Archive | April, 2015

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!

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