Soccer and the Queen

19 Jun

I am embarrassingly behind on blog posts, so this is a first attempt at getting caught up!

Back in March, a few friends and I attended a friendly soccer match between the United States and Denmark. We were among over 10,000 fans packed into NRGi Park in Aarhus to watch Jurgen Klinsmann’s American squad – fresh off a strong world cup performance – take on the Danes. In what was an exciting and rain-soaked game, Denmark came out on top 3-2 behind Nicklas Bendtner’s hat-trick, which included the winning goal in stoppage time just before the final whistle.

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Then in April, Denmark celebrated Queen Margrethe II’s 75th birthday. Denmark has the oldest monarchy in Europe, dating back to the 10th century and the Viking kings Gorm the Old and Harald Bluetooth (and in case you’re wondering: yes, bluetooth technology was in fact named after Danish Viking King Harald Bluetooth). Queen Margrethe II is only the second queen in Danish history and she presides over the Kingdom of Denmark, which includes Denmark and the autonomous regions of Greenland and the Faroe Islands, but only as a figurehead without any real political power.

The fact that Denmark – one of the most egalitarian countries in the world – still has a monarchy is seemingly a paradox. The Danes are very informal and operate on a first-name basis with just about everyone, and good luck finding someone wearing a tie in this country outside of the Parliament or a Maersk office. They are also quite disapproving of privileges or boasting of any kind – they even practice something called the Jante Law, which is basically a social code of conduct that requires its Scandinavian adherents to believe that they are nothing special and not better than anyone else. Despite their culture of humility, most of the Danes I’ve talked to seem to think their monarchy is an important part of Danish tradition and tourism, and that Queen Margrethe II has done a solid job as an ambassador for Danish businesses and other interests abroad. Her reputation stands in sharp contrast to her French husband’s – most Danes I’ve talked to enjoy cracking jokes about him almost endlessly.

Anyway, a few days before her actually birthday, Queen Margrethe II was in Aarhus to celebrate, so a few friends and I ventured downtown to watch the royal procession, hear her speak from the balcony of the city hall, and then enjoy some free cake afterwards – maybe the real reason they keep her around?!

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More posts to come soon!!

Easter in Denmark

29 Apr

Easter is a special time in Denmark. The holiday’s place on the calendar means it often coincides with the beginning of spring – an event Danes respond to by emerging from hibernation after the downright depressing Nordic winter. Much like a Danish Christmas, Easter in Denmark includes three days off of work and a plethora of traditions, such as spending the holiday at the family summer house (sommerhus). According to one Danish news website in English:

“Many Danes have a second home by the sea or at least away from home but within a driving distance. If you are invited to spend time at a summer house, take it as a compliment. This is a very private place for most Danes.”

This past Easter, I was very lucky to be invited to join Karsten and Britt Søndergaard and their two daughters Anna and Louise at their summer house. As friends of my Danish host parents Lydia and Jesper, I first met Karsten and Britt at a dinner party in 2012, and again at their flat in Copenhagen for a dinner party they hosted this past year between Christmas and New Year’s. Karsten currently works for the Danish Maritime Authority after several years sailing large container ships around the world; Britt works for the municipality of Copenhagen; and Anna and Louise and are both in school, with Anna getting ready to go to a university-level business academy.

On Friday, April 3rd, I jumped a train to Frederikshavn, a few hours north of Århus. Karsten and Britt were waiting at the train station for me, and we drove further north to their summer house, which is located in Skagen – the northern most part of Denmark – which I had visited on a university-organized trip back in the fall. The light in Skagen is very unique – partly because the area receives more sun than the rest of Denmark – and has long been home to artists, craftspeople, sailors, fishermen, and vacationing Danes. Luckily, we had an abundance of sunlight over the Easter weekend, so I could see and feel why Skagen is such a special place for the Danes.

The Søndergaard summer house is nestled among a cluster of trees and other similarly-sized summer houses, less than a kilometer from the sea:

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Here’s the inside of the house:

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When we pulled up to the house, Louise was on her swing in the backyard:

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Louise loves her swing – each day I was there, she would spend hours and hours swinging and listening to music. In fact, Louise spends so much time on her swing that Karsten has to regularly replace the swing’s supportive metal hooks because the rope wears them down:

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Louise’s swing is also home to several bird feeders. Every morning at breakfast, we would look out the windows and try to guess which birds were congregating on the swing’s feeders. Karsten and Britt have collected a few bird-spotting birds over the years and have gotten quite good at identifying different types of birds.

That afternoon, we enjoyed some coffee and cake on the porch:

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Later, we went for a hike down to the beach:

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and back up to the Råbjerg Mile, a migrating coastal sand dune only a few hundred meters across the street from the summer house. The largest of its kind in Northern Europe, the horseshoe-shaped dune covers roughly half a square mile and reaches heights of 130 feet above sea level. The small lake surrounded by the dunes was filled with water that was a shade of blue I’d never seen before – maybe because it reflects the blue of the sky:

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At some points, the dune is Sahara-like, and you feel as if you’re not in Denmark any more:

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Later that evening, Karsten took his telescope outside. We couldn’t see much, however, because of a full moon – easily the brightest full moon I’ve ever seen. I couldn’t believe how clearly I could see shadows in the middle of the night. I guess even the moonlight is special in Skagen.

The next day, we ventured into the town of Skagen. Our first stop was Munch’s, supposedly the best butchery in Denmark. After an hour wait, we finally secured some of the shop’s coveted sausages:

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Next we strolled through town and down to the harbor. Notice the bright yellow color of the buildings – this color is synonymous with Skagen:

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That afternoon, we went to the top of nearby lighthouse for a view over Skagen. Karsten pointed out the many big container ships anchored off the coast. He said that ships traveling through Route Tango – the waterway between Denmark and Sweden which connects the Baltic Sea to the North Sea and ultimately the Atlantic – often stop off the coast of Skagen while they wait for their next assignment because of the natural protection from storms the location offers.

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Later that evening, we walked down to the beach to watch a magnificent sunset:

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When the sun was almost below the horizon, Karsten recounted how, as a kid, he would run to the top of the sand dunes in order to catch a glimpse of a “second sunset” in the same evening. As soon as he told me this, I spirited to the top of the nearest sand dune:

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After a late dinner, we watched one of Anna’s favorite shows, Midsummer Murders, a British crime series which has been shown on Denmark’s public television channel every Saturday night for years. In Denmark, movies and television shows are played in their original language (usually English) with Danish subtitles, so I was able to watch and understand. I suspect this helps explain why the Danes have been ranked the best non-native English speakers in the world.

The next morning, Anna and Louise were busy searching the yard for Easter eggs filled with chocolate which Karsten and Britt had hid early in the morning. Like many other places in the world, the egg is an important symbol of Easter in Denmark, representing new life and a new beginning. After all the eggs had been discovered, Karsten and Britt began preparing Påskefrokost, or Easter lunch. Similar to the Julefrokost or Christmas lunch, there is a seemingly endless amount of different types of food and drinks during a Påskefrokost. Staples include herring (sometimes pickled, sometimes curried, sometimes in a tomato sauce, just to name a few variations) served on rugbrød (a hearty, filling, grainy rye-bread you can only find in Denmark and which Danes always miss when they go abroad) and snaps, or akvavit as the Danes call it – a high-in-alcohol flavored spirit. The whole thing is so hygge!

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That afternoon, Karsten, Britt and I went hiking to a church that has been covered by sand, as well as to a lookout point in a nearby forest:

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For dinner, Karsten prepared the Munch sausages we bought the day before in Skagen, and they turned out to be well worth the hour-long wait. After dinner, we gathered around the television to watch the classic comedy Monty Python and the Holy Grail (I was once told that a good introduction to Danish humor is Monty Python, and based on the laughter in the room, I have to agree).

The next morning, we cleaned the house and piled into the car for the trip home. Anna and Louise were nice enough to share the back seat with me until we got to Århus, where I was dropped off right outside my flat before the Søndergaards continued the rest of the way back to Copenhagen. I am so thankful for Karsten, Britt, Anna and Louise’s invitation to join them at their summer house to experience a Danish Easter in Skagen. They were gracious and generous hosts and did not allow me to pay for anything during my visit. I look forward to returning the favor somehow, someway, someday🙂

My Weekend in Koblenz

29 Apr

I arrived in Koblenz after sunset on Thursday, March 19th following a nine and a half hour bus ride which spanned the width of Germany. Waiting for me at the central station was Konstantin – a.k.a. Konsti – the German exchange student my family hosted for a month in high school and whose family hosted me for a month the subsequent summer. Although we had lost touch for much of the seven or so years since our exchange program, we re-connected in the fall and agreed a meet-up was in order.

It wasn’t long before we were back at Konsti’s apartment eating dinner and swapping stories to see how much each of us remembered from our time in the other’s country. We shared memories about our families, our different groups of friends and fellow exchange students, poker night at the Ober household, and a certain “Stellar” teacher we frequently terrorized😉 I was quick to spot some souvenirs from Konsti’s time in Hagerstown:

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We also updated each other on what we’d been up to since high school. Konsti has always had a gift and a talent for music, so it was neat to hear that he is still writing and playing with a group and friends and that he had spent some time working at a major club and music venue in his home town of Wiesbaden before coming to Koblenz. He’s currently taking a combination of psychology, sociology and management courses at the local university with the hope of becoming a therapist.

We were joined by Konsti’s girlfriend Nicki, who is also from Wiesbaden and who is studying design at the university in Koblenz. She and Konsti prepared an outstanding meal for us that evening – the first of many acts of hospitality. The Berlin conference had left me voiceless, so Nicki – who used to work at the German equivalent of a pharmacy – recommended all kinds of herbal teas and other remedies to help nurse me back to health. I was very impressed by the way in which Konsti and Nicki have made their apartment feel like a real home, and I was grateful for them to invite me into it for the weekend.

The next day, Konsti and I set out to explore 2000-year old Koblenz. We saw the city’s old palace (and super cool playground) as well as the fortress across the Rhein river:

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Next we stopped at the Deutsches Eck (The German Corner), where the Rhein and Mosel rivers come together (something like the Confluence in Pittsburgh) along with a massive statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I:

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We then met up with Nicki for a stroll through the Altstadt (Old Town) with a stop at an outstanding gelato place which we all agreed was wicked hard core. We also saw Koblenz’s unofficial mascot, Das Schängelchen or “The Spitting Boy,” a small statue of a boy atop a fountain which spits water at unsuspecting tourists:

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That afternoon, we listened to a few more of Konsti’s favorite artists, discussed the very interesting concept of social intelligence, and checked out some hilarious Youtube personalities such as American actor and food critic Action Bronson, among others. After another top-notch dinner prepared by Konsti and Nicki, we met up with one of their friends for a night out on the town, filled with stops at smoky bars packed with fellow university students. The highlight of the evening was definitely my triumph on the darts board😉

The next day, Konsti, Nicki and I boarded a cable car which spans the Rhein to visit the city’s old fortress. The cable car – Germany’s biggest aerial tramway – was built in 2011 for the biennial Federal Horticultural Show (Bundesgartenschau, or BUGA for short) – apparently they take their gardening very seriously in Germany😉

After exploring the fortress, we snapped a few pictures overlooking the Deutsches Eck before catching the last cable car home:

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After we returned to the apartment, I began preparing dinner as a way of saying thank you to Konsti and Nicki for all the food they had provided me so far. Despite an almost total lack of cooking skills, I managed to make my favorite meal which my Mom – legendary Hagerstown chef Roxanne Ober – makes for me on special occasions: her salmon and bow-tie pasta dish. Luckily, Konsti and Nicki weren’t disappointed:

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Later that evening, we settled in for a movie – the dark comedy In Bruges. The next day, Konsti and Nicki departed for Konsti’s parents home outside of Stuttgart, and I began a 12-hour journey on a series of trains back to Aarhus.

My weekend in Koblenz was no less than rejuvenating. I cannot thank Konsti and Nicki enough for their gracious hospitality and generosity. It was such a pleasure to meet Nicki and to see Konsti again and catch up. Although his hair was shorter and he had grown an impressive beard since the last time we saw one another, Konsti was the same thoughtful, curious, cool, kind-hearted and selfless guy he was when he arrived in Hagerstown seven years ago. As we said our goodbyes, I thanked Konsti and Nicki and told them I looked forward to seeing them again soon, whether in Denmark, the states, or somewhere else in Europe. But where ever we meet up next, I know it will be sooner than seven years from now🙂

Ich Bin Ein Berliner!

11 Apr

Another month, another Fulbright conference – this time in Berlin, Germany! Rather than fly to Berlin, I decided to take a train and bus, allowing me to stop off and explore the German city of Hamburg for a few hours along the way.

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I saw the city hall,

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the harbor (the largest in Germany, third-busiest in Europe and 15th-largest worldwide),

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and ate at a fantastic French art nouveau restaurant called Café Paris that came highly recommended by Christine at the Danish-American Fulbright Commission – and it did not disappoint (reservation recommended).

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I arrived in Berlin later that evening and awoke the next morning ready to explore the city before the conference began the following day. I began at Potsdamer Platz,

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then walked through the Tiergarden to the Reichstag, home of the German Parliament,

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then on to the iconic Brandenburg Gate

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and then to Museum Island

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and the Berliner Dom with its view over the city.

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Next was a stroll around the Hackescher Markt area,

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with a break for a Weihenstephan Kristall Weissbier,

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followed by lunch at Chen Che, an amazing Vietnamese Tea House hidden at the end of an alleyway – don’t leave Berlin without visiting!

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Up next was the Berlin Wall Memorial along Bernauer Strasse. I had always thought of the wall as just that – a wall – but the wall was in fact two walls with a treacherous no man’s land in between, filled with barbed wire and guard towers.

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After that was a stop at Mauer Park to watch the ongoing graffiti-ing of remnants of the wall

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followed by wiener schnitzel and a schwarz beer at Prater, Berlin’s oldest beer garden.

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The next morning, I was up early for a run across the city to the East Side Gallery, a collection of Berlin Wall concrete slabs with some of the best and most iconic graffiti paintings. Below is the famous “My God, Help Me to Survive This Deadly Love,” sometimes referred to as the Fraternal Kiss, by Russian artist Dmitri Vrubel. As a lampoon of Socialist Realism, the painting depicts the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissing East Germany’s former party boss, Erich Honecker.

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Later that day (Sunday, March 15) the conference kicked off with a bus tour of some of the Cold War sights around the city. Our guide was a former U.S. foreign service officer who worked in Berlin for much of the Cold War. He told us stories about traveling to the eastern side of the city to go shopping – something U.S. foreign service officers were permitted to do in an attempt to de-stabilize the east’s economy by spending western currency. We drove past tourist-filled Checkpoint Charlie and visited the Palace of Tears.

Later that evening we attended a reception with all the American Fulbrighters in town for the conference – mostly from Germany, but also several stationed in countries across Europe – as well as the group of German Fulbrighters getting ready to go to the U.S. We capped the night with beers at the nearby and shamelessly touristic Hofbrau Haus with friends both old and new (shoutout to Ashley, Michelle and Megan)!

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The conference continued the next day with group break-out sessions about different topics, followed by presentations about each group’s discussion. Later that night, we attended another reception which included musical and dance performances by a few Fulbrighters as well as a presentation by Cem Özdemir, co-chairman of Germany’s Green Party. One of my flatmates and very good friends back in Århus, Anke, is from Germany and is a big supporter of Özdemir and the Greens, so I made sure to get Mr. Özdemir’s autograph before he left the event. Here’s a happy Anke with her personalized Cem Özdemir autograph:

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Tuesday was filled with presentations by both Fulbrighters about their experiences in different countries as well as Berlin city government officials at Berlin’s City Hall. That afternoon, a group of us visited a bi-weekly Turkish market, where I tasted the most outstanding döner kebab I’ve ever had (it’s still unclear to me why this European street-food sensation has not been introduced in the U.S. – a visionary food cart vendor could undoubtedly make millions off the idea).

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Wednesday kicked off with more small group sessions, followed by a series of five-minute presentations by 12 different Fulbrighters on their research projects with Q&As afterwards. Topics were wide-ranging and the presenters were concise and articulate, making the presentations one of the highlights of the conference. Things wrapped up later that evening with dinner and a send off party. What a great opportunity the conference was to meet fellow Fulbrighters from all across Europe and hear about their experiences (shoutout to the close-knit group of Madrid-based Fulbrighters) while exploring Berlin!

The next morning I boarded an early bus to make the 9-and-a-half-hour journey to Koblenz, a city in western Germany on the Rhein River, to visit an old friend. Stay tuned!

Back to Belgium: Part II

31 Mar

Last I left you, it was the First of February and I was on a train from Ghent to Brussels for a Fulbright conference on the European Union. After checking into the hotel in Brussels, I headed straight for Au Bon Vieux Temps, a cramped, wood-paneled, television-less bar nestled at the end of an alleyway close to Brussels’ central square.

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As evidenced by the stained-glass windows, the bar is a converted chapel, which added to the feeling that I was making a pilgrimage to the place, since I had read that the Holy Grail of Belgian beers – the Westvleteren 12 – could be found here. For those unfamiliar, Westvleteren is commonly considered the best beer in the world (if you don’t believe me, see also here and here). It’s brewed by a group of Flemish monks in the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren in western Belgium, close to the French border. The monks live a solitary life of prayer and make their world-famous beer only to finance their monastery, and as a result produce very limited quantities of their prized brew in humble, label-less bottles. This makes the beer almost impossible to find – even in Belgium (one rare exception was when the monks needed money for a new roof, which prompted them to export a batch to the U.S. – more on that here and here). Luckily, Au Bon Vieux Temps did not disappoint:

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Next was a stop at the Grand Place/Grote Markt (although Brussels is predominately Francophone, the city is surrounded by the Dutch-speaking Flanders region of Belgium, which is why every street and square sign has both the French and Dutch version of the name). The largest building is the Brussels city hall; the building with the black façade houses the Brussels city museum; and the opulent but smaller buildings that encircle the square are the old guildhalls, a sign of the city’s medieval wealth.

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Later that evening, we kicked off the conference with dinner at Brasserie Horta in the Brussels Comic Strip Museum on Sunday evening where all of us Fulbrighters got a chance to introduce themselves, our EU host country, and our projects before receiving an “Introduction to the EU” lecture from Jerome Sheridan, Professor at American University in Brussels.

The next day, our group met with representatives from the U.S. Mission to NATO at the treaty organization’s political headquarters in Brussels (which is separate from NATO’s military headquarters in Mons). American foreign service officers and European officials briefed us on NATO’s current priorities as well as its relations with Russia and Ukraine. I really enjoyed the American foreign service officers’ remarks on the occasional frustration of having to advance a particular position with which they don’t always agree, as well as the delicate diplomacy required in an organization with so many different member nations.

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After an enjoyable NATO-provided lunch, we visited the U.S. Mission to the European Union where we got an overview of U.S.-EU relations which focused heavily on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade deal being negotiated between the Obama Administration and the E.U. which is similar to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP). Both deals have been widely criticized (see here and here) for being negotiated in secret, the privileged role of industry groups in the negotiations, the deals’ potential to weaken regulations and make governments more vulnerable to lawsuits by multinational corporations, as well as the almost total lack of media coverage about the deals in the U.S. In the evening, the U.S. Ambassador to the EU Anthony Gardner hosted a reception for us Fulbrighters. Later that evening, a few friends and I sat down for a traditional Belgian dinner at ‘t Kelderke on the Grote Markt/Grand Place, which included the best mussels I’ve ever had and a subsequent trip to Brussels’ world famous Delirium Cafe.

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The following morning, we headed over to the European Commission, something like the executive branch of the EU (but without an elected president) for more briefings.

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After lunch, we departed for the College of Europe in Bruges where Professor Mark Sheetz gave a presentation on U.S.-EU Security Relations. Afterwards, we ventured out into beautiful Bruges, made famous by the dark comedy In Bruges.

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As it got dark, a few fellow Fulbright beer enthusiasts and I hunkered down at De Garre to try their 11.5% house brew, Tripel van de Garre.

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We departed the next morning from our hotel in Brussels at 5am for the European Court of Justice – something like the Supreme Court for the EU – in Luxembourg City, Luxembourg. Once there, we received a briefing on that day’s case by ECJ Vice President Koen Lenaerts, attended the hearing of case C-231/14 InnoLux/Commission (involving fines on a technology company with factories in China and Taiwan) and then received a de-briefing.

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In the afternoon we went on a walking tour of the city:

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And in the evening we attended a reception hosted by the U.S. Ambassador to Luxembourg Robert A. Mandall. After a pitch by the hospitable embassy staff for us Fulbrighters to consider joining the foreign service, the soon-to-be-stepping-down ambassador allowed us to help finish off his alcohol cache – and good thing he did, since those Sam Adams Boston Lagers were not gonna drink themselves😉

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After a wild night out on the town, we departed the next day for Brussels where I just barely made my flight back to Copenhagen. Many thanks to the Danish-American Fulbright Commission for selecting me to attend the conference and picking up the tab, as well as the Fulbright Commission of Belgium and Luxembourg for organizing such an awesome conference for us Fulbrighters (here’s their blog on the conference, from which I shamelessly copied some text and re-used some pictures)!

*Please note that the views and information presented in this blog are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Fulbright Program, the Danish-American Fulbright Commission or the U.S. State Department.*

Back to Belgium

14 Feb

“Asking citizens of Ghent what they think of their city is a pointless exercise: you’ll find only unanimous love. And with good reason. Ghent is one of Europe’s greatest discoveries – small enough to feel cozy but big enough to stay vibrant and dynamic. It has enough medieval frivolity to create a spectacle but retains a gritty industrial edge that keeps things ‘real’. Tourists remain surprisingly thin on the ground, yet with its fabulous canalside architecture, wealth of quirky bars and some of Belgium’s most fascinating museums, this is a city you really won’t want to miss.” –Lonely Planet‘s 2013 Guidebook to Belgium and Luxembourg

From February 1-5, I was lucky enough to participate in a Fulbright conference on the European Union held in Belgium and Luxembourg. The conference was a great experience and a unique learning opportunity (which I will discuss in my next post) but the best part of my trip back to Belgium was returning to Ghent. To echo Lonely Planet‘s assessment above, Ghent is a yet-unspoiled European treasure. Following recommendations from my Uncle Brad, Michelle, and my professor Dr. Tony Godzieba, I spent four days in Ghent while backpacking around Europe during the summer of 2012. It remains one of my all-time favorite places, and this conference provided me the perfect excuse to return.

When I arrived at the Gent-Sint-Pieters train station on the afternoon of Friday, January 30, I was met by my friend and host for the weekend, Karen. Although currently studying at Ghent University, Karen was at Århus University last fall as an Erasmus student – the European Union’s study abroad program – and was featured prominently in a previous blog post. Karen and her two “kot” mates, Fien and Heline, were nice enough to offer me a couch to crash on for Friday and Saturday night. The Dutch/Flemish word “kot” is also an example of a Belgicism and translates to something like “digs” in English: it refers to a student residence, usually some sort of apartment, in the town where you attend university, and is distinct from your “home” – which is where your parents live. The distinction is important in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium where Ghent is located) because university students often go home on weekends – which is never far away in a country as small as Belgium.

After dropping my bags at Karen’s kot, we headed for the heart of the city to meet Heline for shots of Jenever at ‘t Dreupelkot. Jenever, also known as Dutch gin, is a juniper-flavored national and traditional liquor of the Netherlands and Belgium from which gin evolved. ‘t Dreupelkot offers limited elbow-room but a seemingly unlimited variety of Jenever flavors. Its proprietor, Paul, generously fills each shot glass to the brim, forcing you to take a sip of your shot at the bar before you snake back to your seat.

Next, we met up with Fien and her boyfriend Samuel for a classic Belgian meal of frituur/frites – better known to Americans as french fries (even though they’re really Belgian). Unlike the U.S., where fries are typically an unimpressive side-dish, frituur in Belgium are a carefully-crafted main course. The hands-down best frituur place in Ghent is De Gouden Sate, better-known to locals as Julien’s after the frituur shop’s late, legendary owner, who sadly passed away in 2013. The shop is open from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. and caters to the late-night appetites of university students, who form a line outside the shop that can easily stretch for blocks.

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After scarfing down our frituur, we joined the crowds of people proceeding to the Ghent Light Festival, an impressive array of different light shows, displays, and interactive exhibits scattered throughout the city for the weekend I just happened to be visiting (pictured are Sint-Niklasskerk and Sint-Jacobskerk):

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Below are, from left to right, Karen, Fien and Heline beneath one of the interactive light displays (not sure who the random guy in the second picture is):

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To cap our night, we found a bar with live music called Trefpunt across from Sint-Jacobskerk, and to my absolute delight they were serving Westmalle Dubbel on tap. As I sipped one of Belgium’s finest dark Trappist beers, Heline looked at me and asked, “Do you ever stop smiling?” “Not when I’m in Belgium,” I replied😉

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The next day, Heline departed for home and Karen and Fien had some shopping to do, leaving me to peruse some of the local establishments for a few midday beers. First stop was Kaffee De Planck – a barge docked on one of Ghent’s numerous canals – where I enjoyed the house brew Planckske, an amber ale, on the barge’s deck under a palm tree and a beam of sunlight – rare for the Low Countries at this time of year:

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Next stop was De Brouwzaele, conveniently located 52 meters away, complete with an old brewing kettle and the Flemish red sour ale Rodenbach on tap – brewed in Karen’s home town of Roeselare:

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After that, Karen and I met up and headed for Sint-Baafskathedraal, a beautiful 10th-century Romanesque cathedral home to Ghent’s greatest treasure and one of the most magnificent pieces of artwork in the Western world, the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb by the van Eyck brothers. The work, which was completed in 1432, is a 12-panel altarpiece which features some of the earliest known examples of realistic depictions of people and nature in three-dimensional perspective.  The detail is extraordinary – for instance, the van Eyck brothers painted 42 different identifiable plants and trees in the bottom panels, while the facial expressions of the singers in the top panels indicate the individual pitch at which each of them is singing. Here’s the inside of Sint-Baafs and the square outside it with Ghent’s Belfry to the left, on top of which sits the Golden Dragon (Gulden Draak) weather vane, a town symbol which lends its name to a locally-brewed dark tripel beer:

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Next up, a Belgian waffle from a street vendor, and a picture with Karen in front of Ghent’s old medieval harbor (see if you can spot Gravensteen, the city’s 10th-century castle, in the background):

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Later that evening, we were joined by Karen’s friend Kirsten from home, as well as Annelies – another Belgian who had studied abroad in Århus last semester – and Sacha, a French-Canadian studying abroad in Århus for the year. We hunkered down at Trappistenhuis, a beautiful, wood-filled, dimly-lit, 17th-century bar just off of Sint-Annaplein. After hours of conversation and several outstanding Belgian beers, I concluded the night with a classic dark Trappist brew – a Rochefort 10:

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The next day was an early one, since Karen had to leave for home and I had breakfast plans with Patricia, a longtime family friend and a truly wonderful human being who lives in Ghent. Patricia befriended my Uncle Brad when they both were traveling with Up With People back in the 1980s. In the summer of 2012, when I was backpacking around Europe, Patricia was my host for the four days I stayed in Ghent (despite never having met me before). During my stay, she gave me my own key and prepared breakfast for me every morning. On my last day before leaving, I told her that I couldn’t begin to thank her for her hospitality and that I didn’t know how to re-pay her. Patricia responded by telling me that when she was my age, she also traveled quite a bit, and was hosted and helped by numerous friends and strangers along the way, which was why she was so happy to host and help me. The best thing I could do, she said, is to pay it forward – to share with others the same hospitality and generosity which I’ve been lucky enough to experience throughout all of my travels. I’ve never forgotten what Patricia told me that sunny June morning in 2012, and I’ve shared her words of wisdom with many friends since then, so meeting with Patricia again – appropriately over breakfast – made me feel like things had come full circle, in a small but very significant way. It was great to see her again and pick up our conversation right where we had left off last time. Despite my attempt to pay for breakfast, Patricia graciously picked up the tab and, just like my previous visit, gave me a ride to the train station to send me on my way to Brussels🙂

This blog post is not just a story, but also a big thank you, to all my friends, old and new, who have extended such warm hospitality, generosity and kindness to me over my past two visits to Ghent. I want all of them to know they are welcome anytime where ever I may be. And I sincerely hope that, money and time permitting, I am able to return to Ghent in mid-to-late July for the Gentse Feesten. But regardless, I know that with Ghent, it’s not “goodbye,” it’s “till next time!”

2012:

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2015:

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God Fødselsdag/Happy Birthday!

12 Feb

On January 10th, I was lucky enough to celebrate my 24th birthday with my Danish host family from my days at DIS. Birthdays are a big deal in Denmark, and much like a Danish Christmas, they are filled with traditions. I awoke on the morning of the 10th to a plate of Danish pastries (wienerbrød), hot chocolate, and the Danish flag Dannebrog proudly displayed on the table. Unlike the American flag, which is usually flown out of a sense of patriotism and never at birthdays, Dannebrog acts more as a symbol of celebration and tradition instead of nationalism, making it a mainstay at birthdays as well as other Danish celebrations.

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Luckily, I wasn’t turning 25. According to Danish tradition, if a person is unmarried upon reaching the age of 25, Danes are permitted and even encouraged to dump copious amounts of cinnamon on the person. But it doesn’t stop there. If you reach age 30 without having tied the knot, you’ll be the lucky recipient of a pepper mill made out of decorated oil drums, which is often placed in your front yard and adorned with taunting phrases. These traditions might sound crude and even cruel, but once you understand the Danish sense of humor, they appear entirely fitting.

In the afternoon, I was treated to a surprise gathering of my host dad Jesper’s parents Louise and Palle, who brought me a bottle of Italian red wine, as well as my host mom Lydia’s niece Marie Louise and her husband Bo and their one-year-old son Nord Valdemar, who brought me a jar of loose-leaf tea. Lydia prepared more hot chocolate as well as two traditional Danish birthday cakes – one a layer cake (lagkage), the other a gingerbread man cake, known as a kagemand – both with an abundance of sugar. Eating can only begin after the kagemand‘s throat is cut, during which all the guests are supposed to scream in pain (once again, Danish sense of humor). After seeing the fate of kagemand, I was relieved to have survived my first Danish birthday celebration😉 A special thanks to everyone who helped celebrate my birthday!

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A Swiss Alpine Train Ride

20 Jan

On the afternoon of January 6th, I left Chalet des Danois with Søren (Kirsten’s brother), who was driving back to his home in the beautiful Swiss town of Maienfeld, which sits along the Rhein river in a valley surrounded by the Swiss Alps. The town, which is in the eastern German-speaking part of the country near the borders with Liechtenstein and Austria, is perhaps best-known as the setting of the story Heidi. Søren was a gracious host when I visited him while backpacking around Europe in the summer of 2012, and he was again generous enough to host me on the night of the 6th after our long drive from France. The next day, Søren equipped me with plenty of food, an all-day pass for the Swiss trains, and an 8-hour travel itinerary carefully planned to zig-zag me through the Swiss Alps on my way to Geneva, where I had to catch a flight back to Denmark the next day. Below are some pictures from the trip. A special thanks to Søren for hosting me again – hopefully I’ll be back in Maienfeld this summer!

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Chalet des Danois

10 Jan

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Les Trois Vallées (The Three Valleys) is a ski area in the French Alps. Its 600 kilometers of interconnected slopes and 180 ski lifts makes it the largest ski area in the world. In the Vallée des Belleville sits the tiny town of Saint Martin de Belleville, where you can catch the first of two lifts to the top of Tougnete, a 2434 meter peak with ski pistes that take you back down to the town below. About halfway down the mountain on the left side of a bend in the blue pelozet piste, there is a cabin perched on a bluff just above the spot where the two lifts meet (find the lifts Saint Martin 1 and 2 on this map). If you’re brave enough to follow the narrow, icy, ski-worn path on the left of the piste before the bend, you’ll find yourself outside the 1900 meters-above-sea-level Chalet des Danois (Cabin of the Danes).

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Chalet des Danois is owned by Palle and Kirsten, a Danish couple who, along with their children, have been skiing at Les Trois Vallées for over two decades now. One day on their way down the pelozet piste, they noticed a “For Sale” sign outside a century-old cow stable. Initial reluctance gave way to interested inquiry, and by the next summer they had sealed a deal to purchase the structure. Due to the region’s historical preservation regulations, Palle and Kirsten were not permitted to alter the stone exterior of the cabin, so they resorted to building “a cabin in a cabin” as they put it. With the installation of an electricity connection, Chalet des Danois began receiving non-luxury seeking visitors in the winter of 1997. The first guests consisted of friends committed to both daytime skiing and nighttime woodwork to improve the cabin’s interior. The next winter, water was connected from the cabin’s original well, and since then, Palle and Kirsten estimate they have hosted roughly 150 different family members and friends at the cabin. With two floors, a kitchen, two toilets, one shower, a ski equipment storage room and enough bunks to sleep 20 (although the record number of guests at one time is 22), Chalet des Danois offers a simple, communal and convivial experience on par with any European youth hostel or Israeli kibbutz. But maybe Kirsten said it best: “it’s a zero-star hotel, but a five-star cow stable.” Here’s the view from the cabin:

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My Danish host mom, Lydia, befriended Palle and Kirsten while studying chemical engineering together at DTU (Danish Technical University). Lydia and Jesper, my host dad, and their son Rasmus have been going to Chalet des Danois for 10 years now, and were gracious enough to invite me to join them this year. After hearing so much about this mysterious cabin high in the French Alps, I instantly accepted their invitation – despite a complete lack of prior skiing experience. Lucky for me, Palle has embraced the role of ski instructor for the chalet’s guests who are new to skiing. My lessons started before I even reached the cabin – the only ways to reach Chalet des Danois are to hike 90 minutes up the side of the mountain, or to take the two lifts to the top of the mountain and ski down to the cabin (this is also how luggage and other supplies are typically taken to the cabin). With Palle’s patient guidance, I made it down the mountain and into the cabin in one piece. Our arrival brought the guest total to 18 – most of whom were Danes and graduates of, or students at, DTU (the stack of New Scientist magazines on the bookshelves confirmed my suspicion that I was surrounded by engineers). The cabin’s Danish guests were quick to give me an education in Danish humor (to give you an idea, begin with a heavy dose of Monty Python, mix in some dark, morbid, ironic, and politically-incorrect elements, then practice in inappropriate settings – you’ll be an expert before you know it).

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Kirsten is Chalet des Danois’ head chef, and when we arrived she was already hard at work in the kitchen. Kirsten both prepares and oversees the preparation of three hearty meals a day for all the cabin’s guests, typically consisting of a meat-and-potatoes dish for dinner, homemade bread rolls with cheese and Nutella for breakfast, and a filling soup for lunch made from dinner’s leftovers and complimented by leftover breakfast bread. The cabin is well-stocked with non-perishable foods hauled up the mountain once a summer, so guests are asked to bring meat, vegetables, and other fresh foods to be shared with all. Kirsten is able to take this plethora of provisions and make meals which, after hours of skiing, rival those served in any Michelin-designated restaurant.

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“Learning to ski is like learning to ride a bike,” Palle told me, sounding every bit the professor. “The key is finding your balance.” Besides this piece of advice, my skiing instruction was entirely learning-through-doing. Palle would start down a slope and tell me to follow and mimic him. We repeated this for the first several days, and despite sore and cramp-filled quad muscles, Palle pushed me to find my balance and develop my technique. Thanks to Palle’s patience and commitment, and the encouragement and help-getting-up-after-falls I received from my ski instructor team of Kirsten, Søren (Kirsten’s brother), Lydia, Jesper, and Torben (a friend of Kirsten and Palle’s), I was skiing down the red intermediate slopes by the end of the week. What a fun, rewarding sport that I hope to continue when I return to the states. I cannot thank the hosts and guests at Chalet des Danois enough for their hospitality, generosity, guidance, patience, encouragement and cooking. It was a visit I will not soon forget – and hopefully the first of more to come! Below are some pictures from the slopes with captions – enjoy!

From left to right: Torben, Jesper, Lydia, Kirsten, Søren and Palle:

My Ski Instructors Brightened

After-skiing at Le Grand Lac:

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Sunset from atop Tougnete with Søren:

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Mont Blanc, the highest peak in continental Europe (what a contrast between the brightly-lit peaks and the valley cloaked in shadow):

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A morning “moonset” from the cabin:

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It feels like you’ve reached the edge of the world:

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Christmas in Denmark

30 Dec

Christmas is a really, really (did I say really?) big deal in Denmark. This year, I was lucky enough to celebrate this most cherished of Scandinavian holidays in Lynge, a tiny countryside town outside of Copenhagen, with my Danish host family who I previously stayed with while studying abroad in Copenhagen in spring of 2012. Before I discuss the numerous traditions which animate a Danish Christmas, it’s important to understand the origins of the holiday.

The Danish word for Christmas is Jul, which comes from the Old Norse word Jól and is related to the English word Yule. The holiday traces its origins back to prehistoric times, when a midwinter festival was held to celebrate the winter solstice – a significant event in Northern Europe, since the winter solstice marks the point in the year when the amount of daylight hours begins increasing instead of decreasing (on December 21st, the sun rose at 8:37am and set at 3:38pm, giving us only 7 hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year). Early Christian missionaries to Scandinavia were careful to associate Christmas with Jul in order to convert the pagan Vikings. Once the region adopted Christianity, the two celebrations were merged into one.

To understand Christmas in Denmark today, it’s also necessary to grasp the concept of hygge. While the word is often insufficiently translated as “cozy,” hygge (pronounced whoo-guh) is more a state of being. To quote Xenophobe’s Guide to the Danes, hygge is “the art of creating intimacy: a sense of comradeship, conviviality, and contentment rolled into one.” According to one Dane, it’s all about “creating a comfortable atmosphere where you just feel at home.” While hygge can happen almost anywhere, anytime, and with anyone, some of the key ingredients are family, friends, food, drink, candles, and conversation. Christmas manages to bring all these crucial elements together at a cold, dark and dreary time of year – making it the Danish holiday when hygge is experienced most completely, in all its warm and welcoming glory.

To maximize Christmas’ amount of hygge, the holiday is a 3-and-a-half-day celebration in Denmark. It all starts on the afternoon of the 23rd (Lillejuleaften or Little Christmas Evening), when families decorate their Juletræ (Christmas tree) with candles, ornaments, and a star on top. Last Tuesday, my host family and I braved the cold and the mud to pick out, cut down, and haul back to the house the perfect Christmas tree. Pictured here are Lydia and Jesper, my host parents, and Rasmus, my host brother. Rasmus is going to college in San Diego after attending two years of high school there, and his girlfriend Nancy – a native San Diegan – was also joining us for Christmas.

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After decorating the tree, we baked traditional Danish Christmas cookies including pebernødder (pepper snaps), finskbrød (finnish bread), and everyone’s favorite, vaniljekranse (vanilla wreaths – not pictured).

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The next three days – December 24th, 25th and 26th – are national holidays in Denmark. Christmas is celebrated here on the 24th (Juleaften or Christmas evening), while the 25th (Førstejuledag or First Christmas Day) serves as a recovery day, and the 26th (Andenjuledag or Second Christmas Day) gives people a chance to see the relatives they missed on Christmas. Festivities on the 24th commence in the afternoon at church. While only 4% of the Danish population regularly attends the Lutheran state church, 36% go on Christmas. We attended a 4pm service at Uggeløse Kirke, which contains a beautiful mix of Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles and was built in the 1100s.

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After church, Jesper’s parents, Louise and Palle, along with Jesper’s sister Liv who was visiting from Bali, arrived to join us for dinner. Most Danish families eat either andesteg (roast duck) or flæskesteg (the Danish version of roast pork made with a special kind of pork rind) for their main course on Christmas, so naturally, Lydia made both. Other traditional dishes we had included white boiled potatoes, caramelized potatoes (brunede kartofler) specially prepared in a frying pan with melted sugar and a lump of butter, red cabbage (rødkål), and a brown gravy sauce (brun sovs).

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After dinner, we indulged in the traditional Danish dessert risalamande (from the French riz à l’amande meaning “rice with almonds”) which had been prepared by Louise. It is made out of rice pudding mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds, and is served cold with kirsebærsauce (a hot cherry sauce). Following Danish custom, Louise had slipped a whole almond into the risalamande. Whoever gets the lucky scoop with the almond wins an extra present (in this case, a box of Anthon Berg royal Danish chocolates). However, the person who finds the almond is supposed to conceal it, forcing everyone to stuff themselves until the dessert is completely gone. As accusations of almond-hiding were hurled across the table, no one seemed to notice that Louise was very quiet during dessert. After the serving bowl had been emptied, she gracefully revealed the almond to be in her possession. While at first a bit hesitant to accept the chocolates since she had prepared the dish, she then shared with us that, after 84 Danish Christmases, this was the first time she had gotten the almond! With this admission, she proudly accepted her box of chocolates – but not before offering some to everyone at the table.

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Following dessert, we migrated to the living room, where we all joined hands and began dancing around the Christmas tree, singing traditional Danish Christmas carols as we went. Afterwards, we circled our seats around a coffee table to begin the gift-opening. Whereas the opening of gifts on Christmas Day can be a cluttered free-for-all in the U.S., gift-opening in Denmark is very communal and unhurried. As designated gift-giver, Rasmus would select one gift from under the tree at a time, announce who it was to and from, and present the gift as the rest of us watched the recipient unwrap it and thank the gift-giver. As a result, gift-opening lasted late into the night, aided by the glow of candlelight, the buzz of Christmas music in the background, our stockpile of sweets, and beverages such as gløgga hot, spiced (or mulled) red wine with sugar, almonds and berries in it. Talk about a hygge evening🙂

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After a day of rest and recovery, we were ready to celebrate one final Danish holiday tradition: the much-anticipated Julefrokost (Christmas lunch). Every year, Lydia and Jesper’s friends Jan and Annette host a Christmas lunch at their home in Albertslund, a suburb of Copenhagen. I was lucky enough to score an invitation, so the three of us arrived at their house around 1pm. We started eating shortly thereafter and did not stop until around 4pm. We were treated to course after course of – just to name a few of them – fried fish fillets on rugbrød (hearty, dark Danish rye bread made mostly of whole grains) with remoulade (a yellow aioli- or mayonnaise-based condiment similar to tartar sauce), æbleflæsk (boiled apples with bacon), laks ruller (salmon rolls), grønkål (kale), hard boiled eggs, a cheese platter with fruit, and a variety of marinated herrings (to quote Wikipedia: “a whole section should be written about Danish herring dishes. Most involve the herring served cold after being pickled, but also smoked, fried, breaded, curried, or charred herring is popular”). The dishes would appear on our table, smorgasbord-style, only to be devoured and replaced with more food in a matter of minutes. Drinks included Julebryg (Christmas beer), Prosecco (an Italian sparkling white wine), and homemade Danish Akvavit (also known as snaps, a clear, high proof, herbed spirit made from potatoes and historically paired with herring in case the fish had spoiled). The hygge-ness of a Danish Christmas lunch is such that new friendships are made as fast as new food appears on the table. Despite only knowing 2 of the 20-or-so guests before the feast (shoutout to Kirsten and Palle), by the time we left the party late that evening I had secured an invitation from Annette to join the 2015 Christmas lunch.

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Until next year, I guess…🙂

Rachel in Denmark

[American] Expat living in Copenhagen

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