EuroTrip2010: Off the Backpacker Trail

Off the Backpacker Trail

From  29 July 2010

Swansea, Wales sits along the country’s southwest coast, just over an hour from the capital. The city’s castle lies in ruins in front of a tall contemporary building, the stark contrast showing the modern day’s domination over medieval times.

Nobody goes to Wales, but the country deserves attention.  Bilingual, with every sign in Welsh and English, I never once heard the native language spoken.  Word on the street is that Welsh is only really spoken in the far north these days, and either way, it is a dying language.  The country is quiet–even the city capital of Cardiff is relatively low-key.  Ane and I stayed at hostels near the city center.  We took a bus to Cardiff Bay one day, eating lunch at a local cafe on a boat.  By chance, we came across a free viewing of a videotaped theatre performance.  I enjoyed the simplicity of the script, but it was too slow-moving for Ane who fell asleep, in front of the theatre company director.  Back-to-Back Theatre chooses innovative stage settings, always public places such as a train station where this particular one took place.  Audience members sit in bleachers with headphones to hear the actors, but sometimes never see them among the hustling and bustling oblivoius crowd until the final bow.  The themes of the theatre works focus on the political and social issues surrounding persons with disabilities.

Ane and I desperately needed a night of karaoke and were lucky enough to find a bar hosting a competition.  We didn’t find out it was a competition until after our smash hit performances, so we just took the microphones and did a song and shimmy to the Beatles’ “Eight Days a Week” and the movie Grease’s “You’re the One that I Want.”  Perhaps the karaoke judge slash lady running the show didn’t much enjoy our duets because we were the only participants denied requests.  Needless to say we did not qualify for the final round, but I think the locals took a liking to the two foreign girls on stage.  We received some whistling amidst the applause.  (At least I think it was whistling of praise, but it could have been relief that our song ended).
If you learn anything about me from reading these articles, learn this: I love doing literal interpretation dances to songs.  So when someone took to the stage singing Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer,” I took to the dance floor with my literal interpretation.  Sometimes, I forget I’m in a public place and people are watching me.
In addition to Cardiff’s castle and park with Wales’ wannabe Stonehenge, we found another castle in Swansea.  Ane and I wanted to go to the coast because we heard it is beautiful, especially the further south and west you go.  We didn’t really go west and we only went an hour south, but it was refreshing to be on a beach again.  The weather was chilly so we walked barefoot and picked up seashells.  Ane collected enough to house the entire hermit crab and clam cast of The Little Mermaid.
In our search for the castle at Swansea, we stood in the plaza checking the map and saying, “Well, it is supposed to be right there.”  It took a few blinking moments to realize it wasn’t a whole castle but rather part of a castle.  Swansea made little effort to preserve the ruins seeing as soda cans and bottles littered the lawn.

Cardiff is quiet for a city capital, especially for one along the sea.

However, the location of the (part of a) castle was nonetheless striking against the city landscape.  Tall, glass window office buildings (as close as Europe gets to skyscrapers) dominated the view above, the modern looming over the ancient.  I couldn’t help but think of what a strong statement this made about the society’s often disregard of civilization for the past, too focused on a more advanced future.

Before I forget to mention it, bask in the thought of me getting pooped on by a bird in the city center.  A nearly empty plaza, plenty of open area to aim for and my arm is the chosen target.
While the Ghana vs. Uruguay game was on in the hostel’s common room, Ane and I played Monopoly and Clue (called Cluedo in the UK).  Because the Monopoly pieces were the traditional thimble and dog, it wasn’t until about three times around the board that I noticed the property names were different–street names in London.  King’s Cross Station?  Hey, I’ve been there!  Hasbro went religious for the UK version of Clue, blessing Mr. Green with the title of Reverend.  The knife is called a dagger and the wrench, a spanner.  Minor details but I felt like I learned something.  (Yeah, board games can be culturally enlightening.)

Enjoying our reunion after meeting the summer before in Ecuador, my Danish friends and I had a picnic outside Bakken amusement park. Bakken is the first and oldest amusement park in the world.
After five nights in Wales, Ane and I took a bus to London, slept in the airport, and caught (er, nearly missed) a flight to Copenhagen.  Another friend from AmaZOOnico, Sophia, lives there.  Ane and I spent two nights with Sophia and her Ecuadorian/Quechua fiance Juan.  We had a picnic before heading inside Bakken, the world’s oldest amusement park.  Far from Cedar Point–the thrill level was just above that of a jungle gym–the company was great.   An added bonus, there is no entrance fee.  Just a pay-as-you-go fare per ride.  We actually ran into a past AmaZOOnico volunteer who left the rescue center the day after I arrived.  He now works at the amusement park.  Pardon me if this sounds pompous or rude, but Ane, Sophia and I agreed that Sebastian now has a crummy job in comparison to the jungle days.  At least he is getting paid this summer.
The goodbye to Sophia ended with talk of a hopefully soon reunion in Ecuador.  We all want to go back, so it will happen some day.  It is just a matter of when.
Ane and I went to her hometown in the north, Aalborg, where I spent a week practicing Danish phrases.  I told many a stranger, “I love you.”  While I think Ane would admit there is not much sight-seeing to be had in Aalborg, we rode to the harbor often.  Aalborg is a city that caters to cyclists with a bike lane on every main road.  Instead of car parks, there are bike parks at apartment buildings.  Very few people even have a driver’s license beacuse cycling is the major mode of transportation.  Of course, that means you’re bound to get caught in a rainstorm from time to time.  It only happened once while I was there.
Alison, the woman whose apartment we stayed at in London, was visiting Ane’s mom in Aalborg.  We had a scrumptious dinner, with edible flowers in the salad, the night before Alison’s flight back to England.  The next day, Ane and I played in the sprinkler with her nephews, eight-year-old Adam and six-year-old Beatom.  Beatom was quiet and smiley, but Adam was very talkative despite being deaf.  Even though I don’t speak Danish let alone Danish sign language (did you know sign language is not universal?), Adam didn’t let that stop him from communicating with me.  It reminded me of the Hello Kitty girl in Porto, Portugal.

Ane and her nephew, Beatom, roast breadtwists over a fire. We dipped the Danish treats in ketchup to give them a sweet taste. (Ketchup is sweeter in Europe.)
Adam spent the night at his grandma’s in a tent with Ane and I.  Before bed, the four of us baked bread twists over a fire.  I tried mine with ketchup as is traditional, and it was pretty tasty!
When I first met Ane’s group of friends, it was the night of the World Cup final.  I warned Ane that I wouldn’t be social, and she was already prepared.  I told her there was only one thing I had to do while in Denmark, and that was watch the final match.  I about ripped my hair out any time Spain just missed a shot or Holland almost scored on a breakaway.  I might have been the only one in the student center bar actually rooting for a specific team, but people joined in my ecstasy when Spain scored.  I haven’t stopped scolding my sister Ashley for leaving Madrid that weekend for a small vacation in San Sebastian up north, where she describes the vibe as much lower.  Even though she is not a soccer fan (she recently reminded me that she has at least touched a soccer ball–volleyball is her sport), I still would have traded places with her to be in Madrid.  I think that would have been a once in a lifetime experience.  Ah, well, what’s done is done.

I went to Farup Sommerland amusement and water park with Ane, her boyfriend Andreas and his sister Ida.  Ane and I rode the kiddie Tower of Terror and I screamed like a banshee, louder than any of the five-year-olds on board.

While setting up for a gathering put on by Ane’s boyfriend’s sister, I wandered along the fjord where I discovered an abandoned building. Every single window was broken, making for captivating photography.
The four of us spent many afternoons at Platform 4, an empty warehouse now used for concerts, office space and a bar.  Ida works at the bar and Ane and I helped her and her co-workers decorate the place like a park.  At the end of the week, we brought some friends and joined in the opening, eating ice cream and playing cards amidst DJ music.
The night before I left Aalborg, Ane’s best friend, Bibi, turned twenty-one.  I went to her birthday party where everyone included me in conversations, explaining card games in English.  Bibi’s friends bought her a guitar, so there was a lot of acoustic music that night.  A guy from Finland played some Finnish folk songs.  A Danish guy showed me some magic tricks.  It was a very fun atmosphere.
My visit to Aalborg, Denmark allowed me some quality time with my Danish friend Ane, whom I met the previous summer in Ecuador. The stay here was low-key; I was able to fully immerse myself in the daily culture.

Andreas videotaped the goodbye at the train stations when Ane and I sang one of our many theme songs.  There were a lot of “I’m gonna miss you” and “see you soon” exchanges.  How soon soon is, neither of us knows.  Maybe next summer if there is an Ecuador reunion, or if Ane visits the states.  Maybe years from now.  But we have a special friendship and we’ll make sure there are many more reunions.  Ane’s mom and Alison are great examples for us of long distance friends keeping in touch, making sure to have reunions.

When I changed trains headed to Hamburg, Germany, I watched the goodbye video.  It put such a smile on my face that I watched it again.  I think this Europe trip has been the perfect reminder of that Girl Scout song that says, “Make new friends, but keep the old.”  Sounds cheesy when I sing it at twenty-two years old, but it holds a lot of truth.  “One is silver and the other’s gold.  A circle’s round.  It has no end.  That’s how long I want to be your friend.”  I know you’re crying now.
Germany came next.  I speak zero German.  Bring it on.
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