Sunday, May 11, 2014

The Lands of Bikes & Blondes

Last month I embarked on my 4th consecutive Spring Break trip, this year to Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark)!  This was the trip that almost wasn't.  My heart had been set since early this Fall on spending 10 days in Turkey but as the months went by, my flight tracking was producing terrible results-- nothing less than 500 euros that didn't include a flight less than 24hrs.  The plan was to reunite with my friend Aleksandra who I hadn't seen since I visited her in Macedonia the first summer I spent in Spain in 2011.  In the end we picked Scandinavia because we both knew a fair amount of people studying or living there that we could meet up with.  I will spare the rest of the details, but in short because of financial reasons neither of us were sure until practically the week of if we would be going, but it all worked out in the end!  The worst part of getting ready for this trip was that as I was packing my WINTER COAT, the weather in Spain was finally moving fast away from "winter".  But in a rare twist of luck for me, we had great weather and only had 2 days where it rained.

In Sweden, I spent 2 nights with a friend from Moldova who studied at UWEC for a year (as the story goes with 99% of my friends abroad).  She is doing her masters in Lund, a tiny University town across the sea from Denmark.  It is very small and cute and I quickly realized you could see everything there was in 2 hours.  That wasn't too helpful when I was trying to spend an afternoon out of her dorm to give her some time to focus on her thesis.  After 45 minutes listening to a choir and orchestra rehearse in the town cathedral, an hour wandering up and down the same empty streets (at a snail's pace...I think even the Spanish would have been whizzing by me), and 30 minutes sitting on a bench reading a magazine article about new condom design ideas... I was cold and bored and needed to return to social interaction.  Swedish people, at least in Lund, are exactly how you imagine: BLONDE. EVERY. SINGLE. PERSON.  I have never seen so many yellow-white blonde heads in my life.  Blondes on bikes, blondes on bikes, blondes on bikes.  The biking culture is amazing.  More on that in a minute.

Lund streets

Stayed warm and entertained listening to their rehearsal

Seas and seas of bikes!

Aleksandra arrived on the 2nd night and the following morning we headed to Copenhagen.  We stayed at the Copenhagen Downtown Hostel, an excellent place that I would recommend with flying colors.  They offered an amazing breakfast buffet for around 50 krone, which is the cheapest breakfast you will find in the city, and you cannot beat the selection they offer.  If you've stayed in youth hostels that offer breakfast, you know that the selection is 9 times out of 10 annoyingly underwhelming.  This would have you fooled into thinking you were staying in a 4 star hotel.  There was also free dinner each night, plus a great social area mixed with a bar/restaurant and very friendly and helpful staff.

I can say I knew nothing about Denmark, and Copenhagen, before I went.  We joined the free walking tour (which I am now a loyal fan of, despite my "no plan" travel philosophy) and I got a speed lesson on Danish culture and history.  The main thing that I am (still) fascinated and in love with is the tax system.  Pay attention, my American readers.  According to our guide, the LOWEST tax bracket pays around 39% income tax, while the highest could be somewhere around 60.  Yes, you read those numbers correctly.  How un-American!!  Those high numbers guarantee that EVERY SINGLE PERSON has access to FREE higher education and FREE health care.  Free. Everyone. Forever.  Recently, the government took a poll of the Danish people asking if they would like their taxes lowered, to which the majority said no.  Learning this information made my American blood boil...because I was thinking about the crippling affects the trillions of dollars of student loan debt is having on my generation and the negative effect that will inevitably leave on the economy.  Not only that, but recently I had a conversation with my mom about the lack of care my grandpa is receiving at his assisted living home.  I said to her "If you can get him on a plane, send him here.  It's free."  Isn't it amazing that the "freest" nation on the planet leaves its people in invisible chains?

Sash and I in front of New Harbor in Copenhagen, one of Hans Christian Andersen's points of inspiration

Rosenberg Castle in Copenhagen

That's a REAL Danish pastry
After a couple days in Copenhagen, we took an hour ferry ride to visit Aleksandra's friend, Sandra, in Aarhus, another small University city in the north of Denmark.  Aarhus was great.  We got a chance to delve into the bike culture by using the free bikes they have placed throughout the city center.  Bike lanes back home have nothing on the Danish bike lanes.  They are very well designed and you do not feel unsafe at all riding side by side motor vehicles.  On streets that have higher traffic, there are separate lanes off the road and also apart from the sidewalk so you have no real fear of pedestrians becoming obstacles either.  We spent one whole day biking to the deer park, the beach, around the city, as well as a couple trips to and from Sandra's apartment (4km from the center).  This was the first trip I think I can safely say I got in better shape, especially compared to my trip to Munich where I wouldn't have been surprised to not fit in the airplane seat on the way home.

Getting cozy with the freely roaming deer in the Aarhus Deer Park
Bike time!

We watched a Viking club train for their Viking fighting competitions

Sun, cookies, and some coffee is really all I need for a great vaca

If it weren't for the weather and what I perceived to be a cold and closed attitude from Danish people, this would be a top destination for me to relocate to.  I think it's amazing that people are willing to overlook a percentage on their tax form because they can see the bigger picture of the benefit that comes from a nation full of well educated and healthy people who care about helping their neighbor without needing to know what's in it for them.  I can think of one big blob of land to the west that could really learn something from that.

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