Sunday, September 25

Feels Like Home

For the first time in a while, what follows should be mostly positive. This is way overdue.

In the last two weeks...

Barbara showed me around Berlin on my last night there. It really was a shame that she wasn't with me for more of my time that I was there. Having someone that knows the most interesting places in a city makes things so much more enjoyable. After walking around for a while, we ended at an outdoor cafe listening to live jazz and folk music.

Copenhagen came next. It's quite possibly my favorite city in Europe. The most important thing was also a bit subtle. Most of the people there seem very happy, and even smile at you when you pass them on the street. After being in Prague and Vienna, this was absolutely huge.

As far as tourist attractions go, Copenhagen was a little lacking. But after being in Paris and Rome, most cities are. Still, it's not a big deal. More importantly, it felt like a place where I could live for a while. The pace of life is very nice, not too fast, but at the same time not being lazy at all. In addition to a feeling of vibrancy, there was a good deal of soul, old buildings mixed with newer ones, all the while without clashing at all.

The most interesting part of the city was a place called Christiania. In the early 70's, a group of hippies stormed an abandoned military base on the edge of town, claiming it for their own and wanting to establish a new type of society. People flocked there, and before they knew it they had over 1000 residents, so many that the police didn't know how to forcibly move them. The government decided to ignore them for a while, just letting them be. Over thirty years later, they're still going strong. They build their own houses, have their own schools and government, as well as their own market place. The people that live there try to make Christiania as self sufficient as possible, growing as much of their own food as they can, and offering free accommodation to anyone, so long as they're willing to help out around the village.

Unfortunately, the community became known mostly as a place to buy pot, and in time this became their main industry. All of this changed last year, when the police raided 'Pusher Street', as it was called. This was a result of the change in the Danish government, which for the first time in many years became more conservative. Unfortunately they're thinking of shutting down the whole thing, as the squatters don't pay any property tax. Still, the people there justify this by using as few government services as possible.

The rest of Denmark didn't seem very interesting, as it's mostly farms. So Sweden [in particular, Malmo and Gothenburg] seemed like a reasonable next destination.

The most striking thing about Sweden is also what they're most famous for. And it's very true, at least in the south. Most of the people are tall, blonde, and very good looking. Most of the women don't even wear make-up. To top it off, they're also very friendly. Though I suspect that things get a little less nice as you move farther north. Most of them say that the niceness is linked to the amount of sunlight.

Also, while in Gothenburg, I met a Finnish girl named Anna that was looking for someone to travel with. We've been traveling together around Norway. Still, she likes to live it up whereever she goes, and I'm worried that she might run out of money. [She's not even sure how much she has left...]

Our first stop was Oslo, which is one of the most cosmopolitan cities that I've been to. In fact, it's sometimes hard to tell exactly who is the minority. It's probable due to the Norwegians having such a strong economy that they're actually short of workers. This in turn is due to having more oil than they know what to do with.

After Oslo we headed west to check out some fjords in Bergen. They really are one of the most beautiful pieces of scenery imaginable. Huge mountains, towering over canyons filled with water connected to the ocean. The mountains themselves are covered in forest, which is only broken by a waterfall every couple of kilometers. And on the boat ride through, you're able to see a rainbow every half hour. It's also common to see seals, porpoises, or even salmon jumping out of the water.

Since Bergen, we teamed up with a Swisse fellow named Jean. As of now we're back in Oslo, taking a break on the train ride north. Though Jean will probably head south to Copenhagen, as his friends are going to meet him there next week.

One thing that's really surprising me about Norway is how similar it is to Canada. The geography [although Canadian mountain valleys aren't filled with ocean water], architecture, and even the people are all very much like that of Canada.

Sunday, September 11


I've spent the last two weeks in Halberstadt, a small town in the middle of Germany. I didn't know exactly what I was getting into when I came here. All that I was told was that it was a camp to combat racism, which is pretty vague. Still, it's rare that you get the chance to live in a country as it's citizens do, even if it's only for a short time. It wasn't a chance I wanted to pass on.

There were about ten other Germans here with Barbara [whom I met in France, and the person who asked me to go there] and I, making me the only foreigner for the first week. This made for some awkwardness. On the one hand, it's nice to be able to see how a people live in their own country, but when you don't speak the language, it's easy to feel isolated. The people in our group gave more of an effort to speak in English than any group from a different culture that I've been around, and I appreciate that effort very much. Yet at the same time, it's only natural that people in such a group revert back to their native language, especially when they get stuck for words in the one they're trying to speak. Most times they didn't even notice that they had switched to German. Luckily, we were joined by two Spanish girls in the second week, neither of whom spoke German. This made things a bit easier.

Things were more challenging walking around the town itself. Although a few of the younger towns people spoke a bit of English, they really didn't want to use it. The adults had learned Russian when they were younger, and didn't speak any English at all. This didn't bother me too much, as I was willing to switch to charades. This solved most of my problems, but sometimes people weren't satisfied with it. They'd look at me like I was retarded, and then hit me with full speed German. They've probably never been very far outside their town [I'm told there are quite a few people here who haven't], and this place isn't exactly a tourist mecca. So I suppose it's rare that they have to deal with someone who doesn't speak German.

In camp itself started off with a little less structure than I wanted. Most of the people here would be considered hippies, and one of the points of the camp [which, unfortunately, I didn't discover until a few days into it] was to run it in a 'Basic Democracy' model. This amounts to the same thing as running everything on consensus. Although I was annoyed at how much this slowed everything down [sometimes we would spend 10 minutes discussing how long the break in the discussion should be], after I accepted things for what they were, things went fine. It was more about taking the whole project as a learning experience, without any expectations about what to accomplish.

By the middle of the first week, we were taking daily trips to the refugee camps to visit the people seeking asylum. The German system is to stick people applying for refugee status in run down apartment building, with fences built around it and one or two security guards. Still, the refugees aren't prisoners, as the fences are described as being 'protective', to keep vandals out. In eastern Germany, where the unemployment rate runs around 25%, it's popular to blame everything on the immigrants. As a consequence, they get neo-nazis causing trouble for anyone who's not part of the 'master race'. For the most part the refugees are free to come and go as they please.

We invited them over for dinner, as well as any other outings we could think of, as much as possible. The majority were from western Africa. About half were English speaking, while the others spoke French. I was elected translator for people of the French speaking group who didn't know any English, as English was the language for most of our discussions. Still, at times even the accent of the English speakers gave me a hard time, and with the French I could barely understand anything. Still, every time I asked them to repeat, they would always give me the same musical but indiscernible accent.

Still, most of them were very nice. Others were a bit quiet. Several had quite a few scars, sometimes on their faces. It's hard to imagine what they've been through. I talked to a few from the Sudan, but most were from Western Africa. And a few were even insane. One, named Zoul, always had a cocky look on his face, told every girl in our group that he was in love with them, and kept reminding me what a wonderful name he had [apparently it's a VERY STRONG sounding name].

One of the places that we found to hold events was a local youth center, mostly frequented by punks. Watching African refugees partying with German punks was a memorable sight, since the punks only spoke German and most of the refugees didn't. I spent most of the night at the foosball table, with a bulky partner from Benin who only spoke French. It didn't stop him from trying to trash talk the opposition, who didn't understand a word he was saying, but would fire back in German, which didn't work much better.

Now I'm back in Berlin, but I'll probably just spend one night here. I want to get to Scandinavia, and the longer I wait, the colder it will be. Tomorrow I'll head for Copenhagen, and after a few days there, move on to Sweden.