Friday, September 19, 2014


When one of my best friends, Daphne, said she was going to come visit us in London from her home in Singapore, we knew we had to make her trip over into the best adventure we could. So we settled on Scandinavia: the land of H&M and IKEA. 


Upon our arrival in Copenhagen we popped into the first restaurant we saw to grab some grub. We found a tiny little bagel shop run by a cute little Danish man who gave us the low-down on all the stuff worthwhile doing in Copenhagen. Having only two days in town, it was really helpful to get some insider knowledge. He said that we had to check out 'Freetown Christiana', or as he referred to it, 'Hash Island'. Christiana is a neighborhood in Copenhagen that is officially recognized as a large commune that was started by squatters on a military area in the '70s, and runs under its own special laws which allow it to semi-legally sell cannabis, although this led to the Hell's Angels and another biker gang starting a drug war in the '80s. Our bagel shop dude recommended that we check out all the self-built houses and cool hippie stuff there, so we finished our food and walked along the canal in search of this magical sounding place. I should add we were also dragging along all of our belongings with us, since we couldn't meet up with our couchsurfing host for quite a while. 

Walking along the canal was beautiful, and we lusted after all the adorable houseboats!
The snorers

At some point we came to realize that either bagel-shop dude is a terrible direction giver, or we are terrible direction receivers, because we couldn't for the life of us find anything remotely like a hippie village. Exhausted and disappointed, we dragged ourselves and our luggage  over to our couchsurfing host's apartment. For this trip, we knew that Scandinavia is notorious for being expensive, so we wanted to try alternative methods of housing to save some money. This is where was our savior. While hostels are quite cheap and usually pretty nice in Europe, couchsurfing is absolutely free! Couchsurfing was really great as we were a big enough group to feel safe doing it, and we got the added bonus of meeting locals and getting to know the area and its people. Our host in Copenhagen was the lovely Søren, who runs a great music blog . Søren had an adorable little apartment and was so helpful with giving us ideas of what to do in Copenhagen. One thing we were all surprised by was how small the bathrooms in Danish apartments were. The size of his entire bathroom was probably around the same size as just the shower portion of an American bathroom. And the bathroom doubled as the shower! Pulling a curtain around the small room and trying not to soak everything when showering was definitely an interesting experience. We were also surprised that the apartment didn't have a door separating the bedroom from the rest of the apartment.

After chatting with Søren for a while we set off downtown to go to Tivoli Gardens to check out the Offspring music festival. Tivoli Gardens was certainly a unique place: it's part outdoor music venue and part amusement park.

 Completely out of nowhere, these kids in British foot guard style outfits crossed our path in what seemed to be a mini-parade, and quickly disappeared, never to be seen again. I told you this was an interesting place
A "palace" in the park. Notice the fake snow topped mountain in the background.
Scandinavian style is superb

We wandered around the park for a few hours, catching as many bands as we could. The amusement park aspect of the gardens led to a few interesting venues, including a dj-set shoved in the back of a bumper car rink.

Mont Oliver killin' it

I sampled some Danish cuisine: the "fransk dog". Basically, a hot dog in a baguette with ketchup and mustard already inside of it (REVOLUTIONARY).

Being at an amusement park, I was not going to leave without riding at least ONE ride. Big ups to Jackie and Daphne for being sweet and pooling together their 'return your beer cup' (way to go on the recycling, Copenhagen!) tokens to help me fulfill my goal. I chose the fake mountain roller coaster, and despite being the only person over 12 years old on it, had a fabulous time, as you can see by the picture below.


 We checked out a few more bands, including a Danish rap group that rapped completely in Danish except for a littering of English swear words, before deciding it was time to head home

Little did we know, leaving Tivoli Gardens was when the real adventure started, whether we liked it or not. Not having Danish phones or spare keys to his apartment, we planned to find a payphone and call Søren to get his whereabouts and meet up before calling it a night. Obviously in 2014, finding a payphone is an impressive feat, but we somehow did it. After a frantic few minutes trying to shove coins in the machine to talk to Søren long enough to find out where he was, we got the address and ran around trying to find the right bus to get us to our destination.

Only armed with a hastily scribbled down address in another language from a very much less than clear phone line, we were doomed from the start. It was growing late, the sun far gone, and we were wandering around trying to find the address. Thinking we had found the right one, we walked along it for what seemed like half an hour to find the house. Finally, after wandering around for ages, trying to ask a grumpy taxi driver for help, and almost giving up, we found our address. We walked through a creepy gated trail, with only Daphne's phone as a flash light, which opened out into a number of houses lined along the lane. We finally found the house number we were looking for. One small problem? No one was home. Freaking out a little bit, we were saved by a woman who I could have sworn was our guardian angel. At first, she seemed a little annoyed to have foreigners creeping around near her yard late at night, but took pity on us once she realized what was going on. She hopped on her phone, called Søren, jabbered away in Danish for a few minutes, and then sent us on our way with directions. Turns out we had misheard the address by one super small word, and were seconds away from our destination when we had hopped off the bus. Backtracking, the trip that previously seemed to take hours only took about 15 minutes. The feeling of relief when we finally spotted Søren and his friend Bjørn was immense. Even better, Søren and his friends, in true Danish fashion, were incredibly welcoming, and invited us into their apartment to share a few drinks.

Jackie and I with our new pals: Bjørn, Mustafa, and Søren

We were utterly naive to think that this would be just a few drinks before heading home. When the Danish drink, they drink. Here you can see us with our new friends and our 'go-there beers', thanks to Denmarks' lack of laws against drinking in public. Determined to show us a good time, we bar hopped a little bit before finally ending up at a weird salsa-inspired bar in Christiana. Excited to finally make it to Christiana, and happy to be off the streets, we danced the night away until the wee hours of the morning, finally hitting the hay back at Søren's apartment as the sun was rising outside.

Jackie and Søren
Love was in the air: a very intoxicated Mustafa took a liking to the less than receptive Daphne
We spent our second, and final, day in Copenhagen exploring the town on bike. Copenhagen is one of the most famous biking cities in the world, and its easy to see why: the landscape is almost all completely fla and the well organized bike lanes make biking the easiest way to get around.

All the Danish babies wore these cute little bonnets and travelled in these stylish prams

When we were taking the metro back to Søren's apartment, a man overheard us speaking English and approached us. He introduced himself Jack, and started speaking to us in a Danish accent, and slowly, the more he spoke with us, a thick New York accent revealed itself. Turns out Jack had moved to Copenhagen long ago, and was super eager to help some Americans get the most out of their trip to Scandinavia. Jack told us about a trip called 'Norway in a Nutshell', starting in Oslo and going all over Norway by train and boat to see the beautiful fjords among other things. We were so lucky to meet Jack, and really appreciated all of his recommendations! Thanks to him, we changed our plans and went on a beautiful journey that we would have otherwise completely missed.

Søren's apartment was the cutest


The first thing that struck me about Norway was how well designed and clean the public transport was. Taking the metro over from the airport to the central train station was a delight, especially with the free wi-fi. Take note, America! When we got to the station, we met our awesome couchsurfing host Johan. Johan was so bright and bubbly, we felt like we were old friends. We walked through the city to Johan's beautiful apartment (also without a door to the bedroom!), and were pleased to find that he had a full sized bathroom. Score! Johan was kind enough to give us a tour around the city, showing us all the coolest spots.

After a little tour of Oslo, we headed to the local supermarket to get supplies for the excellent meal that Daphne and Johan cooked up for us. I was in charge of making toast, and I screwed even that up, so Jackie and I were off the hook for cooking, thankfully. We had a lovely dinner, eating and chatting away, and topped off the evening by testing out Johan's bartending skills with Irish coffees.
The next day, we got up bright and early to catch our train from Oslo to Bergen, the trip that Jack from Copenhagen recommended. The train ride was six hours of beauty. It was so crazy to see the Norwegian landscape changing from lush green, to snow and ice, to lakes and mountains. 

Some dude next to us was real casual about the dagger he had attached to his belt



Star Wars Fans: This is Finse, where the ice planet Hoth was filmed!   


 Once we made it to Bergen, we took a funicular to the top of one of the mountains surrounding the city to get a bird's eye view. We made use of the tourist store at the top, sending postcards to family and friends, as well as to the nice woman who saved us in Copenhagen!

We spent the rest of our time in Bergen walking around and checking out different stores, and ended up at a local bar where a local singer was performing. She mostly did English covers, and turns out in Norway when you're doing a Rihanna cover, saying the n-word isn't a big deal? It was quite a shock for us to see grandma's with camcorders applauding something that would definitely not fly in the states. 

Another interesting thing we saw in Norway was high schoolers walking around in decorated red overalls. This is the best picture I could get of them, but you can see all the patches and writing on the pants of the kids here. Johan filled us in on the trend: Seniors in high school spend the last month of school doing virtually nothing but partying. It's not uncommon for Norwegians to get up and go to work in the morning and have to step over clumps of passed out students in the streets. Some students even spend thousands of dollars to renovate old school busses into party busses. So basically, being a senior in Norway is every high schooler's dream.

As evening approached, it was time for us to get on our train back to Oslo, where we had to catch a flight to Stockholm. Once again, I was super impressed with Norway's transportation. The night train gave us each a set of pillows and nice blankets, eye masks, etc., and we were able to sleep through the trip until morning when we arrived in Oslo. There was a brief panic when I got separated from Jackie and Daphne when the train's doors closed abruptly after I exited, and we had no way of communicating with each other. Luckily we found each other and made our way to the airport and to Stockholm. One of the interesting things about travelling within Scandinavia was that our passports were never checked. Not even once. 


Without planning it, turns out we arrived in Stockholm on a special day! Walpurgisnacht is how Swedes celebrate May Day. Without knowing much about the cultural context, all we could get from it was that it meant fireworks and lots of partying. Partying is a big theme in Scandinavia, as you can tell by now. After checking into our hostel, we made a train trip to Uppsala, a university town about an hour away where we were told the best festivities (read: parties) would be. You'd think in May the weather would be pretty reasonable. Wrong. We were faced with snow. LOTS of snow. But still, we persevered and spent the evening exploring the town, getting stopped by Swedish police every once in a while, asking if we were drinking alcohol in our coca-cola bottles. As soon as they realized we were American we were pretty much off the hook. Sadly, we couldn't find any of the fireworks we were looking for, but there was no shortage of partying.

The next day, back in Stockholm, we explored the town. Our first stop was the biggest H&M I've ever seen. It was glorious. After that, we checked out "old town", did some more shopping, and had a nice reindeer and venison dinner. Exhausted, we decided to have a chill night, and went to see a movie. Before the movie started, one of the ushers came up front as a red curtain pulled in front of the screen. He gave a little talk in Swedish, which we obviously couldn't understand, but he must have been pretty funny as everyone was laughing and loving it. Once he was done, everyone applauded, and the curtain pulled away and the movie started. It was so fun to hear the delayed laughter of the audience as they took the extra few seconds to read the subtitles after a punchline was delivered by the actors in English.

My weird sandwich: gyro meat with lettuce, mashed potatoes, lettuce, and thousand island salad dressing in a tortilla. It was surprisingly well worth the bullying of a little Swedish boy who laughed at me during my translation problems with the shopkeeper. 


The next morning, Daphne and I said our goodbyes to Jackie, who was heading back to London since she had family coming into town, leaving Daphne and I to continue on our way to Helsinki.


Daphne and I were sad to see Jackie go, but we were soon cheered up by the bad English and creepy baby signs on our flight to Helsinki.

Once we made it to Helsinki, we met Daphne's friend Risto. Risto was so kind as to let us live in his apartment for the weekend while he stayed with a friend. You rock Risto! After showing us around town and setting us up with a Finnish phone, we headed over to Risto's favorite hang out, Café Mascot. There we met his friends, had a few drinks, and played some very inventive rounds of Jenga. We ended the night at a club called Kaiku to see Jon Hopkins dj.

The next day, Daphne and I managed to get onto a city bus tour for free, and got a little history lesson on Helsinki. The day before, Risto had given us a few cultural insights, as well. For instance, in Finnish, there's no word for please. He warned us that people don't talk that much and are not over friendly, and are quite comfortable with silence. However, we found that the Finnish were really welcoming and inclusive, and felt really embraced by Risto and all of his friends. 

Bucket hats, Finnish style
My new whip

 While we were in Bergen, we were told of an amazing snack that they only sell in Scandinavia called Smash. As soon as we got our hands on what is basically a chocolate covered bugle, Daphne and I were hooked, and bought an embarrassing amount of it in Helsinki.

On our last full day in Helsinki we went to check out Helsinki's island fortress, Suomenlinna Sveaborg, which was built in 1748 to be used during the Swedish era as a martime fortress and base for the Archipelago Fleet. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site and houses around 800 residents and is a workplace for about 400 people.

We came across a woman who had lost one of her cats, and was trying to find it while walking her other cat around on a leash.

Once we were done at Suomenlinna Sveaborg, we headed over to Café Mascot for the main event of our trip to Helsinki: drag bingo. We actually extended our trip by a day when planning in order to make it to this event that Risto spoke so highly of. 

 Drag bingo did NOT disappoint. Even though we didn't win any rounds, we had an awesome time being serenaded by drag queens, meeting new people, and dancing to Risto's dj set. Daphne was forced to participate in some sort of banana game that we didn't fully understand. All I'll say is that she was the most innocent participant. We were also introduced to the most common drink in Finland: Gin and grapefruit. There was some historical reason behind this, but all I can remember is that it was good. Very good.

Luckily, the night did not end when drag bingo did. Risto introduced us to a group of his friends and it was decided we would go on to do a very Finnish thing: Karaoke! With so many people in our group, someone called what was basically a mini party bus taxi, complete with glowing lights, to take us to the karaoke bar.

Risto in the party taxi

After karaoke, we ended up at someone's apartment (again without a bedroom door!?!), and finally made it home on the metro well after sunrise. 

A few hours later, we handed Risto's apartment back over to him (thanks again!!!) and headed off to London.


Soon after finishing our Scandinavian adventure, it was time for Daphne to head back to Singapore. We celebrated our last day together by drinking mimosas in Hyde Park, eating at my favorite London eatery, The Breakfast Club, and checking out Portabello Road Market.

After saying a sad goodbye, I was soon cheered up the next day because it was my birthday! My family in England threw me a great party with an amazing cake.

It meant so much to me that my family gathered together from all over the country (and even Wales) to make my 21st a special day. 

The next morning we headed off to Ashridge to check out a plant sale and see the beautiful bluebell woods. The best part? I pet ten dogs in one day. Pretty sure that's a record. 

Picasso the pug

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