Looking Up

St. Petersburg is perhaps best known for the Hermitage, its amazing collection of art spanning 3000 years of human civilization and an entire globe. What I found more impressive than this, though, was the building it was housed in, the Winter Palace. Built in the 1750’s by Italian architects, it was the winter residence of the Russian Tsars. The sheer opulence and grandeur of so many of the room was simply astounding. The intricacy and detail in the ceilings impressed me most (my dad was more impressed with the detail work of the floor … also incredible). Since the visuals really defy words, I’ll let the photo collection below of the ceilings tell the story. (For the record, this is a temporary arrangement as for tonight, I give up on trying to integrate photos in nicely … picasa plugins are not playing nice so far).

Technical Difficulties

We’re having a bit of a problem with being able to post here in St. Petersburg due to the fact that our computer’s power supply failed (taking out with it the rest of the plugs in the room), so you’ll have to do without pictures for another day. We’ll be back in Stockholm tomorrow night, so expect a flurry of posts then about our experiences and thoughts about St. Petersburg. Till then, please stand by.

First Impressions of St. Petersburg

At the Russian embassy in Stockholm: Wow, this is easy. And she’s actually nice and helpful. I thought that this was supposed to be so difficult that you threw your hands up in despair and just gave up. Am I missing something? Am I going to show back up to get my visa only to find out that I didn’t do some obscure task and now I can’t have one?

Upon arrival at the St. Petersburg airport: I think that soldier is wearing the same uniform in the same ugly green and the same scratchy material as WWII soldiers wore. In fact, he looks like he could have walked straight out of some film based on a Stephen Ambrose book.

On the drive from the airport to the Grand Nevsky Hotel: Whoa he drives fast. Oh shit, we’re totally going to hit that car. Look at that ginormous statue (Monument to the Historic Defenders of Leningrad ). It’s soooo Soviet. Did you see that church? It was gorgeous. Oh this one’s even better. Damn, traffic is terrible. Holy crap, I think that trolley car could be classified as an artifact. Oh shit, it almost hit that Hummer limo. Oh look, a Zara is about to open in that huge old communist looking building.

On a first walk around the city: This place doesn’t feel very Russian, not that I know exactly what Russian feels like. It feels more like Europe…a bit Scandinavia, a bit Berlin, maybe even a little Amsterdam with all these canals. Brrr, that’s a cold wind blowing off the Neva. I totally need one of those Russian fur hats. Or maybe a bunch of vodka shots. Seriously, this is all still the Hermitage? Where does it end? Woohoo, I can totally read Russian. It’s just like Greek…oh except what the hell is that letter, that’s a new one. So yeah maybe I can sort of kind of read it.

On a visit to Peterhof: This looks like Versailles. The fountains are awesome. The palace, eh, it’s a palace. Aren’t they all the same…opulent and overdone. Gold and gold and oh yeah, more gold. That ticket lady is totally a holdover from the communist days. Is that scowl permanent? I love the way the Russian tourists strike a pose for every photo as if they’re supermodels. And the fact that they are walking around these giant gardens in insane high heels as if it’s no big deal if just freaking insane.

As you can see, I’ve had a wide array of reactions to St. Petersburg in my first 24 hours here, and I have not found an easy way to sum it up. Established by Peter the Great as a window to the west, it still is a strange mix of east and west, Russia and Europe. So far the most prominent impression I have is of St. Petersburg as a city of new money.

Of course, in its earliest history, St. Petersburg had money. This is obvious in the palaces and churches, fortresses and bridges…the centuries-old structures built during the heyday of the Romanovs. But in the past century, St. Petersburg has seen hard times. As Leningrad, it suffered terribly during the German siege of the Second World War, with millions of people starving to death and the ravages of war becoming everyday reality. Later, communism did the city no favors. Construction was utilitarian, depressing, gray. The city’s magnificent churches were gutted and used to store potatoes or converted to swimming pools. Even if you had money, there was little to buy.

Now, it seems to me, that St. Petersburg is trying to shove that recent history from memory. Cranes criss-cross the skyline. Stores and shops and malls are opening everywhere, and everything stays open 24 hours a day. Western franchises are prospering. (We even saw a Carl’s Jr.!) Fancy cars race down the street. And fashion is at the forefront (even if it’s not what I’d call fashionable). St. Petersburg is a city on the rise…again. Yet at the same time it’s a city heavy with history and so long as there’s a bubushka on the street, a minibus pulling up at the corner, and a monolithic Soviet statue in the square, I think it will remain a city torn…between East and West, between Russia and Europe, between history and future. And in my opinion, that’s at least half the reason why it’s such an amazingly interesting place.

(We’re here through Monday, so expect to hear more about St. Petersburg in the following days. And if you have any suggestions for St. Petersburg, let us know!)

Down is Up and Up is Down

So there’s been plenty of thinking and talking and hand-wringing these last couple of weeks over finalizing our route, since we need to up and book our major airline tickets relatively soon (what with us leaving in now less than a month!). I wrote earlier about our first realization that all of our ducks were not in a row.

Since then, we’ve called Continental and talked about our flight options.  We’ve looked over weather patterns and high seasons and low seasons until we’re sick. Most places, this doesn’t even seem to matter … in fact, it may be preferable to go in low season to avoid all the people. India, of course, is one notable exception. We’ve kept up with the ongoing current events, what with there being no US embassy in either Bolivia or Venezuela these days. This certainly makes what were originally highly prioritized destinations much less certain … its never good to be in a country where there is no embassy to work on your behalf should something come up.

I guess, given the circumstances, its a very good thing we did not book our tickets earlier. As I’m sure you all are aware, situations change in a hurry and the best laid plans seem woefully off track. So with that in mind, we’ve more or less flipped our original plan, and have completely reversed our track through South America.

We’re still heading off to Nicaragua first for a few weeks, but then, instead of heading to Caracas to start our South American journey, we’re flying directly into Buenos Aires and working our way down to Patagonia in November (springtime there). We’ll then head up through Chile, perhaps (or perhaps not) entering Bolivia, then making it up to Peru in time for Christmas and a New Years climb of the Inca Trail.  We’ll then continue up to Ecuador and out to the Galapagos, may or may not go to Venezuela, but either way, return back to Buenos Aires through Brazil and leaving South America in mid-March.

We’ll spend mid-March through mid-June in Africa, generally the rainy, low season in most of the places we’re headed. This makes things lusher, which I’m all for, but animals can allegedly be more elusive. Though oneyearonearth had no trouble at this time of year and really enjoyed it. On the plus side, places like Victoria Falls are at their best this time of year with all the precipitation and low season rates are to be had.

We’ll have an open jaw here, flying in to Johannesburg and out of Addis Ababa, then hoof it straight to Bangkok in mid-June. We’ll spend the summer in Southeast Asia, to mid-August, visiting Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia. There’s a mix of rainy seasons and dry seasons depending on what side of the “peninsula” we’ll be on, so I don’t think there’s any point worrying about the weather. We’ll go, we’ll see, we’ll get wet if we have to =).

After this period, we’ll head to India in mid-August, hopefully at the end of the Indian monsoon.e’ll spend about a month here, although we’ll be hardpressed to see all the things we would like to in that time, Bhutan, Darjeeling, Taj Mahal, Delhi, Mumbai, etc. We’ll do the best we can. Then its on back home, though since we have an extra leg available on our RTW tickets, we may stop in a remote Pacific island. Any suggestions?

So there you have it, our RTW trip version 2.0.  What do you all think? Any improvements? Disasterous decisions? Speak now or forever hold your peace folks.

Places that Fit and Places that Don’t

Sometimes a place fits. And sometimes it doesn’t. But you never really know for sure until you try it on.

Countries are, apparently, a lot like shoes. Sometimes they’re cute and loved by everyone you know, yet when you give them a go, you find yourself just a bit uncomfortable in them. Other times they can seem pretty average on first glance, but before you know it they’re the only ones for you and you can’t believe you ever found them anything but amazing.

I’ve had both experiences. I love Greece. I love the beauty of the islands. I love the spirit of the people. I even came to embrace the chaos. But as much as I long to go back there—to stuff gyros into my face all day long, to sit for hours at a cafe in the heart of Athen’s messiness, to hop the next ferry to whatever island—Greece doesn’t really fit me. We’re not opposites that attract in a pleasant, lifelong way. We’re opposites that find each other startlingly attractive, rush into a crazy affair, and then crash and burn in a fiery display. We never live up to each others’ expectations. We’re both forever trying to change the other. We are star-crossed.

Germany, I also love. It’s not nearly as showy as Greece, not as striking in its beauty, not as tempting in its offerings. It’s the land of fairy tales…but the Grimm brother versions, not the Disney versions. When you tell people you’re going to Germany, you don’t get the same sighs of longing as you get when you say you’re going to Greece. But Germany, well, it gets me. It’s solid and reliable. I know what to expect from it, I know how to behave with it. And every so often, it surprises me with some small delight, nothing big, nothing flashy for sure, but just a little something to keep me satisfied. I could grow old with Germany.

Yes, yes, I know…shoes, romantic partners…I’m mixing all kinds of metaphors in here. So I guess I’ll just go ahead and get to my point, which is that Sweden fits me.

From the moment I’ve arrived—and I commented on this to Jeff after my first day here—it’s felt surprisingly normal. It’s as if I’ve been here before (which, indeed, I have but it was for just a quick couple of days of being a tourist). I slipped in easily, a strange kind of familiarity surrounding me. Perhaps it’s the fact that our apartment reminds me of my dorm room in Germany. Or maybe it’s because in its weather patterns and its location on the water it feels like Seattle, which I’ve gotten used to over the past years. Or maybe it’s because I can recognize enough of the language, thanks to the similarities with German, to know what everything is at the grocery store, to read menus and store signs, to check bus schedules, to apologize to someone for not speaking the language when they assume that I can. I’m sure it’s a combination of factors, but the fact is that Sweden just works for me. I feel at home walking its streets, stopping in its cafes, shopping in its stores, and just moving through the simple ordinary acts of living. It’s a place that I’d feel comfortable adding to my “List of Places I can Live When Hell Truly Freezes Over and John McCain Wins the Election.” (Although I think I’d have to run off and have a torrid affair with Greece every winter…but, really, I think that wouldn’t be so terrible.)

Anyhow, what about you? What places feel like a natural fit to you and what places never fit right no matter how hard you try to make them? What countries would be on your own personal version of the hell freezing over list?

Moja (pronounced Muya)

As Theresa alluded to in the last post, the first island we went to was Moja. It also happened to be the largest, furthest away from Stockholm, and most populated island we went to (though certainly not any of the above for the entire Swedish archipelago). It was a combination of these three things that made it my favorite of the trio of islands we visited.

The island was large enough to contain three freshwater lakes, which were advertised to us as “warm, you can swim for at least 10-15 minutes in it” a notion we found laughable after touching the water with our hands. But what appealed to me most was the sense that this was a small community. In fact, it was many small communities, with collections of 20-30 houses in villages dotting the island. There were no roads to some, only a path through the woods to a different harbor, a different jetty. Where there were gravel roads, ATVs or bicycles were the vehicles of choice, we saw only two cars and our host at the hostel lamented they were becoming more common.

Around 300 people lived there year round; there was a school (up to the 9th grade). A local youth group showed movies and hosted dances at the dance hall and and converted their youth center into the hostel that we stayed at. At church that was built in the 17th century on the south end of the island, the cemetery contained the graves of several generations of Moja residents.

While fishing was once a primary industry in the archipelago (and likely for many of those whose graves we passed), today, only one man makes his living fishing professionally out of the whole of 30,000 islands. He lives on Moja and his family runs Wikstroms Fisk restuarant. The menu changes every day based upon what Mr. Wikstrom is able to catch. We dined there and while simply prepared, the fish was delicious, fresh as can be.

All of these things really culminated in a very pleasant experience. The rain and the dreary conditions even seemed to add to the atmosphere, the idea that islands like this are supposed to have weather like this. All in all, I’m glad we spent the most time on Moja as it really had the most to offer.

Boat Hiking in the Stockholm Archipelago

Jutting up from the waters of the Baltic, off the coast of Stockholm, are more than 30,000 islands, rocks, and skerries. Collectively these two-billion-old rock formations make up the archipelago, a favorite holiday retreat of Swedes. Only a few hearty, independent, and ultimately extremely flexible souls live on these islands year-round—many populations number in the tens, populations that reach into the hundreds are rare—but in the summer, mainland residents flock to the archipelago to bathe in the always cold waters of the Baltic, take a dip in slightly warmer inland lakes, sail from isle to isle, and generally just relax in a place where the pace of life is slow and all the extraneous details of modern life are eliminated.

We missed summer by a few weeks (though we’ve heard summer was a bit disappointing this year), so we arrived to islands that were transitioning toward the sleepy time of year, when the sea freezes over with ice thick enough to ski and skate across and darkness hangs like a veil. That summer was ending was undeniable. The bright blue seas and skies that appear in brochure photos were already a memory. Instead periwinkle painted over the landscape—the sky, the sea, and the granite rocks were all a shade of purplish-gray. The sun was tucked away under thick clouds. And for two of the three days, a steady mist fell, crescendoing into heavy rain for brief stretches before lapsing back into a sprinkle.

It was enough to make the other guests at our hostel stay inside. But us? Well we’re not sweet enough to melt.

And we had some hiking to do.

Apparently the 400+ miles we hiked this summer didn’t satiate us. When we read about something called boat hiking we knew that’s what we’d be doing in the archipelago. For 340 SEK (under $60), we got a pass that was good for 5 days (though we only used it for 3) that allowed us to hop whichever boats we liked between various islands. It also came with a map and suggested itineraries that laid out how one could arrive at an island, hike across or around it, then leave the island either via row boat or ferry to continue on to another island. Three major routes were outlined—northern, middle, and southern. We chose the middle because not only did it seem most interesting to us, but it also minimized the amount of time we would spend on the ferry. The route itself is rather extensive, so we picked and chose from it, deciding on four islands: Moja, Ingmarso, Finnhamn, and Gallno.

On Ingmarso and Finnhamn, which we visited on day two, we experienced the truest form of boat hiking. Around 2 p.m., our ferry pulled into the jetty of South Ingmarso, and we disembarked. Our goal for the afternoon was to walk just over three kilometers along the southern part of Ingmarso, row ourselves across the sea from Ingmarso to nearby Finnhamn, and then continue hiking a few more kilometers across Finnhamn to a hostel perched above the sea.

But first we needed a map, so we popped in the restaurant at the jetty (one of the few places in the archipelago open on a Sunday afternoon in the low season), where a kind waitress photocopied one for us and sent us on our way. We began by walking through a predominantly pine forest, where mushrooms sprung from the ground and were hunted like treasure by multiple mushroom pickers we passed. I kept half expecting a tomte (a mythical creature from Scandinavian folklore that strongly resembles the Travelocity gnome) to pop out and greet us, but alas that didn’t happen.

As we continued along the boat hiker’s trail, I took to calling it the “Jesus path” because of the small signs marking the way that seemed to show a person walking on water.

After a bit of forest hiking, we emerged alongside a field where two horses grazed idly.

We then entered into a field, following a trampled path through a meadow full of rams. In Sweden, allemansratten—the right of public access—entitles you to cross privately owned land so long as you are respectful (and don’t let the rams out). Apparently, the rams here not only are unfazed by strangers entering their grazing grounds but also rather enjoy it. It seems other hikers must feed the rams as they pass through, because instead of scattering away from us, they flocked to us sniffing at our pockets and our bags. Being not much of an animal person, I have to say I didn’t like it much, as I was just waiting for one of them to rear up and show us what those horns are for.

Nearing the end of Ingmarso, we took a break at a nature preserve, where a small boat house was painted the typical burgundy-red of most every building in the archipelago.

Upon reaching the tip of Ingmarso, we loaded our gear into a small row boat, and Jeff rowed us across to Finnhamn. While I sat with the gear, he then rowed back to Ingmarso, towing the row boat that had been on the other side, so that each island has one boat and people are able to cross regardless of which direction they’re coming from. It’s a remarkable system that impressed both of us, not simply because of how well it worked but because of how it is possible to just leave a boat tied up under no one’s guard and know that it will not be stolen or vandalized. I’m not sure that would happen in the U.S.

Once Jeff made it back to Ingmarso, we set off hiking again, through a mixed forest of pine and aspen.

Arriving at the hostel at 5 p.m., we grabbed the keys to our cute little private cabin, and then enjoyed the view. We could have complained about the lack of blue skies, but why bother. It was beautiful nonetheless.

(Check back later in the week, as we’ll post more pictures and stories from our other two days in the archipelago.)

My Own Martin Luther

Currently, Jeff and I are out enjoying Sweden’s archipelago, visiting three tiny islands in a matter of three days. (You know us, we can’t stay in one place for too long.) We’re hoping to come back with good stories and great photos, but we didn’t want to leave you high and dry while we’re gone. What’s a Sunday evening without a Lives of Wander post?

So here are a few nice photos of Jeff nailing his thesis, which he did on Friday afternoon, thereby taking the last step before his actual defense on September 26. He didn’t challenge the pope or rail on about indulgences in his “Recessive Parkinsonism, Mitochondria, and Translational Regulation,” but he looked just a bit Martin Luther-like as he hammered his thesis up in the library of Karolinska Institute. I’m not sure this particular thesis will have quite the world-changing effect of good ol’ Martin Luther’s, but hey, Luther was nearly 34 when he nailed his famous 95-Thesis to the door of Wittenburg’s Castle Church, so just give Jeff seven years. Then, look out world.

Starting out with a smile

He started out nailing it gently with a smile, and then started whacking the heck out of it, as you can see by the hammer action and the concentrated look on his face.

Showing off the final work with his mentor Lars to his right and me on his left.

We celebrate the fact that his thesis is now nailed to the library wall with a little bubbly.

Most of Jeff’s lab came out to support him (or at least to partake in the free food and drink).

My New Favorite Restaurant In Stockholm

Thanks for all the voting so far … keep em coming, we need to know, Riga or Tallinn?

As many of you know, and as many of you don’t know, today was my birthday. I’m finally the same age as Theresa again (for another six months) and, well, that’s about all the benefits I see about being a year older any more. In years past it was driving, then voting, then drinking, then … renting a car. No longer, nothing more gained but another tick off the clock. But today was quite a special day for another reason.

Its official! I wrote a book! Now I nail it to the wall tomorrow (ala Martin Luther) and then wait three weeks to defend it against all who dare to criticize me =). The process is almost complete!

The best part of my birthday though, was our dinner this evening. We headed to Kungsholmen, a restaurant I had heard about as being very unique, lively and delicious. The voices that told me this were certainly right.

Kungsholmen has seven different “bars” – really cooking stations set up on the sides of the restaurant. Each one contributes six elements to the menu, and they vary widely. There is a sushi bar, a salad bar, a soup bar, a bread bar, a grill bar, a bistro bar, an ice cream bar and a cocktail bar. I ordered the Moroccan lamb chops off the grill menu while Theresa ordered the tuna burger with wasabi sauce off the bread menu. Both of our meals were absolutely delicious, my chops perfectly spicy with sides of fried mashed potatoes and yogurt covered cucumbers and Theresa’s tuna lightly seared aside an open faced burger and an almost guacamole-ish wasabi sauce.

The atmosphere itself was also something to behold as the waiters and waitresses shuttled between these various bars while still maintaining an eye on their customers – truly an impressive feat.

Yet at the same time, it wasn’t like a lot of restaurants where they go for the busy vibe but you can’t even hear yourself think. It was an active environment that you could still have a cozy conversation in – a rare balance.

Anyway, you may be able to tell from my comments that I left the restaurant duly impressed. It certainly is not the cheapest place in town, but if you find yourself in Stockholm, check it out. What other restaurants out there have you been to that have impressed you equally well? Bonus points for bargains!