Having done all the plausibly necessary prep, Jonathan and I set out for our first backpacking/camping trip with our 15-month-old daughter on a sunny Saturday in July.

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Our destination was a little lake called Skjennungen, approximately 5km from Frognerseteren (depending on the trail you choose), at the end of the 1 Tbane line. We've camped there sans baby twice before. It's close to Skjennungstua, an unmanned hytte on top of a hill, which gave me some comfort in the event of a freak thunderstorm or baby-related emergency. There are also trashcans near the hytte, which meant we could unload some waste weight before the longer hike home on Sunday. Our route took us out by way of Ullevålseter, a manned hytte, where we planned to stop for a coffee break. Total distance over two days was only about 12 km (7.5 miles). Click to enlarge the map below.

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We left after naptime on Saturday. The metro ride took about 40 minutes, and we disembarked at Frognerseteren at 3:45pm. The ability to start summer activities late in the day like this is one of the many things we love about Norway. Sunset in Oslo that Saturday wasn't until after 10pm.

  • In Jonathan's pack (32 pounds): tent, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, warm clothes for the kid, extra socks for all, books for all, food for one breakfast, one lunch, and one dinner, a backpacking cook stove and pot, plastic cups and sporks, water pump and filter, camera, and extra backpacking-related stuff (small lantern, waterproof matches, knife, etc.).
  • In my pack (40 pounds): a 15-month-old Cheeks McGee, water for all, first aid kit, trail snacks, diapers and wipes and waste bags, the kid's favorite stuffed animal.

Over the next two hours, we tramped along dry, well-marked trails, taking time to point out different types of trees, birds, and flowers to the enraptured baby girl. She got to see butterflies in motion, which garnered major giggles. She ate blueberries. She tried to get a good look at an itty bitty frog that her mama couldn't quite catch from within a patch of grass. She picked up stones and traced her fingers through the dirt in the trail. She tried to sing along to various hiking songs. Happy Trails, Row Your Boat, etc. But mostly she sat quietly with a fresh breeze in her hair as her parents talked about interesting things. McGee was a backpack champ. After a couple of breaks, she even voluntarily returned to the pack and attempted to saddle up herself. We will be buying our own Deuter Kid Comfort 3 soon!

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Arriving at Skjennungen just after 5:30pm, we decided to eat dinner before setting up camp. (One thing about having a baby--even an easy-going one--with you... there's less flexibility when it comes to the timing of meals.) A couple of campsites closest to the trail were already taken up by tents, but one less accessible site, on the opposite side of the lake was open. After boiling water on the stove, I sat at a picnic table and fed the kid, while Jonathan hurried to stake our claim.

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So, it's gray in Oslo. Again. This year, there's no escaping it, sadly. Oh, how I wish we could. Last year, we snatched up a cheap airfare deal on Norwegian and ran off to Malaga, Spain for a few days in February. Those memories are all that's sustaining me right now. Sunshine. Sea breezes. Churros dipped in chocolate. Sangria. Tapas. Flowers.

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Our first day in Málaga was sunny and bright. We walked straight to the famous Cathedral of Málaga, which we could see from our hotel room window! The Renaissance era church is decorated with detailed stonework and brightly colored mosaics.

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The cathedral is most notable for its lone bell tower, dubbed La Manquita, meaning The One-Armed Lady.

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I stood contemplating our pin map, which hangs in the entryway of our flat. It was my first anniversary present to Jonathan. Red pins for the places we've been and green pins for the places we want to go. There's a little plaque at the lower lefthand corner that reads: Jonathan & Audrey Camp's Adventures. I stood there in the afternoon light and considered the pins.

Red smattered across the U.S., from San Francisco to Boston. Red from the Arctic Circle down through Scandinavia and across Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy... all the way to a tiny Greek island off the Turkish coast. A pair of red pins on the southeast coast of Australia. Each one brought to mind a place, a time of day, the taste of croissant flakes on my tongue, music, sand between my toes. Ten years of adventures.

So much in our lives is going to change.

Jonathan was behind me, suddenly, that warm, calm, solid presence.

And he said, "We're going to need a third color."

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I live in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. I suppose there are many countries which have incredible landmarks and geographic features. The United States of America, my home, boasts 59 national parks, all of them spectacular in their own ways. Yellowstone is my favorite, followed closely by Yosemite and Grand Teton. I've also visited the Swiss Alps (and the Italian Alps), which take the breath away. Ireland's Dunloe Gap made me woozy with all the green, green, green. And I've stood stunned on the brink of the Blue Mountains in Australia. But Norway, even after all our travels, is special. This latest time lapse video from Rustad Media demonstrates that in high definition detail.

NORWAY - A Time-Lapse Adventure from Rustad Media on Vimeo.

Yes, I've been to several of the places featured in this film. I've wandered among the sharp peaks of Lofoten and cruised the deep, placid fjords of Vestlandet, and hiked the snowfields in Midt-Norge, and walked above the clouds at Norway's highest point, Galdhøpiggen. But what I love most about this video is actually the way the cities and towns are woven into the narrative, too. Bright, gold lights flicker in the windows of snug, colorful buildings in these typical Norwegian towns. It's what I'll actually remember most if and when I leave this place one day: that among the wilderness, Norwegians have carved out the cosiest spots for themselves. As a resident of this place, I promise here and now never to take that for granted.

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Journal entry from 20 July 2014:

This morning the wrinkles of our sweatshirts smell like pipe smoke and DEET. We left the hytte at 20:30, slathered in bug spray so that our cheeks shone in the late sunlight. Stopping to watch fish rise in the river--just a slip of dark, shiny head above the sparkling surface, then rings expanding to the shore--we found ourselves surrounded by a cloud of insects.

They hovered and glowed in the light, whirring and bobbing. It took me a moment to realize they were mosquitos. Enormous mosquitos. Their terrifying blood-sucking apparatus long and curved and visible. They appeared more like hummingbirds than insects. Thankfully, the spray kept them at bay.

We walked on up the road to the turnoff just before Rundvatnet, then up another steep fire road to its end. There we found no trail, but our object was the North-facing ride of Ostre Omasvarri (654 m), an understated hunch of a hill in this region of sharp-peaked giants. We turned and wandered in to the forest of birch--widely set from one another and branchlessly white down low, a departure from the forests of our Sierra home--which happens to be excellent for off-trail tramping and bushwhacking. 

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The next two minutes and thirty-one seconds will be the some of the most bizarre you've ever spent thinking about Oslo. GoPro cameras have enabled humans to make some pretty incredible videos. My favorite is, of course, Lions - The New Endangered Species? Lion group hug! This vid is less cool (how could it not be?), but more relevant to my blog. Watch as Eirik Helland Urke hops on a city bike and pedals around town. He swings past a number of sights mentioned in my post about jogging through the city yesterday, too. I love the way Stortinget looks!


If you're considering a visit to Oslo, I doubt this video will have much impact on your decision. But Oslo in Motion: 12,000 Photos in 5 Minutes might inspire you!

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Fate is nothing; fate is everything. I find it hard to believe in chaos, even when that's what whirls and crashes all around me. Probably because I'm a writer. My serendipity sensor is on overdrive. Not only do I notice the details of life--the scent of the roses, the placement of their thorns--but before my eyes, they arrange themselves in patterns. Like crop circles. Like fairy rings. 

My trip to Ireland last week was a literary one. It was my reward for winning the Irrgrønn Flash Fiction Award here in Oslo, last March. Three nights in Dublin, courtesy of Tourism Ireland. I was giddy with excitement on the plane, armed with a checklist of bookish things to do in the homeland of Wilde, Joyce, Yeats, Stoker, O'Brien and Enright. Again, what we accomplished (saw, learned, basked in, drank, explored) is far too weighty for one post. Here, I want simply to relate something fun that happened our first evening in the city.

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I'm home from a bookish, whiskey-laced, World Cup-ful week in Ireland. There are far too many wonderful bits to blog all at once. Suffice it to say, the trip ticked every box on my Perfect Vacation List. This is a list which has evolved over the years and now includes this shocking item: Finding time and space to go for a run.

You read that right. My on-again-off-again relationship with running is, well, on again.

My shins are fickle. My attachment to my couch profound. My wheezy lungs as good an excuse as any to move at a snail's pace through the majority of my life. But when I run regularly, I do enjoy it. Particularly the bit just after the initial fifteen minutes of hellish breaking-in which my body is bound to undergo every single time... and just before the devastating throb of my lazy heart as The Blerch pops up to tell me I should stop immediately and buy some ice cream instead. If I can drown out The Blerch's protestations with the help of Beyoncé or Ira Glass, I inevitably finish my run glowing (sweating, actually, but glowing just sounds less sticky, slick, and gross), breathing deeply, and proud of myself. Every time. Proof: This photo of me, post-run, posing with my favorite Georgian door in Dublin, number thirty-three, and the same shade of bright red as my poor, little, panting face.

Which is why I've signed up to run the Oslo Half Marathon in September this year, partnered with fellow American expat blogger Corinne to train for the race, and even managed to complete two training runs while on vacation!

When Jonathan and I trained for the Disneyland Half Marathon in 2008 and 2010, we did our final tapered runs in Anaheim the night before the big race. We did the same thing in Death Valley before the 30K we ran in 2009, too. But just plain going for a run while a tourist in a foreign city is something I've never tried before. It almost didn't happen, too, because when I Googled around for advice about jogging in Dublin, I saw the same thing over and over: Don't do it. Running on city streets in Dublin is, apparently, very tough to do. They're crowded. The intersections are terrible. (And if you're not a local, it's easy to forget which way to look when you cross the street, too!) Thankfully, the advice I found went further than that. If you want to run in Dublin, choose one of the many beautiful, safe little parks in the city, and do laps.

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Spring is coming. Allegedly. Right now, it feels like the worst winter I ever experienced in California: cold rain whipping against the windows, clouds so thick and so gray for so long you start to forget the sky was ever blue. In the interest of my own sanity, I thought I'd look for some proof of past springs here in the wild north.

Almost three years ago, Jonathan and I took a weekend trip to the historic old town of Fredrikstad, about an hour south of Oslo by train. As you can see, it was a bright, sunny day. (Proof!) A tourist's Scandinavian delight.

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The Gamlebyen (Old Town) is the center of a fortress and has been impressively preserved. Rather than taking a small ferry across the river from the train station (couldn't find the docks!), we braved traffic and walked across the long, modern bridge. Soon enough, we were passing through the 16th century stone main gate and onto the cobbled streets of old Fredrikstad.

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Paris is widely acknowledged as a city for lovers, but this September I visited with my mom. She flew in from San Francisco, and I flew down from Oslo for the rendezvous. Experiencing Paris with a gal pal is vastly different from visiting the same city on the arm of your husband/boyfriend/lover anyway, but we had an added bonus. Mom and I are very much alike. (Heredity, you see.) We love architecture and landscape paintings and striped shirts and ice cream and river walks and accordion music, so you might even say we are lovers of a good French time! And when we were at our leisure to choose activities or prioritize the sights, our list immediately took on a rose-colored hue. Here are a few of the delightful things we did in Paris between the usual list of tourist check boxes:

Taking a spin on le carousel de la Tour Eiffel...

When it's hotter than Hades in Paris, you've got to make your own breeze. It didn't take much coaxing to get Mom to ride Le Carousel de la Tour Eiffel with me. I'm sure we looked a little silly, posing for photos and hanging onto our pony-and-zebra combo for dear life, but it did the trick.

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Cruising the Seine and sipping vin blanc...

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Another ploy to escape the scorching weather in the City of Light, we purchased tickets on one of the many, many, many river cruises and spent an hour on the water. As part of the package, we sipped white wine and listened to the pre-recorded tourist history of each bridge we passed beneath.

Tasting gelato in the Jardin des Tuileries...

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Slick with sweat and giddy with delight, we walked through the gardens, trying to stay in the shade. When we saw the gelato cart, we almost broke into a run. The lemon gelato I enjoyed that day, served in the shape of a rose, was only one of the many delicious desserts sampled on our Paris trip. Others included crème brûlée and chocolate éclair.

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I delegated the writing of our Christmas card to Crypto this year, and she was full of her customary snark, but hopefully it will give you a giggle, dear friends. That's what this season is all about. Warmth and fun and friendship and making sure we don't forget to cherish auld acquaintance. 

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Front Photos (Clockwise): Old Town Tallinn, Estonia; The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, St. Petersburg, Russia; Lofoten Islands, Norway 

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Things will be quiet behind the red door for a few days. In April, I gave Jonathan his birthday gift of plane tickets to a dream destination, and now we finally get to realize that dream. 

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For the next ten days, we'll be trekking and tramping around the Lofoten Islands, Northern Norway's most dramatic and beautiful region, hunting for the famous Midnight Sun. (We may or may not actually see this phenomenon, as the weather is predicting a gray and drizzly ten days.) Either way, we'll be backpacking from tiny island town to tiny fishing village, bagging a few peaks and camping out amid some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. I can't wait!

Off to cross over the Arctic Circle... See you on the other side!

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Opening with one of the eternal sunsets for which Scandinavia is so well known, just behind Gustav Vigeland's infamously Angry Baby, this video from Kristian Larsen captures the true, modern personality of Oslo. 

Oslo in Motion from Kristian Larsen on Vimeo.

All the city's landmarks are here, from the Opera House to the Royal Palace to the City Hall. And there are some finer points, too, like the dandelion fountain at National Theater (my favorite) and the spinning iceberg sculpture in the water near Operahuset. These photos were captured over a two-week period in May of this year. When you see the city erupt in a flurry of flags and native costumes, you're seeing this year's 17 May celebration and parade. Jonathan and I are somewhere in that crowd, along with Madolyn Yuen, our guest that weekend.

Someday, when I leave this place, I will be glad to have this video as a souvenir. It bottles up some of Oslo's magic: colorful, clean, full of light, speed, and efficiency, but with time and space enough to stretch out and consider the ever-and-quickly-changing sky.

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Moving to Europe, I expected some downsizing. The average private vehicle size, for instance, is far more compact here than in the U.S. When we see big trucks on the road, they are a novelty. We take notice and assume a wealthy American decided he couldn't transfer to the Norwegian branch of his oil company without his trusty Dodge. Cars here are just smaller. Ditto city apartments, meal portions, playgrounds, and storage spaces of all kinds. 

This last is best demonstrated by the average size of refrigerators in apartments across Oslo.

On the left, you can see our kitchen the week I moved in, back in April 2011. The poor, little guy had been retrieved from the bowels of our building's basement by our landlord. Who knows how long he'd been decommissioned before that. To say we've crammed him full of food is something of an understatement. As a car-free couple, the grocery haul must be restricted to what we can fit into a backpack and reusable bags. Even then, if both of us went to the market, we were able to bring back enough food to make that tiny fridge bulge at its aging seams. There isn't enough room to hold all (or even most!) of the beer cans Jonathan's friends bring over on game nights, either.

Plastic drawers were cracked. The door bleated in protest each time we swung it open. The freezer wouldn't close all the way without effort. The temperature inside the fridge swung wildly from just cold enough to keep the milk good to so cold I couldn't pour soda past the iceberg that had formed within the bottle.

And then last week, as we sat in the living room minding our own business, Jonathan and I heard an enormous crack! One of the glass shelves had split right down the middle. And there was almost nothing on this shelf, so we knew it wasn't our fault. Little Fridgy had simply given up.

I would have felt sentimental about the whole thing had our landlord not acted so quickly to replace it. I worried about having enough time to say goodbye... and then the new hunk showed up. Gleaming. A foot taller, inches deeper. With baskets that could accommodate frozen pizzas. With shelves in the door that could hold soda bottles... get this... standing up!

I stripped Little Fridgy of his magnets and sent him on his way. Because magnets, in my world, are the way I show love to my kitchen appliance. And it was time to magnetize the new guy. Tenderly. One bit of memory at a time.

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I could smell smoke. Cigarettes, wood fires, weed. The music and rhythm of parties echoed up and down our street. A group of twenty young people gathered across the street. I leaned over the railing from my apartment balcony to see them. Smart phones twinkled in their hands. Their voices were animated, full of potential energy. Beers popped open. A boy tugged gently on the long, blond hair of a female companion. After a minute, they paired off and started snapping photos of themselves. I could imagine Facebook timelines refreshing all over the city, all over the world. Midsommers party-time!

Today, the sun rose at 3:54 a.m. Sunset won't come until 10:44 p.m. The summer solstice is the longest day of the year. Here in Oslo, that adds up to 18 hours, 50 minutes, and 1 second of daylight. For the sake of comparison, my old hometown of Livermore will see a mere 14 hours, 51 minutes and 47 seconds of daylight today. This is one of the delights of living at the top of the world.

Last summer, Jonathan and I celebrated the solstice by hiking in the Oslomarka. We took the train out to Movatn station, an unmanned on the shores of a small lake. We disembarked at 10:15 p.m.; the train eased-then-flew off into the night. And we walked home.

(PHOTO: A nameless pond in the Oslomarka at 23:15 on 20 June 2012)

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Four and a half days. That was all. And some of that time must be spent sleeping. Sleeping instead of laughing, embracing, catching-up. Three times Audrey counted it. Four and a half days. And tomorrow her guests would arrive.

I'm being dramatic, and I'm cheating a little, too. There's nothing terrible about having one's best friends in Oslo for four and a half days, except that it's less than five and a half or six and a half days. I'm stealing O. Henry's drama to make you understand, dear reader, how much I worried that four and a half days wouldn't be enough. One hundred and eight hours. Selfishly, I wanted a full week, but four and a half days would have to do.

There was clearly nothing left to do but flop down on the shabby little couch and howl.

Or suck it up.

I did the latter. And then planned, planned, planned all the stuff we would do, the places we would go, and the people we would see during those 108 hours. As it turned out, I needn't have worried. Life may well be made up of "sobs, sniffles, and smiles, with sniffles predominating," but smiles certainly held their own while Cindy and Brad were in Oslo with us.

At left, you'll see what we wound up doing for the majority of that time. Besiding. Morning, noon, night (or what passes for night during summer in Norway), we were beside one another. At meals. Playing games. Exploring the city. I could reach out and touch my friend's elbow, feel her wrap her arm around my waist. Nothing went according to anybody's real plan. Brad and Cin were nursing colds. Jonathan ordered fish on his pizza. The tourist info office moved since last summer, so I had my guests break the law by riding public transportation before we actually bought the passes to do it! But all of it was done besiding. Which made it perfect.

Don't overplan your next visit to Oslo with friends. I've got a recipe for one Basically Epic Week in Oslo:

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Though the Red Stars Hotel is more than a mile from Nevsky Prospekt and the other major tourist sights, I still recommend it to those who don't mind a little walking.

The staff spoke very competent English, a relief at the end of each long day. They ordered taxis for us on two occasions, and were able to tell us how much our trip would cost in advance, to avoid taxi scams. Before our trip, the staff were also quick to assist us with the necessary paperwork for our visa applications. We corresponded several times on that issue, and every transaction was clear and polite.

The room rate was reasonable, especially considering how clean and modern the hotel turned out to be. I loved the red tiles and heated floor in the bathroom.

The first weekend in April must be the end of St. Petersburg's off-season, because the hotel seemed almost empty. Not that we minded. We enjoyed the delicious continental breakfast each morning, and ate in the restaurant for dinner on our last night. Our waiter's name was Vladimir (of course).

And now the icing on the cake...

You won't be lonely or bored waiting for taxis in the lobby. Hanging on a wall dedicated to guest graffiti (who needs a guest book?), is the sexiest, most bizarre clock I've ever seen.


We tried to find a reference to this clock on the internet and couldn't, so I guess I should put a few of our search terms here for future Red Stars Hotel visitors. From now on, "performance artist paints clock backwards in shower video" or "crazy pink bikini girl paints shower clock video" should bring people here to me. Enjoy. She does this for 12 straight hours. I give you 51 seconds.

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Never kiss your sweetheart on a drawbridge. If the two sides can pull apart, so can the two of you. On the other hand, sharing a kiss on a solid cast bridge will give you an extra dose of luck and longevity. 

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The Potseluev Bridge in St. Petersburg spans the Moyka River. Every bar on the bridge is covered with shiny padlocks. Like diamonds or fish scales, they catch the light when the sun pushes between the clouds. Inscribed on the locks are the names of lovebirds, the dates of their unions. Declarations of everlasting love in a variety of languages.

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Driving along California's endless freeways you're bound to see a memorial. Heaps of fabric flowers, ragged under the hot sun, ragged in the windy backwash of speeding cars, clinging to chain link fences and sign posts. A simple cross. Faded plastic icons. Candles that can't hold a flame.

How long has it been there? This outpouring of love and grief.

In a moment, you're past it. Vaguely, you might think of the life or lives lost on that dusty spot, but there is no sense of eternal pain. No names. Though blood was spilled, the heat and wind make light of these things. 

Should that be?

Last month, I turned one of the ten thousand gray corners in St. Petersburg and came upon The Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood. A bizarre beauty, the cathedral was erected to commemorate the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. 

Under the rule of Alexander II, Russian serfdom was dissolved entirely, a progressive move that earned him the title Alexander the Liberator. But at the same time, his crackdown on the people of Poland was brutal. He began his reign with a speech in which he told Polish people across the Russian empire not to expect any freedom or equality in his eyes. This so-called "No Hope" speech fueled the fire leading to the January Uprising in 1863, ultimately suppressed by the Russian military after 18 months of fighting. The result? Hundreds of Poles were executed; thousands were exiled to Siberia. 

Yet, everything in history depends upon one's point of view. In Finland, Alexander II is still regarded as "The Good Tsar." 

On 1 March 1881, he stepped into his bullet-proof carriage, a gift from Napoleon, accompanied by an armed guard. Members of the Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will") movement waited in the crowds that lined the streets. The first bomb was tossed beneath the horses pulling the emperor's carriage. When Alexander emerged unhurt, a second bomber stepped forward and threw his package at the emperor's feet, crying out, "It is too early to thank God!"

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It took less than a minute after the plane landed on the tarmac in St. Petersburg for me to realize that this vacation was going to be drastically different than the rest. All I had to do was get through passport control. I froze. My eyes flicked wildly from wall to wall. Where were they? My beloved letters?! How could there be so many signs, but not a single recognizable word?

такси. банк. цветы. аренда автомобиля.

Until that moment, I had considered myself well-traveled. I had sixteen countries under my belt, most of them in Europe, and I was used to breezing through airports without a hiccup on my way into town. Not because I'm multilingual (far from it), but because I've got a basic hold on several languages. My years of French class in high school and college are a useful foundation, but it's simpler than that:

Take the English alphabet, throw in a couple extra letters, sprinkle a few accent marks on top, and you've got French, Italian, Spanish, German, Norwegian, and the rest of the European languages.

Except Russian, Greek, and the like. 

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Photo: St. Petersburg's Mariinsky Theatre. Photo via RussianTourism.com.

Sometimes I'm such a girl. When Jonathan asked me what I wanted to do for my 30th birthday, I told him the truth, even though it felt like a pipe dream. I wanted to attend a ballet at St. Petersburg's legendary Mariinsky Theatre. In my imagination, nothing could be more romantic. So, we made plane reservations (Norwegian Airlines flies directly from Oslo to St. Petersburg in two hours), obtained the necessary visas, and purchased tickets to the ballet. And I held my breath.

You know how it's totally possible to look forward to something so much, to put such a great deal of pressure on a single moment, that the reality can't help but fall short of your expectation? 

Yeah, that didn't happen here.

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Last year, Canadian Travel Website Cheapflights commissioned me to write an Insider's Guide to Oslo for them. I've found my calling. Researching restaurants (eating out) and researching bars (drinking beer) and researching museums was a good gig. 

Along the way, I wrote a little more than necessary for their purposes. Imagine that. So, I thought I'd put my full descriptions here on my blog for all my readers. To begin... What are some cool places to eat in Olso?

 

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Sulfur taints the air at first breath. A thousand decaying things. The ground is dry and yellow, cracked and caked with mineral deposits, covered with the solid, round clusters of animal scat. It is a hellscape. Mud pots belch and splash off the edges of the boardwalk. Gray-brown mud hot enough to boil. The sun blazes down on the bare crowns of our heads. I envy by brothers their white-blond buzz-cuts. My dark hair saturates with sun, hot as fire. My palm recoils at the slightest touch. Believe it or not, I belong here. Where the sky seems inflated; where the buffalo roam. Fumaroles wheeze steam from the angry bowels of the earth. I imagine the superheated rocks far beneath the crust, glowing like coals. This is where Hades might break through, the world's weakest point, if he wanted to make an appearance. If there was something he wanted to steal. Though I'm no Persephone, I stick the boardwalk. It snakes across this dry plain, splitting off to run a circle around a hot spring, then returning again. At Morning Glory we stop to marvel at the rings of color--ochre to tangerine to scarlet to emerald to turquoise--funneling toward the broad, tranquil center. Clouds of steam rise and waft across the boardwalk. My brothers gag on the stench, lurch down the path coughing and laughing. The smell is as foul and full of rotten eggs as the pool itself is heavenly and full of myth and dreams. I breathe deeply and walk on. I have adapted. I am the right kind of demon for this place. A turquoise bracelet sparks blue and silver at my wrist. We arrive with the crowd at the epicenter of energy. At the top of the hour, the geyser unleashes itself at the sky. A fury. A reminder that beauty is dangerous, yet best unbound. It is the beholders who must take care and stay back, wary of burning, scalding, searing. Death. This is a story older than any of us, the way Old Faithful keeps time. My brothers are on their skinny knees, reaching out to try and touch a yellow-bellied marmot. The creature dives beneath the boardwalk. I draw myself taller, proud of the heat radiating from my black hair, and join the story.

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"You are American? Yesterday, Martin Sheen was here."

The waiter placed our drinks on the table and looked up to gauge our reaction to the name drop. Despite the non sequitur, neither of us flinched.

"Martin Sheen. You know... the American actor. West Wing."

I'm not really one for name dropping. (Hard to believe, right, since I blogged meeting my favorite author, Pam Houston, for the very first time at AWP in Boston!) But it wasn't fair to make the nice man squirm like that.

So I said, "Sure. Martin Sheen. I loved him in Gettysburg." And Jonathan said something slightly snarky like, "Not quite as exciting as Charlie Sheen." Which made me laugh, but the waiter was on a mission.

"Martin Sheen. The nicest man! Handshakes for the whole staff."

Addendum: "Actor/activist Martin Sheen and I flew to Oslo, Norway to speak at the civic forum before the conference, sponsored by The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons... before an excited crowd of 900 people in downtown Oslo." via Huffington Post

This happened on our second visit to the legendary Engebret Cafe, located just to the east of Akershus Fortress. It is Oslo's oldest restaurant, opened in 1857, and, as proved by Mr. Sheen, it attracts luminaries from around the world. Without reservations, I worried we were being optimistic about showing up on the cafe's doorstep, even late on a Tuesday evening. But while the restaurant was full, the bar was empty.

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It took me ten minutes to jog from the Russian Embassy in Oslo down Drammensveien to the nearest Joker market and withdraw the cash. I'd expected the cost of two Russian Tourist Visas to run about 630 NOK ($110), based on what I'd read several times on the consulate website. Standing before the cashier at the embassy, my heart had stopped when she did the math and said the total: 1980 NOK ($345).

"I don't have that much with me," I'd said. My cheeks began to flame.

She shook her head and held the calculator up for me to see. As though I didn't trust her math. Which I didn't. After making sure that they weren't charging me for express processing, and that it was merely my non-EU citizenship that cost so much, I asked:

"Do you accept card?"

It was clear she didn't understand me. I repeated myself in broken Norwegian. She responded by reaching up to tap her long, purple fingernail on the window of bullet-proof glass between us, just behind a sign which read, in three languages: We do not accept bank cards. Cash only. Exact change.

Well, I thought, this is it. I knew something was going to go horribly wrong, and it's happening

All morning I'd dreaded this appointment. Something about walking into the Russian Embassy just seemed wrong, shady, or dangerous. I blame Hollywood. The Russians have been our go-to on-screen villains for ages. Our nuclear opponents. Hard-liners with their fingers on too many big red buttons. I know this isn't true today. I grew up in the years after President Reagan said, "Tear down this wall!"

Yet, there are shades of darkness that remain in the real world. One need only look at Russia's recent crackdown on the civil rights of gays and lesbians, or their censure of freedom of speech and expression in the Pussy Riot incident, or their ban on American adoptions of Russian children. These are things I don't agree with, and they're only the ones existing above the surface. What will I find when I venture behind the metaphorical culture wall that remains?

Standing on Russian soil at the embassy, I felt vulnerable. To what? Human trafficking? Communism? The rampant road rage that makes dashboard cameras so popular among Russian drivers? I shook off the dread. There had to be a solution to this problem.

I showed the embassy cashier the bills I had with me, less than half the amount needed, and shrugged.

She leaned down to speak into the microphone on her side of the glass. A speaker about the size of a Kleenex box was mounted on the wall at face-height and made her instructions sound like she was rattling back a take-out order at the In-n-Out drive thru.

"You go out," she said, her Russian accent tugging at the corners of every word. "Out, along street. Get money from minibank."

"I can come back here?" I asked, beginning to gather my things. I'd waited in line for over an hour already and didn't want to take another number.

"Yes. You go out, come back here." Then she raised her wrist to show me the face of her watch and tapped it vigorously. There wasn't much time left. The office would close at 12:30.

I waited for her to slide my paperwork and passports back to me.

"We keep," she said.

I shook my head the way you do when you get out of the pool to clear your ear canals of water.

"We keep. You go. Come back."

"No," I said. "I don't want to leave my passports."

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Oslo always tops the list of most expensive cities in the world. So, visitors probably expect to pay a little more for a cup of coffee here.

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The above info graphic from Bloomberg News illustrates the cost of, specifically, a 16 ounce cup of Starbucks coffee in cities all over the world. It's supposed to demonstrate Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), explained in detail in the Wall Street Journal's piece: On Currencies, What's Fair is Hard to Say.

Before that $9.83 price tag makes you do a spit take, let me point out a couple of the graph's weak points:

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And time marches on. This cool photo, taken from the heart of Oslo back in the 1880s (when it was still Christiania), looks from Stortinget (the Parliament buildings) down Karl Johns gate toward Det Kongelige slot (the Royal Palance).

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It was originally shared by Visit Oslo on Facebook, a feed I definitely recommend following before you do visit or move to Oslo. When asked to point out what has changed in the last 130 years, commenters mentioned: 

  • The tram line no longer runs down this main thoroughfare.
  • This was taken long before the existence of Deli de Luca.
  • In the summertime, the trees lining Karl Johan are so tall and full, they would obstruct this particular view of the palace.
  • "Lasagna-drawn carriages and streetcars." (You read that right. Sadly, it's a joke referencing "Burger Gate," a recently terrifying revelation about European food.)

Though founded in 1048, when compared with other European capitals, Oslo seems quite new. This is both because the nation of Norway wasn't sovereign until the 20th century, and because a number of fires in the city destroyed so many medieval structures. Most buildings standing in the city today were built after 1850 (the royal palace was completed in 1849), but there are a few notable exceptions, most located in Oslo's Gamlebyen (Old Town):

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The Girl Behind the Red Door has been nominated for a Liebster Award. It's a pay-it-forward thing, a way to find and support fellow bloggers. My nomination came from Diana Meets the Locals, a Canadian travel blogger who has worked at two Olympics and has a weakness for goldfish crackers. I've followed her via Twitter for a while now, but didn't learn these two intimate details until this nomination came through. That's the fun of it. 

So how does it work? When you are nominated you have to:

  • Share 11 random facts about yourself
  • Answer 11 questions given by the person who nominated you
  • Nominate new bloggers to pass on the fun
  • Write 11 questions for those bloggers to answer
I'm game!

11 Random Facts about Me

  1. ajc_viking.jpgVolleyball is my favorite sport. I played for four years; coached for three. Kerri Walsh is my hero. I could watch it all day every day.
  2. Living in Norway, I suffer from Kraft Mac-n-Cheese withdrawal. I cram my suitcase full of boxes whenever I visit home. 
  3. I love whales, but I hate the ocean.
  4. I haven't eaten an egg in 18 years. Why? Eggxiety: It's no yolk!
  5. When I go to baseball games, I always keep score. My dad taught me how.
  6. In fifth grade I kept a diary, and I ended each entry by naming a movie star I had a crush on. My list was a tad different than most eleven-year-old's... Jimmy Stewart, Cary Grant, Randolph Scott, Gary Cooper...
  7. I scrapbook. 
  8. About once a year I re-read Pam Houston's Cowboys Are My Weakness. It's my creativity touchstone.
  9. I'm not bendy. At all. Like a pencil. It's terrible.
  10. Someday I'd like to own a whole pack of bloodhounds. 
  11. I miss rock climbing.

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Living so far north, we feel the darkness and cold a little deeper and a little longer than most. I don't have much room to complain, seeing as I live in Oslo, possibly the mildest Scandinavian city, weather-wise. But somehow I can't help it. Once the holidays are done, once the carolers are quiet, once the presents are open, once the plate of cookies is only a plate of crumbs... I find myself a little bummed. All that's left is to find something else to anticipate.

These itchy feet of mine want to move. Now, not all these trips are planned. Some are still mostly dreams. But if dreams can't fill a girl's sails with wind once in a while, what's the point of maintaining her imagination for almost 30 years?

Boston, Mass., USA

Yes, I've been there a few times now, but Boston is a great city, and this year it will host the annual AWP conference. I'll be in attendance, seeking wisdom from writers I admire, and seeking quality time with some of the wonderful writers I graduated with last June.

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Det Kongelige Slott -- Oslo's Royal Palace

Oslo, Norway. My home these days, and a great place to visit! Jonathan and I vacationed here about a year before we moved over, and were dazzled by everything the country had to offer in the summertime. Since then, I've lived through (and enjoyed!) a Norwegian winter, too. I'm even looking forward to my second. 

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Bærums Verk, Norrway around Chistmastime

When Cheapflights.ca approached me about writing a travel guide to Oslo, I jumped at the chance. My city has so much fun stuff to offer all year round. Visit the Cheapflights website to read my travel guide. It includes:

  • 5 Great Restaurants in Oslo
  • 5 Bars and Taverns in Oslo
  • 5 Fun Winter Activities in Oslo
  • 5 Must-See Monuments, Museums or Galleries in Oslo
  • 5 Day-Trips Outside of Oslo

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The Freia sign on Karl Johans gate in Downtown Oslo

Cheap Flights to Oslo from Canada

Cheapflights - United Airlines Destinations and Fares from Canada

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Holmenkollen Ski Jump -- Oslo, Norway

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Plans for our first overseas vacation began in early 2007. A couple of friends offered us use of their summer home in Denmark. Understand, I had no real desire to go to Denmark; I'll even admit I wasn't certain of its geographic location at the time. (Somewhere near Finland, right?) But when you don't have a lot of money, you don't say no to free lodging. Period. We accepted.

Then we pulled out the map and I said, "What? Denmark shares a border with Germany? That's awesome. We can drive."

Jonathan agreed to this initial whim for two reasons. First, he was a die-hard United Airlines fan, and their European hub is in Frankfurt. Second, he liked the idea of being on the road in a country known for its beer and battlegrounds. We used our United miles for two Business Class tickets from SFO to FRA, then rented a car. 

Unfortunately, no one had thought to take the map away from me in the meantime. I was sitting cross-legged on the floor of our living room saying things like, "Did you know that Germany is right next door to Belgium? Home of amazing chocolate?" and "If we drive straight west from Frankfurt to the Belgian border, we can't really avoid Luxembourg, and Luxembourg is tiny, and I love all tiny things!" and "Oh. My. Gosh. Wouldn't it be fun to make our way north from there through The Netherlands? Windmills! Wooden shoes! Tulips!"

Try as he might, Jonathan couldn't convince me to give up the chance to see all these countries in one swoop. I'd fixated. Even prying the map from my fingers and hiding it didn't stop me. I'd memorized the geography at that point.

"Then we can swing back through northern Germany and across the Danish border, hit the coast for a couple days, and drive across to Copenhagen."

You might be thinking this all sounds a little ambitious or obnoxious. And you're right. But then I want to remind you that I believed this trip was our once-in-a-lifetime chance to see it all. How often do people travel to Europe from California? It's far. It's expensive. To do it right requires an amount of time that's almost impossible to get off of work in any normal career. We had one shot, and I was going to pack it all in.

Jonathan put his foot down when I started looking at train tickets to Paris. We had 10 days. I'd selected 5 countries. That was that. 

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"The whole object of travel is not to set foot on foreign land; it is at last to set foot on one's own country as a foreign land." - G. K. Chesterton

Next week we're headed to Copenhagen, Denmark, just for the day. It'll be our third time in the Danish capital, thanks to a cheaper-than-cheap Groupon deal from DFDS. And it got me thinking about all the places Jonathan and I have visited together in the last 10 years. Then, I got this idea from fellow travel blogger, Mrs. O Around the World. Allow me to rank 'em!

#10 Blue Mountains, Australia

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Australia had long been on our list, and because it's such a long trip, we wanted to give it two full weeks on our visit in 2010. The first week we spent in Sydney, but the second week was better. We took the train east to Leura and Blue Mountains National Park. Eucalyptus oils in the trees react with the air and form the mist that hangs, ethereal and blue, over the dramatic canyons and mountain ridges. We hiked beside waterfalls, marveled at strutting red macaws, and rode the Zig Zag Railway twice!

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Recently, my friend Anna asked me to review an anthology which included an essay of hers. It is important to note that I take book reviewing seriously, especially when I'm allowed more than 140 characters in which to share my opinion. Remember that I am part of this book's target audience as a current expat, but I remain in all other ways as unbiased as possible. I hope those of you who are also current expats or are planning to move to another country soon will find my review especially useful. Make no mistake, this is a textbook-style tome and not a quick read, but it is an important book for those who appreciate the globally nomadic lifestyle.

Below is a copy of what appears in the Amazon customer reviews section for the essay collection titled Writing Out of Limbo: International Childhoods, Global Nomads and Third Culture Kids

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To steal an artful phrase by Anna Maria Moore, one author in this remarkable essay collection, the volume itself is "a collection of... passports...filled with stamps blurred by hands thumbing through them in customs offices" around the globe.

Here, the editors have successfully combined personal essays and scholarly articles from Adult Third Culture Kids (ATCKs) and other Global Nomads to form a guidebook of sorts. This guidebook teaches and explains life lived in a globally-mobile sense: multiple cultures, multiple languages, frequent departures and separations. To live this way presents a complex set of challenges, and one byproduct is often a sense of alienation. The collection helps answer the questions: Where is home when your country isn't your country? Who are your people when no one around you has lived as you have lived?

It also helps explain the tax and toll struggling with this question can take on the psyche. For example, in my favorite scholarly essay in the collection, Memory, Language, and Identity: The Search for Self, Liliana Meneses explains that memories imprint based on the language associated with them; communicating in a language other than his mother tongue, a multilingual person might be unable to recall or recount early life events. The admirable adaptability of Third Culture Kids as adults is a direct result of this challenging upbringing. As Moore explains it, after four decades and five continents, she has become "a wild strawberry plant."

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I write in the margins and on the blank pages of books authored by other writers. It's a habit. When I happen upon those scribblings later, it's always a treat. The following is an essay I penned on a trip to Northern Italy in 2009. All summer long I'd been following the Green Revolution in Iran. I'd seen the blood pool in the street beneath the body of Neda Agha-Soltan after she was gunned down during a protest in June. Her death scarred me. I wanted to know about the lives of other young women in Iran. To that end, I picked up Dr. Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran to read on our vacation...

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I am seated on a bench in the northern Italian mountains. There is a white church steeple and a brass weather vane in the shape of a rooster straining in the brisk wind.  Muddy brown sparrows hop from branch to branch in the midget pines to my right. Jonathan's head is tilted back and his eyes are closed.  We are waiting for something, breath bated, and hopeful.

Clouds engulf the head of Monte Cervino, the exotic Italian name for this side of The Matterhorn.  Even as the radiant blue sky is visible over our heads in all directions, a remarkable dome, this mysterious mountain is coy. She has wrangled her own weather this morning and wears it like a white headscarf. For an instant, she reveals her eyes. She watches me. I am yearning for more, lusting for her full, perfect face. But she is well aware of her status as a check box, one of many on this trip, and isn't about to give me the satisfaction.  That's her call.  I snort with ambivalence and, in response, she tucks even her pretty, snowcapped eyes away from us again.

While we wait, I read. Reading Lolita in Tehran has accompanied me every mile of the way on our trip through France, Monaco, and Italy. The 2003 memoir by Dr. Azar Nafisi chronicles the clandestine activities of a group of young Muslim women in the mid-1990s. In search of literary truth and personal independence, they risked their safety to congregate in the private home of their teacher.  There they could shed their heavy scarves and robes, sit in a circle, and study the great novels of history.  

A verbal scalpel slices the cover of Lolita and allows the students to see past the prose and into the heart and guts of the work, its intentions and its context.  I can recall the cover of my own copy of Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov's masterpiece, purchased at the UC Davis bookstore at the beginning of my junior year.  It is a photo in grayscale, saddle shoes and girlish ankles.  Tiny white socks folded down in delicate cuffs.  

Reading Lolita in my Introduction to Literary Criticism class startled me. Humbert Humbert, the perverse romantic, the child rapist poet, was the first narrator to make me feel sick.  I wanted to hate the book.  I wanted to plant my feet staunchly on the moral high ground and pitch the book into the fire.

It took a good teacher to change my mind and heart.

I cannot remember his name, but his gait, crippled, lurching and rolling, is burned into my mind's eye.  He'd been in a bicycle accident as a child, shattering his fragile leg bone beyond hope of anything more than a cursory repair. Yet, thirty years after that event rendered him weak and unstable for life, he paced the breadth of his classroom at Davis without more than a nod to his disability, and he willed his classful of eager English majors to reconsider Lolita as something more than the senseless ramblings of a pedophile.

He wanted me to mine Humbert's grotesque justifications for something deeper.  Consider the author's intentions, my teacher urged me.  Nobokov was not a depraved man with a penchant for little girls. Nabokov didn't want to suck the marrow from the skeletons of their fairy tales. He was a Russian author with a genius for gaining access to another plane of thought and fancy, and he excelled at granting that access to his readers in turn.  Nobokov invented Humbert as he invented so many other protagonists. He constructed an individual dispossessed of the stranglehold of our realities and allowed that individual to run free.

Nafisi introduced this same concept to the young women who'd gathered in her cozy, curtained apartment in Tehran.  Her six students also struggled with appreciating Lolita as something other than the confessions of a sexual predator.  

"Why do we enjoy books like this?  Isn't that wrong?" they asked each other.
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"I want to repeat one word for you: Leave. Roll the word around on your tongue for a bit. It is a beautiful word... Don't worry. Everything will still be here when you get back. It is you who will have changed." -- Don Miller

So we left.

Maybe it was that all of our familiar furniture was already placed in these foreign rooms, or maybe it was that sunlight streamed in through all our garret windows and made the place glow. Whatever the case, our cats had no trouble adjusting to their new surroundings. We unzipped the carriers slowly so that Disney and Crypto could ease their way out into the new space. They still wore their harnesses. Green camo for Disney and pink floral for Crypto. They'd spent the last 24 hours enclosed in the carriers, most of that time on planes between San Francisco and New York, then New York and Oslo. We'd pulled them out a few terrorizing times: going through security at SFO and then again at EWR, for a brief rest period at an airport hotel in Newark, New Jersey, and then finally at OSL where a veterinarian was on hand to examine them and grant our precious cargo official entry into Norway.
 
That was the longest day of our lives. 

Two planes, a train, a taxi. Five giant suitcases, two cat carriers, and two whining cats. Four flights of stairs. 

But as we entered the new flat, at once aware of our solitude and our togetherness, all the stress of the melted away. 

Disney found the circle window in the living room quickly. He hopped up to the sill multiple times that first day to check out the new street so far below him. Birds played in the sky at his eye-level. He purred contentedly. Crypto sprawled on the floor in one of the rectangular patches of yellow sunlight on the wooden floor. She lay there like a swimmer floating in a pool of light.

Jonathan and I stepped out on our patio and walked to the corner of it. I pushed up on the banister and leaned forward, face full into the fresh April air, pointing myself southwest where I could see, half a kilometer away, the water of the Oslofjord. Jonathan stood behind me and placed one hand on each of mine, his chest pressed warmly to my shoulder blades. 

That was exactly one year ago. And since then...

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IMG_6282.jpgYosemite National Park. The best granite climbing in the world. The Tuolumne region of YNP is famous for its giant granite domes: Stately Pleasure Dome, Lembert Dome, Fairview Dome, and Pywiack Dome. One of our favorite multi-pitch climbs in Tuolumne is Zee Tree on Pywiack Dome. We've completed this ascent together multiple times. It's a good introduction to multi-pitch climbing as the overall rating is only 5.7. 

On multi-pitch, bolted routes like Zee Tree, permanent belay stations are located every 50 to 100 feet (the length of a single pitch); these consist of heavy bolts screwed into the face of the rock. Climbing works best in teams of two moving inchworm-style: Climber One is tied into the front of the rope and leads the climb, placing protection on his way, and fixes the anchor at the top; Climber Two follows once the anchor is set, cleaning the route by removing the protection, and arrives in time to belay Climber One on his next pitch.

The second climber in the team is better protected. While the "leader" (Jonathan, in our case) brings the rope up behind him, relying on the placement of gear to protect him in the event of a fall, I follow once an anchor has been built above me. If I fall, Jonathan's belay will have me within a few inches. If Jonathan slips on his climb, he will fall twice the distance between his feet and last piece of protection in the rock before my belay catches him from below. 

Above: Six pitches of slab will challenge both your physical and mental stamina, but the wide-open exposure has its perks. The view southwest to Tenaya Lake is a breathtaking sweep of emerald green and piercing blue. 

Objective: Zee Tree (5.7)
Style: Sport Climbing/Trad Climbing (final pitch)
Level: Easy/Moderate
Length: 700 feet, 6 pitches, 3 hours
Approach: Drive up and park on Hwy 120. (Winter closures.)

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With its wildflowers, abundant wildlife, and sparkling, emerald panoramas, Mt. Diablo State Park is an East Bay must-see for any visitor, but it's also a popular destination for climbers. Jonathan and I have climbed there multiple times over the years. The photo at left shows me atop the Lower Tier at Boy Scout Rocks, preparing to rappel down Amazing Face (5.10a). Over my right shoulder you can see a formation aptly named Butt Rock

This seems like a good time to mention that, if you're going to be a climber, you'll need to develop both tough fingers and thick skin. Butt Rock, Butt Crack, and Butt Hole are fairly innocuous as route names go. There are many far more potentially "offensive" names out there. In 2010, the Swedish Climbing Federation chairman moved to ban all offensive route names in Sweden "after sport climber and historian Cordelia Hess found certain route names offensive at a crag in Gaseborg, Sweden. She told a Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, that the Nazi-themed names, such as Swastika, Himmler, Hitler and Third Reich, 'trivialize the suffering of Jews during the Holocaust.'" As Meghan Ward notes in response to this story on the Alpinist blog, "By tradition, deciding route names is an honor given to those who first ascend a route. Often these names are inside jokes between climbers. For many, to legislate the naming process would take away the fun and spontaneity that leads to these names in the first place." Fair warning: If you're easily offended, climbing outdoors may be fraught with more anxiety than necessary for you.

Today I'll focus on a single Butt Rock climb we completed with some friends in April 2009.

Objective: Butt Rock, Boy Scout Rocks
Route(s): Butt Crack (5.4), Butt Face Direct (5.7), Butt Face (5.8)
Style: Top Rope
Level: Easy/Beginner
Approach: Drive up and park. Short walk.
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Jonathan and I travel because we want to see the whole world together, but we have our individual interests, too. He wants to climb every mountain. I want to see all the people.

The farther I go, the more people I see and meet, the more convinced I am that everyone on earth shares a commonality of soul. Language and religion and skin pigment and eye shape are merely the reasons we use to bicker and go to war. But behind it all is a beating heart, a mind, the same basic survival needs. We want to live well, and we want to be allowed to define "living well" for ourselves.

Travel is an education more than anything else. It is humbling to find yourself unable to communicate because you don't know the language. It is an exercise in resourcefulness to navigate the crooked, careening streets of foreign cities without a smart phone. New territory under your feet means a new perspective on the rest of the world, a vantage point from a corner you may not have considered before.

The lessons you learn are not easily forgotten, especially if you find that seeing new places does something for your self esteem. Everything about travel requires patience.

You'll have to find your way through the labyrinth of Geneva International Airport, forced to exit the rental car facility on the airport's France side and reenter the terminal on the Swiss side in order to access the correct airline.  You'll have to drive Germany's infamous Autobahn while doing miles-to-kilometers per hour conversions in your head. You will get lost in Brussels and Paris, where streets change names every time they bend more than 15 degrees in any direction. Rue des Poissonnieres becomes Zwarte Lievevrouwstraat which becomes Rue de Laeken. You will accidentally order a dish full of mushrooms when you specifically tried to avoid them. You will get stared at, bumped in crowds, stymied by train station ticket machines. You will arrive breathless at the dock just as your boat pulls away, your flight takes to the sky, or your train whistles its way out of the station.

And when you do make it home, because you always will, you will find that your patience has increased twentyfold and you're proud of the person in the mirror, the one with an independent sparkle in her eye.

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IMG_0642.JPGAround me swirls an exotic tango of French dialogue and cigarette smoke. We approached the Café Limo on this, our final night in Paris, tentatively. We had been worried that our whim, a quick stroll for a night cap and a chance to soak up our last hours in the city, would be thwarted by lowered curtains, stacked chairs, and a sign reading Fermé.

But coming around the corner into the Place Gustave, we were shocked to see that every café on the square was ablaze with lights and abuzz with the happy, animated conversations of Parisian night owls.

This is where we sat on our first night in Paris, a Saturday, after 13 hours of plane and train travel.  Our hotel, the Hotel France Albion, is just down the street.  We went in search of a late dinner that evening.  What we found was true Paris hospitality.  Our waitress came and sat at my elbow, offering translation of their French-only menu.

Thankfully, my choice to enroll in college French classes for the last couple of semesters has prepared me for food ordering, at the very least.  I've used my "skills" at every food-related turn.  It's been fun!  And it's led to a couple of amusing mix-ups.

For example, on Sunday morning, we visited the Eiffel Tower. We had not expected the heat to be so intense in the shadow of the grand monument, but considering the thousands of people gathered there, cote a cote, as it were, Jon and I were soon very thirsty.  Before we began our climb, we decided water would be necessary.  I located a cart selling bottles of water, gelato, miniature French flags, post cards, and teeny Eiffel Tower replica key chains.

"Bonjour!" I said, greeting the proprietress of the little concessions trailer.  She was a drooping middle-aged woman with dyed hair and a James Dean tank top.

"Bonjour," she replied with a lot less enthusiasm.

"Je voudrais un boite d'eau, s'il vous plait."  I was all smiles, and suddenly, so was she.

"Un bouteille," she corrected, gently.  "Pas un boit. Un bouteille."

Blushing, I laughed at my mistake.  "Oh, oui!  Un bouteille!  Merci!"

Echoing her au revoir, I grasped the perspiring bottle of water and turned to go, grateful it was not the "box of water" I'd actually requested.
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parisatnight_byjon.jpgThough awash in the deep shadows of late evening, my face is aglow with the reflected light of a single, hearty flame rooted in the concrete before me. The flame bends and writhes in the breeze which channels between the massive stone columns to my right and my left. I am entranced, a cobra's prey, mesmerized by a dangerous waltz.

Between flickerings, I can read the French words engraved beneath the flame:

ICI
REPOSE
UN SOLDAT
FRANCAIS
MORT
POUR PATRIE

This is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, dedicated to the nameless French patriots who died in World War I. It burns directly beneath, l'Arc du Triomphe, the Paris memorial to all its veterans, especially those who fought in the Napoleanic Wars in the early part of the 19th century.  I appreciate these symbols and I appreciate this light.

We took the Metro to the Franklin D. Roosevelt station which let us out onto the Champs-Élysées, that fabled avenue of restaurants and shops which I've heard about in movies and books all my life.  The street breaks at a very famous traffic circle which skirts l'Arc du Triomph.  At night, hundreds of pairs of headlights sweep across the four sides of monument, banking to the right and becoming lost in a river of red and white.  

This dazzling whirlpool of electric color is most dramatic from above and, thankfully, our Paris Museum Pass allowed us to ascend the spiral staircase concealed in one of the columns.  Inside, there is a very small set of exhibits about L'Arc du Triomphe and its conception, construction, and symbolism. But the real reason for our climb was through another dim corridor, dank with the sweat and odor of the hundreds of tourists who make this climb every day.  Up a few more stairs and out into the warm night air we realized our goal.

After dark, every hour on the hour, la Tour Eiffel is set sparkling with white lights.  Of course, it remains brightly lit all night long, a beacon of gold, a guardian, a herald.  But at each hour, someone flips a magic switch. 

Though there are technically no tripods allowed at the top of the Arc, we found a way around that prohibition by bringing our little "gorilla pod," an all-terrain tri-pod with flexible, prehensile limbs.  It was small enough not to arouse suspicion, and it allowed us to get some wonderful low light shots of this glorious city.

Paris stretches beyond the line of sight from any vantage point.  During the day, its size, when seen from above is intimidating, overwhelming, too much.  But at night, it is a veritable sea of lights, all colors, shimmering like a dream.
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DSC02450.JPGJonathan and I are in Ireland!  To see our pictures, click here.

Above the clouds, a blush rose in the cheeks of the Irish sky.  It was early.  A tailwind had pushed us almost half an hour ahead of schedule.  After eleven hours on two separate planes (and one three-hour layover in Chicago), we were finally descending. 

The vast, marshmallow bank of creamy clouds swallowed our plane and before long we'd pushed through them and could see the blue black expanse of ocean water dotted by lights from fishing boats and lighthouses.  Lower.  Lower.  Then we could see the rise  of land out of the water... Ireland.  It was bright enough to make out rolling green pastures divided by thick, dark hedgerows. 

Our plane touched down before 8:00 am.  We disembarked on the tarmac and walked into the airport.  This gave us the perfect chance to grab a photo op with our emerald Aer Lingus plane in what locals would call the wee hours of the morning.

Just inside the terminal, we stepped away from the crowd and took turns in the bathroom... changing into fresh clothes, brushing our teeth and washing our faces.  I'd been lucky enough to snag three hours of sleep on the flight over, but Jonathan hadn't been able to do the same.

Customs didn't take long, and the attendant who stamped our passports found our "quick weekend trip" idea to be cute.  He wished us luck and alerted us to the fact that this weekend is one of the Six Nations Rugby Championship weekends... and it's the BIG one: Ireland v. England.

The good news?  While we know nothing about rugby, we're quick learners.  AND, we couldn't think of any more exciting way to spend our first night in Dublin than at a raucous pub, drinking Irish beer and cheering on the guys in green along with a couple hundred excited Irish rugby fans.
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IMG_7076.JPGWe see rocks rubbed raw by the sand and eons of devilish heat.  Some places, the rise of dirt from valley into foothills is as graceful and pink as the naked thigh of a woman nestled in mauve bed sheets.  The terrain is alien... from the odd extra terrestrial shapes in the stone to the unnatural colors.  Not just green but hyper copper green.  Not just orange but fluorescent sienna and orange.  Toxic colors.  

A loud snap like a bullet discharging from a gun yanks us from our reverie.  There is a crater in the windshield of our rental car, small but obvious.  It casts jagged, aquatic reflections back at us.

We sigh, wondering aloud about the cost of repair, the amount of our deductible.  I comment that I hope we have a glass deductible waiver.  Nothing is less childlike and imaginative than a conversation about insurance.  But soon the haunting landscape recaptures our attention and we drive on.

Jonathan parks at Badwater, the lowest point in the contiguous United States.  Hand in hand we leave the road and walk into the valley.  White swaths of salt flat run untamed at the center of the basin floor.  Beneath our feet, rolling mounds of salt crunch like fresh snow.  Soon our soles are packed with pure white salt.  We are not alone.  People move in pairs and families at odd intervals up and down the silvery ribbon of the path.  Here and there we pick up laughter and bits of conversation, but on the whole there is silence.  Curiosity breeds quiet.
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IMG_6063.JPGContinuation of She Loves the Transportation in the Jungfrauregion...

In the little hamlets of Switzerland (like Interlaken and Murren), there is no sense of hostility towards the newcomer.  The locals are used to and take advantage of the tourist trade, and they are well aware that the value of their magnificent Alpine view does not depreciate.  In fact, if anything, it is a joy doubled when shared.  We were welcomed at every turn.

Later, at a picnic table owned by the hostel in Gimmelwald (one I'd seen advertised on the internet prior to our trip and would definitely find comfortable enough to use in the future... It has a hot tub outside in view of the mountains!), I peered into the giant canyon between us and the Alps. 


The grandeur of my surroundings inspired me to sit at a picnic table near a cliff and scribble the following on a piece of paper:

The tinkling of cowbells in a hundred different tones echoes along the rolling hillside.  Between the emerald green of the meadows and fields and the cheerful geraniums in all of the window boxes, this place feels alive.  A steady line of paragliders sweeps through the sky not so far above us, but the canyon is so vast, the valley so wide, the opposite cliff so high and sheer, that soon the colorful paraglider chutes are more like tiny, earnest blossoms against a mossy, gray backdrop.

IMG_6146.JPGOf course, the real flowers growing wild in the grass, have no equal.  Sweet and delicate, they defer to the immense landscape when cameras are clicking, but bow your head closer to the soil and you'll be dazzled by the intricacy of the butter yellow petals, the milk white stamens.

Breathe in the Alpine air, so cool and refreshing you'll wish it could be bottled to be taken home.  Unfortunately, only the real thing will do.  And besides, if you did take home a bottle, you'd be unable to escape the honest, brutal comparison it would require of your City air, the real life breaths you take and forget about every day.  It is better to have this phenomenon of recognizably perfect breathing air only on vacation - otherwise, it would interfere with your workday productivity.
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IMG_5852.JPGFIRST: Congratulations Chris and Jen!  Marriage is fun!

SECOND: Happy 24th Birthday, Teddy!

Back to the blog...

During our initial planning, Saturday had been selected as the perfect time slot for a day trip away from Zurich.  Jon and I each had the chance to choose a destination elsewhere in Switzerland.  I picked Appenzell, a city on the Eastern border, which we visited on Sunday.  But Saturday was Jon's pick, and so we were off on a tremendously ambitious adventure to the Bernese Alps (the so-called Jungfrauregion) and, specifically, to a tiny town called Gimmelwald nestled high on the mountainside.

IMG_5959.JPGI call the day's plan ambitious because it included every kind of transportation:

Drove 100+ kilometers from Zurich to Interlaken
Train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen
Gondola from Lauterbrunnen to Grutshalp
Train from Grutshalp to Winteregg
Walked from Winteregg to Murren and Gimmelwald

As of today, I am aware of no more thrilling an activity than running to catch a train.  The allure of train travel lies in its perceived antiquity, though most all commercial trains used today are quite modern.  One can easily imagine the delightful station platforms back when locomotive engines hissed and wheezed steam on entrance and exit, filling the room with white... or lips pressed to the palm of one departing and the subsequent kiss tossed to the one who remains in the station, fading smaller and smaller.
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IMG_5475.JPGOn Thursday, Jonathan and I spent the morning in Strasbourg. Our original plan had been to quickly get on the road, but there was something about that lovely city which had sway with us. After breakfast at a patisserie across the street (Michele's) where we ordered coffee and pastries, we headed to Strasbourg Cathedral to take more pictures and to pop inside for a look.

Reverence filled the expanse of the interior, emanating from the worshipers of God and Architecture. There were tour groups and classes on field trips, young couples and elderly couples and traveling buddies and girlfriends, all of whom couldn't tear their eyes from the lovely stained glass windows, the massive Bible under glass at the front. I lit a candle for our country, praying for peace and reason to prevail at this new dawn of ours... the one masquerading as a doomsday.

IMG_5496.JPGSoon enough, we were on the road to Zurich. Our lodgings at the Hotel Enginmatt are fabulous, very comfortable and stylish, but we didn't waste time in our room (even though the jet lag pit bull had me by the eyelids again and was trying to tug me into bed).  No no, we had traveled halfway around the world to see this bursting, blossoming city and couldn't wait another second.

The Bahnhoffstrasse beckoned us first; a luxury shopping strip of several kilometers, almost completely pedestrianized, running parallel to the River Limmat. Naturally the price tags were a tad over our budget (1,100 Swiss Francs for a small purse), but the looking was very fun.

Around us, night was falling and people were moving in jovial groups, communicating in a variety of languages. German, French, and Italian words skipped around us in the shadows, bouncing off the brick and stone facades of the buildings playing hide-and-seek with one another. A smattering of other languages, Swedish, Mandarin, and Spanish, joined the game, as well. I floated along on Jonathan's arm wishing with all my heart that I had the chance to dedicate myself to the study of language so that I could develop the capacity to better understand these people, men and women who share my globe. What an opportunity that would be!
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DSC00875.JPGThree weeks ago, I'd never heard of Strasbourg, France, but as of tonight, I feel like I've seen every corner of the city!

After taking the red-eye from SFO to Frankfurt, arriving this morning, Jon and I picked up our rental car (a little, black Mercedes which isn't quite as perfect as the car we rented last year... Jon's bummed that it doesn't take Diesel... but it's still darling!) and wasted no time getting on the road.

Last year we headed West to Luxembourg and Belgium, eventually heading North to Denmark.  This year, we left Frankfurt heading Southbound on A5.  Our final destination is Zurich, Switzerland!  But we decided a few weeks ago that we should swerve slightly Westward and stay the night in France, too, another country neither of us have visited before.

We crossed the Rhine River just West of Baden-Baden, Germany, and I have to say that in this part of the country, the view isn't nearly as staggering as I remember it being further North.  That being said, there was a major change in scenery as we crossed from Germany, with its lush, snarling black and green forests, into Northeastern France.  Suddenly, broad, green fields stretched between well-defined farm borders. Doe-eyed, white cows grazed in lazy groups.  Golden corn fields whipped past the windows of our car as we sped along D4.  (But the corn is shorter here... weird... and completely inadequate for any kind of corn maze!)
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zurich.jpgWalking three miles is easy when you're holding hands with a blue-eyed boy and planning your future travels together. 

That's what I did this afternoon.  Between laundry and other chores, between writing computer code and watching Friends, we decided to take a walk.  It was a lovely day.  Seventy degrees and breezy, not a cloud in the sky.  And it felt good.  Our pace was brisk, but it matched the energy of our dialogue. 

You see, beyond the trip we just completed to Seattle last weekend, and beyond our planned trip to Las Vegas in August, we just booked a trip to Zurich, Switzerland for September!  It's a city we've both always wanted to visit.  Beyond the draw of the chocolate, the pocket knives and the neutrality is the sheer mystery of what is considered to be one of the cleanest, most efficient, financial centers in the world.

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little_mermaid_1.jpg Hans Christian Andersen's original Little Mermaid had no name.  Long before the folks at Disney conjured up the image of the nymphetesque Ariel, with her plume of crimson hair and ample seashells, the famed Danish storyteller described a group of sisters, daughters of the Sea King, with beautiful voices and tails like fish.  His little mermaid was "a strange child, quiet and thoughtful." 
 
Ultimately, that is my impression of Copenhagen, the city where Andersen lived and created for most of his life.  It is a strange city, quiet and thoughtful in some corridors, but brilliant and beautiful along others. 
 
Jonathan and I arrived after dark on a Friday.  A heavy mist of fog hung low over the city and, as we fought to translate street signs and road names to locate our hotel, our first reaction was something akin to disappointment.  Coming in from the west, we skirted heavy industrial complexes and passed miles and miles of concrete walls, graffiti crawling over them like many-colored mold.  We were blinded by the glare of neon signs, advertising (or should I say screaming about) the newest adult toys, videos and costumes, flagrantly displayed behind giant, plate-glass windows.
 
Anderson described the way the older mermaid sisters would occasionally rise to the surface, arms wrapped around one another in a row, and sing to sailors on passing ships who were preparing to brave an impending storm.  "They had more beautiful voices than any human being could have; and before the approach of a storm, and when they expected a ship would be lost, they swam before the vessel, and sang sweetly of the delights to be found in the depths of the sea, and begging the sailors not to fear if they sank to the bottom. But the sailors could not understand the song, they took it for the howling of the storm. And these things were never to be beautiful for them; for if the ship sank, the men were drowned, and their dead bodies alone reached the palace of the Sea King."
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IMG_1839.JPGThe Denmark border is indicated by a series of crossing kiosks which are no longer in use and by several proud, colorful flags.  The first flag is the red and white national flag of Denmark.  I love this flag.  I would have jumped out of the car, pulled it down and made it into a shirt for myself if I hadn't been afraid someone might have taken it as an act of war.

Honestly, though, I can say that I was not afraid even once in Denmark.  The Danes are wonderful people.  They smile quickly, speak English fluently and without disdain or reproach.  Had I worn their beloved flag around town, they probably would have patted me on the back and urged me to take it home.

Denmark is a lovely country.  We geocached our way north, just to be sure to find a few unique nooks and crannies.  This whole trip has been a whirlwind; more than 24 hours has been invested in the "getting there."  So much driving (I'm in the car on the way to Frankfurt right now).  Geocaching has been the perfect distraction.

On one such stop, we wound our way along dirt and gravel roads, out past dairy farms and corn fields to find a cache placed near a WWII bunker, a concrete box with two doorways.  This was used by Nazis during their occupation of Denmark (a country which remained "neutral" at that time).  The line of bunkers and manned posts stretched all the way across Jutland.  Had we not searched for this cache, we would not have had the chance to see a piece of Danish history up close.  In Jonathan's case, he got to walk all the way through it.  We left just as the dairy cows came home.

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bricks1.jpgTo begin, I'd like to mention that the title of this entry is accurate, but only to a point.  I have actually loved the bricks everywhere.  For all the talk I've ever heard about European architecture, the different styles and types and ages, I've never heard anyone reference the bricks.  This is an outrageous oversight.  Brick is beautiful, and California is sorely lacking it.  I understand that this may be due to severe building requirements, earthquake standards, etc.  But people, we're missing the sheer beauty of one of the most simple building mediums known to man. 

Every city, town, enclave... everywhere people have congregated to live together, large and small, is graced with reddish, brownish brick.  The facades of the buildings catch every ounce of sunlight and reflect it back, warm and easy on the eyes.  Post offices and hardware stores appear stately.  Homes stand like miniature castles.  White window boxes, plain in any other environment, pop against the red backdrop.

The red walls spring up like flowers amid the green fields as we drove from Hamburg, north to the border.

We swung into Rendsburg for coffee.  I hate to describe the little foreign towns as quaint.  Somehow that word has become derogatory in our culture.  Unfair.  It's the perfect word.  Synonyms include old fashioned, charming, pretty, antiquated, picturesque, appealing. 

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IMG_1592.JPG I'm behind.  I know it.  But we've been convalescing the last few days, hiding away at our friend's home in Klegod, Denmark, right on the coast.  More about that (much more) later.  First, a few words about The Netherlands...

We only drove through.

I know!  Crazy!  How could we not stop?  How could we not wander in the rolling green pastures, visit with the milkmaids, ring a few cowbells...?  The short answer is that we didn't have the time.  In fact, we were lucky that Holland, as it is apparently sometimes called, was on our way to Denmark.  After leaving Brussels, we spent a few hours on the road and swung our way up through that little northern country.

So, what was my impression?

I wanted so badly to love the windmills.  After all, isn't that what we all think of?  Holland.  Hmmmm... windmills and wooden shoes and girls named Heidi.  If you're Joey Tribbiani on FRIENDS, you think Netherlands is a "make believe place where Peter Pan and Tinkerbell live." 

I looked for cute windmills.  Mostly, though, I only saw towering, sleek ones.  Red and white.  Long, lean and powerful.  Churning the air.  Obstructing the flight paths of the birds.  Occasionally we saw trucks hauling the individual pieces.  Long, long trucks.  And each could only take a single blade or a third of the tower.  But no adorable windmills, stout and timbered.  And no milkmaids, either.  Bummer.

IMG_1614.JPG

Instead, I fell in love with the cows.  They were everywhere.  And not the forlorn crowds of stinking Manteca cows, either.  I'm talking about Holsteins.  Black and white, proportioned like the perfect animated characters in books we loved as schoolchildren.  They blink and sway when they walk.  They are milked by hand. 

They seem so happy.

We blew past most of the fields... but when we did stop to take pictures or stretch our legs, I discovered that there was nothing more peaceful than the calm calls of the cows as they ate and swayed, ate and swayed.  In fact, this is what I now believe the Christmas carol "Away In the Manger" means when it references the cattle lowing.  I'd never heard lowing before.  It's nice.

 
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IMG_1478.JPGThere is a square in Brussels which boasts being one of the top tourist destinations in the country.  As we had only a single morning to spend in the city, we opted to check out The Grand Place (as it is called) and its surroundings.  We couldn't have made a better choice. 

The square itself, centered around the Hotel de Ville, it very grand indeed.  Giant old buildings with cathedral-like facades and latticed buttresses sit along the perimeter like a group of old men chatting about the weather.  Hidden in the pockets of their old tweed coats, as any good grandchild knows, are sweets and treasures and even heirlooms to be found.  Twisting away from the square in a thousand different directions are delightful side streets peppered with shoppes, boutiques, pubs, cafes, and of course, chocolatiers.

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IMG_1340.JPGSalut!

I am writing this entry from a desk in our hotel room in Brussels, Belgium.  Today I am half a world away from the rest of my life.  And I'm ready for the break.  Already, the wonders of vacation have begun working their magic on me.

Yesterday began with a drive to San Francisco International Airport (thank you, Debbie!).  Along the way, we picked up McDonalds.  Man, that feels like a long time ago.

I was exhausted, having just returned from a three-day business trip to Chevy Chase, Maryland.  The prospect of spending 10+ hours on another plane made me want to weep.  However, this trip brought a special first for Jon and me.  We flew Business Class, thanks to the miles Jon has earned on numerous business trips over the last two years, and on a 747, the Business Class seats are on the upper deck of the plane.  This is infinitely cool.  Not only is it quieter, more spacious and more private, but we're almost three stories off the ground AND we're up near the entrance to the cockpit.

This last perk may not seem like much to most, but our journey got of to a-- er-- flying start when the First Officer just happened to notice us taking giddy, ridiculous pictures of each other while waiting in our seats, and invited us to accompany him into the cockpit to meet the Captain (a chick!) and to take pictures!  One of the crew members even tossed me his hat to wear.  Jaunty, eh?

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PointArenaJournal2.jpg

Jon whisked me away this weekend in celebration of our Engagement Day, two years ago. It's definitely more my idea than Jon's to set aside the day for celebration. But he likes the excuse to plan a get-away, too. The Coast Guard House in Point Arena was welcoming, cozy and quaint. We stayed in the Flag Room, which boasted ocean views and a captain's desk, homemade quilts and soft pillows, and an over-sized antique tub. Heaven!

On Sunday, before heading home down beautiful Highway 1, we stopped at the Point Arena Lighthouse, took lots of pictures... and a tour! Over dinner on at a coastal restaurant, we watched a sea otter play in the water. *sigh*

P.S. If you want to read my entry, left in the Captain's Log Book at the B&B, click on the picture. It's not that exciting, just fun that we thought to take a picture of it. In case we go back someday and find it again! :-) By the way, I would recommend to everyone right now, if you have the chance to take a break... do it. It makes all the difference.

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yosemite_cathedral.jpgThe Saturday before Katrina hit New Orleans, Jon and I were on our way to Yosemite. It was a bright day and we got a very early start, cruising towards the Sierra Nevada and Jon's estimation of Heaven. We talked about a zillion things: why we shouldn't allow car traffic in Yosemite Valley, when Barry Bonds will retire, how sad it is that Jose Canseco chose to do The Surreal Life now that he's a 'has been' and a 'tattle tale', whether the voting age should be upped to 21, where we were when the 1989 earthquake hit, etc.

Because it had been a short night, I decided to get some sleep. Jon switched on the news. Every other second someone was broadcasting warnings about Katrina. 'She's a Category 4 and getting bigger by the second. People need to leave their homes in an organized fashion.'

Jon switched off the news.

'People will leave,' I said naively. 'They have plenty of warning.'
Jon didn't argue with me, but I knew he didn't agree. Sometimes I think he's cynical, but most of the time he's right. The stupidity of the masses comes as no surprise to Jon. I hoped the body count would be less than 100.

yosemite_lake.jpgOur time in Yosemite was wonderful. The hike to Cathedral Lakes was strenuous, of course, but only 7 miles round trip. I took a nap at our destination, lying on the warm rock at the edge of the lake. When I woke up Jon was sitting next to me. He'd taken a zillion photos of the water, the sky, a deer he'd chased around the lake, the trees, the mountains. My photographer. There were even a couple of pictures of me sleeping.

For dinner we drove out of the park on the east side and stopped in at a little diner in Lee Vining. The food was awful. On our way back into the park I turned on the radio again. We have XM Satellite Radio and it's awesome. The news stations wouldn't talk about anything but Katrina. 'Hundreds of people are evacuating.' 'Could be a Category 5.' 'Some folks think they'll be able to ride this one out.'

Jon reached over and turned it off again.

'Why do you do that?' I asked. Part of me wanted to listen to the news very badly, even if there wasn't anything especially new. If I listened I could tell how many people were getting out of harms way. I could will people out of the endangered city.

'They need to talk about something else.'

'But this is the biggest news,' I said.

'It's all sensationalism,' he countered. 'This isn't the actual news. Hurricanes hit the South every year, and every year they say, 'This is gonna be huge!', and then it isn't huge. And we all just nod along when they look at the results and say, 'It's a good thing it wasn't worse.''

Again, he was right. That is what the anchormen do when a tropical storm is upgraded to hurricane status. Immediately they try to guess how big it'll get. They slap a name on the storm and then try to predict how bad that storm is going to be when it grows up. Will it be a delinquent or a felon?

'Jon,' I said, 'The problem is that you're not the only person to think that way. And because people think that way, because they've seen the other storms slow down or weaken when they hit the shore, they'll choose to stay. It's not wrong to heed a warning.'

The next morning dawned beautifully. I'd had a hard night, hearing noises around the tent and absolutely believe there were bears surrounding us and mounting a surprise attack. It was a nightmare. I pressed my face into Jon's shoulder and his heartbeat lulled me back to sleep. When sunlight streamed in through the yellow walls of our tent, I couldn't wait to be awake. It was my day. I got to choose what we would do.

Packing up we now have down to a science. In a short while everything was done. We started brushing our teeth. Now, we were facing each other as we brushed, and we made faces at each other, stuck our tongues out and crossed our eyes. Real mature, married adult behavior. Then Jon swore.

It was loud, blunt, and it snapped me to attention because Jon doesn't swear in front of me. Ever.

'Audrey, get in the car.' I didn't hesitate. When I reached the car I swung the door open and turned to see whether Jon was behind me. What I saw instead made my heart stop.

yosemite_bear.jpgA bear. A big healthy bear was lumbering fast right through our campsite. I couldn't take my eyes off him, the way his big paws hit the earth, inspiring little puffs of dirt, and the way his giant head swung side to side and matched his gait. He never looked at me, just went right on through. Jon was on the other side of the car messing with the camera.

'Jonathan,' I hissed, 'Get in this car!'

He looked at me like I was crazy. That's when I realized that I wasn't actually in the car either. I'd frozen mid-sit, mid-heart attack, to watch the bear move through. In thirty seconds he was past us and up in the rocks. I could see a gleam in Jon's eyes that said he wanted to follow and get a better shot (the one we got was a tad blurry), but I nixed that idea fast. When my hearts started again we finished our packing and hit the road.

yosmite.jpgLunch was again outside the park, but this time we stopped at the Tioga Pass Resort and sat at the counter in the cafe. The little place was full of rustic charm, wood accents and a menu that gave the history of the lodge in detail. My sandwich was one of the best I'd ever had. We finished the meal off with some freshly baked apple pie.

We found a large meadow just inside the park. Deep blue ponds dotted the landscape and tiny yellow and purple flowers flecked the undulating green field. It was the perfect spot to put out a blanket and play a game of Go. The breeze kept the sound of traffic from reaching us. It was just cold enough to keep us in our fleece pullovers, just warm enough to keep us from shivering. The air was fresh and the mountains were clear, big enough to touch the sky. Jon pointed to the ones he has been to the top of, and I made sure to be verbally impressed.

The fact is that I am more than proud. I'm amazed. The man has topped mountains. He's determined and strong, steadfast. Nothing he does surprises me. If there is a field of rough, red gravel spanning three hundred yards between him and the top, he'll trudge on without hesitation. The goal must be met. No trail necessary.

He gazed at the top of a particularly intimidating mountain, one he had already conquered. I, in turn, gazed at him. The wind caught his hair and flipped it back, twisting it up and then letting it fall again. In the sun he looked blonde. He squinted up at the craggy outline of the summit.

'I'm very proud of you.' I've said it before, but it never hurts to say it again.

He looked at me and smiles. 'I know.'

'And I'm sorry I don't go with you more.' We don't talk about that a lot, the fact that I only go with him on his long, strenuous hikes about one out of every five times. But sometimes I feel guilty about it. Wouldn't a better wife suck it up and deal with the waking at dawn, hauling her weight in water, following her husband to the highest peak and back again?

'It's okay,' he said.

We played our game. At first it looked like I was going to lose, badly. Then the tables turned and I won. He looked sad. Neither of us is a terribly good loser. After a while he said, 'I like it when you come with me because then I get to show off.'

It took me a second to realize he's continuing our earlier conversation. He was so sweet I wanted to reach out and touch his face. So I did. Then it was time to go. We had a long drive ahead of us.

The name Katrina will never denote anything besides destruction. She came just as the weathermen said she would, on Monday, taking no prisoners. Levees broke, people drowned, gas lines leaked, fires started. The president flew low over the devastation in Air Force One, and he had tears in his eyes.

Many thousands are homeless. Thousands died. People are desperately trying to find someone to blame. Fingers point in every direction. It's as if they've decided that holding their hands out to receive help is not enough.

Around the dinner table with Jon's parents, the storm came up in conversation. I didn't know that the whole city, besides the French Quarter, was below sea level. I didn't know that millions of Louisiana's tax dollars were spent to build up the levees each year, just to hold back the Mississippi. I didn't know that there were so many impoverished people without the means to leave the city. Jon's dad described what he knew about the construction of the buildings, the wood frame houses that were complete ruined, and the gas tanks that couldn't be buried and were now floating, contaminating the water.

At the beginning of the summer, Jon and I mutually decided to give up our satellite subscription, thus stripping ourselves of the TV. It was the best choice we ever made. With our free time uncluttered by Friends or Gilmore Girls or the History Channel, we spent time talking, cleaning or playing Go. But now we have found another plus. I still haven't seen any footage of the flood, the damage, the dead, the dying, the sick, the helpless.

Am I in denial? Perhaps. But I have money and clothes to donate, and the guilt that plagues me because I can't give more is overwhelming when I even think about the magnitude of the storm and its wake. Better not to see what I've been hearing about. My imagination is enough for anyone.

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vacations_cartoon.jpgWe just got back from feeding the kitties at Jon's parents' place. His folks are in Boston for the week, so we get to play with (and feed, I suppose) Sebastian and little Claude Monet. In just a couple of weeks Jon and I will be in Las Vegas, Nevada, staying at Caesar's Palace and enjoying a weekend of total relaxation. Hooray for vacations! And only two weeks after that we'll be celebrating our first anniversary as husband and wife at our favorite place on earth: Disneyland. Yay!

We love vacations. But even more... we love planning vacations. Since we've been together, Jon and I have traveled all over. It's really neat to revisit places we loved when we were kids because now these trips involve sharing our love with each other. The simple things take on new meaning when experienced together. And then there's the excitement and adventure of finding new locations and attractions to try. Together we're more brave, more open. Ideas for new trips surface all the time.

Here are a few we've come up with in recent months:

-New England/Prince Edward Island (a love for colonial history and Anne of Green Gables inspired this one)

-Grand Canyon (Jon hasn't ever been to the deepest gorge in the USA... no more explanation is needed)

-Glacier/Yellowstone/Teton National Parks circuit (I've been a zillion times, but I want to show Jon all the beauty I remember so well)

-Boundary Waters Canoe trip in Minnesota (a trip I've done with my parents, but should prove more exciting and romantic with the man I love)

-London (we've been... but, blimey! we need more time to do it right)

-Australia/New Zealand (once Amy went I knew I wanted to go to the former, and since Lord of the Rings was filmed in the latter Jon signed right up!)

-Illinois/Indiana/Michigan/Ohio (a repeat, but worth it to see ALL my relatives and spend some time with our pal, Jeremy, whose own move to Ohio finally makes the state worth visiting)

-Washington D.C. (I love it! I'm a big fan of Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, so I have especially fond memories of all the sites. Also, Jon reminds me of Jimmy Stewart...)

-Seattle (Jon likes the rain. I like the city. We both need to go up in the Space Needle...)

-Alaska Highway (Road trip! Our most recent dream is to run the length of one of the biggest engineering projects in history. A little travel trailer, some good books, a hearty camera and a little bit of Michael Martin Murphy... "Happy trails to yooooouuuu!")

Goodness we have a lot to do. In the meantime there's work, school, more work, buying a house, of course work, starting a family, still more work and creating a home. We're pretty rugged; I think we can handle it. Whatever the case, plotting the trips on maps and locating points of interest (The worlds fifth largest ball of twine! Detour!) is the most fun! Plus, we have each other to laugh with (and at) in the process. Anticipation of anything awesome is half the fun.

Here's to road trips and camp outs and red eye flights and hotels and rental cars. Cheers!

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half_dome_us.jpgIn 2003, after only four months of dating, Jon and I led the junior high youth group at our church up the most recognizable peak in Yosemite National Park. That trip was beyond memorable, in fact Jon used the events of the trip in his personal wedding vows. Bottom line... we made it up to the top, without the steps and cables being up. And we made it down from the top. Seventeen miles and twelve hours later... I was in unbelievable pain and Jon was deeply in love. I had forgotten exactly how strenuous the hike really was.

half_dome_nevada.jpgSo this time we started earlier (on the trail at 6:15am Saturday) and we were more prepared (I was bundled up like the poster child for Gortex). Because of the recent flooding in the park, the waterfalls had swelled to unimaginable point... gushing and pouring... the Mist Trail became the Torrential Rain Trail (for those of you who have already heard some of my jokes- I'm sorry. I am unoriginal.).

We fed a blue jay and he followed us for a long time. Finally Jon decided to make the little guy work for his food. Seriously, throwing cheerios so that the jay could swoop in and catch it mid-air. The views were spectacular all the way up the mountain. Lots of snow at the top, covering the stairs and making walking practically impossible.

half_dome_us2.jpgAt the saddle we stopped for lunch as we surveyed the cables, stretched 800 feet up the steep, blank granite. Jon and our friend Jared headed up immediately following the meal. I hesitated. Too much, I thought. But then I changed my mind. How on earth could I hike all the way and then not go to the summit?

So, all alone, I donned my climbing shoes and began dragging myself up up up. All the way I was praying, whispering encouragement to myself. I made it. As I walked towards Jon (the dome is sooooo much bigger than anyone might think), I saw the pride pop into his eyes, right after the look of absolute shock. Took some great pictures. Two years almost to the day after our first summit together, we did it again. And this time I wasn't afraid to walk to the very edge and see the glory of the park.

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