FF “Babies” Edition: Hard-Core Babies of Norway

This weeks FriFotos theme is… Babies!

Cradle_Skiing

They say Norwegians are born “with skis on their feet.” I do know some Norwegians learn to ski before they’ve mastered walking.

 

Working on this theme made me realize something sad.

I really don’t see that many babies anymore. When I was in high school, I babysat all the time. Now? I live in a college town, most of my friends are my own age (and just south of prime baby-making years), and not that many people drag their babies to the travel destinations I frequent, either.

Even when I do see babies, the pictures I take of them tend to be private family shots, or just a stroller that you know a baby is tucked deep inside of.

 

I do have a few nice baby memories which I didn’t photograph:

- Sitting at a bus stop in the village of Lumbier, Spain and watching as half the town came to fuss over a new baby in his pram.

- Couchsurfing in Iceland with a young family, who’s little son Eldur was quiet as a mouse, with huge blue eyes.

- A mom walking up Fløyen in Bergen, holding the hands of two toddlers with a third baby on her back.

The baby photos I do have today are from Norway, where they teach kids young to love the great outdoors (backpack hikes are the best method for this), adjust to the elements, (for naptime, they’re usually set outside in their strollers, no matter the weather or the season) and appreciate the coziness of family time.

 

Norwegian_Babies

Babies_Norway

Baby_Backpack
 

Virginia Hills

Virginia: The Other Side of the South

The woods felt like home, but the hills were higher, the grass greener. The summer days were bright and warm, but breezy… not too hot, not too festering, not too reminiscent of the side of Missouri I tended to avoid.

I was driving through the countryside of Virginia, past fences and wide, sunlit lawns, stately barns and sleek horses, distant mountains low and blue. I was loving it, and surprised by that. Here was a world I’d seen in movies, read about in period novels. But there it was history, and mixed with things I couldn’t accept. And I’d always felt conflicted, despite all the gorgeous countrysides I’d seen abroad, in thinking of an idyllic, rural American south, when rural and south meant such different things to me.

I couldn’t place the lawns. They were so wide and so… clean. No crops, no prairie weeds, no bathtub planters, no lawn sculptures, no faux wishing wells, no old cars, no chicken coops, no kudzu vines, no target range of torn-up burlap and Styrofoam.

And I was also fighting my stereotypes of the South. The Virginian had a faint drawl, laced with long vowels like lemonade with white sugar, but not too much, not too sickly sweet, not too reminiscent of the syrupy voices that make me so nervous back home, knowing that under the “honey” and “sweetie-pie” is rot, corruption and racism.

Can you blame me, for shying away from the South? Missouri is between the worlds. Where I’m from, the ones who embrace the South tend not to be… the good ones. I’m sorry. The correlation is far from absolute. But there is a connection between it all, the accents and the confederate flags and talking about the good old days and thinking you’re better because you’ve got a milky-white hide a bright red neck. You grow up in St. Louis or Columbia, you’re not Southern. No sir. You resent the suggestion. It’s an accusation.

And maybe that’s unfair. Because the South is bigger than those flag-flying rednecks. The South is my favorite schoolteacher, who came from Tennessee. It’s my brilliant grammar lecturer, who insisted until the last day of class that no, we couldn’t use an Oxford comma in A.P. Style, but we sure could use ‘y’all’. It’s my Aunt Maxine’s fried cabbage, corn casseroles and thanksgiving turkey. The majestic Smoky Mountains. The quirky culture of the Ozarks and the Appalachians. Spanish moss on a starlit evening.

It’s a weekend trip through rural Virginia, rolling green hills, women in gorgeous sundresses and elegant picnics on the lawn, a polo match at sunset, children shouting and racing across the track at halftime, friendly smiles for both me and my Indian boyfriend.

A trip like this one goes a long way towards healing deep-rooted fears.

Mull_Daughter - Copy

Moments on the Isle of Mull

The first time I visited Scotland, my mission was to walk clear across the country. A combination of bad luck and poor planning left us all wet, miserable, and sick by the time we crawled our way to Inverness. So, when I think back to that trip, it may or may not be surprising that my favorite memories are of the day before we set out, the day we went from Oban over to the islands.

The streamlined version that we had time for comprised a ferry ride over to Mull, a scenic bus ride across it, and a few hours in Iona before heading back the way we came. But even what I could catch from the windows of boats and buses was enough to capture my imagination. I know I’ll have to return someday, when I have more time to mull it all over. (Okay, that was pretty bad. I’ll stop now.)

For now, my memories are a series of fleeting images — stone bridges over peat streams, hawks flying overhead, lakes opening up suddenly in naked valleys, villages entered and exited in the blink of an eye, highland cattle walking in windswept fields, and boats moving over the bright blue water on a perfect summer day…

The Lake on a Summer Night

Starry night at the lake of the Ozarks

Last weekend, I went to my vacation home at the Lake of the Ozarks, in Missouri, and saw the best night sky of my life. The evening started with a slow, glowing sunset and the rising of a full moon, and by midnight, when the moon sank below the horizon, the stars came blazing out of the sky like I have rarely seen. Even the milky way was clear and defined. The most magical was the reflection in the lake. You always hear about the reflection of starlight and so on, but I had never seen it before and was beginning to think of it as a poetic myth. It’s not. That night, as I stood on the dock, the stars were twinkling above and below.

Overcome with wonder, I did the only natural thing. I dove in.

It’s amazing how different swimming is in different seasons. On a cold winter day, with ice at the edges of the lake, jumping in and out again is a brief thrill that sets your heart racing and lets you reflect on how amazing it is to be alive. Usually, I go to the lake in October, November, March and April — when the water is cool, but, on a warm day, a quick dip is bracing but fun. Even then, jumping in at night gives me that same rush of danger, as I jump in with a bunch of friends and we all laugh, curse, and fight over who gets to climb up the ladder first. But it’s all different in the summer, and having spent my last four summers traveling, it’s something I’ve missed. In fact, after so many years of bracing European and off-season swims, my body still tenses up every time I jump into the lake. Which is silly.

Under blazing sun or muggy, oppressive summer heat, the water is life. As sweat breaks out all over your body like a fine mist, minutes after leaving the air conditioning, even the most squeamish will forget about the floating leaves and twigs, the big scary fish, the slight but ever-present threat of snakes. Everyone jumps into that muddy water and stays. You can lounge on a raft, or sit on a life-jacket in true hillbilly style. Some bring out their beer cans in floating coozies.

But summer nights are real magic.

Swimming under the stars in Camdenton, Missouri.That night, when I jumped into the dark water and surfaced, I wanted to cry with the beauty of it all. The lake felt like warm silk on my skin and seemed to cradle me as I lay on my back and saw nothing but stars and stars forever. More comfortable than any feather bed, I felt absolutely weightless and surrounded by the otherworldly beauty of the night.

I could have stayed in that world for an eternity. By the time I got out, more than an hour later, life on land seemed cruel. My body felt heavy, clumsy, and so exposed to the cool night breeze, longing for the embrace of the water.

Two weeks later, and I’m still dreaming of that night, swimming under the stars…

Straight to the Source

Seeing the source of a river is a strange experience. On the one hand, when you trace the greatest rivers of the world to their origins, you will usually be disappointed if you are expecting a dramatic birth in white-water and cold spray. In my experience, most rivers start very humbly, in the quietest of marshy streams or spring-fed pools. But these quiet beginnings have a draw all their own, knowing what comes after.

It’s like being able to see a great ruler or celebrity at the moment of their birth, like being able to travel back in time. Rivers are strange, that way. You can sit staring at the calm, clear water of the source and know that at that same moment, that living river is flowing for miles and miles and miles, by towns and cities and empty farmland, carrying thousands of fish and hundreds of barges, flowing on and on and out to rivers and seas.

Here are three of the sources I’ve visited, and the stories of their rivers:

 

Sava River, Slovenia

Zelénci Spring in northwestern Slovenia, near Kranjska Gora.

Zelénci: The Source of the River Sava

During my visit to Slovenia, I stayed in the town of Radovljica, where the Sava Bohinjka and the Sava Dolinka join to become the mighty river Sava.

The Sava is one of the longest rivers in Europe, traditionally marking the boundary between Central Europe to the north and the Balkans to the south. Though the river is born in a quiet spring, it gathers strength as it flows through Ljubljana, Zagreb, and finally Belgrade. There, it flows into the Danube as its biggest tributary by discharge.

Visiting the source of the Sava in the nearby Zelénci pools is a pleasant stop on a tour of Slovenia, with the Julian Alps overhead and ducks swimming through the clear springs below. It’s difficult to think of that quiet spring as the birth of former Yugoslavia’s greatest river. Before that country’s dissolution, the entirety of the Sava flowed within its borders. Today, it crosses through Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

 

The Source of the Danube

The town of Donaueschingen in the Black Forest of Germany is home to the source of the Danube river.

Donaueschingen: The Source of the Danube

Along with the Rhine and the Volga, the Danube is indisputably one of the greatest European rivers. It flows through ten countries, and its drainage basin touches nine more. Water from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Romania, Macedonia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Albania, and the Ukraine flows in the Danube. Its 1,785 miles, which long served as a border of the Roman Empire, pass through four capital cities before emptying into the Black Sea, affecting the flow of history, goods, and many lives along the way.

Donaueschingen, a town of 20,000 in Germany’s Black Forest, takes its name and fame from its site at the beginning of the Danube proper (Donau in German). The traditional source is marked with an ornamental pool, overlooked by a statue that represents the river as a babe in the arms of its mother, the Baar (the surrounding region). Representing such a great river as an infant is unusual in art, but fitting, I thought, for the quiet source. Donaueschingen is an easy stop on a visit to the Black Forest.

 

Source of the Soca in Slovenia

The Source of the River Soča in Trenta, Slovenia. A path leads here on Šnita mountain.

Izviru Soče: The Source of the River Soča

The Soča is much smaller than the Sava or the Danube. Only 86 miles long and never very large, what it lacks in size it makes up for in beauty. It’s an alpine stream that carries an unbelievable blue-green shade throughout its entire length, one of the world’s few rivers to do so. Also unlike the other two sources mentioned, it has quite a dramatic beginning.

To reach the Izviru Soče, you have to walk a short but exciting mountain path. There are strong cords on the side of the mountain for you to hold onto, and you’ll need to… but as long as you aren’t afraid of heights you should be able to make it to the top of the narrow waterfall where the river begins. There, in a deep fissure, is a cold spring that glows with a truly incredible shade of blue.

The brilliant shade actually reminded me of the unnatural luminescence of a nuclear reactor — the surrounding scenery, of a portal to the land of faerie. It’s a magical spot if ever I saw one.

FF “Boats” Edition: Houseboats of Amsterdam

This week’s #FriFotos theme is Boats!

The interesting thing about boats is their diversity. From tiny paddleboats and canoes up to pontoons and sailboats, yachts and ferries, cruise ships and aircraft carriers, they range enormously in both size and purpose. Houseboats in particular have always fascinated me, because they represent a place in between the permanent and the impermanent, transportation and accommodation, freedom and stability and so on and so forth. I guess you could say I’m just drawn to liminal things.

So, this week’s shots are of the Houseboats of Amsterdam. The fun is in the details, the clothes hanging out to dry, the bikes waiting on the gangplanks, the potted plants sitting streetside… and, of course, the canal equivalent of a lawn sculpture, the floating alligator!

GP: Safeguarding your Money and Passport on the Road

My Own Horizons’ first guest post comes this week from KC Owens, a fellow travel blogger who has some good tips for how to keep your money and passport safe when you’re traveling abroad. And really, when the chips are down, that’s all you really need to stay safe and happy while traveling!

 

KC Owens ate lunch at the peak of Arthur's Seat  during his visit to Scotland.

Don’t let safety concerns prevent you from seeing amazing things, like this view from Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh. KC had a memorable lunch on the peak during his visit to Scotland.

Traveling is an adventure, and in the end life is short, so adventure is a component you don’t want to neglect. After all, you want some stories for the grandkids, right? Sure you do! Besides, there are few things more educational and purely rewarding than travel. Unfortunately, traveling comes with a unique set of pitfalls. There’s a silver lining, though: You can minimize their impact or even avoid them entirely… but only if you know how to prepare in advance. Read on to find out some solutions to a few common “what if?” travel situations.

Long-time travelers will almost universally give the opinion that the majority of the world’s inhabitants are good at heart, or at least not evil. Still, there are some predators out there, and it just so happens that the money carried by backpackers, gap-year takers, and other young adult travelers is one of their favorite foods. Deny them their ill-gotten meal, and carry pre-paid credit cards instead of cash! Credit Card Insider offers you ways these cards can help you that cash can’t. For instance, they can help you manage your money by placing a portion of your travel fund in a non-cash medium (smaller is better here). If a card like this gets stolen, you won’t lose your entire savings, and what’s more, you can almost always cancel the card so the thief/thieves can’t access what’s on it at all, if you’re quick enough. Additionally, such cards can be issued without identifying information on the front, making it much harder for thieves to take a shopping spree with your travel money. Finally, they’re easy to obtain and use. It’s like having all the utility of cash, but all the protection of plastic. Personally, this has been a big help while on my own travels. When you get yourself into a pinch, you know that you can throw some extra money onto your card and buy yourself a ticket home. Trust me, I’ve had to do it before and I’m sure I’ll do it again.

Another tip: would-be thieves love to swipe are passports. At King’s Cross train station in London, I actually witnessed a pickpocket and the thief was caught by security. Since then, I always keep important things very close. If you’re also traveling, you know how vital these travel documents are, so if you want to protect yours, pay attention. Make a separate copy and keep it in a separate location from your original passport. This will make things much smoother at the embassy, which is where you should go immediately upon discovering that your passport has been taken. Finally, don’t stress! It’ll be a long, uncomfortable ordeal, but you will get home, and you will get another passport. In a case like this, the best offense is a good defense – Be smart. Do everything you can to minimize your passport’s exposure to the elements, damage, and the unsavory elements of society, and it will be much less likely to get defaced, destroyed, or stolen in the first place. USA Today offers a great article on how to keep your passport safe when traveling.

There aren’t any clever titles here, and no long-winded lectures, either. This tip is simple: When traveling, you are a guest in another country. Act accordingly, and always, always, always obey the local laws! Prison is a real downer, and downright horrifying in some countries, so don’t be stupid or cavalier… when traveling, stay legal at all costs. Try to observe simple social niceties, too. You don’t want to be “that guy / girl,” do you? If you find yourself in real trouble, contact your embassy as soon as possible.

Travel is a real blast. Enjoy it! The tips shared above are meant to prepare you and make your trip safer, not to scare you! Now go on, get out of here… the road beckons.

 

KC Owens has written and submitted this article. KC is a college student who loves traveling, college life, fitness and a good survival kit. He enjoys studying different cultures, meeting new people and leaving his footprint somewhere most people only read about.

 

Kinkakuji

Kinkaku-ji, Ginkaku-ji, Qinkaku-ji…

If you do too much of any one thing in a narrow time range, you’re bound to get tired of it. I’ve heard long-term travelers to Central America and Southeast Asia complain that all the waterfalls look the same, after a while. Tourists on the main European circuit get cathedral-ed out in a hurry. The Japanese equivalent is definitely Temple Fatigue.

If you’re already suffering from Temple Fatigue by the time you reach Kyoto, slow down. Spend some time in the strangely, surprisingly modern Kyoto Train Station. Take a leisurely stroll in the gorgeous Arashiyama bamboo forest. Pig out on “American Doggu” corn dogs from Larrson’s or 7/11. Catch up with friends and family back home on the hostel computer. Do whatever you need to do to recover your spiritual temple-hopping energy, because that’s what Kyoto’s all about.

Now. If you have a bad case of Temple Fatigue, and your schedule doesn’t allow a day off, go see Kiyomizu (the big temple, special because of all the young girls in love and the magical fountains of wisdom, good health and longevity), Sanjusangendo (with its 1,001 life-sized golden statues) and Fushimi Inari (the shrine with a million bright-red tori gates). If you have time, and the sun is shining nicely, then add in Kinkakuji. Otherwise, I regret to say that I wasn’t that impressed with either Kinkakuji or Ginkakuji.

Billed as twin golden (kinkakuji) and silver (ginkakuji) pavilions, the first thing you should know is that Ginkakuji isn’t even silver. It’s just bare wood. Kinkakuji was built first, covered in shiny gold leaf, and later on that guy’s grandson decided to build Ginkakuji with silver leaf to match, but they never got around to it. (Yes, even though that was 500 years ago. You’d think they would have found the time by now.) Kinkakuji, for its part, was burned down by a crazy monk in 1950, so the one you see now is only a more recent reconstruction. Finally, note that both structures are quite small, and you don’t get to go inside them.

Now that all the bad news is out, I’ll tell you that the two pavilions are quite elegant. And, on a sunny day, Kinkakuji glows and sparkles and shines marvelously down into its reflecting pool. Each pavilion is surrounded by a lovely specimen of Japanese gardening, complete with rock structures, fountains, statues, and lovingly tended trees. But a lot of the delicate, subtle beauty of the sites (Ginkakuji in particular) is according to Japanese ideals such as wabi-sabi, and sort of went over my head. Both were pleasant, but I couldn’t figure out why they were so famous.

Maybe it was just the Temple Fatigue. What do you think?

Kinkakuji Golden Pavilion in KyotoGinkakuji Silver Pavilion in Kyoto

The island cemetery of Venice

San Michele Cemetery Island

It seems strange at first, a cemetery island guarded by walls and cyprus trees, floating way out in the lagoon. But for Venice, did you expect anything less?

My friends and I stopped in for the novelty, and because Jeff had heard that there were some famous graves hidden within. Soon, though, we were caught up in wandering the labyrinth of San Michele island, with its hauntingly empty courtyards, two chapels, and seemingly dozens of cemeteries. Each space had a slightly different atmosphere. In the walled garden of the Orthodox area, we found the tombs of Sergei Diaghilev, Igor Stravinsky, Ezra Pound, and others we couldn’t read, as they were written in (as best as we could see) Old Church Slavonic. The more modern sections were stranger to our eyes, with black-and-white photos of the dead and sometimes little trinkets adorning what looked like chests of drawers, stacked several high.

San Michele can be reached easily by Venetian Vaporetto, on the Murano routes. It’s not completely deserted, but its well worth a visit if you get enough of tourist-clogged Piazza San Marco and want to see a more of real Venetian life and death.

Svartediket i Bergen

Three Steps to Choosing a Study Abroad Program

The most important decision when it comes to Studying Abroad is deciding to go. Simply taking that big step out of your front door and into the unknown is one that keeps so many students from experiencing one of life’s most exciting, freeing, and personal-growth nurturing opportunities. Wherever you go, I can promise that you will learn amazing things, make new friends and memories, and come home changed for the better. But it’s still important to take some time and pick the study abroad destination that is best suited to your interests and goals.

Even though I was extremely lucky in being able to study abroad more than once, it was still hard for me to narrow down my choices when my school offered dozens of options. Here are the steps I took in ultimately deciding on Pamplona (Spain), Bonn (Germany), and Bergen (Norway):

1.) Research Programs

Before you can follow any of the other steps, you should have some idea of what’s out there – what the raw possibilities are for your major, university, and budget, and what criteria are worth weighing against each other. For example, most academic programs allow at least some sort of study abroad opportunity, but some may encourage a full year abroad, while in other programs you may face graduate delays if you take even a semester away from the rigid class plan. Some options may be priced out of your budget range, but there are so many Study Abroad options that you shouldn’t give up. Some programs are actually offer a cheaper way to get credit than staying at home, either because the cost of living is cheaper in the host country or because you will offset your costs through research, teaching English, or some other working contribution.  Usually, doing research will help you narrow the field, but not make the final decision for you.

My Host Family in Costa Rica

For some people, living with a hostfamily is the perfect way to polish language skills and get a personal look at a foreign culture… other students find that it limits their freedom to travel and party while abroad.

2.) Consider your Main Goals

What are the most important things for you, personally, to get out of your study abroad experience? Although everyone I’ve ever talked to has come back from their semester or year abroad with stories about how much fun it was, how it changed their life and made them more confident, worldly, etc… the experience is still slightly different for each person, and you should consider your priorities carefully.

Are your interests mainly academic? Try to find a school that specializes in your subject, where you can attend lectures from the best in your field and rub shoulders with elite students and professors. Do you want to become fluent in a foreign language? An exchange program might be best, as these offer near-complete immersion with the native student population. On the other hand, a specialty program that puts you with other international students might be a wonderful way for you to meet people from all over the world.

Are you planning to travel? Many people use their semester abroad as a springboard to see the rest of Europe. (or Asia, or South America, or Africa…) If this is you, look for a program in a city that has good transport connections with other places you’d like to go. Other people would rather study in a more isolated location, say, a small town in the mountains, where they can really sink into the authentic local lifestyle. There’s no wrong or right way to study abroad. Just be honest with yourself about your real goals while you search, and you’ll have a more meaningful experience.

In my case, a big part of my motivation was to improve my language skills, especially Spanish and German. Right away, I narrowed my choices to those programs that used my target languages as the primary languages of instruction. After consider steps 1 and 2, I had already picked one of my programs. A program in Pamplona, Spain would let me graduate from my Journalism program on time while improving my Spanish.

Bonn Big City

Many people would laugh at my calling Bonn a ‘big city’, but its sky scrapers and subway system were further from my comfort zone than the mountain towns I lived in elsewhere.

3.) Consider your Comfort Zone

Any sort of study abroad will take you at least partly out of your comfort zone – that’s part of the fun! Still, you should think about the things that make you feel more comfortable – the cultures, climates, and landscapes that you feel you fit into well. You may choose to pick the place where you fit in best, or you may choose to stretch your boundaries further in some way or another. Still, you should be conscious of either decision.

For example, if you haven’t been abroad before and are slightly nervous about doing so, but want to expand your horizons in a manageable leap and have some fun, you might look into an English language program – either in an English speaking country, or in a program that offers classes taught in English abroad. Not having a language barrier to contend with will cut the stress in half. But learning a new language can provide amazing, life-long benefits as well.

I had already decided that I wanted to study in Germany, but I was having a hard time picking between several programs offered there by my school. Ultimately, I decided to study in Bonn, because my second choice, Tübingen, was a small city in the mountains – just like the locations of my other two programs. I decided that studying in a slightly larger city, like Bonn, was a good way to break out of my comfort zone and do something different. Besides, Bonn has better rail connections to other European cities, and I wanted to travel during my stay.

On the other hand, when picking my third and final study abroad program, I was torn between Latin America, Finland, Italy, Japan, and Norway. All were tempting, but in the end I decided to go with my comfort zone – Norway. A semester was a long time to spend somewhere as different as Japan, I thought, but too short of a time to say, set down even the shallowest of roots in Finland, a country notorious for slow growing friendships. Besides, I knew more Norwegian than I did Finnish, Italian, or Japanese, and since my goal was fluency, I had a better chance of meeting it in Norway. I’m sure I would have loved going to any of the other countries as well, but I didn’t want to stay home because I couldn’t make a decision, either!