31 March 2010

Christiania: Copenhagen's Dirty Secret

If you have ever wondered what would actually happen if die-hard hippies, anarchists, and other groups of similarly extreme, far-from-the-mainstream political thinkers got their way, then perhaps you should consider a tour through Christiania. I warn you, however, that a visit is not without its dangers.

The so-called "independent" community of Christiania finds itself on an island in Copenhagen's harbor, only a bit east of the city center. This social experiment began in the early 1970s when a group of squatters moved into abandoned military barracks on the island, likely motivated by that politically explosive era. They then proceeded to declare their independence not merely from Copenhagen but Denmark as a whole, and set about to organize an anarchistic society. Though a few rules supposedly existed to ensure the safety of the residents, the founders' intentions were to create a community free of any government or state interference and where an anything-goes mentality was the de facto law of the land. As a result, the lanes and shacks of Christiania soon filled with all characters from fringe society. While some respectable entrepreneurs set up stalls to sell organic produce or hand-made utensils and household items, others took advantage of the booming drug market. All of this retail activity took place openly and without any stigma against it from the Christianians.

From the beginning, the governments of Copenhagen and Denmark took a wait-and-see approach. With their refusal to pay taxes, unauthorized settlement of government property, and other illicit activities, Christianians were definitely leading illegal lives, but the governments were also uncertain of how to deal with the situation. On one hand, Christiania centered Copenhagen's drug market in one neighborhood. Destroying the community would simply disburse the trafficking throughout the city, making it more difficult to police. On the other hand, the governments were essentially granting Christianians immunity from the laws that applied to all other citizens of Denmark. Within the last twenty years or so this relationship of acceptance has changed as the drug trade grew stronger and influenced a rise of violence.

Under increasing pressure from the governments, Christiania entered into talks of more normal integration with the city of Copenhagen. The Christianians remained suspicious of the governments' positions regarding greater access to the community with public utilities and vehicles, points which the governments argued were necessary in order to improve public sanitation and safety. Additionally, though the Christianians had, for their part, tried to reduce the trafficking of hard drugs, their efforts were too little in the eyes of Copenhagen and Denmark. While some progress was made, a climax came in 2004. In that year police raided Christiania in order to crack down on the drug market. Whatever success they had was barely noticeable during my visit.

Reading about Christiania in my guidebook made me curious enough to check it out. I expected to simply find a scruffy neighborhood adorned with innumerable Bob Marley, Che, and other similarly themed decorations. The fact that Christiania didn't appear on the city's official visitor's map told me something about it, but the reality of what I soon saw exceeded my expectations.

I entered Christiania from one of its two entrances. After leaving a nondescript street of Copenhagen, the path took me though a dusty lane and around an overgrown earthen mound and brick wall. Past all of these barriers, out of view from the street, begins the so-called "Pusherstreet," Christiania's main drag. Imagine a scene from a Hollywood movie depicting urban life in some post-Apocalyptic world, throw in a bit of Disneyland, and you start to develop an idea of what Christiania looks like. Colorful stalls and shacks lined Pusherstreet. The number of these rickety shops selling T-shirts seemed as many as those offering varieties of cannabis, the scent of which hung in the air. Paving on Pusherstreet was patchy at best. Litter floated in the rain puddles and festooned the weedy vegetation. The few trash cans available must have been a joke. Every dozen yards stood a steel barrel with a fire burning openly inside of it; dodgy assortments of people huddled around the barrels seeking warmth from the flames. Apparently any material that sparkled, shined, or added bright color was suitable to attach to building walls as art or decoration. The farther down Pusherstreet I strolled, the more my surroundings boasted their counterculture attitude.

At the end of Pusherstreet the path forked. To the right was an opening to what resembled an open air food court that was as decrepit as everything else I had seen. Here stalls sold vegetarian dishes and organic food. A stage rose from one end of the opening, but only a couple thick-bearded men sat on its edge. Back to the fork and to the left, the path led past some more buildings, ones that I can only assume were the original military barracks. An occasionally open front door provided glimpses into dimly lit rooms where I could only distinguish human forms and the glowing red ends of what were likely not mere cigarettes. At a few picnic tables outside of what looked like a bar, a few men sat, conversing in Danish and rolling marijuana joints. A mural on one wall caused me to stop and take notice. It read simply, "Common law of Christiania," and below the text were three depictions: two of clinched fists and one of a gun. Compared to this place, Amsterdam was a playground.

As striking as the physical setting was, so were the people moving about in it. For one thing, I had never seen such a diverse collection of all clean and grimy forms of alternative lifestyles. Most individuals standing around presented a grungy look, dressed in ragged clothes complete with the corresponding symbols of their respective extreme political and social views. Teenagers and young adults dressed themselves in punk outfits and the anarchist uniforms of nearly all black clothing. Older men and women wore colorful hippie clothes. Mixed in with these types were those who appeared homeless, street people in the true sense. And then there were the tourists. They stood out like most of the residents of Christiania would in a suburban shopping mall, and definitely did not go unnoticed by the Christianians. During my entire time in the community I sensed the eyes of the locals were on me. Through their looks they seemed to say that they knew I wasn't one of them, they would prefer for me not to be there, but permitted my presence because I could be a potential customer of their merchandise.

One can't take ten steps in any direction without seeing a hand-painted sign instructing visitors not to take photographs. Christianians will likely say that this rule exists to protect their privacy, which is probably true to an extent; however, I believe the full version is that they don't want any evidence that could link faces with the illegal activities in the community. Here, with this ban on photographs, is where my personal problems in Christiania began. Witnessing such a unique place, I couldn't bare to walk away without some documentation of it, no matter what a bunch of hippies tried to tell me. Of course, I wasn't foolish enough to take out my camera in the middle of Pusherstreet.

After I had seen enough of Christinia I returned to the boundary of the community, whence I had entered. From the last perspective where one could still have a view down Pusherstreet, before rounding the earthen mound, I stopped and looked around. No one seemed to be watching me. No one was close to me. This was my chance.

I reached into my jacket pocket and pulled out my camera. In defiance of a large "No Photos" sign directly facing me, I quickly turned on the camera, zoomed in, and snapped the picture. There was no angry mob, no yells. Feeling ambitious I tried to take a second picture, but in this moment the battery of my camera died. A bit disappointed, I returned the camera to my pocket and walked briskly to the exit, hearing what sounded like, "No photos!"

After the earthen mound I was within thirty feet of the street, almost back to civil society, when a young man looking about my age rode up on my left side on his bike and then abruptly cut off my path.

"Do you speak English?" he asked with a strong Danish accent.

I thought quickly. His reason for being there was clear. Perhaps if I pretended that I didn't speak English well he would become frustrated with trying to talk to me and leave me alone. The strategy usually worked with annoying panhandlers and souvenir-pushers in other European cities; it was worth a try.

"Oh, a little," I said with some fake accent. One advantage of teaching English in Germany is that I've become very familiar with the common grammar and pronunciation mistakes that non-native speakers make. In German, I next asked him if he spoke that language, assuming he didn't. He only stared at me for a second then continued to speak English.

He explained to me that photos weren't allowed in Christiania, and that he had seen me taking some.

"Ah, yes, um...sorry," I responded. "Uh, I go. I go." I stepped to the right and ahead to go around his bike and to the street, but he moved to block my path again. A brick wall and the mound prevented me from moving any farther in that direction. My assessment of the situation suddenly changed.

"No, no, no," said the man. "You have to delete the picture."

I briefly acted like I didn't understand, but that changed nothing. Knowing that I was dealing with a guy who had most likely already made some irrational choices in his life and that dozens of his friends were only a shout away, my better judgment won. A photo wasn't worth risking what he was potentially willing to doing.

Removing the camera from my pocket I held it so that only I could see the screen. I pushed the power switch into the on position, but nothing happened. Only then did I remember that the battery was dead. At first I thought this was good thing; I wouldn't be able to delete the picture. Then my thinking quickly reversed. What would he demand if I couldn't delete the picture?

"Uh," I looked up at the man. "The, the...battery...dead."

"What? No f---ing way. I don't believe you. You're f---ing with me. Give me the camera."

The tension immediately rose. My grip on the camera tightened. In my own firmer tone I told him again that the battery was dead, but he wouldn't believe me.

"Yes!" I extended the camera out slightly so that he could see the screen for himself. "On, off, on, off," I said as I moved the power switch between the two positions. "Nothing."

"No, no," he still refused to believe me. The man then reached his hand out so that he could push the switch himself. I held on to the camera with both hands. He pushed the switch into the on position so hard that for a moment I feared he might break it.

At that instant another voice from my rear announced the arrival of a second man. "Just delete the f---ing photo, man!"

I turned to my left to see this second man dismounting his bike. Now there was no way out. To my back was the wall, to my right the first man blocked my path to the street, the second man blocked my way to the second exit, and the direction to my left led only back to Christiania. I told the second man that the camera was dead, but he was just as incredulous as the first man.

"Yes, it's dead," I insisted. "On, off, on, off, nothing!" I yelled while showing the second man the camera screen, flipping the switch back and forth, and continuing my masquerade of poor English. I didn't know what to anticipate.

As suddenly as the confrontation had worsened, it ended. Both men took steps back.

"You're lucky today, I should take you camera," the first man said as he turned his bike around.

"Ya, learn to respect other people, man," the second man added in the greatest of ironies while following his friend.

I shouted back my own colorful expression in German and walked to the exit. Finally reaching the street, I quickly walked away with some stressed nerves.

In the end, the men were not willing to resort to any more drastic means in regards to the photograph and, in retrospect, it does seem understandable. The police detest Christiania. The government would prefer to raze it, but doesn't know how to proceed. But an attack on or theft from a foreign visitor could have been an excuse for the government to raid the community again. Perhaps these two punks, as damaged as their rationale is, might still have understood that. Then again, as damaged as their rationale is, maybe not.

Violence is certainly not unknown in Christiania. A quick look over the community's page on Wikipedia offers headlines describing shootings, a grenade attack, and riots, all in recent years. A Danish man in my hostel room told me later that night that police officers must enter Christiania in large groups due to safety concerns.

In light of these issues, one would expect the city to do more to warn tourists. Yet the tourists come to gawk at the spectacle that is Christiania. Perhaps for the reason that the community sits in Copenhagen, Denmark, one of the safest areas of already safe Western Europe, visitors have a false sense of security there. I remember seeing a group of three college-aged American girls walking through Christiana, purses balanced on their shoulders, and saying that they should return that night to hang out in one of the bars. I also wonder what would have happened had I honestly not spoken English. I of course understood what the men wanted from me, but other foreigners wouldn't have been so lucky. Indeed, the city should do more to protect the tourists who wander Christiania's lanes with the ignorant illusions of being in a theme park-like atmosphere.

The experience also demonstrated to me the folly and short-sightedness of anarchism. A society that began as a peace-loving and well-intentioned one without laws has degraded to one of low living conditions, drug abuse, threatening methods, and the introduction of rules in order to control visitors who don't think like members of the society and to protect the own good of the locals. I surmise that Christianians can now be grouped into three main categories: the old hippies who likely helped to found the community and who still believe in its original goals but who now number in the minority, the potheads and druggies who only care about their next fix, and the anarchists who have taken over for their own profit and in the name of their political beliefs. Furthermore, not only does a capitalist market flourish in Christiania, but it is also one that offers cheap souvenirs and other junk for tourists. It appears that Christiania is today a society where personal interest, possibly in the form of profit from selling T-shirts or in the form of self-gratification through drugs, and one ideology preside--a stark contrast to the original concentrations on the greater good of the community and individuality.

To conclude, here is the cause for my problem in Christiania and the inspiration for this post, a simple photograph recorded before even coming into focus:

29 March 2010

Nice Copenhagen and Mild Denmark

My trip in the North finished last Wednesday, and since then I've been enjoying the comfort of home. This is the first post of several to come over the next days to better present my recent travels. Unfortunately, I have learned that Blogger.com is currently experiencing technical issues with the display of images on many of their hosted blogs, which means that you likely won't be able to see my photographs for the time being. As of today, though, staff at the organization is working to fix the system-wide problem. In the mean time, try to make due with the text, and check back in a couple days to see if the images are displaying correctly.

As mentioned in my previous posts, my northerly travels began on March 10th in Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark and the largest city in Scandinavia with about 1.2 million residents. The country lies to the north of Germany, which is actually the only nation that Denmark borders on land. Geographically speaking, Denmark consists mainly of the Jutland Peninsula, the mainland portion of the country that stretches out from the German border, and several islands of varying size to the east of Jutland. Of these islands, Zealand is the largest and home to Copenhagen, which itself is so close to Malmo, Sweden that a recent bridge and tunnel project has spanned the Oresund Strait to connect Denmark, and thereby mainland Europe, to Sweden and the rest of Scandinavia. Though an autonomous region, the disproportionately large Greenland remains under the authority of Denmark.

Aside from political meetings and global conventions, Denmark has held little power in the international arena for quite some time, but it wasn't always so. The Danish culture and society as they exist today can trace their origins to the Viking era from around 1000 AD. Like today, the Danes of that time held strong relations to their Scandinavian brethren to the north in present-day Sweden and Norway. With their fellow Scandinavians, the Danes sent out on Viking expeditions to pillage, explore, and settle. One of the many finds from their voyages would be Iceland, but that is a story for another post to come.

By the Middle Ages the Danish crown ruled over all of Scandinavia. With the breakaway of Sweden a series of wars ensued leading to the eventually recognized independence of the other country, but Norway, Iceland, and other islands in the North Atlantic remained a part of Denmark. From this glory age of Scandinavian union, in my opinion, Denmark began its slide into relative obscurity. Over the next centuries, and again from the opinion of someone who is not a professional historian, Denmark seemed to concern itself too much with its local, petty interests. Conflicts with Sweden persisted as Denmark occasionally tried with varying success to win back territory long lost. Additionally, the Danes waged war a few times with the Germans to the south over small bits of water-logged lands called Schleswig and Holstein, disputes which wouldn't be fully resolved until the 20th century. Eventually Denmark lost Norway and Iceland, and became a constitutional monarchy with an elected parliament.

Though numbering less than six million, the Danes continue to push hard to remain involved in international affairs, as the recent climate change summit in Copenhagen can attest. Closer to home, Denmark strives like the other small countries of Europe to have its voice heard among the powerhouse nations of the continent. Though a member of the European Union, Denmark has chosen like Sweden to so far stick with its own currency rather than use the euro. After arriving in the country and seeing price tags, the euro was indeed something that I missed during my travels.

My overnight train pulled into Copenhagen close to noon on Wednesday. After checking in at my hostel I spent the afternoon and evening visiting several of the city's museums, most of which were to my luck free on that day of the week. The first stop was the Royal Danish Arsenal Museum. The exhibit offered an impressive collection of artillery pieces collected from over the centuries, but was otherwise a simple look at various weapons. A view of the artillery hall is below.

The museum was located on Slotsholmen, an island in the middle of the old town that boasts several former royal buildings renovated to house many of the modern government's offices. The bridge in the following photo leads to the island and the Christiansborg Palace, where the Danish parliament meets.

From there I moved on to the National Museum, a superb display of Danish history. The exhibits provided excellent insight into the development of Danish culture from Prehistory through the Viking era and up to the year 2000 with informative displays and actual artifacts. It was here where I learned much of what I now know of Danish history.

When the museum closed at six o'clock, I walked on to another museum but first with a brief stop in the Danish Royal Library. The original brick and mortar building of the library was constructed about 100 years ago, but in 1999 an extension was built across the street and next to the harbor. This modern portion is a sleek and black granite cube that rises from the ground at an angle. A few skybridges connect the extension with the original building. Here's a look inside the atrium of the extension looking toward the harbor.

I soon arrived at the National Art Museum. Though a bit disappointed by the collection and confused by the organization of the pieces, I didn't complain any as the entrance fee was zero Danish krones.

On Thursday, my only full day actually in Copenhagen, I spent time walking the streets of the old town and visiting a couple more sites. The largely pedestrianized old town presented a mix of squares, shops, and classical architectural styles. Perhaps I have only become somewhat jaded from my European travels, but I was not overly impressed by the old town's appearance. Ugly, no, but it lacked that certain charming quality that many other great cities of Europe have delighted me with. Passing a toy store I couldn't resist going inside for only a short look at their assortment of Legos for sale; Denmark is after all the country where these internationally known plastic building blocks originated. A fresh spot in the old town was the colorful Nyhavn canal, a photo of which appears after the view of a public square.

From the canal I continued north along the harbor front. After a little time I reached the Amalienborg Palace complex, the winter home of the Danish royal family. My random arrival coincided with the daily changing of the guard ceremony. A glimpse of this pageantry is below. After the ceremony concluded, a black limousine escorted by a likewise black sedan and a police car rounded a street corner, drove onto the central square and toward the gates of the palace. I should have asked to be certain, but guessing from the excited reaction of picture-taking and hand-waving by the nearby Danes I assumed that the woman in the back of the limousine was a member of the royal family.

From the palace grounds I pushed on northwards along the harbor with a certain destination in mind. I wanted to see one of Copenhagen's best known landmarks, which curiously enough wasn't much of a true landmark at all. On some rocks cropping out from the lapping waters of the harbor rests a forlorn looking statue. The artwork depicts the main character of Danish author Hans Christian Andersen's story, "The Little Mermaid," and the inspiration for the Disney movie. Indeed, the diminutive mermaid could easily go unnoticed by passing tourists expecting something grander.

From the statue I headed back south and to the Museum of Danish Resistance. The displays at this museum tell the tales of Danish resistance against Nazi occupiers during World War II. When Germany attacked in 1940 the initial battle lasted mere hours before Denmark agreed to comply with the invaders. Germany needed Denmark as a jumping off point to reach and occupy Norway, where deep fjords could provide safe harbors and access to the North Atlantic. Over the next few years during the occupation Germany allowed Denmark to maintain self-rule but with control that grew more limited as the war dragged on. As the museum presented it, the Danish resistance seemed less than I would have expected, as mostly non-violent means were used. Unfortunately for the Danes, due to their country's position of low strategic importance from the Allies' perspective, they essentially had to wait for Germany to withdraw before being entirely free again.

From walking around the city I had developed an appetite and knew exactly where to go. Ida Davidsen is local institution in Copenhagen that offers the Danish specialty smorrebrod. The open-faced sandwiches are available from several cafes and restaurants around the city, but Ida Davidsen serves up gourmet versions that even the Danish queen is known to crave. The toppings for a smorrebrod sandwich come in endless possibilities. Simpler styles involve common items like deli meats, cheeses, tomatoes, smoked salmon, and eggs, while fancier ones can include pigeon or smoked eel. Below, photo of an old menu decorating a wall in the restaurant shows the variety. To order, one approaches the glass counter that contains several of the possible colorful selections and picks one. A fresh sandwich is then made for the customer and brought to his table. I chose a version that came with a breaded fillet of a white fish, smoked salmon, black caviar, shrimp, asparagus, and some sweet orange sauce all topping a small slice of rye bread. You can see the delicious sandwich for yourself in the second picture below.

After eating, I headed over to a community in Copenhagen called Christiania, where I had my run-in with a couple anarchistic punks. I will save this story though for a separate post to follow.

On Friday I took a day trip to a couple towns north of Copenhagen in order to visit some castles. The first stop was the city of Hillerod and its Frederiksborg Castle. This Renaissance fortification spreads itself over three islands in a large lake neighboring the city. Here is a view of it from across the water.

With construction on parts of the castle beginning in the 16th century, its walls have since then witnessed the coronation of several figures of Danish royalty. Today the rooms of the castle house the National History Museum, and in most cases are the attraction themselves. As the next two pictures show, the interior of the castle has been beautifully restored and maintained. Keep in mind one of the advantages of traveling in the low season while noticing the absence of other people in the photos.

From Hillerod I traveled to Elsinore (Hellsingor in Danish) and visited Kronborg Castle. Though I arrived too late to see the castle from the inside, I was still able to stroll around its courtyard and along its ramparts in the dreary afternoon. The last photograph shows a view of the courtyard. Kronborg Castle and Elsinore are famous for being the setting used in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which the memorable line of, "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark," is used. Satisfied with my walk around the castle grounds, I then spent a little time in a cafe before returning to Copenhagen in the evening.

On Saturday morning I checked out from they hostel and rode a train to the airport. From this gateway I would reach the next destination of my trip, Iceland.

In the end, I found Copenhagen a nice city with a rich choice of museums and cultural attractions, but the it did not win me over entirely. It was a good city to visit, but it doesn't leave me with the desire to return. Not that I'd refuse to go back for a second visit, but the first seemed to suffice. "Good, but not more," seemed to be the theme of my stay in Denmark, naturally with some of the exceptions noted above. Of course, my experience in seedy Christiania could have affected my impression of Copenhagen. To find out why, stay tuned for the next post.

22 March 2010

In the Arctic

For the second time in my life I'm north of the Arctic Circle. Last time it was in Finland, this time it's Norway.

I arrived in Oslo last Thursday and only stayed until Saturday, as my urge to go north could not be restrained. After the diminutive capital of Iceland, Reykjavik, Oslo was a bustling metropolis of large museums, boulevards, parks, and monuments. Highlights included such things as Viking ships and Edvard Munch's famous painting, "The Scream," not to mention a visit to a karaoke bar with some fellow travelers staying at my hostel. "Yes," is the answer to your likely question.

I flew to the city of Bodø on Saturday morning, boarded a ferry, and arrived to the village of Stamsund and the Lofoten Islands in the evening. After almost two weeks of travel in the north I've finally encountered snow, layers of it. I asked around in Stamsund and found my way to a hostel, where I met a group of international students who study abroad in Norway and who were taking their own trip. They invited me to the dinner they were preparing and shared their stories with me.

On Sunday I discovered that no buses serve Stamsund on that day of the week, but rather than letting me stay stranded in that fishing village, the group of students offered me a ride in their rented car to the nearest town. After hitching the ride and offering a couple dozen thank-you's I took a bus from Leknes to the town where I currently find myself, Svolvær. Here I have a quaint and dockside private room with a view of the harbor, though a sudden snow storm can quickly turn things grey. Indeed, on the Lofoten Islands the weather can change from blue skies to a howling cascade of snow and back to clear skies all within ten minutes. Calling it unpredicatable only begins to describe the weather here.

I will stay until Tuesday evening, when I will board a ferry back to Bodø and then fly out on Wednesday morning. By that afternoon I should be back home in Eichstaett. The only remaining thing I desire with this trip is to catch a glimpse of the Northern Lights. I missed them in Finland, and hope that this second chance brings better luck.

Once I'm back in Eichstaett I plan to make some extended posts on the stories from this trip and, of course, with photos to help tell the tale.

16 March 2010

Nordic Travels

No, I haven´t already lapsed on my promise to return to frequent posting. Since last Tuesday I´ve been traveling to one of the last corners of Europe that I´ve yet to see: the Far North.

On Tuesday evening I boarded an overnight train to Copenhagen, Denmark. I stayed in the Danish capital for three days, enjoying the several cultural institutions of that city. I visited an impressive national history museum with excellent exhibits on Danish culture, from prehistoric times through the Viking era to the year 2000. The Little Mermaid statue on the harbor, which pays tribute to Danish author Hans Christensen Andersen, looked small and lonely. A gourmet Danish smorrebod sandwich left my mouth watering for more. Two grand castles north of Copenhagen brought me back to Medieval times. One of them, the castle of Elsinore, was the setting in Shakespeare´s play "Hamlet." Indeed, the only bad experience I had in Copenhagen was in the so-called, "independent" community of Christinia, where a couple of anarchist punks were displeased with me taking pictures. That is one story which I will tell in detail once I´m back home and have the time to properly do so.

By the Far North though I of course did not just mean Denmark. On Saturday a plane took me from Copenhagen to the northern-most capital in the world: Reykjavik. Iceland is a beautiful country, and the prospect of paying it a visit excited more that many other destinations have recently. The land of fire and ice has not dissapointed me.

I spent most of Sunday at the famous Blue Lagoon spa and thermal springs. Imagine eerily blue and steaming pools of water surrounded by an otherwordly landscape of hardened lava fields, this is the Blue Lagoon. To soak in its warm waters is a soothing experience. Expect coloful photographs to come.

Yesterday I toured some of the inland parts of this country. Sights included a geothermal power plant, a dormant volcano´s caldera, bubbling field of hot springs and geysers, massive waterfalls, and the fault line where Europe and North America geologically meet.

Today I tried some of Icelandic food specialities, and this country does offer some unique ones. Some examples are dried fish with butter spread over it and lamb smoked over fires that use sheep dung as fuel. Believe it or not, the smoked lamb was delicious. And then there was the truly unique dish. Called harkal in Icelandic, it is shark meat that has been left to rot for about nine months under the ground. This putrified fish starts out fine in your mouth, then a taste of bleach starts develop and fills your palate until your mouth starts to burn. Definitely not for those with weak stomaches. The waitress assured me that there were no harmful bacteria, though sometimes people complain of diziness.

Photographs and more stories will be posted in near future.

08 March 2010

Sledding in Garmisch

Consider this an ushering in of new posts. I've been away for a while, but I look forward to a more regular appearance in the months ahead. The reasons for my absence vary, but first and foremost is the fact that, until the last few weeks, little of noteworthiness has taken place. Hardly any trips were taken. Now, however, the winter semester has ended and a new season of travel has begun. That this post marks the return of what should be my frequent writings here is quite appropriate, as this same post also marks the 100th for Fire at Will.

To kick things off, we will start with a day trip taken awhile ago, one that I had wanted to write about back then and now finally will.

On January 16 (I said it was awhile ago) AK International, the international student association of the university, took a day trip to the town of Garmisch in southern Bavaria. I had first traveled to the town nearly three years ago while studying abroad in Eichstätt. At that time I had hoped of seeing the Alps clad in thick snow; however, I disappointingly experienced spring weather. The purpose of the visit this time around was to go sledding, and we would not be surprised with another stint of unseasonal weather.

From the base of the slopes next to town we rented our sleds and rode an open-air cable car to the top of the mountain. The sleds were simple: wooden and without a way to steer them. To brake, one had to brush his feet flatly against the ground. Not until the second run down the mountain did I actually learn this. On the first run I simple dug my heals into the snow, which always resulted in the frozen powder flying into my face.

In between descents on the slope, where the land became to level to sled down, we pulled our sleds along the trail, as you can see below. On the reverse side, many steep sections of the trail demanded either constant breaking, the slower choice, or surrendering to gravity and preparing for a forceful tumble into the snow at the bottom of the slope, usually the more entertaining choice.

This form of sledding, that is, where one takes the sled up the mountain in a lift or cable car as if he's going skiing, seems like a fairly popular winter activity in Germany, at least for those unable to ski. I assume that those who know how to ski wouldn't waste much time sitting on those wooden sleds. Countless other sledders, German and foreign, were having as much fun coasting down the slopes. We even had to watch out for the several teenage boys who soared by us on their fancier plastic sleds.

Our time on the mountain was almost already at its end when the group's fun was abruptly cut short. One of the students, a girl from Brazil, apparently took the tumble-into-the-snow choice for one steep descent on the trail, but the outcome wasn't too entertaining. A landing on her back brought significant pain and fear of moving. The German students organizing the excursion called for help, and soon a rescue helicopter picked up the student from the mountain and brought her to the hospital. In the end, I believe the injury wasn't so serious and the student needed to stay in the hospital for only one night. On the next morning she hopefully, at best, remembered the fun we all had had sledding before her accident occurred. If not, she at least woke up to some beautiful scenery.