Still in Stockholm

I’m still hanging out in Stockholm. Mostly I’ve been, well, hanging out. But I’ve gone out to some museums and checked out the town. I crashed the Stockholm Juggling Club last weekend, but it was kind of a slow day and there were only two other jugglers there. Apparently there was a beer festival, and all the other jugglers went there instead.

The other day Patrick and I went out to see a movie at what I think is the coolest movie theater ever. It’s a very old theater, and has a really relaxed, friendly atmosphere. It’s attached to a cafe selling organic tea, coffee, and snacks. We were afraid we might miss the start of the movie while we were chatting over our drinks, but the waitress said she’d let us know when the movie started, and we could take our drinks in with us. As the movie was starting, the projectionist tapped me on the shoulder to ask how the volume was. The movie we saw was “Tristram Shandy”, an absolute bizarre but hilarious British film, as only British films can be.

My favorite Stockholm museum remains the Vasa Museet. The Vasa is a tall ship that was once the crowning glory of the Swedish navy. Unfortunately, it sank in the Stockholm harbor, only twenty minutes into it’s maiden voyage. Bit of an embarrassment for the ship builder, but lucky for him, he died before it was completed. In the 1950’s, the wreck was found and salvaged, and now’s it stands fully preserved as a museum.

Last week we celebrated a Swedish Halloween. I baked a pumpkin pie, since none of the Swedes had ever tried one, and we even got one group of trick-or-treaters.

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Hej från Sveridge (Hello from Sweden)

I’m in Stockholm staying with my Swedish friends. It’s been four years since I’ve been to Stockholm, and it’s very nice to be back. It’s a bit colder than London, but not too bad. The Swedes seem to think that it’s freezing and miserable, but maybe my blood is still holding some warmth from down south or something.

Yesterday I walked around the city with my friend Nicole, and today I walked around a bit more (on my own for the first time, so I actually had to figure out where things are). Stockholm is a beautiful city, especially this time of year with the leaves changing color. The city is on the coast, and actually spans several islands, so there’s lots of water around. The old town is fun to explore because all the streets are really narrow and twisty (and pedestrian since cars can’t fit).

I’m making an effort to learn a little Swedish while I’m here, but so far haven’t progressed much beyond the most basic everyday phrases. I bought a phrase book today at a used bookstore, but it’s an English phrase book for Swedish speakers, so I can only understand the sentences that are directly translated.

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London

I’ve been in London for a few days now. It’s a busy place. There are a lot of people and lots going on. I’m enjoying it. Not sure I’d want to live here, but I’m having fun visiting.

Yesterday I took a river ferry to Greenwich (as in Greenwich Mean Time). It is here that the Greenwich observatory stands, which marks the Prime Meridian (the imaginary line around the Earth that marks longitude 0). The observatory has a great museum about the history of naval navigation. The problem of how to measure longitude was of huge importance, because the merchant ships couldn’t navigate if the didn’t know where they were. The solution was linked to the development of astronomy, and the development of clock making. Navigators were able to determine longitude from the night sky using carefully compiled tables and star charts, or by comparing local time with Greenwich Mean Time, which required an accurate clock that wouldn’t be thrown off by the rocking of a boat at sea (pendulum clocks were the cutting edge technology when all this was happening).

Today I went to the Borough Market, sort of a major farmers market where you can get top quality fruit and veg (they don’t say “veggies” here; it’s just veg), cheese, bread, meat, wine. Pretty much any foodstuff, really. And I ran into Jake, one of my housemates from the co-op in IV! He’s studying in London this year.

After the market I went to the Tea and Coffee museum, and learned all sorts of things about our love affair with caffeinated beverages. For example, the widespread use of opium in China is a direct consequence of tea trading. The British were having trouble paying for their tea imports from China, so they came up with a neat solution to the problem: trade the Chinese opium grown in India for the tea. The Chinese government didn’t think this was such a hot idea, and it lead to the Opium Wars, and eventually to Britain sourcing most of it’s tea from India. Also learned lots of cool stuff about how instant coffee came to be, how tea bags were invented, and how the coffee maker has evolved through the ages.

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Machynlleth, Aberystwth, Swansea, Cardiff, and other places with hard-to-pronounce names

I have been in Wales for a few days now. I hitch-hiked from Newquay to Cardiff because the train was quite expensive, and there isn’t a very direct bus connection. In Cardiff I spent one night in a youth hostel, and had a wonderful time hanging out with a photographer from Slovenia and some Welsh friends of hers.

The next day I was planning to leave Cardiff and catch a bus to Machynlleth, home to the Center for Alternative Technology. But first I wanted to stop by the Museum of Welsh Life, in Cardiff. I ended up spending the entire day at the museum, which is probably one of the most fascinating that I have visited. It is mostly open air, and features building and exhibits on all aspects of life in Wales. They have traditional farmhouses, bakeries, a water powered grain mill, a saw mill, a blacksmith’s shop, a castle, exhibits on Welsh agriculture, and more. There was even a fairly in-depth exhibit on the evolution of lace making throughout Welsh history. Of course, after all that I had missed the bus, and needed to stay in Cardiff another night. I stayed at a camp ground, where I had dinner with a very nice Scottish guy and his son.

The next day I set off for Machynlleth for real. But then I realized: it was Sunday. And that meant that there would only be one bus. And it would arrive in Aberystwth at 10:30 pm. Great if you’re a student coming home from a weekend partying in Cardiff. Not so great if you’re a traveller who doesn’t know the town and doesn’t have a place to stay. So I decided to hitch-hike again, though there wasn’t a very direct route.

My first lift took me to the main motorway. My second was a from a Welsh couple and their son in a caravan. They just having a day out on Sunday. When they picked me up I was not far from Cardiff, and hoping to get a ride to Swansea. I expected it would take me three or four more lifts to get to Aberystwth, which is the nearest big town to Machynlleth. The conversation went something like:

Me: So, where are you headed today?
Tommy: We’re going to the Gower.
Me: Oh, I’ve heard that’s a lovely area. I’m on my way to Aberystwth.
Tommy: Aberystwth is brilliant. I’ve not been there in years. In fact, I wouldn’t mind going there again…Iris? Do you fancy going to Aberystwth today?
Iris: Ok, sure.
Me: Cool.

So I arrived in Aberystwth in the afternoon, and had lunch at the ruins of the old castle. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay in Aberystwth or continue on to Machynlleth. There was only one hostel in Aberystwth, and it was a bit expensive, so I was leaning toward heading on. I started walking out of the city center thinking that I would continue hitching, when I came upon a fellow in a wheelchair. He seemed to be having some trouble, so I asked if he needed any help. Turns out that the poor guy’s electric wheelchair had broken down, and he was just about to call for help on his mobile phone. I pushed him home (no mean feat as it was mostly up a steep hill, and I was carrying my pack), and he invited me to stay the night in a spare room. He (Hector) was a student studying international law, and lived in a flat with a couple other guys.

Last night I went out with Hector’s flatmate Sam to the university club. They had a couple bands playing, and it was great fun (or “”brilliant craic””, as the Irish say). And while there I ran into my friend Laura, who I had met three months ago at the EJC in Ireland. That was a nice surprise, as I didn’t even know that she was going to school there.

Today I continued on to Machynlleth, and I will visit the Center for Alternative Technology tomorrow.

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Cornwall

I’ve spent the last week staying with my friends Ryan and Joanna in Newquay (in Cornwall). Cornwall is the south-west most part of England, and has a very different feel than the rest of the country. The Cornish descent from the Gaels (who also spawned the Welsh and the Scots), and consider themselves distinct from the rest of England. In particular there is a lot of emphasis on Cornish grown food and Cornish produced products.

The coastlines and beaches of Cornwall are lovely. Newquay is the surf capitol of the UK. Not being a surfer, the town itself didn’t hold much appeal for me. It’s also become a popular spot for stag and hen nights, so the nightlife tends to be a bit drunken and rowdy. But one day Ryan, Joanna, and I went to St. Ives, which is a very cute and artsy coastal village. And one day I took a bus to visit some gardens that had a hedge maze (I like mazes and labyrinths). It was great, but the amount of time I had to spend on the bus to get there was ridiculous considering the distance involved.

The highlight of Cornwall for me was visiting the Eden Project. It is in an abandoned quarry, and it is sort of a garden and musuem about plants. The site covers about 30 acres, and is partly an example of what you can do to restore an abandoned quarry. It also has two huge biomes, one for a semi-arid climate and one for tropical. They grow mangoes and bananas in their tropical biome. The outdoor garden has section that illustrate plants for food, fiber, fuel, medicine, beer, tea, etc. It also explores the role of plants in myth and spirituality. Part of the garden has a plaque by each tree that tells what it is, and what beliefs different people have held about that tree. The project also tries to educate about the environmental effects of agriculture, the importance of local food and biodiversity, and the role of food and plants in global geopolitics and international trade. Fascinating place; highly recommended.

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Sacred sites of the South West: Avebury, Glastonbury, and Stonehenge

View from the Glastonbury Tor

From Bristol I took the bus (actually several buses, local buses travel at an average speed of about 10 miles per hour when you factor in all the stops, and the fact that they almost never take a direct route). Avebury is the site of the largest stone circle in Britain. Most of the village lies inside of the circle. The stones are huge, most of the them over eight feet tall, and there is a big earthen embankment (a henge) around the stones. No one really knows what the circles where built for. I arrived on the evening of the Autumn equinox, and a druidic equinox ceremony was just finishing as I got off the bus.

I spent two nights in Avebury exploring the circle and some other prehistoric sites in the area. There is also a big man-made hill that stands several hundred feet high (no one knows why it was built), and a well preserved burial tomb.

From Avebury I got back on the bus to visit Stonehenge. Unlike Avebury, Stonehenge is packed with visitors. But it is an amazing place, I have to admit. The circle at Avebury is much bigger, but Stonehenge does have a certain magic to it. Maybe because the stones are shaped, while Avebury’s stones are left raw. I found the joinery of the stones especially interesting. The builders used carpentry techniques of mortise and tenon and tongue and groove to hold the stones together.

My last stop was Glastonbury. I got in after dark and in pouring rain. I actually got a bit lost on the Tor trying to find this apple orchard that I had heard you can camp in. Glastonbury is sort of the New Age capitol of the UK. The village is full of crystal shops and occult bookstores. As well as the Tor there is a sacred thorn tree that supposedly grew from the staff of Joseph of Arimathea, and some sacred springs.

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West Highland Way: The Night of the Midge

I was on day six of the West Highland Way. The sun was sinking low over the highland peaks, and I was hiking out of the village of Kinlochleven. I planned to walk just a few miles and camp. I climbed out of the valley, and walked along for an hour or so. Once or twice I stopped and thought about camping, but there were a fair number of midges about, so I kept going. As the sun was setting, I came to a stream, with a decent looking flat area nearby, and a spectacular view. There was a ring of stones on the flat area. I wasn’t sure about camping on the site of a pagan ritual, but it had a good view and I was getting tired. So I decided to take the placebo approach of magical power: It only works if you believe in it. (With the corollaries “It can’t hurt you if you don’t believe in it”, and “You can choose what you believe in”. I decided that for the night I believed sleeping in stone circles to be a sure path to long life and great sex.) (On closer inspection, the stone circle looked more like the sort that would anchor a tent than the sort that would attract the spirits of the woods.)

As I set up my tent I became painfully aware of how many midges there were, but I figured that once the tent was up it would be fine. I dove into the tent, and zipped the door closed behind me. I looked up, and to my horror saw that a couple hundred midges had been swept into the tent with me. I thought about trying to shoo them out, but thought better of it when I saw the swarm massing outside the door. I tried swatting a couple , but they’re really too small to swat effectively. It seemed that I was stuck with them. I watched the midges feeling rather helpless and powerless. I didn’t think there were that many midges in the whole of Scotland! The only good thing was that the ones in the tent seemed confused about how they got there, and ironically seemed more interested in getting out than in biting me.

That night I got off easy. After a couple hours a breeze came up and blew the midges away.  But in the morning the tent was swarming with midges! I don’t know if they got in under the bug net or if the were born overnight from eggs in the grass. (I have an ultra-light TarpTent, which doesn’t have a sewn-in floor. Usually  it’s fine, but not against the Midge Swarm From Hell.) But however they got in, I woke up with the damn things swarming around my face. I scurried out of my sleeping bag, and packed up as fast as I couple, pausing every couple of minutes to swat at myself. A couple hours later I dared to stop for breakfast. Maybe I had angered the pagan gods after all….

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Visiting the ancestoral homeland

Before leaving Scotland, I went on a little quest to find the homeland of the Abercrombie clan. A little web research revealed that the clan hails from Fife, and Google maps confirmed that there is indeed a town in Fife called Abercrombie. I set out by bus from Edinburgh to find it and visit it.

To call Abercrombie a town is pushing it a bit. Hamlet is closer to the truth. It’s about half a dozen houses clustered together next to the road. The name Abercrombie means “at the bend in the road”, and sure enough, that’s where the hamlet lies. There used to be a church, but it was shut down in 1646 when the parish joined with the neighboring parish.

I spent one night camping in Fife. I walked through Abercrombie, and then visited St. Monans, which is only 1/2 mile away. St. Monans claims to have the church closest to the sea in Scotland. The part of Fife that I visited was mostly farmland. It was picturesque in an agricultural sort of way, but not my favorite part of Scotland. The coast line was very nice. I walked a few miles along the very beautiful Fife coastal path before catching a bus back to Edinburgh to connect with my bus to England.

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Bristol

I arrived in Bristol (south east England) a couple days ago on an overnight bus from Edinburgh. I’m staying with Ya’ara, a friend from the Rainbow Gathering. Bristol is a pretty cool city. There are a lot of environmental things going on here. There is an eco-house that is open to the public, but unfortunately it’s been closed both times I’ve tried to visit.

Last night Ya’ara and I went out with her housemate Battina and their friend Jackie. We went to a stone circle near Bristol in celebration of the Autumn Equinox and Jewish New Year. After that the plan was to go to a pub, but Jackie suggested that we go to the Glastonbury Tor instead. The Tor is a hill with a tower on top that is the site of the Isle of Avalon, famed in King Arthur myth, and is supposed to be the gateway to the underworld. So, stopping only for chips (essential to any British evening), and locally made cider from a pub in Glastonbury, we set out to climb the Tor, arriving at the top a little before midnight. It was a very magical spot, and very beautiful. There was no moon, but lots of stars and not too many clouds.

Today I was planning to go to the Bristol Juggling Convention. (I didn’t know it was happening, until I met another juggler on the bus.) But unfortunately I was confused about exactly where it was happening, and ended up not being able to find it. I will try again tomorrow.

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Tales from Ireland: Buying glue in Dingle

I had just arrived in Dingle, and was walking around exploring the town. I passed by a hardware store, and I remembered that I needed some glue to fix the sole of my shoe, which was falling off. I walked in…and was in a pub. I looked back. There was the street. There was the sign (“Foxy John’s Hardware and Bike Rental”). Back again. Pub: bar, people talking, beer. Hesitantly, I entered. I approached a clump of people near the door, said that I was looking for glue, and asked if I was in the right place. They laughed and told me to ask for a pint of it at the bar.

I approached the bar, caught the bar tender’s eye, and told him that I was looking for super glue. Without missing a beat he finished the pint of Guinness that he was pouring, and ducked into a back room. He returned a couple minutes later with a couple different varieties of Loc-Tite. I selected one that met my needs, paid the good man, and walked out, back into the normal world. Only in Ireland…

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