Sunday, October 1, 2017

Aberdeen First Impressions

Nearly three weeks in Aberdeen, and I have first impressions to share!

(This is going to be quite long and scattershot, since it's a jumble of impressions from these entire first three weeks. I still can't promise I'll have much time to write anything during the semester, but if I do, future posts should be a bit more coordinated than this first one!)


I arrived in the city under relentless rain, which I sense will become a theme. I've lived in a lot of changeable-weather places, a lot of places that take a perverse pride in saying things like "If you don't like the weather – just wait five minutes!" But I've never experienced anything quite like this.

Aberdeen goes from bright sun to pouring rain with whiplash speed, so many times in one afternoon that I lose count. I went on a walking tour of Aberdeen street art (more on that later) and in that hour or so I can't tell you how many times I went...Oh wait, is it raining all of a sudden? Better put my umbrella up. Wait, it's not raining anymore, why am I holding this umbrella? Wait, is it raining AGAIN?

Here's the view out my window, in a rare moment of sun:

Aberdeen is known as the "granite city" and it is indeed a sea of granite grey. It doesn't quite have that "seriously every single building looks like a castle" vibe of Edinburgh, but it's definitely got a bit of that.

It's a maritime city, centered around the offshore North Sea oil industry, which has apparently made it very international. (Someone told me that there is or at least used to be a French school, an American school, even a Dutch school, because so many people come through here for the oil industry.)

I accidentally went to the Maritime Museum (I was actually only trying to find a bathroom, but a museum employee handed me a brochure the moment I walked in the door, and everyone was so nice that I felt I really ought to look at their museum) and got this view over the harbor:


I'm still laughing at myself because long before I'd done the more necessary things like setting up a bank account or even a phone, I'd already gone and gotten a public library card. And accidentally checked out eight books the very first day I had the card. You can take the girl out of the library, but, well, you know the rest!

(One of my flatmates also made the mistake of asking me for book recommendations, and I wrote her out a whole page of titles... I hadn't had a chance to do "reader's advisory" – as it's called within the library field – in a while, and I got enthused.)

Both the central library and the little library in my neighborhood are quite charming. Among many other things, it made me grin that they'd made their own display signs for various genres. Here's a sign for "romance" with their own made-up titles incorporating specifically Aberdeen things:

("Claimed by the Oil Tycoon" (self-explanatory); "One Night at the Thistle Hotel" (thistles = a Scottish symbol); "Dalliance in the Duthie Park" (a big local park in Aberdeen))

Ah, so many quirky British things I could talk about! Most of them are things I knew before, from previous trips here, but it's fun digging into what it's like to live with them.

Hot and cold water from separate taps in every sink. So you can have cold water, or hot water, but not a mix of both. (Unless you're willing to plug the sink and fill it with your own custom blend of water from both the hot and cold taps, but who actually does that? Every time you wash your hands?)

Also: THE HEALTH AND SAFETY OBSESSION IS REAL. On/off switches on every electrical outlet. (Yes, you have to plug your appliance into the outlet, and turn on the outlet itself.) On/of switch for the shower. (Yes, the shower only works when you turn it on if you also previously turned on a specific switch outside the bathroom.) And no electrical outlets in bathrooms, no, no no!

And at our "inductions" (basically just information sessions) at the university, each lecture started with a little mini-lecture about where to go in event of fire, where to find the first aid kit in the lecture hall, etc. Bless, as the British would say. (As in: Aw, aren't they sweet.)

Also, though, here's health and safety gone off the rails: In my building (a university residential hall), they regularly check that the fire alarms still work. And by regularly, I mean: every week. So every Thursday around noon-ish, they set off the fire alarm. We're not supposed to react to this as if it were an actual fire drill; we're suppose to know that it's not a real fire alarm going off...unless it keeps going for a long time, and then we should think that it's a real fire and leave the building. So in their zeal to test that the system is "working," they're essentially creating a system where they've trained us not to react to the fire alarm when we hear it. ???

The UK, man. So many things that make delightfully no sense at all.

And so many turns of phrase that make me grin. Like this surprisingly existential street sign:

More things that delight me:

The price of food! It's actually affordable! I mean, I arrived here straight from Iceland, so I nearly swooned with delight the first time I went to the supermarket and found a block of cheese for £2 instead of $17. But compared to the US, too, this feels like being back in a reasonable place where the cost of living is bearable. (Like Germany. And definitely not like the US.)

Postcodes! I still can't quite fathom how they've made this work, but British postcodes (zip codes) are incredibly specific – as in, pinpointed to one particular building level of specific. So unlike in the US (or Germany), where a zip code applies to a whole town or a big section of a city, in the UK someone can tell you their postcode and you know exactly what building it is. (As far as I can tell, the first half of the code is for the city as a whole, and the second half is building-specific.)

And the whole driving-on-the-left thing is, of course, an adjustment, no matter how much you know it in theory. This is less because of the actual driving on the left, and more because of all the other things that are subtly different because of it.

Like: When I as a pedestrian am standing at a corner, waiting to see if that approaching car is going to turn into my path or if it's safe to cross, the turning car takes a different arc than my brain is expecting, because it's turning into a different part of the road, the left side instead of the right. So it takes real concentration to follow those little cues that are usually automatic. ("Car hasn't started to turn yet, so it's clearly not going to come this way. Safe to cross. NO WAIT, it's turning after all! Why did it turn later than I was expecting it to turn!")

Anyway, mostly I've just been moving in and getting set up in a new country and figuring out how to do this whole university thing again after so long (though lectures have barely started – things should get properly going this week) but here are a few fun things I've also done:

Castle visit! The university arranged a bunch of outings for new students, so my flatmates and I went on a trip to Dunnottar Castle, a nearby one of Scotland's approximately 50 billion castles. I was surprised that my Scottish flatmate came along, given that she'd just been saying how many castles she went to as a kid on innumerable class trips. But Scotland has so many castles that she still hadn't been to this one.

If you're going to build a castle, do choose a dramatic cliff-top location like this:

Street art tour! Aberdeen hosts an international street art festival, and I went on a guided tour of some of the amazing art created by this year's participants, from whole-side-of-a-building murals to little sketches and figurines hidden in unlikely places. Or, in the mid-range, this delightful picture of a girl and her baby unicorn:

(Yes, the unicorn is Scotland's national animal. No, I don't know, either.)

Biking the Deeside Way! The university has a bike hire (rental) program, where you can have a bicycle for the whole semester, which makes me deliriously happy. I went out for a first exploratory foray along the Deeside Way, a lovely long-distance path that stretches all the way from Aberdeen at the coast into Cairngorms National Park, 41 miles inland. I only went as far as Drumoak (about 19 miles round trip), but I can't wait to explore more. Oooh, idyllic Scottish countryside:

And: first house dinner! My residential hall is pretty small, only about 25 people, and it felt strange that I'd seen the others coming in and out but nobody had really introduced themselves. So I suggested to our RAs that we have some kind of get-to-know-you event... It was a success, and everyone brought a ton of food!

And I'll leave you with a note about the river, because I'm in love with the River Dee already. The campus sits directly on its bank, and I've discovered there's a footpath that runs all along the river: not just here by the campus, where we're a bit outside of town, but along its whole length, even closer to the city center.

My Scottish flatmate was unimpressed, when I mentioned how excited I am by this footpath ("in Glasgow, the footpath by the river would be where the junkies hang out") but for an American, used to the ultra-possessive nature of US property laws that so often leave no public access at all to lakes and rivers, I think the fact that anyone can walk anywhere along this river is downright amazing.

Here's a shot of my beloved river, on an unusually beautiful September day in Aberdeen:

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

All Year

I'm traveling again! So I may start doing a little travel writing here again, though no promises. (Right now, too busy doing the things to write about the things...)

BUT I'm moving to Scotland in a week (!) and on the way there I'm visiting Iceland for a bit: seeing friends, helping out with a music festival or two, and just generally being in this place I love so much.

This sign, in Keflavík Airport, made me laugh:


Wednesday, December 7, 2016

"First Song": One Second of Fame!

I met so many great musicians in Iceland this summer, while helping to run the Melodica Reykjavík festival, but probably my favorite discovery was a German singer/musician/painter named Peter Piek, a guy with a sweet, strange voice and a gentle presence and mad skills with a guitar and a bass and a looping pedal.

He collaborates with a video director named Marcus Grysczok to make these stop-motion music videos where Marcus photographs Peter jumping in the air lots and lots and lots of times, so that in the final product it looks like he's flying. They were shooting a new video while they were touring in Iceland, so on an idyllic, sunny day down by Reykjavík harbor, during an outdoor breakfast we hosted for all the musicians between performance nights of Melodica, a whole bunch of us put in cameo appearances: We each took a turn standing in one spot and jumping on Marcus' command – 20 jumps, I think, which at one frame per jump is just enough to make up one second of footage. See if you can spot my one second of fame!

The video is finally out, and it's cool and catchy as I knew it would be, but also way more beautiful than I could have imagined. Iceland...sometimes I look at pictures of Iceland and wonder how it's even possible that we're not all in Iceland, all the time. Plus, it's full of familiar faces and beloved places, from Reykjavík to Ísafjörður and in between, from my friends' amazing house where they host concerts in a converted former dance hall to all those wonderful Melodica folks jumping in the sunshine down by the harbor on a Reykjavík day nearly too beautiful to be true.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Ísafjörður Glimpses

Here, at long last, as snow settles over upstate New York, are the pictures from my beautiful, unforgettable summer in Ísafjörður, the little town perched up in the far reaches of the West Fjords of Iceland:


Everything from waterfalls to glaciers to northern lights, with a whole lot of road trips and puns (in Icelandic!) and grammar cramming sessions in between. I went there to take a three-week language course, but in the process made so many friends, and found yet another place that now feels like home.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Reykjavík Glimpses

I've now officially been back home for 1 month, and I'm almost-kind-of-not-quite-just-barely managing to catch back up on Life*. I've caught up on one subset of my photos from the summer – so here are pictures just from Reykjavík, with others still to come:


*(Searching for an apartment, moving into the apartment, starting back at my job, starting back at my other job, catching up with friends I haven't seen in three months, struggling to manage the return of my daily debilitating headaches, struggling to get back into my school year work schedule of 6 am wake-ups (and I have never, ever been a morning person), planning a big trip to a family wedding, single-handedly organizing a local show by an international musician I've been wanting to bring to my town for ages... Those are just some of the things I've been juggling this past month. Sheesh, no wonder I'm exhausted.)

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Returning – Reykjavík

I've been starting to wonder lately if I actually lead a charmed life. (In Iceland, at least, it certainly seems like it.)

I waited to write to friends in Iceland until my very last day in Berlin – Icelanders are the most spontaneous people I've ever met, and in my experience advance planning will get you nowhere but last-minute-ness is all!

So on Thursday I wrote to various friends saying I would be in Reykjavík this weekend and did they want to meet up, and one of them said, oh, I'm going to be away this weekend, but do you want to stay in my apartment while I'm away? It's empty, and the cat would love your company.

Speaking of Icelandic kindness, and Icelandic spontaneity!

If Berlin was a huge homecoming, Reykjavík is at least a small one. Walking down familiar streets, dropping into favorite cafés, marveling at how normal it feels to be here. Staying with the very same friend I stayed with two years ago, cat-sitting for the very same cat. (The fluffiest! gray! cat!). Getting joyfully reacquainted with my beloved Reykjavík City Library (where, two years ago, I spent many hours intently writing/revising to meet a deadline, from one of the desks by the windows on the fifth floor, looking out over the beautiful view of the harbor).

Just as it was in Berlin, it feels like I've simply stepped back into an existing life, unchanged in all the best ways.

(Photo break: a random shot of a bit of the Innipúkinn music festival going on in Reykjavík right now, because it's one of the few outdoor pictures I've taken so far. It's been gorgeous weather these last days, pleasantly mild and brilliantly sunny. And no, I still haven't found out why they always lay down strips of sod in the street whenever a music festival happens!)

I'd forgotten, too, the magic of a late-night flight into Reykjavík. I left Berlin at 10 p.m., but because we were flying both north and west, the sky actually got lighter as it got later, until we arrived in Reykjavík at midnight to a still-bright sunset sky. How I love Scandinavian summers. I don't think I will ever get over that awe at the endless light and color of a near-Arctic summer night sky.

And to add a final touch to the magic:

On the plane here, I got curious to know precisely what day I arrived in Iceland the very first time I came here. That very first, short, just-a-taste-of-what's-to-come trip to Iceland was five years ago, also around July/August/ish. Then I looked back through old pictures and things and realized – I'm traveling to Iceland, now in 2016, on Thursday, July 28. The date of my arrival in Iceland on that first trip in 2011 was...July 28. It was even a Thursday, too. Some kind of very pleasing symmetry about that!

Here was arrival in 2011, on the ferry pulling into Seyðisfjörður, a fjord on the eastern side of the country:

And here's one of my very first midnight sunsets, on my first night in Reykjavík on that first trip. This is literally just minutes before midnight:

Returning to the present: Tomorrow morning I'm off to Ísafjörður, a small town in a remote fjord, where I'm going to learn Icelandic for three weeks. JÁ!

Monday, July 25, 2016


I no longer write here almost at all – I suppose because this was begun as a travel blog, and lately I haven't been traveling?

But I think it's also because what I would be writing about, if I were writing, is the process of re-making a life in my home country after eight and a half years away, and that's a topic so big I don't really know how to talk about it in any sensible fashion!

Now, though, the "Berlinniversary" name is accurate once more, because I'm back in Berlin on a visit. ...And apparently "returning to Berlin after moving away" is also a topic too big to talk about sensibly, because I started trying to write this post when I first got here, and now it's a month later and I'm leaving in a few days and I still haven't managed it.

Meanwhile, here's the view from an old familiar haunt, one of my favorite cafés:

How can I possibly sum it all up? It's good and beautiful and wonderful to be here, to see friends, to bike along familiar cobblestone streets through the warm twilight of endlessly not-quite-dark northern European summer nights. I'm still glad I made the decision I did, I still want to make a go of it in the US, but there's no mistaking that being back in Berlin feels good.

It feels so normal to be here, as if I'd just stepped away for a few days and now am returning to my life exactly as it always was. I love going to a new and utterly unfamiliar country, but there's also something deeply satisfying about going to a place where I already know exactly how everything works, and can ask for a pastry at the bakery without even having to think about it.

Anyway, Berlin. Too enormous for me to talk sensibly about at all. At most, I'll probably manage to post a few photos, sometime later. (There are more travels ahead, so time's a little limited at the moment.)

For now, I'll leave you with a Berlin sunset – construction crane and all. (Some things never change!)

Monday, March 21, 2016

A Year(ish) in Review

Hi! I know I've been absent here for the last many months.

Well, in my defense, it's largely a "travel blog," and I'm not currently traveling... Also, I'm still in a long, slow process of figuring out larger life questions like What, If Any, Are My Career Plans, and while I have lots of thoughts about that (so many!) they don't tend to lend themselves to snappy blog posts or humorous commentary. I'm hoping to travel a bunch this summer, maybe I'll have more to say then!

Meanwhile, I was talking recently to a friend back in Berlin (well, in Greifswald – but Berlin is our common ground) and she asked me if I would send her a couple of pictures. Trying to look for "a couple of pictures," I got as overeager as usual, and put together a whole album! So I thought I'd share it here, for anyone curious for a whirlwind snapshot of what my first year back in my hometown (after a decade and a half away) has looked like. Click on the image to go to the album:

A Year(ish) in Review

Thursday, October 15, 2015

This Is Autumn

The air's taken on that old familiar crispness, the trees are turning russet and flame and gold. Upstate New York's most beautiful season is here! 

I made the hard decision not to visit back to Berlin/Germany/other destinations in Europe this fall, even though I'd had that as a goal in sight all year – I was only able to tear myself away from my Berlin life by promising to be back soon to visit! I want to see all my friends there and I want to be sure not to let that part of myself slip away – the part that lived in Europe for all my adult life so far, and traveled like traveling was breathing – so it's scary to decide not to visit there now, without knowing when a visit will happen instead. But right now figuring out What Am I Doing Here, Now...And Do I Have A Plan, At All? is requiring all my mental effort, and I know I need to focus on that first.

So I'm not visiting Berlin this fall after all, and I'm sad about that. But the other side of that decision is that I get to be here to watch all of glorious fall unfold for the first time since I left the US, and that is a deeply gladdening thing.

Also: Halloween! I cannot express how excited I am to be back in the land of Halloween for the first time in almost a decade. (Yes, Halloween as celebrated by Americans is drawn directly from British/Irish pagan traditions, and I will happily talk your ear off about those traditions if you like! But the fact remains that Halloween as imprinted on my child brain is a deeply North American holiday of falling leaves and crisp, early-dark evenings and porches decked out with pumpkins and spiderwebs, a joyous time of dressing up and spooky silliness that's delightfully kid-centered but with plenty of room for adults to get in on the fun, too.) I'm going to a proper Halloween party, I'm going to make a costume. These are simple-sounding things that are a big deal when you've been away from them for a decade.

So, fall in Upstate NY, it's good. Also, this: