travel

Moscow 2012

I went to visit my sister in Moscow during my reading break the semester I was in Copenhagen. She'd just moved out there and I was nearby so I thought it would be cool to visit. The planning was challenging but it was cool to see the city and her life there.

It was my first trip to any of the former Soviet countries. I found the architecture a bit jarring at first. So many concrete tower blocks everywhere. By the time I left Copenhagen I'd gotten a lot more travel in and was pretty blaze about it but this was the first time I'd seen it.

TransSib 2014 Yekaterinburg

We also visited Yekaterinburg during my TransSib trip, another World Cup host city.

It was a pretty and small town. I'm not as in love with the Romanovs as they are.

One of the things that's easy to forget in this crazy world is that Russia is a diverse and rich place filled with lots of people just living their lives. Going to Russia and seeing a lot of the country showed me that. Never forget that people aren't their politics and that we have more in common than that separates us.

Banff + Canmore

When I was back in Calgary I really wanted to get out to the mountains. I don't like highway driving so it was really nice to have the option of taking the bus out. Super damn nice.

It's great to see transit options happening in the Calgary Region, which arguably includes Banff and Canmore. I had fun. It's always good to get out and explore Banff and Canmore.

Hill walking

After various trials and tribulations — the book disappeared under my bed for a while and is suitably water damaged — I have finally finished Beyond Belfast by Will Ferguson. I read it because he's good at travel writing, which is something I'd like to be good at and enjoy reading, and because he's from Calgary and we all need some yyccon in our lives.

He's great at descriptions and does lots of things I need to work on. His adventures never feel like a laundry list. They just move. My manuscript doesn't always do that very well.

The last bit of the book brought me back to Scotland and why I'd been drawn there. It made me want to wander over hills and get lost in the rain. It reminded me of the endless draw of long-distance hiking, something I'd like to do but am not sure I am well-suited to — something something bad knees, ankles and back. I now feel like hoping on a plane and going to explore for a while, something that feels more natural to me than slogging through trying to find work even though I'm both underqualified or overqualified for basically every job I could do.

It ties into that what am I doing here? How am I going to pay rent? Where do I belong? Nowhere and everywhere voice.

I want to find my place. I thought it was here but it doesn't feel like it is. So then where? The hills, the trees, somewhere else.

Then there's the end. A bittersweet end as he searches for his origins, how his Irish grandfather came to Canada and he ended up here. The same sentiment led me to Scotland where I lived a couple of blocks from a street that bears the name of one of my family lines, a place where I felt very much at home, a place that I felt so very connected to. A story so many Canadians have.

642 things to write about: Your first time in a foreign country

I don’t know if the States really count as a foreign country. They’re right there. The older sibling just a few hours away. I grew up watching their tv and movies. I could pick out their cities without blinking like they were as real as my own city that I barely knew.

There are two cool places to grow up: the ocean and the mountains. We grew up by the mountains. They linger on the edge of our minds just an hour drive away. We can see them if we look to the east. Our parents took us hiking, which I have a love hate relationship with.

Best of all we went camping. We went camping a lot. Sometimes up in the mountains where my mother would fret about bears and the temperature drops below zero at night. Best of all was when we decide to head to the border. We’d drive through Southern Alberta staring out the windows as the foothills melted into prairies.

Small prairie towns would fly past the window. I’d want to stop in all of them to explore. My parents would usually say no. Stopping that often is fun but inefficient. We’d stop for food and gas when needed.

Eventually we’d hit Medicine Hat, a span of older looking buildings on either side of the highway. Nothing was as tall as in Calgary. We could glimpse the giant Easter egg.

Soon we’d be at the border. Billboards promoting duty free stores popped up. My mom told us that duty free is really cool when you fly but pointless on a trip like this. At the border we slowed down and border guards in booths looked at our passports. They never stamped them. We were always disappointed not to have them stamped.

As we pulled out of the border crossing, an area filled with tiny buildings and people in impressive looking shirts with Dockers, we were in a whole new land. This was the United States of America, a big place that based on this crossing was pretty much exactly like where we were leaving.

This was Montana, a wonderful land that was home to the greatest campground known to mankind. This may seem like an exaggeration but this was the truth to my young mind. It had lots of trees, fire pits, a nice gift shop and a waterpark. By waterpark I mean a shallow pool with a few slides. As a kid it was paradise. I insisted on stopping there each and every time we passed through here. It was a standard KOA campground but that was only to the untrained eye. To me it was worth driving all the way to another country to visit.

Best sentences I read this week: 10 commandments for saying yes

“Two thousand and fourteen is one of those rare years of political quiet. No general election in federal, provincial or civic politics for the first time since 2009.”

From Purple To Red

“Next: the delicate art of negotiating private duels with godlike monsters.”

-Fables: Rose Red (vol. 15)

“Norway’s oil wealth and weird songs about foxes.”

Dark Lands

“Trudeau was willing but laid down two conditions: He would not propose anything that would require a constitutional amendment, with all the attendant, divisive wrangling with the provinces that would entail. Nor did he want to simply promise to do something if elected prime minister one day; he wanted to be able to ‘walk the walk’ — a tall order for the leader of the third party, who has zero legislative power.”

Why Justin Trudeau Expelled 32 Senators From Liberal Caucus

“7. If a vehicle weighs over 5 tons (trucks, busses, etc.), it probably cannot see you. Even with lots of mirrors, they’re essentially driving blind out there.  You should always give these vehicles a wide berth.  The same goes for anything with a trailer.”

10 Commandments for City Biking

“I figured children in full camouflage tended to shoot bears more often than I did.”

-Notes on the Awkward Airplane Conversation

“But he isn’t really a joke-teller so much as a performer who just says ‘yes’ to everything.”

Jimmy Fallon tonight show interview

642 Things to Write About: Write about an arrival that caught you or your character completely unaware

The flight in was short and uneventful just an hour or so from London. It already seemed likes ages since I’d been back home a mere week ago.

Me and my sister both left for new places on the same day on flights two hours apart. She was bound for Moscow, me for Copenhagen. I sat at Heathrow for the two extra hours more bored than nervous.

Copenhagen’s airport struck me as unimpressive upon arrival. We wandered through dingy corridors through an abandoned terminal, past a 7/11 (I did not yet know how commonplace these were or how much I would miss them when I left). At customs they said nothing to me and didn’t even ask for the visa I’d gone through so much to get.

The luggage carousel had nothing on the shiny glamour of terminal five. It was simple and old. I wandered into the main area lost and looking for a cab. I was not about to brave an unfamiliar transit system with my luggage. I paid handing over unfamiliar bills to receive unfamiliar change. I have no idea how much that cab cost.

It wasn’t until I reached the hotel that it hit me. I had just moved halfway across the world to a strange city with dingy luggage carousels. Everyone here seemed to speak Danish and I did not. The whole foreign language thing did not hit me until then. The letters looked strange. Prices were in numbers that were absurdly large. What was 100DKK worth anyways? Would I ever adjust? Where was I anyways? Where was my housing? How was I going to make friends? What was I doing in this strange and foreign place?

I spent the evening freaking out and facing a reality that was exciting and terrifying. I was an exchange student, the next day I moved into my housing and started at a new university. It all seemed completely overwhelming.

I later experienced the exact same feeling after moving to Washington, DC, that what am I doing here. I imagine I will feel that way for a few days in every new place that I make my home.

We always feel the need to sugar coat travel. We say our trip was good because it is usually too many things to say at once. I later told my sister about this feeling. My sister agreed with me. We were taking the harder route by moving away from the familiar comforts of home and our social networks to a place where we had no idea how to take the bus. It was hard but it was worth it. Over time all of my questions were answered. I figured out the currency. I made friends. I found my way around. That feeling of what am I doing here was replaced by a feeling that there was no other place I was meant to be. 

Bike hunt

We are on a very important hunt, and taking one of the most important steps towards becoming a true resident of Copenhagen: we must find a bike. I have never walked this far down the street. The city is still new to me. We walk past trendy stores and coffee shops to an area that is filled with kebab shops. By the time we get there it seems like we have been walking for ages. The store has a reputation for selling cheap bikes, that is all. They are not necessarily good, and were probably stolen, but they are cheap and we are students.

The storefront itself comes off as being small. Incredibly small. Smaller than our living room. It is filled with wheels and accessories that he will try to sell us at unreasonable prices. This is the beginning. We step through dodging items as we go along and trying our hardest to shake the felling that this place is very very sketchy. We enter a courtyard and find numerous bikes lined up. None have price tags. We’re told that some belong to other residents of the building but not which. A vague hand motion is not enough to make me feel certain. Then we find it. Down a half-storey of steps there is a basement that must be home to half the bicycles in Copenhagen. They are shoved row on row with some hanging from the roof. There is no way to get any of them out. Not all of them look mechanically sound. Quantity over quality. The man who owns the store greets up. He works his way easily through the muck of bikes and takes us out to the courtyard. These are the bikes he wants to sell us and we’re not really in any position to object.

Then the summer I spent working at a bike store hits me. My friends know nothing about these machines and how questionable they are. They know nothing about locks or bike lights but I do. I know that these bikes are less than mechanically sound, but then again we’re going to be leaving them out in the rain for the next few months so what difference does it really make?

Bikes are selected with a sure why not style. We are glad to get out of that place and hope our new bikes are worth what we paid.

Connecting the dots

Last spring I visited Toronto to apply for a visa—why the Danish government required me to fly halfway across Canada to apply for a visa is beyond me—perhaps they forgot that the amount of time it takes to drive across Denmark is the amount of time it takes me to reach the next closest city. I was there for less that twenty-four hours and flew in on the red eye. I found the city disorienting in part because of my tiredness and in part because the downtown went on forever and ever and ever.

I grew up in Calgary—and somewhere along the way fell in love with the city. In many ways it shaped who I am and how I conceive of what a city should be. It fits with my desire for things to be neatly organized and compartmentalized. The downtown is small and well defined, mostly for geographic reasons. It is the area between the river, the train tracks and a major roadway. It can go no further. Then there are outlying high density communities of various names. These regions are not downtown. They are near downtown, but they are adjacent to it as opposed to a part of it—or at least that’s the way I see it. I find that everywhere else I go downtown is so much more loosely defined.

Growing up downtown seemed big and mysterious. In junior high I transferred buses near Knox United Church and got to know it a little bit better. I wandered the blocks between buses stops and started to become familiar with the downtown core. In high school me and a good friend of mine went on outing to downtown we called doing downtown. He would try on expensive menswear—there is nothing like debaters going suit shopping—and we would wander in the shadows of office towers. We started to frequent the alternative movie theatres downtown, and to explore downtown’s parks. We waited on C-Train platforms. Over time I got to know the streets and the areas around downtown. I knew which buses ran where.

After moving to a new city it always seems like this endless blur. It begins as the area around your house, the area that you live and work in. From there you explore and develop places that you like to pass your time. You visit the places your guidebook recommends—or at least a couple of them. You are aware of metro stops and different locations. Over time you begin to connect the dots between these. I can trace my way down streets, I know how to get from point A to point B. I know how things relate to one another. I know that if I keep going down this street for long enough I will reach a certain place. It is like in Age of Empire how you begin with a big grey map and as you explore. Eventually it all becomes familiar. I can trace Copenhagen in my mind. I can picture the streets and how the connect. The bridges over the river. Downtown to Tivoli to the meatpacking district.

However, I don’t think I can say that Copenhagen has a downtown, at least not in the sense that Calgary taught me. There are areas where people work but they don’t have the same feel to me. Perhaps I will always carry that idea of downtown as something small and well-defined in my head. I will divide blocks of office towers into more easily defined areas to make sense of it all.

Somersby

This is probably one of the things that I will miss the most about Denmark. It is something that I will always want to order but probably won’t be able to get, which is a real shame. It’s not about a particular place or time, but about something that is so delicious. It was something that you brought to dinner, parties, whatever. It was one of the quintessential tastes of being an exchange student.

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This American Life

I try not judge places by their airport(s). It is a first impression, but more often than not it is wrong. I arrive in D.C. on a flight of three people (yes they ran it with only three) and we go through a side door. I think to myself is this really that secure but then again three people aren’t exactly a security risk. The airport itself is small and on the older side. There is a medium sized American flag hanging on the wall and a quote by Ronald Reagan.

I get in a cab and we drive to my new home. We drive past monuments. It’s weird that they are so close and that they are here. Things on postcards, things on maps. We turn onto the interstate and it instantly reminds me of road trips we took when I was growing up. They are so big and efficient and always make me feel like the world is a place of immense possibility.

The metro is impressive. It makes it easy to get around, but it also takes a while. This city feels huge. It is a really big bustling city complete with cabs that sound like they are going to fall apart and people who are always in too much of a rush to wait for the light to change. Jay walking is extremely pervasive here. I am trying to get Denmark out of my head. I feel like I am not in as much of a rush as everyone else.

There are a lot of people in suits and a lot of people ride bikes here. I feel like it would be weird to live in a city where there aren’t bikes going by all the time. People complain about how expensive housing is. The coffee place across the street from me does two dollar sandwiches on Wednesdays. I make a mental note of this. I think I will go every week and sit and read.

At Starbucks I see people meeting to talk about articles and politics. I see a boy reading a book about Sharia law for his class. It looks interesting.

It is pretty easy to find my way around. The streets are on a grid and the names are in English. Aside from getting on the wrong train once so far the metro has been a breeze.

It is harder to meet people but I expected that. I am no longer an exchange student. There are no longer those resources. There are no longer events and a student café. I am a little fish in a big city where I don’t know a soul. I no longer have the feeling that anyone around is a potential new friend. It is a lot more insular.

A few things you should always pack

Sewing kit: sewing kits are solid gold. Believe me when I say that. You should never travel or do anything without one. They are the type of thing that comes in handy when you least expect them, or if like me you happen to be five centimetres taller than the ideal type for the pants that fit you and you need to hem everything they come in handy whenever you buy new pants.

A ruler: so maybe this isn’t useful for everyone but in many ways I am a living breathing stationery store. A former room mate used to come into my room and ask for things like glue sticks, tape, envelopes and was never once disappointed except when he asked for a ruler. I should never have overlooked that fact that someone like me will inevitably need to draw a straight line at some point in time.

Watercolour paints and paper: yes that is what I mean by “someone like me”. Watercolours are invaluable and a cheap set makes for large amounts of joy. You never know when you will need to under take a watercolour based illustration project for your travel blog.

Bedding: it is easier to just have it with you when you get there already. It is not a bad idea to bring unfitted double sheets because they will fit on most types of beds.

Basic eats of some kind: great to have when your flight is really delayed and you don’t have time to go to a grocery store.

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Autobus

We get into the cab and ask for the cab and ask for the bus station. In this initial encounter the driver gives off the impression of speaking far more English than he actually does. We pull out a map and once again say bus station while pointing to our destination. He still doesn’t understand. He starts driving off, we hope in the right direction.

Then we start throwing languages out there. One of my friends speaks some German and some Chinese. These fall flat. I speak French fluently. I start saying autobus and Francais and he perks up. He speaks French. Excellent.

From here I manage to explain that we are not trying to go to a hotel or hostel — I fumble for the word then remember it is auberge — but to the bus station. We are thankful to make it to our destination — especially since our bus leaves very soon — and I am pleased with myself. I conversed in French. I got us to our destination. Once I stopped being worried it was fun. At home I never have a reason to speak French but for some reason in Lithuania I am given the chance twice — the border patrol also speaks to me in French.

For the most part you can get by with just English while traveling, especially in Western Europe. But then my encounter validates my belief that one should speak at least two languages, and probably more. I have been thinking of learning Chinese or German or something else for a while. I feel two languages are not enough. It reminds me of how handy it can be to communicate with others.

My roommate has also been telling me that for him learning Chinese was as much about speaking the language as learning a new perspective. The language is much different than any European language and reflects the culture and nation that spawned it.

Then I think of university Spanish. I took two semesters of it because of a language requirement and remember how to say I don’t like cheese and ask where the beach is. The second semester went so fast that by the end I barely remembered the present tense. And to make matters worse it was marked on a ridiculously hard scale — my eighty per cent only earned me a B, with a ninety-four per cent required for an A. To say the least I wasn’t really invented in Spanish. I took it because it was supposed to be easy if you spoke English and French, and I had to do a language. In the end it was a lot of work.

Learning a language was tricky and one has to really be invested in it to put in the work. That is why I resolved to never take a language for academic credit ever again. That is why I didn’t take Danish language courses while on exchange in Denmark. That is why I barely speak Spanish.

I think that doing it on your own time is different. I would learn Chinese because I am interested in China. I wrote my honours thesis on Sino-American relations and would consider living there. It would be a project undertaken because I believe it to be valuable and enriching. Who knows maybe one day in a cab I will have a driver who doesn’t speak a word of English. Perhaps it will come in handy. After all speaking French is the reason we caught our bus.