Christmasland: Copenhagen and Stockholm

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My first imaginary encounter with Copenhagen was in the book Number the Stars by Lois Lowry, a young-adult novel we read in the 5th grade which is set in Denmark during the Nazi occupation. The main character, Annemarie, who is a young Danish girl, helps her Jewish friend and her family to hide and escape to Sweden. I remember a scene in which Annemarie and Ellen talk with nostalgia and longing about Tivoli, the famed amusement park in Copenhagen which was no longer open because of the occupation. They recall the splendor of the fireworks that used to go off before the Germans forbade entrance to the park.

And here it was in the middle of downtown Copenhagen, the entrance looming with Christmas trees and lights, a grand euphoria for tourists with children as well as locals who want to delight in an afternoon gluhwein in a fantastical setting. Chinese temples, sultan’s palaces, swans skimming on lakes, sculpted gardens under rollercoasters — all worlds exist together at Tivoli.

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Copenhagen is gorgeous, with an Old World and small town feel, sprawling yet walkable. The Danish ride by on their multitudes of upright bicycles, wearing dark clothing and boots and carrying their shopping in baskets. There is bustle on the big avenues but not too much, and everybody seems to be holding their breath for the arrival of Christmas.

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The government buildings in the city center look like castles, and the Danish take their Christmas trees quite seriously.

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One of the many downtown streets lined with shops on either side, reminding me a bit of Madrid’s city center.

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The Hotel d’Angleterre has “The Nutcracker” staged on its facade.

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At the Nationalmuseet, exhibitions on the cultural history of Scandinavia display the skeletons of pre-historic aurochs, a type of wild cattle. We learn about the hunter-gatherers, the settlement of Scandinavia, and of course, about the Vikings, their ships, warriors, and their mythology.

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A chilly walk through the area of the Christianborg castle. Quiet snow lays on cobblestoned streets within the castle complex. It is Christmas Eve and the late sun is making its way down below the slanted roofs of the buildings and between the colorful canals.

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The area of Nyhavn (“New Harbor”), with 17th century canals and waterfront.

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It’s been confirmed: all postboxes in Europe are cute.

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Copenhagen’s Central Station.

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The Rosenborg Castle. Its moat was frozen and waddled upon cutely by dozens of ducks.

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In the northeastern town of Helsingor, on our way to the Kronborg Castle, a giant fish made out of plastic beach items sits gazing at the harbor.

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The best part of the trip — getting to explore Kronborg Slot, the famed castle in which Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is set. One of the most important Renaissance castles in Europe, Kronborg was built over a medieval fortress by King Frederick II in the late 1500s and reached the height of fame under his rule, due to its magnificent architecture, the lush banquets thrown there, and the “Sound Dues” that had to be paid to the Danish king by any ship crossing the Oresund.

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Canons look out at Oresund, the sound between Denmark and Sweden which leads to the Baltic Sea. It was a strategic point for the Danish king, who controlled all of the traffic traveling through the sound.

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After a day of hunting, the Danish king would come into the castle’s courtyard on his horse, hang his meat up on these hooks, and ring the bell so that a servant could come and collect the meat and prepare it for dinner.

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That’s the knight and horse that I colored and placed into the mini-castle 😀

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Sandstone, multitudes of windows, and beautiful architecture — a magnificent display of power and wealth.

Next stop…Stockholm!

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A much larger city (huge actually), Stockholm is also absolutely stunning with its ports, canals, and palaces. It’s a city with a large international population and much more bustle, similar to the frantic-ness in New York with its young, modern city-dwellers. I wish I had gotten to see it during the summer however, when everything isn’t frozen and gray.

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The highlight of the Stockholm leg of the trip was getting to see the Vasa, a warship which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628, unfortunately only 1,400 yards from its port. After over 300 years of being under water, it was salvaged in 1961 and eventually moved into the Vasa Museum. It was preserved very well due to the briny sea water under which it sat for centuries.

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The museum is quite fascinating, recounting how the Vasa was salvaged and preserved, recreating the lives of the travelers who were aboard, and giving a multi-tiered 360-degree view of the giant ship. Also displayed were the materials, figureheads, wood carvings, and other examples of craftmanship that went into its construction.

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Traipsing through Gamla Stan, or Old Town, which is a mini-island housing the historical district of Stockholm. Here, we also found cafés in which to eat traditional Swedish meatballs and to warm ourselves with coffee.

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At the Royal Palace in Gamla Stan. “Oh, why…here’s yet another very nice room.”

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I must say that palaces certainly aren’t as awesome as castles, and no castle is as awesome as Hamlet’s Kronborg!

Other interesting and cool finds from the lands of Danish cookies and IKEA…

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Delicious Danish sandwich with pickled red cabbage.

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Cool art at the Museum for Kunst.

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Random cute kitty in the bed at the BnB.

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Yummy Danish craft beer at the Taphouse.

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Hmm…we weren’t quite certain what “bog” was.

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This is the aisle in the supermarket to get your “black eye bonors.”

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And a multitude of other kinds of “bonors.”

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“Where’d you get that suit?” “Oh, you know, at Grosshandlarn.”

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Med akta honung!

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A Christmas gnome sighting! And no, he isn’t real unfortunately. Merry belated Christmas!

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Home for the Holidays, and to Ring in 2012

All days are sacred days to wake
New gladness in the sunny air.
Only a night from old to new;
Only a sleep from night to morn.
The new is but the old come true;
Each sunrise sees a new year born.

– Helen Hunt Jackson, “New Year’s Morning”

This is the first time in the last 3 years that I’ve come home to Philly for the Christmas holidays. Strange to see my parents in winter clothing, but great to snuggle up in my warm bed with the heavy blankets just as I remember them from when I was young. Everything was as I left it at the end of summer – my room, my books, the invasion of cats.

I bought my dad a cardboard airplane construction set for kicks and he set right to work, exactly the way I imagined he would — peering over his glasses with a disgruntled look of complete concentration, the same way he reads the newspaper, pores over maps, the way he used to help build my science projects:

The finished product. Look at that happy face; I should get him a whole set of cardboard cut-out vehicles.

Being home is also the time of cat abuse. Preferably, George.

Seeing people I hadn’t seen in a looong time. Mook 🙂

Some food I hadn’t seen in a long time:

A visit to one of my favorite neighborhoods, Olde City:

And my favorite bookstore:

A family trip to New York City to check out the 9/11 memorial:

The subtext to this photo: “Yeaaaaaaaaayy!”

A rollerblader in Battery Park.

Inside the memorial, which consists of two huge steel pools where the blueprint of the two WTC buildings used to be. Water falls continuously from all four sides of the pool in thin sheets onto a shallow pool floor, only to fall into an abyss-like hole in the very middle of the structure, whose depths are impossible to gauge. Inscribed in steel all along the sides of each pool are the names of those who died that day.

We walked on over to Chinatown for some dimsum, and then went to check out the High Line on the west side:

We rang in the New Year the traditional way: at a house party taking shots and singing karaoke:

This video is pretty typical of drunken encounters, but there’s something great about it since Tori Amos’s “Pretty Good Year” was coincidentally playing in the background: photo.php?v=10150450887136814

I think I’ve had some good closure to 2011. Some much-needed conversations, some stirring up and settling down, seeing faces that have always been familiar and close to me while growing up. I haven’t made too many resolutions, but I guess I should. I’ve promised to be better at keeping in touch and at writing letters – things that when we were younger, unattached, and unburdened by adult life, seemed so easy to accomplish. New year, new decisions. Or at least feeling again that my life is imbued with choice.

Some things, like hardy bargling with my tumor twin, will never change:

(Subtext to this photo: “Men, men, men, menmen, menmen, men, men…”)

Tomorrow I fly back to Madrid! Hopefully I’ll get over this miserable cold…


A New Year, a New Format

Welcome back to my travel blog, I know it’s been awhile…I’ll be sticking to English from now on.

And welcome to my new metro stop at Concha Espina. I am now living in the northeastern part of Madrid, quite close to the renowned football stadium, Santiago Bernabeu, and right across the street from the Berlin Park, where you can see several slivers of the Berlin Wall mounted in a fountain.

I work at a bilingual school called Ramiro de Maeztu, 5 minutes away by bus from where I live (pretty damn lucky). I’m one of the six “Auxiliares de Conversación,” and I basically work in small groups with first graders to improve their speaking, vocabulary, and reading. These kids get taught about four classes a day in English, including science and arts, and the only classes taught in Spanish are math and language arts, so it’s a pretty intense bilingual program. The fifth-graders, for example, are learning about angiosperms and gymnosperms and plant reproduction, stuff they don’t even know in their own language. My kids are learning the parts of the body, healthy foods, the seasons, numbers, etc.

Spanish kids seem to have had no prior disciplining and are immune to being screamed at and dragged around numerous times a day. Sometimes, explaining mind-numbingly simple exercises, telling them to sit down and shut up 50 times in a row, hearing “Mabel” from 25 differences voices at the same time, and seeing the vacant look of “I have no idea what you’re saying”….all make me want to shoot myself. Sometimes. But I’m actually starting to quite like it. I don’t actually teach an entire class, so it’s not an overwhelming job, but one of the challenges is not being allowed to speak Spanish. So really, there is a lot of dramatization, gesturing, and pointing going on. By now I know almost all 75 first graders by name, including the multiple Ana’s, Laura’s, and Pablo’s.

PS. Spanish people have to start thinking of more creative names for their kids.

Madrid is the same old city as it was when I first arrived – a mixture between energetic and slow, scenic and urban. Also half of it is under construction, entire roads, even. But Sol is finally finished! And it’s beautiful, with the Madrid bear statue and the fountains. In a year or two Madrid will be completely transformed. I’ll put some pictures up when I can.