Category: "Travel"

We were telling our French friend about our visit to Sweden, remarking on the attractiveness of the people, and he said: "That's because the Vikings, when they went to Normandy, picked all the pretty girls and took them home."

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel

Our second night in Lund happened to be Culture Night, a once-a-year celebration of music throughout the university town. Walking through the campus we passed students heading to a dance, the men in dark suits, the women in long dresses, their blond hair lit by the late-summer sun.

After dinner with friends, Polish doctors working in Lund, we walked to the Romanesque cathedral that dominates downtown. We found five seats near the back and listened as a black-robed choir sang liturgical music. Touring the empty cathedral the day before I had thought how wonderful it would be to hear a choir in this great sanctuary, and now I was hearing one, surrounded by a hushed, multi-generational crowd. Before this moment, I had only heard Swedish choirs on classical music stations at Christmas. Or on A Prairie Home Companion.

After the concert we found a courtyard where a band was playing blues. Jacek said that some of his colleagues were singing in the building behind us so we headed inside. (Blues I can get at home.) A group of about thirty people, the majority of them middle-aged women, belted out "A Hard Day's Night." Then they sang a Swedish song. 

They all worked at the local hospital. "Seven hundred thousand Swedes," Jacek told me, "sing in choirs."

They sang "When I'm Sixty-Four" like all the other numbers, with a contagiously delighted gusto. During one of the last songs, a man in a bright red sportcoat detached himself from the group and spoke very rapidly into the microphone. "He says that singing is good for you," Jacek translated. In all my travels, Lund was the first city where I thought it wouldn't be so bad to be hospitalized.

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel

city of licorice

09/30/16 09:49

 On our first morning in Copenhagen we walked to the hotel that we had booked for our last night. (We had arrived on the train from Sweden, where we were staying with a friend in Lund.) The receptionist, checking on the computer, assured is that our online reservation had been made, and then, as we were leaving, said, “You’re from Fort Lauderdale.”

 “Yes,” we said.

 “I lived there for 13 years,” the woman said. “Near Pier 66.”

 Hania asked if she could make sure that we got a good room.

  “With a view of the city,” I added.

 Out on the street, it took us a while to get our bearings. There was a lot of construction, and occasional screaming. (Our hotel was not far from Tivoli.) We eventually found some busy pedestrian streets – pinpointed by a large fountain of storks – and followed one of them to a grand, desolate square. From there we walked to a boarded up square. The amount of construction made the city look as if it were getting ready for the Olympics.

 We eventually found the street with the colorfully painted houses, and tourists, and sat down next to a young Chinese couple at an outdoor cafe, where I ate an open-faced sandwich piled with smoked salmon.

 The next day we took the train in from Sweden and then got another to Louisiana, the museum of modern art, where we were introduced to the impressive and often troubling work of Daniel Richter. Walking back to catch the train, we stopped in a store that advertised salt and caramel chocolate-covered licorice. This too sounded troubling until the saleswoman gave me a sample. The small ball of dusty chocolate eventually melted away to reveal a subtly salty caramel gloss that surrounded a saltier nub of intense Danish licorice. It was like a confectioner’s version of Churchill’s definition of the Soviet Union: a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. I bought a jar of the stuff.

 The following morning we took the train in from Sweden, this time with our luggage, and walked to the Mercur Hotel. The Fort Lauderdale receptionist had been replaced by another, who was telling a man “Nie ma problemu.”

 “Nie ma problemu, Pani?” Hania asked her, smiling. The new receptionist was from a small town outside Poznan. Hania told her, in Polish, that we’d been promised a good room and, checking on the computer, the woman informed us that we were on the top floor, with a balcony overlooking the city. I would have offered her one of my candies but I knew that Poland is an anise-averse nation. It seemed a good advertisement for Copenhagen that it could attract even immigrants who don’t like licorice.

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel

American Airlines says that a good flyer asks before pushing the window shade up. My problem is with people who pull it down, especially for takeoffs and landings. We'll see what happens tonight when we fly to Copenhagen, and then connect to Warsaw. Though for the second flight I'm going to try to get a window seat, even though I now see it puts me in a delicate position. Sitting on the aisle, one is less burdened with ethical dilemmas.

I'll be back here on the 23rd.

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel

I watched the semi-final of the European Championship - Germany vs. France - at a bar in Old City, sitting next to two citizens of Switzerland. Severin was from the German-speaking part and Caroline was from the French-speaking part. I assumed that their loyalties would be divided along linguistic lines, but they were both rooting for France. Severin explained to me that Swiss Germans always support whoever is playing against Germany. Germany, during the current refugee crisis, has been a model of benevolence, but old animosities die hard.

They were in Philadelphia between visits to New York and Washington. I was glad they'd stopped in the least glamorous of the three, and they seemed to be as well. After Washington, Severin was heading back home to Zurich while Caroline was continuing on to Costa Rica, where she would add Spanish to her already impressive arsenal of languages. (She moved easily between English with me and German - and English - with Severin.) After Costa Rica she would travel on to South America, returning to the States in the spring. 

I have a theory about big countries and small countries, and it is that the latter are often the more rewarding to visit. Their residents are less self-absorbed, more outward-looking, than those who are products of large, monolithic cultures, and as a result they're more open to outsiders. I wondered, sitting at the bar, if this same innate curiosity, and lack of arrogance, also make them better travelers.

I mentioned to Caroline that one of my favorite travel writers was Swiss: Nicolas Bouvier. She told me her high school in Geneva was named after him.

"Loafing around in a new world," Bouvier wrote in The Way of the World, "is the most absorbing occupation." Or even, sometimes, loafing around in an old, familiar one.

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel

tears for Turkey

06/29/16 10:00

When people ask me my favorite place, Turkey is always among the handful of countries I name. I spent three happy weeks there in 1997; this passage about my visit to Selcuk is from my second book, A Way to See the World (2003):

"Nearby stood the train station, with its own cafe tucked under branches and a fountain where a girl, with a little red wagon full of empty plastic bottles, graciously motioned me to go ahead of her to get my drink. And here it was again: not just kindness, but that instinctive radar for detecting a stranger's need for it. I thought of the wine merchant in Cappadocia who opened a bottle to give me a taste, the woman in Ankara's old town who emerged from nowhere to hand me a warm loaf of bread, the van driver who made sure that I caught the right bus, the sweets seller who knew I wanted more nougat. ...Turkey was proving my theory that there are countries that treat you as a tourist and others - often the less celebrated ones - that receive you as a guest."

By Thomas Swick • Category: Travel