This is part 2 of the journal!
I arrived at dinner time, and I quickly found a tram that took me to the hostel. I met a lot of lovely people, and I was ready to go out for dinner. I met up with Pinar, whom I just met in September during my trip to Costa Rica. She is one of the most passionate and happiest person I have seen, and she exudes an infectious power of jubilation that is almost impossible to resist. We quickly found the Christmas market in front of the old stock exchange, and I saw a sign saying VIN CHAUD. Hot wine?? are you kidding? We got one, aaaaaaaaaaaand it turned out to be horrible as predicted. The taste of sulfur was amplified, instead of quelled. We walked around the city center, and had great time catching up on our ridiculous lives. We walked, ran, galloped, laughed, drank, ate, high-fived, and almost everything else that we could do as two crazy maniacs…
and we apparently took a photo of ourselves with two cosplayers
We went to one of the oldest puppet show houses in the city, and we passed Delirium, a bar serving 400+ types of Belgian beer brewed all over the country. By the end of this crazy night, we still held that cup of horrible vin chaud, except it all went cold.
The next day I woke up to a beautiful day, and I joined Pinar to pick up her cute little cousins in Aalst. Being probably the first Asian these little eyes saw, I felt a strange sense of pride. I sent them off with Pinar in the station of Ghent, and I continued to Brugge/Bruges. It is a beautiful city with old architecture, cathedrals, and canals. The Christmas market was the highlight, along with parks full of geese.
I stumbled upon a very weird parade, with sheep
Hi everyone, I am finally where I belong.
The Christmas Market, ice-skating ring, and a Gothic church. Welcome, to Brugge.
Of course I cannot say I have been to Belgium without trying the waffle!!! Since the food is my sole purpose of existence (do not debate me on this), I had a hard time trying to hold off my desire to swallow it whole as I was taking picture.
One good thing about being alone as fuck is: nobody will try to steal your waffle topped with heavenly cream.
I had a great time walking around in this city stuck in 17th century, and then I had to hop on a train back to Brussels. Bye Brugge, you are a charming city buzzling with many medieval stories to tell. I rested well, and finally fixed my jet lag, something that I usually don’t have much problem with. This time it took away at least 4 hours of my life that could be dedicated to eating food.
One new day, I woke up to join a free walking tour while Pinar had to deal with work. It was fantastic, I was able hear stories about the famous Manneken Pis, urban legends about the attack on Brussels by the Dutch, and many, many more.
Manneken Pis. Yes, it is smaller than you think.
As some of you may have known, French fries is actually a misnomer. It originated from Belgium, thus if you want to have the best fries, better have it in Brussels! As a PhD in Eating Food, of course I am well informed about this. There is nothing that can stand between me and fries.
I sneaked off during the tour and got myself one with extra mayo. You only live once.
Humans are like potatoes, you can become anything you want to be, from hashbrown to vodka. And for me, I just want to be a secret legend like this handful of fries.
I met an Australian girl Amy during the tour, and we decided to visit the famous Atomium after the walking tour was over. It is a strange building based on the structure of an unit cell of iron crystal. It was built for an Expo over 50 years ago, but it is still as bizarre as always.
Can you imagine what kind of awe Atomium inspired in 1958?
We then headed towards the real danger of this trip: bars. I usually tread very carefully when it comes to bars. I am too charming and is sometimes considered a public hazard as I pose serious danger to the livelihood of many other men. Haha who am I kidding. For me, alcohol does not wash out my sorrows, but amplifies my loneliness. However, for Belgian beer, I can always make an exception. We sat down in a bar, filled with locals buzzing with all kinds of topics in Flemish, French and English. The selection was simply huge, the list of beer went on and on without a stop. You can think of a type of beer in any flavor, and I can find one there, and then beat it. One straight from tap costs less than 3 euros, and fresher than any beer you could taste. Amy went for something sweet. I took a sip, it was spectacularly balanced. I made my decision on which direction I would take for my Belgian beer experience, and I approached the bar.
Bartender: “What can I get’ya?”
Young, pretending to be tough: “Got anything sour?”
Bartender: “You bet’ya! How sour do you want?”
Young, with an eyebrow raised: “How sour can ya get?”
And folks, that is how I ended up with a glass of the sourest beer in the world.
Young with a glass of HCl. Each bottle cap on the roof is a type of beer that you can order.
After enjoying the strangest beer I have had in my life, which is also likely gonna keep its title for at least another decade, we wandered around the city center and eventually returned to the hostel.
Brussels city hall with a giant Christmas tree
After another alcohol/acid induced sleep, I was ready to take on my next challenge. I headed to the BRU airport and was ready to embark on another journey. This was all before the bombing of the airport, but the security was still relatively tight due to the Paris incident, which I will address later in the post. So, where is next?
Bollnäs & Växbo
After my SAS flight landed at Stockholm Arlanda airport, I had to directly transfer onto a train heading north. However, the 3 hour gap in between was a problem. Luckily, the airport was well equipped with all kinds of sofa seats, and I was able to grab a quick dinner as well. The train was a local train, since I had to go to such a small place. It took well over 2 hours of traversing north for me to finally reach Bollnäs, a small town sitting at 62 degree north, with the population of 30,000. It was December 21st, and there was no snow this far north in Sweden. I was met warmly by Anna and her mother on the platform. She said it was the first time in her life that it is not a white Christmas there. Way to go global warming.
We arrived at the little house sitting in the village of Växbo, and the dinner had already begun! All family members from all over Sweden came together to this little house in the middle of nowhere, sitting on a long table discussing all kinds of random topics, ranging from local politics to fat birds, from video games to hassles of taking care of the baby in the house. I was genuinely surprised that every person of the younger generation speaks almost perfect English, putting my Chinglish to shame. Everyone hugged me and suddenly I was in the middle of a family feast, and I was just another member of this family, except I was the only one drooling over all kinds of food on the table. Cheese, butter, sweetbread, apple cider, pickled fish that smells like my roommate’s 6-month-overdue laundry, potatoes, chicken strips, cloudberry jam that actually brings you to heavens if you try it, ham, sausages, cookies, more ham, boiled potatoes, salami, and then even more ham, cold-fried eggs, pigs’ liver spread (surprisingly authentically Chinese!), wine, Swedish vodka and of course, the national drink of the holiday: Julmust. It is like a type of coke, but less sweet and more gassy, with a hint of anise or some kind of spice. It was so. bloody. good. I guess it is a MUST for JUL(Christmas in Swedish)? HAHAHAHAHA no, I don’t apologize for my half-ass bad jokes mixing all kinds of cultures. This is some next level of puns!
After the crazy dinner, the family finally settled down…. for more food. Though Anna had warned me about the sheer amount of food that would be offered in the household, I was never prepared for this level of fierce offensive. We literally just finished dinner! Before I even finished chewing the last slice of cheese, fika(kinda like coffee break, except in my Swedish family it has become more like a break between anything) began. Seven kinds of cookies were put onto the table, and coffee, more wine, all kinds of drinks, tea, etc, were all spread out on the table. Everyone introduced himself or herself to me, and I detailed my background to everyone. Poor Felix happened to pass by, and out of instinct, I grabbed him and started petting him, without his consent at all as he was struggling to jump off.
Did you know? It is very customary to have something with numbers of 7 to be displayed in Sweden households during Christmas. The seven candles in front of windows, seven-sided stars, seven kinds of cookies served during tea time, are just some of the examples.
Young and his Swedish family. Julmust in the front, Felix in the hands, and Anna in the right. I am ever so grateful to finally have a Christmas with a full family, so far away.
Quickly the fika finished. (I believe 1 hour is considered fast in the household.) Everyone was a bit tired, and we all prepared to go to bed. Indeed, after 3 hours straight of eating, there was no way anyone could fend himself from a food coma. I had enough jet lag to allow me to set up all of my bedding, and before I knew it we passed out in the silent rural night. This ridiculous food-spree thus began my 5 day stay with Anna and her family.
Anna posing in front of our little house. The warmness of family beats any freezing cold.
Sitting this far in the north, the weather was simply freezing. It typically went well below -15 celsius at night, and during the day it was not much better. Being situated in a small valley of hills also severely limited the amount of sunshine our little house got. The sun typically peeked out around 10:30 am, and hovered around the horizon until 1:30 pm. The sunlight felt like an old incandescent light, with just enough heating power to remind you its existence, kinda like me annoying any human being I come to contact with. We went out for walks, stayed at home and played card games & board games, visited local points of interest like the only cafe in the area which was closed, and a lake that no longer existed along which Anna would always pass by riding her horse when she was younger. (Ah we were all young and carefree once! I remember once I believed I would never travel alone ever again…)
Växbo at 1 pm.
We also visited local grocery stores, where I was found to be a pleasant surprise as typically not many Asians hang out around this region, you know? I guess the northern rolling hills of Sweden which typically could freeze off your beard were not on the top of the list when it comes to immigrating for us Asians.
The cheese in Sweden is not sliced up as in USA, since not everyone is a lazy fuck here. It is sold in a huge cylinder, which makes cutting it a real hassle before meals. However, the clever people of Sweden have a grate idea. (nope, still not apologizing) There is a special type of cheese slicer that simply requires you to swipe it through the surface to get a perfectly thin slice! What a miracle! Praise the almighty god of cheese slicing! praise the milky way! I had so much fun slicing them, and of course even more fun eating them. (but sorry to disappoint, this kind of cheese slicer is actually invented by a Norwegian.)
I also got to have something weird/awesome. It is always my intention to try new things in new places. For me of course, food is the very reason of my existence. Thus, I am always prone to try new and exciting edibles/not-so-look-like edibles. One night, I was treated with hunted moose meat, adding another kind of meat onto my Strange Food List. It tastes better than beef, with greater texture, but I was told that it is very hard to cook. I asked for another, and another. (you know, the usual)
atypically not-snow-covered Swedish woods. Walking is enjoyable, only under 12 layers!
I helped mommy prepare food, and I tortured the two cats so much that they all carefully monitored my movement so they could scatter away before I could lay my paws on theirs. Even as a fellow cat, I was still left alone. (insert sad cat face here)
Quickly Christmas came, a lot of the family left the day before to spend the big day with the other side of the marriage, much like me hopping between fries and burger when I eat In-N-Out: happy yet very, very sad. However, Anna’s brother and grandma came to fill their places: the party never stops! We had a fantastic dinner for the Christmas eve, and everyone exchanged gifts. Guess what did Anna get me?
A FUCKING CHEESE SLICER FROM IKEA
I think I am officially 140% Swedish confirmed. My blond hair is said to be growing out any day now. Thanks, Anna. 😛
Meatballs, sausages, pickled fish, julmust…. Santa must have fulfilled my wish!
Quickly the relaxing five days in the Nordic village passed. I was so sad that I had to leave the cats and the family that I could not eat anything at my last fika. Trust me, if I cannot eat anything at anytime, I must be devastated. Go and call my therapist. Though my nose bled like a
Michael Bay movie water faucet the entire duration of my stay, Anna and her family showed me the warmest welcome one can possibly receive. Growing up in a boarding school since I was 2, with incredibly busy parents, and just generally being lonely and single as fuck, I am used to spend my birthdays, Christmas, holidays, basically every day, all by myself. “Tomorrow is just another day.” I always whisper that to myself. However, this past Christmas was the first one I ever get to spent with a family, in an actual household, with real gifts, real interactions, and real emotions. Thank you, Anna, and your ever-so-lovely family, for accommodating Young for the best Christmas ever.
And thank you, for saving this lone wanderer from another Christmas spent alone.
Tack så mycket.
We slowly packed everything, since the memory here was the luggage too heavy for me to carry, and we boarded the train heading to Stockholm.
We hopped off at Uppsala, the fourth largest city in Sweden. Sitting on top of Fyris River, the city is beautifully maintained in 18th century style. Anna spent her college days here, and still knew all backstreets in this town-city mixture. The reason why we stopped here is because I have always known a famous site near this city that marks the epitome of Vikings. After my trip to Iceland in 2013, (trip journal inbound) I became very interested in Scandinavian studies. One of the most astonishing things I have learned is that the Vikings had their greatest city Uppsala that included a town hall bigger than a
food football court. Their kings were so powerful that diplomats from all over the Europe and even Asia came here to see them. The Vikings we all know and love originated here. Now, the only few proofs of their existence are a bunch of mounds, within which those kings lie their earthly bodies.
All the glory and fame buried underneath these little hills
We had more falafels in the city, and we walked around the old town. We went to the beautiful cathedral, and watched a baby shower. Later we had some great afternoon tea in Anna’s favorite coffee shop.
Grand cathedral in Uppsala
After a great day trip in the city that started it all, we continued to Stockholm. Within one hour, we arrived at the center of Scandinavia.
We arrived just in time for dinner. After a hearty vegetarian buffet, (you can never get tired of buffet) we finally got access to a room Anna’s friend provided. We settled in and passed out due to fatigue.
We woke up for a fresh cold morning after sleeping in. We had a great breakfast (instant noodles), and we headed off to explore the city. (for Anna it was more like being annoyed by Young) We started with a visit to the Gamla Stan/Old town, and we slowly walked towards the city center. There were so many shopping streets and other carefully decorated malls. It felt great to explore with someone else.
Stockholm holiday streets
I always wanted to visit a special museum, so special that the only thing it is built for has to be dug out of the ocean, so special that the entire structure is build AROUND its only major collection. It is the Vasamuseet/Vasa Museum.
Vasa is an enormous battleship commissioned by the Swedish king Gustavus Adolphus in 1626. She was one of the very few ships that had 2 decks fire canons to fire instead of one. It was made to be the king’s flagship, and had a ridiculous amount of adornment, including thousands of carvings, paintings, and statutes. It was the most powerful battleship when it was finished, armed with a staggering number of 64 canons. It could obliterate contemporary British warship like me finishing a hot dog: within 20 seconds. It showed the sheer power of the Nordic king at that time, and she is still absolutely majestic.
(except she sunk 20 minutes into her maiden voyage)
Yes I knew that, I learned it in my Scandinavian studies, as one of the best jokes in the world, almost on par with my life. The two gundecks were way too heavy to maintain a relatively healthy center of mass, and such a high CM quickly toppled the ship under a breeze. Now it is housed in the museum mostly for cultural and historical purposes. The entire process of getting it out of the water took magnificent engineering and human effort in 1960s. It is one of the most famous shipwrecks in the world.
size doesn’t matter. she only lasted 20 minutes.
The entire ship is carefully monitored by a laser grid. Any slight movement will be detected and corrected. The entire museum is strictly controlled at a specific temperature and humidity so that the wood can last longer.
After our experience of Vasamuseet, I had to see Anna off at the train station after a confusing dinner in a Chinese restaurant, which involved three languages being exchanged. She had a shift tomorrow in another city’s IKEA! As I hugged her goodbye in front of the train, suddenly something wet touched my face. No it was not tears, it was snow! As if the one up above felt the sadness that after so many years, our reunion came to an abrupt end. White flakes found their way through the little gap between the platform roof and the train, lightly touched my hair, my hand, and my heart. When I first met Anna in the high lake of Titikaka, we were both out of breath, out of luck, and out of energy. During the short two days of the trip, we had the greatest time of our lives. We huffed and puffed our way to the top of the mountain on the island. She took a shitty photo of mine, and I did one for her. We lived under the same roof in a local’s house, and be reminded, I could not speak Spanish yet! She helped me translate and we had a great dinner with the local housemom. We both dressed up in local clothes and joined a party! Though we were out of breath, but full on fun. We even promised to meet each other back in Cusco, and miraculously we made it! It was Anna who made the trip extraordinary, it was Anna who inspired me to start learning Spanish, which led to French, Danish, Swedish…. It was Anna who reminded me that traveling is much more than seeing the outside world, it is about seeing inside humanity. Thank you so much, Anna, for making me a better person. Though you are more than a few years older than me (because I am Young hahahaha), we never had any distance between us. You are the big sister that I don’t deserve and never asked for, but here you are. I don’t know how I got so lucky to be on the same boat on the same day as you, and we sat next to each other, and later got into the same household. But hey, I am not complaining, since I am the annoying one. Thank you for making me part of your family, and making me who I am now. Thank you, Anna.
The train slowly started , taking a piece of my memory and ripped it away from my waving hands. Before I realized it, the train had disappeared in the distance, obscured by white flakes flying with the wind, just like I did not realize I was all alone again. I slowly walked out of the station, and just wandered around, and around, pondering. My shoes rubbed with the fresh snow, leaving my footprints all over the streets in Stockholm. Aren’t we all just wanderers in the snow of life? Some of us walk alone like me, some of us walk with our partners. We cover the streets of time, leaving footprints that will soon disappear. What is the point then, you say? Enjoy the walk. Enjoy the walk along these streets of never-going-back, no matter alone or with someone else, because at the end, nothing else will remain. No matter how hard one steps, how big his footprint is, or how far he has walked, at the end, nothing will matter. Snow melts, life ends. What matters is only that you enjoyed, savored, loved, this walk in the snow. I can say I have walked very happily so far: I played with the snow with my friends during travels; I had my mouth open just to feel one falling onto my tongue; I enjoyed every step of my walk, and I know I have many more steps to go.
Stockholm, snow, solitude
After I returned home, I warmed a cup of tea, and fell asleep in front of the window watching the flaky white angels falling from the sky.
I woke up to a world of whiteness, so white that I thought it was a giant cheesecake. I had to rush, though, since I had a flight to catch. Goodbye, Sweden, it had been a great Christmas! Next time, when I visit, hope we can have the best midsummer night’s dream!
I don’t know myself why I would be doing this weird flight, but there I was. Austrian’s Fokker 100 aircraft from Stockholm to Vienna, a strange route indeed. I waved goodbye to Sweden, and I was ready for somewhere a bit warmer.
You don’t get to ride this Fokker much now, since the manufacturer went bankrupt 20 years ago
After a pleasant ride down this little airplane, which ironically was Fokker’s biggest plane every produced, I was in the beautiful capital of Austria, the home of orchestra miracles and never-ending tunes:
I took a train into the city, costing less than 10 Euros, and I ended up in the city center. After another metro ride, I was in Naschmarkt, a local market located in Chinatown with all kinds of random food, predominantly middle-eastern. My hostel is situated right in front of the buzzing market, and I was able to check in and drop my bags. Quickly, my dear friend Betty came to the lobby to meet me. We were together in Nepal during my volunteering there in 2012, and interestingly, Betty is the first foreigner I personally know who is learning Chinese! Having not seen her face for such a long time, I was so afraid that I would get really dejected if I could not recognize her in the crowded lobby, but I worried too much. I spotted her right at the moment. She is just too special to get confused with the rest of the human beings. We took a little stroll across the Naschmarkt, while catching up on everything that happened to us since 2012, from me still being a lonely bastard (hardly an update though) to her new job. We walked all the way to Stephansplatz, and admired the most unsymmetrical Gothic church I have ever seen: it only has one tower!
St. Stephan church, with its lonely tower
Since Betty needs to work, (work? what is that? a new McRib flavor?) I had to say goodbye first and explore the city by myself more. I visited many museums, had a lot of great city-walking in the many parks in the center including Heldenplatz. I had a great visit in the Hofburg museum complex, touring the gold and silver museum, imperial rooms almost restored completely to their original appearances, and the imperial treasures.
A carriage passing Heldensplatz
Hofburg at dusk
After some great walking, I was absolutely famished. I needed something good, something only Vienna has, something…godly. I headed to a restaurant called Night Dive, and after 3 sets of staircases down into the basement, I found a lovely little room filled with warm lights and wooden tables. I sat down in the corner, and let the show begin. If you are in Wien/Vienna, and you don’t have the best wienershnitzel, you should start rethinking your whole life. You just committed a sin, and you should sign the petition for the pope to abolish hell since you are definitely heading that way.
Japanese katsu, Vienna’s wienerschnitzel, paradise: the holy trinity
I never know that the heaven is actually located underground, and just 3 stories down! After my meal, which only costed me 12 euros, I found myself in the windswept streets again. It was warmer than Sweden, but it was nowhere near comfortable. I shivered my way through the light-lit avenues, while the couples cuddled together under the Christmas decorations.
A fountain in the walking street
After a solid sleep, I was able to wake up to another beautiful yet chilly day. Betty and I decided to walk around again. We passed little streets while we practiced her outstanding Chinese and my shitty German; we visited her university sitting in the middle of the city, where she had been working on an economics degree; we also passed the city hall, and talked about not going to Schönbrunn since it is a giant tourist trap. We had a great time, and we dove into the Night Dive basement again for more authentic Austrian food. This time, she recommended me sourcrout with dumplings in some processed beef, and of course, the national ginger ale-ish herb drink Almdudler.
This is a dumpling, yes it is. Sour & salty, a very strange yet captivating combination
Finally, after a lot of laughing, joking and messing around, I had to go back to the hostel. Betty hugged me goodbye, and she quickly disappeared in the night. Though we never get to travel too much, but we had a great connection. I again, felt an immense sense of sadness as I am leaving another endeared friend behind. I had to move on, but I did not want to at all. Thank you so much Betty, and hope your Chinese skills will be as good as my food-munching skills one day. It may be a long shot, but it is not impossible!
I woke up late for my 3rd day in Austria, since I have a very serious commitment with beds all over the world. I boarded an express train to Linz, which itself came from Hungary. It was incredibly full, reminding me of Chinese trains in which you have to line up for bathrooms. I got off at Linz, and changed to a very small regional train that only had 2 carriages. Though I was alone, I would not be alone for too long: I have a friend, a very important one, waiting for me on the other side of this ride.