Train Travel

Calgary!  Fully half of this country has been crossed!  The Grey Cup has been witnessed! (Though the ‘Rider celebration will have to be postponed, again).  I’m sitting at my cousin’s place, enjoying a glass of red wine, and feeling pretty good about myself.  Somehow, somewhere along the way, this post sort of wrote itself, so . . . Enjoy!

Train Travel

2010-07-08

Somewhere between Munchen and Berlin.

I love travelling by train.  It’s such a civilised, sedate and rewarding way of moving around when compared to the hectic and cramped paranoia of flight or the burden of responsibility that comes with driving.  I sit here, with all of my luggage within easy reach and my laptop open on my lap, the beautiful hills of the Bavarian countryside sliding by in a peaceful quiet as we speed along at 150km/h or better.

I’m slowly learning the vagaries of train travel, in that if you don’t have a reservation, there will be some on the wall next to some seats.  I’ve been moved around several times, but I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.  Also, It’s interesting to see that there is far less taboo about bare feet here than there is back home.  I’ve met several people who wander around the streets and businesses with no shoes and they don’t get a second look.  Although I applaud them in this, I don’t feel like I would be comfortable doing that in a city (Broken glass anyone?). . . Or on a train, as I’ve seen one fellow do just now . . . Nice to know people won’t be grossed out if I pull my shoes off along the way though.

I’ve also had the opportunity in these last few days of train travel to read two books, the seventh Harry Potter (finally) and “Climbing High” by Lene Gammelgaard, an account of the first Scandinavian woman’s ascent of Everest, and the subsequent death of her expedition’s leader on the way down.  That last one was an exquisitely interesting read, and has left an impression on me, as that lifestyle is one that I crave.  The book taught me two things, above all else: If you are going to do those sorts of things, you can depend on no-one but yourself, and never to get too certain of your own abilities, as nature does indeed, still reign supreme.  That, I think, is why I want to do it, to push these limits of human endurance, because there are places and times when anything a human can do will not be enough, and I want to search out those limits, and see where I measure up.  It’s funny because I’m already confident, not in my ability to complete the challenges, but to know when I’ve come up against my limits, as I already feel that I’ve made some of those decisions in my life.  Essentially though, I want to be me, and I’m not sure that I can be unless I find ways of pushing myself, of conquering new challenges, of succeeding in ways that many wouldn’t, and discovering more about myself along the way.

Then there’s one of Ms Gammelgaard’s convictions: That it isn’t right to both have a family and risk your life on a regular basis, leaving spouse and children behind to wonder if their partner / parent will ever come home, and, all too often, having their worst fears confirmed.  It’s an insight that I suppose that I’ve long shared, but reading her words forced me to realize it, and now I know why I’ve almost forced myself to remain single for these last two years as I try to figure out what the hell it is I want to DO with my life.  I am afraid of hurting someone else by my absence.  I am afraid of not being there for my partner and even more for my potential children.  I suppose it’s been driven into me by my father, who never really came to terms with leaving every week to bring home the bread that the family he loved needed.  I’ve long since forgiven him for any perceived inadequacies, and in fact, I never felt that I lacked in anything, but he’s always mentioned that it’s the one thing that he would have done different if he had the chance.  I wish to avoid such regrets, and I’ve already had some similar ones with girlfriends that I’ve had.  It’s another refrain on the old theme; that the man is afraid to commit, but I feel that the difference at this point is that I keep myself from even getting started in a relationship in order to never let anyone down.  I realize that this isn’t a healthy way to be, but that said; I’m not sure how to fix it at this time.  I suppose that I could find someone willing to put up with my crazy and be an unfettered spirit with me for a time.  It’s not the idea of being tied to someone else that worries me; it’s all the things that are likely to go with that, the end to adventures, the sedentary lifestyle and the lack of discovery.  It’s when things get too comfortable, too predictable, too SURE, that my feet get itchy.

This trip through Europe has, more than anything, only outlined how many more things I want to do, how many places I’d like to visit again with more time and a more focused plan.  Cycling or hiking my way through the Scottish highlands, for example.  Or climbing the top ten peaks of Switzerland, or learning German and then canoeing my way across this country I currently see speeding by my window.  This is what travel is meant to be like!  I fear that very soon however the cost of travel will increase exponentially due to an end of cheap oil.  I predict that mine will be one of the last generations that enjoys cheap travel, but I’m determined to have my part of it while it lasts.  If the new age SHOULD come sooner than anyone predicts, I’m determined to carve out a way to travel in the new environment, whether it be by bike, sail, or on foot.  Hmm.  How’s “Sustainable Expeditions” as a first stab at a moniker?  Not as a business model, but as a new vision into travel, making travel as it used to be, a true struggle.  It’s possible that the couch surfing community could be a model for something like that, or even an important intermediary step, where you would stay at local places as you slowly move your way across counties, countries and continents?

I still dream of a return to the age of sail, when the oil runs out and once the chaos has died down, that a shipping industry would spring up from the decks of those few tall ships still around and there would be a rush to build more, and those with sailing skill would become indispensible in this environment.  I think that my children will need to learn to sail, for all these reasons and more.  It’s funny how I get introspective and forward thinking like that when I’ve just read a good book or two and had some time to think.  I also think that I’m almost done with this travelling thing for the time being, and I’ll be quite happy when the 15th rolls around and I get to put down roots, at least for a time, in Norway.  I’m quite happy with the experience I’ve had so far, and it’s stated goals of me seeing Europe with my own eyes have been met, but I’m not made for this much last minute running around.  I like to have a plan and modify it as the situation demands, but this whole trip I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants, and I know now that it’s not my preferred modus operandi.   I also bemoan the lack of a travel partner to bounce ideas off of, but on the other hand, my self reliance is growing in leaps and bounds.  There’s nothing that builds self confidence quite like figuring out a subway system written in a tongue that you’re unfamiliar with or ordering food in a foreign language.

I also know now that I can live in incredibly cramped conditions with people that I don’t have much in common with, at least for a time, though it’s not my preferred course of action.  In that respect, my tolerance is much higher than I would have imagined.

In Munchen, I stayed for two days with a fellow who quite literally lives in a shoebox.  His entire apartment could fit inside of the living room of my old house, with no exaggeration.  Not only does he feel perfectly comfortable with this but feels that he has enough space to share with guests!  I can’t fault him his hospitality, and it WAS good to see how folks in other countries live, but I’m quite comfortable being spoiled by the vast areas of Canadian living space.  In Munchen, it was interesting to see that there are still some ghosts of the past lurking around the corners of society, though the prejudices and hatreds that led to world war two have been banished, thankfully.  It was when my host, his pal, and I went to watch the Germany – Spain world cup game in an outdoor stadium and met some girls there that this became clear.  Now, it took me a long time to figure it out, coming from a universally tolerant place like Canada, but there WAS a difference between the three blond haired, light eyed girls and Ori and his friend, who both had dark thick curls.  They were speaking in German, but I got the gist that they were asking where everyone was from (prompted, no doubt, by my lack of German and “Canada” hat, worn to remind folks that I’m not American).  To my surprise, Ori and his pal both turned out to be Jewish (and if I heard right, Jerusalem itself).  As mentioned, the ghosts of the past are benign, and we were invited out to a pub for a beer afterwards, but I was a bit shocked that it was even worth noting the fact that they were different, as in Canada a dark haired fellow and a blonde will cross paths and start conversations without a thought, whereas in Germany they point to two very different cultural backgrounds and it’s brought up in the first five minutes.  I suppose that it speaks to the diversity of Canada since I just sort of assume that EVERYONE I meet will have a different cultural background, no matter what they look like.  In the end, we didn’t go drink with them, abandoning them at the station, since in my host’s words: “It’s too bright in here, or I am perhaps not drunk enough.  I now realize they are Bavarian Grandmothers!”  Altogether, the night was only slightly marred by Germany losing to Spain.

Edit: Unhappily, I somehow totally forgot to take any pictures during this portion of my trip, so I have none to share with you.  However, I have uploaded my pictures of Berlin for your enjoyment.  (Make sure to check out the parking lot that is the non-monument in memory of where Hitler’s bunker was.  Now it’s Berlin’s most popular place to bring your dog to do his buisness . . . )

Cheers,

Cote

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Swiss Mountains

Ladies and Gents, as I prepare for my NEXT adventure, (this time a road trip out to Vancouver and back, just because I can.  And yes, I know that it’s the worst time of year for it, but I’m not going to let the opportunity slip by this time), I have found a bit of time to put up this latest post for your enjoyment.  So as I head for Canada’s mountains, please enjoy my recitation of my first two encounters with real mountains, as I hit up the Swiss Alps on my way through Europe:

2010-06-30 to 2010-07-08

Luzern, Switzerland

I set out today to conquer my first real mountain.  However, during my ascent, I discovered that one does not conquer mountains, since even though I’ve seen it’s summit, it sits there still – implacable – awaiting it’s next challenger.  Challenge, however, is a good word to describe the process, since while you are busy challenging the mountain, it is taking your measure as well.  It’s looking deep into your soul, determining the depth of your character, and if you are so lucky that it should find you worthy, it will – for a time – share it’s grandeur with you.

Now, it’s important to be clear here.  I understand that this is not a top level challenge, or a top level mountain.  Let’s face it, nothing you can climb in a day is.  That said; Mt. Pilatus’ 2120m summit is farther above sea level than this flatlander has ever been.  Additionally, the four and a half hours that I spent ascending to this mountain’s peak taught me something of myself (I’m out of shape, and I need to be in shape to be able to tackle the kind of challenge that I crave) and of Nature as I’d never seen it.  It’s not extreme, there are signs pointing out the hiking route all the way to the top, and when you get there, there is a restaurant, two hotels and scads of tourists who took the cogwheel train (steepest in the world!) or the gondola to the top.  For some reason though, this time the tourists didn’t take anything away from the experience for me.  Possibly because I met more Canadians at the top of that mountain than I have yet in my trip (In a retrospective count, I come up with ten certainties, though I may have missed some), but also I think because I could quietly be snooty about the whole thing:  “I EARNED this view, but I’m happy to share it with you” Even though I would never say anything like that, it was fun to be quietly thinking it.

I later ascended to the top of Titlis, which, at 3238m, is central Switzerland’s highest peak, and the “tallest tourist destination in Switzerland” meaning that yes, you can cheat your way to the top of this one too, as the “world’s first rotating gondola” will drop you off right at the peak.  Since I was short on time for this one, I paid the fare and rode up more or less in style, and though I was foiled by the fog / cloud at the top, completely hiding anything from my view, the trip up was spectacular, and the ice cave they have carved into the glacier is pretty neat.  (It took something like physical restraint to not use the word “cool” there, as it was, at a frosty -1C inside).  While the trip up the mountain had it’s disappointments, the train ride to Engelberg was well worth it, as I took a large number of pictures of the mountains on the way there and enjoyed a solid lunch at Duke’s pub while chatting with the English waitress and her man, who had apparently followed her there.  They also tipped me off on the arena and the “ice hockey” going on there.  I stopped in and watched a bit of a game on July 4th just to re-affirm my Canadian identity on this most American of days.  The hockey wasn’t spectacular, but nor was it broken ankle skating all over the place.  If I had to, I’d say it was about on par for your average Canadian beer league tournament, and I suppose it might have been something like that.

In total, I stayed for six nights in Luzern because the hospitality of my half Norwegian host was so much like going to visit some of my relatives that I just didn’t put too much effort into finding another place to stay (and, in retrospect, I may have been slightly homesick).  Also, the company and conversation were excellent, and all my needs were met, be it conversation, rest, or adventure in the rock climbing gym she brought me to, and the two moderately convenient mountains whose summits I saw while there.  From what I saw, the Swiss are, as a people, very polite and unfailingly punctual (seriously: the buses arrive when they are supposed to, the trains are ALWAYS on time and appointments are kept to the minute.  In fact, I’m starting to wonder if the Swiss are capable of being late for anything).  They are also fascinated by engineering, and embrace it in every facet of their daily lives:  Blinds?  No, we have a crank system that draws the shutters down OUTSIDE the window.  The toilet paper roll is elegant and efficient and the kitchen is just FULL of interesting and useful innovations.  “Gimmicks” the jealous outsider might say, but as a fan of mechanical innovations, I am left with the idea that it’s the rest of the world that is deprived of Swiss engineering, and not that they over engineer things.  With their pride in mechanical works and their never-failing punctuality, is it any wonder that they are known for their watches?  Also, cows are a very Swiss thing (The cheese and chocolate should have tipped me off) though they don’t take it too seriously.  I almost bought a tee-shirt that said:  “Save Milk, Drink Beer:  Swiss Attitude” and on the whole, the Swiss are a people I could see myself spending a lot of time with.

Something thing that my half Norwegian host commented on that was re-affirmed later by some other folks I met:  The Swiss don’t like to stand out.  Even individually, it seems that they strive not for excellence, but for uniformity.  They don’t like to clap too loudly, they don’t like shouting above a crowd, and they like to be a part of a group.  Individualism is not suppressed, by any means, but it’s as though not too many folks are interested in it.

Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, so after my time there, I have Icelandic Kroner, British Pounds, Swiss Francs and European Euros left over and stashed somewhere in my luggage.  I’m not sure what to do with it all really, since most money changing places will not accept less than a full unit, and consequently, I’ve got several pocketfuls of change now in my possession.

Let me know if you want souvenirs, since I’m not sure what else to do with my European pocket change!

Until next time, where I muse on train travel and Germany’s past.

Cheers,

Cote

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Paris!

Paris

Apologies to all those who thought this might be a unilingual blog, but it just didn’t seem right writing about Paris in English while I had the (heavily ironic here) “PROPER” language handy.  I’m also getting a bit rusty and needed the practice.  If there’s enough of an outcry, I might put up a translation, but I urge you to instead practice your own French for a bit, in true bilingual Canadian fashion.  So:

Paris m’a appris que tant que c’est complètement dehors de moi, le monde est plein de monde qui s’en foute du sport.  J’ai aussi appris de nouveau que le sport est important pour moi.  Le sport est intégral à ce que je peux appeler mon esprit.  Par contre, je vois, et je suis capable de comprendre, l’art et la culture et, oui, la romance qui est intégrale à la vie de la plupart des Parisiens.  Comprends moi bien, je veux retourner à Paris, (si pas seul) mais mon premier expérience avec Paris n’étais pas dans les meilleures de ma vie.  Paris, plus que d’autres places, est une ville à voir à deux, pour une multitude de raisons et j’espère que la femme que je réussis à gagner peut comprendre cela.

La mode à Paris est très évidente.  Au moment, peut être à cause de la température (qui, il faut dire, me parait extrême), les sandales de style quasi Romain ou peut être Grec ancien sont partout.  C’est étrange, mais je pourrais dire que le choc culturel m’a frappe ici plus qu’à d’autres places.  Oui, on pourrait dire que ce n’est pas évident a parler à quelqu’un dans une deuxième langue, mais j’avais l’impression que la France, et Paris en particulier étais pour être un genre de retour a ma partie.  Ce n’étaient pas le cas du tout.  Il faut dire que les centaines d’années depuis la colonisation du Canada (et peut-être le genre de monde qui devenait colon au premier cas) ont mis une grande espace culturel entre la France et le Canada.  On est frères encore, certainement, mais on ne pourra plus s’appeler des jumeaux.   Possiblement la métaphore de père-fils est plus proche a la vérité, et le Canada vient juste de réaliser ses années troublées d’adolescence, mais il me semble que la départ de la France du Nouveau monde lui a libérée de tout responsabilité parentale, et il a profite de cette liberté pour se trouver une deuxième adolescence.

Je parviens enfin à apprendre le sentiment des « autres » envers les Français en tant que une place qui a ses propres règles et qui se fait des airs, se pensent supérieur envers tout le monde qui ne suivent pas ses règles.  C’est en effet, une certitude que Paris est au centre de l’univers et si tu ne connais pas ces règles, eh bien, il n’y a pas de manière a t’aider!  Malgré tout cela, je comprends comment c’est un centre culturel et pourquoi ses résidents sont si fiers de leur place et de leur ville.  Étant dit, je comprends aussi la frustration d’un étranger, essayant de voir la beauté et la classe haute dont les Parisiens ont si fier, et recevant seulement : « Tu ne pourrais jamais comprendre » des Parisiens eux même.  Ce n’est pas qu’ils le font pour s’agrandir, mais l’attitude de « lassez-faire » est très forte, et ceux qui veule vraiment partager ont une désavantage numérique sévère contre la multitude qui s’enfiche.

Eu bien, c’est assez de mes impressions.  Ce que j’ai VU a Paris est une autre chose au complet.  Paris est vraiment « la ville de l’amour ».  En ma courte visite, j’ai vu une pestilence d’amoureux : Aux parcs, aux bistros, sur les coins de rue, sur le métro . . . ils étaient partout!  Ah oui, et en parlant de pestilence, l’on me dit que Paris est la plus grande destination touristique du monde entier, et en voyant les linges au tour Eiffel et au Louvre, je peux bien le croire.  A cause du nombre illimité de touristes, je n’ai pas été aux grosses attractions, préférant d’essayer de voir le Paris des parisiens.  J’ai réussi, en marchant dans les petits chemins ou les autos sont interdites, mangeant du canard rôti avec un rosé frais, et de voir du théâtre a plein air au milieu d’un marche très semblable a celui d’Amélie Poulin.  A un point une auto s’est arrêtée a côté de moi en cherchant pour des directions!  Apparemment j’étais assez confortable avec la ville que j’avais l’air d’un parisien!  (Et fais toi s’en rien du chemise que je portais qui proclamais CANADA en grosses lettres . . .).  J’ai pris un petit pain au bord de la Seine, j’ai vu la Cathédrale de Notre Dame (encore plein de touristes, alors je me suis passé de l’opportunité de voir l’intérieur a la manière d’une sardine . . .).  En fait de places a boire, deux des trois soirées que j’étais la je me trouvais a des bars Australien car les parisiens ne sont pas fiers du « pub » préfèrent le bistro pour leurs besoins alcooliques, mais l’atmosphère était un peu trop chic et le prix un peu trop élevé pour mon goût . . . Pour le reste de ce que j’ai vu de Paris, je pense que les portraits peut parler pour eux-mêmes. . . .

Au prochain,

Cote

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Scottish Highlands and the Isle of Skye

2010-06-22 to 2010-06-24

Ladies and Gentlemen, try to contain your excitement, but I’ve been told to inform you that Cote’s back in Canada! Of course, this news is more than a week old, but as I’ve been out of cellphone range, never mind internet for the duration of my time back in Canada I haven’t been able to inform anyone of this fact . . . (I’m also more than a little bit worried about my fantasy hockey team, since a rudderless ship might be running round in circles for all I know . . .). That said, I’ve had a spare minute or two since I got back so I’ve put together another update for your reading pleasure:

While in Edinburgh, I thought that it would be criminal to get that close to the famed Scottish Highlands without actually SEEING them, especially for someone as into rugged scenery as myself. So I signed up for a tour with the aptly named Highland Tours, and chose the Isle of Skye option since it was three days in length and I didn’t want to be rushing this. This proved to be an excellent choice, as the experience was quite extraordinary. My guide was named Colin, which until that point hadn’t struck me as a terribly Scottish name, but when HE said it, I was struck as to HOW Scottish it really is. But I’m getting ahead of myself here. My pickup point was on the royal mile, on the very doorstep of Edinburgh Castle. As I waited for my tour bus to arrive, several platoons of Scottish highlanders marched by in formation. I later learned that they were trooping their way to the Scottish parliament buildings at the far end of the Royal Mile.  Apparently, they perform this ritual each time parliament opens a new session.  They looked so splendid that I couldn’t help but snap a few photos. I love traditions of this sort, and was very glad that I caught a glimpse of this one.

We had a full complement on board our tour bus, with three Americans, an English lady with her Italian cousins, a Korean family, three students of indeterminate Asian background and one wacky Canadian (me). Soon after the pickup, and on our way through Edinburgh’s traffic, Colin pointed out Edinburgh castle, and asked us if we’d gone to see it yet. When some mentioned that they hadn’t he indignantly asked why not. He then informed us that it was the crown jewel in the array of Scottish tourist attractions. Again, to my chagrin, I have not seen it. . . (Though that DOES give me an excuse to go back to Edinburgh, as though I needed one . . .).

I don’t think I can fully describe the tour, both because it WAS a full three days long, we saw a ridiculous amount of rugged and beautiful scenery, and heard a great many stories.  Additionally, I honestly don’t think I can remember it all.  I did, however, snap a few photos along the way.  Any time there was a lull in the scenery, Colin would fill up the time by telling us a bloody story of a place we were going to see (The Massacre of Glencoe for example), playing us a traditional Scottish tune (of which there are many), or giving us his personal opinion on the current state of affairs in Scottish politics (according to him the Scottish people need to decide if they want to stay in Great Britain or not via referendum).  All in all, it was an excellent tour, with loads of spectacular scenery.  It took us a day to get to the Ilse of Skye (with numerous stops along the way), where we stayed the night, toured the island for the next day (staying at the same village as the night before) and then returning to Edinburgh on the third day (again with multiple stops along the way).

As to accommodation, when signing up for the tour they would ask if you wanted to stay at at hotel, b&b, or hostel. I took the hostel option, and stayed at a fairly standard place that had a very creaky old college dorm feel to it, but was clean and respectable and got three stars from the Scottish hostelling association. Whilst there, I met some elderly gentlemen (late fifties to early seventies) who were on a self guided bicycle tour of the Isle of Skye and we watched the football together at the local pub. Those fellows really got me to thinking that THAT’s the best way to see the highlands, and the next time I go, (funny how, in my mind, it’s not IF, it’s WHEN) it will be with a bicycle and tent or possibly on foot, since there were so many trails up there and an extensive array of hostels/villages/restaurants all willing to accommodate the weary traveller. All that said, I’m glad I took the tour since the history was interesting (and colourful! Mostly blood red, but then, the Scots do love their tragic heroes . . .)

All in all, the Highlands have enough history, character and sheer natural beauty to fill up several lifetimes of wanderings, and my three days there were only enough to whet my appetite. Oh, and speaking of wetting, the beer was excellent and primarily local, making both my inner environmentalist and my beer loving nature jump with delight.
Tune in next time (next week? I’ve already got the update written!) where I wander the alleyways of Paris.

Cheers,

Cote

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Edinburgh

2010/06/17 through 2010/06/25

Adubuh? Cote’s updating?!  He’s not dead?!  Yay!  (That first bit is not some strange Nordic language, just good old fashioned Tim Taylorspeak indicating confusion).  Fret not dear readers, I breathe still, but I was utterly distracted by the wonders of Norway (and the amount of work I’m putting in on the farm here) and have not done any writing for two solid months (almost to the day).  Apologies for that, and I will do my best to not let it happen again.  THAT said, the next place my European odyssey took me was Edinburgh.  So read on to hear about my time in the Scottish capital.

Edinburgh is the ancestral home of the Scottish kings, and now a lively tourist destination with creepy ghost stories and rowdy drinking establishments to suit any taste (unless you don’t like rowdy of course. . .).  They say that Edinburgh is built on seven hills, and honestly, I didn’t count them, but there ARE some rather impressive bits of Geology in the city proper that really draw your attention, and – if you’re like me – your feet.  Arthur’s Seat (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arthur%27s_Seat,_Edinburgh) in particular.  There are also ancient cobblestone streets, along with the odd close.  As far as I can tell, a close is a peculiar type of Scottish alley.  Hell, it might BE the Scottish word for alley, I’m not really sure . . . In any case, I took a wander down Stevenlaw’s Close and snapped a few pictures that at least try to capture the claustrophobic nature of these places (which are posted in the pictures section for your viewing pleasure).

I spent a good deal of time in Edinburgh, learning about the history, drinking in the pubs, and otherwise absorbing the culture from the perspective of a student (since I was staying with a friend who had just finished a year of study there).  This friend introduced me to Sandemans new Europe tours (http://www.neweuropetours.eu/) and if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend them.  They work on a tips-only basis, (at the end of the tour, you pay what you think it was worth) and this ensures that your guide will pull out all the stops in trying to show you a good time.  The tour I took was full of jokes, thinly veiled (but good natured) barbs at the English, and plenty of quirky facts of the architecture or culture that you wouldn’t get otherwise, like the heart of Midlothian for example.  The way our guide told it, the symbol of the heart of Midlothian once graced the door of a building where taxes were collected and where executions were carried out.  To show their contempt for death and taxes, the residents of Edinburgh took to spitting on this symbol.  Today, this wee bit of heraldry graces the stones in a square in Edinburgh, and the residents continue to spit on in when they pass.  Some say they do it for good luck, but I rather prefer the explanation given to me by a Scottish friend of mine: “I don’t ever spit, except on the heart, and especially if there are tourists clustered around it, since then you can spit at the tourists.”  This point was well illustrated by a passing denizen of Edinburgh (Edinburger? That sounds sort of flippant . . .) who graced the heart with a gift of his moisture just as our guide was explaining the tradition.  Whether the fellow was spitting at us or at the heart will remain forever a mystery however.  Looking back, I think I’d rather not know.

Of course, there ARE some less disgusting traditions, rubbing the big toe of the statue of Hume for good luck before exams, for example.  Since exam season was either upon us or just finished as I passed through, the toe in question is polished to a high gleam in the picture I took.

The tour also pointed out the writers museum, which is a memorial to three of the most famous Scottish authors: Sir Walter Scott, Robert Lewis Stevenson and Robert Burns.  We had several good views of the castle (which I DIDN’T go see, to my consternation).  We passed by the school that Hogwarts is supposedly based on – though J.K. Rowling is mum on the subject.  I heard stories of murderers (Look up Burke and Hare for interesting reading and a reason to thank whatever deity you believe in that you were born in a different era), body snatchers (funny, but that term always makes me think of extra terrestrials for some reason, but in Edinburgh it usually refers to the folks who would go around digging up fresh graves in order to sell the bodies to the university for research purposes.  This became such a widespread practice that for a time, keeping one’s final resting place secure through iron cages, stone walls and the like became a lucrative business of its own).  We also saw Greyfriars Kirk and Greyfriars Bobby, whom I will not dignify with more than a comment.   There was also a working clock entirely covered with flowers, the world’s largest, so I’m told.  Don’t let the title of “flower clock” fool you: I’m quite convinced that the mechanics of it are quite metallic, though it was still pretty nifty to see.  The end of the tour comprised of a dramatic telling of the story of Ian Hamilton and the Stone of Destiny.  As these things tend to do, the story grows in each telling so the one you get on Wikipedia really doesn’t do it justice.  For the REAL story (or the real good one anyway) you’ll have to ask a Scottish nationalist with a flair for the dramatic since I can’t do it justice on paper (or internet  :-/ . . . someone really needs to come up with new maxims reflecting the fact that stories are seldom created or shared on actual paper any more. . .).

Another thing that transpired during my stay in Edinburgh was a spur of the moment cycle trip to Falkirk with three other adventurers.  We followed the canal and if you ever get the chance, I highly recommend this route, whether by cycle, boat or on foot, as along the way you get an excellent overview of the southern Scottish countryside along with a generous helping of interesting history as well.  You also get to go over a large number of aqueducts, which are like some sort of addictive drug for someone who likes water and high places as much as I do.  It was during this trip that I realized how angry Scottish vegetation is.  It seems every bush, tree, plant and flower has some sort of stinging defence mechanism, thorn or otherwise unsavoury portion to it.  No wonder so many Scots have developed such a prickly disposition.  At the end of our several hours of leisurely pedaling, we got to see the Falkirk wheel in action and I do have to say that it IS an impressive bit of engineering, even if it’s only used for pleasure boats at this time.   The canal stopped being a trade artery some eighty years ago, though I’m astounded that it went as long as it did, seeing as portions of it were built as far back as 1790!

Oh, I also got to sample beer gardens and folk music in Edinbugh, (at the same time!) and though this might be hard to find (I was lucky, since my hostess hung out with the folk music crowd so she knew all about it) I can’t say enough about the experience.  I don’t know if I’ve ever had as entertaining a time in a pub as the time that there were two dozen people present, and fully twenty of them were participating in the music, most with instruments that I’ve never even HEARD of.  I had a really solid conversation with the other four, non-musicians, let me tell you.

One of the last things I did in Edinburgh was to wander by the outside of the Scottish Parliament (the futuristic looking building in my pictures) and head up to the top of Arthur’s Seat.  Of course, being the stubborn fool that I am, I spurned the easy way, with its rocks masquerading as paving stones and human sculpted stairways, and tried (yes, tried) to climb up the most difficult path I could find.  This led to not a few unpleasant encounters with the aforementioned Scottish vegetation, several points where I needed to retrace my steps and actual fear, as I clung to the edge of a cliff and shook my head at my own stupidity and imagined what the authorities would say if they found my broken body on the rocks far below: “Ach! Another stueped tourist, gone and got hisself killed from drrink and its assohciated invincibilitae!”  Except that I was sober as a judge the whole time.  In the end, (you ARE reading this after all) I gave up the cliff-scaling idea, went around a ways and found a more pedestrian path to the top.  Lesson learned, thinking I’m better than the path COULD get me killed, and I have too much of the world left to see to let THAT happen.  ‘Course, that doesn’t mean I’ll take the easy way EVERY time, just when the other option is true stupidity.  Funny how I get better at recognizing that as I get older . . . Oh, if you’re perusing the pictures, the staircase made of red stone?  Yeah, that’s the EASY way, for old men, small children and those NOT clinically insane.  Please note that I followed them on the way down.

Oh yeah, those last few pictures were taken on my last night in Edinburgh, and I had to laugh since only in Scotland would you find a sign that says: “Caution, Golf Course”.  It makes sense for it to be there, since there IS a public golf course on the spot.  At this course, it’s free to play, since golf IS Scotland’s gift to the world, after all.  Well, that and real whiskey.

Cheers,

Cote

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England

2010-06-10 through 2010-06-16

This update comes from the place where anything goes: No, not Amsterdam.  Berlin.  This city is still revelling in having thrown off the shackles of communism and quite literally hasn’t found its limits yet.  But I’ll talk more about that when I get to the Berlin post.  Right now is England as a whole:

Can one truly get the measure of a nation as populous and diverse as England in a mere six days?  I think one can.  As to whether I have done so, well, you’ll have to draw your own conclusions.  So once my glorious and far too short time in Iceland was done, I moved on to mother England.  I arrived in London (THE London, for denizens of southern Ontario) at 11:30 and managed to navigate my way through the tube and find a place to leave my bags at Waterloo station and then proceeded to find a pub where I could watch the opening of the world cup.  I found a place where there were fellows designated as fans of every nation.  This was presented on their name-tags along with their country-appropriate drink and shot of choice.  I witnessed the opening too, where some English lads tried their best to sing the South African and Mexican national anthems.  They had sheets printed out with the words, for all that helped, but the results were predictably terrible, and predictably hilarious.  I took a picture of the inside of the pub, and from the decor, you can imagine what sort of atmosphere would prevail when England is playing . . .  Once the game was done, I managed to find and photograph Charing Cross Railway (but not road) for any fans of “Spirit of the West” out there.  I met up with my hostess, collected my luggage and we boarded a train for Salisbury.  One might say that my time in London was insufficient, and there is an argument there, since there are plenty of monuments and attractions that I didn’t see, but I don’t regret it since I think that the bustle of a city that size would have worn me down (edit: Paris, later, proved me right in that aspect . . .) I did, however, have several days in Salisbury, whereby the main attraction is the Cathedral, which I explored to the fullest of my ability between football games.  That evening, England played, and I found myself in a pub full of people my age that cared infinitely more about the result than I did.  That said, it was fantastic to be there to see the jubilation when Steven Gerrard scored and to share in the rawness of the horror when Robert Green quite literally dropped the ball.  It was by no means cheap, and I would have liked it better with someone to discuss it with, but I will nonetheless consider it a rousing success.

On the Sunday, my hostess drove me around a portion of southern England, giving me a very good impression of the roads, (half or less than half the size of their north American counterparts) the countryside, several castles, a country estate that is being preserved by the National Trust, and, of course, Stonehenge.  On the topic of roads, I can’t imagine how long it would take me to get used to driving on the left and I’d have to say that it was a fair bit of culture shock to get into the left side of a car and NOT have a steering wheel in front of me.  There are many places where there is but a single lane road, with “passing places” here and there, where you’re expected to put half your car in the grass while the other car comes close to scraping the paint off, both from your car and from the fencepost on the far side of the road.  I’m not even going to go into what sorts of problems they would have if they ever got a proper snowfall, since many buildings are quite literally built right out to the road.  Snow removal in this country would be worse than a nightmare, it would be pretty near impossible.  When I mentioned the small size of the roads, my hostess commented (in her clipped and very proper English accent) that: “The entire country is still in a state of shock that the automobile should dare to exist.”  I have to say that she’s right, though from what I’ve seen, I would extend that sentiment to the rest of the continent as well.  Europe as a whole is built around, at best, the horse drawn buggy, though arguments could be made for it being built for pedestrians as well.  On the whole, it makes for a much more human atmosphere than the car centred designs found in North America.

The weight of history is heavy here, with castles and ruins around that were built around the time when most folks in the area still believed that the world was flat.  Additionally, every last scrap of countryside has been used, re-used, torn down and remade by humans.  It’s quite beautiful and very picturesque, but you cannot escape from the fact that every bit of the landscape is altered or has been drastically affected by humanity.  If something is “Natural” it’s because some duke or chieftain ordered it so and you can bet your bottom dollar that there are people employed to make sure that it looks the way it does and will continue to do so.  The conservation mentality has no trouble finding followers here since it is abundantly clear that we live on a planet of finite resources when you’re shoulder to shoulder with your neighbours from one end of the landmass to the other.

Following all this, we did visit Stonehenge.  Now it was after hours (not a terrible thing since I wouldn’t have wanted to be swamped with tourists), and I had been warned that it’s not nearly as impressive as it’s been made out to be.  I took several pictures, most of which feel like they have a: “Oh look, a henge.”  “Shrug” sort of feel to them and I suppose that it’s because they are SO marketed, and so much has been written about them, so many photographs taken that you feel like you’ve seen them before.  The fact that there was a chain link fence (and a velvet rope, and a guard) between me and the stones may have taken away from some of the grandeur and mystery of them, but at the same time, they ARE smaller than you imagine.  They stand perhaps twice the height of a tall man, and have the colour and consistency of many a rock that I’ve sat on over the years.  On the other hand, they have been sitting in their current configuration for five thousand years, which hurts my brain to think about.  They are massively heavy, and the pre-pretty-much-everything people who put them together can’t have had too much in the way of engineering or technology to help get them out there, and as someone who has hauled literally tons of rocks with the aid of an ATV, I can attest to the feat it is to have set them in their current configuration.

After Stonehenge, I took a day to sort out my next destinations (Cambridge and then Edinburgh), relax a bit (this is supposed to be a vacation, after all) recuperate and update this here website.  Then I travelled to Cambridge since a friend of a friend lives there, but I never did manage to meet up with her . . .  that said, I DID see the university town, and took many pictures of the Hogwarts-esque buildings there.  Back at the hostel, I was sharing a room with a fella from Queensland, down in Australia and he and I hit the pubs to watch the Brazil vs North Korea game that evening.  Of course, the place was packed with Brazilian supporters so we figured that we’d cheer for Korea (someone had to) whilst sampling the best real ales that the pub had to offer.  We also discussed more violent games (Rugby and Hockey being our respective areas of expertise) and compared notes on why they aren’t more popular than football.  At one point a Brazilian player went down with hardly a nick and started rolling around while holding his face.  My companion commented dryly: “No wonder they call it the beautiful game” which, as you can imagine, set me to laughing uproariously and made me decide that I’m going to have to visit the land down under at some point.  Later on we ended up in a dance club in search of University girls and that’s about where I lost the theme of the evening, but I DID make it back to the room safely that night.

The next day, I watched Australia’s “State of Origin” Rugby match with my Aussie friend and I really think Canada needs something like that.  Think of how much excitement (and not to mention revenue) you could generate with an all Canadian Hockey tournament interspersed through the hockey season.  Food for thought that.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to try and figure out a way to beat this heat, as it’s 34 degrees and climbing, and I already feel like I have heatstroke and I’ve been just SITTING here all day . . .

Cheers,

Cote

Ps Pictures are also up under “Pictures/England” tab.

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Solheimajokull

So this latest post comes to you from the lovely town of Luzern, Switzerland.  I know that my updates are completely random and terribly far behind, but I’m using most of the time to DO stuff, and getting something up on the web is a longer process than I would have thought.

So, with that out of the way, here’s the story on Solheimajokull (and don’t ask me to pronounce that) which I visited on June 10th, 2010.  The name means: “Home of the sun Glacier” (Sol = sun, heim = home, jokull = Glacier) but from what our guide told us, it’s cloudy or rainy something like 90% of the time there.  I don’t know what it is with people and naming conventions.  Maybe they named it in hope and then just kept it for the Irony?  In any case:  I signed up for this tour since I figured that I couldn’t very well visit Iceland and NOT go see a glacier.  The other option (amongst a million possibilities) that appealed to me was taking an ATV ride across the Icelandic landscape, with the chance to stop at the Blue Lagoon (a world famous spa in the hot springs near the airport).  In the end, the Glacier won, since I’ve done a fair bit of ATV’ing in my time, and though I haven’t done the spa thing (where I could have got my very first professional massage), there are many Spas in the world.  There are very few Glaciers, however, and most of those are shrinking all the time, so I figured that I’d better take advantage of this opportunity while I still could.

It was a two hour drive to get to Solheimajokull, and most of us slept the whole way there since in Iceland’s nearly 24 hour daylight, you get your shut-eye whenever you can.  Once we turned off the main road into the glacial valley, a twenty minute ride on a very rough road brought us to the foot of the glacier.  My fist picture (found under: Pictures – Solheimajokull) is of the Glacier as I first saw it, wreathed in mist and shrouded in promise.  There is something special about an adventure that is on the verge of beginning, especially when your guide intones “Welcome to Mordor” with some very impressive “r” rolling as you get out of the van.  Even with that, waiting for our guides to get the helmets, crampons, ice axes and ropes all ready, I could feel the excitement building, as we took our first pictures, stretched our legs and limbered up for a few hours out on the ice.

As much as I’m all for just giving things a try, Glacier walks are not one of the things that should be done without a guide.  There’s just too much that can go wrong, from crampon attachment, to proper ice axe technique to how to balance to even just learning to WALK with sharp spikes strapped to your shoes, so having a guide is essential.  Our guides, and our lead guide in particular, were fantastic, though I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t recall his name, though with Karine’s help, I know it’s Reggi (short for Ragnar) I may have been slightly swayed by the fact that the lead guide is studying at Simon Fraser in BC, learning to become a fully qualified mountain guide.  In my humblest of opinions, the Canadian connection alone makes him alright.  On the other hand, he was also cheerful, friendly, safety conscious and made sure that everyone’s experience was a positive one, so really, there was no reason to be unhappy with him at all.

Once we’d all put our gear on and had our safety talk and preliminary instructions, we started up onto the ice.  One thing that surprised me more than a little was the fact that the guide has no set route.  The glacier is constantly changing, moving, melting and evolving in other ways I can’t fathom, so even if you come two days in a row, it’s very possible that the route you took before will no longer exist.  The guide is compelled to improvise and come up with a route on the fly, every single time.  We were required to walk in single file (the only real way to make sure that where you’re stepping is safe is to almost literally walk in the guide’s footsteps), and we didn’t move terribly quickly, since each step is more of a stomp, pushing your spikes into what is, after all, a giant piece of uneven, hard and slippery ice.  We made frequent stops, both for us to rest (since we were moving uphill most of the time) and for Reggi to explain some feature of the ice or interesting tidbit about glaciers in general or of Solheimajokull in particular.

The structures out on the ice a fascinating from a physical point of view because you can tell their history just by looking at the shape of the thing.  A large cone?  That was once a round hole, and the ash gathered at the bottom insulated that portion of the ice while the stuff around it melted, leaving a cone shape.  A long ridge?  Same idea, but it was once a crevice, or even a small river.  There were sinkhole – like chasms that might reach through the entire glacier (hundreds of feet thick at this point) and deposit water in the rivers that we saw flowing out from underneath the ice as we began our trek.  We were warned about getting too close to the edge of those one, even for pictures, as it slopes sharply and could easily drop you farther than you think.  The scenery was utterly amazing, even with the fog, as the colours in the ice were eerily surreal and disappeared quickly once you’d passed them, leaving you with a sense that you had just seen something that no human ever had before, and never would again.  The pictures somehow don’t do it justice since we were surrounded by subtle blues, greens and shades of grey that just can’t be captured on film (or digitally, to be less poetic and more precise about it).

The whole experience was slightly enhanced by the fact that there was a girl from France in the group, (Merci Karine!) and since most of the other guests were there in groups, nearly by default, she and I were thrown together and shared much of the wonder and excitement of the experience (in French, no less!).  She was also kind enough to take some pictures of me with my camera so my long-suffering mother will get to see my smiling face from time to time when I send her this batch of pictures.

Once we had hiked up and down, across ridges and along crevasses, we descended into a gentle valley and the guides set us up with a place where we could try ice climbing.  They put in anchors at the top, strung up some safety lines and gave each climber a belayer.  Now, as many of you know, I’m into climbing of all things, so I was one of the first to try my hand at scaling the wall with an ice-axe in each hand.  The thing that struck me at this point was the difference in types of ice that affects your climb.  You literally have to kick yourself a little hole in the wall so your crampons grab and then swing the ice axe fiercely enough to embed it into the wall enough for you to hang off of.  That’s basically the size of it really, you just keep kicking and swinging your way up, taking small steps, since that keeps you balanced and doesn’t tire out one side of your body too fast.  It is quite different than other types of climbing, but even so, I’m a fan and will need to do it again.

Once we’d had our fill of climbing, we packed up and headed back to the van for a well deserved lunch and the inevitable clearing of the sky, now that our Glacier adventure was over.  On the ride back to Reykjavik, we stopped at the incredible Skogafoss waterfall for pictures and amazement.  The thing that got me the most was the fact that there is essentially a beach that goes right up to the base of the waterfall.  I took some pictures, but not as many as I’d have liked since the spray of the thing was enough to get this fella completely soaked, and I didn’t want to chance killing my camera to get the shot.

All told though, an excellent day, with a Glacier hike, an amazing waterfall, meeting a new friend who I then had dinner with at a small Icelandic fish store.  Fantastic Lobster bisque and whale kebabs which were amazing and uniquely Icelandic.  This day was awesome in every way.

Until next time,

Cheers,

Cote

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