Sunday, September 27, 2009

Roaming around Europe

Today marks one week since I started my Europe trip. I am writing this on the train from Berlin to Prague -- right now I’m somewhere between Berlin and Dresden. The weather has been beautiful for the most part. It only rained briefly while I was in Copenhagen and has otherwise been sunny to partly cloudy with highs in the mid to upper 60‘s and lows in the low 50‘s.
17th century Nyhavn
I arrived in Copenhagen on Monday morning as scheduled. I thought I lucked out and got the last first class seat from Atlanta to Copenhagen, but then, right as they were closing the airplane doors, I was asked to move to coach because the gate agents made a mistake and put someone on a higher standby priority ticket in coach. Since I was the lowest priority ticket in first class I automatically got bumped. Not the end of the world of course, but I sure was looking forward to being pampered in first class!

By reaching out via I met and stayed with a really nice girl, Rikke, who lives in Sydhavn which is two quick stops on the regional train from Copenhagen’s central station. With the exception of getting back and forth to Rikke’s apartment, I was able to walk the entire city over the course of two full days. Copenhagen is a very pedestrian and bike friendly city; it is quite flat and the major attractions are centrally located and easy to find with a good walking map. One note though -- there are very few signs in English but most Danes, particularly those under 40, speak good English and didn’t seem to mind helping if asked.
couchsurfing (in this case sleeping on the floor) in Denmark
Of the things I did, some of the most interesting/enjoyable were walking through Christiania (a counter-culture/commune type neighborhood), climbing the spire of Our Savior’s Church in Christianshavn, strolling the canal in Nyhavn, and eating a delicious and very Danish meal (smoked herring, liver paste) at Restaurant Amalie near the Amalienborg Palace.
view from Our Savior's Church
On Wednesday I took an afternoon train to Malmo, Sweden (only 30 minutes from downtown Copenhagen). Malmo is a compact town with everything walking distance from the train station. After a look inside St Petri’s church and a nice stroll on the pedestrian-only street which runs through the middle of town, I decided to give my feet a break and spent the remainder of the evening in the main library catching up on email and uploading photos.
St Peter's Church in Malmo
The overnight train to Berlin bears mention primarily because, shortly after leaving Malmo, the entire train boards a ferry where it stays in the cargo hold for the long ride across the Baltic Sea. As there are no seats on the train, only sleeping compartments, everyone passes the 8+ hours lying flat. I happened to be on a top bunk in a compartment with six beds in two tiers of three beds each. I shared the tiny compartment with four other people.
a 6-berth sleeper cabin
I intercepted Greg at Tegel airport on Thursday morning. His flight from JFK actually arrived almost an hour early, but luckily I had been able to get online at the main train station in Berlin and noticed his imminent arrival so made sure to catch an earlier bus to the airport.
We were able to check into our hotel, City Pension, early which is always a huge advantage when dealing with jet lag. After a nice hot shower and a couple of hours of sleep, we were ready to make our first foray into the city by early afternoon. Per Rick Steves’ advice, we used Bus 100 for a self-guided orientation tour, then had a nice walk around Alexanderplatz and along Unter den Linden. As most museums stay open late on Thursdays and some are also free after 6 pm, we took advantage of the opportunity to tour the Bode Museum (sculpture, religious art) and then the Gemaldegalerie (European paintings). Due to a long wait for our food at a biergarten, we didn’t get back to the hotel until after 11 pm.
We switched from art to history for our remaining two full days in Berlin. Our sightseeing on Friday included the German Historical Museum, Berlin Cathedral, Jewish Museum, Checkpoint Charlie Museum, and remnants of the Berlin wall. We were on our feet the entire day so after eating a tasty Indian meal near the Friedrichstrasse train station, I was ready to get back to the hotel, take a shower and go to bed. Unfortunately, we caught a regional express train that skipped our stop and the next stop was another 10+ minutes out of the city. This wouldn’t have been so bad, except the next train returning to the city and stopping at our station was not for another hour! So much for turning in early. It was midnight by the time we got in bed, tired but unscathed.
Berlin Cathedral
Berlin is a city for remembering the past but also embracing the future (for better or worse). Thus our sightseeing on Saturday included the Victory Tower, Reichstag, Brandenburg Gate, and Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. Intending to go underground at Unter den Linden only to have a look at one of the ghost subway stations (unused while the wall was up), we came across a Hooters sign advertising their new location by the Tiergarten S-bahn station. Due to political rallies (see below), track closures, and buses not running, it took a major effort to get to the restaurant. Then, interestingly enough, we discovered that Hooters corporate headquarters had flown over six trainers from South Carolina, Kansas, and other U.S. states to deal with the high turnover of wait staff since the location opened late this summer. The girls had been there one month and were flying back home today. I could write pages of observations about the hour and a half we were there, but suffice it to say that I’m not so sure the trainers had accomplished much!
Today is actually election day in Germany. By 8 pm tonight, the final votes will have been cast in the once-every-four-years election for members of Parliament. Since we are traveling today, we spent a leisurely morning enjoying our hotel’s complimentary breakfast, then packing and catching up online before heading to the train station. When we tried to store our large backpacks at the Hauptbahnhof, we discovered all the lockers were full and there was a long line at the luggage counter. So we opted to keep our packs with us and walked across the Spree River to the Reichstag. Not finding a suitable place to sit and relax in the shade, we backtracked to the banks of the Spree and sat in lounge chairs (this reminded me of Paris Plage but without the sand) and drank beer until it was time to go back to the station to catch our train to Prague. As I finish typing this (after many distractions including eating a sandwich and taking photos of the Elbe River towns along the German/Czech border), we are now only 30 minutes from Prague. It’s the golden hour for photographers, with the diffused light of the setting sun making the buildings glow a soft yellow/pink.
lounging on the Spree
For links to all of my photos, click below:

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Planning for Eastern Europe

Ever since we returned from Seattle, we have spent most of our spare time planning our next adventure(s). As usual, everything is fairly last minute, even if we’ve discussed the options over the course of several months. Greg is actually taking two weeks of vacation (working remotely in New York & Seattle is NOT vacation!) and we’re leaving for Eastern Europe next week. Since his time is limited, he opted to pay for a confirmed ticket from Nashville, via NY, to Berlin and then from Budapest, via NY, to Nashville. The best price and most direct flights were on Delta. Since I have much more flexibility, I decided to chance it and fly standby, also on Delta. I can still travel on my mom’s passes and just pay the yield fare, which is less than half the cost of Greg‘s coach ticket. I also get to travel first class if seats are available. Both of the international flights that Greg is booked on are oversold in coach. It would be way too risky for me to try to travel with him and potentially miss the first few days of our vacation if there truly were no seats available on his flights. I have multiple options; the biggest limitation is that many flights to that part of Europe do not operate on a daily basis at this time of year. I could just go to Berlin a few days early, but I don’t want to kill time alone in a city where he and I are spending three full days together. Delta does not fly to many airports in the vicinity of Berlin plus I’ve already seen the better part of Germany during previous trips and I’d rather go somewhere “new.” So the only viable option is Copenhagen. If all goes well, I will depart Nashville this Sunday and arrive in Denmark on Monday morning. Because there’s always a possibility that something could happen and the flight could fill up, my backup plan is to fly to any European city which operates as a transit hub (e.g. Amsterdam, Frankfurt, Paris) and to make my way by rail to Berlin. Also, for the same reason, I cannot book advance accommodations or my overnight train ticket from Copenhagen to Malmo, Sweden to Berlin as I would be charged a cancellation fee by the hostel/hotel and the train ticket is not refundable. So I’m going to resort to the tried & true vagabond’s method of choice: couch surfing. I can only hope I’ll find someone with a couch available prior to Sunday! But my backup plan is to carry the contact info for my first choice hostel and hope that they have a bed if nothing else works out. Greg & I are planning to meet at our hotel in Berlin next Thursday morning. As I’m carrying my ultra-portable Acer Aspire One netbook with me, I’ll be able to keep an eye on his flight’s progress and potentially even meet him at the airport (my train from Malmo gets in several hours before his flight is scheduled to arrive). We’re going to spend 3 nights in Berlin, then take an afternoon train to Prague; 3 nights in Prague, then take an overnight train to Krakow; 3 nights in Krakow with day trip to Auschwitz, then take an overnight train to Budapest; and 3 nights in Budapest. Despite Greg’s return flight already being oversold in coach, there are still seats available in first class. So I will at least plan to go to the airport with him on the 7th and hope that I can get on his flight so we can come home together. Otherwise there’s not another flight (on Delta) out of Budapest until the 10th, so I would have to take a train to a major transit hub and try to get home from there. I am not one to stress about these things, especially since I don’t have to be anywhere until the 16th. Everywhere we’re staying has free Wifi so I’ll make every effort to post on a daily basis while we’re traveling. Until then…

Friday, September 11, 2009

Seattle summary

As usual, I’m overdue for an update as I have been settling back in to life in Nashville, TN. Before too much time elapses I want to summarize my overall impressions of our month-long stay in the Pacific Northwest. We enjoyed fantastic weather throughout the month with few exceptions (we never got rained on although it did rain a few times, mostly during the night or morning hours; the highest temp was in the mid-80’s and the lowest in the mid-50’s; the majority of days were sunny & mild; only disappointment was Mt Rainier was enveloped by clouds during our day trip to the park). We missed the record-breaking heat wave by only a couple of days and the day we departed was the only time the fog rolled in and engulfed the entire city until mid-day. The temperate conditions we experienced would be enough to make a more fool-hardy person jump at the chance to move there, but wiser residents & visitors know that the rest of the year is much more predictable in another way -- cool, damp and overcast. Another wonderful aspect of living in the area is the easy access, by inexpensive public transportation, around the cities or to the surrounding regions. True, we rented a car for three side trips (Mt Rainier, San Juan Island, and the Columbia River Gorge & Mt Hood), but even those trips were doable if we had wanted to book a bus tour, or in the case of the San Juan’s, to rent a bike or hitch a ride with one of the friendly locals. Price was another positive. Our last minute high season monthly rental of a studio w/kitchenette (with 24/7 reception, gym, laundry facilities, roof deck, etc.) in an ideal location in lower Queen Anne was only $1500. Compare this to prices in comparably-sized cities in the other parts of the U.S. and I think you’d have to pay a lot more for similar amenities and conveniences. As I’ve also already written about in some detail, we were pleasantly surprised with the very reasonable cost of food & drinks, especially at happy hour. And you can’t beat the lack of sales tax in Portland! Of course, along these lines, I also have to mention the wonderful variety of craft beers, fresh seafood, and vegetables (at this time of year anyway!) available as well as the diversity of ethnic eateries in all the places we visited. I do have to include one negative observation however. In every city we visited, particularly Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, there is a very apparent and highly numbered homeless population. And while they are definitely concentrated in certain areas more than others, they were on every bus ride we took, and seemed to be panhandling on every street and congregating in every park. In New York City, where I lived off & on for the past 10 years, I certainly observed countless numbers of homeless people on the sidewalks and in the parks. But in contrast to the unruly, loud and disrespectful behavior that we witnessed in the Northwest, as well as what appeared to be a significant number of mentally ill people roaming the streets shouting and threatening, the NYC population has a less obvious presence, possibly due to more frequent, although questionably effective, roundups by local police. I do not presume to have any answers, and in fact read in numerous publications that the city of Seattle has over 30 homeless shelters as well as centrally located job placement, healthcare, counseling and other services available to those who need them. The question is simply how to better manage the more disruptive and truly threatening members of the homeless population. The bottom line is that we had a wonderful trip (maybe Greg will add his reflections after I post this), which ultimately served as a nice way for me to wrap up another chapter in my life. As of last Friday, I have officially ended my employment with Nokia. As most of you already know, this was in my plans all along. Of course, it is always difficult to leave such wonderful friends & coworkers, not to mention NYC. But often to pursue your dreams you have to take deliberate steps and substantial risks in hopes of discovering a more fulfilling path in life. As I turn another page, I hope you will follow along with me on this journey of discovery. Next stop, Eastern Europe.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Final days in Seattle

Another recap of our wanderings of late… Last Thursday we embarked on a Capitol Hill exploration which involved taking the bus up the hill then strolling along 15th Ave to Volunteer Park. I took pictures of the dahlia blooms as we walked north across the park. We considered seeking out Bruce & Brandon Lee’s graves at Lakeview Cemetery, but we had not thought to map out their exact location in advance and it would have taken hours to just randomly happen upon them. So we crossed the street to the Lake Washington overlook and then took the bus back to the Pike/Pine area of the neighborhood. As it was only late afternoon, the more interesting aspects of the neighborhood were much less apparent. We decided to decamp back downhill to T.S. McHugh’s Irish pub in Queen Anne. Another reason why I love Seattle; McHugh’s has happy hour from 4-6pm daily with all appetizers and draft beer for only $2.50. We ordered hot wings, peel’n’eat shrimp, chicken tenders, nachos, 2 drafts, and 2 Session bottles (at $3 each) and had a filling if unhealthy dinner for only $25 including tip. Friday could be summed up as a day of waiting. We had hoped to receive an answer from Greg’s boss by the end of last week as to whether or not he can work remotely from Europe for three months this fall. Unfortunately he never heard from her last week, nor this past week either. In fact, we are STILL waiting! Luckily we only had to wait in line 20-30min for a delicious late lunch at Salumi (Mario Batali’s dad’s place). We ordered a porchetta sandwich and a mixed salami sandwich and ate at the communal table in the back of the tiny restaurant. After so much meat, we needed to wash it down with beer, so we walked down to the waterfront for happy hour at Elliott’s. Of course, it was packed, so we had to wait 20-30min for the first available table. Our reward was pints of Pyramid unfiltered amber ($3), a vodka martini ($4) and 8 oysters (6 for Greg, 2 for me; $1 each). I mention the prices only because, compared to NYC where I lived in some capacity for the past 10 years, this is a bargain! We got up early Saturday to catch the bus downtown to King Street Station for our weekend excursion to Portland, OR. The only annoying thing about taking Amtrak on the west coast is you have to get in line to check-in and receive a seat assignment. Actually, maybe it’s not so bad because on the east coast, the Acela is open seating so it’s first come first serve. If you are traveling with a group, you’re obligated to queue up pretty early if you want to get seats together. After receiving our seat assignments, we still had time to walk a few blocks to Starbucks and pick up some coffee and breakfast to take on the train. The 3½ hour train ride went by relatively quickly; Greg watched the Star Trek movie on the train‘s overhead system and I read and looked out the window. Our first stop in Portland was at REI where Greg took advantage of a sale and no sales tax to buy some new walking/hiking shoes and more travel-friendly clothing for our upcoming adventures, wherever they may take us. From there we walked to Powell’s City of Books, which I immediately fell in love with, and spent time browsing the extensive travel literature section before I picked out a book to read on the flight home (Rolf Potts‘ Marco Polo Didn‘t Go There). From there we took a bus to the Portland International Guesthouse in the Nob Hill neighborhood. This turned out to be a great alternative to a hostel for a comparable price and set up more like a simple European B&B with shared baths. Plus the surrounding area, particularly 21st and 23rd Aves, has a multitude of shops & restaurants worth exploring. We dropped off our backpacks and headed to a happy hour late lunch at McMenamin’s Blue Moon. And I thought I loved Seattle happy hour… At Blue Moon, a large basket of cajun tots, Caesar salad, burger, and 2 draft beers was only $16 including tip. Surprisingly, there is no tax on food & drink either! Needing to burn some calories, we walked up to Washington Park where we strolled the Japanese Garden (serene, nice view) and the International Rose Test Garden (beautiful, intoxicating smell). After a few hours of walking, we thought we deserved a bus ride to Old Town and a beer at a sidewalk table at Rock Bottom Brewery. As the sun set, we walked along Waterfront Park snapping pictures of the many bridges that span the Willamette River. We had dinner at Rogue Brewery, where I had one of the tastiest beers I‘ve ever drank, their Hazelnut Brown Nectar. For our free "dessert" the waitress brought us each a large shot glass filled with half & half of the Hazelnut Brown mixed with the Chocolate Stout. They call it "Snickers” and it was heavenly. Not wanting to miss the opportunity to try another locally brewed beer, we bellied up to the bar one last time at Laurelwood, which is a pub/restaurant in a converted house in Nob Hill. We also lucked out on late night happy hour and actually laughed when we received our $6 tab. Another early alarm on Sunday had us up, packed, and eating a quick breakfast at the hotel then walking to pick up the rental car downtown before 9am. We managed to get on the scenic Columbia River Gorge highway without any wrong turns and were soon winding our way up above the gorge. Unfortunately the morning started off a bit damp and foggy so we initially had very little visibility of the gorge. But it started clearing by 11am and there was only blue sky as we stopped at some of the many waterfalls along the route. Another interesting stop was the Bonneville Dam and fish hatchery where we saw Herman the Sturgeon (a massive 450lb, 10ft long, 70-year-old fish), along with ponds of rainbow trout, and migrating fish jumping up the ladders. We stopped in Hood River to get lunch where it became a bit of an ordeal trying to find a deli and nearby street parking. The town sits above the river, so as we were driving around we were able to see all the kite surfers taking advantage of the excellent weather conditions. From there we continued on to Mt Hood past mile after mile of orchards and even some alpacas. Unlike our drive to Mt Rainier a few weeks ago, when we never saw the mountain during the entire drive south and east, we were able to see all but the very tip top of Mt Hood from every angle as we drove south and west on Hwy 26. Our final destination was the Timberline ski resort, at 6000ft (Mt Hood is 11245ft tall), where we walked around the property then had a beer in the lodge‘s Ram‘s Head bar before driving back to Portland. We street parked the rental car then walked the few blocks to the train station where we were able to get our seat assignment and board the train without waiting. The 3½ hour ride back to Seattle was again uneventful and even somewhat scenic (I saw a few deer along the way). We even timed it right to catch a bus back to our home away from home with no waiting. Monday, as usual, was a recovery day. We are now focused on eating our remaining food in preparation for our imminent departure (which means yesterday‘s lunch was an interesting melange -- I made a salad for Greg with lunch meat on the side and a concoction of packets of soy sauce, honey, mustard & some cran-grape juice as the dressing). After scavenging for lunch, we decided to treat ourselves to happy hour at Peso’s Kitchen in Queen Anne where we had two draft beers, and four large appetizers (chicken & lime soup, carnitas tostadas, steak quesadillas, bacon-wrapped shrimp). Today was another typical work day, with the exception that we took a break this morning to walk down to Pike Place Market just as all the vendors were setting up. This is definitely the best time to visit the market, when you don't have to fight the crowds of tourists just to walk down the sidewalk or to get a better look at the food and other items for sale. We enjoyed coffee from the original Starbucks while we strolled through all three levels of the market. We also purchased piroshkies to take back to the apartment for lunch, cheese from Beecher's, and fresh beef jerky. I know those of you reading this who are familiar with Seattle will laugh or scoff when you read the following: for our final dinner tonight we went across the street and got Dick's hamburgers, fries, and a strawberry shake. We're returning to Nashville tomorrow and it is not without some sadness that we are leaving the Pacific Northwest. I will try to post here again by the end of the week to record my/our overall impressions from the past month.