Thursday, April 29, 2010

New Month, New Home

Well, my time in my beloved neighborhood of Gros is coming to an end sadly. I am kind of fed up with my flat and have decided the best thing would be to move and luckily found a new place. I have lived in my current apartment for about a year and a half, so a change seems to be in order.

I have found a flat in the Old Part (very close to where I lived when I first arrived) with two Basque girls. Neither of them speak English, so it seems like my Spanish will improve quite rapidly. I found it online and a few weeks ago was running around seeing apartment after apartment. One ad said 'Only Girls, Only Girls', which would lead one to believe that it was a girl looking for girl roommates, but when I got there to see it, a weird man answered the door. No thank you! Another flat I went to look at had a scary looking Basque girl who couldn't get over how my accent sounded - she kept saying how STRANGE that you have an accent like yours. Not only could she probably have beat me up with one punch, but she was quite rude, so again no thank you. Another flat with 3 30-year old men, another with an odd couple - both no thank yous. Finally I found this one and when I went upstairs to see it, the two girls (Monica and Maider) were very friendly and I actually stayed and had a coffee with them for 30 minutes! When I finished my coffee I told them I was very interested and to talk amongst themselves about me and make a decision and then let me know! I had my fingers crossed because I was sure a lot of people had passed by to see it and liked it too. Only a few hours later they called me and left a message (I was teaching) saying that they really liked me and that they would love me to be their flatmmate! I guess my Spanish isn't too bad after all!

So that is how it started, and once I am officially moved in and everything is arranged, I will put up some photos for you all to see my new place. It's a bit smaller than where I live now, but its right in the heart of the city and a great way to improve my Spanish more and more.

Until then, if you were planning on sending me mail or something, please don't use the old address from the blog. Instead, use this one:

Amanda Gonser
Calle de la Pescadería 8, 4º dcha
20003 Donostia-San Sebastían
Guipuzcoa, Españá - Spain

Tonight will be my last night in Gros and tomorrow I will make sure to go past my all-time favorite bar for my last café con leche and tortilla (an omellete) in the morning. I have been eating that at the same bar for a year and a half and have really come to feel like a regular. I know all the bartenders, the cooks, even some of the other customers who come a lot. It will be quite hard to find such a welcoming place in the Old Part, but eventually it will happen. Until then, I have promised everyone at the bar I will pass by atleast once a week! The funny thing is that my new flat and my current flat are only about 8 minutes walking distance apart! How FAR!

So, this is my last blog as a Gros resident. Next you hear from me (probably about the Berlin trip) will be from the Old Part (Parte Vieja in Spanish and Alde Zaharra in Basque) of San Sebastían! Have a great weekend everyone.


Monday, April 26, 2010

WHY would you go to Latvia? Part 3

For our third day together, we decided to leave the lovely city of Riga and head out to the boonies. When we were researching Latvia, most websites only listed five main places in the entire country that you should venture to see and Sigulda - the National Park - was one of them, so we made it a point to go see it.
En route to Sigulda, we stopped off at Riga's Central Market - the largest market in Europe. Each tent, full of bread, meat, candy, cheese and multiple other stalls are housed in one of 5 half-cylinder shaped buildings. These market pavilions are actually old German Zeppelin hangers leftover from WWI that have been converted into a market. There we passed easily through the tents, walking in and out of whiffs of just-baked bread and fresh fruit and of course through excited crowds of anxious Latvians buying the day's meat or fish.

With some market goods in store, we hopped on the bus which looked more like an old army bus. Tired from our 4am dance club return, we didn't care much and immediately fell asleep and missed the Latvian countryside ride in the process. Whoops. Before we did pass out, we managed to ask the bus driver to please tell us when we passed Birini Pils (Birini Castle) and drop us off. The directions from the hotel said that 'just ask the bus driver, he will know and he will drop you off right in front of the hotel' but that was not the case. He had no clue what we were talking about, and it wasn't even a language problem, because he spoke great English. We decided that we were already on the bus and that we would worry about it when we arrived to Sigulda. That was just the beginning though...

We got to the bus station and tried asking the clerk when the next bus to Birini Pils was. She looked astonished and wrote on a piece of paper 15:45 (3:45pm). It was currently 11am. She couldn't speak English and just could say train, train, train, so after a fit of giggles, Madeline and I walked outside to attempt to find this supposed train station. Luckily, directly next to the bus station was a tourist office! We were quite happy and went in and asked the lady (of course they speak English at the tourist office) how we could get to Birini Pils. She had the same astonished look. Whyyyyyy did we want to go all the way to Birini Pils? It's like 25 minutes away! Why did we come to Sigulda?! As it turns out, Sigulda is not only a National Park, but also a city. We had taken a bus to the city, which is not really close at ALL to the castle we were trying to find. Our next question was how much a taxi would cost to get there and she told us it would be about 15 LATS (about 20€ or $25). We said we would take it and she looked shocked. She attempted to tell us about all the hotels in Sigulda that are less than the taxi to our hotel, but we didn't want to hear any of that! We booked a night in a castle and you know we weren't going to miss that for the world or a 15 LAT taxi! So, she went ahead and called us a taxi, which probably was just her dad and his beat-up car who was happy to take 2 girls for a drive for 15 LATs. She did manage to give us some information about the Easter celebrations the next day in Sigulda and we said we would definitely come back the next day but we were determined to get to our castle asap.

To get to the castle, you have to cross over a small bridge and go past a guard stand and the ta-daaaaaa you are in front of a castle that is obnoxiously salmon colored. The taxi dropped us and then sped away and Madeline and I were left trying to figure out how to get in. We went to the massive main doors but they were locked. Next we tried the back doors but they were locked as well. All of a sudden, a hotel worker appeared out of what seemed to be nowhere...and welcomed us. A kind of mousy girl, she had a curious smile but one that kind of put you on edge. She invited us into the hotel, but through the basement, which seemed like an odd and then immediatley asked what time we would eat breakfast. Ummm is it 11am today? We have NO idea what time we will eat tomorrow! She then took us up a green carpeted staircase to the main entrance (where we should have been able to enter through the grand doors, but noooo.) We checked in and she gave us our huge key to our room and made sure to remind us again that we will need to set a reservation time for breakfast and that we will also need to make a reservation for the hotel restaurant for dinner as well as let us know that the next day the pool would be open from 8:30am to 11am for ALL the guests. She was quite odd, but we didn't care - we were in a castle.

Our room was a bit deflating so despite the rain yet again, we charged outside to see the castle grounds. To add to the already odd experience of checking-in, we skipped to the lake to see the image we had seen in so many Latvia photos, but it was partially covered with ice and an eerie stagnant fog that made it feel creepy. We decided to spice up the moment by taking a picture with the 10-second timer, but the flash went off and you couldn't see the castle or the background, just Madeline and me. The rest was white. Freaky. We were honestly a bit freaked out - you have to check with the gate to leave, the front doors don't open, the lady was super creepy, the fog on the lake and now we couldn't get an actual photo of the place - but we turned the flash off and all was good, but we still had a spooky feeling.

We walked around the castle grounds, which were completely deserted - not a soul to be seen. As odd as it was, it was actually a gorgeous countryside - with bare trees in the cold ice-over snow. Since we were at a castle we decided it was fitting to sing 'Be Our Guest' from Beauty and the Beast. Of course, I knew all the words and we waltzed through the trees, singing at the top of our lungs, because there was no one to hear. If two girls are singing at a castle and no one is around to hear them, are they really singing?? Oh yes we were!

When we arrived back at the castle, the weird receptionist was just sitting at the front desk waiting for nothing. We had past some stables and asked her if we could ride the horses. We already knew the hotel offered it, so we figured she would be excited to book us for a horse ride. Apparently we were wrong. When we asked if we could ride the horses she just said 'Whyyyyyyy?'. Ummmm because we want to ride horses, we said. Eventually after she told us we couldn't, we managed to get a time to ride the horses and boy was it amazing. After a bit of trouble with my horse (the only boy - he was a bit rambunctious), I switched to a girl horse and Madeline and I followed the horse lady for a walk through the forest. At this point, the fact that no one else was on the castle grounds was amazing, because we were there, only us 3, on horseback, riding through the snow and bare trees. It was so silent you could hear the crunching of the snow beneath the horses hooves and at our slow pace you could really enjoy the scenery. It was quite magical.
With walking the castle grounds done and riding horses finished as well, there wasn't much left to do besides eat dinner. We made sure to make our 'reservation' as she told us and when we arrived there were only 2 other people in the entire restaurant. Whew. Good thing we made a reservation! We picked a table that had a candelabra because we thought it would remind us of Lumiere in Beauty in the Beast - we had basically made the movie our theme for the entire stay.

Yet another odd thing about our hotel was that they observe 'the silence'. Yes. That is what they called it. On the information card about the hotel that was in our room, it said that 11pm the hotel would start to observe 'the silence' - meaning quiet time. But they took it a step further and at 11pm the water was shut off as well. Talk about weird! In a sense the hotel reminded us of Jack Nicholson's 'The Shining' - very creepy hotel, but I guess that added to the excitement of it. We could barely sleep and at one point I read my book at 4am and Madeline took a bath at 6am (they had graciously turned the water back on). By time we woke up for real at 9am we weren't very rested but couldn't miss our precious breakfast reservation. Again, the same 2 people were eating at the same time as us - turns out we were the only 4 guests in all of the hotel. Strange again. After one more 'Be Our Guest' while walking down the double staircase, we called another taxi (someone else's Dad making a few extra LATs) and got out of there. While it was the most random part of our trip it was possibly also the best. Now I can proudly say I have stayed in a castle - a pink one at that!

The taxi took us back to Sigulda, the mistake town from the day before, and we were back and happy to enjoy the Easter festivities. First stop after a few kilometers of walking was the 'swing' that Sigulda is famous for. They say that when in Sigulda, you should 'swing until you feel butterflies in your stomach'. Of course we were expecting a swing set or something similar. However, what we got to was a teeter-totter (or see-saw I guess you could say). Apparently a Latvian confused that translation and now the entire country things the word for teeter-totter is swing. Regardless we mounted the teeter-totter, after a long line of children (some grown-ups too) and actually did laugh until we felt butterflies. When was the last time you were on a see-saw?? I advise going to the nearest park and getting on one - it was so much fun and such innocent fun and we couldn't stop our fit of giggles. With butterflies in our stomachs, we headed to the Easter decorating area. A bit shy, seeing as we spoke zero Latvian, we approached the main table and a nice lady was excited to speak to us in English and help us with the decorating process.

Latvians decorate their eggs quite different than us Americans. First, they use brown eggs and a piece of dry cloth. You put the egg in the cloth and add shreds of onion skins, dried leaves and flower petals into the cloth as well. Then, you tie the cloth up with a string with a little label that had our names on it. Then, you put the egg in a boiling cauldron for about 10 minutes to cook the egg through. After a quick dip in the lake we opened our eggs and saw that the peels/leaves/petals had left marks where they had been during the boiling and our little eggs were decorated! The next activity she happily told us, was to search around the park for baskets of papers with letters on them and that if we found all of the letters it would spell something special and we could get a prize. We might be in our twenties but we were excited about this treasure hunt and after the egg-rolling contest made sure to find all 5 letters and went to the prize table. Obviously we didn't know what it spelled so we just carefully laid out the letters we had and the lady at the prize table kind of laughed (because we must not have put them in the correct order to spell something) and gave us our candy prize. I asked her if we had found the correct letters to spell something and she said yes. Then I asked her, a bit timidly, 'ummmm, what does it spell?' and she incredulously said 'rabbit!' Oh, but of course! Sorry, I am only on 4-letter Latvian words, haven't made it to the 5-letter ones yet hahaha. We finished Easterwith arts & crafts and called it a day.

The Easter celebrations were one of the most memorable I think I will ever have - being the only people from not only out of town probably, but out of the country was a great feeling - like we knew of some little secret spot in the world and it was only ours. The people were all so generous and really welcomed us into their festivities. Smiles on our faces, we headed back to Riga for our last night together. With no plans we kind of just wandered around the city aimlessly, looking again at some of our favorite buildings and finally stopping at Sweetday Café, where we had had our first coffee together. We sat there, drinking coffees and just talking for about two hours when we decided we should eat some dinner and crossed the street to the traditional Latvian restaurant. With everything in Latvian and a helper behind the buffet who knew no English, we were kind of playing 'mystery meal' with what we ate, but I was sure that I did eat some beet soup - a bright pink soup that Latvians love. I did not love it so much. We finished rather quickly and after pondering what to do for a few minutes decided to cross the street again and go to back to Sweetday Café and this time get dessert and wine. And that is how we spent our last few hours in Latvia together - in a small café, sipping glasses of red wine and savoring delicious sweets. A perfect end to an amazing trip.

The next morning I awoke quite early to get my suitcase and everything in order for the next leg of my trip - Berlin. Madeline walked me to the bus and we said goodbye - but only for a few weeks - she is actually coming to San Sebastian this weekend!

I hope you have liked reading about Latvia. It was a different world completely but I really loved it. Maybe I will venture back to the Baltics and try out Estonia or Lithuania one day, you should too!

Skūpstīties! (said, finally without garlic breath!)

Sunday, April 25, 2010

WHY would you go to Latvia? Part 2

After our first day back together, Madeline and I morphed into super tourists despite the rain for the second day. The lady at the tourist office who recommended the horrible Riga exhibition had also given us a walking tour map and we thought that there was no way she could recommend two bad things, so we thought we'd give the self-walking tour a chance.

The tour started smack dab in front of our hotel, in the Town Hall Square, in front of the Blackheads' House. Now, upon hearing this name, I automatically think of a pimple-faced kid. However, this building was built in 1334 as was first known as the First Building. Rebuilt many times since that, the facade that we got to see was constructed after WWII. Between the 1300s and the mid-1900s though, the building was used a place for meetings and civic activities and gained its named from a merchant association named the Blackheads Society in the 17th century.

Our walk wound us through small and curving streets in the Old Part until we came to a main square known as Dome Square, aptly named for the huge Evangelical Church that towers over the square. A mix of architectural styles stretching from the 13th century until the 20th gives the church, cloisters and dome a unique style all their own. The site of Riga's first school as well as library are housed within the church along with an organ that has been playing hymns inside since 1884.
Leaving the large open square we ended up on Mazā Pils iela which for such a small street holds quite a history. An amazing preservation of Latvian medevial architecture, the house has 3 buildings side-by-side that have been named the Three Brothers. The oldest brother is the White Brother, who was built in the 15th century and is the only building in all of Riga that survives from that time. The middle brother is the Yellow Brother with a birthday of 1646. He proudly wears his birthday year on the front of the house with iron numbers. The youngest brother is the Green Brother, and was built in the middle of the 18th century. Three impressive buildings from three completely different centuries - I was impressed to say the least!

From here we kind of got lost; which although the Old Part is only about 10 minutes from one side to the other was quite easy. Eventually we found ourselves on the map, but off the walking tour. When we were supposed to be at the north part of the Old Part and walking through the old city gates to the New Town, we were on the South Side doing the exact same, but without such a secure gate. Probably the most comical thing I have ever seen, as we approached the New Town, we expected to pass below a typical brick or stone arch, but to our surprise we only passed under half an arch! It were as if the town of Riga said 'sorry citizens, we don't have enough money to finish this arch, so you only get half of one. hope that's ok'. Chuckling and we left the Old Part and off the beaten path, we stopped off at a small restaurant to try some tasty Latvian cuisine.

Only with one other family in the restaurant, Madeline and I ordered the most typical Latvian things on the menu: Janu siers and Saldskaaba Maize - a cheese and bread. With a long and cold winter and a short summer season, janu siers (St. John's cheese) is an essential part of St. John's Eve, or as we know it - Midsummer Night. The summer solstice is named Jani and this caraway cheese and beer along with some meats make up the celebration meal. Somewhat soft, with caraway seeds, the cheese went perfectly with the meats we ordered and the typical Latvian bread - Saldskaaba Maize. A true sourdough, this dark brown bread starts with a traditional sourdough starter but actually uses no additional yeast. Quite grainy (it almost felt at some points that we were eating grains of sand), it is surprisingly tasty and filled us up quickly.
Happy we got off track, we did find our way back to the walking tour and successfully left the Old Part in the correct place and headed towards the New Town which we had heard was full of gorgeous art nouveau. With about 1/3 of the buildings in New Town in art nouveau style, I took more photos that I know what to do with. Each building showcases some balcony, window or sculpture that fits in with the creative architectural style. From roaring lions to busts that look like they could be on the front of a ship to smoothly curved balconies and rounded windows, even the gray sky couldn't take away the thunder of the buildings. On the most famous street - Elizabetes - Madeline and I each picked a house we would own if we could have one of the over 800 art nouveau buildings in the city. I selected a large pistachio green building with tall arching windows and gold sculptural details while Madeline picked a light peach buildings adorned with probably 100 carved lions looking down at us. Wandering through the New Town, we again got off track from the walking tour, but at that point we didn't care and were happy to weave in and out of streets, constantly looking upwards at the facades. The most impressive and probably most famous symbol of art nouveau sits on Elizabetes iela at 10b. Named a World Heritage Site, this blue-tiled building boasts two identical faces on the corners looking in opposite directions along with a wealth of peacocks, lions ladies and detailing. My favorite spot was the combination of this building next to the one next to it - an equally-detailed building. The huge face on the edge of the blue building juxtaposed with the smaller faces of the brown building was amazing.

With tired eyes we stopped into a small cafe for a relaxing moment and ordered two coffees. Along with our coffee we got a little bowl of sugar cubes and two glasses of water. A few moments after we got our coffees a little blond-haired boy toddled over to our table, quickly stole a sugar cube, popped it into his mouth and washed it down with my cup of water. Adorable and sneaky, Madeline and I couldn't help but laughing. His mom didn't seem to notice he was gone, so he happily shoved another sugar cube into his little mouth and looked at us curiously. Why do these girls think it is so funny I am eating? One sugar cube later we decided he was going to be quite a lot of energy if he continued in this way and called his mom over and she whisked him away.

After the coffee we popped into a small tourist shop filled with babushka dolls (the ones where you open the doll and another one comes out and then another and then another, etc). Elaboratley decorated, I saw some babushka dolls with 15 pieces! However, the one that impressed me the most was the Christmas one, which started as a Christmas tree, then became a Santa Claus and finished as a snowman. It will make a perfect Christmas ornament, or 3 I suppose! Also, there was a set of dolls from The Nutcracker - Nutcracker, Clara and the Rat King - which took me back to my Bon-Bon days at the Columbia Theater.

To take cover from the rain we popped in another café, this one a wine bar and sipped a wine from Argentina and one from Australia while it poured outside. It was a perfect time to catch up - even though it had only been three months, Madeline and I used to see each other almost every day, so we had lots to catch up on! When the cats and dogs turned to sprinkles, we headed back towards the Old Town, but rain got in our away again and we stopped off for one last drink before dinner. This one was a special bar - the Sky Bar. With a bar on the 27th floor, you can see out over the entire Old Part. We were lucky enough to snag a table next to the floor-to-ceiling windows and sipped our drinks as we waited for the weather to improve. Somehow, I got carded when I went to buy the drinks. The drinking age in Latvia is 18. I kind of chuckled when the boy asked for my ID and asked how old he thought I was and he said 17. I laughed even more when I showed him my ID and he seemed quite surprised to find out I am 25. I think that is the second time in Europe I have ever been carded. Young at heart haha.

We watched the sunset from the top of the world (well, the top of Riga) and took the quick glass elevator back down to reality and headed towards our dinner destination. Along the way, we passed a anther lovely onion-dome topped church and stopped in to check it out. Seeing as Easter was in two days, they were already having Easter-related services inside. No photos allowed of course, but the feeling inside the church wouldn't have been able to be captured through a camera. The church was filled with old ladies with head scarves, young kids with sweaters and gloves and families standing because it was a packed house all singing along with the choir and organ. The ambiance was warm and loving and felt like a church should feel. It seemed like a special moment and being tourists Madeline and I felt like we had kind of intruded on a private moment of worship so we didn't stay long but just long enough to see real Rigans during their every-day life.

Next stop on our long walking day was a restaurant called Kiploku Krogs, which somehow translates to The Garlic Pub. We had read about this restaurant before coming and decided it was a must - garlic was a part of almost everything on the menu, which sounded delicious. I ordered a tasty chicken dish and Madeline a beef dish to go with our wine. For dessert we even ordered a cake with a hint of garlic sauce. All delicious, but biggest mistake ever! While it was very very tasty, we soon figured out we would taste it for days to come. No good! I think that in the next two days we brushed our teeth about 15 times each desperately trying to get the taste out of our mouths.

Full and reeking of garlic we headed back to Fun Friendly Franks to go to bed, but when we got there everyone was in the hostel bar getting ready to go to a dance club. The host said it was free for girls, so we thought why not and jumped on the bandwagon. We danced the night away - even with the Easter Bunny and went to bed and dreamed that we would wake up without garlic breath...which did not come true. Regardless, we had a big plans in store for our next Latvian day! That to come next!

Skūpstīties! (with garlic breath)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

WHY would you go to Latvia? Part 1

Why would I go to Latvia? That's a good question. Until my friend Madeline and I planned the trip, I had actually never even heard of the entire country. I had heard of Estonia to the north and Lithuania to the south, but Latvia didn't ring any bells. When I arrived I honestly had no expectations nor idea what I was getting myself into, but as you will see, Latvia turned out to be a great destination, and in the end kind of felt like a secret spot since not many tourists go yet.

I got to the grand international airport of Latvia which only had two belts for luggage which made me chuckle. The bus ride kind of scared me a bit though - driving through the outskirts of Riga where decrepit buildings stand and you feel like you might actually see some of them collapse. Because it was turning nighttime, the whole town seemed grey, and with everyone barking Latvian (which sounds quite similar to Russian) I got a little nervous. It's good to get a little nervous though - means I have put myself in a completely different situation.

Although the bus announcements were in Latvian, the directions from the hostel were good enough that I managed to get off at the correct stop. After fumbling around with my suitcase and finding the hostel and hiking up the steepest two sets of stairs I had even seen, I was happy that the hostel offered a free beer upon arrival. It was like a godsend! Since I was spending the first night in Latvia alone (Madeline was to arrive the next morning) I sat down next to two Spanish girls, two Australian girls and an Italian guy. After enjoying our Zelta beer (actually a tasty Latvian beer) we decided to head out to dinner. Italians and Spanish people eat dinner around the same time - 10pm - and after a few days in Scandinavia, where they eat around 6pm, it was great to get back to my regular schedule! Because the hostel was right in the heart of the Old Town, we were able to quickly find a restaurant, and a cheap one at that. Latvia doesn't use the euro but instead has the Latvian Lat (creative eh?), but everything in the country is amazingly cheap. For dinner I ate an omelet and had a beer and the total was only about $3. Impossible!

After the day of travel and a few Zelta beers I was happy to go to sleep in yet another bed. Happily I had the bottom bunk this time! I woke up, excited of course, and even though when Madeline arrived it was only 11am, she received her welcome beer and I couldn't let her drink it alone, so I ordered one too. One pint = about $1. Latvia was beginning to make me feel rich!

After our breakfast beers we decided maybe a coffee would be appropriate and found a small cafe in the Old Part called Sweetday Café. For the first time since Starbucks, I had a carmel flavored coffee. We also made sure to dabble in the pastries! Because it was raining, we weren't too sure what we should do and made a pitstop at the Tourist Office. The girl was so helpful and spoke really good English and suggested we take a trip to an exhibition on the outskirts of town (only about a 15 minute walk). She said the exhibition was about what Riga will be like in the future, as it is constantly growing and changing. Excited, we headed out despite the sprinkles and very quickly got lost. In not the most 'beautiful' part of town, it kind of felt like the Iron Curtain was still hanging around. Drab and imposing buildings dominated the streets and it wasn't exactly the best getting lost trip I had ever had. The one gem of the detour was this church whose colored onion domes made you feel like you were more in Russia looking at the St. Petersburg Cathedral than in Riga. It's not so surprising, considering about 37% of Latvians also speak Russian, but for me, it was rather shocking to see something so 'east'.

Finally we found the exhibition...biggest disappointment imaginable. First, it was in a shopping mall. Second it was in an empty store in the mall and just some photos of what architects and city planners envision for Riga in the future. Third, it was all in Latvian. While most people would get mad that they just walked for 30 minutes in the rain, were soaked and ended up at a crappy exhibition, Madeline and I just dissolved into giggles about how silly this day was turning out to be. I have found that some people are good to travel with and others not. If something goes wrong on a trip, you can't get angry or let it ruin the day, you just smile about it and make the best with what you have. So, for a few minutes we pretended to be interested and then gave up and rested our wet feet for a few minutes before we headed back out into the rain and towards the hostel to change into clean clothes.

Forever in a Spanish mindset, we had a little siesta and then ventured out again to look for a restaurant we had read about before coming - Hospitalis. Basically it is a medical-themed restaurant where everything you eat/drink/do has to do with the hospital. Madeline just got accepted into medical school, so it was a perfect way to celebrate! After dinner we made a little photo session in the entrance and took advantage of the medical tools, chairs, etc. The entrance can be seen from the road through a large window, and since it was dark we couldn't see anyone outside but I'm sure we entertained some people for a few minutes.

To entertain ourselves after we headed to the bar next door for some karaoke. No singing happened for Madeline and me, but we did enjoy a lot of other good acts. The guy who ran the karaoke would occasionally get up and sing a nice Latvian song, which of course we didn't know but one of them was pretty catchy. It was called Aprilem, which means April in Latvian. Look how tri-lingual I am! We didn't understand a single other word in the song but since the words were on the TV we put in our best effort to be super Latvian singers. It didn't work, but the song stuck with us and we kept singing the chorus throughout the whole trip.

Happy to be reunited but tired from the day we called it an early night and walked the 20 seconds back to our hostel - which was called Fun Friendly Franks Hostel. Voted the best hostel in the WORLD two years ago, we were happy guests and slept like babies, which was good because the next day was rather busy! More on that next time!

Skūpstīties! (kisses in Latvian...impossible)

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Taste of Scandanavia - Stockholm Part 2

After a busy first day, I was excited to spend the second day in Stockholm, with Mattias and see another local point of view of the city. With a good top-bunk sleep in me, I met up with him and we headed to an island near Gamla Stan (the Old Part) called Djurgården. On this island, is a park that showcases old-time Swedish life, an amusement park and a few museums. Mattias and I skipped all that, and instead grabbed some Swedish fast food and walked around the island looking at the colorful houses. My tunnbrodsrulle as it is called in Swedish was quite a meal-on-the-go. A tortilla filled with a hot dog, mashed potatoes, ketchup, mustard, lettuce and tomato, I wouldn't say it was the tasiest meal I've had, but I guess eat as the locals do. The bright colors of the houses contrasted with the stark white snow on the ground and the blue and yellow Swedish flags blew in the light breeze. With a loop of the island complete and the majority of the hotdog suprise finished we headed back to the center of the city. A short stop for a coffee and at this point I was used to the glorified Folgers coffee that is served in cute little cups with graham crackers. At this particular café, an 80-year old lady was so excited that someone walked into her shop that she insisted on treating us as great as possible...water, coffee, cookies, a candy and her big smile.

It was then that I started to realize how much she looked like som
eone I know...Grammy! My Grammy has Swedish roots and as the trip went on, I started seeing her face in all of the little grandmas running around Stockholm. Sure made me miss her!
Full of Folgers coffee we made our way back to the neighborhood where my hostel was. The trendy little area is filled with second-hand shops, small cafés and other random stores that we poked in and out of throughout the day. One of the stops was at a Swedish candy shop. Filled with candies and treats I had never seen before, the black licorice flavored sweets were quite prevalent. Not a fan myself of black licorice, I gained an understanding why Grammy always wants the black jelly beans - it must be in the Swedish blood! I did my best to like it, but couldn't convince myself it tasted good and instead opted for the Swedish fish. Known as the little red fish gummies in the States, Mattias had never heard of them called Swedish fish, and I was even surprised to see that Swedish fish came in orange and yellow too - hooray Sweden! Even funnier was that Mattias had never heard of red licorice. I tried to explain the little ropes we eat at the movie theater but he had no idea. With bellies full of sweets (probably not the best idea since all I had eaten that day was the yucky tunnsbrodrulle) Mattias had to go home to get ready for an interview the next day and I walked a few steps to my hostel.

When I arrived an American girl was laying on her bed and I asked her if she wanted a trashy gossip magazine from Britian two Scottish girls had given me the day before and I had already read. It's not so exciting when you don't know any of the celebrities. That olive branch started a conversation and we decided we shouldn't be in the hostel and instead should be out in the neighborhood trying some Swedish beers, and so we were off! My new friend, Mira, is a law student who is studying abroad in Copenhagen for a semester and was starting a two-week trip like me, but hers included Oslo, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Both in the info I had from the tourist office and in her guide book was a bar called Oliver Twist that was recommended for their beer selection, so that was our destination. Extra plus: it was about 5 minutes from our hostel! With hundreds of beers to choose from, it was a difficult decision but in the end I tried a beer from Yakima (the Washington pride still lives on in this girl!) and a special Swedish Easter brew. Called Påsköl in Sweedish (Påsk means Easter), a lot of northern European countries make a special beer for the holiday. Traditionally stronger than a normal brew, it was a heavy dark beer, that I don't normally crave but I figured celebrating Easter with an Easter beer was a good reason to make an exception. Another Swedish Easter tradition I found out about was the decorating with feathers. I had been passing outdoor markets full of gorgeous daffodils and tulips and oddly neon colored feathers and I couldn't figure out why someone would want to put feathers up, but as it turns out, the Swedes welcome the Spring and celebrate Easter by displaying birch branches and delightfully-colorful feathers. With beer bellies, we went back to the hostel and had dreams about hopping Easter bunnies and hot pink feathers.

For my third day, I was committed to being a good tourist. I had spent my first two days being a local with my guy friends, seeing off-the-beaten-path cafés and shops and neighborhoods most tourists don't venture to, but for this day I decided I should pay attention to the sights Stockholm is famous for. Erika, my boss, had recommended that since I was in Sweden for a good amount of time, that I should really try to visit part of the archipelago that makes up Stockholm. With more than 24,000 island and islets, it is the biggest archipelago in Sweden and competes to be one of the biggest in all of the Baltic Sea. Funny thing about the word archipelago (which basically means a large collection of islands) is that I only learned it two weeks ago in Spanish class and honestly had no clue to pronounce it in English haha. Regardless, I found the boat to Vaxholm, a large and very popular summer island and boarded alongside people all over the age of 60. I guess if you want to feel young, just hang out with older people! Me and my retired friends were blessed with a sunny day and for the hour-long ferry ride we gazed out the front glass window at the small islands we were speeding past. Some islands only had one home or two on them and the docks looked like a small bus stop instead of a boat dock! After taking a short walk outside in the brisk fresh air, I noticed a young couple sitting near me and heard her say something in Spanish. Then I saw them trying to take a photo through the window with a disposable camera. In Spanish, I told them that they could go to the deck of the boat and probably get better photos than through the glass. So surprised that I spoke Spanish, they thanked me and I showed them the outside deck and they explained to me that upon arrival their digital camera had broken so they had to spend their week-long trip with disposable cameras. I would have died! For the remaining hour we had a nice conversation and I kind of patted myself on the back for being able to speak a decent level of Spanish with people from the south of Spain (who have a much more difficult accent to understand). Imagine the faces of the old Swedish grandparents on the boat with us. They all speak English perfect but I bet they didn't have any idea of a single word we said the entire trip! Secret language!

When we got off in Vaxholm we parted ways and I made off on my own to explore the little island that has been important to Sweden since 1558. The King at the time realized how instrumental Vaxholm could be in the defense of Sweden and ordered a defensive tower and fort to be built. A good move, a war vessel never dared to pass Vaxholm. Until the 1800s there was a customs post on the fortress island but in the mid 1800s the town changed from just a defensive line to a merchant's town. When the steamer came out, people could get from Vaxholm to Stockholm much easier and the boat ride I had just taken became a regular route in 1860. At this point it became a favorite summer spot for Stockholm residents and all of the bright houses that pop up all over the outline still maintain that era of construction with wood, carvings and decoration. On the island there isn't specific I HAD to see, but instead I was happy walking the winding roads that hugged the coast and investigating each house for it's own special intricacies. Pale yellow houses with bright blue wooden birds houses, rusty orange homes with just-ripe red berries and sky blue houses with pristine white roof decks were some of my favorite places that I stumbled on. My favorite place however was a private dock alongside the road where a post-worker had just sped by on his bike to deliver the mail. The dock had a view of not only Vaxholm but also the archipelago stretching in front of you. For 30 minutes it was a great place to relax and have some Amanda-time, closing my eyes and hearing small waves lapping into the island and then opening them and slowly watching ice chunks make their way in from the water. After figuring out all of the world's problems from my private dock, I got up and decided I deserved some chocolate. I headed back to the busy part of town and found a cute candy shop and walked in. The store clerk was helping an older woman pick her Easter treats from a huge array of options - marshmallow cakes decorated like Easter bunnies, bite-size treats covered with pastel-colored chocolate and sprinkles and of course licorice. Once the lady had spent about 215 kroner (only about $30) on pure goodness it was my turn, but I had no idea what any of the chocolates were and so I asked both of the ladies their favorites and that I would take one of each of their top picks. I ended up with 3 delicious home-made treats but still am not sure if I know what they were. I think I had a truffle of some sort decorated with pink chocolate, a passion-fruit filled dark chocolate ball and lastly a milk chocolate ball filled with a creamy something and then coated in powder cocoa. The lady was so cute that she tied up the plastic bag with a yellow ribbon and even curled the ends for me before I left the shop to go eat some lunch.

After a filling lunch and a few hours on Vaxholm, I caught the bus back to Stockholm. While it is an island, in 1926 a bridge was constructed to connect it to the mainland. This route is much quicker but I had earlier wanted the whole ferry experience, but oddly enough, there were no ferries back so the bus was my only option. When I got back to Stockholm, I met up with my new friend, Mira, and we went to the most popular Swedish museum - Vasamuseet. If anything in Scandinavia makes you feel like a Viking, it will be this museum. The dark entrance was misleading, and as soon as you enter through the tinted doors before sits a massive 1600s warship. Named the Vasa after the Vasa family that ruled Sweden for many years, this ship was built in 1626 as one of the finest and most elaborate war ships to date. At about 225 feet long, this wooden boat was painted with bright colors and decorated with detailed carvings to the point where it doesn't look like a war ship but instead more of a vacation cruise ship. On her maiden voyage from the ports of Stockholm through the archipelago, the sails caught the wind but the ship started to lean sideways and then again and again until it sunk, meanwhile sailors were throwing themselves overboard. Saddened and shocked, Sweden continued with their ship-building ventures, obviously learning well from the mistakes that they made with the balance of the Vasa. Miraculously in 1961 she came above water again when a huge team unearthed here from the water! Because the ship only made it 1300 meters, she didn't sink so deep and in 1961 teams of divers were able to blow tunnels underneath the ship and run cables through them to start the initial lifting process. On April 14th with all of Sweden holding their breath in hope that the last lift would be successful, the Vasa reemerged intact and still in amazingly good shape. Now she is only display at the museum and you can stand next to the massive ship and get an idea of what a 17th century war vessel was like and take a tour through the museum to understand life and times on the boat for the sailors. Most impressive to me were the carvings, which seemed to be so intricate for something that eventually might have just been blown up. From a lot of scientific research, they have been able to determine the original paint colors that were splashed all over the ship and they have a model showing what the ship would have looked like on it's first trip. With three floors that all wrap around the boat you are able to peek inside the old cannon doors into the boat and imagine the swirly sailors, admire the Vasa Coat of Arms and chuckle at the fact that it includes an olive branch - the sign of peace - on a war ship, and gaze at the ship hull that was built with more than a thousand oak trees and basically just marvel at the fact that this ship was built almost 400 years ago and here you are standing smack dab in front of it. Quite astounding.

With the sun still shining we left the 1600s and jumped back to reality with some food from Max - sort of a Swedish version of McDonald's. The most curious thing and the main reason for stopping by was to check out the menu - which tells you the carbon footprint of the food you are about to order. A cheeseburger for instance makes a carbon footprint of 1.8 kg of CO2. I'm not a good enough environmentalist to understand the impact of that but it's odd to eat your cheeseburger and think that you're helping destroy the world. Regardless, only an experience you can get in Sweden! Next was the King's Garden - a large park area that faces Gamla Stan and that really used to be the King's vegetable garden. While it is about 6 city blocks large, you sort of wonder how many veggies the King and his men really needed...but we didn't think about it too hard and instead enjoyed some wine in the sunshine after a day of being super tourists.

On our way back to our neighborhood I made sure to buy my ornament! This one is a small red horse with paintings on it that really symbolize the Swedish life. 150 years ago in some small log cabins during the cold winter nights, people started carving little horses to play with and painted them with a technique that involves using two brushes with different colored paint at the same time. Named the dalecarlian horse and once a toy for kids, it is now the symbol of Sweden. The first was sold in 1624 and I bought mine in 2010 and will remember it always!

The only must-do left on our list was the infamous Swedish meatball. And I'm not talking the meatballs that everyone knows and loves from Ikea, but real home-cooked ones. We showed up at a restaurant that looked as if it were once a huge beer hall that had been converted to a low-lit eating hall. With all the Swedish whizzing around in the air, it felt like we were the only tourists. We also thought this because they sat us in the corner (don't want to ruin their local reputation). This didn't bother us and we went ahead and ordered the same dish - Swedish meatballs with lingonberries. Never before had I heard of these lingonberries, but they are quite abundant in Sweden. Almost like a cranberry in both size and shape, these berries are somewhat tart but sweetened a bit with cooking before being served. How do you eat them? Well, you can eat them just by themselves, in a jam or in a sauce (think cranberry sauce), which makes me feel like they are just the cranberry of northern Europe. When sugar was a luxury in Sweden people often used lingonberry jam to add some sweetness to their lives. It was really odd to me to be eating a berry I had never heard nor tried before. In the Pacific Northwest we are blessed with so many delicious berries that I thought I had seen and tasted them all, but I guess traveling opens up more than your mind, it opens up your taste buds too! But back to the important stuff - the meatballs! The plate had 4 and Mira seemed disappointed, thinking it wouldn't be enough. Quite the opposite, as neither of us could finish the humongous balls that had a peculiar taste that I couldn't quite put my finger on but my tongue enjoyed!

Full and happy we ended my last night in Stockholm with another Swedish beer and then called it a night. The next morning I had a few hours to kill before my flight and thought I should start the day the same way I had when I arrived in this city - with a coffee. I ventured back to Gamla Stan to the oldest coffee bar in the Old Part called Sunbergs Konditori, established in 1785. With an elaborate set-up, the Folgers coffee seemed to taste a little better. This time, upon Grammy's suggestion of how her mom used to drink coffee, I put a sugar cube between my teeth and drank it that way. Maybe that's what made it taste better. After writing my postcards and eating one last apple strudel I said hej-då to Sweden.