The Sound of Music, The Taste of Coffee and a Miniature Wonderland


It was the day after the Paris attacks and the world was still numb with shock. It was mid-afternoon after a fantastic day spent exploring and I found myself standing in the rain, surrounded by police officers, as a long procession of people made their way past. Despite the police, the mood was relaxed and positive. The protesters streaming by advocated for the rights and humane treatment of refugees. Their rhetoric was one of love, of inclusion, of tolerance, and of being our brother’s keeper. As the tail of the march passed, the officers, who were largely there to ensure the safety of the protesters, jumped on their bikes or horses and made their way forward. Soggy, I continued across the intersection and into the Laeiszhalle.  This building has served as host to some of Germany’s best concerts since it opened its doors in 1908 and was a lovely, elegant structure with a charming interior.

Hamburg's HafenCity

Teatime Classics

Damp from the rain, I made my way to the coat check anticipating that the show, Teatime Classics featuring Trio Adorno, would be a traditional trio performance in the main concert hall. Of course, as you might guess from the name, it was actually a brilliantly different experience.  In place of the main stage in the concert hall, it was held in the bar/reception area. Beneath beautifully decorated vaulted ceilings, a hap-hazard assemblage seating, a piano, and two chairs had been setup at one edge of the room just before the door to the northern wing of the concert house.

As we settled in to enjoy the concert, still a bit unsure what to expect, I sipped one of Hamburg’s signature beverages – the Fritz-Kola, which as it turns out has roughly double the caffeine dosage of your average soda. Eyes wide, I watched the assembled mixture of young children, middle-aged folks, and elderly couples enjoy their cakes, coffee, soda and wine before glasses and empty plates were put to rest and the trio took their positions.

A Weekend Getaway Spent in Hamburg

As I felt gravity suddenly press against me, pinning me to my seat, I enjoyed one of my favorite sensations – the added G-forces that come during takeoff. From my seat on the isle I looked up the row, marveling as I always do at the steep vertical incline and picturing the sight of our mid-sized passenger jet launching itself into the sky. The flight itself almost seemed like a joke. Like a ball thrown by some sort of Norse Titan. No sooner had we reached cruising altitude then the captain pushed the nose forward for us to begin our descent. The flight from Copenhagen to Hamburg lasts just over 30 minutes, making the flight a fantastic convenience and, at a certain level, perhaps a hair silly. It reminded me just how incredible it will be in another decade or two when we finally turn trans- continental flights into similarly brief leaps. My daydreams were, however, short-lived as the seat belt sign flicked on and the stewardesses began to make their vigilant march down the isles.

Chilehaus - UNESCO HamburgIn my previous posts here and here, I talked a bit about my first visit to Hamburg five years ago, and what I was looking forward to on this trip. My hotel, the 25 Hours Hotel HafenCity, was located right in the heart of Hamburg’s new harbor district the HafenCity. While still far from “complete”, this new district is light-years beyond where it was five years ago. With the eventual plans calling for a 40% extension of the downtown area, it’s a massive re-development project that is fairly far along. The architecture is modern, dynamic, and very cool. It’s one of those projects that has managed to feel both utilitarian and futuristic without looking dated or a bit goofy. While it’s still rather quiet at night, the metro stations are brand new and built to handle heavy capacities. The location leaves you a mere 10-minute walk from the historic downtown and area around the Hamburg City Hall. The hotel was also one of the cooler boutique/design hotels I’ve been in, but that may just because the room had a working spinning globe that just happened to be a lamp. HafenCity

After arrival, I immediately launched into an exploration of the area which was my primary reason for visiting Hamburg: the Speicherstadt, Kontorhaus District and Chilehaus.  Our walking guide took us through the older parts of the HafenCity before crossing one of the numerous bridges into the Speicherstadt. The Speicherstadt district is the old warehouse district. It not only manages an old-world industrial beauty but also has a stunning and somewhat brutal history.  Without realizing it, I’d run into the history of the warehouse district in some of the history podcasts I’ve been listening to recently. In retrospect, it’s no surprise given how dramatic the Speicherstadt’s formation was.

Fun Fact: The Day is 37 Minutes Longer in Southern Denmark

The dark depths of winter in the Nordic countries is a topic often discussed and in some ways synonymous with the various nations’ identities. As an Arizonan who has re-located and spent the last few years in Denmark, the pressing darkness of the winter months was definitely a challenge to tackle. Still, with a trove of Vitamin D supplements and a small army of candles I’ve not only survived but thrived during Denmark’s long, dark, winters.  Though, perhaps, I exaggerate a bit unjustly.  After all, while the days are often frustratingly fleeting during winter, we still have the luxury of enjoying bursts of sunlight which can genuinely be called days.  This, unlike our northern brothers and sisters, who at times see little more than the briefest, twilight infused tease from the sun.

It is also often bordering on the impossible to talk about Denmark at any great length without being reminded by both Danes and foreigners alike that it is, after all, a tiny little country with only 5.6 million residents. I would even go so far as to say that among Danes it is a badge of honor. Given all they accomplish and their impact on the world at large? … perhaps rightly so.

I share all of this because I think it sets the tone for why so many of us often forget just how large the world we live in actually is and the quirky dynamics that result when a nation’s borders and the mental identity we associate with  those borders collides with the realities of the earth’s rotation and orbital tilt.  If you, like me, often find yourself thinking about Denmark as one semi-homogeneous country in almost all things the following may shock you.  Had you settled in for a Carlsberg on a beach outside the Danish town of Hirtshals near the northern tip of Jutland yesterday (December 28th) and called a friend in Sønderborg, a lovely town situated at the base of the Jutland peninsula and just next to Denmark’s border with Germany, you would have learned that your friend’s day was a full 37 minutes longer than your own. Jealous? I know I am.

Despite only being a three and a half hour drive to the south (and as a result at the opposite end of Denmark) the difference between sunrise and sunset between these two cities is significant.  That’s a distance just longer than the space between London and Leeds in the UK, Berlin in Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic, Santa Barbara and San Diego in the USA, and between Washington D.C. and New York City. Not bad ehh?

Want to have some fun? Calculate the difference in the length of your day against other locations within your own country. There are a few services on the web that will tell you how long the day in various cities will be, or you can calculate it on your own using Google to pull the sunrise and sunset for various locations. Also, thanks to Maja, a friend and local Danish expert, who tipped me off to this simple but surprising mental exercise.

Oh, and I suppose I’d be remiss in my responsibilities if I didn’t answer that age old question – just how large IS Denmark?  The country is roughly 368km [229 miles] from north to south and about 450km [280 miles] from east to west (excluding Bornholm). Who is ready for a roadtrip?

The Naked Truth – A Beginner’s Introduction to Austrian Saunas

Obergurgl - The Austrian Alps

My palms were far beyond clammy.  They were completely committed now to downright slick and sweaty. As I grimaced and wiped them on my towel, I couldn’t help but imagine them turning prune-like.  They had devolved into the type of palms that make a soft slapping sound mid-handshake and cause the person you’ve just met to grimace in thinly hidden disgust while trying to quickly retrieve their hand….desperately looking around for something or someone to wipe it on.  Which, you might think, is to be expected given my seat perched inside the beautiful and newly renovated upscale dry-sauna on the fourth floor of the Hotel Josl in Obergurgl, Austria.  After all, isn’t the whole point of a sauna to sweat?  To allow ones body to purge itself of contaminants? To sooth the muscles and to encourage a hearty rush of circulation through the body?

The catch was, I’d just entered the dry sauna and assumed my seat.  My body hadn’t had time to warm to its core. This was nerves plain and simple. I’d spent the day with fantastic guides introducing me to the finer parts of ski culture.  The gear. The locations. How to ski. The snowshoe hike. But now?  I was on my own with only a confusing mixture of poorly written online guides to sauna culture and etiquette bouncing around my head. As I sat inside the wood-lined room trying to relax and enjoying the intense heat I stared straight ahead.  I’m not sure why, after all, without my glasses on the world was one giant blur. Then, of course, there was the fact that the room itself was empty.  Never the less, it just seemed like the appropriate thing to do. Just as I’ve found myself standing at a stop light in the pouring rain at 4AM with a small group of Danes at a deserted intersection here in Denmark waiting for the light to turn. Social protocol demands it.  Even when it goes in the face of reason and common sense.

I’m not sure how or why I’d never done a sauna as an adult.  I remember them as a child, and even from my high school days, but those were different.  I just followed along with what the others were doing and for whatever reason (it being conservative Arizona a likely factor) we always wore our bathing suits. About a year ago, some of you may recall my awkward introduction to the Turkish Hamams…which…I suppose…was a very similar experience minus the naked massage and the rotund Turkish man rubbing my nearly naked body down. It was with some shock then that I strolled into the hotel’s sauna expecting the usual American structure – sex segregated changing rooms, lockers, people in swimsuits, etc. – only to discover a room full of quasi-naked people relaxing in naught but their towels with a bank of mixed-gender shower alcoves along the side wall. My face went white as I quickly realized that the jeans and t-shirt I was wearing over my swim-trunks beneath the robe the hotel had provided were grossly out of place.  I was completely over dressed. I quickly made a U-turn and headed back to my hotel room.

In a flurry of key strokes I searched the web trying to find a more in-depth write-up on the etiquette of sauna culture. My original research had obviously been flawed. After finding a few posts that argued the finer points of nudity, I toyed with tossing in the towel and abandoning my adventure.  Then, reminded by the ache in my knees and back from a day spent learning to ski, I sucked it up, stripped down to my swimsuit, wrapped my towel over it to try and hide it, tossed on my robe, and made the trip back to the 4th floor.  I was ready.  I was prepared. I was strangely terrified…and then the elevator doors opened.

Snowshoe Hike - Obergurgl, Austria

This time as the door slid open I kept my eyes peeled, watching what the others were doing and then carefully trying to emulate them while looking as casual as possible.  I kept my composure and made my way towards the three shower alcoves, only losing it slightly as an older gentleman exited completely naked and shrugged back into his robe. That’s when I realized that I was STILL over dressed.  My American prudishness was in full form….which left me somewhat annoyed with myself. I don’t mind being naked, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it.  I also don’t have any moral objection to people spending time together socially in their natural state. Yet, at the same time I also come from a culture where even in high school after gym class none of the men would shower out of fear of being naked around other people.  Even simple things like a visit to the doctor for an annual check-up is the source of anxiety for a lot of young American men. There are exceptions of course, but for the most part young people in the US have been drilled with a puritanical message that you only spend time naked with romantic partners. Anything else opens you up for judgement and/or comes with the risk of implied ulterior motives (read: how you doin’ darlin’).

So. There I was, staring at the three open shower stalls trying to decide what to do.  Do I just go for it, pocket my swimsuit, and embrace it?  Or, do I keep the swimsuit on and chicken out? It was right about that time that the first woman I’d seen in what I had thought was a male-only sauna area emerged and walked over to the recovery/relaxation area.  Needless to say, I chickened out and left the swimsuit on. All the while internally mocking myself for being such a giant baby about it. I stripped off my robe, tossed the towel aside, and quickly rinsed off. Then in a flurry of motion I toweled off quickly, eager to re-disguise my swimsuit.  I made the brief trip to the now empty sauna, swung the door open, slid in, and plopped down on a bench.

Feeling self-conscious and convinced I was making a plethora of faux pas, I sat staring straight ahead. The door opened and butterflies lurched in my stomach. A middle-aged man made his way in, still wrapped in his towel and sat down.  Good I thought – maybe I’ve got this figured out.  Then the door opened again and another man entered.  This one yanked off his towel, spread it out on the wooden bench and then settled in. He was stark naked.  The whole time I did my best to stare at the wall with a blank look on my face.  20 seconds later the door opened and this time two women entered. The butterflies were back.  Is this normal?  Is he going to cover up?  Are they going to join?  Just how exactly does this work?

They peeled off their towels and tossed them onto the bench before settling in around me completely naked.  At this point the small sauna room was also getting somewhat full, which meant simply staring at my wall was no longer an option.  I needed to move to make space, which also meant violating my sprawling space bubble and saddling up nearly knee-to-knee with one of the other men and one of the newly-arrived women. Then it dawned on me. This was a new first.  In my nearly 28 years, I’d never been surrounded by so many naked people, in such close proximity.  Which, you can imagine, did little to help the internal narrative running through my mind – a raging debate between my intellectual brain which casually noted that naked bodies are not inherently sexual and that the experience itself was only minimally arousing.  Luckily, as I started to relax it dawned on me that it was just a comfortable extension of the shared experience we’d have all been engaged in if we were clothed. Meanwhile, my paranoid brain raged with fear and uncertainty – what if my primitive brain won out and arousal ensued. How embarrassing,  humiliating, and what sort of violation of the common norms would that be? All the while the wealth of obtuse American norms and cultural quirks polarized the experience…a fascinating counter to the much more relaxed approach to nudity and group nudity I’d encountered already in Denmark, and knew was much more common within Austrian and German culture.

All the while sweat slowly began to form all over my body and time ticked by.  It was only then, as I watched the others from the corner of my eyes that I observed and realized that the “decorations” I had seen earlier were in fact hanging sand timers which we could use to judge how long we’d been in the sauna.  It was a fitting moment of clarity and epiphany as my brain otherwise raged against itself trying to find balance.

Slowly the nervous sweat that clung to my palms was replaced by the clean sweat of relaxed perspiration. My sore muscles gradually gave way and the heat penetrated me to my core replacing the cold of a day spent outside covered in snow.  My condition as an uncertain and nerve-wracked mass of self-consciousness and uncertainty had now transformed into comfort and growing confidence.

As I left the sauna, rinsed off, and headed to the relaxation chairs I enjoyed a spectacular sunset over the Alps. I realized that the experience had been far more than an introduction to sauna culture.  It had been an opportunity to enrich and truly mature my personal relationship with the human body.  As I laid there relaxing, I realized the next time I was ready to join the others. Strange as it is to say, in a way, it felt like a small piece of me that was long neglected finally grew up.  I silently resolved that on my next visit I’d leave the suit behind and embrace the vulnerability that goes hand-in-hand with spending time naked with others. As fate would have it, I wouldn’t have long to wait before I put my resolve to the test but THAT is a story for next time.

**My visit and stay at the Hotel Josl occurred as part of a press trip arranged by the Tyrol Tourism Board and their local partners during which I was hosted as their guest**

Snowboarding the Alps – Weekly Travel Photo

Innsbruck Ski & Snowboard Competition

A few weeks ago I took my first shot at learning how to ski in Obergurgl, Austria.  It was an awesome adventure. It was also a smudge easier than I expected. Probably in large part due to the awesome private instructor the local tourism board provided for my trip.  It made one thing very clear though.  Skiing is challenging, but snow boarding?  Good luck strapping both of my feet together and getting me on one.  Which leaves me that much more impressed by the incredible shows of acrobatics I saw from snowboarders and skiers on the slopes above Innsbruck during a locally organized ski and snowboarding competition.  This photo is of one of the competitors and highlights what an incredible day it was.  I was captivated watching them jump, spin, turn, and launch themselves through the air.  In many ways it reminded me of watching a gymnastics performance….only strapped to long objects and done on snow and in 10 pounds of winter gear.  Truly fantastic!  Make sure to head over to flickr to see the rest of the album.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Snow, Ice and Water – Obergurgl, Austria

Snowshoe Hike - Obergurgl, Austria

This story begins high above the alps.  It is a story of change. Of transition and of voyage.  It is a story of simple contrasts, long trips, and the small details that define the world around us.  It begins in the uppermost reaches of roiling clouds as they form along the border between the Austrian and Italian Alps. Casually adrift they eventually find themselves caught; snagged on jagged mountain peaks dotted by the sharp protrusions of evergreen treetops.  As gravity takes hold and nature pulls the clouds downward a process as old as the earth unfolds. Water vapor rises, condenses, and crystallizes. Like a master tinkerer, the cloud crafts trillions of tiny stars. Each is an ever-so-slight variation of the star shape we picture as we close our eyes and dream of winter.  These newly born stars float suspended in quasi-darkness thousands of feet above the earth waiting to launch themselves upon the world below.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

With the gust of wind, a change in pressure, and a drop in temperature clouds struggle to free themselves of their mountain moorings. As they lighten their loads snowflakes begin their gentle descent.  Some find themselves falling quickly, others drifting as they are tossed from side to side by alpine winds. They descend towards fallen brethren.  Some revert to their watery origins – torn apart – by waves of heat.  Others are thrown together, crushed within the feathers of sharp-eyed golden eagles or the furrows of  an Alps-Crow’s black wings.  Most survive to continue their reckless descent.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

For some their trip comes to an untimely end.  Extinguished by the heat of a child’s outstretched tongue.  Others find themselves caught in the top branches of old trees and small spring saplings. A perch that lends a fabulous view of the valley’s white slopes and snow-covered fields, but which also offers them up as sacrifice to the sun in a way reminiscent of ancient Incan ceremonies.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Others find themselves surrounded by their brethren as they cast a thick blanket across the earth’s rich soil.  It is a war of sorts. The war of seasons. In winter frozen snowflakes spread themselves across the soil’s surface,  blocking it from the sun and denying it the liquid hydration it demands to survive.  In summer, when the dark hues of rich humus and golden rays of the sun combine, the earth finds itself hungrily gorging itself on water that has long forgotten what it felt like to take the form of a frozen star.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

As day ebbs and night descends a full moon’s white light is reflected off a trillion sparkling points.  Each dreams of a life spent beside the moon in the deepest reaches of space as a small part of the Milky Way.  Instead, small gusts of wind cast snowflakes back into the air, tossing and turning them before allowing them to crash back against their mates.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Morning’s early rays. Warmth. Blue skies. Sun.  The shimmer of heat rising, reflected off white crystalline shapes.  A reversion from tiny star to water and gas. A new voyage, this one slow but persistent. Soaking deep into the half-frozen soil.  Drifting across slicked rocks. Carried along by un-melted snowflakes.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

The birth of a small stream hidden beneath snowbanks. The soft gurgle of water splashing over stones as a trickle grows, freed by the sun.  The promise of spring as weather warms. Tiny crystalline star after tiny crystalline star giving way to heat, sun, and the caress of water.  Moments of uncertainty as the gentle onslaught of a stream slowly carves grottos beneath the snow’s smooth white surface. And then collapse as the strength of millions of interlocked snowflakes give way beneath their own weight.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Moments. Hours. Days of tentative equilibrium as stream, sun and snowflake reach a fragile balance.  By day the sun beats down, forcing snow flakes to wither and drip their way toward the stream.  By evening, night and early morning the cold caress of alpine winds, fresh snow, and freezing air strive to re-claim lost snowflakes.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

Half-exposed segments of the stream re-discover their crystalline origins.  These re-freeze on a much grander scale.   Their struggle futile. Brief. But beautiful in its grand gestures.  Others struggle in transition.  Most of their form lost. They form pillars by gravity and circumstance that stand as bulwarks against the stream’s cold bite as they loom above the churning waters.

Ice, Snow and Water - Obergurgl, Austria

I captured these photos during a two-hour snowshoe hike provided by the folks at Obergurgl Ski School and the Obergurgl-Hochgurgl Tourism Board just outside the city of Obergurgl in the Austrian Alps.  The weather was spectacular with blue skies and clean mountain air.  As we hiked along a small stream made up of snow melt, I was taken by the beauty of the ice crystal formations.  Those photos gave birth to this post.  One which I hope you enjoyed.  It is an incredible area full of stunning natural beauty.  Photos were shot on a Canon 600D.

A Norwegian Sunrise – Weekly Travel Photo

Oslo Harbor - Norway

We found our way to Oslo as part of a mini-cruise special.  The cruise ship – and it was a cruise ship, not the ferry I expected – left Copenhagen at 4PM in the afternoon, steamed over night to Oslo and then disgorged us near Oslo’s famous opera house on a cold January morning.  The deal was a fun one – $4.50 for the entire cruise.  The catch?  We had 7 hours in Oslo before we needed to be back aboard and steaming back to Copenhagen.

As we made our way up the final leg of the Oslo fjord we were treated to an incredible sight. Blanketed by clouds, the early morning light that surrounded us was a foggy gray. On the horizon, where the water met land and the clouds broke, golden morning rays were visible.  It was one of the strangest, and slowest, sunrises I’ve seen.  As the weak winter light fought against the thick, low hanging, coastal clouds the light slowly worked its way closer and closer to Oslo. A progression that mirrored our own voyage.  Then, as we disembarked and wandered the city – eventually finding our way down to the harbor which is where this photo of the Helena was taken – the light finally started to fall across the city, brightening it.

Though it was now late-morning the nature of the Nordic light made it difficult to tell if it was mid-day, just after sunrise, or just before sunset.  None of which really mattered to us, as the view and the sun’s hues were stunning.

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a  Canon T3i (600D) Camera.

Winter in Copenhagen – Weekly Travel Photo

Snow Covered Copenhagen

Winter has arrived in Copenhagen. After a week of light snow, the lakes have started to freeze over and the city center has traded slick paving stones for a clean layer of white snow. I captured this moment late-afternoon in the heart of the city center along one of Copenhagen’s oldest and most historic streets. You can see the snow falling, lit by the street lamp, a hearty Dane biking despite the weather, and snow covered bicycles propped against sagging buildings. Though it looks late in the evening, it was only about 4:30 or 5PM when I took this shot.

There’s something about this photo – a certain warmth perhaps – that really speaks to me and evokes thoughts of stories and familiar fantasy. Does it have the same effect on you? If so, what is its impact? What does it remind you of?

Would you like to see previous Friday Photos? View past travel pictures here. This photo was taken on a Canon T3i (600D) Camera using a Canon 50mm f1.4 lens.