Monthly Archives: June 2015

Observing Ancients on a Prague Tram

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 
Overview: They say public transportation is something of a global equalizer—a place where money and class doesn’t matter and you can take a perfect snapshot of a city and extrapolate out its demographic makeup. Well, there are a lot of old people in Prague, and they all ride the tram despite it being quite harrowing. I’ve watched them in awe for weeks, and was exceptionally moved by one brave couple, not long for this world.

PRAGUE, Czech Republic — The trams in Prague are rather treacherous. They’re extremely efficient as far as getting where you’re going, but as opposed to the calculated ramps of the NYC subway system that exploit gravity to accelerate us smoothly under the city streets, the trams here scoot jerkily along the surface topography. It’s the difference between a submarine and a speed boat. Jolted into motion by overhead electric currents, they barrel up hills and wind around the Vltava river, halting at stops like a roller coaster lurching unceremoniously into the final brake run after having performed its task. There is no walking in straight lines in Prague, as street intersections are bordered with curved guard rails that force pedestrians a few meters—or entire blocks—out of their way to ensure they don’t get clipped by the unstoppable trams.

I didn’t even attempt to sit down the first few times I rode the tram. It wasn’t that I was grossed out wondering which MRSA strains could be lurking in the upholstery like I am when I ride the BART. Rather, as soon as I stepped on and felt the initial lurch, I was so surprised by the degree of arm strength I had to exert in order to not topple into the people around me that I instantly feared for the safety of those older and less able-bodied than me.

In NYC, I used to make a game out of not touching the railings when no seats were free. Here, even the most solid surfing stance is no match for the tram; full-palm contact with the yellow overhead bars is an inevitability. I’m pretty sure that’s how I caught a cold last week. But it was worth it, because over the past three weeks here, I’ve found the social hierarchy that spontaneously emerges on these triage trams to be quite remarkable.

If a train car is full, one’s ability to sit is determined only by the absence of anyone weaker. The elders don’t ask anyone to get up; the response is compulsory. They wander on looking a bit dazed and a moment of worry barely has time to furrow their brows before whoever is sitting nearest the entrance gets up and makes a gesture of offering. It’s not just the elderly who get the seats, but I’ve gathered that spry youngsters will defer to anyone who is any bit older than them, or carrying more stuff, or has squirming babies, or is just generally looking a bit frazzled. It’s an extremely conscientious protocol, which was driven home to me when a woman who couldn’t have been older than 40 got on and lifted me from my seat with a single entitled glance. I don’t believe anyone would have moved for her on the ride-at-your-own-risk NYC subway, land of the manspread. But here, it’s as if every passenger is mentally running a background calculation of “who’s more likely to fall over and break a hip” for every rider that steps aboard.

Of course in any place with accessible public transport, priority seating is given to people bound to wheelchairs and other mobility aids, then to the elderly and pregnant women. In Japan I was amused to see an icon delegating seats to those with “emotional disturbance,” illustrated by a humanoid figure, head hung, with a broken heart inside his chest.  In Prague, the tiers of seat surrender are so complex that some days I wouldn’t sit even if the train was half empty, figuring that I’m young and healthy and so pretty much at the bottom of the list, and just to avoid the possibility of zoning out and offending an elder. I wondered what would happen on a tram car of all senior citizens.

This past Saturday morning after a long night out exploring after hours speakeasies and wandering aimlessly with a new friend in the morning light, I boarded a tram back to my hotel and was relieved that it was mostly empty so I could sit, guilt-free. Moments later, I watched two of the oldest people I have ever seen walking around unaided by a caretaker board the train and sit down across the aisle from me. They were moving at such a snail’s pace, as the wife loaded the husband’s wheelchair into the tram and set the parking break, that I was worried they wouldn’t make it to a seated position in time, but thankfully the conductor had noticed them and waited to speed off until they were both seated. The babushka sat with her arm protectively around her husband, both their gray heads bowed from the weight of gravity that had sunken their spines over the decades.

I was unexpectedly moved by their presence so much that I felt my eyes start to swell. I felt lucky to glimpse such a profound and fleeting slice of humanity. What subtle evidence of the beauty of this society where these two barely kicking ancients could confidently traverse their city, trusting that its youth would look out for them. A topple would have certainly been lethal for this pair, but they had so much faith in their system that they would risk all for a short journey, perhaps knowing that it wasn’t a risk at all. And how much she must have loved her husband to be barely mobile herself and still using every bit of her minuscule strength to assure that her slightly weaker counterpart was safe in his commute. Such a love has been alien to me so far in this life, and I used to tell myself I wasn’t interested in it. But in that moment, I considered that perhaps I’d changed over the past few years into someone who maybe would want to grow old with someone like that, exploring together until the very last moment we were physically able. And for maybe the first time in my life, I allowed myself to believe that maybe I would find it, eventually.

Two stops later, the doddery duo crept to the tram door. I held my breath as the the woman carefully placed her husband, centimeter by centimeter, onto the pavement and then went back for his chair, rolling it finally to the pavement before the doors swung shut behind her. He was bracing himself on a sign with a shaking hand, lowering himself in slow motion into the chair she held steady behind him as the tram roared away and they passed forever out of my field of vision.

Castles and Catacombs

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: Toto, I don’t think we’re in Bushwick anymore. Allow me to take you on a tour of my little neighborhood in Prague. When I want to read a book in the sun, I just head to the castle in my backyard. Life is pretty OK.

 

O brave new world with such people—and germs—in it.  I spent the past few days in bed recuperating from a euro flu and took the opportunity to reflect on the loveliness in the Czech Republic and edit some photos of my surroundings.

This is my neighborhood, known as Nusle, a quiet residential neighborhood between Districts 2 and 4, off the Botič stream. It sprouted from a wine-making village in the 11th century. Here there is not a recognizable tourist in sight, it’s away from the chaos of the city center, and is spotted with all the eateries, pubs, and bodegas one could ever need.

Our pretty little street in Nusle.

My backyard is a 10th century castle called the Vyšehrad where 600 or so famous Czech people are buried.

The castle walls. Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
When bae is trying to convince me to stay home and I’m like, love ya but I gotta go!Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

There’s something about being in the presence of such old buildings, standing on land and knowing that there are hundreds of years of dead people buried underneath that puts the impermanence of this life into perspective. Seeing the lengths people have gone to, and the structures they’ve had constructed to ensure their legacies are remembered for years after their deaths, well, it gets one thinking about one’s own legacy. I guess my monument will be these words, assuming corporations or cyber warfare or both don’t ruin the internet by the time I die.

Somebody important, I take it.Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Walking through this cheery cemetery, I marveled at how every grave has a different assortment of flowers or succulents growing on it. Do the ancestors of these deceased Czech heroes still make regular visits to plant things and water them? It seems like an awful lot of effort. I just want to be cremated and dumped into the sea from whence I came.

When it comes to the really creepy statues, they keep them stored underground. Apparently there are much more extensive catacombs under the Vsyherad than the ones I wandered through, but this was the extent that I got to see.

Naturally air conditioned.Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Definitely haunted.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I wish I knew more about these statues, but I was the only English-speaker in the group and our guide’s accent was too thick to understand. You could tell she was reciting her concept of the English words from memory rather than translating the explanations from the Czech in her head, so I just smiled and nodded, and soaked in the deathly stale air.

Back outside, this is the view from the castle wall, much different than it was 1000 years ago, but perfectly lovely today.

Nusle from atop the castle wall.Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

And back to my little street from up top. So, there you have the tour of my new neighborhood—until I head to Slovenia on the 27th. This is where I’ve been hanging when I’m not at the co-working space or exploring the countryside (or underbelly of Prague).

And for the full view, here’s a 360 degree picture from the top, taken with the RICOH Theta spherical camera: https://theta360.com/s/f0Vna5fbuzUIodw5TJhaG8HeS

Wish you were here! <3

Arikia

New Skin for a New Life

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader.

Overview: The human skin cell has a life cycle of approximately two to three weeks. Ten days into my year-long adventure, I’ve fully shed my old skin and am growing a new layer for the new version of myself to wear.

I’d forgotten what it was like to get dirty—not New York City grime-sticking-to-your-face-that-you-have-to-scrape-off-with-your-fingernails-in-the-shower, dirty. But filthy from a day of intense adventuring while discovering new things that inspire, horrify and delight you, then asking yourself why and pulling these threads out to examine them like a monkey fishing with a stick in a termite mound. Travel grime is different from monotonous life grime. It is the debris that coats your skin throughout the night and day so that when you run your hand over your shoulder, the dead lucky cells that got to experience this moment in time for their fleeting two week existence ball up and tumble away to make room for the new person you’re becoming.

Sitting atop the wall of the Vyšehrad, the old castle in my backyard in Prague.Olympus EP5

Shedding my first layer of travel skin, away go the Moscow mules that liberated themselves through my pores while I danced to the frantic beats of Czech industrial techno in the smokey basement of a District 7 club until 4am; the smoke and pheromones of the two Italian men who serenaded me throughout the cab ride back to their apartment in the New Town and reminded me what I missed most about Europe until the sun rose, cooled by wind from the racing cab back home to my quiet neighborhood, pressed into my clean white hotel sheets while I slept for an hour and half before getting the call to run to the train station; the intense summer sun threatening to burn all the way through a country town once ravaged by plague, and the deathly cold air of the castles and churches housing calcified skulls silently screaming “mememto mori” at you through their hollow eye sockets. Away goes the borrowed sunscreen I put on that morning, and finally, the top coat of pollen from the thousands of new plants flying through windows greeting me whether I liked it or not on the wrong train back to Prague.

On a bridge in Kunta Hora, a preview of what’s inside “the bone church” (photo essay TK)Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Last night when I came home to my little attic room, it felt like home rather than a dream for the first time in the 10 days I’ve been abroad. The paranoia prompted by last Saturday’s morning terror walk has morphed to the cool vigilance of a body on alarm ‘standby’ mode, being alert but not afraid. The Czech people I’ve met have both snubbed and enchanted me, the later far more than the former, but the former far less so than the average New Yorker (even myself) would do to a stranger stopping them in the night to ask for directions in a foreign language.

On June 11th, I took my morning coffee up from the breakfast hall to read Kafka in the garden, when Dragona, the desk clerk of my hotel—the nice one, not the mean guy who scolds us for taking breakfast dishes back to our rooms—came outside.

“I know it’s your birthday so I wanted to give you this.” She thrust the box into my hands. I looked at it for a minute, confused.

“It’s not my birthday,” I laughed, handing it back to her, but she made no motion to accept it.

“Maybe I mixed up your room number again.”

“Well here, give this to whoever’s birthday it is.”

“No keep it, I’ll get them another one.” She smiled mischievously at me retreated back to the desk. I opened my book again and imagined K. fussing at the inquisition in his living room for a few minutes, then Dragona reemerged.

“I figured it out. In your country you write month first then day, but here we do opposite.” It was true: today, June 11, was the inverse of my November 6 birthday. Once again I tried to give back the mistaken chocolates and again she refused.

“No, keep. It’s your birthday here today.”

Sometimes when you’re so far away, the smallest of gestures mean the world. So to celebrate, I gave myself the gift of beginning the process of shedding my old life and throwing myself at the mercy of the travel gods once again. While initially I was concerned, I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter that there are more Americans in my close proximity than I would usually prefer while traveling—it won’t stop me from doing what I can’t help but doing and exploring all the strange and unfamiliar aspects of new places, sometimes to the discomfort of others who would very much prefer to remain in their turtle shell of familiarity among the novel. I’ve fallen back into my mode of being the one who endures the journey, calm and collected, when everyone else is distraught by the question marks and feel compelled to ask a million questions no one knows the answer to instead of being useful and trying to figure it out themselves. The ones who haven’t will let go of their old skin too, eventually.

Red pill or blue pill? At the Kunta Hora train station.Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Fully acclimated, I’m starting to think I’m much better at being European than I am at being American, or maybe I’m just better at being me here. I’ve been smiling secret smiles at the little quirks that others may take as a point of frustration: that there’s no wall mount for the shower head in our hotel; the lack of prohibition of every kind of smoking in all establishments; the slow (by comparison to NYC, but everything is) service in restaurants; the refusal of some Czech people to speak English and the resulting confusion that unfolds and ropes in nearby bilingual strangers; the heat of a windowless train car; the uneven cobblestone; the subway doors that don’t open automatically—EVEN, even, the hotel WiFi going out periodically so that I am forced to read a book instead. They’re all just more puzzles to solve that lubricate the chronically underused parts of my brain.

I got this.

After all, as Richard Grant recently wrote in an op-ed on Aeon Magazine:

Travel enables us to see our own culture more clearly, by contrasting it against others. And here we must make a distinction between travel, which takes the traveller out of his or her comfort zone, and tourism, which strives to maximize comfort and familiarity in a foreign setting. A good travel experience is not relaxing, but stimulating and taxing. The senses are on full alert. The mind struggles to keep up with the bombardment of unfamiliar data, the linguistic difficulties, the puzzles and queries and possible threats.

Ten days in, I’m physically changing back into my traveling self. My calves are expanding and my boobs are shrinking. I’ve shed five pounds of my New York City hibernation fat. I’m remembering that I am a hunter just as much as I am a gatherer, and that I can find anything I’m looking for in this world, even if I don’t quite know what it is yet. I’m sleeping normally again, which for me involves exploring in the afternoon, working in the evening, taking a nap and hunting for new delights until the light of dawn. I don’t feel guilty for it here.

The delights are everywhere: Czech coffee is served on a silver platter with a shot of water; the guy riding his bicycle while smoking a Sherlock Holmes pipe; knock-off snacks named “Love” instead of “Dove” and “Capri Sonne” instead of “Capri Sun”; the little poodle that stopped to pee in the post-rain grass while balancing completely on its front paws, and its owners amused face when she saw the contempt for this act of canine bourgeois behavior that I didn’t bother to conceal on mine; finding my local grocery store and discovering produce so fresh there’s dirt in the lettuce and $2.50 rosé; the mystery of why every third man here is named ‘Jan’—and how it’s apparently “the same name” as ‘Honza’, and learning from a Slovak couple over a midnight spliff that these Jans are known for wearing socks with their sandals.

I didn’t think I would ever miss the weird way the top of my feet itch after a day of walking until I’m ready to collapse. But I did. I missed it all. This is how I’m meant to live—filling my mind with new observations and getting fucking dirty all the time while doing it. Once home, I drew a lukewarm bubble bath and submerged myself in it, wiggling out of my old skin along with all the well-earned grime so I can steep my new self it all over again.

Czeching in from Prague

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 

Overview: On how my preconceived notions of Prague (which were formed mostly by Euro bros and the movie Hostel) and the Remote Year program matched up to the reality when I arrived. Apparently I can’t go two days without having an altercation with a creepy weirdo. 

PRAGUE, Czech Republic —  I didn’t know much about Prague before I decided to accept the offer to join Remote Year. Last time I was in Europe, a few people recommended it to me as a destination—mainly Euro bros making small talk during one-off bar conversations. They’d nostalgically reference a wild weekend with a glassy eyed look halfway between a smile and a cringe.

I was skeptical, as I always am, of the organizers’ decision to bypass Western Europe and begin the journey from the Czech Republic, especially when they refused to disclose where we’d be staying until after we put down the $3k deposit for the program. Brushing aside thoughts of the opening scene of Hostel (2005) where the optimistic tourists step off the train platform into a post-communist wasteland, I was happy to escape my own increasingly embarrassing police state to be anywhere in Europe.

The day I arrived, my imagination’s portrait of Prague (frat boys vomiting onto the side of a Gothic church as Gargoyles looked on helplessly) was painted over by cheerful pastel buildings, quaint European coffee shops, and tired old grannies shuffling around. My room, located in the attic of a hotel on the edge of the Vyšehrad castle and burial ground, was the perfect vision of European literary solitude.

Kafka and Einstein were rumored to have stayed here.

I took a bubble bath, wondering if Einstein’s rump had once touched the same tub as mine, and went to bed. In the morning I picked through the standard European breakfast assortment of sandwich meats, cheeses, and hard-boiled eggs, passing over a tray of pickles and other vinegar-soaked things. A cheerful Remote Year organizer popped in to greet me and hand over a packet of information about public transport, a SIM card, and the keys to a co-working space.

So, everything was fine. I was here, I was comfortable, this whole thing wasn’t a ploy by the Russian mafia to sell videos of my torture to European businessmen. I walked over to the co-working space where more hungover Remote Year staffers came in and greeted me with a full-on summer camp vibe that drove me to immediately bond with the next New Yorker I met.

Exhausted, I went back to my attic sanctuary to nap, but was greeted by the insanity dreams of REM rebound. I knew them well from my college insomnia days of Ambien experimentation. When you don’t sleep soundly for a while, as one tends not to do while in a metal box careening thousands of miles through the sky, your brain makes up for the lack of REM sleep by cramming all the dreams you’d been deprived of for days into a burst of grotesque chaos from the moment your eyes close. I woke up in a cold sweat with searing menstrual cramps and wandered downstairs in a haze where some of the other people in my program were waiting for me to go to dinner.

I wanted be jovial during the meal, but the guy sitting across from me was anxiously tapping his foot. I tried to ignore it, but I couldn’t focus on anything else, and kept inverting words in my sentences.

“Hey can you stop… -“

“-Doing what I’m doing?”

“Yeah, it’s kind of driving me insane.”

“That’s funny because not doing it makes me feel the way that you feel when I do it.”

I glared at him over my giant Czech beer, recalling an article I’d once read about a “neuropsychiatric disorder” called misophonia where people are acutely distressed by the repetitive sounds or motions of others. How ironic that society should deem being bothered by someone else’s annoying locomotor tick was a “disorder” and not the tick itself. After a while some other Remote Year participants sat down to join us and the table began to shake once more. I must have looked strained because the leg shaker asked me what was wrong. I told him he was doing it again, he denied it, and the girl next to me chimed in.

“Oh, it’s probably my husband. He just has so much energy that he can’t get rid of,” she bragged. A searing cramp stabbed my insides. Two leg shakers at a picnic table were more than I could handle, so I called the waiter, paid discretely, and excused myself.

I was still jet lagged and in REM rebound, and a nightmare jarred me awake at 3:30am that night. The sun was already starting to rise, so I figured I may as well watch it and test out my new camera. I boarded a tram toward the Charles Bridge and hopped off to walk along the river to the entrance. It was here that I realized my misstep, as my original vision of Prague unfolded like a prophecy before my eyes.

First a sputter, then a steady stream of drunk frat boys swirled around me spouting the occasional “ciao, bella” and things I was glad I could not understand. It was, after all, 4:30am on a Friday night, rather than 4:30 on a Saturday morning. Who did I expect to be out at that time? Birdwatchers?

Sigh. This is why I don’t wake up early.

But, I thought, I was going to make it worth it, because I was finally back in Europe, damnit. I forged on to the entrance of the Charles Bridge, which was just past the source: Karlovy Lázně, a 15th century spa converted into the largest club in Central Europe.

Once past the infected well of unsuccessful Romeos, the bridge was relatively peaceful, though hardly worth what I had to trudge through to get there. A guy slid up to walk in pace with me said what I presume he thought was a smooth pickup line in Czech. “Sorry, I don’t speak Czech,” I said. He confidently pasted some English words together with all the skill of a small child with a glue stick, but was interrupted by a victorious grunt from a man up ahead, who apparently was his friend. I smiled and nodded, then pretended to be drawn to something on the other side of the bridge and slipped away.

Finally, I found a staircase and slipped under the bridge to a spot I’d read on a photography blog was the least crowded place to watch the sun rise over the Charles Bridge. There was no one around but some birds. Finally, peace.
I took out my camera and tested various settings. How long did it take the damn sun to rise? I tried to remember that this was what I came here to do, peacefully watch the sunrise, and impatiently smoked some cigarettes.

Here are the fruits of my labor:

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I was going to head back but figured I’d give Karlovy Lázně a little more time to empty out, so I went in search of the famous Lenin Wall. The light was doing all kinds of beautiful things bouncing off buildings, so I captured a few more views that caught my attention. After all, I though, I may never see the morning light again after my jet lag subsides.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5
Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

I stopped and noticed the moon, and all of a sudden I felt strange, like a nocturnal tarsier under a flashlight beam. Everything around me looked strange. Time for bed.

Arikia Millikan, Olympus EP5

Determined to knock off all the touristy things I wanted to do so I could live like a normal European for the remainder of my time there, I forged on to the Lenin Wall. I didn’t even hear the guy following me until he was right behind me.

Once I became aware of him, I slowed my pace to let him pass, but he slowed his step as well. I looked at him, and he immediately asked me if I speak English, in English though he was clearly Czech. It was a loaded question, and actually it wasn’t a question at all. It really meant: “I know you’re not from here so I’m going to force you to talk with me because I have the power in this situation.” I looked around on the street and there was nobody else out. Fuck. Could I not make it two days without getting myself into one of these situations? I shook my head no and crossed the street. He crossed the street in front of me. I stopped. He stopped. I looked at him and glared. He looked at me and smiled.

I didn’t know what else to do so I brushed past him. It was a really long street so I could either keep going or go back the way I came. I didn’t like it that my back was to him, and that I didn’t have my pepper spray, or my knife, or my kitty keychain, or anything else I could use as a weapon. Actually, my camera was pretty heavy. Could definitely crack a skull with it if need be. “Baby,” he called after me. “Hey baby, I want to kiss your pussy.”

Faster faster faster but don’t run because it’s a straightaway and he could probably outrun me. I ducked into a side street in the direction that I thought was the Lenin wall, but I didn’t really know where I was going and I didn’t want to check my map. He followed me still, yelling vulgar threats. I felt more vulnerable than usual with a thousands dollars worth of camera equipment on my side realizing I didn’t even have the ability to call the police because the SIM they gave me didn’t have phone credit. Nothing drives home the realities of gender disparity like not being able to simply walk down a street alone, being at peace with oneself and the world without it being shattered by some drunk creep in need of a power trip. Finally when I was far enough ahead, I turned around to see if he was still following me. His pants were down. I gave him the finger and ran away.

The Lenin wall was stupid. Amateur, I thought, compared to any old wall in Brooklyn.

Yeah, Fuck Putin. How creative.

I was paranoid that the guy was going to come back, but there were other people milling about now. I hope he tripped over his pants.

I crossed the Charles Bridge back, fuming to myself. Yeah, that’ll teach me to go for a walk by myself in the morning. Who did I think I was, trying to be autonomous in the world. Where was my male keeper, little lamb in a faraway land? I passed some carefree teens sitting on the bridge, and I envied the moment they were having, which looked so much more fun than mine.

Olympus EP5

I passed the world’s supposedly oldest astronomical clock on the way back to the train. Even that looked lame to me at the moment. But whatever. Great, I saw all the things.

Olympus EP5

Later that day, there was a Remote Year BBQ at a riverside bar. I was two hours late. I didn’t need to play stupid icebreaker games with 75 people. I needed to be alone in my room for two more hours. I felt slightly traumatized, but fine. Ultimately, I was glad to be a little shaken up. Better a harmless misstep early to get my head on straight than carrying on carelessly and making a big mistake later. No more being a tourist like this was my first rodeo. I needed to acclimate, figure out how to just be again. I was still moving in hyperdrive from NYC. It’s time to relax, learn how to feel vibes again, to sense my environment, not just perceive it.

The next day, I pulled an all-nighter working on a consulting project. After it was done, I got daydrunk at noon with my one Remote Year friend and had a blast. I walked home through a botanical garden. I found parrots, and a live invertebrate exhibition run by some cool nerds. I wandered into an antique store and had a funny conversation with a local guy with a mohawk. He gave me a 33% discount on the knife I bought without me even attempting to haggle. I felt better, at home, the way I want to feel when I travel.

The sad thing is, I feel like I did something wrong, but if there’s a lesson here, I’m struggling to see it. Don’t be a woman? Don’t forget your pepper spray the first time you walk in an unfamiliar though heavily touristy area? Sleep in? Yeah, sounds about right. Nap time for me.

Eight Hours in Oslo

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 
Overview: What could one possibly do on an eight-hour layover in Oslo, having never stepped foot in Norway before? Rather than wait around in the airport like some travel n00b, I braved public transport and went in search of the weirdest piece of Norwegian art I knew of.

After traveling to Iceland in 2013, I became fascinated with Nordic culture. Unfortunately, no Scandinavian countries are on the Remote Year agenda, so when I had the option of paying $60 more for a flight with an eight-hour layover in Oslo on my way to Prague, I snagged it. I could have easily entertained myself in the airport, but unburdened by my suitcase, which was waiting to be sent to Prague, I couldn’t resist exploring. Unless I’m on a journalistic mission (or I’m coordinating with other people who get nervous without a set itinerary) I prefer to let a new environment engulf me like in phagocytosis rather than follow the dictates of a tourist guide. So I went in search of the weirdest piece of Norwegian art I knew of: a massive obelisk made of interwoven naked human sculptures. Luckily for me, it happened to be located in the most beautiful park I’ve ever seen.

The bus driver dropped me off at a side entrance of Frogner Park and I wondered if I’d be able to find my way back to the airport in time with no phone service, but I decided to cross that bridge when I got there. It was perfect weather and Norwegians were frolicking everywhere.

I passed a gaggle of toddlers in lime green vests, an adorable display of excessive safety.

Pods of teenagers conducted quiet discourse, and I marveled at how subtly civilized this was compared with the traditional group behaviors I’ve witnessed (and participated in) in Americans that age. I passed a couple tossing a football back and forth like it was a cantaloupe, and for a moment I was tempted to intervene with proper instruction, but I just smiled and continued my quest for the monolith. As I crossed the jade green expanses that I’ll forever associate with Norway, I calculated deadlines for all the different scenarios that could play out in the time until my next flight.

At the main fountain, I was introduced to the work of Gustav Vigeland, the man who spent 23 years of his life transforming this park into the world’s largest sculpture installation created by a single artist. Chinese tourists were systematically taking pictures in front of every statue, from every angle, selfie sticks abound. A little girl quietly contemplated the activities of the nude figures with a friend.

The statues portrayed humans, distinctly Scandinavian in their features, at all ages, doing everything from the mundane to the sinister. Though all the figures were nude, there was nothing shameful or sexual about any of their interactions, but rather just emotional. They were adoring each other, consoling each other, playing, and plotting wicked things. It was the cycle of life, so natural in its purity, with dashes of the artist’s own bizarre and fully-relatable skepticism of small children speckled throughout. Especially odd were the fountain panels intermixing infants and death.

I’ll admit it delighted me to see babies being regarded as something other than a crowning culmination of all life’s purpose, and as more of a mischievous burden that hopefully grows into an acceptable adult. Before I left New York, a guy I was seeing bet me I would come back from this trip pregnant. I grimaced and told him I’d toss it in the Pacific on the way back before I let one of them interrupt my life at this point. (I love all your kids, dear readers, but my maternal clock is running slow.)

The three rings of sculptures surrounding the monolith portrayed similarly touching and sinister themes.

Some were basic pillars of masculinity and femininity, and others weird positions I never thought to entwine myself in while naked with another person. Though brimming with neutrality, I suspect such depictions would be balked at by typical American homophobic culture. Nudity is so feared in the US that it may seem unfathomable that plenty of people everywhere—not just the cave people of yesteryear who didn’t have clothes—culturally engage in nude activities where arousal isn’t even considered until a connection is established on some other level and consent is provided. I’ve experienced this on the beaches of Balearic islands, in Japanese bath houses, and sort of at Burning Man, and there is nothing more freeing—especially when contradicted to the common experience of being sexualized and threatened while fully clothed.

Finally, I walked up to the main obelisk. I’m no art critic, but while it’s so literal in its phallic symbolism, yet bluntly self-aware, I would categorize it as a post-Freudian obelisk.

I sat in the grass nearby and smoked half a joint I’d forgotten I’d put in my cigarette box before I left the US, absorbing it all. I was mad at myself when I realized I went through two airports with it, but everything was fine and I wasn’t about to go through a third with it—or allow my unknowing risk to have been in vain. I wrote in my journal, soaking up the sun, resting. I was glad I’d decided to leave the airport, that I’d finally made it to Scandinavia and it was everything I’d ever hoped it would be.

An innovative way to transport the elderly rolled past.

Satisfied and ready to carry on, I got up to leave but had no idea which direction I entered the park from or how to get the airport bus back. Time to talk with some Norwegians. I passed some 20-somethings having a limbo contest and laughed at them, but didn’t want to disturb their activities to ask. I walked past a Chinese man taking a picture of his wife taking a picture of herself with a selfie stick and found myself shaking my head. I came across some tulips and smoked a cigarette on this bench, thinking about how the Dutch had once tried to turn tulips into a viable currency. I’d never believed it before until I saw this color. I’d trade some writing for a few bulbs.

Finally I stopped a Norwegian woman who happily pointed the way to the tram. This statue, maybe my favorite one, bid me adieu. It reminded me of one of my best friends whose marriage is currently crumbling because his wife asked him for kids and he doesn’t want any, ever.

I still had 3.5 hours before my flight, so I decided to book it to the Kon-Tiki museum, named after the Academy Award-winning movie based on the story of Norwegian explorer and platinum author Thor Heyerdahl.

Between his love of travel, his appreciation of parrots, and the fact that he risked his life to prove to everyone who poo-pooed his theory that South Americans sailed across the Pacific to Polynesia on a balsa wood raft powered by ocean currents that they were wrong, he’s basically my dream man. I mean, he’s dead now, but when he was 33… babesville.

I couldn’t read the map so I asked a couple who was also looking at it. They were German, but told me where they thought I should go. I tried to buy a ticket and my card didn’t work, so I asked the conductor if I could pay him. Sensing my n00b vibes he told me to just go ahead. I got on going the wrong direction. Waiting for the correct train, a mini black lab bounded up to me attached to a hot Norwegian guy. I pet his dog and flirted with him, then got on the train without a ticket and rehearsed what I would say if they did a random ticket sweep.

I got to the Kon-Tiki museum and saw the famous raft Thor built and sailed across the Pacific on with five dudes and a parrot that everyone said was a death trap.

He spent most the rest of his life exploring the mysterious giant statues on Easter Island, a few of which he brought back to Norway (or replicas, maybe). I bought some post cards with shirtless Thor on them.

Eight hours after landing in Norway, I was basically a pro at the public transport system, so I made it back to the airport with enough time for a beer. Given the irony of the options available there, I obviously picked the Norwegian one.

It was the perfect layover on the perfect day in Oslo. Next time you find yourself wondering if you should leave the airport or hang out “just to be safe,” you know what to do.

The Journey is the Destination

This post was originally published on Beacon Reader, an experiment in crowdsourced publishing that has subsequently ceased to exist. RIP Beacon Reader. 
Overview

I spent the past 48 hours traveling 3,500 miles away from home. The trip wasn’t the straight line it was slated to be, but that’s OK. Whenever I set out, I remember that the journey is the destination.

I’m sitting in the JFK international terminal waiting to board after a 24 hour delay. The four Norwegian girls sitting across from me are giggling the way girls everywhere do. A lanky guy with a backwards hat and club kid vibe just exclaimed “Scheiße” upon finding all the outlets were full. All the loose ends have been tied. The bags have been packed, the records have been digitized, and the apartment has been sublet. All the goodbyes have been said, drunk and teary and screaming into the New York City night.

The journey has begun.

On the cab ride to the airport I felt lighter. There are so many things I’ve missed about traveling. I’ve missed living out of a suitcase and knowing that all the objects I posses I can carry. I’ve missed listening to foreign chatter and making up my own stories for what people are talking about. I’ve missed waking up energized for exploration, and falling asleep physically exhausted rather than dragging myself awake with coffee and forcing my noisy mind to sleep pharmaceutically. I’ve missed being “the foreigner” to everyone around me, and most of all, I’ve missed being always inspired to write because everything is so new and strange and wonderful.

Before I left on my first trip, a friend of mine showed me a travel journal of Dan Eldon, a Kenyan photojournalist who died too young. It was called The Journey is the Destination, and that’s what I tell myself every time I go anywhere. He’s the reason I started keeping travel journals and scrap books to document my adventures. Some people get frustrated when they encounter obstacles that force a curvy path rather than a straight line from point A to B. I try to see obstacles as part of the trip. Traveling is a lot more fun when your 24-hour flight delay turns into an excuse to rage with your best friends at Japanese speakeasies for one last night, a seven-hour flight with no WiFi or in-flight entertainment creates opportunities to break in the new notebooks, and an eight-hour layover becomes a challenge to conquer Oslo’s public transport system and make the most out of a totally perfect day.

After my 48 hour journey traveling 3,500 miles away from home, I’ve finally reached my destination. It’s 1:10am in Prague right now and I’ve just settled into my new home-away-from-home for the next month. It’s in the attic of a hotel where Einstein and Kafka have purportedly stayed, is filled with walnut furniture, and has a view of a castle. It’s nice to be back in the old country. Tomorrow I’ll go claim my new desk at a Czech co-working space, meet my new travel companions in the Remote Year crew, and find some locals to show me around town. But now, I sleep. It feels great to be exhausted again.

(Up next: A photo-essay about how I spent 8 my hours in Oslo.)