|Sunrise over Bolibar, Basque Country, after an accidental four a.m. start time.|
|Sunrise over Bolibar, Basque Country, after an accidental four a.m. start time.|
On Sunday, June fifth (yes, that’s tomorrow), I will close my laptop. I will put it on a shelf, and I will not see it again for a month. I will put two pairs of pants, three shirts and a sleeping bag into my backpack, and I will head to San Sebastian in the Northeast of Spain.
I’ve been waiting for this day for a while now.
I need a vacation, yes. I need a total break from society—also yes.
But it’s more than that. It always is.
The Camino de Santiago has been on my list for awhile now. (It’s not a bucket list. I like to call it my, “Do These Things as Soon as Possible List.”)
I don’t know why I want to do it, just like I don’t know why I want to travel the Trans-Siberian Railway, ride on horseback across Mongolia or sail the seven seas (all on my list). Except, I know that it calls to me; I know that adventure is my way of searching—of seeking.
I know that a search need not have an object—that it is the act of searching that matters—sometimes…
|Sicily, 2013—where I first learned about putting olive oil on everything.|
|Villa Borghese Gardens, Rome|
Most mountains are pretty similar. Most cities are pretty similar. There are trees and rocks and wide sky spaces. There are streets and cafes and passerby in scales of gray. So, what makes these mountains different? If we can go hiking at home, why ever go anywhere else? And if we do go, how do we choose?
Why these mountains?
|The in-between bingo sets show… it’s pretty much what it looks like.|
|German Sparkle Party capture (not mine).|
|Elephant journal HQ, Helsinki—my coworker, Sara and I working at the kitchen table.|
|“Joulupukki” by Lauri Rantala from Espoo, Finland – Santaclaus at Helsinki Cathedral.|
Consider this my holiday blog post. I could talk about Hanukkah (the holiday I celebrate), or Christmas markets (delightful all around the world), or any number of things. But why would I when scary monsters and mythology are on the menu?
It is September, and I am walking through the the Finnish tunturi (mountains in Lapland, way North), the setting sun to my right. Low bushes, a few turned to orange, carpet the ground. The trail is wide and mostly flat, and it carries me and my hiking partner past Pyhäkero (Sacred Mountain), herds of reindeer silent as dusk and rocca (unique shards formed by the freezing of water in crevices of rock and their subsequent explosion).
As the colors in the sky deepen and a nighttime chill settles over this landscape, I learn the real story of Santa Claus and his Nordic predecessor, Joulupukki (Yule Goat).
A terrifying creature with a goat’s skull for a head and flaming eyes, Joulupukki—so it is said—appears at homes during the Christmas season, demanding food, occasionally taking away those who have not been good. He dresses in gray furs and sows fear wherever he walks.
Jolly Saint Nick, is it?
Eventually, this Joulupukki became more or less synonymous with the Christian Santa we all know today. Funny how we always seem to do that to the less cuddly figures of mythology.
As I listen to this alternate (and, I must admit, much more interesting) Yuletide legend, I consider the gray, shifting light of this place and conclude it is much better suited to such a dark and mystical creation than a rotund, white-bearded figure in red.
Near Rovaniemi, where the train from Helsinki leaves us and we begin our journey, there is a place called The North Pole, where tourists seeking a merrier experience can visit Santa Claus’ Village.
I opt out. Biting wind, icy mountain lakes and ever-so-slightly magical mountains do so much more justice to this fascinating culture.
As for Joulupukki, the “real” Santa Claus? No, I didn’t run into him. But, it wouldn’t have surprised me if I had…
|Greetings from Tallinn!|
On Monday, my friend and I took the 2-hour ferry from Helsinki, Finland to Tallinn, Estonia.
Our mission? Like nearly every other passenger on board, buying alcohol. Tallinn, evidently, is the everyman’s solution to avoiding Finland’s high taxes and stocking up on liquor for parties and general consumption.
With a house party coming up this weekend, we had an important task to complete, and an extra seven hours to explore Tallinn… Here’s just a taste:
The ferry itself is six stories tall, boasting its own liquor store, luxury “trends” store and nightclub—where drinking habits go to breed and a night out consists of a round trip to Tallinn without ever leaving the boat.
The breakfast buffet offers Karelian tarts (hailing from the Finnish region of Karelia, pastries full of rice, topped with a special “egg butter”), smoked salmon and cold cuts, mysterious meatballs and an assortment of very particular cured fish. We spend the entire trip to Tallinn slowly working our way through it all.
|My favorite poster from the day.|
Tallinn’s Old Town winds away from the harbor, a pleasant mix of cobblestones I’m still feeling in my sore legs, kitsch tourist restaurants loosely modeled after medieval times, posters that seem stuck in another century, souvenir shops and folk art galleries.
|My friend, travel sister and current host, posing with an eye-catching door.|
Outside one of those restaurants, bored waiters crouch down to scatter crumbs to a few pigeons. Next door, a woman in full-on (presumably) traditional Estonian garb acts as a human signboard—brightly colored embroidery, tightly braided pigtails and elaborate headdress demanding the passerby’s attention. We try to covertly get a picture of her… and fail:
|I think she saw us…|
But, we are photo-bombed brilliantly by a passing stranger, which makes up for it:
|Never seen this guy before in my life.|
I spot Captain Jack Sparrow walking down one of the main streets, swagger and all. I get a little bit too excited, fumbling with my camera and missing the photo op. I still wonder what restaurant he was promoting.
As Jack Sparrow disappears down the street, we follow the sound of a Steel HandPan to a busker, and I meet my soulmate in puppy form:
|More puppy pictures to come.|
As is the case in dedicated tourist towns the world over, we are met with considerable indifference by a considerable portion of Tallinn’s population, with some friendly exceptions. As dusk falls (around 4p.m. in this part of the world), exhausted from some combination of cobblestones and cloudy skies, we settle in for a dinner of Modern Estonian Cuisine before making our way back to the ferry.
|Tallinn at dusk—beautiful.|
It’s a good day.
|Believe it or not, this is right in Stockholm!|
I’ve fallen behind. There are several cities I have seen and enjoyed without writing a single word… And so now I’m revisiting not only in person, but also in spirit as I backtrack to bring you these snapshots.
(Evidently I have almost no pictures, so these will mostly be word snapshots.)
I arrive in Stockholm in mid-September to visit my oldest friend (for all intents and purposes my big sister) in her new Swedish life. She and her boyfriend graciously share their one-bedroom apartment with me for a week, and I get in what sightseeing I can between work and catching up.
We bake miniature apple pies for fika, Sweden’s infamous coffee and cake time, and cook kugel (noodle casserole) and brisket (Jewish soul food) for a belated Rosh Hashanah celebration.
|Based on the tradition of fika alone, I should probably move to Sweden.|
I also discover morotsmuffins (the most delicious carrot cake muffins in existence, with cardamom and cream cheese frosting), of which I unfortunately have no photographic evidence. (Ben & Jerry’s, on the other hand, I find myself morally obligated to document—the VT brand has officially gone global.)
|Ben & Jerry’s in Stockholm? Oh yeah!
(No, I didn’t buy any. Morotsmuffins, remember?)
I dip my toes into my friend’s life here, meeting friends and learning a few useful Swedish phrases: “tak” (thanks), “hey” (you guessed it, hey) and “var festin mit fulla killor?” (where’s the party with the drunk guys?) I think I should be all set, no?
We also discuss politics and the refugee crisis (with Sweden poised to take in 200,000, it’s a particularly salient topic), but that is a far more serious discussion for another time.
|Entrance to Haga Park.|
Haga Park, just minutes from my friend’s Solna apartment, is a sprawling oasis sprinkled with a few architectural oddities. “Am I really in Stockholm?” I write as I watch the shadows grow over a massive lake. Difficult to believe.
|Haga park—attempted dusk capture.|
And lastly, wandering through Gamla Stan (Old Town) on my rainy day off, I stumble upon a marching band playing Abba’s “Dancing Queen” as a motley group of protesters waits to march through the square—one of many wonderfully incongruous details I observe over the course of the week.
I might as well stop there, as nothing could be better…
(Stay posted for Helsinki and Amsterdam/Haarlem snapshots!)
|Lonely shoe, Helsinki.|
|Sunset on the plane…
Always moving onward, but am I?