Tags Posts tagged with "Europe"

Europe

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“I don’t care where we go.
I don’t care what we do.
I don’t care, pretty baby,
Just take me with u.”

Ever since Prince first whisked Apollonia off on his motorcycle to get purified in the waters of Lake Minnetonka in the 1984 rock film Purple Rain, The Artist has been an unlikely source of travel inspiration. Not only was his music daring, provocative, and unlike anything else played on urban contemporary radio in the ’80s and ’90s, Prince pushed the boundaries of identity and cultural expectation in a way that I could relate to even before realizing it.

Prince—music incarnate—came to represent the absolute expansiveness of blackness by hailing from a geographic and cultural region not traditionally associated with black culture. But he also opened up the possibilities of language and experience to me well before I even understood what was happening. I was ten years old when the goofy but sumptuous Under the Cherry Moon first aired on cable TV. Ridiculous script and laughable acting aside, it’s the brilliant cinematography, exotic setting (Nice, n’est-ce pas?), and lush, phenomenal score that still makes me want to―just for a moment―run off and be a gigolo on the Riviera. Indeed, half of the songs on Parade, the film’s masterpiece of a companion album, feature the sensuous vowels of French, with “Vous êtes très belle” joining that other soulful French refrain, “Voulez-vous coucher avec moi?,” on the list of half-baked French phrases that every American of a certain age knows.

But beyond the language,  Prince made it okay to think differently, to desire a life beyond your own immediate borders, and to go after that life. In flamboyantly seducing every socialite and debutante on the Côte d’Azur, he made it okay to travel abroad and to live, unabashedly. And in heels, too.

Thank you, sweet Prince.
__________

Let Prince take you on a trip to the Moon:

 

Image by Robert Whitman

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In the filtered sunlight of the bus window, the little boy’s straight, yellow hair streamed from the top of his head like a sparkler. He peeked over at me, again, and this time, I gave him the most sour grimace I could muster. “What are you looking at?” I thought, again, but didn’t say because he was, after all, a child. But so was I, really: a 16-year-old spending the summer between his junior and senior years of high school in the northernmost province of Sweden, a hair south of the Arctic Circle.

I must have been the last foreign exchange student placed with a host family because, of all the American students placed in Sweden that summer, I was the farthest north and the furthest away from the capital city of Stockholm, where I had requested to be placed. The hamlet of Råneå was an hour outside of Luleå, itself not even topping 50,000 people and whose most famous export was ‘70s model and Bond girl Maud Adams. A bus that ran three or four times a day connected the town to the city, and neither town nor city was very racially diverse in 1994.

In fact, aside from a brown-skinned Sri Lankan girl adopted by Swedish parents in Råneå, it seemed I was the only other person of color in that section of the province, a flat, swampy expanse with Mesozoic-sized mosquitos and a sun that never set in summer. Not so very different from Florida, after all. The adults and other teenagers I was around—mostly, my host sisters’ friends—didn’t seem too scandalized by the skin tone difference: The Oprah Winfrey Show aired on Swedish television and two of the star players on Sweden’s World Cup soccer team were half-black.

But the little boy on the bus couldn’t stop looking. And finally, I stopped grimacing and smiled. He smiled, too, then I got off the bus.

 

Image by Daniel Glifberg via Flickr.

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The beauty of Stockholm is most vivid in the city’s quiet interstices: the shush of an electric blue pendeltåg as it shoots down the railroad track and into a tunnel, the muted hum of designer baby stroller wheels on concrete, the hush of smoke wafting from a cup of coffee caressed in slender, pale fingers. Yes, train horns wail, babies cry, and coffee drinkers chat, but the quietness that permeates the noise in the Swedish capital wraps around you like a blanket against the Nordic air, something warm and sustaining, not stifling.

I experienced this quiet riot first hand, going into a local supermarket for a few grocery items—mjölk for my tea and coffee, and smör with which to cook the eggs and spread on the Wasa multigrain crackers I was also buying. Sweden has several different thicknesses of milk, the least desirable of which, in my opinion, having the consistency of Elmer’s Glue. But I’d learned the names of milk with acceptable levels of viscosity years ago and asked the tall, fashion-forward stockboy where I could find some in the well-stocked but shoebox-sized store. I prefaced my question with a humble, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Swedish,” and he prefaced his response a quiet, reassuring smile completely unexpected from a person under 30. I sensed a combination of pride in his own English proficiency and the surprise of an encounter with a wayward American with a voice vaguely reminiscent of Will Smith’s (so I’ve been told).

Once I scored the right milk, the stockboy peeked around the corner to ask if I’d found everything I needed, his calm, bright solicitousness another example of the quiet beauty that undergirds life in the north. He made me feel welcome in his store, his city, his country, as did the many other newsstand cashiers, coffee baristas, restaurant waiters, postal clerks, and airport bus service reps with whom I interacted in the city. Those quiet spaces between words are when the welcome is warmest.

That is the beauty of Stockholm.

 

STOCKHOLM, SWEDEN
Fly | Stockholm Arlanda Airport (ARN) | nonstops from the USA on Delta, Norwegian, SAS, United
Eat | The Hairy Pig or Stockholms Gastabud (Swedish) | Chili Masala (Indian) | Farang (East Asian)
Stay | First – Nobis Hotel | Biz – Lydmar Hotel | Econ – Ånedin Hostel
See | Gamla Stan, Djurgården, Fotografiska, Historiska Museet, the Stockholm Archipelago
Play | Summer: Trädgården and Patricia for clubbing | Year-round: music and/or dancing at Södra Teatern, Stampen, Fasching, Marie Laveau, Bambaataa Bambaataa at Le Bon Palais, The Can Jam at the Hard Rock Café

 

Image by Thomas Fabian via Flickr.

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An hour south of Geneva, where the Swiss Alps meet the French Alps, lies the splendid little city of Annecy. In winter, Annecy’s lake—opaque and unfrozen—reflects snowy peaks down which the begoggled and besweatered whoosh on skis, powered by adrenaline and hot chocolate. But in summer, Annecy itself is the attraction, its lake sparkling and turquoise in the bright Alpine sun, its winding streets humming with tourists from Lyon or Paris, yes, but also with first-year university students from Metz, middle-aged café owners who au paired in New York, pensioners who remember the end of the war, young professionals who commute to day jobs in Switzerland.

Laced with narrow canals, flower-lined palisades, sidewalk cafés, and arcaded boutiques, Annecy’s old quarter looks picture perfect. The preserved, ship-like island prison, the wrought-iron balconies above the pavement, and the commanding Château d’Annecy seem almost Disneyfied in their perfection. But that appearance is only because of the pride the residents take in making sure their town is attractive to visitors and residents alike, a pride which seeps into pleasant, warm interactions that feel downright quaint when held against Parisian aloofness: Anneciens are glad you’re here.

With the opulent L’Impérial Palace hotel and casino crowning its northern extremity, the lake of Annecy becomes the town’s locus of activity during the daytime, especially when the sun is shining: renting a bike or a kayak is the only way to soak in the vibrant energy of the lake, if you don’t know anyone with a catamaran or motorboat. In the evenings, regional French and international cuisines entice hungry diners into intimate eateries and a mix of cocktail lounges, wine bars, and sports bars keep the libations pouring and the interaction lively. Don’t worry if your French is rusty or non-existent; Annecy’s a great place to pick up a few French kisses, I mean, phrases. 😉 And before you go, stop by Chez Apo for a tasty kebab—owners Beatrice and Apo will take good care of you.

Annecy (pronounced ‘an-SEE’), France, is located 22 miles south of Geneva, Switzerland. Fly into GVA non-stop from North America via Air Canada, Swiss International Air Lines, or United Airlines, then take the bus or popular rideshare service to Annecy.

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Olga Berrios/Flickr

Suddenly, sadly, my time in Berlin has come to a close. My relationship of five years has ended, and, most disappointingly, not without the misunderstanding and pain that I’d hoped to avoid. Truthfully, no one is to blame; it was the little earthquakes that brought down the building in the end. I have absolutely no regrets about those five years. I learned how love looks and feels (…like compromise, really). I learned how to listen and observe and accept and understand. I learned how to love myself. And I learned to recognize my own demons, which is the first step in vanquishing them. Words are a weak substitute for the love and gratitude I have for my former partner, an incredible, incredible human being. For now, there is no more to say.

But I can’t talk about leaving Berlin without mentioning a serious and growing problem that I’ve not discussed much here on the blog: racism and xenophobia. Aside from being arguably the most interesting city in Europe at the moment, Berlin is held as a paragon of multiculturalism and acceptance, especially in the mainstream media. As a person of color, I feel that this is simply not true. I’ve been subjected to taunts and stare-downs by six drunken 20-something Germans in Hitler Youth haircuts on the u-bahn. I’ve been approached aggressively and passive-aggressively pushed by young Turkish-Germans on u-bahn platforms. I’ve heard educated women at cocktail parties complain about all the foreigners coming into Berlin and not speaking German (which is rich, considering all major cities have foreigners these days and Berliners tend to not let you get two German words out before switching to English on you). I’ve had friends of color—black American and Afro-German alike—complain of micro- and macro-aggressions as well. In the end, I felt that no matter how good my German, or how many years I lived in the place, I’d never be accepted as part of it. Berlin would never be my home. Honestly, I didn’t feel safe.

Conversely, I have to recognize that many, many, many Berliners (especially young ones) will indeed intervene if they see some kind of xenophobic or racist attack. I don’t mean to make this about the people of Berlin in general, as the city has its share of caring, compassionate people, despite its (well-deserved) reputation for rudeness and snark. I always felt welcome among my former partner’s cadre of friends. But it really only takes one asshole to do some damage, especially at 3am, when there’s no one else on the train.

I had hoped it would all work out. But the universe has spoken quite clearly that this episode is “done and dusted.” There is sadness and disappointment, but also undying affection and thankfulness.

Berlin, meine Berliner, you are missed.

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In April, I had the pleasure of taking my parents to Dublin for the first time. They’re not exactly the youngest kiddies on the block anymore, and my father is the type who’ll say “no” to an untried food, only to snag a bit of it from your plate when you order it. But despite the inevitable misunderstandings and temper flare-ups that happen when parents and their adult children travel together, the laughs and sense of mutual discovery outweigh any half-hour periods of silence or heavy sighs of exasperation. So the elder Whites and their eldest son will be hitting the Continent once again for ten days this June, swinging through a trifecta of capital cities – including one I’ve never been to before – that novices to Europe often erroneously overlook: Berlin, Stockholm, and Helsinki.

NorthernEurope

We’ll start our journey with a brief stopover in Frankfurt, where we’ll be celebrating my Fly Mother’s 76th birthday with some cake at Bitter & Zart, recommended by friend and foodie par excellence, Karin of Yum and More. Then, my parents will get their first experience on a high-speed train as we race toward Berlin on the ICE (ICE, baby), arriving in the German capital late that evening.

Berlin at sunset. Photo courtesy das_sabrinchen via Flickr.
Berlin at sunset. Photo courtesy das_sabrinchen via Flickr.

As I don’t want to bore them or wear them out, we’ll take in maybe three points of interest each day we’re there; on the must-do list: the stately Brandenburg Gate, the immense Pergamon Museum, Nefertiti at the Neues Museum, East German culture at the DDR Museum, and sunset at the Bundestag dome – probably the most striking parliamentary structure built since the Congresso Nacional in Brasília. On the must-eat menu: plenty of wurst, döner, and pho.

Stockholm's historic Gamla Stan. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely via Flickr.
Stockholm’s historic Gamla Stan. Photo courtesy of Pedro Szekely via Flickr.

Next, we head north to my favoritest city in Europe – Stockholm! I curse you, capital of Sweden, for being cold and dark for six months of the year; that is your only flaw (well, along with being crazy expensive). The city is gorgeous, hip, and full of worldly, attractive people who are fun and welcoming, and I’m excited about having my parents experience the things I love about the ‘holm.

We’ll be staying right in the middle of the historic center – Gamla Stan – in an old postwar-era ferry anchored in the harbor. As lots of Stockholm’s charms lie in the architecture and atmosphere of the place, we may just do the hop-on/hop-off bus and water taxis to get the lay of the land, stopping for Swedish meatballs (called “meatballs” in Sweden) and shots of Gevalia espresso. Then, we’ll bone up on our Viking lore at the Historiska museum, maybe head out to see the royal residence at Drottningholm Palace, or soak up the general pre-Midsummer energy in one of the city’s cool, green parks. At night, since we’ll all still be jet-lagged anyway, jazz and blues at Stampen might be the perfect way to tire ourselves out and celebrate Father’s Day, especially if my girl Germaine Thomas is at the mic.

Helsinki Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kolosov via Flickr.
Helsinki Cathedral. Photo courtesy of Alexander Kolosov via Flickr.

Finally, we’re all going to HEL. 🙂 Helsinki’s not as large as Berlin or Stockholm, so we’ll only be spending two days there. Aside from visiting the big white church that dominates the skyline, we don’t have much on the itinerary yet. Still, this will be my first trip to Finland and I’m excited about being in the home country of one of my favorite architects (Eero Saarinen, who designed Dulles Airport, JFK’s iconic TWA Terminal, and the Gateway Arch), and one of my parents’ favorite composers (Jean Sibelius, whose magnum opus appeared in Die Hard 2…I will always remember watching it on HBO with my folks and my mom turning to my dad and asking, in her Southern accent, “Isn’t that Finlandia?” “Mmhm,” he replied. Classically trained, thank you very much).

So stay tuned for trip developments and (hopefully) some video. I’m trying to bring things into the 21st century, y’all. Lord, I hope they don’t put us out of Europe.

Outside the Colosseum
                                      Yeh, Bad Angle

There’s not very much one can do on a weekend in Rome if one doesn’t have one’s itinerary planned before one steps off the plane. I was one who hadn’t planned my itinerary in advance, so I missed out on a few of the Eternal City’s eternal attractions: the Papal capital of Vatican City, the shabbily romantic warrens of Trastevere, the noble and numerous Spanish Steps (though I may have walked down them). What I did get to experience, however, was the delightfully unsettling buzz of being in a space so dominated – physically – by a history so pervasive in Western culture that I felt at once connected with a place I’d only seen in books and on film. But despite the easy connection, I had much left to discover in the Italian capital.

I discovered that speaking Spanish with an improvised “Italian” accent gets one through most interactions on the street, and people are generally friendly, except for most older men working in service positions, who are all kinds of surly. I discovered that one’s obvious reluctance to dart across multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic pegs one squarely as a foreigner, if one’s looks and accent doesn’t give one away beforehand. I discovered that one can keep up with the renowned Roman sense of fashion with a dark gray blazer, jeans, button-down shirts, and black leather loafers – I got a few winks and smiles for the trouble. I discovered that the temperature need not be warm for Romans to gorge themselves (sexily) on gelato. I discovered the three-day Roma Pass, which was the absolute best 30 euros one could ever spend: free entry to two historical sites – including the gigantic Colosseum (Yowza! One really has no idea of its sheer size, name notwithstanding!), where one gets to skip all the other losers waiting in the hours-long line because they didn’t get the Roma Pass –, free and unlimited access to the public transportation system, and a rack of other deals and discounts one probably won’t end up using. I discovered that walking aimlessly through the streets of Rome, one feels suddenly urbane and energized, an exotic sophisticate surveying the latest great city to fall at one’s feet, until one’s feet begin to ache and one realizes that leather loafers were never meant for so much aimless walking.

Alas, my Roman holiday proved too short, though I managed to squeeze in a couple of brief, bright meet-ups with street art maven Jessica Stewart of RomePhotoBlog (at her book signing, no less!) and fly sister-slash-interior designer Arlene Gibbs, formerly of travel blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza. Still, the City of Seven Hills holds many secrets, and once Rome has whispered in one’s ear, one is obliged to return and discover the others as well.

Take a look at some of the admittedly boring pictures of Roman architecture and other random stuff that I like. If you don’t like, then go to Rome and take your own pictures of the stuff you like!!!!! 😉

Ancient Tile Mural
Rosetta Stone
Coffee and a MapRoman Ruins
Vintage Airline Decals
Really Inside the Colosseum
Shadow and LightTeatro Metropolitano
Vespas Vespas Everywhere

Roman Architecture through the Ages Red Lights
Inside the Colosseum

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Despite $5 bottles of water and grey, rainy weather for most of the weekend, Copenhagen proved a welcoming and interesting little city, with an outsized cultural scene and friendly people. I arrived into the Danish capital early on a Friday morning and zipped quickly through the stylish and efficient airport terminal only to have my spirits dampened by the uninspiring currency exchange rate and the uninspiring gloomy skies (underscored by an uninspiring high temperature in the low 40s). With the excitement of getting to know a new place somewhat tempered by my aversion to the cold and my fear overspending—hell, of spending any money, really—I caught the bus from the airport to my friend’s house, passing alongside the blue-gray expanse of the Oresund and coursing through quaint little Danish neighborhoods with quaint little Danish houses, all with quaint little Danish flags flying on flagpoles in each yard. Danish Flag My friend Naomi is in Denmark with her son working on a Master’s degree and she was one of the first friends I made in Brasília when I moved there a few years ago. I was hyped about seeing her and speaking Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen. And speak Portuguese on the streets of Copenhagen we did, with people looking curiously, then smiling at the three of us as we took advantage of the one sunny day that weekend and toured the historic canals by boat, wafted through legal weed smoke in the independent little burg of Christiania, and took in a couple of the offerings at the documentary film festival happening that weekend (specifically, we saw Paul Simon: Under African Skies and Tropicália). There’s something to be said for the way people respond to families with children, as opposed to single (and large) men on the street.

While Naomi and filho were at school, I took to the city alone, marveling at the seemingly large number of brown and black people in town (including several city bus drivers) and hitting up a few quirky coffee shops and eateries in search of what the Danes call hygge, which is roughly translated in English as “coziness.” I had a trio of delicious “smushis” (traditional Danish open-faced sandwiches served in sushi-sized chunks) at The Royal Café, proceeded to choke on the prices for curios at the nearby Royal Copenhagen porcelain store, then warmed up with one of the richest cups of hot chocolate I’ve ever had in life at La Glace, an old school confectionary with enough enticing sweet stuff to warrant an extra hour on the treadmill.

At night, Naomi and I met up with a couple of her school mates at the National Gallery of Denmark and had engaging political debate (Obama vs. Romney, Greece vs. Germany, McDonald’s vs. Burger King) while the DJ spun Scandinavian downtempo and people just sat and watched the light display and drank beer. After chicken curry and shawarmas (at two different places), we ended up at a surprisingly amazing and intimate concert by Alcoholic Faith Mission (had never heard of them); we were being told the happening party we’d stumbled upon was “ladies only” and the concert’s sound guy randomly intervened and invited us upstairs, where the set was already half over. I didn’t get a chance to say it at the time, but cheers, Random Sound Guy!

The weekend ended all too quickly, but I never got around to seeing the Little Mermaid and accidentally left a sweater at Naomi’s house—all the more reason to head back. Copenhagen, you were indeed wonderful. I’ll see you again soon. Save a smushi for me! More photos! Copenhagen Waterfront

The Royal Cafe Smushis
The smushis were good, y’all! (Crabcake, steak, and haddock!)
Golden Eagle, Copenhagen
Get a load of that price tag! This golden eagle is on sale at your local Royal Copenhagen store.

Nordic Sun, Copenhagen Copenhagen Toilet Copenhagen Dusk

Meninos Loucos
“Aiight, no more sugar for you, Li’l Man!”

And special thanks, Henrik at Wonderful Copenhagen, for your humorous and insightful pointers on getting along in “The Kingdom!”

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As mentioned in a previous post extolling the virtues of having a hub in Europe, you can get everywhere for a decent price. My round-trip plane ticket from Berlin to Copenhagen two weeks out? 59 Euro (US$76)! Granted, the flight’s only an hour long, but it’s to a whole different country!

That said, I’m looking forward to celebrating the big 3-5 with one of my best friends from Brazil who’s studying (and freezing her tassels off) in the Danish capital. We’ll geek out at a few museums, take pics of The Little Mermaid, catch a couple of screenings at the documentary film festival, maybe hit the Meatpacking District (tee-hee!) for a li’l two-step or whatnot.

We won’t be going to see J.Lo in concert (sorry, Lo…we can stream reruns of In Living Color online for free!). But hopefully, I will get to meet Black Girl on Mars!

I head up to Denmark from November 2-5, so stay tuned for trip details. I’m excited to see what kind of welcome I get from the good people of “Wonderful Copenhagen.”

Image by Alatryste

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Need to get around Germany but don’t want to cough up a hundred Euros for a one-way plane or train ticket? Get Mitfahrgelegenheit! Meaning “carpool” in German, Mitfahrgelegenheit (roughly pronounced meet-far-guh-LEG-gun-hite) is popular and simple to use, thanks to the website (and Google Translate, considering I have no clue what I’m reading in German 90% of the time). It’s just a matter of searching for a ride between two places at a time that best suits you, comparing options based on the driver’s bio and rating as a reliable user (or not), then meeting at the designated point with cash in-hand and hitting the road. Yes, some measure of blind faith is required, and who knows how likely I’d be to use the system if I were a solo female traveler, but since you usually meet your driver and fellow passengers in a public place, you can address any immediate trepidation by just deciding not to get into the vehicle.

Last week, I mitfahred from Frankfurt to Berlin in a dusty, grey Mercedes minivan with driver and five college students (They looked college age, anyway. We barely spoke beyond initial pleasantries as we were all plugged up to our individual MP3 players). Dude hauled-ass down the autobahn, clocking in at five hours for a normally six-hour drive, with a ten-minute pee/cigarette break. We drove through leafy forests, underneath monstrous industrial windmills, and past Russian-built cargo planes at the Leipzig Airport. We plowed through fog banks and down steep hills and almost sideswiped an 18-wheeler. Halfway to Berlin, the driver stuck his hand back towards us and said in accented English, “Give me my money now, please.” I’m thinking, “Naw, potna. Not until I see a ‘Wilkommen in Berlin’ sign.”

Needless to say, we made it safely, and I’m open to giving Mitfahrgelegenheit another whirl. I just need to memorize the German phrase for “slow the hell down, mannn!” Or am I just getting old?