment.  Everything happened very calmly without any excesses, I don't even think that the performer was fined, yet the scene had a very ugly feeling about it. Two big guys with guns are harassing one harmless little guy with bells around his ankles - and nobody calls police to stop it, because these armed guys are police themselves  and the Law stands behind them. It felt like if I got into the inverted, 'behind the looking glass' world, where the notions of good and bad are completely messed up. Well, I often feel that way back at home.  And as for the Hamburg, it is certainly a fine interesting city, but this incident cast a long shadow over my perception of the city. It took me a while before I shook it off of my mind.

And Zara was also disappointed: 'And nobody defended him! In Dushanbe
people always protest when police chases somebody unjustly... And police usually leaves..'

Well, how can she prefer the instinctive reflexes of wild tajiks over the obedience of the civilized Germans. These are brought up to respect the Law and Order above anything else, just the same way they were during the Third Reich.


Anonymous said...

> And with a much smaller number of crimes subject to
> prosecution, Europeans probably do not need so much
> police, and those few officers they have are probably
> running after thieves and murderers. That's why
> here you don't see them idling in every donut shop.

I know you have some major beef about NYC police, and I share some of your sentiments, although I think some of your concerns are exaggerated through your libertarian lens (would you like to smoke in bars? I certainly wouldn't want you to - it's a public health issue, not a matter of individual liberties).

Anyway, I read your comment above as somewhat tongue-in-cheek, but if you are being serious, then I think the comments above are simplifying a much more complicated matter. Why is the crime rate in Europe (at least, violent crimes) so much lower than in the US? [And keep in mind that NYC has been rated the safest of large US cities for several years in a row now]. Is police force in Europe so much better and more focused/organized than their counterparts in US? I don't know if that's true or not, but I doubt that alone would tell the whole story. How much do things like culture, education, media, and the legal system (gun control laws, the punishment/sentencing rules, etc.) play a part in this phenomenon? I don't have ready answers, but I bet it's more than just having a lean and focused police force that's involved here.

- Serge

MM said...

>I think some of your concerns are exaggerated through
>your libertarian lens (would you like to smoke in
>bars? I certainly wouldn't want you to - it's a public
>health issue, not a matter of individual liberties).

You know I hate when people smoke, so this issue was a real test of my libertarian views. I think what is in stake here is not the public health issue, but the freedom of business owner to decide what happens inside his business. Personally I wasn't bothered, by people smoking in the bar as long as I had the choice NOT to go to the bar that permits smoking. Had the Gov-t banned smoking on the streets, I'd support it - streets are public, and non-smokers are forced to share them with smokers.
However regulating what people do on private property, is in my opinion rude violation of privacy and a dangerous legal precedent.

MM said...

>Is police force in Europe so much better and more
>focused/organized than their counterparts in US?

I wasn't even trying to analyze ALL the reasons why crime in US is much higher than in other countries. My point was that some of the crime is actually not a crime in the common sense understanding of the word. It was artificially created by lawmakers who for various reasons (or lack of reason) decided to outlaw certain types of activities that pose no or little danger to the society. The most famous recent example of artificially created crime is Prohibition. The historic example would be various witch hunts which continued well into XVII century. In about 50 to 100 years people will be placing in same category the current war on marijuana as well as many other laws that govern today's society.

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Apart from ridiculously high prices (which should be described in a separate message), Copenhagen is a great city, full of majestic palaces, bronze monuments, medieval churches, old houses and impressive museums. Many recognize the city's symbol - the modest bronze sculpture of  'Little Mermaid', but in my opinion it absolutely doesn't capture the spirit of this major European capital with 1000 years of history.  Although I must admit that in real life and especially in the sunset light, this mermaid doesn't look as ugly as on the countless postcards, I've seen.

Sightseeing aside, the city seems to be somewhat quiet for it's size. Most of the businesses close long before the day is over, even the restaurants. I.e. one day we tried to stop for breakfast in one of the establishments, but it wouldn't open until 11:30. Then we tried to stop there on our way back around 4:30 - but by then it was already closed.
In New York these kind of working hours would be very unusual, but in
Copenhagen it seems to be the norm.
It is weird that Lonely Planet describes Copenhagen as '24-hour party city'. Perhaps authors still had something from Amsterdam in their bloodstream. The city pretty much dies out after 4pm and it is unfortunate that we found so little to do there besides the museums and sights. The summer days here are 18 hours long and spending all this time admiring architecture puts too much strain on legs and eyes, while all other senses and body parts remain underloaded. We regret that seeing so much Europe in a such a short time has blunted our perception.  We are no longer capable of giving all these wonderful works of art all the appreciation they deserve. It would be nice to take a week off in the woods, desert or perhaps in New Jersey... But our time is limited and we still have 5-6 European capitals to see. Yes, who said that life is easy?


Anonymous said...

> We regret that seeing so much Europe in a such a
> short time has blunted our perception. We are no
> longer capable of giving all these wonderful works of
> art all the appreciation they deserve. It would be
> nice to take a week off in the woods, desert or
> perhaps in New Jersey... But our time is limited
> and we still have 5-6 European capitals to see. Yes, > who said that life is easy?

I was wondering actually - why did you opt for the sprint across so many European cities instead of concentrating on just a couple of countries? It's not like you. It's always good to mix up the big-city architectural sights and museum hopping with natural attractions, outdoor activities, remote picturesque villages, etc. - that avoids culture fatigue.

MM said...

We initially planned to visit only Scandinavia, but the cheapest tickets were to Brussels. It would have been crazy to pay at least $1000 more only to avoid few more interesting countries.

Anonymous said...

Curious about Estonia. I wonder if they changed their policy of teaching Estonian to Russian speakers. About ten years ago, public officials would translate their answers to my questions to Estonian - Russian - Estonian - Russian - Estonian - Russian. The answers got confusing, especially when you didn't hear part of an answer properly. (It wss impractical for us to learn Estonian in a few days.)

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Sticker shock

You might be wondering, how come I sent so many messages at once. The secret is that tonight we are staying in a very shitty hostel. We got into this trap without looking because we were lured by the promise of free 24-hour Internet - a rare and expensive commodity in this part of the world.
Still we should have looked first, because our room (for US$70, it is cheap by Scandinavian standards) reminds me of a medieval dungeon. And Zara said that we would have got better accommodations if we did
something illegal.   Than we would get a better room in jail in a deal that   would also include free breakfast and lunch.
So I have no intention of sleeping in this rat hole and intend on staying up all night and getting back my money worth in Internet time.

Talking about cost of living in Scandinavia, this is the first place ever where I feel like a Peruvian in New York, rather than the other way around. Well, I already felt like that 13 years ago when I arrived to New York from Moscow. At that time one way subway ride from Brooklyn to Manhattan cost as much as taking a plane from Moscow to Odessa and coming back by train. However eventually I got used to New York prices, and perhaps I'll get used to Scandinavian as well, but so far I continue thinking that paying US$4-5 for a small cup of tea is insane. There are of course unexpected bargains and freebies here and there, but for most things prices are just as crazy.

I just can't understand what economic forces make tea i.e. in Denmark so much more expensive than it is in the neighboring Germany. Zara, who's a tea addict, made an extensive research into the subject. According to her the hot water here is free, although in some places you might be asked to pay a krona or two for the cup. The tea bags also cost next to nothing, particularly if bought in Afghan-owned grocery at the corner.  So it must be the process of making tea, i.e. placing the tea bag into the hot water, that generates $4-5 of added value?
It just defies everything I know about economics and free trade, the laws of economics just stop working once you get to Scandinavia. Perhaps that's why they succeeded in building Socialism in Sweden, the experiment that failed in every other country. The high prices also explain why there are so many Scandinavians are traveling abroad, i.e. somebody from language school in Ecuador noted that after Copenhagen, Quito has the highest concentration of Danish girls in the world.  I think these girls just can't afford to live in their own country.

And of people traveling in Scandinavia there seem to be a much higher percentage of Americans, some Japanese and lots of Russians - people from relatively well off countries. And I don't know much about Russians, but we spoke to several Americans and they all were in the state of sticker shock.

On a train to Stockholm we met a Swedish guy, a recent graduate in Economics. He couldn't answer my questions, but instead added some mysteries to the puzzle. According to him Swedes are aware that prices in the other parts of the world are lower. I.e. some of them go to Germany to buy their cars (and probably everything else)... But why do they have to do it individually, haven't anybody thought of making a fortune by bringing in the entire ferry of cars? Hold on one second... perhaps that's what all these Russians are doing here.


Anonymous said...

Not sure about Denmark, but in quasi-Socialist countries like Sweden, the high prices can perhaps be attributed to very high taxes/tariffs that the government needs to levy in order to maintain the expensive social welfare structure.

Regarding tea in particular. Years ago I made the observation that tea must be the most profitable item for a restaurant, percentage-wise. Even in cheaper places, a cup of hot tea is almost 100% pure profit.

MM said...

Good try! But no, it is not sales tax, in Sweden it's only 25%. Sounds like a lot, but it covers all the service charges aka tips, and is already factored in the price. So when they bring you the bill there are no more nasty surprises. I certainly prefer this to the sneaky New York way, where you agree to one price, but then pay 8% extra in taxes and up to 18% extra in tips.
It seems that sales taxes are approximately the same in different countries, so this factor alone cannot explain the price differences

MM said...

...however, if you are talking about taxes in general, well it might be the answer. If the gov-t takes so much away in taxes, the Swedes won-t have the incentive to work unless the receive a proportionally higher salary... And then about 90% of jobs are of service type (another economic mystery!), this also works in favor of this theory.

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Monday, June 28, 2004

Dreaded Sundays

The worst days to be in Europe are Sundays and holidays. These are the days when Europeans are not working, if you imagine that. Probably you can't. What I mean that ALL of them stop working, every one of them - this includes employees of the shops, restaurants, bars, museums... In other words the life in the cities becomes completely extinct. Only stray tourists occasionally roam the streets in vain search of food and entertainment.

Thankfully there are still some immigrant-owned kebab places as well as some US food chains, like 7-11, that haven't yet adopted the local tradition. These stay open and save the careless tourists who failed to stock up on food the preceding Friday.

Once the threat of starvation is no longer imminent, the next challenge is to find entertainment. here the options are even more limited. With all the museums and attractions being closed, the only option is to take a stroll around the town. Not a bad proposition if the weather is nice. But what if it rains? And it does rain here too often!

We found that the best way to spend holidays is to a) buy food in advance and b) take a long distance train which will take us to the next country. Hopefully by the time we arrive, the Sunday will be over and the life will return.


Anonymous said...

Hmm... This is weird. In most places in Europe that I have visited (at least in France, Italy, Spain) restaurants and museums (and I think other places as well) mostly had alternate closing days. Some (maybe even many) were closed on Sundays, sure, but plenty were still open and were closed on Mondays or Tuesdays. Perhaps Scandinavia (or Northern Europe in general) is different.

- Serge

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Monday, June 21, 2004

Tango in Malmo

Across the Oresund strait from Copenhagen lies a major Swedish city Malmo. It's not quite New Jersey, yet it gave us some much needed break from endless sightseeing. We liked walking around the cobblestone streets of the pedestrian center, savoring Oresund salmon in the street cafe, trying out-of-this-world Danishes - something we couldn't find in the neighboring Denmark. Perhaps I should also mention that we also didn't find any hamburgers in Hamburg, except those sold in numerous Burger Kings and McDonalds.

While walking around Malmo we came to a sign that invited us to a tango night and we gladly accepted the offer. We went upstairs to a beautiful dimly lit ballroom, where besides us there were only 4 more couples, representing about 5-6 different nationalities. As we were explained,
in no way the small number of people in the ballroom should be taken as a sign that tango is not popular in Malmo. Quite the opposite - there were 2 more tango parties happening on the same night, and the party we came for somewhat lost to competition. I wonder how good was the competition if this place was nothing short of perfect?

Malmo seems to have even more international flavor and more things going than Copenhagen. I.e. had we stayed here for one more night we would've definitely checked out Balkan party. But for better or worse, we must catch a ferry to Oslo to get there in time for Medieval festival. Once again, it's a tough life ahead.

Tri-state meeting in Oslo

When we went to dance tango in Oslo, there was already a man standing at the door of the studio pushing the buzzer. Nobody was answering and at some point we had to enlist help of a local woman.  As I've already mentioned, everybody in Scandinavia speaks fluent English, but our new acquaintance - Pierre from Philadelphia, preferred to converse with the Norwegian woman in Swedish. Last year he spent winter in Stockholm ("because I love cold weather") where he learned the language ("because I love languages"). Now I think he was rightfully proud of his achievement and eager to have some practice. In his place I'd probably do the same.  The fact that woman was replying in Norwegian didn't seem to impede their conversation, so i suppose that the two languages are not very different. But Zara and I couldn't understand a single word and passed our time by discussing the situation in Russian.
Soon however we were drawn into the conversation as well, when woman said to Pierre in perfect English: "Oh, you are an American? I am an American too, I am from New Jersey!"

So here we were, representatives of New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, standing in front of the Argentine tango studio in Oslo, and speaking Swedish, Norwegian and Russian... Can it get more weird than that?

Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Polyglots from fish market

Yet another thing that continues to amaze me in Europe are the linguistic abilities of the local population. The population of every country we visited is almost 100% bilingual and in many cases people are fluent in 3, 4 and sometimes even more languages. Nowhere I found it more striking than at the fish market in Bergen, Norway. (of all the places, huh?) The stalls here are loaded with countless varieties of sea food, including at least a dozen of distinct types of what I can only describe with one word: 'lox' (all of them, btw, taste fabulously good). But even more impressive than the flavors of the fish are the menus displayed next to each of the stalls. These menus advertise not the fish but the languages spoken by the vendors. As a rule there are at least as many languages as there are types of fish for sale. We gave some of the vendors a quick linguistic test and in every case they passed it with flying colors. The most remarkable was the conversation with a German girl (who now lives in Norway). She spoke the purest, cleanest, accentless Russian I've heard in a very long time. I wish I can speak Russian as well as she does! The only time it became apparent that Russian is not her native language was in the following dialogue:

-Nu kak tebe kopchenniy kit?

-Da tak sebe, ni ryba ni myaso...

After that she looked a bit confused:
-U etogo vyrazheniya est' esche kakoe-to znachenie, da?


Anonymous said...

> The most remarkable was the conversation
> with a German girl (who now lives in Norway). She
> spoke the purest, cleanest, accentless Russian I've
> heard in a very long time.

But did you test her German? :0) After all, you're an American who can speak perfect Russian as well. Well, perhaps with some Odessa accent. :0)

- Serge

leonidl said...

kakaya riba!? kakoe myaso!? kakoi ee nomer telefona?? that is the question!

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Thursday, June 24, 2004

Norway in a nutshell

The famous "Norway in a Nutshell" tour is everything it claims to be, except that it isn't done in a nutshell, but in a bus, train and a boat. But the views are indeed absolutely spectacular at the every segment of the trip. We were also exceptionally lucky because contrary to the weather forecast and statistical averages, on the day we picked for the trip the rain has stopped and the skies finally cleared. As you can imagine sunny weather has greatly improved the scenery.
My only complaint, albeit a very tiny one was that the automatic commentary on the tourist boat was done in up to 9-11 different languages, one after another. Sometimes it felt like the loudspeaker would never shut up. Fortunately they didn't use all the languages for every announcement, but would instead pick 3-7 at random, that's why I am not certain about the total number of languages used. At first I tried to figure the system, why a particular announcement is chosen to be translated i.e. into Spanish, Polish and Japanese and another into French, Portuguese, Italian and German. But I couldn't solve the problem and tried to concentrate on the nature instead. But then I got interested in the announcements once more when I caught that the text conveyed in different translations is not exactly the same. I.e the stone church, that according to the English version was built in XIII century, the French translation placed in the VIII century, but the following message in Portuguese somewhat restored it to XIIth.  It didn't make any sense and once again I tried to ignore the text and just enjoy the views.

Finally, upon landing in a small port of Flam we switched to a special tourist train that travels for 20 miles through the impossibly beautiful terrain. Unfortunately this terrain is also impossible for overland travel and the whole 1/3 of the way the train spends in tunnels, where opportunities for sightseeing are very limited. And for the rest of the trip, most people get only a one-sided picture, that is either left-sided or right-sided one. Because the train frequently dives in into the mountains and emerges on the other side, neither side of the train could be preferred to another. Therefore I couldn't decide where to sit and spend most of the trip in "tambur", running from one window to another.

Once we arrived to the final stop, the mountain station of Myrdal (only about 1300m, but close to the snow line!), we thought that we gotta see the same road again, but this time with a full 360 view. So from Myrdal we hiked all the way back to Flom, an easy 20km descent to the sea level. At first I was taking pictures of every waterfall on the way, than of every second, then of every tenth higher than 50 meters... then I just put the camera away - there are too many of them, my trigger finger got sore.

Once we finally passed all the 1001 waterfall and descended back to Flom we had an option of renting a kayak, and backtracking the route of the tourist boat as well. It would be only two days of paddling (certainly days filled with fun!) The company provides all the equipment, but it requires 3 weeks advance reservation. Hmm... I wish I knew it beforehand, but Zara for some reason is glad that I didn't. Why is that?

Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Back to sanity!

Today we are arrived to Finland, where economic laws resume to apply, the prices magically drop to sane levels, the working hours are reasonable, and many cafes provide free Internet access with every meal - it comes like ketchup with French fries...

The are only two insane things about Finland. Firstly, radio Helsinki transmits its programming in CLASSICAL LATIN... well, this in in addition to programming in Finnish, Swedish, English, German and Russian.
Secondly, many Finns continue to use ski poles year around. In summer when due to the lack of snow, skiing is not practical, they use poles to walk like if they are skiing. I read somewhere that it is called "Nordic walking", and from what it looks like it's meant to make walking more difficult. Although if they really wanted to burn more calories, they shouldn't have taken off the skis.

Contrary to our expectations, of all the good things I've said about Finland, very few materialized on the day of our arrival. We had the misfortune to arrive on Sunday and also right after the Midsummer Day - the major holiday all over Scandinavia. So I guess most of the Finns where still flushing the celebratory spirit out of their systems and Helsinki was pretty much shut down. The businesses that were supposed to be open long hours were instead closed, and some of them closed until the end of the summer - this phenomena is called "European vacations". The day was as usual rainy and walking around the city wasn't too much fun. So we decided to spend the rest of the day in a typical Finnish way - in a sauna, the one that comes with Internet access, of course. Yet, perhaps as a direct consequence of the recent holiday, the computer there was broken, and the rest of the facilities didn't quite match the tour book advertisement.

So we decided to try some other place, since "most hotels in Helsinki have saunas open for non-guests as well" Unfortunately only the first part of this statement was true for the 4-5 star Radisson across the street.  Then we resorted to check sauna in our own hotel, only to find out that it has been already completely booked for the day...
The only bright moment of this disastrous day was finding an inexpensive Internet cafe very close to our hotel, I sat there till the closing time and finally
was able to catch up on my email