the strange and new

un cumpleaños cubano

I spend my 32nd birthday in Cuba.

La Habana is a dirty, smelly, crumbling city where men leer at me and the hot air that tunnels through the streets cannot really be called a breeze since it is mostly exhaust and does nothing to cool my burning skin.

Men push old grocery carts hung with onions and garlic, and women stand at rod-iron gates, peering onto the streets. Dogs search for scraps, and laundry hangs from second-story balconies, dripping onto the broken sidewalk below. Friends sit in doorways smoking cigarettes, and horse-drawn carts clatter through the streets, pulled by dirty animals whose ribs show far more than they should. Bicycle taxis offer me a ride as I walk — no gracias, no gracias.

Fortunately, after just one day there, I hop in a taxi colectivo with a friendly American couple and their 12-year-old daughter, and we rumble down the highway in an ancient Ford in the direction of Viñales.

It is hotter here, if that is possible. The driver is thorough in his hand-off of me at my casa — he waits until my host and I physically connect before he takes his leave. The casa is also home to an old German Shepard named Luna, and she lies beside me on the cool tile porch while I eat breakfast the next morning, happy to take the pieces of cheese I slip to her.

My host, Tito, is a local climbing guide, and I join him and a group of eight others in a taxi that takes us to a new spot where they are still bolting routes and putting up first ascents. We take a trail through the forest, scattering wild pigs as we walk, bushwhack our way across a field as a group of six goats watches, and climb up the steep earth to the limestone rock face.

The wall is at an exhausting 45-degree angle, maybe more, and I do more watching than climbing. The limestone tufas are unlike anything I’ve seen before. In the afternoon, it tries to rain on us as we walk back to the road and catch taxies back to town.

The next morning, I meet a friend at breakfast, an Italian climber who lives in L.A. and is also traveling in Cuba alone. Tito is busy running errands in Pinar del Río today, so we borrow his rope and draws and wander down the road to Raul Reyes’s finca, “the” spot for Viñales climbers — partially because you have to tramp across his property to reach a lot of the walls, and partially because I think Raul really likes being “the” spot for Viñales climbers. He keeps a huge tree rat on a leash next to the covered porch where he sells mojitos and fresh plantanos to weary climbers on their way back into town.

At Raul’s finca this morning, Ascanio and I run into four familiar-looking guys we’d both seen before. Ascanio climbed with them yesterday, and today, the six of us climb together. One of them is a Ryan Gosling look-alike; he and Ascanio conquer tougher routes on the huge, concave wall to the left, while I climb some routes to the right with our other three new friends. The spot is la Cueva de la Vaca, and it’s reached from this side by a long, steep staircase that goes straight up the side of the hill. At the back of the cave is a tunnel that deposits you on the south side of the land mass, at the edge of some other fincas.

Later, we search for a pair of multi-pitch routes Ryan Gosling wants to climb. When we find them, it’s close to 7 p.m., and Joshua decides to head back to town. Three boys go up the line on the right, and Ascanio and I get to the second belay of the line on the left before bailing — it’s dirty climbing, and we’re losing the light. I leave Joshua’s headlamp, which he loaned me, in Devon’s shoe because our three friends will need it when they come down.

Ascanio and I have a drink at Raul’s and chat with him while I pull a puppy onto my lap and give him more love than he’s ever had in his life. Ascanio buys a cigar, Raul gives me two plantanos to go, and we walk back to town in the dark.

The next day is my birthday. Ascanio wants a rest day, and Cristian is sick. We lose two and gain one — Albina from Russia — and our group of five finds a taxi to take us to Competition Wall 2016.

We tumble out of the taxi at El Palenque, a bar built inside of a cave, and walk down the road to the right, to the limestone rock face awaiting us. We are not the only ones to have this idea today, but there are plenty of routes, and we climb alongside 10 or 12 other people, fighting the mosquitoes in the shade. The routes are fun, and the views from the top are great.

In the early evening, we walk back to El Palenque and stand by the road, sticking two fingers out every time we see a car come around the corner about three-quarters of a mile down the road. We are ignored by a couple of horse-drawn carts, a bus, and a few taxis that are already full before we finally hail a teal blue Chevrolet being driven in the opposite direction. The farmer agrees to turn around and take us back to town for seven pesos, so we throw our packs in the back and jump in.

The bench seats squeak as we bounce down the road, passing other ancient vehicles and two kids on bicycles leading a horse by the reins. Air rushes in through the open windows, and I close my eyes.

Later, I rejoin my climbing amigos in front of El Olivo on the main drag — this group cleans up well, and the boys have cigars tucked into their shirt pockets.

We are led to a table in the back of the high-ceilinged restaurant and are given menus. However, our resident Italian takes charge of the food and wanders off to have a discussion with the chef. They proceed to collect our menus, and we wait patiently at the table with double mojitos — our only job is to consume whatever arrives.

And consume we do: rabbit, duck, lamb, steak, seafood stew, beef lasagna — we are carnivores tonight, and it is good. Each wielding a knife and fork, we pass the plates around the table, sampling everything until we’ve slurped all of the meat out of the crab legs and revealed the bones of the birds and other creatures they have brought us.

At the end of the meal, when we are impossibly full, someone insists on a candle for me to blow out, and as I don’t think birthday candles are very common in Cuba, I am brought a large candle in a glass jar, lit just for me. They set it down next to a pineapple pie and a small flan. I blow it out. Ryan Gosling asks if I made a wish — I forgot. He immediately ignites a lighter in front of my face and insists I try again, so I do.

We are ushered out of the restaurant somewhat unceremoniously as they close and the wait staff prepare to drive 30 to 45 minutes in scattered directions to their homes. Pouring out into the still-warm air, we weave through the festivities of the final day of el carnival — the street is covered with trampolines and a moon bounce, a rickety-looking tilt-a-whirl, miniature ponies pulling children down the street in wooden wagons, and the smallest Ferris wheel I’ve ever seen, cheap jewelry and plastic toys for sale, fried potato slices, rum cocktails, music pounding out of 30-year-old speakers at deafening decibels, and everywhere Cubans dressed in their favorite clothes.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but suddenly Ryan Gosling has removed his shirt and is getting Che Guevara tattooed on the center of his chest in airbrushed colors.

I don’t remember whose idea it was, but suddenly we have all gotten Che Guevara tattooed on our bodies, and it is the perfect birthday present.

We leave the thumping sounds of el carnival behind and escape to the breezy balcony above my casa. Someone acquires beers, and the boys smoke their cigars. It has been a while since I’ve done this — wandered through a new country alone — and it’s all coming back to me. How to relax and remain open to what may come, how to keep yourself company, how to find value in every experience. Still, it is these moments you always hope for: new friends and surprises, a balmy night and a nice patio.

The thrill of the new is intoxicating, and even better if it is also strange. Viva Cuba libre, amigos.

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in which we wander across New Zealand

I woke up to the earth moving under me in my friend Kirsten’s brother’s bed. He’d gone back to university in Dunedin, so instead of camping on the leather couch in the living room, I’d been upgraded to a bedroom of my own in their parents’ lovely home, which was perched on a hill overlooking Corsair Bay and the larger — and unbelievably beautiful — Lyttelton Harbour just south of Christchurch.

I’d experienced earthquakes before, but I’d never been jarred from a deep slumber by one. Kirsten’s mother came padding down the hallway in the dark, calling into our rooms in her sharp South African accent: “Is everyone okay? Alright?”

We were all fine — Kirsten, her younger sister Abi, and me — but I found myself lying awake for an hour or so afterward, wondering what it must have been like to grow up here. There was an alcove on the second floor of the house with windows on three sides and bookshelves below. To sit on the window seat with the windows open, hear the birds, and watch the water undulate through the harbor, which had been created by the surrounding volcanoes, was very near to perfection. Rising innocently in the middle of the harbor is Quail Island, which had been a leper colony in the early 1900s.

Their home, a white clapboard house with a long front porch, used to be much smaller, with one bathroom for the family of six, but after a few earthquakes, additions, and repairs, it now stands quite prettily on this piece of prime real estate. During the day, doors and windows are left open, and the line between inside and outside blurs as the cool breeze ruffles curtains and flutters the pages of books left on the coffee table.

Kirsten’s parents were transplants to this paradise — her mother from South Africa, her father from Britain, and though Kirsten was born in the U.K., she grew up in New Zealand. With such a background, her speech is decidedly unique — the closed vowels of British English mixed with the South African “yah” and a lilting cadence that trends up at the ends of sentences even when they aren’t questions.

I was at the beginning of several weeks in New Zealand (when you come that far, you stay a while). It had taken me a full three days to shake off the worst of my jet-lag, and now we were off on our first adventure: the Heaphy Track, one of New Zealand’s nine official government-sponsored Great Walks. Kirsten, her older brother Duncan, and I dutifully acquired gear from the garage, loaded packs, and ventured north, to the top of the south island.

We drove from Christchurch to Motueka in a beat-up forest-green Land Cruiser with a broken right blinker, climbed over the last big hill in our way, and collapsed into the charming Mussel Inn in Onekaka for our last civilized meal of the week. Another hour or so in the Land Cruiser took us to the end of the road, the edge of Kahurangi National Park — and Brown Hut.

We had tea, waited for the sky to darken, and rolled out our sleeping bags for our first night on the Heaphy.

In the morning, the air was brisk but refreshing, and after hot tea, mixed nuts, and hard-boiled eggs as a last hurrah from civilization, we strapped on our packs and stepped onto the track. We were following it from east to west, which meant the first day was 90% climbing, peaking at the highest point on the entire track about an hour before arriving at our second hut.

Perry Saddle Hut had an excellent view and a helicopter landing pad. A couple of hours’ rest was apparently all Duncan needed before he set off for a trail run to the top of a nearby peak; I sat on the sunny deck and read Paul Bowles, welcoming each new set of trampers as they arrived. Bumblebees kept the campers company outside while we indulged in the comforts of the newly remodeled 28-bunk hut. After a dramatic sunset that turned everything gold, we made friends and played cards by headlamp, and after it had been dark for a while, some of us ventured outside in an attempt to hear the kiwis calling to each other.

In the morning, we took turns cooking and making coffee at the gas stove and laced up our shoes quietly, the morning sun having somehow illuminated a shyness we’d been able to shed in the darkness the night before.

After a morning of tramping through lush, rainforested scenery, we stopped for lunch at Saxon Hut, plopped somewhat unceremoniously amongst the suddenly flat, tussocked landscape. There was no shade in the afternoon, and as we walked, I developed two obtrusive blisters on my right foot that demanded to be dealt with about an hour before we reached our next hut.

We did not envy the campers at James Mackay Hut — the sandflies were vicious, and though the view of the sea was lovely from the porch (our first glimpse of it since taking the trail at Brown Hut), most of us enjoyed it through the large, west-facing windows of the hut. While waiting for our turn at the gas stoves, Kirsten and I laid on our backs with our legs up the wall, trying to reverse some of the downward pressure of the past two days’ walking. Duncan set off on a run down the portion of the trail we were meant to cover tomorrow. His recon was entirely unnecessary, but — energy must be spent.

The next day’s walk presented us with a significant amount of downhill through the trees, ending at Lewis Hut for lunch, although more accurately, we served as lunch for the abundant sandflies inhabiting the shores of the Heaphy River, which we had finally approached at close range.

The first of many suspension bridges took us across the river, and on the other side were several enormous rata trees, some of New Zealand’s tallest flowering trees. The afternoon march toward Heaphy Hut was mostly flat and very beautiful — and decidedly wetter than most of our tramping so far.

As we walked, the ferns, which had accompanied us the entire time, slowly grew into tree-sized ferns, and suddenly they were palms and we were on a tropical coastline I had not quite expected, but was happy to see.

The final hut, set at the mouth of the Heaphy River as it exited into the Tasman Sea, was a welcome sight for me and my blistered feet, and upon arrival, we abandoned our packs and ran for the sea.

The tide was high, and the mouth of the river was choppy and deep, but as the sun sank lower, the water level receded, and a group of emboldened trampers set off across it to the other side of the river, lined up with clasped arms as if for a game of Red Rover.

The mist in the air as the sun set made for a glowing, ethereal final hour of daylight, and it is moments like these when I am happy to be a spectator instead of a participant. As I watched my friends — old and new — splash their way across the narrow strait of water, I drank in the color of the air, and the size of the sky, and the sounds of the waves, and the scent of the earth and the water and the rocks. I took it in through my eyes and my nose and my ears, and then I took it in through my mind and my spirit and my heart.

The beach was my church, and my soul was being saved.

That night, we pulled out the deck of cards again, and with the help of a British girl who also knew the game, I taught everyone to play “Oh Hell,” a game of tricks and trumps that my family has played for years. We played until we were playing by headlamp, and the only other light was the moonlight being reflected in the sea outside our hut.

We slept soundly.

Our final day of walking took us south down the coastline, through the mist. I had abandoned my traitorous trail runners and let my blisters breathe in flip flops on the sandy, rocky track. The air smelled salty and sticky, but the breeze off the water gave us some reprieve from the sandflies, which we desperately needed.

This section of the track was relatively flat and full of delicious views of the Tasman Sea — probably one of my favorite days.

Eventually we reached the final suspension bridge at the southernmost end of the track, and we plopped down in the shade next to the car, consuming the remainder of our provisions. The car had been brought from Brown Hut to the south end of the track by Derry Kingston, a legend of the Heaphy Track who has now covered the distance on foot more than 400 times.

Blistered, bitten, and slightly bruised, we had arrived, and Kirsten drove us home in the beat-up forest-green Land Cruiser.

New Zealand is a pair of gorgeous islands, and the rest of my time there was not enough — no amount of time would have been. But I am grateful for the opportunity to wander across a small piece of it with a friend. As I write this (belatedly, backdated, with humble apologies), Kirsten is in Beirut working as a copy editor, and I have just returned from climbing the limestone tufas of Cuba. I am confident our paths will intersect again before long, but until then, buena suerte, bonne chance, takun amina, my friend.

England, briefly

Briefly, I lived in England.

I had followed a man there, which is easy to do when your job is mobile and you are wandering the globe, looking for meaning and connections.

We’d met while I was house-sitting in the Cornish countryside for two dogs, six chickens, and a pony named Joe. I spent my days working from my laptop and my nights feeding the stove and resisting the urge to allow the dogs on the couch with me. At any rate, my conversations with them had grown dull and one-sided, so I welcomed the opportunity to sit opposite another human.

Though I had been left a vehicle at my disposal, I was loathe to drive a manual on the left “side” of the single-track country lanes of this sparse village, so I walked the undulating mile and a half to the pub to meet this man.

We hit it off, had cupcakes for dessert, and he offered to drive me home.

Two days later, he left — amid protestation on both our parts and promises to meet again soon. And we did, a few months later, when I landed at Heathrow with excessive amounts of luggage in hand and a heady optimism in heart.

We spent my birthday in a tent in the Lake District and woke up the next morning to a light dusting of snow. We went rock climbing in Wales. He bought a house; I helped him decorate it. He went away for work; I spent a long weekend with his father’s mistress outside of London. We rode his motorcycle to the beach, and to tiny villages in Dartmoor just to have a meal at a pub. We ate large quantities of avocados and woke up happy when the sunshine streamed in through the windows, dappled across the bed — and across us as we lay intwined.

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The U.S. Department of State does not allow these things to last forever, and on a warm day in June, I boarded a plane.

Sometimes when we are hurtling through the air like this, we can feel things change as the miles disappear behind us. Though it took all seven hours, I said goodbye to him on that plane, in my head, thumbing the necklace he’d given me during our tearful valedictory.

And — just like that — six months of my life had passed, but everything seemed to be the same.

I made the transition with no more or less grace than I have done anything else thus far, and a small part of me tucked the story away as A Thing That Had Happened to Me: fodder for this text, perhaps, or an excuse for my evolving nature as a nomad who is good at leaving.

When my blood runs warm with the warm red wine
I miss the life that I left behind
But when I hear the sound of the blackbirds cry
I know I left in the nick of time

Peter Bradley Adams

when in Amsterdam, after all, one cycles

We have all heard the maxim: “Wherever you go, there you are.” It encapsulates perfectly why travel as escapism doesn’t work — the simple fact is, one cannot escape oneself.

But oh, how we try.

In spite of the persistent forecasts, I woke up to yet another sunny day in Amsterdam. Why had I come? Your answer will be as good as mine, which may have something in common with George Mallory’s answer to the question, “Why did you want to climb Mount Everest?”

Because it’s there.

In this case, rather, it’s about what isn’t there: anyone I know.

In a place where no one knows me or cares about what I’m doing, I am invisible. I ride the tram. I buy pears at the grocery store. I wander through museums alone, and no one notices me. It is just as I like it. When you are lonely, it feels appropriate to be alone.

Feeling, then, as though I had the sunny day to myself, I returned to the De Pjip neighborhood to have a fancy-schmancy breakfast at Anne&Max, one of the hip cafés that had been slammed on the Saturday before, when I’d been through the neighborhood to visit the Albert Cuyp Market. Do all street markets seem the same sometimes? I think they do. It’s just different kitsch; in Holland, it’s tulips and Dutch clogs.

But the streets were quiet this morning — stalls closed and packed away — and I enjoyed a delicious egg & spinach concoction on the terrace, unbothered.

After breakfast, I came across a bike rental shop, and as it was so sunny, I thought, Why not? The owners were a Greek couple, and while the man was almost irritatingly friendly, the woman was helpful and straightforward. They got me set up on a bike, and off I went for the afternoon.

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The Dutch are very comfortable on their bicycles, and they’re also very direct. There are bells dinging all the time, and fairly deft maneuvers being made by people in skirts and high heels on what are basically road-worthy beach cruisers. As far as I can make out, the only rule is that as long as it’s generally safe-ish, you just get on with things, because cyclists really do rule in this city.

So, off I went, mildly thrilled to be a part of the anonymous cycling throng, quietly dinging my bell to give gentle reminders to pedestrians and (fellow) tourists who were otherwise oblivious.

Yes, I could get used to this.

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After biking around almost the entire city at an absolutely ludicrous pace for a sightseeing tourist, around 4 p.m., I finally collapsed into a cafe in the historic Jordaan neighborhood called ‘t Smalle, which is hilarious to me, because who begins the name of anything with an apostrophe-t?

I had the “warm meatballs,” which were indeed warm, and actually quite good. The outdoor seating was all taken, so I sat inside, but it was a charming interior — dark, rich wood and dim lightbulbs struggling to illuminate the space through ancient lampshades — and it served as a perfectly comfortable locale in which to while away my final moments before I had to return the bicycle.

I peered through the windows at the Dutch patrons, watching them as they watched the canals in front of them, feeling as though I was enjoying a second-hand type of pleasantness that I would have appreciated much less had I a companion with which to enjoy this lovely afternoon moment.

One thing that becomes clear if you travel through too much of the world by yourself is that there will always be people in love when you are not, always people who are happy when you are not, and although the opposite is true, too, sadly, we rarely notice it.

gin with Germans

I met a boy in Berlin, and after a drink at a bar in Kreuzberg with a very disappointing local band playing, we traveled north to Kollwitzkiez and found a venue with much better music.

After three gin and tonics each, and with The Low-Flying Ducks playing its encore, my Berliner companion put his hand on my lower back.

We barely remembered to pick up our coats on the way out — the bite of fresh air too appealing after our hours spent basking in the overly warm energy of live music in a slightly underground venue. Berlin in November is cold enough to make me wish I had a heavier coat, but alas — I am wearing one of my two weary sweaters, proof that one does not have to look particularly fashionable (or attractive at all, really) to make friends in a new city — friends ready to take you back to their sparse, Euro-furnished apartment with a mattress sitting directly on the hardwood floor and huge windows opposite.

Ben offered me coffee in the morning, but I scurried away into the sunshine, passing storefronts not yet open for the day and dutiful Berliners on their way to work.

And with that, Ben slips gracefully into my past, fondly memorable for his own reasons.

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abandoned Berlin

On a Monday morning, I got a text from a Berlin resident I know via Instagram:

“Photo walk at abandoned swimming pool. Meet at 11:30. See you?”

I had no reason to say no, so I said yes.

We climbed over piles of glass and beer bottles from long-finished parties, empty cans of spray paint, and relics like smashed computers and old lounge chairs. We walked through pitch-black halls and emerged into a yard with eerily empty swimming pools and a greenhouse-like structure with all the windows busted out. We lit a smoke bomb and made purple-tinted portraits in the massive main atrium.

The place is called Blub Badeparadies —

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Halloween at Tivoli

This life is not a constant stream of story-worthy moments. You are most likely to find me hunched over my laptop in a tiny room I found on AirBnB, fixing other people’s grammar for an hourly wage. It is far from a glamorous existence, but I do it so I can see as much of the world as possible.

Copenhagen, however, was a disappointment on more than one level: The shower didn’t drain and I inevitably found myself standing in three inches of water by the time I was finished, I didn’t make any friends, and I spent more money than I’d wanted to.

I did briefly make it to the cemetery I’d heard so much about, Assistens, and I saw a lot of the area around Dronning Louises Bro, a very nice bridge with picturesque waterfront on both sides, and Nyhavn.

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I also managed to make it to Tivoli Gardens on the last night of its Halloween extravaganza, which could have been an amazing experience had I not spent almost the entire evening feeling sorry for myself for having to go to Tivoli by myself.

Being a Sunday evening, and the last night of these particular festivities, the park was crowded. I appreciated the generally spooky atmosphere they had created with all of the orange and black lights and jack-o-lantern decorations, but it also made me aware of how enchanting the place must be at Christmas time. I’ve never been a big fan of Halloween, and perhaps I’m just longing for a bit of Christmas.

After I wandered around for an hour or so by myself I had a indecently indulgent meal at one of the restaurants in the park — also by myself. I only had an appetizer soup and a dessert, but it worked out to 120 Danish krone, or $20 U.S. (Oh the shame!)

It was delicious, though: A pumpkin soup with some kind of fish in it. Sounds weird, but it was good. A note of warning, though: If you have never dined alone, know that ordering soup is a questionable choice. When you have a dining partner, you can eat soup with more grace, pausing between each spoonful to discuss your waiter’s choice of hairstyle, or comment on how sad you are that the candle on your table has gone out, even though that is likely because you guffawed with too much gusto when your dining partner made a slick and sarcastic remark about said waiter’s hairstyle.

When you eat soup by yourself, you find there is nothing to really do if you put the spoon down, so you hold the spoon in perpetuity, but you quickly find that holding the spoon while you’re not using it is ALSO awkward, so you just keep using it, and before you know it, you are shoveling soup into your mouth at an alarming rate, and you begin to experience a modicum of shame as you realize how much of a heathen you must look to the other diners in the restaurant.

At any rate, I finished my soup. I won’t tell you how long it took me.

Then I ordered a raspberry sorbet and chocolate dessert platter that was more intense than I had anticipated, but pretty good. Some of the pieces of chocolate had nuts in them, though, which ruins chocolate for me. I felt bad about leaving them since the server was paying so much attention to me and wanted to know how I liked everything (another thing that often happens to you when you dine alone), so I put those pieces in my napkin and took them to the bathroom with me to throw away. I am awful because: (1) that’s a waste of part of a $10 dessert, and (2) I am afraid of what a random waiter in Denmark who I will never see again will think of me. Oh and (3) what am I, five years old?

So, Tivoli.

Try going to an amusement park by yourself sometime. Try walking around alone, watching kids run past you to jump on a ride, their parents trailing behind with a camera and big smiles. Try listening to the screams of delight as friends terrify themselves on purpose on the terrifying carnival rides high above your head. Try watching couple after couple pass you by, holding hands, smiling sweetly at each other, wearing scarves, clutching hot chocolates.

This is not an inordinate amount of fun.

I am sad to say that I became the mildly creepy loner, laughing second-hand laughs at other people’s jokes, applauding out-of-turn for the boyfriend who successfully won a giant stuffed animal for his girlfriend at the dart-and-duck game, or smiling just a little too much at other people’s kids as they toddled by with balloons and ice cream. I am not proud of this.

But I went to Tivoli because it is the second-oldest amusement park in the world, originally opening in 1843, second only to Dyrehavsbakken, which opened in 1583 and is also in Denmark. Tivoli is more popular and more well-known I assume because it is in Copenhagen, and Dyrehavsbakken is near Klampenborg. Where? Exactly.

Whatever. Here are some pictures of Tivoli.

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where to eat (and drink) in Tallinn

After taking the overnight ferry from Stockholm to Tallinn, Estonia, I disembarked to find the city super windy and quite chilly. So, I mostly spent my time finding cozy little spots to eat and drink warm things — and there is no shortage of these in Tallinn, perhaps by necessity. This city has the whole “cozy” thing down-pat.

So, for your future reference should you ever find yourself in Tallinn, here are some of the best places to consume things.

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11:30 a.m.
Boca Pott: kohvik, kauplus, stuudio

This little spot lured me in with some cool jazz music and an adorable little courtyard, even though I sat inside, because… cold. It’s a great concept: cafe, shop, and artists’ studio all connected. The shop sells the wares the artists make in the studio, and I suppose the cafe was added to bring them together because, why not?

They have three dining rooms: the main floor, upstairs, and downstairs. I was lured downstairs by the fireplace, which burns real wood, as evidenced by the big pile that was stacked up behind my chair. They offer a few cakes and pastries as well as a full cafe menu, so I ordered a big cup of fruit tea and a pancake with jam (oo-rah for continuing the crepe tradition!). When it arrived, I sat there happily at my table, candle burning, fireplace popping beside me, warm lamplight to write by, and enjoying a delicious snack. Does it get better? I felt like an old man should’ve been reading the Lord of the Rings trilogy out loud from a rocking chair in the corner.

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1:45 p.m.
Kohvik Sinilind

I found this lunch spot after failing to get a table at Sfäär, my first choice. I ended up being quite happy with this place — perhaps happier than I would have been at Sfäär (recommended by the NYT, I believe).

Arriving here, I was in a bit of a huff, because I fancied myself mildly snubbed by the waiter at Sfäär, who’d said bluntly they had no room for one more for lunch — full stop. So I exited and trudged along, sun shining right in my eyes, and the wind almost blowing me over. Although feeling quite sorry for myself, I calmed down quickly upon entering Sinilind: It is cute inside. And also deceivingly large. There is a front room, then through a small doorway is a larger room, then there is a third room even behind that. It’s very charming, with sort of mis-matched 70s decor and tables and chairs, and candles burning. There are really cute window seats in the front room as well as a teal-colored spiral staircase by the door scattered with books, a bird box, and some pictures propped up. A nicely-lit pastry cabinet taunted me as it was directly in my eye line from my table.

I ordered carrot risotto with duck and was told it was a good choice. When it arrived, I understood why. Hot damn that was good risotto. Perfectly creamy, but not overly so. Just the right amount of meat to complement, a few greens, and they threw some sunflower & pumpkin seeds in for good measure (and a little crunch). It was pretty amazing.

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4 p.m.
Chocolaterie de Pierre

The menu boasts “Le Grande Cafe de la Ville, since 1937” — but this place also seems to be called Pierre Chocolaterie as well as Chocolats de Pierre. At any rate, it was the perfect place for a final hot drink after day of wandering Tallinn.

This place is tucked away in the courtyard of the King’s Cloister, I believe it’s called, and I almost didn’t go in, because they were redoing the paving stones at the tunnel entrance, and I wasn’t sure it was open. But I’m so glad I followed some other (more confident) people in, because it is a wildly adorable spot. Purple and green vines with tiny red berries crawl up the walls and string themselves in between the buildings. This cafe shares the courtyard with several small craft shops peddling jewelry and things made of wool and amber — the things to buy in Estonia, apparently — and all of the windows are warmly and welcomingly lit.

At the cafe, there’s some nice outside seating if you’re brave enough, with pillows and blankets and lanterns, but the inside is even more charming, if that’s possible. It’s a bit dark, but there are lots of lamps and candles and fabric making it feel super warm and cozy. Pillows, rugs, chair covers, tablecloths… I could fall asleep in this place it’s so comfortable. I sat at a table with a window looking out onto the courtyard, so I feel like I got the best of both worlds.

To drink, I ordered a truly incredible hot chocolate with candied oranges and ginger. It arrived looking a bit like a submarino from Argentina, in a milkshake-type mug with a long-handled spoon, except you don’t put the chocolate in yourself. It arrives already oozing out of the glass.

I spoon-fed myself happily and enjoyed the comfortable feeling of being surrounded by people having quiet conversations (in French, Estonian, and English) over coffee, wine, and nibbles.

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things about cruise ships

I was last on a cruise ship in 2006. Before that, it was 1999, when I cruised to the Bahamas with my family as a freshman in high school. Those instances are the extent of my cruising experience. I’m not a big cruiser; I find the ships too confining.

At any rate, here are some things I had forgotten about cruise ships:

  1. There are mirrors everywhere. At the ends of halls, along the staircases, in the dining rooms, in place of windows — everywhere.
  2. You can rely on a constant soundtrack of shitty elevator-music renditions of every popular mainstream song ever written.
  3. People think the entire ship is their house, and no one wears shoes anywhere.
  4. The cruise ship buffet is pure awesomeness. Last night, I ate four desserts.
  5. Duty-free! People get their panties in serious wads over duty-free champagne and cigarettes. I think part of the impetus here specifically is that Sweden has a lot of restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and it might be easier for some people to just take one of these overnight cruises once every few months to stock up. But still.

Anyway, cruising on it is not really the way I like to enjoy the sea. But I could hardly pass up a chance to get a peek at Estonia, since I’m nearby in Stockholm, so I agreed to cruise across the Baltic Sea overnight for a chance to explore the Eastern European capital of Tallinn.

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fika with the Swedes

I stayed with a friend’s mother in Stockholm. (This is one of the major impetuses for most of my destination choices: Do I know someone there? Does someone I know know someone there? Can I sleep on their couch?) She has a wonderful apartment in Södermalm, the front door of which I knocked on at about 8:30 p.m. on a Tuesday.

Inger greeted me with some surprise, as I think she had not expected me to be able to navigate there successfully on my own. She recovered quickly, though, and offered me some bread and cheese and tomatoes and a few other bite-sized things as a welcome. We had a nice chat in her newly remodeled kitchen about her son, my friend, who was at that point the only thing we had in common.

For the next six nights, I slept in a twin bed in his childhood room, which was comfortable if quite heavily furnished. I may or may not have peeked inside some family photo albums at different points during my stay.

I had a few very Swedish experiences with friends of my friend while in the capital city: meatballs at Pelikan in Södermalm, a projection of Björk’s Biophilia at Rio, a very cool old theatre they now use for lots of things like this, and of course, fika many times over.

In Sweden, “having a fika” (FEE-kah) means taking a break from work, shopping, or whatever you’re doing to have coffee and something sweet, like a pastry, with a friend. For me, the custom is amended to replace coffee with tea, but the “something sweet” stands firm: The most traditional fika snack is a cinnamon roll, and I am quite devastated to have just missed the holiday for it: kanelbullens dag (Cinnamon Roll Day) on October 4.

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At any rate, I heartily approve of the fika, especially in such chilly, autumn-cum-winter weather, and in fact, I feel as though I may have spent most of my time in Stockholm just eating and drinking.

I have accidentally become a regular at a vegetarian buffet called Vegetariskt Matcafé Légumes, a block from Inger’s apartment in Södermalm. And I’m not even sorry about it.

For 80 krona ($11 U.S.), you can eat as much as you want — and have coffee afterward. The options are nice — falafel, chickpeas, lentils, veggie lasagna, some sort of potato-stew thing, lots of different hummuses and tzaziki, bean salad, and other morsels like beets and green beans and dried dates. There’s also free bread — as much as you’d like.

It’s a good deal, especially if you’re very hungry. (I am pretty much always very hungry.)

The place isn’t huge, and it fills up quickly. People are good about sharing space and treating the tables cafeteria-style, though, and you are likely to find yourself elbow-to-elbow with a stranger or two over the course of your meal.

After several weeks of having lots of meals by myself, I think I have been gravitating toward this place because it’s full of other singles, too. Instead of sitting at a table at a restaurant by yourself, eavesdropping (or trying not to) on the conversations of the coupled-up diners around you while you wait awkwardly for your meal to come, it’s nice to be in a place where everyone else is sort of minding their own business quietly, too. Like you. Reading, flipping through an iPhone, or just generally staring around, like I tend to do. And there’s no waiting for food, because it’s a buffet.

Of course, I did go out and see the city. I visited the photography museum. I bought a scarf at H&M. I went for a run around Gamla Stan. I walked past the Abba Museum.

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Generally, though, I contented myself with just walking around, like I always do. Stockholm is spread across 14 islands, so there are lots of bridges and ferries connecting everybody and everything. The city also has a shit-load of shopping: You can walk from the south end of Gamla Stan, across Helgeansholmen, and a full 16 blocks into Norrmalm on a pedestrian-only street completely lined with shops and restaurants.

The mere thought of this much shopping is exhausting, though, so of course I felt I deserved a break and something to eat.

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I spent my last night in Stockholm at a pizza party with a bunch of Italians because — well, it seemed just as appropriate as anything else. One of the pizza toppings was horse meat, which is both horrifying and intriguing, but I don’t judge the Italians or the Swedes for it; I think a South African was responsible there.

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