Thursday, June 9, 2016

Last stop...Barcelona.





Remember those changes that I alluded to last time?  Well, I'm going to blame those for why I've been so lax in updating our blog for the past couple months.  We are no longer reporting to you from the Jutland peninsula but have decided to make the jump back to our homeland and see if we can still fit in back there after spending 2 years among the Danes.  But before heading back to the USA, we couldn't pass up one more chance to take advantage of that wonderful 5 day Easter holiday that you get in Denmark (and definitely don't get in the USA).

This year we opted for the warmest place we could think of while still being on the European mainland...Barcelona!  It's a place that we've wanted to visit for the past 2 years, and our friend Carly came all the way from Colorado to join us for the tapas, wine, and sunshine while we still had time.

When you think Barcelona, your first thought is probably a really good soccer team (who unfortunately was not in town when we were there).  But your second thought might have something to do with architecture and in particular with the guy who seems to be everywhere in Barcelona...Antoni Gaudi.


So it's no surprise that we spent our first day in Barcelona checking out some of his creative landmarks around town and making the requisite (and totally worth it) stop at Gaudi's masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia.  Under construction for over 100 years, its current estimated finish date is in something like 2026 (and even that seems optimistic given how many cranes are still hovering around its facade), but its ongoing status as a work in progress doesn't deter the literal thousands of tourists walking through its doors everyday.  The masses may hinder it from ever being used as a real place of worship (thousands of people have a hard time staying quiet), but it certainly is a beautiful piece of architecture and design.










The next day, we thought we might escape some of the crowds by heading up into the mountains.  Some of the most easily accessible hiking from Barcelona is at Montserrat, and we had hoped to get there with enough time to check out the monastery built literally on the side of the mountain and then head up to the area's highest peak.  But it soon became clear that we weren't the only ones hoping to get out of the city that day.  This may not have been a problem if all routes to Montserrat were open and functioning properly on the day of our visit, but as it happened, all visitors to Montserrat who weren't planning to drive up the mountain had to be shuttled up by a 35 person capacity cable car whereas normally there is also a train that can take visitors up the mountain.  So, instead of escaping the crowds, we ended up waiting for much longer than I care to admit in the cable car line talking with another group of American tourists and beelining it for the overpriced cafeteria as soon as we finally made it up.  Not exactly what we had planned, but we did manage a short hike before having to get back in line for the trip down.























So we gave up trying to escape the crowds and instead plunged right into them with a day wandering through the Barri Gotic.  Walking through this maze of alleys and squares, it was sometimes so narrow that we couldn't even walk side by side so we eventually made our way to the city's main beach.  It wasn't exactly swimming weather, but it was nicer than it had been in months in Denmark so no complaints from me.

       




One of the highlights of our trip and certainly one of the coolest cultural things that I've done while in Europe was spending Saturday night at the Jazz Si Club in El Raval.  Super highly recommended if you ever find yourself in Barcelona, there's live music every night of the week in a tiny bar/club with mostly standing room or sitting on the floor.  Saturday nights are flamenco nights at Jazz Si, and while Barcelona isn't really known for its flamenco scene (it's much more popular in other parts of Spain), the performance we saw was quite impressive to these first time flamenco viewers.  It was sad, it was funny, it was passionate, it was all in Spanish.  The woman on stage may have been dancing or she may have been summoning spirits from the underworld.  When we left, all we could say was "wow".


On our last venture outside the city, we took the train southwest to Penedes, one of Spain's wine-growing regions.  The bike and wine tour seemed like a great combination of outdoor activity and yummy beverages, and it was.  But somehow the tour group ended up being us and a group of about 6 Spanish middle-schoolers and one other adult...a bit of an odd crowd.  But the kids ditched us before we headed to the Vinseum tasting room where we tasted 6 amazing local wines for something like 6 euros per person.  After the bikes and the wines, food seemed like a natural next step.  But Penedes is not a large town, and Easter Sunday made it even quieter still.  So we tried our luck at the one cafe open near the train station.  In the wonderful situation where the servers didn't speak much English and we didn't speak much Spanish, we ended with way too much food than we could possibly eat before the next train back to Barcelona, but we couldn't say we were hungry anymore so I guess you'd call that good luck (and it was probably our cheapest meal of the trip).


And speaking of food, should I maybe be moving to Spain instead of back to the USA??  Tortillas de patatas, croquetas, patatas bravas, I think I could eat this kind of food forever (especially at Spanish prices).  Not to mention the 1 euro glasses of wine.  We didn't even seek out the super fancy or super unique places to eat, but it didn't matter.  When eating food is a major part of your vacation, Barcelona is your kind of town.


So with that, we end our European-wide adventures (for now) and look forward to exploring the United States once again.  I will say that I am looking forward to visiting a city and being able to ask a question without consulting Google translate first.  But for all of the embarrassing episodes caused by a lack of cultural knowledge and/or language, I certainly wouldn't trade the adventure.  We're super grateful for these past 2 years and more than excited to see what's next.  Bring it on USA.


Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Learning is hard.

March 11 marked another year for the Gerhardts here on the Jutland peninsula.  And the next couple months are promising some changes for us (more on that in a future post, I promise!), but before those changes start coming full swing, there's one more blog post I wanted to write about life here in North Denmark...learning Danish.

Just a few extra letters.
When you think about language learning, there are a few common perceptions:
(1)  It's harder to learn a language as an adult than
as a kid...I definitely think this is true (unless you're one of those people who just seem to have a brain for picking up languages).  I know a few bilingual 6 year olds who perpetually amaze me.  They always know to speak to me in English, and instantly switch back to speaking Danish when speaking with a Dane.
(2)  It's easier to learn a language when actually living in a place that uses that language...This is also completely true, at least in my case.  I took Spanish for how many years in elementary and middle and high school?  I don't exactly remember, but it was certainly more than 2.  I've now lived in Denmark for 2 years, and my level of Danish is much higher than my level of Spanish ever was.  (But an unfortunate side note is that I now seem to have forgotten most Spanish because Danish has taken up residence as the primary non-English language in my brain.)

So with all that talk, the question you're probably asking is...well, Alana, do you speak Danish now???

Haha...well...sometimes yes...but a lot of times no...I guess it depends on the context...ugh why can't I learn faster?!?!  That pretty much sums up my attitude on a daily basis.  I'm proud to say that, yes, I can talk about some topics in Danish.  But speaking a language usually means that you also have to be able to listen and understand that language when someone else speaks it.  I think this is one of my bigger challenges in learning this language.  If someone speaks clearly and slowly, I might be ok.  But when one Dane is speaking to another at normal speed....oh that's hard.  And it's all my brain can handle to just try to understand let alone actually participating in the conversation.  I would sum it up by saying that I'm definitely learning, but those bilingual 6 year olds still beat me.

A notoriously difficult phrase for native English speakers.
See the full comic (and lots more Scandinavian humor) here.
Funnily enough, one of the reasons that I haven't learned Danish as fast as I would have liked is that Danes are so good at speaking English!  Thus, in many situations, it's simply easier for both me and them to just speak English.  It's much faster and far less awkward.  And certainly, in my work context, it is much more productive and efficient to speak English.  My co-workers have been very gracious to let me try to speak Danish at lunchtime and in social contexts.  But in a meeting where we're trying to get actual work done is not really the time nor the place for me to practice my Danish skills (especially when my co-workers are just as competent in English as they are in Danish).

In an effort to combat this English-speaking tendency, one of our Danish friends has started hosting dansk aftensmad (Danish dinner).  She invites us and a few of our other friends who are learning Danish to her home, she cooks Danish food, and we only speak Danish the whole evening (mostly).  I think it's as difficult for her as it is for us, but she patiently listens to our awkward speech and graciously corrects us when necessary.  And it's really given me more confidence to try to speak Danish other places and not limit myself so much on what topics I think that I can handle.

Learning to count in Danish is more difficult
than I would have expected.
And the confidence to simply try is hugely important.  As soon as I open my mouth, it's obvious that I'm not a native Danish speaker.  I've made enough mistakes to know that just saying words is a potentially embarrassing moment.  But there doesn't seem to be another way to really become comfortable and natural than by actually practicing.

So why learn a language that's only spoken in one country by just 5.5 million people who also speak English quite well?  For one, language is a large part of culture, and I've learned a lot about Danes and Denmark by learning some Danish.  And also, Danes seem to appreciate it.  They may not always understand what I'm trying to pronounce (this happens almost daily), but I think they like that I've made an effort.  And selfishly, being able to speak some Danish makes me feel less out of place and less stupid while interacting with people here.

Just because a word looks the same doesn't mean it is the same.
(This one just never stops being funny.)
When we first arrived in Aalborg, Danish was nothing more than gibberish and our entire life was this strange new thing.  Bus stop advertisements, street signs, and the instructions on the washing machine were un-readable to my brain.  Renting an apartment was different; I was eating fish (?!?!); no one went out to eat but bars stayed open all night; and why don't they sell black beans at the grocery store???  While the shortage of black beans in this country remains a challenge to me, I'm grateful to say that life in general seems significantly less uncomfortable now than it did 2 years ago, and being able to say things like Jeg vil gerne fem øl til mine venner certainly help with that.

Sometimes even Danes have difficulty understanding each other.


Saturday, March 5, 2016

Curing the winter blues in France.

As I might have mentioned before, Denmark does not have any real mountains.  Its highest point "Sky Mountain" tops out at 147 meters, and there are certainly no ski resorts.  But that doesn't mean the Danes don't know how to ski or snowboard.  I may have lived next to the Rocky Mountains for almost 6 years, but most of the Danes I met on our ski trip to Val Thorens, France have been skiing or snowboarding longer than I have.  So much for Colorado street (or slope?) cred.

Two of David's co-workers invited us along on a ski trip during the first week of February.  A big busload of Danes made the 24 hour drive down to the Alps in France for a week away from the Danish winter.  I was a little skeptical about this bus ride, but I ended up sleeping better than I expected and it didn't smell too bad at the end of the 24 hour trip.  And it was certainly worth it for the rather cheap ski trip which was made cheaper by sleeping 6 people per apartment...for a week.  Luxurious, it was not.  But who spends time in their room when they're in the French Alps?

I've missed this kind of view.

We were based in Val Thorens which is part of Les Trois Vallees and was certainly the biggest ski area I've ever been to.  The village was intentionally built as a ski resort so it wasn't quite as charming as the village we stayed at in Austria last year, but what it lacked in charm it definitely made up for in snow conditions.

Getting ready for a sweet jump.

Despite being in France, we actually spent most of our time with Danes (David's co-workers and their friends) who drove down on the bus with us.  In keeping with the cheap theme, we shared dinner-making and beer-buying duties with some of the others which was great.  Well, great until the cases of beer got locked outside on the balcony, and the door wouldn't open, and 9 engineers spent way too much time trying to solve this problem.  (In the end, it was maintenance to the rescue.  A day later.)



After the darkness of January, the sunshine, fresh air, and mountain beauty of Val Thorens certainly made winter a little brighter.  Maybe that's why so many Danes go on ski holidays.  You can't be depressed about winter when you spend a week like this.


Friday, February 19, 2016

An Arctic Expedition.






As per usual, it takes me at least a month to get around to writing about something, and our Christmas 2015 trip to the northern reaches of Sweden is no exception.  But that's not because Sweden is not exceptional.  It's the only place I've ever experienced a day without the sun coming over the horizon, a shower on a moving train, or a meal consisting of reindeer heart and licorice ice cream (in separate dishes, thankfully).

Getting a little dark for just
after lunch.



The Arctic Circle is just 9 degrees further north than Aalborg.  So this Christmas, we decided to make the trek up north and try our luck with seeing the northern lights.  And a trek up north, it was.  We opted for train travel again this Christmas and that meant one hour on a bus, three hours on a ferry, and about 22 hours on a train to get us from Aalborg, Denmark to Abisko, Sweden.  I have never realized just how long a country Sweden is before this trip.  Like, did you know that the southernmost part of Sweden is closer to Italy than it is to the northernmost part of Sweden?  And a journey by train makes you fully appreciate that distance (and gives you the opportunity to attempt to bathe yourself and not fall over as the train chugs around a curve).




Some website I was reading while trip planning said that Abisko is one of the places you are most likely to see the northern lights.  And on our first night there, nope, we did not see the northern lights.  Instead a storm rolled in and clouds covered most of the sky.  So there went those good odds, but we did as much exploring as we could during the semi-light hours, managed to not get too tangled up in the cross-country skis and poles, and became proud members of Svenska Turistföreningen (that is, the Swedish hiking association which ran the hotel/campground/yummy restaurant where we stayed in Abisko and was probably responsible for at least half of that village's population).






After a few days in Abisko, we moved on down to Camp Alta, a cluster of cabins on a small lake southeast of Kiruna, Sweden.  Still above the Arctic Circle, we never saw the actual sun, but the weather cleared up to give us about 4 hours of beautiful sunrise/sunset everyday and, combined with the really cold temperatures, some really cool effects from the sunlight interacting with ice crystals in the atmosphere.


AND...we saw the northern lights!  Upon arriving at Camp Alta around 4pm, we meet the lucky owner of this lovely place.  Since it's already dark at 4pm, he points towards the sky and says that he has "a good feeling about tonight".  He then leads us on a tour around the camp which includes instructions on how to get the sauna really hot and a demonstration on how to drill a hole in the lake for ice fishing.  After the tour, he points to some really faint wisps in the sky and says "oh, I think they might be starting already".  And in my head, I'm thinking "Yeah right.  You're just saying that because I came all the way up here to see the northern lights."  So we make some dinner in the communal kitchen and then end up taking a nap because, well, it's already dark out.  Waking up a few hours later, it sounds like the party is getting started in the sauna, so we get ready to head down to the lake, and WHOA...hello northern lights.  There could be no mistake.  I think I literally stopped in my tracks.


After standing awestruck for about 20 minutes, the lights started to dim, and we realized that we had been standing outside in freezing temperatures in our swimsuits but hadn't actually made it to the sauna yet.  We didn't get to test our sauna fire-building skills since someone had already taken care of that, but we did get to test our ability to handle extreme changes in temperature.  The sauna at Camp Alta is built literally on the lake.  When the lake freezes over, you can walk out on the ice to the sauna.  When you get too hot, there's a convenient trap door inside the sauna so you can jump in the barely-above-freezing lake to cool yourself down.  Just don't run into the scalding hot wood stove as you hoist yourself out of the freezing water.  (Thanks for looking out for me, David.)

video

Back in the cabin, we head to bed, but the silence is periodically broken by what sounds like a girl screaming somewhere outside.  I fall asleep thinking it must be someone having a traumatic experience after jumping in the lake, and it's not until the next morning that I realize that the screaming wasn't even coming from a human.  Camp Alta is also home to a pack of Alaskan and Siberian huskies, and, I didn't know this before, but when they bark, it kinda sounds like someone is dying.  We get the full experience down at the kennel when we help get the dogs ready to go out on the sleds.  And they are SO EXCITED.  We get them hooked up to the sleds, and they can barely contain themselves.  David is stomping hard down on the brake to prevent them from running away, and I'm holding on preparing myself.  You can so easily see why they are used to pull sleds because they love to run.  We take them out for a trip through the forest and take turns "driving" the sled which really just meant taking turns standing on the brake pad to stop them from wearing themselves out too fast.



The next morning we say an early goodbye to Camp Alta to check out it's much more famous neighbor across the river, the Icehotel.  That TV program that you've seen on the Travel Channel where people are drinking cocktails out of ice glasses and sleeping amidst ice sculptures in ultra-puffy sleeping bags...that's this place.  While they charge a ridiculous amount of Swedish kroner to allow you the opportunity to get a not very good night's sleep in the Icehotel, they charge a much smaller amount if you're content to only visit during the day.  Maybe this is obvious, but the whole building really is built of ice (from the nearby Torne River) and melts away every spring.  There's not really any furniture in the hotel, but artists have sculpted the ice in each room so that they have different themes.  "Show Me What You Got" had a giant peacock with LED feathers, and the "Power of Love" was setup like a power station (made of ice).  The beds are made of large blocks of ice topped with wooden frames holding thin mattresses and a reindeer skin.  If you're an overnight guest at the Icehotel, you check in at a separate heated building, store all of your stuff in a locker room, take your giant sleeping bag to your ice room, and pray you don't have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night (because there are no bathrooms in the Icehotel, only in the separate heated building with the locker room).











Since we weren't staying the night, we caught another overnight train down to Stockholm.  Due to the cheapest flights often having the longest layovers, we ended up with almost a full day to spend in Riga, Latvia as we headed from Stockholm to Berlin for New Year's Eve.  In Riga, we remembered what it was like to actually see the sun, checked out the Christmas markets still going strong, and tried the local version of Christmas spiced wine.








Berlin on New Year's Eve was just as crazy as you might expect.  Our excitement was a little subdued due to an inadvertent U-bahn ride in the wrong direction for about 30 minutes.  But we righted ourselves, picked up some walking beers, and made it to the party in plenty of time to see the streets fill up with people shooting off fireworks and the whole sky become one giant hazy cloud.


It seems a little silly to say Happy New Year in February.  So I'll just say that I hope that 2016 is treating you well so far.  We're looking forward to more adventures.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

We need a little Christmas.

Winter isn't coming...it's here.  It's cold, it's dark, and winter is definitely here in North Jutland.  I've already written our survival tale of last winter but only briefly mentioned there how essential Christmas cheer is to surviving the doom and gloom of the winter months in Scandinavia.  So let's brighten January with a little bit of that Christmas spirit.

Despite having some really nice fall weather this year, there was no denying the shortening of days by the time November rolled around.  Just when you might have started losing hope that you would every see the sun again...Christmas to the rescue!  You can't complain too much about darkness when the biggest department store in town covers it's entire building in thousands of Christmas lights (and puts a Lego model of Aalborg in the front window).









The first Friday in November marked our transition into the Christmas season.  Why the first Friday in November?  Because that's when the Christmas beer is released, of course!  J-dag is the day when Tuborg Julebryg is delivered to bars across Denmark.  It started with a cartoon beer commercial back in 1980 and has since grown into a yearly tradition where Carlsberg employees dressed in elf costumes give away free beer and fake foam snow starts falling at precisely 8:59pm.  If you're willing to brave the crowds, you might score a free light-up elf hat!


A few weekends later, Julemand (Santa Claus) arrived in Aalborg on his ship from Greenland and paraded through town on an old firetruck before lighting up our giant Norwegian Christmas tree.  After which, the Christmas market soon opened in the center of town, and we could fill ourselves with æbleskiver (little round pastries that taste like pancakes) and gløgg (like mulled wine with raisins and almonds) to keep out the cold.



             

As in many countries, food is an essential part of the Danish Christmas.  There are certain foods that you just always eat at Christmas, and it isn't really Christmas without them.  Of course, since it's Denmark, many of the traditional foods are some form of pork or fish.  There's also some really delicious creamed cabbages dishes.  Danes even have sweet potatoes, but not the orange kind you're thinking of if you're American.  The sweet potatoes in this case are boiled white potatoes that have been peeled and then coated in a caramel-y syrup.  And for dessert, it's ris a la mande with kirsebær sauce.  That's basically rice pudding with almonds and cherry sauce, but as per Christmas tradition, the bowl of rice pudding contains just one whole almond (all the others are chopped up).  The lucky finder of the whole almond eventually wins a prize, but if the almond is revealed too early, the bowl of pudding might go uneaten.  So the lucky almond finder must slyly keep the almond hidden until everyone has stuffed their face and can eat no more.  The traditional mandelgave (almond gift) is a marcipangris (marzipan formed into the shape of a pig).  Why a pig shape?  No idea.





So that's your traditional julefrokost.  Jul meaning Christmas, and frokost meaning lunch.  A name I'm not really sure about since every julefrokost I've been to has started around dinner time and didn't happen on Christmas.  I think Danish families do have a real julefrokost at lunchtime on Christmas, but the name also gets applied to any kind of Christmas party where you have the normal Christmas food and drink snaps until all hours of the morning.  Which is exactly what happens at the company julefrokost.  Yep, that's julefrokost with your colleagues, a time when your boss is pouring shots and everyone stays out til 5am in true Danish style.  At my first company julefrokost, I impressed my colleagues by being willing to try all of their Danish Christmas food, even the herring on rye bread which is the traditional first course (see photo).  It's followed by taking a shot of cold snaps, and while I don't particularly like either herring or snaps on their own, for some reason, they do seem to work well together.


This December included some extra fun as we headed to Copenhagen for my THIRTIETH birthday!  I've always enjoyed my birthday being during the Christmas season (well, except when I was a kid and wanted to have a pool party for my birthday), and we celebrated my three decades of life enjoying the Christmas magic at Tivoli amusement park.  Tivoli is a lovely, old time-y amusement park in the middle of downtown Copenhagen.  It's over 150 years old and still oozes charm, especially at Christmastime when it's decorated with thousands of lights.  Special thanks to our dear friend Louise who showed us around and treated us to a lovely birthday/Christmas dinner complete with ris a la mande.

             


             







As I think you can see, the Danes know how to celebrate Christmas.  When winter is really at its darkest, they light up the candles, cook up some pork, and sing together around the Christmas tree.  It's about as hyggelig as you can get.