Our story restarts from a kitchen table in Konstanz, Germany, on a seemingly cozy Saturday morning. I’m currently eating coconut muesli in a plastic maroon bowl, and there’s a rectangular nightclub flyer boasting “PLAYAZ & BITCHEZ MOTTO PARTY das Original” just a few inches away. I’m listening to “Trapeze Swinger, Live from Bonnaroo 2005” on fake, $1.99 iPod buds, as Steve’s Romanian roommate George washes the dishes. Steve and I lived together our freshman year at PSU, and now he’s getting a masters degree in Germany.
In recent weeks, I’ve been darting around the Scandinavian and surrounding capitals, and seeing old friends. I’m going to attempt to keep writing for each city briefer rather than not. Mostly what I did, and what I thought of each city. Here goes.
From Stockholm, I took the boat to Helsinki. Again, these boats are cruise ships, with casinos and clubs and duty free shopping. Sometimes they are a party, and sometimes they resemble an ironic retirement home. My boat had a group of Erasmus students–1,600 of them–so the scene assumed the former. I did some drinking, and met some people. Included in these people was my Nigerian cabin-mate who, an hour after meeting me, threw Adele’s “Someone Like You” on the speakers, started telling me about the girl he’s in love with, and then the next morning, coolly asked me “sorry, but what was your name again?”
In Helsinki, I stayed with Petra, a girl who I met in a hostel in Mombasa roughly 10 months back. Petra is a media engineering student who builds websites, likes Dancehall (Jamaican music), and desperately needs to start her thesis. Petra is legendarily down-to-earth, and I hope we meet again soon.
Petra in a snapshot:
Miss ya, buddy. I made that dinner for us too–chicken drumsticks and pesto risotto (from a quick-make packet)–and Petra was pretty quick to tell me that the risotto sucked. She was right, though.
I spent a week in Helsinki, with my primary goal being building this website. So, that’s basically what I did. I did some wandering, through the grey and around the mist, and holed myself up in a cafe most afternoons. Helsinki is meant to be wicked in the summer, but in early November, it’s not looking it’s finest. This is OK though; work is what I wanted to do.
Aside from website building, I went to a James-Bond-themed birthday party for Petra and Ninni, saw Skyfall, ate burritos, and had the tremendous pleasure of sitting on the couch, drinking beers and watching ice hockey (Finland vs. Czech Republic) with Petra’s brother and his friend Ravi. I hadn’t done this in like a year, and there’s just nothing better. In school, Bauman, Kaz and I would set up our 50″ TV’s outside on the porch, and just watch the NHL playoffs as much as we could. There’s just nothing better.
Lastly, I note that Helsinki wasn’t my favorite city on the planet. The architecture is mostly beautiful and the lights can be sparkly, but it just seemed like a sluggish, un-inspired city. The 6 hours of sunlight per day, light rain and brief snow certainly didn’t help either.
Tallinn is the capital city of Estonia, a former Soviet territory and a 2-hour ferry ride from Helsinki. I went to Tallinn to see a girl I met in Australia, on Fraser Island, named Kadri. On the road, you very often have that goodbye, that goodbye that’s like “look, we are friends, we want to hang out more, but we have to go, and while we say we’ll see each other again one day, we know it’s probably not happening.” It follows that when you do see that person again, it’s all the more awesome. Estonia wasn’t far, so I resolved to see Kadri. I took the Friday ferry, nursing my hangover with a congealed oval of grease, chicken, pineapple and cheese, and tried not to puke.
Immediately, I liked Tallinn. It has a very medieval feel to it, with cobblestone streets and narrow alleys that make the enclosing buildings seem really tall. There didn’t seem to be too much of that loud, consumeristic phosphorescence either–at least not in the Old City. I found Tallinn unassuming, energetic, and undiscovered. It’s clean and cheap as well.
I spent 4 days in Estonia, staying in Kadri’s house in the countryside. We celebrated the going-away-to-work-in-Spain of her best friend, saw Seven Psychopaths (really good and highly recommended to all), pre-gamed in a studio apartment/tattoo parlor, and tried to teach Will how to open a beer with a beer, which was largely unsuccessful. I did some photography and writing as well.
On my last night, I set out to have a quiet beer in a cozy bar–ideally with a violin or piano playing. I googled a bar, copied the address, and went wandering. I asked a random couple for help on the street, and they decided to take me under their wing. We walked for about 30 minutes, swerved and backtracked, and finally found the place.
Kohvicum, it was called. My iPhone is filled with these screenshots by the way; this is how I note down numbers and addresses, for hostels and CouchSurfing hosts and impossible-to-find coffee bars.
When we finally arrived, I invited the couple in to join me for the drink. They did. The most prominent-in-my-brain discussion topic was philosophy, which the guy was currently studying, and Will possibly wants to study when his trip is over. He had some really insightful, inspiring, and grounded advice. It got me excited. It’s really weird how this stuff happens, and has been happening over and over, when you meet total strangers on the street and end up meandering your way into a friendship, a contact, and a memorable conversation. Again, this happens to me so very frequently. I really can’t help but think that it’s not an accident.
In Stockholm, I resolved to try my very best to not take an airplane until I hit Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. It won’t be easy. From Tallinn to Copenhagen, you can either head through Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, and then take a boat from Poland, or you can boat back to Stockholm, and then take a bus to CPH. I opted for #2. Another night on the ferry, which rocks me oh so gently to sleep, and we were back in Stockholm. I didn’t reserve a bus, because I don’t do that much these days, but when I got to the bus terminal, there happened to be one leaving 10 minutes later. The next bus was about 12 hours later. Weird how this works out.
In Copenhagen, I stayed with Piet, Zach Realberg’s friend from his time abroad there. I arrived at the bus terminal, was picked up by Piet and Patrick in Patrick’s new, bright-green Peugeot two-seater, and off we went. Top down for good measure, even though it was like 45F outside.
Piet was a dude, although dub-step isn’t my thing. He was a really great host, too. The first day, he took me to Christiania, the famed sub-tract of Copenhagen, where marijuana and hash can be legally purchased over the counter. No photos, and no running, though. Those are the rules. You can also live in Christiania tax-free, and possibly even rent-free, but the places are near-impossible to get. The real estate looks very, um, worn from the outside, but I bet there’s some real freshness within. It was a different place, Christiania; I’d never quite been anywhere like it.
The following evening, I met with a friend named Christina, who I met when backpacking in Australia in Spring 2010. We went for a beer at the bar where she used to work, and she invited me to a party at her University for the following evening. Piet wanted in, and so did 6 of his friends. Lotta dudes.
The party was in the University itself, in a room where Christina takes tests. It was meant to be a “sex party.” One of the reasons for this was the party’s prominent feature: a rodeo dildo. I refused to believe it until I saw it, but then I saw it. It was like a mechanical bull converted into a horizontal penis space ship, with the aforementioned dildo pinned vertically near the front. I had never and don’t anticipate ever again seeing anything like it. People kept saying Danes are crazy, which I think is not something you just say about yourself, necessarily, but with that mechanical pleasure machine placed in the far corner of Christina’s lecture hall, the distinction may very well be deserved. The majority of the people there were in the same major, too. I could anticipate class being awkward on Monday.
That Sunday, I went for dinner at Piet’s parents’ house. The sister, the brother, the sister’s boyfriend, and both parents were in attendance. They cooked a roast–like a big roast pork pig thing–and lots of delicious potatoes and salad.
Family dinners while traveling are always really nice. I’ve had the good fortune of being invited to like 20. They’re really nice because I don’t have many family dinners with my own family these days.
I only spent about 100 hours in Copenhagen, but it seemed like a nice place. Wide streets, clean streets, and not too crowded. Canals, colors, blond hair and blue eyes. The public buses are all currently adorned with mustaches as well, in honor of Movember. I’d go back to Copenhagen for sure, although it’s rather pricey. Gotta eat hot-dogs to stay afloat.
Lastly, I never quite made the connection that a “danish” probably comes from Denmark. Piet and I had one for breakfast on my last morning.
Very good, but didn’t change my life. The orange juice was arguably better, and good bread plus cheese plus butter will become a new part of my backpacker breakfast routine.
That’s it for Scandi and surrounding capitals. Here’s my take.
The Functionality of Scandinavia
Scandinavia works. There is a very high standard of living, and very few poor and homeless people. In fact, I think the only people that are homeless make this choice explicitly; if they wanted accommodation, the government would provide it. A University education is not only free, but students are often paid to go to school, to the tune of something like $1,500/month. Health care is free as well, and the cities are clean and beautiful. Everyone seems pretty cheerful–everyone lives rather well.
The reason for this functionality is socialism. In most/all of these countries, the income tax rate is something like 65%. That’s a really high number. However, once more, education is free, cities are gorgeous, health care is free, etc.
In the US, we generally fight for lower taxes; we earned the money, and we should be able to choose what we do with it. We are America, we are capitalists, and we are free. Irrespective of one’s tax structure, though, we still all want health care, and we still want an education. So, in effect, we Americans want these same services, but we want to pay for them ourselves, with the money we earned and got to keep. As I see it, we want to arrive at the same place–a citizen with security–but in a reciprocal manner. In theory, I see both the capitalist and socialist approaches to have their respective merits. In theory, I see them as roughly equal, if our main goals are in fact services like medical care and education.
However, each system has its caveats. With the socialist way, a comfortable lifestyle is effectively guaranteed, and an extravagant life-style is difficult to attain. Everyone is bound close to the mean. With capitalism, you are not guaranteed comfort, but extravagance is more possible. You are not bound by anything; you can sink or float to both extremes, or anywhere in the middle. It depends on you, not the government.
I spoke to a fair few Scandinavians about their tax structure. They wanted to keep more of the money, yes, but overall, they seemed pretty content. They seemed to value the fact that everyone was provided for; they seemed to care about the whole. This mentality didn’t seem to vary by person either. It seemed like something they all grew up with.
On the flip, I think Americans care less about the whole of the country. If you work hard, and the guy next to you doesn’t, then f*ck him, right? Maybe. In addition, I think the whole notion of the “American Dream” carries this sparkling possibility of lavishness, of working hard and attaining anything and everything. Ferraris, houses, islands, etc. I think this is something we are brought up with. And this is OK. We earned the money, so maybe we should be entitled to the toys?
In my opinion, your take on the matter depends on what you think you really need in life. Do you need Ferraris? Do you need education? Do you care more about yourself, or the group? Do you want to risk having nothing for a chance of having it all?
There’s no right or wrong answer, of course. I’m pretty big on this whole “empty vessel” theory, which basically states that a child can be raised to believe anything. You can plant any arbitrary notion about what’s right and what’s wrong–you can plant any random sensibility about the world. After traveling in Scandinavia, it was clear that the people there are brought up with a different mentality (than Americans) about what’s important, and the balance between the individual and the whole. It was interesting to see someone say “yes, we all wish taxes were lower, but you have to remember that nobody struggles here–it’s really nice.”
I finish this post in a cafe in the Old Town of Konstanz. There’s an big flourescent oval light thing next to me, and it’s changing colors. I should get a new pair of pants soon, because mine are way too big these days. I walk quite a lot–maybe that’s why.
West Africa soon–where the trip gets really interesting and my French gets back to very strong. What language do I learn next?
Lastly, I do acknowledge I talked about drinking a fair bit in this post. I’m thinking about not drinking at all for the ~4 months I spend back in Africa. Alcohol will be tough to find, and it will be an interesting experiment. Your thoughts?
Cheers from Germany,