Commute de luxe

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I can not overemphasize how great it was to have Emily as a guide. Not only has she lived in the Big Apple for 7 years, she also knows many fun things you would probably miss if TripAdvisor was your source of information. Like when we went to Grand Central Station, which is very grand indeed, Emily put me in one corner and walked to the other side of the part of the building and talked in a normal voice that despite being way too far away for me to be audible, was perfectly clear as if she was standing next to me. The reason were the special tiles that were used in the rounded ceiling that carry sound. Terrific!

She also showed me the very futuristic Oculus, the new commuter station at the World Trade Center. Now I really want to be a New Jersey commuter to enjoy those marble staircases every day. (I have learned, though, that New Yorkers look down on suburban New Jersey.) I will admit that my very first thought coming into the Oculus was not, as the architect intended, that it as a bird being released from a child’s hand, but rather that The Hunger Games were filmed there.

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Emily’s voice travelling to me

Little Sweden

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There’s Chinatown, there’s Little Italy and according to me there is even Little Sweden in New York. Well, tiny Sweden.

Last Sunday, Emily and I continued our Church Tourism by attending service at the Swedish Church of New York. I’m kind of ‘collecting’ Swedish Churches abroad and it is so interesting to see how they operate in different countries, what kind of houses they have, how many people go there. The New York church has two pastors which is more than any other church I’ve been to so far has had. They also serve Philadelphia and D.C. though so I guess that makes sense. We were lucky to be there when the Örnsköldsvik youth orchestra was visiting, heightening the musical experience by a lot. So nice!

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New York is also home to the Scandinavia House, the Nordic Center in America, the leading center for Nordic culture in the United States, that offers a wide range of programs. I had been reading scholarly research back in grad school about the House. Of course I wanted to assess with my own eyes if I could follow the scholar’s arguments on the architecture. However, our stay there was rather brief as those eyes decided to provide me with only a blurred version of the site and my entire body completely – and rather suddenly – „crapped out“ on me as Emily phrased it, resulting in a breakdown, an opportunity for Emily to show her excellent skills as a nurse, and my confinement to bed for 18 hours. It was awful, I don’t recommend it, especially because I missed out on meeting Emily’s friend who had come to see us. There is much better things to do in NYC than passing out in your hotel room. In the course of these events, we also accidentally left my scarf and favorite cardigan at the Scandinavia House and had to make two trips back to finally retrieve both items – it was almost like getting them new, that’s how glad I was!

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Swedish Church right opposite H&M – coincidence?

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Scandinavia House’s Children Area

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The Scandishop and restaurant Smorgåschef

The Elephant in the Room

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“Please tell everyone in Germany that we hate Trump”, a guest at our birthday party begged me. Since I arrived, I haven’t brought up the president with anyone (except maybe Emily) because it feels wrong to visit a place and condescedingly tell the locals how to run their country. But I don’t even have to mention him, he’s the elephant in the room and Americans willingly steer the conversation toward the Trump subject.

Some of them talk about “the situation now” which sounded as if there was a war raging on home territory. Others I witnessed taking a photo of the first amendment and saying “I’ll tweet that to Trump!” I overheard bus drivers discussing which march was happening on the weekend because apparently it’s not a question of whether there are protesters but only which group is protesting this week.

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When I went into a little store in Georgetown and the young shop assistant learned I was German, she said, “I probably shouldn’t be asking this, but does the German media report on American politics?” Her tone was embarrassed and it almost felt like I had to console her saying that I know not all Americans are like Trump. “At least there’s Brexit”, she said, “which makes me feel like we’re not the only country in shambles”.

Witnessing public life first hand here has actually made me, to my own surprise, more optimistic about the American people than I was before. Of course, the East Coast and urban areas are generally more liberal and progressive. But let it be known that the majority of Americans voted against Trump.

America is not just a country, America is an idea. Because when it comes down to it, this is about keeping faith with the idea of America. (Bono at UPenn andGeorgetown)

#tellamericaitsgreat

Babies, dogs and peace

Do you see her in the distance, her lamp beside the golden door?

Ah, Brooklyn! I can understand why it’s so hyped! Emily took me there today which gave me a wonderfully peaceful first impression of New York. I’d totally move to Brooklyn.

It’s full of precious babies, adorable dogs but not full as in crowded even though Brooklyn, being roughly one fourth of Hamburg’s size, is home to more than 2 million people. Enjoying the relaxed vibe, we strolled along the promenade in perfect sunshine – let me briefly give you an idea about the temperatures. Before I came to D.C., it was below zero there. On my first day, it was +13. Then it went down to 5 and a heavy gusts of wind knocked out the power at Safeway, the local grocery store (which is why I had to, in darkness, buy my birthday balloon for Emily). I left the capital in something around 10 degrees for Philadelphia which is only two hours north but it was freezing there. Then, I went 90 minutes north of that to find spring New York with nearly 20 degrees today.

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I was expecting New York to be extremely overwhelming and exhausting but it wasn’t because I had the best of guides, Emily, with me. I just had to follow her around and she showed me all the best places. We walked down to the pier where there is a large space for any Brooklynite to go and play sports at. I think that is such a great idea. It was full of mostly young people playing basketball, tennis or working out on the outdoor gym stations. We also tried that, such fun! It’s practically on the water and all for free.

Emily then took me to Park Slope, her old neighborhood. Such a lovely place: The street, with only limited traffic, and lots of greenery around, is buzzing with cute little shops including a stationery shop where I literally wanted to buy 90 % of things and a bookstore which has not only a cat in residence but also the most amazing children’s books. My new favorite is “The Day the Crayons quit” but I also want to have “The 50 states” to educate myself further on the U.S.

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After a walk in Prospect Park we ended up at Emily’s favorite bagel place. I wanted to excel at assimilation and ordered “The Elvis” but it was so much peanut butter I couldn’t finish it. On our way home we stopped at a costume shop because German carnival is coming up! (Emily was the most patient costume shopping friend imagineable.) I found a costume I like to wear next week as I am literally landing less than 24 hours before throwing myself into a crazy Cologne carnival celebration (4Cs!). We’ll see how that works with jetlag.

Because of my by now widely known interest in foreign food retailing, Emily took me to Trader Joe’s. It owned by the German Aldi but it looks nicer than Aldi. The prices are also higher than at Aldi – you could buy a clementine for 2,50 dollars. One clementine! What fascinated me most was the bags of hard cooked peeled eggs. I don’t even know what to say.

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From PA to NYC

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No, this is not New York City. This is South Philadelphia.

Greeting from Manhattan! I have arrived to the Big Apple and if Heathrow made me feel small, I am now tiny. Because Emily had to work and gets in late, I had had to master the first challenges alone: getting to the hotel (text to Emily: “Exactly how aggressively must one signal to the cab drivers?”), checkin (text to Emily: “They want to put 900 dollars on my card, I don’t even think that’s possible”) and finding a grocery store (text to Emily: “What do you mean, Trader Joe’s closes at 10, I thought stores in the US are open all the time!”)

I suceeded in all three endeavors and I tried very hard to look confident. After my wallet was stolen in Copenhagen, I am now paranoid that if I appear like a tourist, mean people will snatch my belongings. To blend in, I already jaywalked twice going to the store and back. By now I have really learned that Americans in that regard are a little like Italians: traffic lights and rules are recommendations, often you follow them, and many times you do not. It’s a free country. It’s the freeest country!

Pretending to be local worked so well for me in D.C. that already on my first day someone approached me asking if I work at the African American museum and on my birthday, three tourists asked me to take their photo in front of “the White House”. Unfortunately, they were standing in front of the building that houses the Department of Treasury and I could totally not bring myself to telling them that. Maybe they were testing me anyway, I mean the White House is WHITE. The Treasury is not white.

On my second day in Philadelphia, I went to the American Swedish Museum. I am immensly intruiged with migration (historical, not current) at least since I read Vilhelm Moberg’s “Emigrants” and so I absolutely wanted to learn more about the first Swedish settlers who came to the U.S. as early as 1638. The museum was not very, as Emily says, “transit accessible” which is why much of my time was spent waiting for the bus, riding the bus and walking from the bus stop. The American Swedish museum was, however, rather impressive for being dedicated to such a niche subject and even has special exhibitions, this time on Scandinavian spirits.

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In the “Skål” exhibition, they teach you how to properly clink glasses in Sweden. Trust me, it’s something you wanna know how to do.

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I enjoyed the Golden Map Room (click to enlarge the panorama). I first thought someone who had never been to Sweden painted it because Härnosand is next to Stockholm but understood later that its painted from the perspective of standing in the Baltic Sea.

I also learned that the Swedish who travelled to the New World on ships with funny names like “Katt”, cat, and brought many textibles with them, especially bed linens,  had very friendly relations with the Native Americans. They learned their language and assisted William Penn in land negotiations. The Swedish first arrived with Peter Minuit who was appointed to establish the Swedish colony. That man was actually from Wesel, a small town close to Düsseldorf. He is also the man who bought Manhattan from the Natives! I assume in the 1600s, he was Your Man in America.

After a good two hours my attention span was severly reduced because I was so hungry. As I didn’t know that the museum would be in the middle of nowhere, I had presumed to find a nice Pret a manger on the way for breakfast, but no. I ended up at a very American diner. At first I thought that’d be a great real American experience. When the food came, I realized it was not. Seriously, why does everything need to be drowned in cheese?

Starving German in Swedish American Museum / Death by cheese

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My last stop was the University of Pennsylvania, an ivy league school. I checked out their bookstore (great!) and realized the Danes and their spreading of hygge is getting out of control. They have clerarly copied this kind of fika nation branding from Sweden.

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Just outside the central station in Philly, there are swings!

 

Trivia

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Which country has the second most Olympic medals in swimming? Which is, after Russia, the largest former Soviet Union state? Which state was the first to be admitted to the United States in the 20th century? Who did Ted Kennedy lose the presidental primaries to? Which movie was Drew Barrymore’s biggest commercial success?

You don’t know that? Well, Emily’s friends do – in less than 10 seconds. On her birthday, we went to her usual Tuesday night activity: trivia. The trivia team completely overturned any presumptous idea I might have had about Americans’ general education. These people knew everything! And it seemed they could not even really tell me why they knew so much. Of course we, the team, won that night’s pub quiz. Apparently the team is so used to it though that they didn’t even celebrate. But the prize was getting 50 dollars off the tab so I got my soda for free. Even though all I contributed was being amazed by them.

Answers: Australia / Kazahstan / Oklahoma / Jimmy Carter / E.T.