The Grande Dame of Westphalia

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Sometimes it takes the threat of “you can’t do this as easily anymore soon” to get me to finally do stuff I have been planning for a while. When I realized on my birthday that I had a completely free weekend ahead, I decided now is the time to go and visit my friend Julia in MĂŒnster.

When I say “planning for a while” in this case, it means for 10 years. My friends Julia and Maike studied in MĂŒnster and in all these years, I never made it there. It’s kind of embarassing. But on Sunday, I decided that no laundry and no paperwork was worth postponing the trip any longer. Luckily, Julia was spontaneous too. From DĂŒsseldorf, MĂŒnster is a mere 1:20 hours on the direct train. From Hamburg, it will be 2:20 hours (see above “not as easily”). The trip felt like a real little vacation, starting on the train. I sat next to a Luxembourgian lady and her French friend who presumed everyone around them spoke French, too. On my other side were two Persians and after eavesdropping for a while (not that I understand anything), I asked them if they spoke Farsi which struck up a very friendly conversation with them.
Julia picked me up from this international train and we walked to her new apartment. After months of desperate apartment hunting, she secured a very lovely place. Since I had lit a candle each Sunday in mass for her apartment search (yeah, I’m Catholic like that), I felt it was especially interesting to see the result. There, the first great thing with MĂŒnster struck me: it’s walkable. They call MĂŒnster the Grande Dame of Westphalia, but it’s not so grand you can’t walk everywhere it seems. There is nothing wrong with busses, but it’s really nice to be able to just stroll whereever you need to go.

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“Hands in the air!”

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“The best for the youth”, this inscription reads. There used to be a store for toys.

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Which in our case was the inner city. I suppose if a city is called “Monastery” (MĂŒnster in German), you can guess it has strong Catholic influence. But I wasn’t prepared for just how many churches there are. I counted over 50 Catholic churches alone. There’s basically no spot in town where you can look up and not see a church tower. There are churches that have cages hanging from them in which they put the non-believers in the Middle Ages. There are churches with organs that seem to float. And the Cathedral’s entrance is called “Paradise Portal”. Occasionally a priest, all capped and gowned, walks by (or was it the Bishop?). Nuns on bikes pass you. Speaking of bikes, MĂŒnster is known nationwide for it’s bike-friendliness. When I accidentally stepped on the bike lane, Julia pulled me aside. “Only non-MĂŒnster-residents make that mistake”, she informed me. There is even a bike autobahn for cyclists.

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Very interesting bike rack

But apart from his bike fame, MĂŒnster is most known for peace. (Or at least I really hope most people know.) After 30 years of bloody war on the European continent that took 8 million lives, it was in MĂŒnster (and OsnabrĂŒck) the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648. The reason for having two cities was that the Catholics negotiated in MĂŒnster while the Protestants came to OsnabrĂŒck, a bidenominational town.
It’s hard to grasp the magnitude of this treaty, but just imagine if everyone is at war with everyone forever and then suddenly they aren’t. The relief! And here I was, getting to step into the very room at MĂŒnster Town Hall, looking at the original decor that also Axel Oxenstierna viewed when signing for Sweden that the long war was over. That’s quite something for a regular Sunday afternoon.
In that room they also displayed some artefacts, among them the Golden Chicken. It’s tied to a legend from the Thirty Years War Period but the most interesting part for me was that the chicken is actually a goblet (if you remove the head). A whole bottle of wine can be poured into the chicken. Important people who come to MĂŒnster and sign the Golden Guestbook of the city get to drink from the chicken. I believe I just found a new item for my life’s bucket list.

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Peace Town Hall

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Visby is the partner city of MĂŒnster!

We continued our walk through town to a burger restaurant. MĂŒnster is so pretty and polished. I wonder where all the money comes from but they sure show it in their house facades. The cobble stones and the spring sunlight gave the city an atmosphere that is irresistable – combine that with the young and promising students everywhere and you just want to keep coming back. The burger place was really cool – instead of a seat, I got to sit on a swing. The waitress asked us “Would you like your burger with meat?” instead of the much more common exchange, “Do you have a vegetarian alternative?” Every burger was offered as vegan, too.

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Before I had to leave again, we took the opportunity to see an installation by famous German artist Gerhard Richter. One of the many churches had been profaned and now serves as a unique space for art. There, Richter has put up a 48-kg-pendulum 29-metre-long cable. It is a Foucault pendulum and despite reading the info sheet, I still haven’t understood 100 % how it works. I do see the many levels on which you can view this artwork, though. Foucault’s pendulum was the experiment that proved the earth was moving, something the church denied for a long time. When you sit there, following the pendulum swing eternally, you almost must fall into meditation about the course of time. On both sides of the pendulum, grey giant double mirrors are put up that reflect the pendulum, the visitor and essentially each other. The reflection goes on into eternity like that. Perpetual movement.
I left MĂŒnster with a promise to Julia to come back much earlier than 2029. I still have to see the Aa Lake!

Helen goes to Hollywood

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I only went to the US when they had Bush and Trump as presidents. For the summer, I am contemplating visiting the UK. Is this still tourism or political foreign aid for confused voters?

I did it! I finally did it! And boy was I nervous about it.

Yesterday, I booked my longest trip ever. Many people perceive me as a well-travelled, cosmopolitan person. Let me tell you, when I have to book a flight costing four figures to the other side of the world, I am like a village girl that has never even entered an airport. The excitement! The anxiety!

The reason for sitting on a plane for 15 hours are my friend Emily and my cousin Kiarmin. Frankly, I am starting to doubt if it was meant for us to go places that take so long to reach and to have friends and family in places that we formerly believed were the end of the world where you’d fall off the earth. But here came study abroad programs and there was no going back – and to be honest, it would be a massive drawback in my personal life not to know these people residing in the Far West.

So I am going to Los Angeles and Vancouver in April. I will be farther away than ever before, currently I feel alternately like a pioneer looking for gold and an astronaut going where no man has gone before. But I am also very excited to return to my third-favorite country, to eat chili with Emily, shop at Dressbarn (the grandma dress store I found last time), learn more about California, and to for the first time see Canada, o Canada, the Sweden of America, just with a better head of government.

In other news: My friend Bianca and I formed a book club last year and had our second meeting last night. We discussed “The Handmaid’s Tale” that was our first book. Well written, but so uncomfortable to read as a woman. Our next book is Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” which I started right away yesterday. So far it’s pretty good!

Movie Star, Movie Star

I hadn’t unpacked from my trip over New Year’s at my parents when I already packed again last Friday. Given my travel-averse personality, you can tell there must have been some serious incentive waiting for me. And you’re right. The ‘incentives’ had big eyes, contagious giggles, a princess dress and endearing declarations of affection for me. I visited my niece, princess dress and declarations, and nephew, big eyes and giggles, and seven hours of travelling seldom felt so worth it for 23 hours together.

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Yesterday marked a milestone for my niece and me because not only did we go on an adventure only we two for the first time, that adventure led us to her very first visit to the cinema. I love the movies and so I felt especially privileged to be the one to introduce her to motion pictures. Sometimes you’d think young children might not remember everything you do with them, but when we went to town, she told me again how she still thinks about “how when I visited you, we went to see the penguins and that was my favorite thing!”

Going to the cinema all the time myself, I would say I still appreciate the special atmosphere there, but it is nothing like seeing this environment through a child’s eyes for the first time. I explained how the ticket purchase works (“and here it says where we get to sit”), I helped select snacks (“let’s take the small bag of chips”) and I held her hand when walking in (“Helen, why is everything so dark in the cinema!”). I watched her as she sat on the edge of her seat with her mouth open in concentration during the film, and I explained to her the concept of the credits (“these are the names of the people who made the coffee for the actors”). The whole experience made such an impression that I climbed in rank so much, my niece asked me on the way back, “Can I sleep in your bed tonight? I really want to sleep in your bed tonight.”

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After the cinema, we went into the small town and looked at shops.

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The reason I am able to write this blog post is that A gave me a new laptop (!) for Christmas. It is wonderfully light (lighter than a MacBook Air which had previously always been my point of reference) and it boots up so quickly I can’t keep up. (Another reason I can write this blog post is that A is cooking dinner tonight.)

 

Traveling East, North and backwards

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Work and friends had me go to Berlin from Wednesday to Sunday. I was travelling from the far West of Germany to the fast East, basically from Holland to Poland. What I didn’t realize was that I was also going from 2018 to 1998. Fashion seems to return every 20 years, but really did anyone believe the ugliest items of the Nineties were to reemerge? I didn’t think wearing pants that are way too short, jeans jackets that are way too big and fanny packs would ever make their comeback. But Berlin people want to be avantgarde-cool at all times even if it looks perfectly ridiculous.

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One of the many nineties people

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I had the opportunity to see the exhibition on the Gurlitt Nazi Art Theft.

My stay included looking at locations from tunnels to tipis, attending a design event at the embassy, visiting a startup lab, and meeting with Ingrid, Michelle, Malin, and my cousin Felix. Malin had come to Berlin for our annual 2MH-weekend and we showed her the German capital for the first time. Even though I hope I will never have to move to Berlin, I will say that their second-hand-shops are really well curated, their hipster streets have the coolest cafĂ©s, their markets cater to my needs and they have Dussmann, a stationery and book store (that calls itself a “Culture Shop”) that I would go to every week if I could.

It has become a rule now that if I travel, I will catch a cold. This time was no exception, I returned sick and had less than two days to recuperate before my plane to Stockholm lifted on Tuesday, for work. It was my shortest trip to Sweden ever and one of my sweetest. Short enough to just take in the nice things, to import VĂ€sterbottenost (very important), and (more important) to spend some evening hours with my dear friend Bianca. Less than 24 hours after arrival, I returned to Dizzel, feeling like I now had travelled to the Eighties.

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This is where I worked yesterday. Can you guess where?

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Oh, Lidl…

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The Swedish news were all about children names the state refused and parents fighting against it. Who wants to name their kid superfastjellyfish?!

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Already miss this one a lot lot lot

I’ve been in Eighties-DĂŒsseldorf for 19 hours when  I am leaving again, and again to Berlin. How much do you have to be home in order to make renting an apartment worthwhile? Asking for a friend.

3 Things I learned in Croatia

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Now we are back from sunny beautiful Croatia in greysih fall Dizzel and my face is very tan with two awkward-looking white circles around my eyes. It was sad to have to leave the beach paradise – but I learned lots of new things! I am now no longer a beginner at packaged holidays but let’s say an experienced amateur.

  1. You dress up for dinner and you use plates only once

I only had a 9-kg-suitcase and was very proud of not bringing lots of stuff. What do you need during a beach holiday, I thought. Swimwear and sandals basically. Little did I know! At night for the buffet dinner, some of the ladies that casually had hung out in their beach dresses before, donned perfect evening looks! Stylish blouses, definitely newly purchased dresses, elegant pants accompanied by pretty hair-dos…and here I was in my regular t-shirt and skirt.

This vacation also meant struggling with my zero waste ambitions. Not only did the bora-wind rob me of a plastic bag and toss it into the sea (A: “You littered!” Me: almost jumped into the sea fully clothed to retrieve the bag), one was also not supposed to use plates twice. So after finishing your starters, you must not take the plate back to the buffet and put your main course on the same plate. I am still not sure if I am being a cretin or an environmentally conscious person for having a hard time with this.

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The most dressed up I got

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for our sundowners

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2. Non-fiction is not a good beach read

Not sure about you but I think of vacations as “finally I can catch up on all the reading I have to do” – and that includes non-fiction. So I packed a work magazine, a book about brain science and Hans Rosling’s super hyped “Factfulness”. I soon realized I was the odd one out on the beach. Departing guests left their books for others in the hotel’s inspiration bar (I guess that is how you say library in a cooler way): Danish crime, German romance, British comedy. After three days, I had made it through the American neuroscience but the Swedish statistics book was really hard. I still haven’t finished it and next time, I will definitely bring something lighter.

 

3. Don’t try stand-up-paddling

…if you intend to walk or even work the day after. Our hotel had a rather extensive work out program and I am still surprised by myself that I actually took advantage of it. (I have never brought work out clothes on a vacation before. Also because my vacations often entail walking 3 million steps a day through a city.) After two days of only moving from buffet to beach to bed, I signed up for aerobics. What I did not know was that the class would be outside next to the beach bar and that I would be the only one. I guess I can put this under the “free personal training with an audience” experience.

The last class I took was “stand up paddling trial”. On our last day, I got up earlier than usual because I really wanted to make myself try stand up paddling that all the cool kids in Hamburg did already three years ago. Did I constantly fall into the cold water as soon as I tried to go from kneeling to standing? Yes. Was it fun nonetheless? Yes. Can I walk the day after? No.

I have had sore muscles before (I mean, I tried ice-skating in March) but this is a whole new level. I had a really hard time sitting down at my desk this morning and I fear it won’t be over by tomorrow. So try stand up paddling but if possible don’t plan anything for the day after that.

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When I still could walk without sore muscles

The Thousand Islands Country

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When I was 12, I hung out in an online forum for fans of the pop group A*Teens a lot. There, in the “discussion board as it was called, I learned most of my English, long-distance collaboration skills and intercultural competence. There, I also learned about a country called Croatia through a forum friend called Miha. He lived in Zagreb so that was mostly my point of reference until seven years ago I applied for a Master’s Degree in Dubrovnik and the fact that there is a Croatian Adria became more known to me. I didn’t do my Master’s in Croatia but since then thought it would be worth visiting.

So when we talked about going way during the fall to get some sunshine, I brought up Croatia. A then went ahead and picked a hotel that makes me alternately feel like I am in a perfect-vacation-commercial (when on the terrace or beach promenade) and a Soviet girl encountering capitalism for the first time (when faced with the breakfast and dinner buffet). I am also fascinated with how travelers are taken care of in this kind of hotels. Everyone speaks German and English (and remamarkbly good German and English), there is an own app that lists all offered activities (step aerobic, stretching, excursion, cooking course, Croatian course, live music anyone?) and upon arrival we got an envelope with a letter from “Iva of Tui” and her phone number to call if any issues should arise at any point. Seriously, I feel more taken care of than when I was 16 and on an exchange semester in the U.S..
“Iva of Tui”, as the receptionist kept calling her as if that was a noble title, also held a welcome session this morning which we missed because I was very busy for an extended period of time marvelling wide-eyed at the 15 different kinds of bread at the breakfast counters. Instead, I signed us up last night for “Facts about Croatia” to which A willingly tagged along. We were greeted by Marko who had two Swedes in tow. There are so many Swedes here (and the occasional Dane), it’s rather bewildering to me. I thought Swedes were kept in Ayia Napa. Marko gave us an excellent presentation that exceeded our expectations. Now I am even more keen on going to the “Croatian Language Course” on Friday.

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We are in Tupeci which means City of Springs

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I think it all looks rather Italian here

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Pomegranate Trees! I have never seen pomegranates growing before.

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On the horizon you see some of the 1000 islands Croatia prides itself for

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Can’t stop looking at the color of the sea

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The first day was very windy

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That wind, we learned, is called Bora. The changeable bora can often be felt all over Montenegrin Littoral, Dalmatia, Istria, Rijeka, the Slovenian Littoral, Trieste, and the rest of the Adriatic east coast. It blows in gusts.

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Beyond Nils Holgersson

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I am sitting in a clean, cushioned chair that obviously is part of an interior design concept and around me bell-like female voices sing about the importance of freedom. Did you guess where I am? Yes, at a Swedish university (hint: the cushioned concept chair) at my friend Malin’s choir practice. Her choir is due to perform at the welcome ceremony for the new students tomorrow morning and there is only one other girl in her voice who can be there so she did her duty and attends the practice. And I get to blog to a living testimonial to the choir culture in Sweden.

Yesterday, after more than seven hours of traveling, I made it to Karlstad where Malin lives nowadays. I am actually in Sweden for work, for a conference on Wednesday in Stockholm, but why flew up several times if you can combine trips. Karlstad is the capital of VÀrmland and the largest city in the province with 91,000 inhabitants. I have only been in VÀrmland three times in my life but I have had great times at VÀrmlands nation in Uppsala when I studied so I hold the province in high regard. It is also home to some famous Swedes, among them the founder of Ericsson, singers Zarah Leander and Monica Zetterlund, poets Nils Ferlin and Gustaf Fröding, and I believe most known: the grande dame of Swedish literature, Selma Lagerlöf.

Today, Malin took me to Lagerlöf’s estate MĂ„rbacka for a guided tour. As a preparation, I had even started reading the only book by Lagerlöf that I own, “The Emperor of Portugal”. On the tour of the house we were the only people under 60 but I attributed this to the fact that it was after all a Monday. The estate was impressive – and modern, as she had such things as internal telephone lines installed in the house. Selma Lagerlöf, I learned, was an overall rather avantgarde woman. She took a loan to study to become a teacher when her father denied her an education, she cut her hair super short in 1891 she was the first woman to be awared a Nobel Prize (and the first Swede!), the first woman to be elected as a member of the Swedish Academy that awards the prize, she became a very active political influencer (as we would call it today), fighting for women’s right and suffrage. And she dated a woman.

And here we thought she was just that elementary teacher who wrote Nils Holgersson…I am putting some more Lagerlöf classics on my to-read-list.

 

MĂ„rbacka has lots of apple trees and we tasted a tiny apple that was surprisingly delicious.

 

Selma Lagerlöf had a thing for peacocks. There was a sign with a story about how as a child, her leg was paralyzed and meeting a peacock healed her. Peacocks are still around and, as the sign informed me, are called “Sara and Pharao, as tradition demands”. I had no idea that there was a peacock naming tradition but I am glad I know now in case I ever get myself one.